What I Learned from Ray Ortlund
When it first launched, www.ImmanuelNashville.com was a picture of a coffee cup, a space for an email address, and an offer to meet for coffee. So I entered my address. A few days later, my friend Jared and I were sitting in a Starbucks with Ray Ortlund.
That email changed our lives.
Jared and I were planting a church in Nashville. Ray was planting a church in Nashville. We needed friends. We didn’t know it yet, but so did Ray. We all entered that Starbucks with more questions than answers. We didn’t know if anything we were doing would work. Maybe that’s why we became friends.
The story of my friendship with Ray is too long to write about here. With Ray’s recent retirement from pastoral ministry, my goal is to talk about a few things Ray taught me over the dozen or so years I’ve known him.
God is Patient
I guess Ray and I have a thing for meeting at Starbucks. I was serving as a deacon at Immanuel at the time. I met Ray at the church, and we rode in his truck to grab a coffee. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is the ride back to church.
We were at a stoplight—a long one. Ray didn’t intend to teach me anything, but he did. I asked him how he was doing in an area I knew he was struggling with. Looking straight ahead, he said simply but profoundly, “David, God is so patient with me. He’s so patient. He’s so patient. He’s so patient.” My memory tells me he repeated that phrase for at least a full minute. Ray couldn’t (and still can’t) get over the patience of God. That’s why Ray’s sermons drip with grace.
Ray loves music. Or, rather, Ray loves 1960s music. Bob Dylan. The Beatles. The Beach Boys. But most of all, Credence Clearwater Revival.
Why does that matter? Before coming under Ray’s ministry, I was hesitant to enjoy the things of this earth. I couldn’t deny my love for baseball, for Tom Petty, for coffee, for summer evenings outside. But I wasn’t sure I should like them.
Then one Sunday, Ray preached a Thanksgiving sermon that changed it all for me. God gives good gifts. CCR is proof. Enjoy what God gives. Thank him for it. To not to is a sin.
Some People Go on Vacation and Don’t Take Their Bible
Ray loves the Bible more than anyone I know. He doesn’t just read it. He investigates it. He gets inside it. Cut him open, and he bleeds it.
My wife and I packed a sack lunch and sat for six hours in a stuffy upstairs room in an old church building for Immanuel’s new member’s class. Ray explained why Immanuel existed, what Immanuel believed, etc. All the things you’d expect from a membership class.
Then he said something I’d never heard before. I don’t even remember what section we were in, but Ray was talking about rest. He explained that a Christian rests not from his work but for his work. Rest is God’s way of restoration, not retreat. Then he said, “Some people go on vacation and don’t take their Bible.” Up to that point, I’d never once taken my Bible on vacation. It never occurred to me to do so. But to Ray, rest and the Bible go hand in hand. The Bible, to Ray, is rest, because Jesus, to Ray, is rest. He is for us all, if we’ll have him.
Come to Me, All Who Are Weary
Immanuel’s call to worship, when given by Ray, is a holy experience. Ray taught me that God doesn’t despise me. He loves me. He did this simply, by telling me, from the Bible, of the dying love of Jesus. Click the link above to hear it for yourself.
You Never Have to Stop Growing
In the early days of Immanuel Church, a group of thirty or so men met a few Saturdays a year for an all-day seminar led by a seminary professor or pastor. It was an intense day of theology, like drinking from a fire hose. It was amazing.
Ray is a scholar. When it comes to the Bible, he’s the smartest man I know and no one is a close second. But if you were to observe those seminars, you would never know that. Ray was the best student there—taking notes, asking questions, paying attention. I have to think Ray knew a lot of that stuff already, but he was finding new things to learn, new ways to see, new insights to gain. Ray never stopped growing.
Doing Nothing Will Only Guarantee More Nothing
Immanuel was busting at the seams in our current building. We needed to move. Nothing in our predetermined range opened up or was affordable. Then we got a call. A building on the west side of Nashville was coming available. Would we like to see it?
We gathered the elders and deacons to discuss. It was outside the area we thought was best. But it was a good building. Lots of space. Growing area. After some discussion, Ray said, “Why not go?”
Ray was always doing that. Whereas many of us were quick to see reasons not to do something, Ray was quick to see an opportunity. Yes, it wasn’t our ideal, but what did we know, anyway? God was in this. Let’s trust him.
The decision to move sent Immanuel Church into overdrive. We could have done nothing, but Ray doesn’t do that. He goes where God gives opportunity.
Marriage Never Has to Get Stale
I don’t know if you’ve been around Ray and his wife, Jani. If you have, you know what I’m talking about already.
Ray and Jani are the most “in-love” people I know. They adore one another. They’re like a dating high school couple. They call each other “Dear” and “Babe” and so forth, and it’s as real as can be. There is no faking; only love. They are proof that romance never died if we keep it alive.
God Always Has More to Give
There is a fullness in God that we cannot exhaust. He loves us deeply, and our need does not deplete him; it energizes him. And from his fullness, God gives graciously. Our part is only to ask and receive.
As long as I’ve known Ray, he’s been praying for revival. Ray longs to see what only God can do. He taught me a whole new category for expecting big things from God.
I suspect Ray wonders if he’ll ever see revival. But I think he did. I was part of a group in the early days of Immanuel that felt like revival. It may have been small in scale, but it was not insignificant in the kingdom of God. I saw newness of life burst forth. I saw the word of God preached powerfully. I saw the gospel land gently on a whole church, and I saw what only God can do.
He did it through Ray.
Ministry Isn’t Everything. Jesus is.
Okay, so Ray would say this lesson came from his Dad. And it did. On his deathbed, Ray Sr. sent this bit of wisdom to Ray via his siblings. Ray told to story often. But what he doesn’t realize is that he actually lived it. To Ray Ortlund Jr, just as to Ray Ortlund Sr, Jesus was, is, and will forever be everything. That’s why their ministry worked.
I met Ray during a tough time in his life. He wondered if his ministry was over. It wasn’t. It isn’t now. He may be retired from pastoral ministry, but God is far from done using him. I can’t wait to see what’s next!