Advent DevotionalA 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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Some Christmas thoughts from the Southern Hemisphere

Tuesday December 20 2016

Some Christmas thoughts from the Southern Hemisphere

The fruit and vegetable stand down the street offers the opportunity to order some special foods for Christmas. What’s on the list? Strawberries and raspberries. For my Northern Hemisphere readers, have you ever considered those fruits to be essential at Christmas?

Here in New Zealand, the ad flyers in December feature “Christmas specials” on picnic supplies, patio furniture and barbecues. The first time I saw one of those flyers, I had a profound sense of disorientation. Now, after almost a decade of living down under, I can see that Christmas in the summer offers some lovely fuel for contemplation.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog post in an Advent series answering these questions: Who do I want to bring to the manger? Who might otherwise be excluded? My unexpected answer: my body. For much of my Christian journey, I have been a bit dislocated from my body. A summer Christmas helps address that issue.

Christmas in the summer is all about being physical: playing Frisbee in the park, walking on beautiful beaches, enjoying the extravagant roses in the Botanic Garden, taking long, leisurely bike rides. With so many fruits and vegetables in season, it’s harder to want to cook pies or heavy winter food.

With so much light and warmth, getting outside to enjoy God’s creation is easier. Jesus came to earth to redeem the whole creation, and a summer Christmas can remind us of that. All the opportunities for exercise in a summer Christmas connect us with our bodies, which Jesus came to redeem. I have a sense of a holistic Christmas here in New Zealand: Jesus came for the sake of the physical world – including my body – as well as the spiritual world.

Last week I wrote a post for the Godspace blog about Santa Lucia Day, which is celebrated on December 13 in the Scandinavian countries. In the old Gregorian calendar, December 13 was the winter solstice. Santa Lucia, or Saint Lucy, was a young Christian who was martyred for her faith in 304. She wore candles on her head so her hands would be free to carry food to Christians in the catacombs. The light of those candles shone in the darkness of the catacombs, just like the light of Christ shines in the darkness of this word’s sin and brokenness.

In the northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, lights in the darkness are a great picture for Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. But I have experienced the long, bright December days here in New Zealand to be a different and equally powerful reminder of what Jesus has done for us. He has brought abundant light into our lives – bright and long-lasting light that leaves no room at all for darkness.

Sadly, in New Zealand society and even in the church here, the meaning of Christmas is often lost because of the bustle and busyness. If December in the Northern Hemisphere is busy, December in New Zealand is busy squared. The academic year ends in November or December, so Advent is full of year-end plays and musical productions and graduations. Families are getting ready for their summer vacations, and I know I spend a lot of energy on getting ready to go on vacation. Add into that mix Christmas shopping and preparation for family gatherings at Christmas, and no time is left for Advent reflection or the kind of quiet that nurtures a deep understanding of how a summer Christmas might speak to us of the meaning of the incarnation.

Whether you live in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, I want to encourage you to take some time in the days before or after Christmas to reflect on what it means to you that Jesus came to earth. Take a walk, sit on a bench in a garden, light a candle, or just lay in bed before or after sleeping. Wherever you live, think about these questions: What does the metaphor of Jesus’ light shining in the darkness mean to you? In what ways do long bright summer days with lots of physical activity speak to you of Jesus’ coming to earth?

I wish you wonderful moments of gratitude for Jesus.

(Next week: four quotations about thankfulness, the last post in my series on quotations I love. Illustration by Dave Baab: December Roses in Auckland. 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: Richard Halverson on being sent

Wednesday December 14 2016

Quotations I love: Richard Halverson on being sent

“You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you there. Wherever you are, God has put you there. He has a purpose in your being there. Christ, who indwells in you, has something He wants to do through you, wherever you are. Believe this, and go in His grace, and love and power.”
—Rev. Dr. Richard C. Halverson’s Benediction, U.S. Senate Chaplain from 1981 to 1994

Imagine hearing this benediction every Sunday. How would it shape the way you go into your week? How would it change the way you view your circumstances?

I first heard these words a few years ago at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where indeed the congregation hears this benediction many Sundays each year. I loved it so much I contacted the minister, Doug Kelly, to thank him for it, and he told me that he got it from Richard Halverson, a former Senate chaplain.

Why is this benediction so encouraging to me? The word “sent” is central to the Christian faith, but we often believe that missionaries are the sent ones, and the rest of us are stuck in our everyday lives. There are significant and especially holy Christians, we often believe, like Mother Teresa and people who really do make a big difference in the world, but the rest of us somehow less significant. Certainly, we may be trying to obey God where we are, but we can easily feel that our efforts are so small compared with people whose ministries really matter.

Halverson’s words affirm that every single person has been sent by God wherever they go and wherever they are. If we want to be a follower of Jesus, then we can be assured that wherever we are, God wants to do something through us. God, in fact, has put us in the place where we are and has a purpose in our being here.

These ideas are deeply rooted in the New Testament. In his prayer for his disciples in John 17, Jesus says, “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (verse 18). On the day of the resurrection, when Jesus first gives the Holy Spirit to the disciples, he says very similar words (John 20:21).

The Latin word for “send” is “missio.” That’s the word we get “mission” from. Sadly, we have come to believe that some Christians have a mission – especially missionaries and people in paid Christian ministry – but the rest of us somehow live a different kind of life.

A favorite book that addresses these issues uses the word “sentness” in its title and throughout the book: Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians by Kim Hammond and Darren Chronshaw. They argue that all Christians are sent into the world like Jesus was.

The word “mission” gets us into trouble because it evokes missionaries and corporate mission statements. I love the word “sentness” to describe a profound reality for each and every Christian, no matter how insignificant we consider our work or everyday life to be.

Take my life, and let it be
consecrated, Lord, to Thee . . .
Take my hands, and let them move
At the impulse of Thy love . . .
Take  my feet and let them be
Swift and beautiful for Thee . . .
Take my lips and let them be
Filled with messages from Thee.
Take my intellect, and use
Every power as Thou shalt choose. . . .
Take my self and I will be
ever, only, all for thee.
—Frances Ridley Havergal (1874)

(Next week: some Christmas thoughts. The week after that: five quotations about thankfulness, the last post in this series of quotations I love. Illustration by Dave Baab, the view east from Columbia Tower in downtown Seattle. Seattle is the city where God sent us for the most years of our life. 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 15th post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts: 
Secrets and compassion    
Four Quotations about attention            
Breton Fisherman’s Prayer  
Arnold Glasow on feeling at home with people  
A. W. Tozer on worship that illuminates work  
The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Thomas Aqinas on loving people we disagree with  

Paul Tournier on building good out of evil 
Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Moving from intending to pray to actually praying  
Eugene Peterson on paying attention  
Regret and fear are thieves  
Rick Warren on love and disagreement  
Henri Nouwen on being beloved
 

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

Wednesday December 7 2016

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world.”—Frank Warren

This quotation makes me ask myself three questions:
1. When people tell me their secrets, do I listen well?
2. Do I keep confidentiality?
3. When I suspect that someone has a painful secret, do I respect their right not to tell me about it while still treating them with compassion?

I’ll write about the questions in reverse order. My third question highlights a difficult balancing act. We can use our imagination too little or too much when we think about people’s lives. If we use our imagination too little, we don’t put ourselves in the place of people who have experienced difficult things, and compassion is difficult or impossible. I see imagination and compassion as closely related. Both need to be consciously cultivated.

However, if we imagine too much, we might read something into someone’s life that simply isn’t or wasn’t there. Imagine that you have a grumpy colleague, and it seems likely to you that this person was sexually abused as a child. But maybe not, and the person doesn’t seem inclined to tell you about the past. Frank Warren seems to be advocating compassion whether or not we know the other person’s story, simply because most people have stories that would break our hearts.

Regarding confidentiality, my second question above, don’t forget that gossip is listed twice in the New Testament in lists of sins (Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:2). Proverbs 11:13 uses the language of “trustworthy in spirit” for the kind of person I want to be: “A gossipgoes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (NRSV). Some other translations of that verse in Proverbs use “faithful in spirit,” and The Message uses “a person of integrity.”

Gossip is one of the easiest sins to engage in because so often gossip seems innocent. And of course, talking about other people’s needs can play a role in caring. For Christians, the boundary between gossip and sharing a prayer request is pretty blurry. In addition, the deliciousness of gossip plays such a big part in what we call “news,” so we become numb to the consequences of it.

People’s stories belong to them, not to us. If we want people to honor us with their stories, we need to honor the people who tell the stories and let them decide with whom to share the story.

And that brings me to the topic of listening, my first question above. I’ve written so many posts and articles about listening, and I’ll paste in a list below. Good listening skills really do help people talk through events that might have become secrets with the passage of time. And those secrets usually have less power and become less heart-breaking when talked about in the presence of a good listener. Careful, respectful and compassionate listening conveys love.

Frank Warren, in the quotation above, is asking for us to remember that people have painful secrets whether we know what they are or not. He seems to be saying that when we remember the presence of those secrets, we will have more compassion and tolerate differences with more love. This seems like a good idea in our politically polarized world.

(Next week: a beautiful benediction that encourages us to believe God has a purpose in our being where we already are. Illustration, "Paihia Beach," 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.)

Posts and articles on listening:

Listening past the noise
Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others      
John Perkins listened     
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players   

a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

Quotations I love: Bishop Desmond Tutu on hope

Thursday December 1 2016

Quotations I love: Bishop Desmond Tutu on hope

“Hope is being able to see there is light despite all of the darkness.” —Desmond Tutu

In 2010, I had a weird physical ailment. My left foot was cold all the time, and my energy was low. Over the course of the year, my foot got colder and my energy dropped lower. In the second half of the year, I cut back my work hours and began medical testing. I was pretty sure I had a brain tumor, but the brain MRI was normal. The neurologist I was seeing couldn’t find anything wrong. The months dragged on, and the medical testing also dragged on.

On March 5, 2011, some elders from church came over to pray for me. Within days, my energy started coming back and my foot stopped being cold. This was the only medical miracle I have ever personally experienced. What a gift.

I was very grateful for God’s miraculous healing. But I was numb and a bit raw from months of not feeling well. It was as if all of my sense of hope was stripped away. So I decided to focus on hope for the remainder of the year.

I bought myself a ring with anchors on it. “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure” (Hebrews 6:19). I wore the ring all the time, and when I looked at it, I pondered what exactly hope is. I began noticing the word “hope” all over the place, in poems, hymns and people’s spoken and written words. Emily Dickinson’s words about hope are often quoted:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers  – 
That perches in the soul – 
And sings the tune without the words – 
And never stops – at all.

In those months of recovery from my mysterious illness, there was nothing with feathers perching on my soul. I just couldn’t get ahold of hope.

The months went by, the numbness and rawness receded, and slowly but surely I began to feel some flickers of hope again. I kept thinking about the line in a praise song, “In Christ alone, my hope is found,” and a line in an old hymn (a hymn that I never liked), “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Ultimately I decided that my hope is in Christ, and that’s really all I can say about it.

I think I’m still a little bit hope impaired. I read words like these of Desmond Tutu: “Iam a prisoner of hope. Yes, many awful things happen in the world. But many good things have happened and are happening.” I find myself wondering what it would be like to feel like a prisoner of hope.

I recently did a survey of the 165 verses in the Bible about hope. I learned that Bishop Tutu’s words about being a “prisoner of hope” are a quotation from Zechariah 9:12. I found that rooting my sense of hope in Christ has biblical precedent. The psalmist writes, “You, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O Lord, from my youth” (Psalm 71:5). Paul calls Jesus “our hope” in 1 Timothy 1:1.

I found numerous verses that imply that hope is a choice. We choose where we will set our hope.

“We have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people” (1 Timothy 4:10).
“Set all your hope on the grace that Jesus Christ will bring you when he is revealed” (1 Peter 1.13).
“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:11, 12).

The psalms link hope with God’s love and God’s word:

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, 
on those who hope in his steadfast love. . . .
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
even as we hope in you. (Psalm 33: 18, 22)

My soul languishes for your salvation;
I hope in your word. . . .
You are my hiding-place and my shield;
I hope in your word. (Psalm 119: 81, 114)

The Bible has a lot more to say about hope. I’m giving you a bonus quotation from Colossians 1 below, a chapter that mentions hope three times.

Since 2011, while I’ve been pondering hope, I think I’ve done one thing wrong and one thing right. I have fallen into the error of thinking that something is wrong with me because I have felt limited emotions of hope. But I have definitely tried to live in God’s love, faithful to God’s word, and from the scriptures I looked up, it sounds like I have been setting my hope on God, without naming my actions that way.

“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).

(“Faith, hope and love” watercolour by Dave Baab. Next week: Frank Warren on secrets and compassion. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Bonus quotation:
“In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. . . . And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him—provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard. . . . I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:3-5, 21-23, 25-27).

This is the 14th post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts:   
Four Quotations about attention            
Breton Fisherman’s Prayer  
Arnold Glasow on feeling at home with people  
A. W. Tozer on worship that illuminates work  
The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Thomas Aqinas on loving people we disagree with  

Paul Tournier on building good out of evil 
Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Moving from intending to pray to actually praying  
Eugene Peterson on paying attention  
Regret and fear are thieves  
Rick Warren on love and disagreement  
Henri Nouwen on being beloved
 

Quotations I love: Four quotations about attention

Thursday November 24 2016

Quotations I love: Four quotations about attention

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”—Simone Weil

I’ve used Simone Weil’s words often when I write or teach about listening. When we listen well, we are paying attention to another person’s priorities, values, feelings and thoughts.

The notion of paying attention includes listening, but attention matters in many other areas of life.

“Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks for nothing but our attention.”—William Butler Yeats

This Yeats quotation is wonderful to ponder, journal about or discuss in a group. What does it look like to pay attention in the way Yeats is describing here? I bet a group could list a couple dozen ways, including paying attention to what God is doing in the lives of the people around us, noticing answers to prayer, and being attentive to the ways God speaks to us through nature, the Bible, our conscience and other people.

I would also love to discuss with a group the connection Yeats highlights between purity of heart and paying attention. How are purity of heart and paying attention related?

“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”—Mary Oliver

Maybe Mary Oliver’s words illuminate the connection between purity of heart and attention. To pay attention and be astonished requires some level of simplicity, a kind of humility or purity of heart that enables us to respond with wonder and astonishment.

Mary Oliver indicates that speech should follow attention and astonishment. I wrote a few weeks ago about paying attention to specific things other people do, so that we can give compliments that reflect precisely what we have seen, rather than general compliments like “good job.” So I would argue that one major form of doing what Mary Oliver suggests is helping others see what we see in them and in their actions.

A second form of speaking about what we have noticed and been astonished by involves witnessing. When we pay attention to what God is doing in our lives and in others’ lives, when we are astonished and grateful at what God has done, it is natural for us to speak about what we have experienced.

I have always believed that some Christians have spiritual gifts in evangelism (which I do not have), but that all Christians are called to be witnesses to what we have seen, heard and experienced in our life with God. Several years I wrote an article on that subject, and I just dug it out and posted in the articles section of this website. You can read it here.

The final quotation for this post focuses on the attitude of heart that is required for us to pay attention to where God is and what God is doing in every situation.

“Lord, give me an open heart to find you everywhere.”—Mother Teresa

How can we do what Mother Teresa suggests here – find God everywhere – unless we are paying attention? Her words are a prayer, and her prayer acknowledges that we need God’s help to have the kind of open heart that looks for God.

(Next week: Desmond Tutu on hope. 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 is the 13th post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts:         
Breton Fisherman’s Prayer  
Arnold Glasow on feeling at home with people  
A. W. Tozer on worship that illuminates work  
The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Thomas Aqinas on loving people we disagree with  

Paul Tournier on building good out of evil 
Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Moving from intending to pray to actually praying  
Eugene Peterson on paying attention  
Regret and fear are thieves  
Rick Warren on love and disagreement  
Henri Nouwen on being beloved
 

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