Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

Thursday May 31 2018

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

We often conflate thankfulness and optimism, but they are not the same thing. Christians who want to enjoy God’s economy of abundance will find it helpful to tease out the differences.

I recently wrote a book on pastoral care which will be released in August by Fortress Press. One of the chapters focuses on stress, because caregivers in any context need to know how to deal with their own stress, and they also need to help care recipients cope with stress better. Research shows that optimism helps people survive stress better, because how we think about the things that are happening to us makes a difference. One of the people I interviewed talked about the difference between optimism and thankfulness for people under stress.

Optimism can be defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” Hope is a major theme in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul uses the name “God of hope” in Romans 15:13, and in 1 Corinthians 13:13, he lumps faith, hope and love together as things that endure.

So if optimism is composed of hope and confidence, why would we not want to embrace it all the time? The woman I interviewed for my book, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said that optimism can be overemphasized. When we focus on optimism too much, she said, we can slide into denial, which is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. She said thankfulness can bring about the same good results as optimism in many difficult situations, but without any denial.

Here’s how it works. Thankfulness is a choice to focus our eyes on good gifts. Those gifts might come from the people around us – a stimulating conversation, an act of kindness, direct help that meets a need, an encouraging word, a doctor or other professional who gives help we need, or many other specific gifts, big or small, from people in our lives.

Thankfulness also enables us to see God’s good gifts that come directly to us – an answer to a prayer, a situation that works out well despite the odds, inner strength to do something difficult, or peace that passes all understanding. Thankfulness also helps us notice the good gifts in the physical world God created – a delicious meal, the clear eyes of a child, colorful fall leaves and beautiful spring flowers, a vivid sunset, dramatic mountains, and towering clouds.

The kind of thankfulness I’ve mentioned creates a foundation for hope. We are hopeful and confident about the future because of God’s faithfulness that we observe in the present. We trust in God’s promises because, by being thankful, we have taught ourselves to see the fruit of his promises already.

When we focus on the good gifts that are present in our lives, we do not deny the reality of pain, stress and challenges. Thankfulness involves turning our eyes to see good things even in the midst of those difficulties, and we take a moment to thank the giver of the gift.

 Thankfulness nurtures relationship. David Steindl-Rast, in his beautiful book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, writes, “When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. . . . The one who says ‘thank you’ to another really says, ‘We belong together.’ Giver and thanksgiver belong together.” [1]

Steindl-Rast wonders if our society suffers so much from alienation because we are reluctant to offer thanks. I agree with him. It seems clear that our friendships and family relationships suffer when we feel uneasy acknowledging bonds with other people, when we hold back from expressing gratitude.

 Steindl-Rast points out that everything is a gift, yet we find it hard to acknowledge gifts because we don’t like to admit our dependence. Thankfulness involves acknowledging that we belong with others and with God, and that we depend on the people around us and on God. We are not alone. We are not self-sufficient. We cannot navigate life on our own. 

 In contrast, when we feel pressure to be optimistic, we often feel we have to generate positivity within ourselves. Optimism can be quite individualistic, while thankfulness nurtures community. 

Sometimes, focusing on optimism is exactly the right thing to do, but we have to be careful not to take it so far that there’s no room for our own – or others’ – sorrow, pain or tears. Thankfulness leaves more room for sadness and tears because we can be thankful for God’s work in a situation while grieving that the situation is happening. 

I invite you to ponder the role of thankfulness and optimism in your own life. Think of the models you’ve seen for both thankfulness and optimism. 

(Next  week: the guest-host shift. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Past posts about thankfulness:

Growing in thankfulness         
A thankfulness challenge         
Another thankfulness challenge         
Five quotations about thankfulness         
Thomas Merton on our transparent world         
Thankfulness and sentness                    

[1] David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-17. 

First post in a series on contrasts: shalom and peace

Thursday May 24 2018

First post in a series on contrasts: shalom and peace

My husband and I, along two friends, were eating dinner together, and I wanted to take the conversation deeper. So I said, “Sometimes I find it useful to pray for one thing for people I care about. I ask myself, ‘If I could pray for just one thing for this person, what would it be?’ I’ve got a couple of people for whom I pray for joy. So I wonder, if I wanted to pray for one thing for each of you, what would it be?”

We tossed around a few words, and someone suggested “peace” as the one thing to pray for someone we know. Later in the discussion, I suggested “shalom” as the one thing to pray for someone else. One of our friends turned to me and said, “We’ve already discussed peace. Isn’t ‘shalom’ just the Hebrew word for peace?”

Peace and shalom are somewhat different, and I want to write about the significance of that difference.

Peace is generally viewed as the absence of war or conflict, which includes both inner and outer strife. The concept of peace includes tranquility and relational harmony.  Jesus promised to give us peace: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. ” (John 14:27). Anyone who feels stressed or who has struggled with anxiety or depression knows that God’s peace is an enormous gift.

The Hebrew concept of shalom includes what we consider to be peace, but also much more. To experience God’s shalom is to experience wholeness and well-being in all aspects of life. Wholeness and well-being obviously involve the absence of destructive conflict in all areas of life and the presence of some degree of tranquillity. However, wholeness and well-being also include physical and emotional health, spiritual well being, relational connectedness, financial stability, a sense of purpose in life, and meaningful work. You may be able to think of more components.

The Hebrew word “shalom” occurs 237 times in the Old Testament and is usually translated “peace,” “safety” or “welfare.” This word occurs in the very oldest fragment of the Old Testament that archaeologists have discovered, Numbers 6:24-26, often called the Aaronic blessing. In this chapter of Numbers, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons to bless the people with these words. In English we usually use “peace” in the last line, but I’ve changed the last line to reflect the meaning of the original Hebrew word, “shalom.” See what different meaning is conveyed to you by this version:

The Lord bless you and keep you; 
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you wholeness and well-being in every area of your life.

You may enjoy experimenting with different words for that last line to capture what you consider to be the best way of describing the kinds of well being you long for. Then say the blessing over yourself and those you love.

Experiencing shalom doesn’t make a person selfish. Instead, experiencing shalom enables a person to love and serve. After all, wholeness and well-being include healthy, loving relationships, and for a Christian, being whole includes obeying God, serving in the world after the model of Jesus, guided by the Holy Spirit.

I like to pray for shalom for family members and friends, and as I pray that word, I think about the forms of well-being I long for in their lives. And I like to pray for shalom in my own life, too. What aspects of shalom do you long for today for those you love and for yourself?

(Next week: thankfulness and optimism. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under subscribe in the right hand column. This post first appeared on the Godspace blog.)

For those of you at midlife (in the range of 35 to 60), I want to recommend my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, which explores paths of well-being for that life stage. It is available in paperback and for kindle (for some strange reason these two versions are not linked on amazon.com).

On Pentecost, let's ponder the Holy Spirit

Saturday May 19 2018

On Pentecost, let's ponder the Holy Spirit

We celebrate Pentecost this Sunday, the day when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. You can read about it in Acts 2 (which you can access here.) Almost two millennia after Pentecost, we benefit every day from the presence of the Holy Spirit with us.

One of my seminary professor called the Holy Spirit the “shy” member of the Trinity. This professor was referring to the fact that the Holy Spirit’s role is to bring glory to the Father and the Son. Thus the Holy Spirit is the least visible person of the Trinity.

I invite you to ponder with me the role of the Holy Spirit in various Christian spiritual practices, to shine some light on this “shy” person in the Trinity.

Bible reading and meditation. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes and ears so we can see God more clearly through the words on the pages of the Bible. The Spirit also helps us apply the passage to our lives, helping us see the relevance of the words to our exact setting and context.

Intercessory prayer. The Holy Spirit guides us to pray for the things God values, giving us eyes to see God’s priorities and purposes. The Spirit helps us to see the places God is working so we can join our prayers with God’s current activity and priorities. In addition, the Spirit brings people to mind who need our prayers and helps us remember specific situations where God’s presence is needed.

Prayers of confession. The Holy Spirit brings to mind our sins and shortcomings, and reminds us of God’s forgiveness when we confess our sins.

Praise of praise and thankfulness. The Holy Spirit helps us see God’s gifts in our daily life and reminds us of the big picture of God’s creation and redemption of the world.

Prayers of lament. The Holy Spirit grieves over the brokenness of the world and invites us into that grief and sorrow.

Various  forms of silent prayer. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in silence, bringing to mind truths about God and speaking that truth into our situations.

Worship. All that I’ve mentioned above illustrates how the Holy Spirit enables us to engage in worship, both alone and with others.

Fasting. The Holy Spirit gives us guidance of when to fast, what to fast from, strength and endurance during the fast, and guidance in what to pray for during the fast.

Sabbath keeping. The Holy Spirit calls us into rest, reassuring us that God is keeping the world going even when we are not participating. The Spirit gives peace and the ability to trust into God’s hands the things we could be doing but aren’t.

Communal spiritual practices. The Holy Spirit draws people together and provides love for one another. The Spirit guides and empowers groups of people as well as individuals.

Gordon Fee wrote a wonderful book about the Holy Spirit called God’s Empowering Presence. For Pentecost this year, I invite you to ponder that title. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence with us. What does God do in us? Empower us to hear God’s voice, empower us to receive God’s direction, empower us to persevere in following that direction, empower us to rest in God’s goodness and grace, and more. The Holy Spirit is God present with us in dozens of ways that empower us.

I’ve listed some of the ways God, through the Holy Spirit, is present with us and empowers us as we engage in spiritual practices. I’m sure you can think of more ways.

Jesus says to his disciples in the Upper Room, the night he was betrayed: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13, 14, NRSV).

A prayer related to the Holy Spirit from the Book of Common Prayer: “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

(Next week: the first post in a new series on contrasts in the Christian life. Next week I’ll focus on peace versus shalom. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Some earlier Pentecost posts on this blog:

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

Saturday May 12 2018

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

The setting: a worship service on Mother’s Day

The AHA moment: the prayer that gave permission for people to struggle on that day

About 20 years ago on Mother’s Day, my good friend and colleague was leading the prayer time in the worship service. Over the years, I had sat through many prayers on Mother’s Day that expressed thanks to God for mothers, a good thing to do.

This was the first time I heard a prayer that expressed those appropriate thanks to God, but also acknowledged that Mother’s Day is hard for some people. My friend mentioned couples who struggle with infertility or had lost a child, women who were single and wished to be married and have children, and those who had difficult relationships with their own mothers or their children.

It truly was an AHA moment for me. For various reasons I had never liked Mother’s Day very much, and here was someone naming some of my ambivalence and struggle. Her words conveyed such freedom and acceptance to me.

Right now I’m teaching an online class for Hope International University on leading communal spiritual practices. In some of our online discussion we have talked about the fact that all leaders of communal spiritual practices need to lay out the goal and structure of various practices with optimism for the great experience spiritual practices offer. However, at the same time, leaders need to affirm that people come into those practices with diverse feelings, and they will have different experiences as they engage in the practices as well.

As leaders in any setting, we have to make room for people to talk about, pray about, and think about their gratitude for the great blessings they experience, as well as the sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings they experience. Both are real. Both sets of feelings can and should be brought into God’s presence.

With respect to motherhood, I suspect most mothers have at least some mixed feelings, no matter how much they appreciate the gift of children. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned feelings of great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings. I suspect that most mothers experience all of those at various times when they think about their children. I know I did when my children were still living at home. Sometimes I still do.

Many people have experienced great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings related to their relationship (or lack thereof) with their own mother.

What does it look like in Christian spirituality to praise God for the good gifts we experience and also allow honest expression of the thoughts and emotions we consider to be negative? What does it look like to encourage thankfulness and praise, while also giving people permission to pray and talk about the struggles?

And what does it look like for someone who loves Mother’s Day to make room for those who experience the day as a mixed blessing? And vice versa?

The Psalms provide a powerful model for the movement between thanks, praise, sadness, anger, loss, and lament. I’ve been praying the Psalms for many years, and the variety of emotions in the Psalms has helped me bring my own mixed and complex emotions into God’s presence so many times.

But what about those emotions expressed in the Psalms that we’re not feeling? Someone once told me that whenever we come across an emotion in a psalm that we’re not feeling, we can pray that verse on behalf of the people around the world who are having that experience.

I wonder if we could adopt that strategy on Mother’s Day. In prayer, we can express our own emotions about the day, but we can also enter into the feelings of those who experience the day differently. The Psalms model God’s welcome of everything we feel, as well as God’s compassion for those whose experience is different from ours.

(Next week: Let’s thank the Holy Spirit. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

One year ago on this blog: the blog post series that got more comments on the blog and on Facebook than any other series I've written. It focuses on the spiritual practice, new to me at that time, of separating thoughts from feelings. That spiritual practice is still hugely important to me. The first post is here, and you can click "next" at the end of the post to get to the next one. The series has five posts.

Nature speaks about God: The Bible and nature

Friday May 4 2018

Nature speaks about God: The Bible and nature

In our Seattle church, children bring flowers on Easter Sunday, mostly daffodils and tulips, with a few hot house flowers like carnations thrown in. The flowers are inserted in a cross specially designed for Easter. At my friend’s church in Oamaru, New Zealand, children also bring flowers on Easter to place on a cross. Because Easter is in the late summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the flowers are mostly roses and dahlias.

Different flowers, different seasons, different locations. Same God, same Easter, same celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death.

The cross speaks of Good Friday, Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and God’s great redemption of the world through Jesus’ obedience and love. The flowers speak of seasonal beauty. In the Northern Hemisphere, the daffodils speak of new life in the spring. In the Southern Hemisphere, the late summer flowers speak of abundance and rich fullness of life.

These flower crosses are a good illustration of a profound truth. God reveals God’s nature and character to us in two major ways: through the wonder of the created world and through the Holy Scriptures of the New and Old Testament.

Nature speaks of her Creator. I’ve been writing weekly posts for more than two months about how God has spoken to me through nature, and you can see a list of all those posts below.

The Bible also speaks about who God is and what God does. God's speech through the Bible is very focused and specific. Through the Bible, we learn the story God’s work through the nation of Israel. We learn about God’s law, the prophets who spoke of God’s truth, and the kings who led God’s people. Through the Bible we learn about Jesus’ coming to earth, his death on the cross, his glorious resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Without the Bible, the voice of nature is pretty general, diffuse and vague.

Theologians have a name for these two kinds of revelation about God. “General revelation” refers to God’s revelation through nature. “Special revelation” refers to God’s specific and particular revelation through the Bible.

These two kinds of revelation are visible in Psalm 19, vividly portrayed in The Message translation:

 God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
    God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
    Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren’t heard,
    their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
    unspoken truth is spoken everywhere. . . .

The revelation of Godis whole
    and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of Godare clear
    and point out the right road.
The life-maps of Godare right,
    showing the way to joy.
The directions of Godare plain
    and easy on the eyes.
God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,
    with a lifetime guarantee.
The decisions of God are accurate
    down to the nth degree.
God’s Word is better than a diamond,
    better than a diamond set between emeralds.
You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring,
    better than red, ripe strawberries.
There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger
    and directs us to hidden treasure.
Otherwise how will we find our way? —Psalm 19:1-4, 7-11, The Message

In one of my earlier posts, I wrote about how my perception of God’s voice through nature changed after I became a Christian. My knowledge of God through the Bible shaped the way I heard God speak through nature.

As this series comes to an end, I encourage you to continue to ponder the voice of God through nature. Compare and contrast what you “hear” about God’s character and actions in nature and in the Bible. What do you hear about who God is? How God views you? How you are called to respond today?

(Next week: An AHA moment on Mother’s Day. Illustration: An Easter flower cross in Oamaru, New Zealand, on the left and an Easter cross in Seattle on the right. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This is the tenth and final post in a series on the ways God speaks through nature. Previous posts:

The first time nature to spoke to me about God         
Mountains and clouds on Easter               
Algae and stars       
Tropical fish in the Red Sea         
Jesus in a boat on Greenlake         
The feeling of God’s absence         
Familiar and unfamiliar landscapes        
The miracle of trees        
Patterns in God's speech