The Freedom that Comes from Grace

I read recently of an actor (Meryl Streep?) who said she no longer cares what people think. It’s a perk, she said, of getting older. I can relate. I’m old enough to have stopped caring (at least as much) about what other people think. This article, while a little crude, puts it well: “You don’t care about being cool anymore and therefore you become the coolest you have ever been in your life” (cool being a relative term).

But it’s not just age that frees you from what other people think. Grace does this too. As Scotty Smith puts it, grace is the end of all posturing and pretending.

  • Because of grace, I no longer have to pretend to be someone different than I am. Grace meets me right where I am.
  • Because of grace, I don’t have to measure up, because I couldn’t anyway. Jesus has measured up on my behalf, and it is enough.
  • Because of grace, I can accept the harshest criticism, knowing that even worse is true of me than they know, but it’s all been dealt with by Jesus.
  • Because of grace, I can be free from needing the approval of others, knowing that I already have the only approval that really matters.
  • Because of grace, I can lean into honest relationships with others, knowing that I don’t have to fear being exposed when I’m dressed in the righteousness of Christ.

I love how Jared Wilson puts it in The Pastor's Justification, especially (as the title suggests) as it relates to pastors:

Pastor, will we seek justification in our reputations? In our church’s numbers and figures? In our retweets and links? In our podcast downloads? In a book deal or speaking engagement? In our own sense of a job well done? This is sand.

Or will we look up and out, away from ourselves, away from the fickle fellowship, away from Satan’s right hand of the Father, where our righteousness sits, firmly fixed eternal? There is your justification, pastor, perfect and big, bigger than you and better than you but bled and bought for you and birthed in you, yours irrevocably, sealed and guaranteed through both your successes and your failures, through the pats on your back or the knives in your back. There is your justification, there in Christ, and because in him there is no shadow of turning, you are utterly, totally, undeniably justified.

Brother, you are free.

The freedom that comes from grace is much better than the freedom that comes from aging.

This Church Opens Wide Her Doors

When people walk into church, according to Ray Ortlund, they have been beaten up all week. We live in a social environment in which we never measure up. We are soaked in an environment of criticism and comparisons, so much so that it feels normal. We are made to feel small at work, in advertising, and in almost every area of life.

We swim in an ocean of criticism all week, and then we walk into church.

That’s why Ortlund gives a little speech at the beginning of the worship services at Immaneul Nashville that he adapted from James Boice from Tenth Presbyterian Church:

Ray Ortlund's notes

Ray Ortlund's notes

To all who are weary and need rest;
To all who mourn and long for comfort;
To all who feel worthless and wonder if God even cares;
To all who are weak and fail and desire strength;
To all who sin and need a Savior —
This church opens wide her doors with a welcome from Jesus,
the mighty friend of sinners,
the ally of his enemies,
the defender of the indefensible,
the justifier of those who have no excuses left...

Ortlund says, “I just want people to know, it’s going to be different now. You just walked into grace. We can relax. We can own up. We can be honest. We can face the living God through the blood of Christ and let him speak to us.”

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

Sign at Redeemer Church, Bellingham, Washington

In the next hour, he wants the souls of the people to be re-oxygenated, so that when they walk out of the service they feel alive again.

I love this! As you can see from the picture, others have borrowed it from Ortlund as well.

Check out Ray Ortlund’s excellent message at The Gospel Coalition Atlantic Conferences — this post is based on his comments at the 19 minute mark — as well as the other messages. I felt my soul re-oxygenated as I soaked in grace under the teaching at this conference.

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.