Draw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave BaabA 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 SpiritualityFriending

Lynne's Blog

The spiral upwards because of knowing God (and how to pray for it)

Friday August 21 2015

The spiral upwards because of knowing God (and how to pray for it)

Recently I got together with two old friends. We met 40 years ago next month! As old friends do, we talked about our children, our parents, our siblings. At some point, we moved onto the subject of praying for the needs of these central people in our lives. One of my friends enthused, “My favorite way to pray for the people in my family is to use that prayer from Colossians chapter 1, about being filled with the knowledge of God’s will in order to live lives worthy of the Lord. I pray it for my kids, and I often pray it for your kids, too. Sometimes I name one person at a time and pray the whole prayer for each person.”

She went on to say, “I even use those words to pray for non-Christians I know. After all, why wouldn’t it be good for them to be filled with wisdom so they can lead a life worthy of God?”

I think the prayer in Colossians 1 is deeply profound because it shows how, in the Christian life of faith, one thing builds on the next in a kind of spiral. Here’s the prayer:

We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light (Colossians 1:9-12).

The Apostle Paul prays for the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. What’s the purpose of that? In order to lead lives worthy of the Lord, which pleases God and enables us to bear good fruit. But note the idea that comes right after bearing fruit: “and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

Knowledge of God leads to a fruit-bearing life that pleases God, which involves further growth in the knowledge of God. It’s a spiral upwards.

Many of us are intimately acquainted with a spiral downwards. For me it looks like this: I eat too much, I feel angry at myself for eating too much, so I punish myself (or perhaps I’m soothing myself) by eating too much one more time. Then I feel bad, then I overeat some more. Down, down, down, until something interrupts the spiral.

My propensity for downward spirals has given me a great appreciation for the upward spiral described in Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1. Knowledge of God leads to good fruit which leads to further knowledge of God. Strength, endurance, patience, joy and thankfulness play a role in this spiral, as Paul indicates in the remainder of the prayer.

It’s worth noting that Paul was speaking out of his deep study of Jewish tradition. Remember that in the world of the Old Testament, the word “knowledge” didn’t refer only to concepts and abstract ideas. “Knowledge” was experiential and relational. A man “knew” his wife, a way of describing sexual intercourse (for example in Genesis 4:1).

The “knowledge of God’s will” that Paul refers to involves our whole being: heart, soul, mind and strength. We can pray for it for ourselves and others using the words from Paul’s prayer, and we can enter into a life-giving and joyous upward spiral.

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Creating alongside God

Friday August 14 2015

Creating alongside God

This week I published a novel, a murder mystery set in Dunedin, New Zealand, my adopted home town. The title is Death in Dunedin. Like me, the main character, Lena, is a Presbyterian minister from Seattle who moves to Dunedin, New Zealand. Her story diverges from mine pretty dramatically at that point. She’s on a church exchange, and soon after her arrival she finds a dead man in the church parking lot.

Since I normally write non-fiction, I want to spend a little time reflecting on the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction.

I LOVE studying something and then helping someone else learn it. I might help them learn by leading a discussion on the subject and steering the discussion in the direction that I think will help people grasp the content. That’s my primary teaching style. I also love explaining things clearly to help people learn. I view this attribute – loving to learn and then loving to help others learn the same material – as the key component of the spiritual gift of teaching (mentioned in Romans 12:7 and Ephesians 4:11). I believe teaching is my primary spiritual gift, and I believe I use that gift when in the classroom and in my writing.

So my style of writing non-fiction comes from my spiritual gift of teaching. I value clarity above all else. I want to help people see things more clearly and think more deeply.

Fiction is something different. Sure, I still value clarity in my fiction, but fiction mirrors God’s creativity in a way that writing non-fiction doesn’t. Theologians say that God created ex nihilo, meaning from nothing. Because humans have to use something in the created world in order to make something else from it, theologians say we cannot possibly create ex nihilo.

I agree with that statement theologically, but on a visceral level when I write fiction I feel that I am creating ex nihilo in a way that reflects God’s creativity. With non-fiction, I take ideas I have learned from books and interviews, and I synthesize them, organize them and clarify them. Writing non-fiction definitely doesn’t feel like creation ex nihilo.

With fiction, sure I’m taking words that I didn’t create and I’m using them to build a story. But my characters and what happens to them come out of my imagination. In fact, they seem to come to me from nothing. They are just there in my head. When I get an idea for a character and when that character’s actions and words come to me, it feels like I’m creating ex nihilo alongside God in a very, very small way. It’s the coolest feeling, thrilling and full of passion.

It’s clear to me that I write non-fiction better than fiction. But hey, my non-fiction is quite good (speaking in attempted modesty), so maybe my fiction is pretty good. Back in the early 90s I wrote 8 short stories and 4 novels. I’ve already revised and published two of those novels (Dead Sea and Deadly Murmurs). The novel I published this week was written in 2009, two years after we moved to New Zealand. The main character, Lena (also the heroine of Deadly Murmurs), enjoys learning things about New Zealand and explaining them clearly in blog posts (like me) but she is also intrepid physically with lots of energy for kind-hearted interchanges with people (unlike me).

I’m hoping to revise the other two novels I wrote twenty years ago and publish them, and I’d also like to publish a collection of my short stories. Someday.

Meanwhile, I’d encourage you to think about the forms of creativity that fill you with joy and that help you experience that feeling of creating alongside God, even if it’s in a very small way. Human creativity in myriad forms is one of the joys of life, and I think that’s because it helps us feel God’s companionship in a unique way.

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Trust and obey for there's no other way

Saturday August 8 2015

Trust and obey for there's no other way

Ten years ago my spiritual director began talking to me about trust in God. “Trust is something you need to focus on,” she said to me more than once. Several times after I described difficult situations and my conflicting emotions about them, she said, “You either trust God with this or you don’t.”

Her words about trust were like some obscure foreign language to me, maybe Sanskrit or Sioux. Sure, I’d been a Christian for several decades at that point. I’d studied the Bible and prayed in many different ways. I’d kept a Sabbath for many years and fasted many times. I’d written books on Christian spiritual practices. And I hadn’t done those things by rote. I really did desire to drawn near to God and I knew Christ was transforming me (slowly!) into his image.

But the word “trust” really didn’t resonate with me.

At that point, I was a PhD student hoping for a teaching job in a seminary. My husband and I were praying fervently for a place for me to teach, and I was doing a pretty good job of resting in God’s peace about our future. I was, in fact, trusting God for our future without using that word. (Evidently my spiritual director saw other areas where I was not trusting God very well!)

Because my spiritual director’s words about trust truly didn’t help me, challenge me or encourage me, I tuned them out. They were just confusing babble.

I wonder now if part of why I tuned them out was that I had always disliked a schmaltzy old hymn, “Trust and Obey.” The tune was sappy, and the words, which I viewed as overly simplistic, went like this: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus than to trust and obey.”

If I were to pick a word for what God is teaching me in 2015, trust might be that word. I find it amusing that each day I feel called by Jesus to trust him for so many things, and then to do the tasks of the day laid out for me, whatever they are. And to do those tasks in a spirit of trust and joy, not in a spirit of drudgery or irritation. If my call this day is to trust and then do what I’m supposed to do, then the words “trust and obey” work pretty well to express the goal for each day. It’s pretty amusing to circle back to a word recommended to me ten years ago and to a hymn from my early adult life that I never liked.

I’m writing about this because I want to encourage you about two things:

1. Never underestimate the significance of words of encouragement or exhortation you say to friends and family members. Maybe it will take ten years for those words to make sense to the hearer. Our job is to speak the truth in love in all situations and to leave the results up to God. Sometimes we say something to someone that we think is really important, and they totally disregard our words, which is frustrating. Maybe to them it sounds like we are speaking Sanskrit or Sioux. But maybe later on the words will have a clear meaning to them.

2. Never underestimate the effect of things you learned or heard in the past. God brings ideas and thoughts back to mind. God is in the business of transforming us into the image of Jesus Christ, and God will use an astonishing variety of things to do that, including words from a spiritual director ten years ago and words from a schmaltzy hymn.

Now, back to my central calling and privilege of the day, to trust and obey God.

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Let’s get creative with ACTS prayer

Thursday July 30 2015

Let’s get creative with ACTS prayer

I’ve been writing about ACTS prayer. Pray this way, my mentors said when I was a young adult. Begin with (1) adoration, because you’re entering into the presence of a holy God. Then (2) confession will come naturally because God’s holiness will make you aware of your own sin. After you confess your sin, you’ll be aware of God’s great mercy in redeeming us in Jesus Christ, so you’ll want to spend some time (3) thanking God. Only after all of that should you engage in (4) supplication, asking God to meet your own needs and the needs of those you love and care about.

I found ACTS prayer to be very helpful for both group and individual prayer. I have also found that it’s a bit limited. When I compare ACTS prayer to the psalms, often called the prayer book of the Bible, I find numerous ways the psalms are different than the pattern of ACTS prayer. So, let’s get creative and use the ACTS model as a springboard.

1. Let’s try TATATATA. Psalm 136 models this pattern. One way to define thankfulness prayers is that they focus on what God has done, in contrast with praise prayers that focus on who God is. Praise and thankfulness are very closely related with lots of overlap, but it’s still helpful to try to do both. Here’s an example of TATA prayer:

Thank you, God, for the food on our table today. You have provided for us so generously. In fact, you are a generous God, whose bounty overflows into our lives, and we praise you for your abundant love and generosity. Also, I want to thank you, God, for the people in my life who love me. I’m thinking especially of Francis, who helped me with my project at work yesterday. You are a relational God, and I praise you for the love between Father, Son and Spirit, and that you call us to enter into your love.

2. Let’s try CATS. Psalm 51 models this pattern in part. The psalmist comes into God’s presence with deep sorrow for sin, begging for forgiveness. By verse 15, the mood shifts to praise: “O Lord, open my lips and my mouth will declare your praise.”

3. Let’s try TSTSTSTS. I believe prayers where we spend most of our time asking God to meet our needs or the needs of others can merge into a kind of consumeristic approach to the Christian faith: give me what I need and want. This tendency can be moderated by generous applications of thankfulness. Being thankful requires that we pay attention to what God is already doing. I like to begin my prayers of request with some thankfulness for God’s work in the situation that I already see. An example of TSTS prayer:

Lord, thank you for helping us in the first leg of our long trip. You kept us safe, you helped us sleep on the plane, and you gave us an interesting person to talk to in the airport lounge. For the remainder of the trip, please help us not to be anxious, help us to trust you, help us to arrive safely. As we travel we’re thinking about our friend, Jane. Loving God, thank you for all you’ve done to make Jane’s surgery go well. Thanks for the surgeon and the recovery room care that was so gentle. Now we pray for the remainder of her time in the hospital. Help her to heal well.

4. Let’s try adding statements of commitment to our prayers. ACTS doesn’t provide a structure to do that, but statements of commitment are a big part of the prayers in the psalms. Psalm 130 provides an example. The psalm begins with words of pain: “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice!” By verse 5 the psalmist is speaking out words of commitment: “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope; my soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch for the morning.”

Also missing in ACTS are silence and lament, which provide even more options for creativity with ACTS prayer. Maybe you’ll be able to think of other ways to get creative with ACTS. Whatever we do in prayer, God welcomes us warmly as we bring our praises, confessions, thanks and requests.

(Watercolor by Dave Baab - Paihia Beach, Bay of Islands, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive updates when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post appeared last week on the Godspace blog.)

Earlier posts on prayer:

Thinking analytically about ACTS prayer
ACTS prayer in the light of the psalms
Let's rediscover (or discover) lament
Celtic Christianity: Wholistic prayer
Two options for what to do when the news overwhelms you
Breath Prayer
The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices

The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 2
Psalm for 2014

Let's rediscover (or discover) lament

Thursday July 23 2015

Let's rediscover (or discover) lament

I’ve been writing about ACTS prayer (adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication). Last week I compared ACTS prayer to the Psalms, and noted that lament prayers are common in the psalms, but ACTS leaves no room for lament. In fact, lament is pretty rare in most kinds of prayer today.

A few weeks ago I was on our church’s roster to do the “prayer for others” in Sunday worship, and I decided to try a lament. I chose a psalm of lament, Psalm 10. That week I had read a powerful article about the record number of displaced people in our time. It seemed to me that displaced people feature in so many sad news items these days: the people dying in boats in the Mediterranean and in the seas in Southeast Asia, the victims of violence in so many countries, and those who suffer the most from income inequality. So I paired the psalm with the news article. Be sure to note that this lament, like most, makes a flip at the end, expressing trust in God despite the situation being described.

For the "prayer for others," here's what I read:

Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
   Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—
   let them be caught in the schemes they have devised.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
   those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord.
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say, ‘God will not seek it out’;
   all their thoughts are, ‘There is no God.’

UNITED NATIONS — Nearly 60 million people have been driven from their homes by war and persecution, an unprecedented global exodus that has burdened fragile countries with waves of newcomers and littered deserts and seas with the bodies of those who died trying to reach safety.

The new figures, released by the United Nations refugee agency, paint a staggering picture of a world where new conflicts are erupting and old ones are refusing to subside, driving up the total number of displaced people to a record 59.5 million by the end of 2014.

The wicked prosper at all times;
   your judgements are on high, out of their sight;
   as for their foes, they scoff at them.
They think in their heart, ‘We shall not be moved;
   throughout all generations we shall not meet adversity.’
Their mouths are filled with cursing and deceit and oppression;
   under their tongues are mischief and iniquity.
They sit in ambush in the villages;
   in hiding-places they murder the innocent.

Half of the displaced are children.

Nearly 14 million people were newly displaced in 2014, according to the annual report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In other words, tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their homes every day and “seek protection elsewhere” last year, the report found.

That included 11 million people who are scattered within the borders of their own countries, the highest figure ever recorded in the agency’s 50-year history.

Their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
   they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert;
they lurk that they may seize the poor;
   they seize the poor and drag them off in their net.
They stoop, they crouch,
   and the helpless fall by their might.
They think in their heart, ‘God has forgotten,
   he has hidden his face, he will never see it.’

Tens of millions of others fled in previous years and remain stuck, sometimes for decades, unable to go home or find a permanent new one, according to the refugee agency. They include the more than 2.5 million displaced in the Darfur region of Sudan, and the 1.5 million Afghans still living in Pakistan.

When refugees flee their own countries, most of them wind up in the world’s less-developed nations, with Turkey, Iran and Pakistan hosting the largest numbers.

One in four refugees now finds shelter in the world’s poorest countries, with Ethiopia and Kenya taking many more refugees than, say, Britain, France, the United States or New Zealand.

Rise up, O Lord; O God, lift up your hand;
   do not forget the oppressed.
Why do the wicked renounce God,
   and say in their hearts, ‘You will not call us to account’?
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
   that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
   you have been the helper of the orphan.
Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;
   seek out their wickedness until you find none.
The Lord is king forever and ever;
   the nations shall perish from his land.
O Lord, you will hear the desire of the meek;
   you will strengthen their heart, you will incline your ear
to do justice for the orphan and the oppressed,
   so that those from earth may strike terror no more.

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