Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe 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 Baab

Lynne's Blog

A moment beside the Willamette River

Thursday June 26 2014

A moment beside the Willamette River

I’m sitting in front of a battered orange fire hydrant, incongruously placed in a bank of flowers and grasses. Riverplace Marina, on the Willamette River, lies beyond the flowers. High freeway bridges and the low, hundred year old Hawthorne Bridge span the river, while a traffic helicopter whines overhead.

We’re on vacation in Portland, Oregon, and my husband is browsing an art gallery here at the Marina. Usually when we head out to sightsee I bring along a paperback, so I can read while he takes his time in galleries. But today I forgot the novel.

So I sit here on a curved bench, wondering if this is an invitation to worship God in the real world, to draw near to God in this slice of everyday life. Perhaps I could engage with one of the everyday spiritual disciplines I habitually practice. For example, I could sit here and list the many gifts and blessings God has given me recently: successfully winding up teaching and grading for the semester; the recent release of my latest book, Friending; on-time flights to Oregon; the family members and friends we’ll be seeing on this trip. I could list them and thank God for them.

Here’s a second option. I learned a new version of the Jesus prayer a few weeks ago, and I’ve been experimenting with using it as a breath prayer, coordinating the words with my breath. “Jesus . . . Savior . . . help me know your love . . . and make it known.” As I repeat the words, sometimes I think about all the ways God has shown love to me, and I pray that this love would sink deep inside me, that I would “know” it in every sense of the world. Sometimes I pray about the ways I feel called to make God’s love known. That breath prayer would work well in these quiet moments in the light breeze.

I could also simply focus on the data coming to my brain through my senses and try to be present to everything around me. I could study and relish the white flowers with the yellow centers right beside the fire hydrant, the pale green grasses gently swaying, the silk tree giving me shade and the feathery cedar between me and the Hawthorne Bridge. God made them all. I could listen to the traffic on the freeway bridge, trying to tease out specific trucks and busses that I can see as well as hear. God gave me very acute hearing, sometimes a gift and sometimes a challenge, and I could try to be present to the distinct sounds around me in this restful moment.

I’m sure there are other ways to worship God in this real-world, real-life moment as I sit on a curved bench with a fire hydrant, white flowers, grasses, a marina and a cluster of bridges in view. But I’ve thought of enough options. The challenge for me in this moment is two-fold:

(1) to refrain from pulling out my day planner to see if there’s something “productive” I can do with this time, and

(2) to stop listing and analyzing the options.

Just do one of them, I tell myself.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Open Hands, Open Heart

Thursday June 26 2014

Open Hands, Open Heart

About ten years ago I led a worship service at a retreat. The setting was intimate, unlike the Sunday worship services at church where the leader—sometimes me—usually stood some distance away from the congregation. At the end of the retreat worship, I said a benediction. To my surprise, several of the younger women sitting close to me turned their hands so their palms faced up. They looked as if they were trying to catch the benediction in their hands.

I had often said, “Now, receive the benediction” before I ended a worship service, and these women looked as if they were taking those words seriously. They used their hands to indicate a posture of the heart, a posture of receptivity.

What might they have been trying to receive? What might they have been longing for?

Perhaps some of them had a specific need in mind as they turned their hands up to “catch” God’s blessing. Perhaps they were hoping for God’s action related to a specific need in their family or in their job, or maybe they were hoping for God’s guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps they had learned something new about God at the weekend retreat, and they were hoping God would cement that new knowledge into their lives. They could have had many other specific needs, requests or situations on their minds as they used their hands to “receive” the benediction.

Perhaps some of them were simply open to more of God in their lives.  Perhaps the motion of their hands expressed a willingness to receive anything and everything from God, an indication of their commitment to be disciples of Jesus who would follow their Master wherever he might lead them.

When I use this word “receptivity,” I am referring to being open to God’s gifts and God’s guidance in two different ways. On the one hand, God works in our lives in response to the needs we express in prayer, the concerns we have about people we love, and the tensions and anxieties we experience in everyday life. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to see the way the Holy Spirit is moving in the situations we care about. Spiritual practices go a long way toward enabling us to see God’s activity because they help us slow down, recognize patterns, and listen to God.

The second aspect of receptivity relates to our willingness to let God initiate, to let God be God in whatever form that takes. Jesus invites us to follow him, to let him set the agenda and lead us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus encourages us (Matthew 11:29). God guides us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and challenges us to grow in ways we never imagined. God gives us gifts we could never have seen on our own, and calls us to use them in situations we never planned. Spiritual practices help us receive these utterly unexpected and unplanned moments of grace.

When I pray with my hands turned over and open to the heavens, my hands are a symbol of my willingness to be receptive to whatever God is doing in my life, whatever God wants to give me, and wherever God wants to guide me. But those open hands are more than a symbol. I find that simply turning my hands over opens my heart to God in a remarkable way, as if my hands are telling my heart and mind to shift toward God and to watch for what God is doing. I feel closer to God when I turn my hands over, a surprising but helpful fact. Lent is a perfect time to experiment with new spiritual practices, and a small thing like praying with open hands, facing up, really can make a difference.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog. It is an excerpt from Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation by Lynne M. Baab.)

Spiritual Practices for Sitting in Front of a Screen

Thursday June 26 2014

Because I spend so much time in front of a computer, I’ve tried to develop a series of small spiritual practices that remind me of God’s guidance and presence with me as I sit in front of the screen. While my computer boots up, I try to look out the window at the trees and sky while I take a few deep breaths, reminding me of the Holy Spirit around me and in me. I use passwords that help me remember God’s work in my life. When software or websites load in slowly, I try to look out the window again and rejoice in the beauty of the trees God made. The passwords and the pauses to look out the window break up my work day and help me to take a moment to practice mindfulness, the awareness that this moment matters because God made it and Jesus is here with me.

Because I live so far away from friends and family, Facebook and email are major ways I learn about what’s happening in the lives of people I love. So I try to pray for people as I read what they’ve written online. I know there are a lot of people who think that online relationships aren’t “real,” but because I live 7,000 miles from many of the people I love, I am deeply grateful for online ways of staying connected, and I try to rejoice in those connections and in the people who have loved me and continue to support me across the miles.

Somehow it’s too easy to think that God is present in nature but not in technology. Or that God wants us to be caring and prayerful when we talk to someone face to face, but not when we communicate with them online. My small computer habits remind me that all of life, and my whole life, belong to God.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Freedom from Fear of Death

Thursday June 26 2014

Freedom from Fear of Death

On Valentine’s Day, 1994, I got the flu. Two days later I couldn’t breathe. A long diagnostic process followed.  At some point, the lung specialist described to me the possible diagnoses, one of which was fatal. He had put me on a cute little oxygen tank, but my brain still wasn’t getting enough oxygen to think clearly, so I misunderstood him. I thought he said the fatal lung disease was by far the most likely diagnosis.

It was a week before my next appointment with him, so I spent a week thinking I was going to die. I had moments of fear, but my 23 years of following Jesus had given me a level of trust that made me willing to face death if that’s where Jesus was leading me. The freedom from fear, most of that week, was palpable. Truly Jesus did “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death”(Hebrews 2:14, 15).

Five years later I had a similar experience. This time it was my liver, which swelled up. Hepatitis. But what kind? The diagnostic process involved a seemingly endless series of blood tests, followed by an extremely unpleasant liver biopsy. This time I didn’t misunderstand the doctor. He said it clearly. The biopsy indicated I had a fatal liver disease, curable only by a transplant, which would not be likely to happen.

So I spent another week thinking I was going to die. Again, the years of following Jesus made a difference. “To live is Christ and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). I could live or die, and God would make that decision. Most of that week, I was able to draw on all the years of experiencing God’s goodness in my life. I was able to trust God and experience Jesus’ peace.

The reprieve came in a letter from a sub-specialist at the university who had looked over my records. The specialist wrote to my own doctor saying that even though the liver cells indicated a fatal disease, I was missing a blood marker that always accompanies it. My hepatitis turned out to be an unusual reaction to a drug I was taking. I went off the drug and slowly got well.

Now I’m walking the death road again. It’s not me this time, but my sister-in-law. It’s not a misunderstanding or a false diagnosis, but inoperable cancer that has completely obstructed her bowel. Her lungs are failing, so she’s gasping for breath just like I did 17 years ago. Because of my husband’s witness, and because of her longing for peace as she dies, she has recently come to know Jesus. She has been following him now for only a few months. And Jesus has given her comforting moments of peace as she faces the end of her life on earth and anticipates the joy of heaven. But it’s not the depth of peace that comes from years of following him. I long to give her that deep peace, and all I can do is pray.

Following Jesus makes a difference in dozens, if not hundreds, of ways. Freedom from fear of death may not be something we need on a daily basis, but when death circles around us, peace from Jesus makes all the difference. Truly in Christ we are freed from the bondage of the fear of death.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared in 2011 on the Godspace blog.)

Breath Prayer

Thursday June 26 2014

Breath Prayer

Because of its simplicity, breath prayer is a great way to start when introducing a group to contemplative prayer, and breath prayer is a great way for an individual to slow down and remember God’s presence in the midst of everyday life. I know a family that engages in breath prayer at the beginning of their Sabbath day, and if the parents forget to make time for it, the kids remind them. I’ve used breath prayer in many different small group settings and occasionally in worship services as well, and most people take to it easily.

One way to engage in breath prayer is to imagine breathing out all our concerns and worries into God’s presence, while breathing in God’s love and care. At the Areopagus in Athens, the Apostle Paul said about God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28). If God’s presence and love surround us, then it is not a stretch to imagine exhaling our troubles into God’s presence and inhaling God’s love and care with each breath.

When I engage in this kind of breath prayer, I focus on one concern or one person in need as I breathe out. As I feel the air leaving my lungs, I picture myself relinquishing that concern or person into God’s care. Then I breathe in, imagining God’s love filling the empty space where the concern or worry was located inside me.

Sometimes the concern is so great that I spend several breaths on the same issue or person, always relinquishing the concern into God’s hands as I breathe out, and always imagining God’s love coming into me as I breathe in. Sometimes I simply name all my family members as I engage in breath prayer, saying one name silently with each breath out, knowing that God is aware of that person’s needs even more than I could be.

Another form of breath prayer uses the ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is based loosely on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 8:9-14 in which the tax collector says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (verse 13). One phrase of the Jesus prayer is prayed on each breath, with the breaths providing a rhythm for the prayer.

In groups, I have used a white board to list the favorite names for Jesus that the group members suggest, such as Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Light of the World and True Vine. I suggest to the group that they pick one of those names and adapt the Jesus prayer to that name, along these lines:

Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, have mercy on me. I need your peace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Bread of life, have mercy on me, feed me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on me, shine your light in me.

Lord Jesus Christ, True Vine, have mercy on me, help me abide in you.

Then we spend some time as a group praying the new prayer silently in harmony with our breathing.

Breath prayer works well as a first stage of prayer for many other kinds of contemplative or intercessory group prayer. It provides a good introduction to guided meditations. So simple and non-threatening, breath prayer helps people relax and feel competent about silent prayer when they might feel a bit unsure about engaging in quiet contemplative prayer in a group.

Breath prayer engages the physical body and helps us experience God’s presence in our bodies and in the physical world, integrating the physical and spiritual parts of our lives. Focusing on our breath slows down our breathing, which has the effect of slowing down all bodily functions, a way to experience peace from the One who gives us breath and longs to give us peace.

Breath prayer also reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God in our lives. When leading breath prayer with a group, any of these connections can be highlighted for the group, helping them to deepen their experience.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appears on the Godspace blog. It is an excerpt from Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation by Lynne M. Baab)

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