A Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

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Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

Wednesday October 12 2016

Quotations I love: Paul Tournier on building good out of evil

The most wonderful thing in this world is not the good that we can accomplish, but the fact that good can come out of the evil that we do. . . . Our vocation, I believe, is to build good out of evil. For if we try to build good out of good, we are in danger of running out of material.
          —Paul Tournier

My father was an air force pilot, an officer. His precision as a pilot kept him safe while flying fighter planes in World War 2 and while flying cargo planes in the decades after the war. My mother excelled socially. She was and is a hostess extraordinaire, serving guests beautiful food in a well kept home. She thrived at bridge games and charity events. Apart from about 15 extra pounds my father gained in his 30s and could never lose, my parents never gave me the slightest indication that they had any flaws or weaknesses.

I grew up expecting to excel at everything I undertook. I was an outstanding student, Girl Scout and piano player. Imagine my frustration when I couldn’t get rid of my extra pounds and failed to measure up to my slim and well dressed mother. And then when I fell into depression in my first pregnancy – a depression caused by a vitamin deficiency that lasted off and on for 16 years – I was utterly confounded by my weakness, failure and inability to excel.

As you can see, the quotation above from Paul Tournier evokes a lot of reflection for me. For a person raised in a seemingly perfect family, with high expectations to replicate it, Tournier’s words are unsettling, yet also somehow reassuring.

I remember a startling moment when I was a young mother in the midst of my recurring bouts of depression. One of my friends said to me, “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

I said, “What in the world do you mean?”

She replied, “I’ve been thinking about thank-you notes. I’m not good at keeping beautiful cards handy. I’m not good at writing eloquent notes. I’ve learned it’s better to take some white paper and write, ‘Thanks for the gift,’ and throw it in a plain envelope and mail it, rather than wait around until I can do it perfectly. Because I’ll wait around forever and the note will never get in the mail. So, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing poorly.”

In my family, if you thought you might do something poorly, you didn’t even attempt it. The ability to do many things well creates a myth that our efforts – human efforts in general – can be good and lovely and close to perfect.

In a departmental seminar last week, one of my colleagues said, “There is no part of our efforts that doesn’t stand in need of redemption.” He was responding to the seminar speaker, who had said that God’s truth, beauty and goodness are evident in creation but are also marred by sin in every setting and every action.

The poorly written thank-you note shows a lack of care – a form of brokenness and sin – even as it affirms the value of the gift and the preciousness of the connection between gift and giver. In a very small way, that’s good coming from evil. But does the eloquent thank-you note, written on a lovely card, also need redemption? Perhaps there’s some pride or paternalism or self-aggrandizement in it. Perhaps I can’t identify the part of my beautifully written thank-you note that is in need of redemption, but just because I can’t see any aspect of brokenness there doesn’t mean my action isn’t in need of God’s grace and redemption.

I’ve focused here on thank-you notes, a small and increasingly disregarded part of daily life. I could have talked about other “small” things like meals, clothing or sports. I could have talked about “big” things like jobs, ministries, parenting or marriage. But no matter what aspect of life we talk about, increasingly I see that there is no part of my life that does not need redemption. Yes, we are in danger of running out of good material to work with, whatever we do. Paul Tournier’s words help me remember my need of God every moment.

(Next week: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with. Photo of my father with his P-51 during World War 2. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

Thursday October 6 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

"Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true."
           —Thomas Merton

I love the idea of a transparent world. I love thinking about ways I can see God’s character, beauty and creativity “shining through” the things, people and events of our world. But I’m not wild about the word “divine.” I looked up the word, and found two definitions: (1) like God and (2) very pleasing, delightful. This makes me wonder if “divine” is the right word for what Thomas Merton is trying to say here. I think he’s saying that God shines through this transparent world. What we see shining through is not something like God. It is God.

The definition of divine, “very pleasing, delightful,” is worth pondering. Christians have majored on intercessory prayer, not prayers of praise and thanks. Maybe if we looked more carefully at the world around us to see the pleasing and delightful aspects, we would see God's presence more clearly and engage in more prayers of praise and thanks. (I wrote two weeks ago about a Eugene Peterson quotation about paying attention.)

While I was thinking about what I wanted to say about Merton's words, I happened to look through my vast collection of quotations to find some more to use in the weeks to come. I found two that echo Merton’s thoughts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
                        —Elizabeth Barrett Browning [1]

“God’s love is the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the light we see. All natural phenomena are different material forms of the love of God. . . . God’s love surrounds us, but we do not feel it, anymore than we feel the pressure of the atmosphere.
                         —Ernesto Cardenal, Abide in Love

These last two quotations imply that it’s not easy to see God’s love surrounding us or to recognize common things “afire with God.” Part of what I love about all the talk about mindfulness these days is the encouragement to stop right now, in this moment, and pay attention. For the rest of this post, I’ll write about the ways I have recently seen God’s love surrounding me and common things afire with God. Maybe my words will encourage you to write down (or draw! sing!) some of the places where you have seen God shining through the transparent world.

1. Flowers. It’s spring in New Zealand, and we’ve got trees and bushes covered with flowers. We’re at the end of the daffodils and the beginning of the tulips. We’ve had a bunch of sunny days in a row, and when I see sunlight shining through blossoms, I see God’s creativity and beauty.

2. Birds. I recently visited an aviary, and the colors of the parrots and parakeets made me smile. We have three blackbirds nesting in trees near our house, and it’s been a delight to see the mama birds flying back and forth with bits of grass in their beaks, while the papa birds stand sentinel. God created beautiful birds.

3. Activists. I feel shame and guilt at how little activism I have done over my lifespan to fight for things I care about. I love to read about activists, and I often see God’s passion and energy in them.

4. Children. Their pure skin, clear eyes and energetic movements give me deep joy, and I rejoice that God made such diversity in his children.

5. Poetry. Such creativity with words must reflect the creativity of God.

6. Art. Colors, shapes, lines curved and straight. I thank God that he gave us eyes.

7. Human kindness. I love seeing people extend love and care to others, reflecting God’s character in their actions.

I could list so many more: skies, clouds, the moon and stars; baby lambs and ducklings; chocolate, fruit, a good salad, roast beef; cool water to drink, warm water for bathing, a fluffy towel and clean clothes; dogs, cats and other pets; my home, my desk, my bed, the sofa, the kitchen, the table where we eat.

I’m sure you’ll think of other things. To paraphrase Thomas Merton: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God’s character, beauty and creativity are shining through it all the time. Our job is to pay attention.

(Next week: Paul Tournier on bringing good out of evil. 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.)

[1] The quotation comes from a poem entitled “Aurora Leigh,” which you can read here.

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

Friday September 30 2016

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

“There is a moment between intending to pray and actually praying that is as stark and silent as any moment in our lives. It is the split second between thinking about prayer and really praying. . . . How easy it is, and yet – between us and the possibility of prayer there seems to be a great gulf fixed: an abyss of our own making that separates us from God.” – Emilie Griffin [1]

It is no accident that throughout history, Jews and Christians have prayed at meals and at bedtime. Humans are creatures of habit, and we do anything more easily when it’s connected to a life rhythm so it can become habitual. When I was a child, my parents, my brother or I said a memorized grace every night at dinner, and my mom sat with me at bedtime and encouraged me to say a memorized prayer. With these memorized prayers at meals and at bedtime, did we make the leap from perfunctory words – intending to pray – to actually praying? I think sometimes we did.

I collect stories about people’s actual spiritual practices, and I’ve heard about praying while:
     watering flower pots
     taking a shower
     taking a deep breath after children go off to school
     driving past a school or hospital
     hearing an ambulance or rescue helicopter
     gardening
     walking
     swimming laps
     washing dishes
     waiting in line

One of the more intriguing stories I heard recently is a fellow who has set his cell phone to make a beautiful bell sound at 9 am, noon and 3 pm. When he hears the sound, he stops what he’s doing and prays – briefly or not so briefly.

My husband Dave and I say grace together every night at dinner, but I wish I were better at thanking God for food when I eat alone. At various times in my life, I’ve had habits of praying while walking outside to get the mail, doing laundry and flossing my teeth. I recently read an article in the New York Times about linking mindfulness meditation to brushing teeth. The same could be done with prayer. (The article made me feel better about my somewhat weird praying-while-flossing habit!)

I always pray after I turn out the light at night. I wonder if that practice is rooted in those bland prayers I prayed every night as a child with my mother. Surely every Christian parent who prays at bedtime with children hopes that the habit will stick.

If you have trouble getting from thinking about praying to actually praying, I encourage you to ponder your daily habits and patterns. Which habits could you link to prayer? People of faith throughout the centuries have found it helpful to make a connection between daily patterns of life and prayer. New habits take a while to develop, but eventually the new action (prayer) becomes linked to the already existing pattern of life.

A second suggestion for making the leap from thinking about praying to actually praying relates to our need for God. Someone once told me there are basically only two prayers: "thank you" and "help me." I’ve written many times about prayers of thanks which can easily be connected to daily habits (see the list below), so I’ll say something here about the significance of considering our need for God.

What exactly do I need from God? Lots of things! Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to express my need for God in the simplest manner possible, and I’ve come up with four basic needs:
     comfort
     guidance
     empowerment/energy
     a sense of God’s presence

I find that when I can name what I need from God, it’s easier to make the leap from intending to pray to actually praying.

Ultimately, the character of God is our biggest invitation to prayer: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 3:15, 16). Here’s the Message version of the same verses: “He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”

(Next week: a quotation by Thomas Merton on the divine shining through everyday life. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on thankfulness:
     A thankfulness challenge    
     Another thankfulness challenge    
     Thankfulness and sentness    
     Regret and fear are thieves    

[1] Foster, Richard J. & Yanni, Kathryn A., Celebrating the Disciplines: A Journal Workbook to Accompany Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper Collins Publishers: 1992), 14.

Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

Thursday September 22 2016

Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

"I think the pastor's chief job is not to get something done but to pay attention to what's going on, and to be able to name it, and to encourage it – nobody else is going to do that."
              – interview with Eugene Peterson [1]

When my kids were in elementary school, I read a book on parenting that made an interesting suggestion. The author wrote that compliments should focus on what the child had done, rather than just saying, “great job” or “beautiful painting.” Compliments like this would help the child be motivated to do more of the same, the author suggested: “You put a lot of time into that tree you drew. Look at the leaves and the fruit!” “I watched you welcome that new girl into the group. You showed kindness to her.” “I see careful and precise writing on this homework assignment.”

That book changed the way I complimented my kids, husband, friends and family members. Later, when I was a minister in a congregation, the fact that I had been practicing those kinds of specific compliments helped me pay attention to what was going on. I tried to notice what people were doing well in their congregational ministries and in other activities, and I worked hard to find specific things to notice and mention.

This week one of my Māori students mentioned a Māori proverb: He tāngata kitea, he tāngata ora – A person seen is a person alive. Part of what I love about my husband, Dave, is that he sees me. He notices moments when I show love or kindness to people, and he mentions those moments to me later. When I speak or preach, if he’s in the audience or congregation, he often tells me something I said that he appreciates. This noticing makes me feel so loved, and I feel encouraged to continue to do the same kinds of things.

In the interview where Eugene Peterson said the words above, he was contrasting the role of pastors in getting things done versus being the kind of person who notices what God is doing through the people and the community. I wonder if most of us focus too much on getting things done in our roles as parents, spouses and friends. I wonder if focusing most of the time on the task at hand mutes the ability to see the other person – child, spouse, friends, family members – and what God is doing in them and through them.

What are the spiritual practices that help us see? Last week I wrote about the challenges of focusing on the past with faith and the future with hope, as well as living in the present as much as possible. The practices I mentioned last week – including breath prayer, thankfulness, reflecting on helpful scriptures – can also help us see because they show us down, help us set aside fear and regret so we can be more present to each moment.

Here are some things to watch for in the actions of people we love:

1. Acts of kindness.

2. Creative activities in many areas of life.

3. Acts of perseverance, faithfulness and risk.

4. Innate personality attributes and how they manifest themselves (such as seeing the big picture, being good with details, thinking analytically, considering the impact of actions on people, being organized, being flexible).

Then, after you see these things, mention them to the person in your life. Let that person know that you see him or her. A person seen is a person alive. A person seen feels encouraged to show more love, act more faithfully and use their gifts more often and more fully.

(Next week: moving from that moment of thinking about praying to actually praying. Watercolor by Dave Baab, the wonderful husband I mentioned above. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] from a talk at Catalyst West, 2011 about being formed as a pastor. You can listen to it here.

Quotations I love: regret and fear are thieves

Friday September 16 2016

Quotations I love: regret and fear are thieves

“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” Fulton Oursler, American Journalist (1893-1952)

I love the metaphor of the thieves. Engaging in regret for the past or fear of the future is like a thief sweeping through our mind stealing important things. What gets stolen when regret and fear dominate our thoughts? Joy in the present. The ability to see God’s hand at work. Gratitude for good gifts. Hope for the future based in God’s goodness.

The quotation highlights three challenges: (1) to see the past with faith and gratitude, (2) to see the future with hope and (3) to look for God’s presence and companionship in the present as much as possible. I want to suggest some spiritual practices for each of these challenges.

1. See the past with faith and gratitude

a. Sometimes regrets about the past are rooted in a sense of guilt and shame. God offers us full and abundant forgiveness, but sometimes we find it hard to receive that forgiveness. My suggestion: write down the specific sources of guilt or shame that contribute to your sense of regret about the past. When I am having a hard time feeling forgiven, I find Psalms 32, 51 and 130 helpful. Read your list of sources of guilt or shame, then pray one of the psalms I’ve mentioned. If a verse in the psalm jumps out at you, post it on your bathroom mirror. Dwell in God’s forgiveness.

b. Sometimes regrets about the past aren’t rooted in sin or shame, they’re just regrets about situations we wish we’d handled differently. Think about – or talk with a friend about – a situation where you wish you had responded differently. List as many aspects of the situation that you are thankful for. Note where God was present in the situation and where you experienced God’s guidance or comfort. Let those gifts from God exist in your memory alongside the aspects you wish you had done differently. You may want to pray Psalm103:1-5 as a way to think about God’s blessings to you, even when there are regrets about some aspects of a situation.

2. See the future with hope

a. In the midst of anxiety, many people find the Serenity Prayer helpful. It was written around 1934 by Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s a great prayer to memorize. Pray it several times slowly:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

b. Pick a scripture about peace or hope. Memorize it or post it in your car, by your desk, on your bedside table or beside the kitchen sink. Repeat it to yourself and let it sink into your heart. Here are two possibilities for passages to use: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

3. Look for God’s presence and companionship in the present

a. Breath prayer is one of the best ways to be present in each moment. Slow your breathing and focus on each breath. In God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Ponder the fact that you depend on God for each breath, and God gives you that breath in generosity and love. Breathe deeply and slowly, and rest in God’s presence and goodness that surrounds you.

b. Thankfulness is another great way to be present to God’s gifts in each moment. When you stop at a traffic light, stand in line at the bank, wait for a website to download or step outside to get your mail, look around and name several things that come to you as a gift. Or focus on all the individual parts of your body that are working well (even if some parts aren't working so well!), and thank God for each of them. “Wonderful are your works, that I know very well” (Psalm 139:14)

These are just a very few ideas. What helps you rejoice in the past and look forward to the future with trust? What helps you abide in Christ in the present moment?

(Next week: a quotation from Eugene Peterson about a pastor’s chief job, which I think relates to the chief job of a parent, family member and friend. Watercolor painting of Lake Hawea, New Zealand, 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.)

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