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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Thankfulness and sentness

Thursday December 10 2015

Thankfulness and sentness

When I was a young adult I got to hear John Stott speak about Jesus’ last words to his disciples in John 13 to 17. I remember so many things about those four talks at Urbana 76.

In John 17:18, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Stott talked about this verse as a foundation that helps us understand what we are called to do on this earth. The notion of being sent into the world as Jesus was sent helps us understand our mission.

A brief note about Bible translation helps us understand the connection between John 17:18 and mission. As early as two centuries after Jesus said those words, Christians begin to translate the New Testament into Latin. (It was originally written in Greek.) And the Latin word for “sent” is “missio.” That’s the word from which we get “mission.” So mission is all about sentness.

It’s easy to think that mission is something done only by missionaries. Or that mission is something a bit exotic and strange that we only do occasionally, when we can gird up our loins to engage in something difficult and awkward. Instead, John Stott’s perspective that influenced me so much is that every day we are called to understand our sentness and live into it.

I’ve been writing on thankfulness the past two weeks, and I want to continue that theme by writing here about how thankfulness helps us participate in God’s mission. I believe that thankfulness helps us notice what God is already doing, so we can participate in God’s work in the world. Without thankfulness, we focus too much on what is lacking, which can be overwhelming.

There’s a lot of talk these days about figuring out where God is at work so we can join in. How can we do that without thankfulness? Here’s an example. Suppose you are deeply concerned about a cousin who has cancer. You get regular updates so you can pray, you bring meals over and you try to be helpful as you can.

Imagine that you engage in some thankfulness prayers for the situation. As you scan around for things to be thankful for – admittedly a hard thing to do when you are very worried about someone – you find yourself thanking God that this illness has brought your cousin closer to her sister. The two of them had always had a difficult relationship, and now they are finding more common ground.

How does this relate to mission? Maybe instead of bringing meals over, you could do something to help the patient and her sister have more time together. Or maybe when you bring the meals over you could say something like, “I’m hoping that maybe you can invite your sister over to share this meal with you.” Or, “Maybe this meal will free up some time for you so you can spend it with your sister.” Thankfulness helps us see what God is already doing so we can join in.

Thankfulness helps us see beyond the needs in any given situation, which are often so disheartening. Thankfulness prayers give us hope, because we see the small (and sometimes big) things that make a difference. Thankfulness prayers help us find motivation and energy to enter into God’s mission because they help us see the wonderful ways God is already working.

What a cool invitation from God. We get to participate in God’s work! And thankfulness helps us join in with hope and joy.

(Here’s a fabulous book that explains clearly and vividly the theme of being sent – Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians by Kim Hammond and Darren Cronshaw. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on this blog about thankfulness:

A thankfulness challenge 
Another thankfulness challenge  
Growing in thankfulness  
Drawing near to God by noticing patterns
A cat with a noble character

Another thankfulness challenge

Wednesday December 2 2015

Another thankfulness challenge

On the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband Dave said to me, “I found the most amazing passage. It really helps explain why thankfulness matters.”

Here’s the passage, Deuteronomy 8:11-18:

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.

After Dave read it to me, he said, “Part of what thankfulness does is exactly what is described here. It helps remind us that everything good we have came to us as a gift from God. Thankfulness helps us avoid boasting about our own prowess, exalting ourselves. It helps us remember God.”

I wrote last week about a thankfulness challenge. I got some interesting responses on Facebook. My friend Steve wrote,

Really good point about how prayers of thanksgiving help us keep God in the center. It’s so easy to think that the sole reason God exists is to do good things for us! Pretty crazy when it's put like that, but if we’re honest, that's the way we act and talk much of the time.

My friend Margui wrote,

What struck me in your blog was that our prayers of Thanksgiving remind us of what we have versus what we do not have. This is such a powerful act for our spiritual and emotional health.

So, to summarize Dave, Steve and Margui’s comments, here are some profound reasons why thankfulness matters:

1. It keeps us from exalting ourselves.
2. It helps us remember that everything good in our lives comes from God.
3. It helps us keep God at the center.
4. It helps us focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have.

These ideas are intimately connected with each other. If I’m not going to exalt myself, I have space to be able to exalt God, which helps keep God at the center. If I remember that God give me all the good things in my life, then it’s easier to keep God at the center. But if I’m not going to exalt myself for my competence and achievements, I might shift my focus onto what I’m lacking in my life rather than what I have. Thankfulness keeps the focus on what I have rather than what I don’t have, but I remember it all comes from God.

I am convinced that the consistent practice of thankfulness is one of the most important spiritual practices we can engage in. It shapes our heart in so many good ways. My thankfulness challenge for you this week is to identify the areas of your life where you might sometimes get cocky about your own competence, prowess and achievements. In that area, spend some time daily for the next week thanking God for the blessings you have received.

(The illustration is a watercolor by Dave Baab, and the telescope is a good image to remind us that thankfulness helps us see God at work in our lives. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

A thankfulness challenge

Thursday November 26 2015

A thankfulness challenge

In this week when most Americans are thinking about thankfulness a bit more than usual, I have a suggestion. A challenge, really. Consider trying this: Pick two situations that you are concerned about – one personal/local and one international – and spend time thanking God for everything you can dream up related to that situation.

Suppose the personal/local situation you’re concerned about is your sister’s cancer treatment. Your prayer might go like this:

God, I am concerned about my sister. I want to take some time to thank you for all the signs of your presence in the situation. Thank you that she likes her oncologist so much. Thank you that the side effects of the chemo are localized to only a few days after each treatment. Thank you that several of her friends are coming to visit so often. Thank you that you’ve given me some really good talks with her. Thank you that my work schedule is light enough right now that I can visit her often.

Now, maybe there are a bunch of really scary things going on with your sister’s situation, and maybe the majority of the time you pray desperately for those things. Those desperate prayers are perfectly appropriate. God loves us so much that God wants to hear the deepest desires of our hearts. But the thankfulness prayers are also appropriate because they help us shift our focus toward God’s goodness in the situation.

Pick an international situation as well. It’s a bit harder to think of as many positive things when the news is so awful, but here you can use your imagination a bit. Suppose you want to focus on the killings in Paris. Maybe you'll say something like:

Lord, I am so sad about Paris. But in the midst of all the painful news, I want to affirm that you are at work there, like you are at work in every situation on earth. I see signs of the love you implanted in humans when I hear about the people who opened their homes to strangers that night. Thank you for everyone in Paris who showed care and support for others. I know people all over the world have prayed for Paris. Thank you for Christians who pray for people in need. Thank you for these signs of your presence in all situations.

Why do these kinds of thankfulness prayers matter? At the same time that I affirm the significance and value of pouring out our pain to God, I also want to say that intercessory prayers can connect us with our consumer culture, where my needs and wants are preeminent. We don’t want to view God primarily as someone who meets our own needs and wants. God is Lord of the whole earth, majestic in spendor, overflowing with steadfast love, free to act in whatever way is best for us. God is at the center, not us.

Prayers of thankfulness shift our focus away from what we don’t have to what we do have. Thankfulness prayers help us see God’s many and abundant gifts. Thankfulness prayers give us new eyes. And thankfulness prayers help us keep God at the center. 

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
   to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
   and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
   to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
   at the works of your hands I sing for joy (Psalm 92:1-4).

(Photo credit: Ian Thomson. Sunset in Bergen, Norway. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the left hand column.)

Spiritual practices that helps us journey

Friday November 20 2015

Spiritual practices that helps us journey

The first time I walked a labyrinth, there were about six other people walking it at the same time. I found myself bemused by the parallels between my walk in the labyrinth and my journey of faith. At some moments walking the labyrinth, a person would be beside me, walking on his or her own path right beside mine. Then our paths would diverge. I was reminded of close friends from certain points in my life, friends who shaped me and cared for me, but who have moved away and who I seldom see. Yes, we got to walk together for a while, but our journeys diverged.

That first labyrinth I walked was modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres, France. The path winds all over the place, and it feels like there’s no progress toward the center. In fact, there’s a section of the path furthest from the center. You walk on that outer rim, then take one turn, and boom, you’ve gotten to the center. This seemed so much like my life. Often I feel far from God, but my life takes a turn and suddenly God is present and real.

The time at the center of a labyrinth is quite special. You’ve walked a winding path to get there, and now you can stop for a minute to think and pray. Sometimes some other people are in the center with you. Maybe you don’t know them, but they know God too, so they are sisters and brothers. You are resting together in God’s presence, knowing you have to rejoin the path pretty soon and keep walking. That time at the center is like Sunday worship or other communal experiences of worship and prayer, a pause in the week to regroup with others before going back onto the journey. I may not know everyone who’s in church with me on Sunday, but together we are enjoying God’s presence in that pause from daily life.

A labyrinth is only one spiritual practice that evokes the notion of life as a journey. What are some of the other spiritual practices that help us experience the journey-like aspect of life with God?

1. The Stations of the Cross. In the medieval period, very few people could travel to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorsa with Jesus. Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross helps everyday Christians to walk with Jesus to the cross.

2. Praying while walking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been preoccupied, upset or angry about something. I set out on a walk, pondering and praying as I go, and when I get home, my perspective has completely changed. That one brief hour seems to expand to represent a long faith journey.

3. A thankfulness list or journal or prayers of gratitude. Writing down, naming or praying things we’re thankful for has at least two benefits. It helps us in the moment as we write, but it also helps later on when we refer back to the list. We can see the pattern of the way God has led us and blessed us on our journey.

4. A prayer request list or journal. In the same was as described in #3, referring back to prayer requests, and checking them off when they’re answered, is a great way to see the pattern in our journey of faith.

5. Pilgrimage. Whenever we take a physical journey for a spiritual purpose, that trip becomes a pilgrimage. We might visit a childhood home or school, a retreat center where God met us in a special way, or the setting of a significant life event. A pilgrimage is a physical journey that helps us see the journey God is leading us on in life.

6.Examen. In this ancient prayer form, we are invited to look back over a period of time, perhaps one day, and look for God’s presence and also for the moments when we resisted God’s presence. Doing examen with some regularity enables us to see patterns in the places and times where we meet God and the places and times we resist God.

I wrote last week about the ways that the journey metaphor works so well to help us see moments and purpose in the life of faith. Many spiritual practices help us experience life as a journey.

(Illustration: The path under spring flowers by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Why “journey” works so well as a metaphor for faith

Thursday November 12 2015

Why “journey” works so well as a metaphor for faith

The Bible is full of journeys – Abraham, the Exodus, the Exile and the return to Jerusalem, Paul’s missionary journeys – but you’ll seldom if ever hear the Bible referring to the life of faith as a journey. We, however, use that metaphor all the time. We say things like, “In my faith journey, God has used so many circumstances to teach me about trust.” We talk about God “walking with us” in hard times. We might say something like, “I’ve come a long way in my faith since my father died.” All of these statements evoke faith as a journey.

“Journey” is such a helpful metaphor, and I want to point out a few reasons why.

1. “Journey” focuses on the process of getting there, not the arrival. Christians are being transformed into Christ’s image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is a process that continues throughout our earthly life. On earth, we never arrive but we continually grow closer to who we were created to be. When we talk about faith as a journey, we are emphasizing progress, not perfection.

2. A journey implies changes, transitions, challenges and adventures. I’m sure my desire for comfort, stability and outward peace isn’t unique to me. When I think of my life in Christ as a journey, I am more open to meeting God in the unexpected. I am less likely to resist change and challenge.

3. Many human journeys involve travel companions. Sometimes our travel companions accompany us on the entire trip, and other times we meet up with a short-term travel companion. In many instances, travel is quite difficult on our own and significantly easier with a companion, someone to open doors when we’re juggling baggage, someone who knows the language to translate a menu in a foreign country or someone to chat with about the scenery. When I think about my life of faith as a journey, I pay attention to the travel companions God has given me.

4. When we travel, we often need to lighten our load. Simplicity is a very helpful practice when travelling, and simplicity is also a very helpful practice when walking with Jesus through life. Maybe I need to jettison my attachment to some of my possessions. Maybe I need to let go of anger and bitterness about someone or something. As I look back over many years of walking with Jesus, I can see how many attitudes and presuppositions God has helped me relinquish.

5. When we travel, we get to experience the wonder of the guest-host shift. When we receive the hospitality of others, we are the guest. But sometimes the guest makes a contribution to the host, shifting the role. Jesus was a master of this. On the first Easter, in Emmaus, Jesus is invited into a home. At the table he breaks the bread and is revealed to be the Host (Luke 24:13-35). In many small ways, guest and host shift back and forth in many settings, and this is one of the gifts of the journey. We all give, and we all receive.

The biggest and most significant journey story in the Bible is Jesus leaving heaven and coming to earth for our sake, to live and die and be raised again so that we can live in him. Jesus asks us to journey with him into family relationships, friendships, work, neighborhoods, and the broken world. Jesus asks us to trust him as he gives us companions and calls us to lighten our loads. The Holy Spirit works in us so we can grow into Jesus’ image on the journey and so can reach journey’s end.

(Watercolor by Dave Baab. 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 originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

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