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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Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Wednesday April 6 2016

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Did you know that in many times and places in Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a season, not just a day? The Easter season goes from Easter Day to Pentecost Sunday (May 15 this year), a period of seven weeks. Because Jesus’ resurrection is such a huge, amazing, overwhelming, fantastic gift to us, focusing on it for seven weeks allows time to ponder many aspects of what we receive on Easter Day.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white to reflect the holiness and purity of Jesus, which enabled him to die in our place. White also symbolizes light. Jesus submitted to the darkness of the grave, and Easter morning he came back into the light, and his own light was again revealed. Paintings of Jesus after the resurrection often show him surrounded by light.

What spiritual practices are appropriate in a season of light and joy? This is a season of feasting, not fasting. Celebrate joy and light in whatever ways you can. Ponder, journal or talk with others about the joyful events of Easter and what they mean for you. Here are some suggestions for spiritual practices for the Easter season:

1. Practice thankfulness. Watch for God’s good gifts in your life and your loved one’s lives. Look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection life in events and people around you. Go out of your way to express gratitude and love to people who have cared for you. Pay attention to the small gifts of daily life, and thank God for them. To help you pay attention, consider starting (or re-starting) a thankfulness journal and commit to adding five items to the list each day. Or partner with others to talk through the things you’re thankful for every day. Be sure to pray your thanks as well.

2. Focus on light. Watch for the word “light” in scriptures, praise songs, hymns and poetry. Write a poem or statement about the ways Jesus is your light, and ask for further light in specific areas of your life and in the lives of loved ones. Use various names for God and Jesus in breath prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine your light on me” (John 8:12). “Jesus, bright morning star, guide my steps” (Revelation 22:16).  “Word of God, be the lamp to my feet and the light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). “Lord God, sun and shield, give me your light and protection” (Psalm 84:11). All of these prayers can be prayed for others as well as for yourself.

3. Ponder the fact that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways has Jesus freed you from that fear? In what ways would you like to experience more freedom? What do you think that might look like? Journal or talk with a friend about the role fear of death has played in your life. Pray your thanks, and pray for further growth in this area.

The seven-week Easter season nudges us to look at life through the lens of resurrection power and Jesus' pure light. Maybe you’ll think of additional ways to do that.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment (Psalm 104:1).

(Photo: Sunset in Bergen, Norway, by Ian Thomson. Next week I’ll begin a four-week series on “Sabbath Keeping a decade later.” I’ll write about what I’ve learned about the Sabbath in the decade since I wrote my book on that topic. 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.)

Jesus frees us from bondage at Easter

Wednesday March 30 2016

Jesus frees us from bondage at Easter

I have always loved Easter. As a child, it meant a new dress. Most years my mother and I pored over a clothing catalog, and I got to make the final decision. Easter meant a special meal including the pineapple/orange/coconut salad that tasted so good with ham. My beloved grandmother was born on Easter, and I often thought about how her caring personality fit with the mood of this amazing day of joy, celebration and love.

Later I learned about the deeper meaning of Easter. Jesus destroyed the power of death by dying and being raised from the dead, which gives us hope for heaven. For our life on earth, Jesus has freed “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). This is very good news for those who chase here and there pursuing all sorts of diversions to avoid facing a deep-rooted fear of death.

The bondage I experienced – from which I needed Jesus to free me – relates not to fear of death but to the expectations I had for my life. I always say I am a late bloomer. I worked on a seminary degree between ages 28 and 38, while my kids were young. I didn’t pursue ordination as a Presbyterian minister until I was 45. I started a PhD at 52, and got my first university teaching job when I was 55. I was raised to believe that a woman’s primary role is to be a good housewife and mother. It took a long time for Jesus’ resurrection power to free me from that belief, which may work fine for other women. For me, it was a form of bondage.

I love my husband and kids, and they are enormous gifts in my life. My gifts of analysis, thinking clearly and teaching were used in mothering, no doubt about it, but to be whole and to be my true self, I needed somewhere to use those gifts beyond the home. Now, late in life, I have arrived at the right place. Jesus, whose resurrection broke the power of every sort of bondage, has been bringing his resurrection power into my life over many years, and I can see such wonderful fruit of it now.

This Easter season, I have been thinking about the accounts of the resurrection in the four Gospels. They all vary somewhat, but they have a lot in common, including the fact that the women play a key role. A few of the women who followed Jesus came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and spices. They saw that the tomb was empty. They were first to receive the news of his resurrection, and they were entrusted with the message to take back to the other disciples. Women were asked to be witnesses to this life-changing event.

In Jesus’ time, only men could be witnesses in court. It takes some imagination to perceive the significance that these women were entrusted with a message to tell the disciples. In Jesus’ life on earth, he honoured everyone he came across: men, women, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, synagogue officials, Romans, and many others. At his resurrection, it is no accident that women – marginalized people in his culture – were entrusted with this powerful message. He longs to set us free from all the bondage that enslaves and marginalizes us, and his death and resurrection made that possible.

For me, a major form of bondage was my limited expectation of what I could do with my life. What forms of bondage limit your life? Jesus longs to bring his resurrection power into our lives to set us free from all bondage and enable us to use all our gifts to love the people around us and to meet the needs of our hurting world. Jesus wants to give us the joy of the abundant life we were created for, as the unique and beloved people God made us to be.

(Drawing by Dave Baab. Next week: Easter is a season, not a day, so I will suggest some spiritual practices for the Easter season. If you’d like to receive an email notice when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post first appeared in the Otago Daily Times.)

Hungry for more of God? Try fasting

Monday March 21 2016

Hungry for more of God? Try fasting

Anna is a skilled musician and music leader. A few years ago she felt called by God to fast from music for a year. She had no idea why, but the urging from God was strong. As the year went by, she found herself engaging in new forms of intercessory prayer. Now, long after the music fast ended and music is again a major part of her life, these forms of intercessory prayer have remained significant for her.

If you’re hungry for more of God, try fasting. Anna describes fasting as “tying a ribbon around my finger to remember God.” When we reach for the thing we are fasting from – food, coffee drinks, technology, music, shopping – we remember God is more important than those items or activities. We remember we are asking God to transform us and help us draw near.

Are you hungry for a deeper prayer life? Another person I interviewed for my book, Fasting, told me that whenever her prayer life seems stale, she fasts from news media for three days. Every time she reaches for the radio or newspaper, she prays instead. In the times when she would normally read the news online, she sits down with her Bible and prayer journal. She says that after three days of this pattern, she feels reconnected to God and recommitted to making prayer a central activity in her life.

Are you hungry for justice? Early Christians fasted from food in order to give that food to the poor. They drew on Isaiah 58:6-7 which defines a true fast as “to share your bread with the hungry.” Mother Teresa recommended fasting from shopping and from favorite activities in order to save money to give to people in need.

Do you hunger for a clearer sense of God’s priorities in your life? Consider fasting for a week from a favorite activity, such as Facebook, TV shows, movies, sitting in coffee shops or shopping. In the times that you would normally engage in those activities, do something different. Read your Bible, write in your journal, go for a walk in nature, or listen to music, and as you do that different thing, do some reflection on the pattern of your life and try to listen to God’s voice in your reflections.

Fasting is for a season, not forever. The benefit of fasting is that it changes the patterns of our daily lives, which jars us into attentiveness. We become more perceptive of what God is saying to us and how God is leading us. Because the pattern of our life is disrupted temporarily, we notice unexpected things and we see ordinary things differently. We draw near to God in new ways.

Throughout much of Christian history, fasting involved abstaining from all food or certain food items. With the rise of eating disorders, many people need to avoid fasting from food. And with the rise of many aspects of life that give pleasure or fill large blocks of time, people today fast from a wide variety of activities in addition to food.

The purpose of fasting is not to prove anything to God or ourselves. Instead, its purpose is to clear away some clutter so we can better see God, hear God and serve God. Fasting helps us act on our hunger for more of God.

Questions for reflection:
1. Have you ever fasted? What kind of hunger in your life did it address?
2. How would you finish this statement? More than anything else, in my life I hunger for . . .
3. Is there something you could give up for a day or a few days (now, in Holy Week, or at some other time) that would make space for that thing you hunger for?
4. Write a prayer about something you hunger for.

If you'd like to receive an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post first appeared on the Godspace blog.

Some resources on fasting:
                My book, Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond our Appetites 
                Articles about fasting posted on this website:
                                Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting
                                Freedom Isn’t Free
                                Fasting: An Invitation to Spiritual Freedom 
                                Fasting and Freedom 
                                Fasting Today

Benedictine Spirituality: Maureen’s story

Wednesday March 16 2016

Benedictine Spirituality: Maureen’s story

Maureen is 45 years old. She speaks at retreats, serves as a spiritual director for several individuals, and frequently teaches at her church.  Twice she has spent several days at a monastery.

It makes sense that I was around 40 when I first went to stay at a monastery. I was ready to explore God in new ways, not just through the mind. The time at the monastery helped me experience God in ways that were less cerebral, less focused on ideas about God, more focused on the ordinary stuff of life, the rhythms of work, play, and prayer. I experienced the rhythms of God’s care in everyday life.

On one of my trips to the monastery, someone I knew was there. It was the daughter of an old college friend of mine. I never expected to see her there. At the time, I was wrestling with mid-life issues. This young woman was the same age as her mother was when I knew her mother. Her presence there enabled me to confront aging in a way I wouldn’t otherwise have done.

When I go to a Benedictine abbey, I enter into something that is already happening. I don’t have to make it happen. The Scriptures in the prayer services are there for me without effort on my part, and there is often a connection between the Scriptures in the services and the issues God is speaking to me about. Often in my everyday life I feel guilty for not praying enough, but at the monastery it’s built in. There’s a real freedom to it.

The rhythm of the schedule at the monastery is comfortable for me in decompressing. It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the divine office – the prayer services – but I slowly begin to enter in.

The monks’ offer of extended hospitality is a true gift, allowing us to enter into a different pace and a different rhythm for a time, a rhythm based on God’s presence in everything.

It’s the pictures from the monastery that I hold on to. I can remember watching a monk mowing the grass in the middle of the track where I would run for exercise. He’s using one of those riding lawn mowers, and he goes slowly, stopping often to empty the container that holds the cut grass. He shows no hurry whatsoever. He works until the bell rings for prayer, and then he stops. He doesn’t work until the job is finished. It was such a contrast with the pace of my running. You really can’t get too compulsive about your work if you’re going to get interrupted over and over all day by the prayer services.

This is the last post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. I’ll conclude the series with a quotation from Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Todayby Elizabeth Canham:

Most of us are not called to the cloister, yet we find the practical common sense of St. Benedict and his commitment to finding the holy in the ordinary readily accessible to us. Even the three monastic vows, stability, conversion of life, obedience, translate readily to life in the world. All of us need an anchor, a place of inner security in the midst of a mobile, transitory world, but as we consent to stability, to being where we are instead of escaping into some temporary bolt-hole, we are called to conversion.

The earlier posts in this series about Benedictine spirituality were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life
     The third vow, obedience    
     Hospitality, service and work
     Balance and paradox

Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab. The photo is Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon, one of the several beautiful Benedictine monasteries where I have spent entered into monastic rhythms.

If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Benedictine spirituality: balance and paradox

Wednesday March 9 2016

Benedictine spirituality: balance and paradox

Esther de Waal, in her book Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, uses the language of paradox and contradiction to describe Benedict’s genius as he interprets the Gospel of Jesus Christ into everyday life. We are called to find God in this place and to seek the peace and discipline of stability, yet we are also called to grow and change and be willing to move. We are called to welcome strangers and accept them for who they are, yet we are not called to change our own priorities as we welcome them.

Many, including de Waal, use the word “balance” to describe the life patterns laid out by Benedict. We are called to prayer, work, study, and rest in fairly equal proportions. Each is important, but to overemphasize any one of them would be unhealthy. Benedict invites us to embrace the balance between community, where we live and work, and time alone for prayer and reflection. Benedict encourages us to engage in self-reflection without self-absorption and to strive for sincere repentance without dwelling excessively on our shortcomings.

Benedict calls us to a radical obedience that sees all of life as a response to God’s voice and God’s initiative, yet we are not encouraged to strain for that kind of obedience. In fact, Benedict encourages us to accept that we will fail as often as we succeed. We are called to believe that we have enough today, in this moment, while we also acknowledge that we are looking to heaven for our ultimate fulfillment. The grace of God overflows in every moment, in every place, and in every human life, and Benedict’s balance is firmly rooted in God’s character and God’s presence with us.

It is not surprising that so many people are finding joy and peace in visiting monasteries to pray and reflect on their lives. Many are choosing to be oblates, people who have made a commitment to be associated with a monastery without becoming monks or sisters. Benedict’s wisdom about a balanced life can give us restored perspective for our daily lives. His call to balance is particularly appropriate at midlife, when we realize we need to reevaluate all our scattered priorities and settle into a few disciplines that can serve us into the second half of life.

Those who are unable to visit a monastery may wonder how they can benefit from the Benedictine tradition. More churches and retreat centers are offering day-long prayer retreats, which can be a good way to start. An hour spent in an empty church on a weekday can provide a small taste of the silence and reflection that visitors to a monastery are able to experience.

The call to rhythm that is so much a part of monastic life can flow into our everyday lives if we are intentional. We can adopt habits of prayer that are connected to the events of our lives that happen every day. We can embrace the discipline of praying every day right after the kids leave for school, while we are waiting for the computer to boot up every morning, or when we get in the car to head home at the end of the day. We can read a psalm every night at bedtime.

As I have gotten older, I have come to appreciate praying before meals and before bedtime. When I was younger, I viewed “saying grace” as a perfunctory, legalistic pattern of behavior. Because life has speeded up with each passing year, I can see more clearly that praying regularly requires disciple. Because I have grown in appreciating the riches that rhythms can give us, I am now deeply grateful for my husband’s commitment throughout our marriage to pray before meals and to have an extended time of prayer together on our Sabbath day.

We can also spend some time considering Benedict’s call to a life of prayer, work and rest with a balance of solitude and community. Benedict’s three vows – stability, conversion of life, and obedience – are very relevant for daily life. Any Bible study group or support group can use Benedict’s priorities as a structure for holding each other accountable. At midlife, in the swirl of seemingly endless activities, the balance inherent in Benedict’s priorities and vows can help us slow down and find the meaning and depth that we long for.

This is the ninth post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life
     The third vow, obedience    
     Hospitality, service and work

Next week is the last post in this series, and it focuses on one woman's story of her experience with Benedictine spirituality. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

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