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Psalm for 2014

Thursday August 21 2014

The church in Seattle where I served as associate pastor from 1997 to 2004, Bethany Presbyterian, has asked members of the church community to write psalms, so I decided to write one. I’m posting it here, along with some reflection/journaling questions.

Psalm for 2014 by Lynne Baab

Loving God, we’re tired:

worn out from multitasking,

frustrated by new software and apps,

and overloaded with stimulation.

We wonder how to nurture friendships

in a Facebook age

and how to love

new Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim neighbors.

God, our Creator and Redeemer,

be the still point in the turning world.

Guide us into your paths

and help us embrace the challenges

set before us,

relying on your grace and power

and looking to our brothers and sisters in Christ

for companionship and support.

God our help and our joy,

put your song on our lips

and your love in our hearts.

 

Reflection/Journaling Questions:

Are you tired these days? What contributes to your fatigue? What helps you find energy?

What helps you experience God as the still point in the turning world?

What helps you rely on God’s grace and power?

In what settings are you likely to have God’s song on your lips and God’s love in your heart?

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Friday August 15 2014

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Two years ago I was in the middle of writing my book on listening and I was stuck. I had written a good chapter on listening for the sake of mission. I had written three chapters on listening to God in communal discernment, in communal spiritual practices and through communal engagement with the Bible. I had written basic chapters on listening skills, why and how we listen, and obstacles to listening. I had one chapter left to write, focused on listening to each other within a congregation.

I had quite a few good stories to use in that one remaining chapter, but I didn’t have a central idea for the chapter. My stories and ideas felt scattered.

I set the book aside to go to an academic conference that I was not particularly excited about. The only thing I was anticipating was two keynote talks by Nancy Tatom Ammerman. She described her most recent research on spiritual patterns among people in various religions, and to my great delight she gave me the unifying idea for my troublesome chapter. In addition to helping with that chapter, her research helped me gain an entirely new perspective on the significance of listening in all forms of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Ammerman and her team of researchers interviewed dozens people in Boston and Atlanta about their spiritual convictions and practices. They sought out people with diverse religious commitments: Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, New Age practitioners, etc. They found that the people who had the deepest spiritual commitment also had friends with whom they talked about the overlap between their spiritual commitment and their everyday lives, between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary. Ammerman called these friends “spiritual compatriots.”

The research showed that people most often found these spiritual compatriots in three settings: congregations, the home and the workplace. The congregation has special significance, because congregations provide places for people to learn to talk about this overlap between God and daily life. People then brought that ability to talk about God’s role in everyday life into their homes, and they often found people at work with whom they could talk about it.

Ammerman said that the people who were the most comfortable talking about this overlap of the holy and the ordinary were the people who were the most involved in mission of various forms.

After listening to Ammerman, I spent a lot of time thinking about the places in congregations where people talk about the overlap between their faith and their daily life: small groups, men’s and women’s events, retreats, coffee hour, etc. Good sermons model ways to talk about this overlap. The key is to make space for people not just to chat and get to know each other, but to go deeper to the place where they are able to talk about where God is in their daily lives, how they feel called to follow Jesus in everyday life, where they feel the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowering.

I began to think about pastoral care, which has often been viewed as a good and necessary thing, but somewhat separate from discipleship or mission. Often the major crises of life are the places where we see God at work most profoundly. Maybe God seems clearly present guiding the cancer patient to the right doctor or helping feuding siblings to get along at a funeral. Maybe God seems particularly absent in a crisis. Making room for people to talk about God’s presence and absence in big challenges, a major task of pastoral care, now seems to me to be integrally connected to Christian discipleship and mission.

Conversations where we can talk about the overlap between the Christian faith and daily life require good listening, drawing people out, and asking perceptive questions. We need to allow conversations to go on long enough for people to work their way around to the issue of where and how they experienced God in a particular situation. Because of Nancy Ammerman’s research (recounted in her book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) I saw the significance of listening in congregational life in a whole new light.

(If you'd like to receive an email alert when I add a new post to this blog, sign up over in the right hand column where it says "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Listening Past the Noise

Saturday August 9 2014

Listening Past the Noise

by Lynne M. Baab

I have a new colleague in my department, and we're having our first one-on-one conversation. I ask him the normal questions: Where are you from? Where did you study? Tell me about your family. What are your interests?

I'm carefully watching my inner thoughts and feelings as he talks. I'm watching for a moment of tension or discomfort.

Maybe he'll tell me he's a bit of a political activist and I'll find out his political convictions are quite different from mine. Maybe he'll tell me he practices a religion other than mine.

And if either of these happen, I'll wonder if I'm conveying that I approve of his beliefs and convictions because I'm trying to listen well. That would make me tense. And I'll probably feel uneasy wondering how to respond to his expression of values different from my own.

Watching for that inner tension as I listen is a new practice for me. It comes out of research I conducted a couple of years ago. I interviewed 63 people about the role of listening in congregations, and I tacked on a question about obstacles to listening at the end of the interviews.

To my surprise, most of my interviewees were the most passionate as they described obstacles when listening.

Some of those obstacles come from outside us, such as noisy rooms, a soft-spoken conversation partner or someone who talks really fast. But many more obstacles come from within.

Quite a few of my interviewees used the term ''inner noise'' to describe the emotions and thoughts that make us want to stop listening, perhaps by changing the subject or getting up to do something.

I've already described two kinds of inner noise: wondering if by listening to someone I disagree with, I'm giving tacit approval to their point of view, and worrying I won't know how to respond appropriately.

My interviewees also talked about other forms of inner noise, including the tyranny of the ''to-do'' list floating around in our mind and a feeling of time pressure that makes it hard to be present with people we're talking to.

(To find out what I learned about dealing with inner noise, read the entire article here. Originally published in the Otago Daily Times, 9 August, 2014.)

Hospitality and Listening

Tuesday August 5 2014

Hospitality and Listening

I view listening as a key skill for hospitality in all its forms. Imagine a traditional hospitality setting: you are offering a traveler a place to sleep. “What do you need right now?” you ask. “A shower? A nap? The wifi password? A cup of tea?” You listen to the response and try to meet the traveler’s need. In addition, you may need to listen to subtle cues that help you know what the traveler needs.

Meal times are another typical hospitality setting, and listening plays a key role in mealtime conversations. I have sat through many meals where one person is talking, talking, talking . . . taking up all the air time and dominating the conversation. And I have enjoyed many meals where the host or someone else draws people out and listens carefully. A world of difference!

The connections between listening and hospitality go far beyond lodging and meals, however. I have a very broad definition of hospitality (which I described in a post on the Godspace blog).  I see hospitality as an open stance toward others, a receptivity to who they are and what they have to offer. I see hospitality as a welcome to others that can happen in a short conversation or a long-standing relationship. This kind of welcome and receptivity requires good listening skills and the willingness to stop talking long enough to hear deeply from the other.

One of the obstacles to this kind of listening comes from our fears that if we listen deeply and carefully to someone we disagree with, we will be communicating tacit agreement to their perspective. Imagine I have just met someone new in my workplace, and a few random comments she makes leads me to believe she practices a religion very different from mine. If I draw her out about her religious practices, will she think I agree with them? Or perhaps she expresses a political opinion diametrically opposed to mine. If I draw her out about her political convictions, will she think I give assent to them?

The authors of a communication textbook write, “There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally.”[1]

These communication scholars might recommend language like this: “Tell me about X”(when X is the thing I profoundly disagree with). “Tell me what motivated you to get involved.” We indicate our openness to understanding what lies behind the other person’s commitment. We open ourselves to the other person’s story. At some point in the conversation we are free to say, “Wow, I don’t agree with the conclusion you came to, but it’s very interesting to see where your convictions came from. Tell me more about how you got there.”

As long as we believe that listening implies agreement, our ability to be truly hospitable to the people we meet will be truncated. We won’t listen well because we will be fearful that we will hear something we disagree with and that we won’t know how to respond.  All of us can grow in believing that listening does not imply agreement, that understanding other people’s stories, motivations and thought processes will enrich us even if we disagree with them.

(If you'd like to receive email updates whenever I post something on this blog, look in the right hand column of this page for "subscribe." These ideas came from the research for my book The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry. This post originally appeared in the Godspace blog.)

[1] Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.

Finding Home and Homes

Thursday July 31 2014

Finding Home and Homes

“Home” has been a hugely contested, even painful, term for me. My father was an air force pilot and we moved 12 times in my first 15 years. We spent five of those years in Europe. I’ve never felt at home in the U.S., and I have never really felt at home anywhere. The word “home” has often made me feel uneasy and sad. My husband, who lived in one small town from birth until high school graduation, would often say to me, “Our true home is in heaven.” I can give cognitive assent to that truth, but somehow it never helped me.

All this began to change in early 2011 when I read Crossings and Dwellings: A Theory of Religion. In it, Thomas A. Tweed argues that religion helps us create homes in four arenas: our bodies, the house we live in, our country, and the cosmos. He also says that religion helps us move between these homes.

My first personal response to Tweed’s theory was focused on my body. I’ve struggled with weight all my life and have often felt as if my body betrays me by wanting foods that are not good for me. In recent years my weight has been more stable and closer to normal, and I have become more “at home” in my body. While reading Crossings and Dwellings, I began to see that the first “home” I need to nurture is my own body. And I could see ways I’d done that in recent years, without using that language to describe it.

Of course we know that God made our bodies, but that can feel a bit distant. God, way off in heaven, made this earth and each of us. The coming of Christ tells us that God is not far off in heaven but right here with us. In fact, God is right here with us in Jesus, who lived in a physical body just as we do. The New Testament gives us no hint that Jesus felt estranged from his body in any way. Instead, he seems to have felt at home in his body and this physical world, just as he felt at home in heaven and longed to return there.

The second personal application of Tweed’s theory came later in 2011 when I had a six-month sabbatical from my teaching position in New Zealand. I split that time between Seattle, where I spent 30 years of my adult life, and Europe, where I had spent time in childhood. In those months of moving between past places where I’d lived, I realized that I have several homes, and that’s okay. Seattle will always feel like home in one sense because I lived there longest. But my current hometown Dunedin, New Zealand, is wonderful, and I love many things about my house, my town and my adopted country. Dunedin feels like home now, in a way it didn’t before 2011. And a part of my sense of earthly home will always be in Europe because of my childhood there.

For the first time in my life, in 2011 I felt at home in all these places, rather than feeling at home in none of them. My faith in God, who became flesh and lived on this earth, enables me to move between homes because Jesus through the Holy Spirit is present in all my homes. Because the Holy Spirit dwells inside me, and because my body is the home that I take with me wherever I go, God is present with me in every place creating a home for me. But actually, God is present in those places before I get there and after I leave. I can watch for his fingerprints everywhere I go, and he will enable me to feel at home there.

Immanuel, God with us, has changed my life in the past three years by helping me begin to feel at home in my body and by enabling me to experience various places as homes. My husband is right that our true home is in heaven, but Jesus brought that true home to earth in his flesh, and we are invited to dwell with him and let him dwell with us, truly at home in him, in our bodies, and in our houses and homelands.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

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