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

Lynne's Blog

Friendship skills: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking

Thursday June 28 2018

Friendship skills: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking

Giving in friendship can involve providing help in a variety of ways. Giving includes presents. In the broadest sense, all acts of kindness in friendship are gifts: listening carefully, sending a card or message expressing sympathy, or accepting that a friend is experiencing extraordinary challenges at work and won’t be able to spend time together for a while. Acts of initiative can also be viewed as gifts of friendship: reaching out to someone who is new in town or new on the job, or sharing a vulnerable feeling with a friend to indicate they can do the same with you. Offering forgiveness after being hurt may be one of the biggest gifts a friend can give.

Misunderstandings in friendship can arise when two people give gifts to each other in different ways. One of them buys presents and the other one tries to give the gift of practical help or a listening ear. A discussion of languages of love can be illuminating.

I have observed that people who have a rich circle of friends have learned the friendship skills of asking for help and giving a variety of gifts. They have also learned the significance of thanking the people who help them or give to them in any way. My understanding of the significance of asking for help in friendship has been influenced by my own growth in thankfulness.

For more than 15 years I have been giving special focus to thankfulness in my prayers. That focus has forced me to pay more attention to the good gifts God has given me in daily life. Noticing what God is giving me has spilled over to noticing what people are giving me. Noticing, and then expressing thanks, are great intimacy builders, both with God and with friends.

David Stendl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote a book on thankfulness in prayer that lays out the way that giving and thanking build intimacy. In Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, he writes:

Why is it so difficult to acknowledge a gift as a gift? Here is the reason. When I admit that something is a gift, I admit my dependence on the giver. This may not sound that difficult, but there is something within us that bristles at the idea of dependence. . . . When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. [1]

When we ask for help in any form, we are asking for someone to give us something. We’re asking for a gift. Asking for a gift implies that we are depending on the giver, that we are dependent people. Thanking the person for the gift reinforces that dependence. When we thank the giver for that gift, we acknowledge the bond between us. Bonds between people are a form of dependence, and acknowledging our need for those kinds of bonds requires that we relinquish some of our pride in our own self-sufficiency.

I mentioned Daniel’s mother last week, who didn’t tell her family about a serious illness. She couldn’t face the idea that she might be dependent on another person, therefore she couldn’t ask for help. She missed out on the bond that forms between people when they give gifts to each other and express gratitude to each other.

Stendl-Rast believes that this bond that develops between giver and thanksgiver helps us understand the significance of gratitude in prayer. I have discovered his word to be true as I have grown in willingness to engage in prayers of thankfulness. Prayers of thankfulness acknowledge our dependence on God. Taking the time to notice all the ways God has blessed us and cared for us nurtures our relationship with God, because with each prayer of thankfulness we acknowledge that we need God.

(Next week: We belong together. 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 is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

[1] David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-16.

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Friday June 22 2018

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Daniel, in his sixties, was raised with notion that men are supposed to be independent and strong, able to meet their own needs. He jokes that the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock, I am in island” summarizes the philosophy of manhood he learned as a child. In his childhood, the stoicism encouraged for men spilled over to all of his family life. Even his mother was afraid to acknowledge weaknesses or needs. The shame of needing someone’s help was very strong.

People have told Daniel that asking others for help can be a way to build intimacy. He has found it difficult to act on that idea, but he has tried. He can see that the extreme self-reliance of his parents wasn’t good for them or for their children because it resulted in isolation and alienation from neighbors and family members.

Daniel volunteers with an international student ministry at the local university. The small group of students decided they would like to hold a retreat over spring break. As Daniel was praying about the possibility of holding a retreat, he remembered that a couple he knew from his church had a holiday cottage. He wondered if perhaps they might be willing to loan the cottage to the student group for the retreat.

He didn’t know the couple well, but he got up the courage to ask about the cottage. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and asked Daniel and his wife to meet them at the cottage for lunch a couple of weeks later.

The lunch was fun, and Daniel got a good preview of the cottage so he could begin to make plans for the retreat. As the retreat drew nearer, Daniel consulted with the couple about some of the plans for the retreat, and afterwards Daniel was able to share with them some of the good things that happened. All those conversations about the retreat drew Daniel closer to the couple, and after the retreat was over, Daniel realized he knew them much better. Asking for help had indeed increased intimacy and set him on a path toward friendship with that couple.

Friends ask for all sorts of things: help with physical projects, a listening ear when times are tough, prayer support in the midst of challenges, companionship in activities, a few moments to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem, and many other things. The give and take of asking and receiving is an integral part of friendship.

Why is asking so hard for so many people? I have observed that the most isolated people often have a hard time asking for help.

Daniel’s story illustrates the impact of the “rock and island” philosophy of being a man. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t figure it out on your own?” These words float around in Daniel’s head when he considers asking for help. The pride of being self sufficient is a strong motivator for many men, and it influences many women as well.

In fact, Daniel’s mother experienced as much, if not more, shame than Daniel’s father when she had needs. She found it excruciatingly difficult to ask for help or acknowledge a weakness. She experienced a major health crisis without telling her family members. When they found out about it many years later, they were stunned that she had not been able ask for support and encouragement in the midst of a medical challenge that could not possibly have been considered to be her fault. She died a lonely, isolated woman. Her inability to acknowledge her need for help played a significant role in her isolation.

Pride in self sufficiency and shame in asking for help are two major forces that make it difficult to admit we have needs. In addition, we may fear that our friends are too busy to help or have too many struggles of their own. We don’t want to impose on people who are already stretched. We don’t want to be a burden.

(Next week: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking. 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 is excerpted from my book, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

Thursday June 14 2018

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for more than a decade, but I recently had an aha experience about Sabbath keeping in my life and its connection to other spiritual practices.

Much of my speaking and writing about spiritual practices flows out of my own Sabbath observance. The Sabbath taught me how spiritual practices work: we know God loves us, so we set up structures in our lives to draw near to this God of abundant blessings.

When we were young adults, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months. Our apartment was in a Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, so everything was closed on the Sabbath day. Everything. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so it was a day with incredibly few options and a very slow pace.

For the first few months, we chafed at the sense of confinement, but later we relaxed into the rhythm of six days of activity and one day of vastly reduced options. When we returned to Seattle, more than 35 years ago, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. At that time, Christians weren’t talking about the Sabbath at all, so some of our friends thought we were a bit weird.

Some people told us we were legalistic. We were stunned by their comments, because we had experienced the slow pace and reduced options of the Sabbath as a major gift that we wanted to keep on receiving. Sure, the fourth commandment calls for a Sabbath, but we never experienced it as an onerous command. We had learned to receive it as a gift, and we wanted to keep receiving that gift.

My recent aha moment came when I compared Sabbath keeping to having a daily quiet time. In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that a daily quiet time with two specific components –  cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer – is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. As a young adult, I often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I succeeded only intermittently. I have felt a lot of guilt around my quiet time failures.

I think about my grandfather, who grew up in a family with a very rigid Sabbath practice. For his parents, a quiet Sunday Sabbath was non-negotiable, and my grandfather as an active little boy was forced to sit still for one whole day every week. My grandfather stopped attending church as a young man, and seldom darkened the door of a church for the rest of this life. Far from being a gift, for him the Sabbath was one of the factors that drove him from the church.

Encouragement to have a daily quiet time didn’t drive me from the church, but the guilt associated with my failure to measure up hasn’t done much to nurture my faith. Yet the Sabbath has taught me oceans about God’s grace and love for me. The Sabbath has been a factor in shaping me into a person who loves God, receives good gifts from God and tries to respond in faithful service. The Sabbath has helped me understand that my form of a daily quiet time (although I don't use that name for it) needs to involve stillness and silence, many forms of prayer in addition to intercessory prayer, and meditation on the Bible rather than cognitive study.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that this discipline and persistence need to be rooted in receiving practices as gifts rather than as obligations.

My questions of the day: what Christian practices in your life feel like a gift? Do you perceive any ways they are shaping you?

(Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Some resources about the Sabbath:

articles I've written about the Sabbath       
my Sabbath book              
my Sabbath Bible study guide                    
my book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping

Contrasts: Guests and hosts

Saturday June 9 2018

Contrasts: Guests and hosts

Two people meet a stranger on a road. As they walk together, the stranger gives them a new perspective on the Hebrew Scriptures. When they arrive at their home, they invite the stranger in for a meal.

At the meal, the stranger picks up bread, breaks it and hands it to the other two. In that moment, the stranger is revealed to be Jesus.

In the Road to Emmaus story (Luke 24:13-35), a guest at the meal – a stranger – briefly becomes the host, the Lord Jesus Christ. People who write and teach about hospitality call this the guest-host shift, and this shift changes the power dynamics in hospitality interactions.

Mother Teresa brought this shift to the world’s attention when she talked about meeting Jesus in the poor, sick and dying to whom she ministered. I can remember, back in the 1990s, feeling befuddled the first time I heard someone quote Mother Teresa about this. Meeting Jesus in someone we are helping seemed like such a strange idea. When we help people in need, aren’t we – the helpers – the ones who are acting like Jesus and representing him? How can the opposite be true?

Later, in the early 2000s when Christians began writing about the theological significance of hospitality, Mother Teresa’s ideas began to make more sense to me. I began to see the connections with Matthew 25. In verses 31 to 34, Jesus describes a scene where the Son of Man separates people into two categories, and the ones who are placed at Jesus’ right hand hear these words:

 “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (verses 34-36).

The people at Jesus’ right hand ask when they gave food, drink or a welcome to him. Jesus replies: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (verse 40).

When we host people in our homes for meals or extend a welcome of any kind to another person, we can expect that we might meet Jesus in that person. And if we are meeting Jesus in someone else, then that person in effect becomes the host because Jesus is the King and Lord of all.

Why does this matter? Extending care to another person has the tendency to promote the carer to a position of prominence. After all, we often say, “It’s better to give than to receive.” If I’m doing the giving, caring or welcoming, then I’m the generous one. I’m the one whose life is together enough that I have the resources to extend a helping hand. I’m not needy or vulnerable or weak. Look at me, I’m strong! Look at how wonderful I am!

Jesus turns this upside down. The person receiving care gives to the one who appears to be strong. In fact, the person receiving care takes the form of Jesus, revealing unexpected truth.

This Jesus, a man of humility, calls us to be humble in the same way. He calls us to watch for the ways he is revealed to us through unexpected people.

A prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, give us hospitable hearts. Help us to convey a warm welcome to people in all the settings of our lives. As we try to love people and as we receive love from others, help us to be open to the shift from host to guest, and also from guest to host. You are our model and the One who empowers us. Amen.

(Illustration by Dave Baab: buskers at the Dunedin Farmer's Market. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on hospitality:             
          Hospitality and listening                                                                
          Benedictine spirituality: hospitality, service and work