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

Lynne's Blog

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

Friday October 23 2015

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

The human brain loves to find patterns even when none exist. This explains the popularity of conspiracy theories, some of which must be false. (Only some of them? See, I can’t say, “all of which are false”! I love patterns and categories as much as the next person!)

We can use the human love of patterns to nurture our prayer life and to help us observe the pattern of our spiritual growth. Here are three ideas:

1. “Word for the year.” Some people advocate picking a word in January that you want to have as the theme for your year. My experience is that words pick me, not the other way around. In 2012 and 2013, the word I kept coming back to was “receptivity.” It was so helpful in understanding that God was calling me to pay attention to where the Holy Spirit was guiding me and to where God was already working in my life, rather than always trying to direct things myself or to see what’s missing in my life. I wrote sections in two of my books, Joy Together and The Power of Listening, about receptivity.

In 2014, the word “joy” was forced on me by the Caring Bridge posts of a wonderful (and joyous) man, Steve Hayner. His posts while he was dealing with terminal cancer were the single biggest source of spiritual growth for me in 2014. Those posts have been turned into a book, Joy in the Journey, which I highly recommend.

Suggestion: Look back at last year, or an earlier year, and ponder whether there’s a word that captures what God was doing in your life. Take that word and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

2. Daily, weekly, monthly or yearly highlights. What was the best thing that happened yesterday? Last week? Last month? Last year? “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). We miss so much because we don’t take the time to look and remember. My favorite Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”

Suggestion: Use the human propensity to find patterns to help you see the pattern of God’s blessing in your life. Then turn those highlights into prayers of thanks.

3. Theme for the decade. I can see very clearly the major life lesson God was teaching me in my 50s: you cannot change another person. You can speak your own truth, you can say how another person’s behavior affects you, and you can encourage others to change. But you cannot change them. I can’t believe I was in my 50s before I learned this. I would have been a much better mother if I had learned it earlier. This big life lesson has helped me pray and speak differently in so many relationships, and I am a happier (more joyous!) person because of it.

Because I can see so clearly my biggest life lesson from my 50s, I’ve been thinking perhaps I can identify a major life lesson from each decade of life.

Suggestion: look at your life in decades or in five-year blocks and see if you can identify a major life lesson in some of them. Take that life lesson and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

The human propensity to see patterns can help us see the patterns of gifts and growth in our lives, which can help us pray and act in new ways. Let your brain’s love of patterns serve your growth in faith. “For you, Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4).

(Photo credit: John Mawurndjul, “Mardayin Ceremony 2000,” Gallery New South Wales. I love Australian Aboriginal art, and I’m sure it’s because I love the patterns. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

Sunday October 18 2015

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

After four years of focusing a lot of my pondering and writing on good listening skills, I was quite struck by these biting words from broadcast journalist Barbara Walters in her 1970 book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything:  

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.

A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.

She does acknowledge that sometimes all we can do is listen:

There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. . . .  Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race. . . .

When you’re with someone who has had a recent loss, and who wants to talk of nothing else, you’re going to have to compose yourself for patient, sympathetic listening. Life isn’t easy; every conversation can’t be a joy. And in later years, he’ll remember gratefully that you listened when he needed you most.

All grief is not for the dead. People show the same symptoms of grief — lassitude, preoccupation with one topic, a general grayness — when they have been through mutilating surgery, or when a marriage or a love affair ends before they were ready, or when they’ve just moved from a place where they lived long and happily, or when their self-esteem has been punctured by the loss of a job or failure to be chosen for an expected honor.

Be tender; let them tell you how rotten they feel, and what a lousy world this is. Don’t argue and try to point out that they have no problems. Sometimes as with teenagers just sympathetically saying, “I know, I know,” helps.

Walters evidently would agree with me that having excellent listening skills in your communication tool box is a great idea if you want to show love to people around you, especially when they are suffering from loss. I wonder if sometimes I focus more on listening and less on conversation because I assume that most people are grieving something most of the time, and my job is to help them talk that through. Therefore I default into drawing people out and listening carefully rather than trying to assure my conversations are truly conversations, as she describes in the first two paragraphs I quoted. 

I’d love to hear comments from readers of this post: How do you know when to stop drawing others out by mostly listening and instead engage in back-and-forth conversation? And what do you think are the components of a good conversation? What can we do to nurture good conversations?

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sing up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. I am grateful for two posts on the blog “Brain Pickings” that drew my attention to Barbara Walters’s book and to these particularly quotations, here and here).

 

Here's a complete list of all the posts on listening on my blog. Maybe one of these posts will interest you:

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance
Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

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?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
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

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance

Thursday October 8 2015

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance

Many months ago, a friend of mine was asked to lead music at an international conference. She was happy to say yes, and she immediately contacted people who had helped her lead music at conferences in the past to see if they would be willing to come along and help. None of them were available.

She prefers to lead singing with a team rather than alone, even though she is quite capable of doing it alone, so she wondered what to do next. Should she cast the net wide and contact everyone she knows who leads music? Or should she pray and wait to see how God led her?

She chose the latter path. She began praying for God’s guidance and asked others to pray. I was one of those friends praying for music leaders to go with her overseas to the conference.

Last Sunday I saw her in person and asked her if she had found anyone to go with her. She said, “Yes, I did. I had a dream, and in that dream I saw this particular fellow leading music. I contacted him, and both he and his wife were eager to come on the trip with me. It turns out they have several connections with the country where the conference will be held. And unbeknownst to me, God had already been speaking to them about a return visit.”

She then added, “I love that God allowed me to dream about him leading music. What I don’t like to tell people is that I had the dream when I fell asleep during a massage.”

Perceiving God’s guidance from a dream is not at all uncommon in the Bible or in Christian history. I doubt that many of those dreams happened during a massage! I want to make several observations from this story that made me smile.

1. My friend was quite blessed that her dream was so clear. So many dreams are hard to figure out. We must never say that dreams are easy to interpret and should always be clear. But God does speak clearly through dreams from time to time, and we need to be open to that reality.

2. My friend had been actively praying for guidance about musicians who could come on the trip with her, and she had asked other people to pray for guidance as well. We can’t say God only speaks to us when we are praying to hear God’s voice, because God initiates with people in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of circumstances. But anecdotally in my own life, and from reports in other people’s lives, God often seems to speak to us when we’ve been asking for guidance of some sort. And our prayers open us to listen, giving us expectant hearts.

3. Maybe it’s not an accident that my friend had this dream during a massage. She was relaxed, having given control over to the massage therapist for an hour. She was probably more in touch with her body than usual (before she fell asleep!). Relaxation and being in touch with our bodies makes us very present to the sensory experience of the moment, and often God is seems especially present to us when we are present to the world God created. And often we are more able to hear God speak when we relinquish some of the control we love to exercise.

Watching for patterns can help us be more open to hearing God’s voice. So, with the goal of seeing patterns, I’ll ask what you have observed in your own life. Do you hear God more easily

  • about topics you have prayed for?
  • when you’re in touch with nature or your body?
  • when you relinquish control?

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

I’ve been posting a lot about listening recently. Here are most of the posts:
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?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
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

John Perkins listened

Friday October 2 2015

John Perkins listened

One of the adults who went along on a church youth group mission trip told me an amazing story. The Seattle youth group went to Mississippi in July to spend a week learning about racial reconciliation. Each morning, Dr. John M. Perkins spoke to the group about Christian perspectives on reconciliation. Dr. Perkins is an 85-year-old civil rights leader who has received an astonishing 13 honorary doctorate degrees for his work.

On the first and second mornings of the youth mission trip, Dr. Perkins gave an overview of racial reconciliation to the group. Both mornings, as an aside, he mentioned how deeply disturbed he was by the recent Supreme Court decision about gay marriage.

The views on gay marriage in the youth group covered the entire spectrum. Some of the teenagers were glad that Dr. Perkins reinforced their views, but others were quite offended by his words, and the adult leaders of the trip spent time talking through the issue with those students. On the third day, two of the adult leaders – Scott Gronholz, the youth pastor and Lynne Blessing, the church missions pastor – talked with Dr. Perkins about what was going on in the group, simply to encourage him to avoid the topic of gay marriage for the rest of the week.

Here’s what happened next, as described by Scott, the youth group leader, in a church newsletter article:

On Thursday morning Dr. Perkins’ words altered the entire trip for the better and probably altered the lives of everyone in the room. Dr. Perkins sat down and read from 1 Timothy 1:15 which says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” He then slowly lifted his gaze to us and gently yet deliberately said, “I have sinned this week.” There was an audible gasp from the audience and the energy in the room instantly transformed. I don’t know how to describe what it felt like. I can only say that the room suddenly felt Holy; like the presence of the Holy Spirit was instantly palpable and something special and important was happening. Dr. Perkins proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes apologizing to our group. He said that he had vowed early in his life to be an instrument of love and that he had not done that on this trip. He said that he was sorry and that he needed our forgiveness. To be clear, throughout his entire talk he never once said that he was changing his opinion on gay marriage or that he felt sorry about his convictions and interpretation of scripture. He did humbly admit that the Supreme Court decision was a paradigm shift and that he has inadequate language to talk about it. Finally, he got on his knees in front of us and again asked for forgiveness. He then said that he was going to broaden his ministry to emphasize reconciliation for all people and not just different races. He said that this next phase of his ministry was going to take a lot of work and asked us all to pray for him. At that point he laid flat on the ground and asked us to lay hands on him, which of course we did.

Dr. Perkins listened. He paid attention to the report of how his words affected the teenagers. He repented. But remember, he didn’t repent of his view on gay marriage. He didn’t change his beliefs about it. He repented for the way his expression of his opinion had offended others.

By listening, he learned that expressing his views had made some of his guests uncomfortable, and in the context of host he believed that was unacceptable, so he needed to ask for forgiveness. Scott described the significance of this moment: “John Perkins showed us a path towards real and authentic community where, while there may be disagreement, division and disunity don’t have to be the end of the story.”

One of the biggest obstacles to listening is the fear that if we understand another person’s point of view, we will have to adopt it. Dr. Perkins demonstrated the kind of listening that is deeply concerned about harmony between people who may continue to have different convictions on a subject but who can still experience unity.

I wrote an article about the kinds of inner noise that impede listening, including the fear that if we acknowledge or understand another person’s point of view, we will have to change our own beliefs. This fear of listening and understanding is very real and impedes loving relationships in so many ways.

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

Other posts about listening on this blog:
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?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
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

Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

Friday September 25 2015

Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

“The whole world is singing but we’ve stopped listening.” Those words show up in a cool video showing a sound and light exhibition at the United Nations about species loss. A friend sent the link to me in response to my two recent posts about listening. (One of my posts recommended a game about listening and the other suggested that as we listen, we view ourselves as detectives.)

I’ve been interested in creation care as an aspect of Christian discipleship for a long time, but I had never before explored the connections between my listening research and God’s call to steward and tend the beautiful created world. Yet the notion of creation speaking (implying that humans can listen to it) is present in one of my favorite scriptures about creation, Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.

What are the heavens saying? If we listen, what is the message they would speak to us? Joseph Addison wrote a hymn in 1712 expressing his interpretation of Psalm 19. Later, the words were set to music by Haydn, making the hymn memorable. (You can listen to it here.) As you read the words of this hymn, watch for all the listening that Addison implies that we might engage in as we pay attention to the skies:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s powers display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty Hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
While all the stars that round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Addison followed the pattern of Psalm 19 and focused on the “voice” of the sun, moon and stars. If we listened to the animals and plants of the earth, what would they say? Or the mountains, rivers, fields, forests and seas? Or even the bacteria, viruses and other microscopic beings?

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical about stewardship of creation entitled “On Care for our Common Home,” included a poem with the words, “The poor and the Earth are crying out.” If they are crying out, are we listening? Do the poor and the earth sometimes cry out with the same message?

What are the implications of hearing clearly from creation that “the hand that made us is divine”? If God made something, does that imply we are responsible to care for it? I believe the answer is a strong yes, and that Christians need to spend more energy exploring what that looks like in practice.

(Here’s an article I wrote about spiritual practices that nurture creation care. If you’d like to get an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. The watercolor painting above is by Dave Baab and called “Queenstown Snow.”)

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