Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

Bonhoeffer’s Teaching on Preaching

I’m convinced Bonhoeffer has much pastoral and homiletical wisdom to pass on to all who preach or teach God’s Word:

Here are a few of his insights that I found to be highlights...

A Tale of Two Mars Hills

One Mars Hill, and numerous observers, has been adversely impacted by a failure to closely watch life, and one by a failure to watch doctrine.

A third church comes to mind...

The Ordinary Christian Church

When we commit ourselves to this ordinary Christian church, God does extraordinary things.

Shame, the Image of God, and Finding Freedom to Love

The longer I'm a pastor the more convinced I become that every person, regardless of situation, is fighting a hidden battle with shame.

Saltshaker Conference TO

Becky Pippert, author of Out of the Saltshaker, is teaching in Toronto on December 6. If you're in the area, it's worth checking out.

Applying God's Presence to My Distraction

A Confession

I confess: I sometimes struggle to be present. My wife knows. The person on the other end of the phone knows. I think I’m fooling others, but I’m only fooling myself.

I (and maybe you too) are distracted by thoughts of what you should be doing next. I am distracted by how I’m going to respond to what you’re saying when I should be listening to what you’re saying. I have recorded events on my camera that I never recorded in my brain because I was more focused on the camera than what was right in front of me. Even in ministry, I have only been half-present at times because I have resisted the limitations and messiness of my own context.

But God is rich in mercy. He gives grace to the distracted as we long to be present where we are. We can learn about him, and his presence everywhere, along with the implications for us who are not, and who are often frustrated because of this.

The Omnipresence of God

In contrast to us, God is fully present. In Concise Theology J.I. Packer writes:

He is present everywhere in the fullness of all that he is and all the powers that he has, and needy souls praying to him anywhere in the world receive the same fullness of his undivided attention. Because God is omnipresent he is able to give his entire attention to millions of individuals at the same time.

This knowledge, Packer writes, produces great faith and great praise.

Applying God's Presence to My Distraction

It’s not enough to believe in the omnipresence of God. We need to apply it, especially given the frustration we often feel about being so limited to one time and place with all of its messiness.

In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine advises us to learn our limits. He wants us to embrace our physicality (“our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local”) and immediacy (we are often in more of a rush than God is). We learn to attend to our place differently:

In Jesus we learn that we are never the first to arrive on the scene. We enter the moment quieted to learn what has transpired there before we arrived. What has God been doing prior to our arrival? Once there, what is his intention for our presence?

We learn to be patient. Eswine quotes an Jack Miller’s advice to a missionary:

Give it your heart out of gratitude for a tender, seeking and patient savior. Make every common task shine with the radiance of Christ. Then every event becomes a shiny glory moment to be cherished— whether you drink tea or try to get the verb forms of the new language. . . . Always try to be daring but don’t be in a hurry. . . . If you don’t like what is going on in Uganda, wait a week. It’ll be the opposite.

Sounds a lot like missionary Jim Elliott’s advice: “Wherever you are, be all there! Live to the hilt every situation you believe to be the will of God.”

In other words, God’s presence everywhere means we can be present right where we are. His presence in all of time means that we can be present not just in this space, but also in this moment.

This is what God’s presence means for my distracted heart. It means that I embrace the limits of where I am, believing that God is fully present there. It means that I learn to live every moment in the richness of God’s presence, believing that he was at work long before I got here. It means that I put aside my impatience and take up ordinary tasks for his glory, living in this space and time as an apprentice of Jesus.

It means that I’m learning to be present.

Being Present in a World of Cell Phones and Social Media

So much of the time I’m not completely present. I’m thinking of what else I need to be doing, or somewhere else I would rather be. I don’t think I’m alone, either. I sometimes sense that others are half-present, suffering from what one person has called continuous partial attention. We can end up skimming through life, ministry, and relationships.

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One of the culprits, to be honest, is technology. I find myself checking Twitter and Facebook more often than I’d like to admit. I sometimes suffer from phantom vibrations of my cell phone. I forgot my cell phone one evening at a concert and felt a little lost. I also felt strangely judgmental towards others at the concert who spent the evening looking at glowing screens rather than at the artist who was right in front of them.

And that’s the point: we miss what is right in front of us — stunning, average, or even negative — because we are plugged into screens that are roughly 8-10 square inches.

What’s hard to believe is how new a problem this is. I remember seeing the first iPhone from a friend who is a tech journalist, and it was only seven years ago. When I sent my first round of Facebook friend requests in 2007, I received this puzzled response from a university professor:

I have no idea what "Facebook" is. I'll have to ask my boys...I suspect that they know what this is. Do let me know what you have in mind with this.

When I joined Twitter in 2007 (the same year as I joined Facebook and saw the first iPhone), it wasn’t the time suck that it is today. My first tweet, by the way, was a lame and only one word long:

In his book The End of Absence, Michael Harris observes that this is all so new that we haven’t even stopped to consider what we’ve lost when we’re always connected. “Soon enough, nobody will remember life before the Internet,” he says.

Just as previous generations were charmed by televisions until their sets were left always on, murmuring as consolingly as the radios before them, future generations will be so immersed in the Internet that questions about its basic purpose or meaning will have faded from notice. Something tremendous will be missing from their lives— a mind-set that their ancestors took entirely for granted— but they will hardly be able to notice its disappearance.

We went camping this summer, and were completely unplugged (no cell phone signal, no Internet, no power) for two weeks. By the time I came back, I found that I had no desire to immerse myself in social media again. Since then, I’ve drastically cut back on the number of blogs I follow, and the number of tweets I read. (I follow over 2,700 people but make use of lists to help me manage that number.) It took a complete break from social media for me to be ready to make drastic changes. And yes, I’ve thought about going back to a dumb phone, although that may be a little too drastic. (See David Wells, though, on six ways that cell phones are changing us. The article is definitely worth careful thought).

There’s no going back, but there are some steps we can take. I’ve found these ones helpful:

  • Consider a digital fast. It is hard to be aware of how deeply we are immersed in technology until we take a break from it. Take a break as an experiment to see how you feel.
  • Make it a little bit harder to pull out your cell phone when you’re bored. At least you will be aware of when you pull it out absent-mindedly to pass the time, when you could instead be alone with your thoughts or the people around you. (Surprisingly, some people would rather be shocked than to be alone with their thoughts.)
  • Turn off the screens at a certain time of the day. We’ve tried to start putting our screens (except for the Kindle) away at 8:00 at night. It’s made my evenings a lot more enjoyable.
  • Cut back. Stop reading so many blogs and tweets. Separate the essential few from the trivial many. (Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less is helpful here.)

I continue to live both online and off, but I want to be deliberate about where I am choosing to focus. This will no doubt be an ongoing struggle, but I want my life back. I want to be present.

I’m guessing that you do too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on how you are managing your life so that you are present despite the new technologies that can capture us before we even think.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

Tangled Up in Blue: Depression and the Christian Life

Of all the people who should be leading the way in a careful handling of depression, the church should be foremost, both in affirming it's complexity, and in bringing hope to those in its clutches.

A Sample Letter to Help Cultivate Community While Struggling with Depression-Anxiety

It is sad that we use the same logic to isolate ourselves in the experience of depression-anxiety that is commonly used to silence an abused child or a spouse experiencing domestic violence. With our silence about our struggles we become the warden to our cell of isolation.

Chosen is Better Than Worthy

Why worry about being worthy or not, when Christ has called you chosen?

Cultivating Wonder in Children

As you go about discipling your children, as you teach them their Bible verses and correct them when they disobey, do not neglect the sacred discipline of awe.

Never Resist the Urge to Pray

Let us be a people who never, ever, resist the urge to pray. After all, we know the urge is from God, to be used by God, accordance with his commands for our good.

On Platforms, Self-Promotion, and Pleasure Complete

John’s happiness was not tied to his platform. His happiness was tied to God’s purposes.

11 Preaching and Pastoring Lessons Learned from My Mentor

Following are 11 of the preaching and pastoring lessons I’ve learned from my mentor.

Ministry and Presence

I’ve been thinking about the story of Jimmy Carter, who was so free from having to worry about where else he should be and what else he should be doing that he was able to focus fully on the person in front of him.

He spoke as though we had all the time in the world. At one point, an aide came to take him off to the next person he needed to meet. Free from having to decide when the meeting would end, or any other mundane care, really, President Carter could let go of those inner nagging voices and be there. (The Organized Mind)

Is it possible to be this present in our lives and ministries? Not only is it possible; it’s essential.

Here are some thoughts on being present in ministry.

It’s hard. In his excellent book Sensing Jesus, Zack Eswine traces the desire to be present everywhere to the Garden of Eden. We try to act as if we have no limits in space and time. The desire to avoid being present in one place is an age-old temptation that goes as far back as the original sin.

There’s no alternative. There really is no other ministry than ministry right here, with these people, and in this place. Again, Eswine writes:

Our lives, in contrast to God’s, are necessarily physical and local…While spiritual wars rage about and while angels fly, I remain grounded. Battles all at once and everywhere outpace me. Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.

The people here are always messy, and this place is by definition limiting. But the only one who is not limited to ministry in a particular location is God, although even He is also working with messy people.

They can tell.  A few years ago, I visited a pastor that I know through his blog. I told him that I appreciated his online sermons. His response surprised me. “I’m glad you enjoyed them, but they’re not for you. I pastor these people in this place, and those sermons are meant for them. Whether or not you appreciate them is irrelevant.”

I like that. I believe that people can tell if we are trying to serve and impress a general audience out there, or if we are rooted in a particular place, committed to a particular people. I can tell when people are half-listening to me. People can tell if we’re half-present while dreaming of a better place that doesn’t actually exist.

It’s at the heart of effective ministry. There is certainly a place for large, regional ministries. But as books like The New Parish teach us, there is a need to locate ourselves in a single community, to be attentive to what God is doing there, and to commit over the long haul to be present and faithful. Like a farmer committed to a plot of land, staying long enough to put down roots, clear the rocks, and pull out the tree roots, we must be committed to one place. I think I remember David Fitch saying that we should generally look at a ten-year commitment to a single place. While not canonical, it’s an idea that makes a lot of sense for most of us.

We are in what could be termed a hard-soil plant. We have moved in the neighborhood, and we are learning the joy and power of being as present as possible in one place, knowing and being known (both equally scary). There is something powerful about being present in one place, as if we have all the time in the world, letting go of the inner nagging voices that we would be better off somewhere else. Again, as Eswine writes, “Here (and not everywhere) is where I must fight.”