The Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthA Renewed SpiritualityDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave BaabNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century

Lynne's Blog

Nature speaks about God: Mountains and clouds on Easter

Friday March 9 2018

Nature speaks about God: Mountains and clouds on Easter

On my first Easter Sunday as a committed Christian, I sat on a balcony overlooking the Rhone River Valley in Switzerland, listening to a sermon about the resurrection. My back was to the church building, with a window right next to me, so I could hear the sermon. In front of me, the hillside dropped away to the valley floor 2000 feet below me. On the other side of the valley, the seven peaks called Les Dents du Midi rose to an altitude of 10,000 feet.

The preacher was Francis Schaeffer, and the church building was the chapel of the community he founded in Huémoz, Switzerland, called L’Abri. I had arrived for the service fairly early, but the chapel was already full, so I took a seat on the balcony on the valley side of the chapel. I’m so glad I did.

While Francis Schaeffer talked about Jesus’ death and resurrection, I watched clouds rising up the side of the hill. First, I would see a cloud below me. Then it would slowly rise past me and continue to move upward. Then another cloud would appear below me, move past me, and continue up. Over and over the clouds moved up the side of the hill.

The clouds illustrated the sermon and spoke to me of the resurrection of Jesus and his release from the tomb. The clouds spoke to me about the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I didn’t know the verse in Philippians at that time, but I had a sense of God’s call to me to grow upward, to develop in character, to become the honorable and faithful person God had created me to be.

I had been raised in the church. Throughout junior high and high school, I grew further from God. By the time I was 18, when I left my home in Tacoma, Washington for Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, I was calling myself an atheist. At 19, I went to Avignon, France, to study for a year. For the long All Saints weekend in November, some friends and I travelled to Switzerland.

We stopped by L’Abri Fellowship because one of my friends had a friend who was studying there. We intended to stay only a few hours, but we missed the bus down the mountain and had to stay an extra day. That extra time allowed us to attend a seminar where so many of my questions about the Christian faith were answered.

We returned to Avignon and our studies there. For the rest of the fall, I pondered what I had heard at L’Abri. When I left Avignon to travel to Scandinavia over Christmas vacation, I was still not a Christian. When I returned to Avignon two weeks later, I knew I was a Christian. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but I knew a giant shift had occurred in me.

I wrote to the people at L’Abri, asking if I could come and study there for the two weeks of my Easter break, and they said yes.

During my time at L’Abri, as I walked from one chalet to the other, going from the place I stayed to the places they assigned me to work, and then to my study carrel, the mountains spoke to me over and over. They spoke to me of God’s grandeur, majesty and sheer beauty.

Easter Day was the icing on the cake, with those clouds moving up the side of the hill, like a vivid metaphor for the very act we were celebrating at Easter.

I wrote last week about the way God spoke to me through Mount Rainier when I was 15, saying there’s more, there’s something holy and beautiful beyond this life. God’s message to me on the side of that steep hill in Switzerland was focused more clearly on God as known in the Bible: Jesus, his resurrection, and the holy, beautiful and majestic God who created mountains, valleys and clouds.

I want to ask the same questions I asked last week: What specific places in nature have spoken to you? What have those places said?

And I’ll ask an additional question: In what ways do you think God’s voice to you through nature is informed by what you know about God from the Bible?

(Next week: Algae. Illustration: Huémoz, Switzerland by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Bible study focus: My Bible study guide, Prayers of the Old Testament, just went into its fifth printing. It presents study/reflection/discussion questions about eight specific prayers in the Old Testament, with the goal of deepening our prayers. To learn more, click here.

First post in a new series: Nature speaks about God

Friday March 2 2018

First post in a new series: Nature speaks about God

I was 15 the first time nature spoke to me. We had lived in southern Virginia while I was in junior high school. My dad was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, and right before I turned 15 he retired from the air force. My parents decided we would move to the West Coast.

We traveled by way of Toronto, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Colorado, pulling a 14 foot trailer behind our Dodge. We visited grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, and family friends. For a teenager, six weeks of close intimacy with her family, while driving 8,000 miles and mourning the loss of her friends and her life in Virginia, was really, really, not fun.

We arrived in Tacoma, Washington at the beginning of August and immediately found a wonderful house, where my mother still lives. The owners weren’t able to move out until early September, so we needed a place to stay for a month. The owners offered us their summer cabin on Puget Sound, just north of Gig Harbor.

The cabin looked east onto Puget Sound. To the left was Vashon Island. To the right was Point Defiance in Tacoma. Between these two pieces of land, Mount Rainier rose up over the waters of Puget Sound, perfectly framed by the two wooded hillsides.

August that year was clear and sunny every day. Throughout each day, we watched the light on Mount Rainier change. In the morning the mountain was backlit by the rising sun, looking mysterious and other worldly. At midday, the mountain was illuminated from above, with the sun slightly to the right, reflecting off the glaciers. In the afternoon, the mountain was vivid, clear and gorgeous in the full light of the sun. At sunset, the magical rose and peach colors of sunset illuminated the mountain.

The summer had been so hard for me, and Mount Rainier spoke to me. It said, “There’s more.” There’s more than everyday life, there’s more than struggle and sadness. There’s something beautiful beyond this life.

I had attended church almost every Sunday of my life. At 12, I believed in God and Jesus pretty strongly, but our church in Virginia hadn’t advanced that faith at all. In fact, by 15 I was on my way to rejecting everything I had been taught about God.

So when the mountain told me that there is something beyond this life, I didn’t connect that something with God at all. But still I held onto the message from the mountain. In my high school years, as my faith in God in Christ dwindled further and further, I saw Mount Rainier frequently from numerous places around Tacoma. The mountain always lifted my heart and spoke to me of something beyond. The mountain was an anchor and a whiff of holiness in the midst of the volatile years of high school.

This is the first post in a series about the ways nature speaks about God. I’ll tell stories of the way nature has spoken to me at various times, and I’ll look at scriptures that help explain how this works. In this first post in the series, I want to encourage you to think about times nature has spoken to you. What specific places in nature have spoken to you? What have those places said?

(Next week: mountains and clouds on Easter. Illustration: Mount Rainier from Puget Sound. Sadly I can’t find a photo of that exact view we could see from the cabin north of Gig Harbor. If you’d like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

One year ago on this blog – “Drawing near to God with the heart: Facing the inner darkness.” In this season of Lent, facing inner darkness can play a role in preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Saturday February 24 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Below are thought-provoking quotations about contemplative prayer, which has as a central focus listening to God in prayer.

“Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is ‘an intimate sharing between friends,’ to use the words of Teresa of Avila.”
—Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water

Ben, 56, says, “The contemplative experience helped me focus on knowing God and the presence of God and God’s love for me. It’s what got me outside myself and outside of thinking about how I’m doing in life. The traditions that I grew up with emphasized holiness and obedience. Even though the focus was supposed to be on God, you ended up focusing on yourself and how well you were doing in obeying God. By receiving God’s love in contemplative prayer, it freed me from self-focus, and that opened me to other people, to God’s work in the world, as well as the character of God in my own life.”

“Contemplative prayer is addressed to the human situation just as it is. It is designed to heal the consequences of the human condition, which is basically the privation of the divine presence. Everyone suffers from this disease. If we accept the fact that we are suffering from a serious pathology, we possess a point of departure for the spiritual journey. The pathology is simply this: we have come to full reflective self-consciousness without experience of God. Because that crucial reassurance is missing, our fragile egos desperately seek other means of shoring up our weaknesses and defending ourselves from the pain of alienation from God and from other  people. Contemplative prayer is the divine remedy for this illness.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love

Brian, 40, reflects, “The goal of prayer is prayer, entering into intimacy with God. Period. It’s not for the purpose of dealing with midlife or depression or to be better adjusted or anything else. Lectio divinaand all those contemplative prayer forms are good, but not if they are confused with prayer itself. Any sorts of patterns will stop working eventually. They can lead you into prayer initially, but they can also get in the way. That’s one of the common blinders in the popularizing of spirituality – mistaking the helpful thing for the thing itself. People are self-help junkies, spiritual consumers looking for the next best thing to consume. We are broken people, we need God, and the heart of spirituality is to recognize our brokenness and need for God. We are too quick to replace God with all kinds of tips, ideas, plans, and programs to help us draw near to God.”

“It is unwise to judge a prayer period on the basis of your psychological experience. Sometimes you may be bombarded with thought all during the time of prayer; yet it could be a very useful period of prayer. Your attention might have been much deeper than it seemed. In any case, you cannot make a valid judgment about how things are going on the basis of a single period of prayer. Instead, you must look for the fruit in your ordinary daily life, after a month or two. If you are becoming more patient with others, more at ease with yourself, if you shout less often or less loudly at the children, feel less hurt if the family complains about your cooking – all these are signs that another set of values is beginning to operate in you.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Heart, Open Mind

This is the last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: The first post in a new series: Nature Speaks About God. Illustration by Dave Baab. 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 in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             
Availability

Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

Thursday February 15 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

The contemplative prayer tradition has always emphasized listening and receptivity. Richard Foster points out the dangers inherent in this tradition. Foster believes that the most common danger is the separation of prayer from everyday life. In addition, he mentions the peril of devaluing intellectual efforts to articulate our faith and the tendency to become so individualistic that we neglect the community of faith.[1]

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Asbury Seminary professor, might respond to Richard Foster’s concerns this way: “A life of abiding in God is characterized by a heart whose deepest cry echoes and re-echoes through every aspect of its life – ‘Thy  will be done.’ . . . True prayer is a life of radical abiding in God.”

Mulholland goes on to say, “True prayer is a life of radical availability to God in the world.”[2]

When we try to listen to God in prayer, we are doing one thing that helps us abide in Christ. As we grow in our ability to abide in Christ, we will find ourselves drawn into his ministry and his concerns. In his life on earth, Jesus modeled a radical dependence on God his Father, coupled with a radical availability to people in need. We cannot love Jesus Christ without loving the people around us. We cannot love Jesus without caring about his priorities and values.

If we are available in this way to God, the messages we receive from God will often be practical, even mundane. Joyce Huggett, in The Joy of Listening to God, writes, “Early in my prayer pilgrimage, I discovered that listening to God did not necessarily result in mystical experiences. Often, it was not other-worldly at all. Rather, it was a deeply practical affair.”

Huggett recounts the time she was praying when the words, “Ring Valerie,” kept coming to her mind. She responded by phoning her friend Valerie at just the right moment to help with a crisis situation.[3]

Over and over as I pray, God has brought to my mind people who I need to call, write to, or pray for. As I respond in obedience to the voice of God in this way, I continue to grow in my ability to hear his practical instructions to me for how to love the people around me.

Surely God’s will for me is that I become more like Jesus. This means that I am called to be available to the people God brings into my life, just like Jesus was. This kind of availability is integrally connected to prayer.

This is the second to last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: some vivid quotations about listening to God in prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. 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 in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 53-56.
[2] M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. “Prayer as Availability to God,” Weavings, Sept/Oct 1997, 24-25.
[3] Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986),  206-206.

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Thursday February 8 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Ben is 56 years old, and he works as an administrator at a university. He describes the way he learned to listen to God in prayer, and what he listens for:

In my twenties and thirties, I was a history professor and department chair. I always loved studying and learning and teaching, and I always kept very busy doing it. There simply wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t choose to take any time for reflection during those years. When I’m honest about it, I can see that in my forties, I didn’t have any fewer pressures to do things, it’s just that I could no longer resist the pressure from within to spend some amount of time reflecting.

In my forties, I pastored a church and I had to preach every week. Week after week I found myself preaching about the inner journey of faith. What a surprise to me!

I had known about contemplative prayer for years, but I never felt drawn to it until I experienced this irresistible drive to spend time focusing on my inward journey. That’s when contemplative prayer began to make sense to me.

Some people call it midlife, but I don’t want to trivialize this huge shift that I experienced by giving it such a trite label. To me, it was an earthshaking change, to shift my focus from the outer world of teaching and activities to the inner world of feelings and reflections.

I can see now what a gift it was that I was able to be a pastor when that shift was going on. Each week I had time to study for my sermon. Sure, as a professor I had studied to prepare for my lectures. But that was study of something out there -- history. My sermon preparations were truly a study of what was inside, my own personal journey with God.

I began to see the centrality of grace. I had always believed grace was at the heart of the Christian faith, but through contemplative prayer I began to experience God’s grace for me. For me! Just for me!

My quiet times changed. Before the shift, I had focused on Bible study and intercessory prayer. Those are both good things, and I still engage in both. After the shift, the center of my quiet time became sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak to me. I’ve learned that I’m not listening for words or even guidance; I’m looking for an assurance that I am loved. When I take the time in the morning to wait until I have that assurance, my day is transformed. I find I can act out of the abundance of God’s grace rather than out of a need to prove myself. This sounds like a small change, but it is a revolutionary difference.

In my fifties, I’ve returned to a university setting. From the outside, my life looks a lot like it did in my thirties when I chaired the history department at the university where I taught. Every day I’m busy meeting with people, teaching, creating vision, making plans. But now everything is different because I have an attitude of listening to God that permeates everything. 

I still try to spend time each morning in the university chapel, waiting until I hear God’s word of love and grace for me. All the activities of my days are centered in that voice of love and grace. I’m living my life much more in response to God’s initiative now. Before my big shift I lived my life based on what I thought I should be doing.

For me, that’s the main point of contemplative prayer: listening to God so our lives can flow out of his love and grace.

This is the 13th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms               

(Next week: Availability. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “Subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Lent this year begins next week on Valentine’s Day. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, you may enjoy the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

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