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Hearing God's voice

Thursday September 25 2014

Hearing God's voice

I used to have a joke that expressed my longing to hear God’s voice clearly. When I wanted to know what to do in a specific situation, I used to say I wished that God would hire a cute little plane to sky-write guidance for me.

On the one hand, it’s great to long to hear God’s voice. But on the other hand, I now see it as a bit lazy to long for God to sky-write. Here are some thoughts about why:

Throughout the centuries, Christians have heard God’s voice in a variety of ways, and many Christians have written down their experiences and advice about hearing God. On the one hand, they talk about God’s voice or a sense of God’s nudging coming in surprising, unexpected moments during daily life. And on the other hand, they talk about God’s voice or God’s nudging coming in the midst of consistent spiritual practices that make space to hear that voice.

We must always affirm that nothing we can do can make God speak to us; God’s voice to us through the Holy Spirit is wildly free and beautifully unexpected. However we can adopt a posture of listening that makes it more likely we will hear God when God speaks. And that posture of listening requires intentional effort, even discipline. What are some of the spiritual practices people through the ages have talked about in connection with hearing God’s voice?

1. Reading, studying, praying and meditating on the Bible, both alone and in company with others. The Bible is called “God’s Word” for a reason. All engagement with the Bible is good, but many of us come out of traditions that primarily emphasize engaging the mind. Many of us need to grow in engaging the heart and slowing down so we can hear God’s voice through scripture. Two prayer practices that engage both mind and heart are lectio divina and praying the Psalms and other prayers in the Bible.

2. Praying in many different ways, both alone and in company with others. All forms of prayer can help us hear God’s voice. Silence in prayer is indispensible for helping us learn to listen. Prayer practices like walking the labyrinth or praying while walking outdoors can help us engage our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.

3. Fasting, both alone and in company with others. Throughout most of Christian history, and in Africa, Asia and South and Central American today, Christians expect to hear God’s voice when they fast. People who have a history of eating disorders should not fast from food in any form, and today fasting can involve stopping media, electronic devices, music, shopping, and many other aspects of daily life, as well as stopping eating all food or certain food items. I have heard dozens of stories about how God has spoken during a fast.

4. Hospitality. I can remember the first time I heard that Mother Teresa expected to meet Christ as she encountered people in need. I remember being stunned at that idea. Since then I’ve read many times about the ways Christ is present in friend and stranger in hospitality settings, and God can speak to us powerfully there.

5. Spiritual Direction. The purpose of spiritual direction is to take time in the company of a guide, the spiritual director, to examine our lives and discern God’s presence and God’s guidance.

My skywriting wishes, at their worst, reflect a desire not to have to do any patterns of consistent discipline in order to slow down and make space to hear God’s voice. Saints through the ages tell us that we hear God’s voice  unexpectedly as we go about our lives, but that we also grow in ability to hear God’s voice as we make space to listen by engaging in spiritual practices that require consistent effort.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

An amusing story of why listening matters

Sunday September 21 2014

An amusing story of why listening matters

Probably some people reading this blog post love the band U2. Probably some readers know  about U2 but aren’t fans. And probably some readers have never heard of U2. In a way, that’s the point of the story I’m going to tell. People have different perspectives on U2. This should not be big news, right?

A couple of weeks ago U2 joined forces with Apple to give away U2’s latest album to all 500 million iTunes users. If you have an iTunes account, U2’s album appeared in your library in the cloud. A free gift! What could be better than that? Evidently that’s what Apple and U2 and Apple thought. Or at the very least they must have thought they were making a strategic decision that would benefit both the band and Apple.

What was the response? Many iTunes users were irate. The twitter-sphere exploded with negative comments. Many i-Tunes subscribers in their teens and twenties had never heard of U2, and they felt violated by music appearing in their folder that they didn’t want and hadn’t chosen. Even some people who knew of U2 or even loved U2 felt violated. In the latter group is author and former pastor Danielle Shroyer. She wrote, “Despite the fact that I’m what easily could be called U2’s core audience, even I found this to be invasive.”

Danielle wrote a blog post entitled “What the Church can learn from the U2/Apple mistake.” Here are some of her words that illustrate the significance of listening in Christian mission:

Don’t assume you know what people want or need. Look, if this is true in healthy relationships, it’s definitely true in relation to total strangers. . . . Churches make this mistake so often. They assume they know what people want or need without ever taking the time to ask, or get to know them. They think that because what they’re offering is something they love and care about, something they believe everyone should have, it follows that everyone will then want to have it. It doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will.

I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently on listening, and every time I speak I find myself saying something like this (with possibly too much passion):

In Christian circles, we talk so much about discipleship and mission. We talk about caring relationships and showing support to others. We urge people to engage in these actions. But we don’t talk about one of the skills that makes these actions possible. We don’t teach listening skills, and we don’t talk about common obstacles to listening and how to overcome them. We are urging people to do things without giving them information about the underlying skills that make those things possible.

Without careful listening,we assume we know what people need and want, and we end up doing things that makepeople– both inside and outside the church – feel violated. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Our love for others is learning to listen to them.” I say Amen to that.

(If you’d like to get an email alert whenever I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column where it says “Subscribe.” If you’d like to read a newspaper article I wrote on overcoming obstacles to listening, "Listening Past the Noise," click here.)

Holy Listening

Saturday September 13 2014

Holy Listening

Congregational consultant and seminary professor Craig Satterlee uses the term “holy listening” to describe the kind of listening we do when we seek to discern “the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition.”[i]

This kind of listening is holy because when we engage in it, we are hoping and expecting to encounter God. Leaders and members of a congregation can listen in a holy manner in a variety of places and activities, as Satterlee describes so vividly. He believes holy listening is indispensible, because it builds intimacy in congregations and helps people connect with each other in a way that goes beyond the superficial, resulting in powerful bonds between people.

Satterlee notes that our listening is imperfect, because we are flawed people with our own agendas, but we can try to listen attentively and carefully. He writes:

Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us.[ii]

I love the idea that holy listening takes the incarnation seriously. My understanding of God’s call to mission is rooted in a commitment to honor the incarnation of Jesus by responding to Jesus’ words that we are sent into the world as he was sent (John 17:18). As we do that, the Holy Spirit enables us to perceive the presence of Jesus in wildly diverse people and places, and our listening becomes holy.  

The word “holy” means set apart, consecrated to God or to a religious purpose. Good and careful listening has several purposes, all of which seem to me to be holy:

  • understanding the viewpoints of others in order to serve them, respect them, pray for them, or respond appropriately to what they have said
  • allowing people to talk through the events and concerns of their life, so they can articulate the way their faith has intersected with those events and concerns
  • paying attention to God’s voice in order to draw near in love and obedience, for individuals and for groups

My husband, Dave, recently said that “holy listening implies keeping one ear cocked to what God might be saying. Maybe you could call it ‘augmented listening.’” Holy listening in his view, then, is a form of double listening, and Dave believes holy or “augmented” listening plays a role in many different kinds of conversations, including evangelism.

Celia, a Baptist pastor and spiritual director, is another person who advocates trying to listen to God while listening to others. This helps her stay open to what God might be saying to her while she listens: “I learn so much when I listen to others. It’s like doorways opening.” She reflected that in conversations, we need “a kind of appreciative inquiry,” which she describes as interest and acceptance instead of judgment, asking how people understand an issue, which enriches everyone.

Celia went on to discuss the way listening helps people get in touch with what they themselves believe, another form of holy listening that involves paying attention to multiple layers of meaning. She reflected,

Listening often helps people become conscious of what they’re saying. It helps them make connections they haven’t seen before. People say, “I’ve never said that before. I wonder if that’s right.” We can journal or talk to ourselves, and things come up. Why is it so different, so much richer, when we talk to others and they listen?

When we engage in holy listening in conversations with people, we expect to meet God in new ways as well. What a gift!

(This post is adapted from my book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry, and it first appeared on the Gathering Voices blog. If you'd like to get an email update whenever I post on this blog, you can sign up in the right hand column where it says "Subscribe.")



[i]“Holy and Active Listening” by Craig Satterlee, Alban Weekly, No. 98 (June 5, 2006).

[ii]Ibid.

Consensus Versus Discernment

Friday September 5 2014

Consensus Versus Discernment

Spiritual practices—various forms of prayer and Bible study, and other practices as well—can play a significant role in congregational discernment. In a time when congregations are dealing with unprecedented challenges—ethnic shifts in neighborhoods, dwindling financial resources, changes in family patterns, less time available for volunteering, and an increasingly secular society—discernment has become a central issue. What is God calling us to do? What unique contribution can we, in this specific congregation, make in our community? In the wider world?

If we want to be missional congregations, engaging with God’s mission in the world, modeling ourselves after the incarnational ministry of Jesus, these questions are vital. We need to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance about exactly what we are called to do in our community and in the wider world. We need to grow in our ability to discern the difference between a good idea and the right idea, the direction where God is calling us to walk.

The question of discernment has come into view because of another issue as well. Many congregational leaders are tired of church organization being conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. They quite rightly rebel against a kind of dualism that views worship and small groups as spiritual, while leadership of the church is treated like business. Either God is present in everything we do, and we expect God’s guidance in all our activities, or we are engaging in hypocrisy.

Some leadership boards in congregations have moved beyond Robert’s Rules of Order to embrace a process of consensus building, and consensus has many advantages over voting. Consensus involves discussion leading to general agreement about a conclusion or decision. This process is often slower than voting on a decision after only brief discussion, but it usually results in a greater degree of ownership by participants, and it provides the opportunity to deal with resistance earlier than when decisions are made by voting.

Often consensus building among congregational leaders centers on meeting the greatest number of needs or desires. The focus is on what we need and want. In contrast, discernment is radically different because it focuses on listening for God’s voice and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Discernment is grounded in the presupposition that our lives and our ministry belong to God, and that God’s Spirit will guide us into decisions that reflect God’s will and values. Our needs and desires need to be considered, but they are neither the starting point nor the primary motivator.

Both consensus and discernment require carefully listening to everyone involved, so the process is similar. In fact, consensus plays a role in the discernment process, as a group tries to come to a conclusion about what they are together hearing from God. The kind of consensus that plays a role in discernment involves the following:

  • Being willing to speak what we think we might be hearing from God
  • Listening carefully to others
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing what we think we hear others saying
  • Making sure quiet people have the opportunity to speak, and
  • Pausing from time to time to pray or reflect.

How do we arrive at consensus through discernment? Spiritual practices help us remember who God is and who we are, an essential first step. They give a foundation for peace and resting in God. They help us keep our roots in Christ. Engaging in centering prayer or the prayer of examen together, practicing lectio divina as a leadership group, or spending a long time in thankfulness prayers can get a process of discernment off to a good start because they remind us who we are and Whose we are. They remove the dualism of viewing worship as spiritual while dismissing planning as business as usual. They set the stage for a listening process.

In addition, spiritual practices can play a role in the middle or later stages of a process of discernment. In different ways, spiritual practices help groups of Christians discern what God is up to, the key component of all stages of discernment. One church member remarked that spiritual practices are “like cleaning my glasses,” restoring fresh and clear vision. Having clean glasses makes a valuable contribution to discernment at any stage.

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog.)

The spiritual journey at midlife

Saturday August 30 2014

I wrote two books on midlife, 15 and 13 years ago. In the books I defined midlife as the years between 35 and 55. I interviewed a lot of people between those ages, and I also read the dozen or so books on midlife that were available at that time.

The books written in the 1990s about spirituality at midlife were focused on the experiences of the Baby Boom generation and people slightly older. Almost all of my interviewees for my books were Baby Boomers. When I wrote my two books, the leading edge of Generation X was just entering midlife, so maybe I interviewed a few Gen Xers, but not many.

Now that the leading edge of Gen X has reached 50, I’m curious about the ways Gen Xer experience midlife. Oddly enough, very little has been written about midlife in the past dozen years. In what ways is the Gen X midlife journey similar to and different from the Baby Boomers? It looks like I’ll get my answers. I’m going to be supervising a Ph.D. student who will be writing her thesis on midlife. She’s going to interview ministers and spiritual directors about what they observe about the spiritual needs and pathways of people at midlife today. And she’s going to interview people at midlife about their experiences.

One of the amusing moments in the process of her acceptance as a Ph.D. student came when the post-graduate admissions committee in my department was considering her application. All of my colleagues on the admissions committee with me are between 35 and 55, and one of them said after reading her proposal, “Really? People have unique spiritual needs at midlife? I didn’t know that.”

So I spent a few moments of the meeting summarizing the main points of my books. I said that churches have age-related ministries for children, youth, young adults, and seniors. We treat midlife folks as the work horses of our congregations, without particular age-related needs. Yet many writers assert that midlife is a time of rich spiritual growth, as we realize we won’t live forever and as we begin the process of evaluating the first half of our lives and looking ahead to the second half.

After the admissions meeting, one of my colleagues asked me if he could read one of my books on midlife. He said that the ideas in the proposal and the words I said about midlife at the meeting resonated with him and he wanted to learn more. I lent him A Renewed Spirituality and he read it and found it quite helpful. He will turn 40 in December, so he is in the last years of Gen X. The fact that he found my book helpful is my first clue that Gen Xers are indeed experiencing at least some of the same issues at midlife as the Baby Boom. I can’t wait to learn more from my student researcher.

If you’d like to read a summary of the main ideas in my books on midlife, I recently wrote an article called “Faith at Midlife.” My two books on midlife are A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife and Embracing Midlife: Congregations as Support Systems.

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