Lynne is a Presbyterian minister and author of numerous books and Bible study guides. She lives in Seattle. Read more »
Soon before she left her position in New Zealand as senior lecturer in pastoral theology, Lynne recorded a one-minute video for her departmental website describing what's most important to her in her writing and teaching.
Lynne spoke last year on "Spiritual Practices for Preachers" (recorded as a video on YouTube.) The talk is relevant to anyone in ministry and focuses on how to draw near to God simply as a child of God as well as engaging in spiritual practices for the sake of ministry.
"Lynne's writing is beautiful. Her tone has such a note of hope and excitement about growth. It is gentle and affirming."
— a reader
"Dear Dr. Baab, You changed my life. It is only through God’s gift of the sabbath that I feel in my heart and soul that God loves me apart from anything I do."
— a reader of Sabbath Keeping
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Thursday October 2 2014
Imagine you’re in a committee or church board meeting, and you’re discussing a possible new direction for mission. You long to experience God’s guidance in the decision. What can you do as a group to hear God speak to you?
In my most recentt blog post, I addressed the question of how Christians hear God speak. In this post I want to narrow down to consider how we hear God speak to us communally. A few years ago I interviewed 63 ministers and congregational leaders in the United States and the United Kingdom about listening, and one of my interview questions related to communal listening to God’s guidance. I’ll summarize two of the issues the interviews raised in my mind.
1. I heard a lot of stories about listening to God communally through the Bible. Many congregations have small group Bible studies where participants wrestle with God’s voice to them in scripture. I heard about congregations where people gather during the week to talk about the sermon scripture for the next Sunday. Some congregations have feedback times during or after the Sunday service for reflection on how God spoke through the sermon. Some congregations are experimenting with reflective ways of engaging with the Bible, such as lectio divina.
The stories powerfully illustrated numerous communal settings focused on the Bible in congregations. The outcome of all this reflection and discussion of the Bible seemed to be guidance for individuals. What seemed missing was communal engagement with the Bible for the sake of hearing God’s guidance for a community. I’ve participated in many Bible studies and lectio divina sessions at church board meetings and elder retreats, and we’ve had great conversations about God’s voice to us individually through a Bible passage. What would it look like to begin there, but to continue on to consider how God might be speaking to us communally through the passage about directions for our congregation’s mission? No one in my interviews talked about doing that.
2. In my interviews, I heard a lot of confusion between consensus and discernment. Consensus decision making is becoming more prominent in many business and church settings, because decisions made by consensus generally have strong buy-in by the parties involved, and often more needs are met by consensus decisions than by other kinds of decisions. Consensus decisions play a role in discernment, but they are not the same. Consensus tries to address as many of the needs and concerns of the people present as is possible, while discernment attempts to figure out how God is guiding. Surely God wants needs to be met, but meeting needs and hearing God’s voice are often not the same thing.
Discernment relies on prayer in many forms, communal wrestling with the Bible, and engagement together in spiritual practices such as fasting, retreat and silence. The people involved in trying to discern God’s direction need to know consensus skills, because they need to listen to what each person is hearing from God and build consensus around it. But discernment begins and ends with trying to hear God’s voice and direction, not trying to meet the maximum number of needs. (I wrote more about the role of spiritual practices in consensus and discernment in an earlier post.)
These two patterns I observed in the interviews worry me. Both patterns indicate the way that individualism, so rampant in the wider culture, has affected Christians. And I myself am not immune to those forces. Engaging in consensus, a good thing to do, nudges me toward considering how I can negotiate to meet the needs I’m concerned about. Looking to the Bible for guidance for my life and doing it communally with others, another good thing to do, can keep me in an individualistic place where I’m listening to God for my sake rather than the sake of my community of faith. O Lord God, give us love for each other and a commitment to your body, so we can listen to you for the sake of our communities as well as for our own sakes.
Thursday September 25 2014
I used to have a joke that expressed my longing to hear God’s voice clearly. When I wanted to know what to do in a specific situation, I used to say I wished that God would hire a cute little plane to sky-write guidance for me.
On the one hand, it’s great to long to hear God’s voice. But on the other hand, I now see it as a bit lazy to long for God to sky-write. Here are some thoughts about why:
Throughout the centuries, Christians have heard God’s voice in a variety of ways, and many Christians have written down their experiences and advice about hearing God. On the one hand, they talk about God’s voice or a sense of God’s nudging coming in surprising, unexpected moments during daily life. And on the other hand, they talk about God’s voice or God’s nudging coming in the midst of consistent spiritual practices that make space to hear that voice.
We must always affirm that nothing we can do can make God speak to us; God’s voice to us through the Holy Spirit is wildly free and beautifully unexpected. However we can adopt a posture of listening that makes it more likely we will hear God when God speaks. And that posture of listening requires intentional effort, even discipline. What are some of the spiritual practices people through the ages have talked about in connection with hearing God’s voice?
1. Reading, studying, praying and meditating on the Bible, both alone and in company with others. The Bible is called “God’s Word” for a reason. All engagement with the Bible is good, but many of us come out of traditions that primarily emphasize engaging the mind. Many of us need to grow in engaging the heart and slowing down so we can hear God’s voice through scripture. Two prayer practices that engage both mind and heart are lectio divina and praying the Psalms and other prayers in the Bible.
2. Praying in many different ways, both alone and in company with others. All forms of prayer can help us hear God’s voice. Silence in prayer is indispensible for helping us learn to listen. Prayer practices like walking the labyrinth or praying while walking outdoors can help us engage our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.
3. Fasting, both alone and in company with others. Throughout most of Christian history, and in Africa, Asia and South and Central American today, Christians expect to hear God’s voice when they fast. People who have a history of eating disorders should not fast from food in any form, and today fasting can involve stopping media, electronic devices, music, shopping, and many other aspects of daily life, as well as stopping eating all food or certain food items. I have heard dozens of stories about how God has spoken during a fast.
4. Hospitality. I can remember the first time I heard that Mother Teresa expected to meet Christ as she encountered people in need. I remember being stunned at that idea. Since then I’ve read many times about the ways Christ is present in friend and stranger in hospitality settings, and God can speak to us powerfully there.
5. Spiritual Direction. The purpose of spiritual direction is to take time in the company of a guide, the spiritual director, to examine our lives and discern God’s presence and God’s guidance.
My skywriting wishes, at their worst, reflect a desire not to have to do any patterns of consistent discipline in order to slow down and make space to hear God’s voice. Saints through the ages tell us that we hear God’s voice unexpectedly as we go about our lives, but that we also grow in ability to hear God’s voice as we make space to listen by engaging in spiritual practices that require consistent effort.
(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)
Sunday September 21 2014
Probably some people reading this blog post love the band U2. Probably some readers know about U2 but aren’t fans. And probably some readers have never heard of U2. In a way, that’s the point of the story I’m going to tell. People have different perspectives on U2. This should not be big news, right?
A couple of weeks ago U2 joined forces with Apple to give away U2’s latest album to all 500 million iTunes users. If you have an iTunes account, U2’s album appeared in your library in the cloud. A free gift! What could be better than that? Evidently that’s what Apple and U2 and Apple thought. Or at the very least they must have thought they were making a strategic decision that would benefit both the band and Apple.
What was the response? Many iTunes users were irate. The twitter-sphere exploded with negative comments. Many i-Tunes subscribers in their teens and twenties had never heard of U2, and they felt violated by music appearing in their folder that they didn’t want and hadn’t chosen. Even some people who knew of U2 or even loved U2 felt violated. In the latter group is author and former pastor Danielle Shroyer. She wrote, “Despite the fact that I’m what easily could be called U2’s core audience, even I found this to be invasive.”
Danielle wrote a blog post entitled “What the Church can learn from the U2/Apple mistake.” Here are some of her words that illustrate the significance of listening in Christian mission:
Don’t assume you know what people want or need. Look, if this is true in healthy relationships, it’s definitely true in relation to total strangers. . . . Churches make this mistake so often. They assume they know what people want or need without ever taking the time to ask, or get to know them. They think that because what they’re offering is something they love and care about, something they believe everyone should have, it follows that everyone will then want to have it. It doesn’t work that way. It never has, and it never will.
I’ve been doing a lot of speaking recently on listening, and every time I speak I find myself saying something like this (with possibly too much passion):
In Christian circles, we talk so much about discipleship and mission. We talk about caring relationships and showing support to others. We urge people to engage in these actions. But we don’t talk about one of the skills that makes these actions possible. We don’t teach listening skills, and we don’t talk about common obstacles to listening and how to overcome them. We are urging people to do things without giving them information about the underlying skills that make those things possible.
Without careful listening,we assume we know what people need and want, and we end up doing things that makepeople– both inside and outside the church – feel violated. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in Life Together, “Our love for others is learning to listen to them.” I say Amen to that.
(If you’d like to get an email alert whenever I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column where it says “Subscribe.” If you’d like to read a newspaper article I wrote on overcoming obstacles to listening, "Listening Past the Noise," click here.)
Saturday September 13 2014
Congregational consultant and seminary professor Craig Satterlee uses the term “holy listening” to describe the kind of listening we do when we seek to discern “the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition.”[i]
This kind of listening is holy because when we engage in it, we are hoping and expecting to encounter God. Leaders and members of a congregation can listen in a holy manner in a variety of places and activities, as Satterlee describes so vividly. He believes holy listening is indispensible, because it builds intimacy in congregations and helps people connect with each other in a way that goes beyond the superficial, resulting in powerful bonds between people.
Satterlee notes that our listening is imperfect, because we are flawed people with our own agendas, but we can try to listen attentively and carefully. He writes:
Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us.[ii]
I love the idea that holy listening takes the incarnation seriously. My understanding of God’s call to mission is rooted in a commitment to honor the incarnation of Jesus by responding to Jesus’ words that we are sent into the world as he was sent (John 17:18). As we do that, the Holy Spirit enables us to perceive the presence of Jesus in wildly diverse people and places, and our listening becomes holy.
The word “holy” means set apart, consecrated to God or to a religious purpose. Good and careful listening has several purposes, all of which seem to me to be holy:
My husband, Dave, recently said that “holy listening implies keeping one ear cocked to what God might be saying. Maybe you could call it ‘augmented listening.’” Holy listening in his view, then, is a form of double listening, and Dave believes holy or “augmented” listening plays a role in many different kinds of conversations, including evangelism.
Celia, a Baptist pastor and spiritual director, is another person who advocates trying to listen to God while listening to others. This helps her stay open to what God might be saying to her while she listens: “I learn so much when I listen to others. It’s like doorways opening.” She reflected that in conversations, we need “a kind of appreciative inquiry,” which she describes as interest and acceptance instead of judgment, asking how people understand an issue, which enriches everyone.
Celia went on to discuss the way listening helps people get in touch with what they themselves believe, another form of holy listening that involves paying attention to multiple layers of meaning. She reflected,
Listening often helps people become conscious of what they’re saying. It helps them make connections they haven’t seen before. People say, “I’ve never said that before. I wonder if that’s right.” We can journal or talk to ourselves, and things come up. Why is it so different, so much richer, when we talk to others and they listen?
When we engage in holy listening in conversations with people, we expect to meet God in new ways as well. What a gift!
(This post is adapted from my book, The Power of Listening: Building Skills for Mission and Ministry, and it first appeared on the Gathering Voices blog. If you'd like to get an email update whenever I post on this blog, you can sign up in the right hand column where it says "Subscribe.")
Friday September 5 2014
Spiritual practices—various forms of prayer and Bible study, and other practices as well—can play a significant role in congregational discernment. In a time when congregations are dealing with unprecedented challenges—ethnic shifts in neighborhoods, dwindling financial resources, changes in family patterns, less time available for volunteering, and an increasingly secular society—discernment has become a central issue. What is God calling us to do? What unique contribution can we, in this specific congregation, make in our community? In the wider world?
If we want to be missional congregations, engaging with God’s mission in the world, modeling ourselves after the incarnational ministry of Jesus, these questions are vital. We need to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance about exactly what we are called to do in our community and in the wider world. We need to grow in our ability to discern the difference between a good idea and the right idea, the direction where God is calling us to walk.
The question of discernment has come into view because of another issue as well. Many congregational leaders are tired of church organization being conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. They quite rightly rebel against a kind of dualism that views worship and small groups as spiritual, while leadership of the church is treated like business. Either God is present in everything we do, and we expect God’s guidance in all our activities, or we are engaging in hypocrisy.
Some leadership boards in congregations have moved beyond Robert’s Rules of Order to embrace a process of consensus building, and consensus has many advantages over voting. Consensus involves discussion leading to general agreement about a conclusion or decision. This process is often slower than voting on a decision after only brief discussion, but it usually results in a greater degree of ownership by participants, and it provides the opportunity to deal with resistance earlier than when decisions are made by voting.
Often consensus building among congregational leaders centers on meeting the greatest number of needs or desires. The focus is on what we need and want. In contrast, discernment is radically different because it focuses on listening for God’s voice and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Discernment is grounded in the presupposition that our lives and our ministry belong to God, and that God’s Spirit will guide us into decisions that reflect God’s will and values. Our needs and desires need to be considered, but they are neither the starting point nor the primary motivator.
Both consensus and discernment require carefully listening to everyone involved, so the process is similar. In fact, consensus plays a role in the discernment process, as a group tries to come to a conclusion about what they are together hearing from God. The kind of consensus that plays a role in discernment involves the following:
How do we arrive at consensus through discernment? Spiritual practices help us remember who God is and who we are, an essential first step. They give a foundation for peace and resting in God. They help us keep our roots in Christ. Engaging in centering prayer or the prayer of examen together, practicing lectio divina as a leadership group, or spending a long time in thankfulness prayers can get a process of discernment off to a good start because they remind us who we are and Whose we are. They remove the dualism of viewing worship as spiritual while dismissing planning as business as usual. They set the stage for a listening process.
In addition, spiritual practices can play a role in the middle or later stages of a process of discernment. In different ways, spiritual practices help groups of Christians discern what God is up to, the key component of all stages of discernment. One church member remarked that spiritual practices are “like cleaning my glasses,” restoring fresh and clear vision. Having clean glasses makes a valuable contribution to discernment at any stage.
(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog.)