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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Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Longing for heaven

Thursday March 23 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Longing for heaven

In The Sacred Romance, Brent Curtis and John Eldredge discuss the significance of a healthy understanding of heaven. If we live as if this world is all there is, they write, we will place a burden on our experience here on earth that this world was never intended to bear. We will continually try to find heaven on earth, which is impossible, and “we will live as desperate, demanding, and eventually despairing men and women.”[1]

Instead, if we can understand and rejoice in the truth that one day God will make all things whole, and that we will live in heaven in unblemished joy and contentment in God’s presence, our lives on earth will be transformed. This life is definitely not as good as it gets. The best is yet to come.

Mercifully, we get glimpses of heaven in this life. Imagine that a wonderful party is happening nearby, with the most luscious music in the world, and every now and then a bit of music escapes from the party and we get to enjoy it. In the same way, glimpses of heaven permeate our lives on earth. It takes time and effort and being present in each moment for us to be able to notice those glimpses, but the glimpses are worth any effort. They illuminate our lives and gladden our hearts.

Glimpses of heaven, when we can receive them and rest in them, nourish the heart and soul. Those moments of clear vision and certainty lift us up to God and illumine our daily lives. Seeking those glimpses is a worthy endeavor. We rejoice when our seeking brings us what we long for. We also need to grow in acknowledging that our lives on earth will be characterized much more by seeking than by finding.

C. S. Lewis, in both his fiction and non-fiction writings, helps us get in touch with our longing for heaven. Lewis describes the “lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off.”[2] He believed this longing is one of the best things about our pilgrim state. In Lewis’ autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he used the word “joy” to describe the piercing longing, both bitter and sweet, that we experience when we remember a vivid memory or catch a brief glimpse of heaven. This kind of joy is distinct from pleasure or happiness, and it taps into the emptiness and spaciousness that Gerald May describes.

Lewis’ friend J. R. R. Tolkien explained this kind of joy as “a sudden and miraculous grace . . . beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.”[3] This joy is inextricably connected with our longing for heaven and our realization that this life is not all there is. Lewis reassures us:

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.[4]

Lewis believed that our sense of exile is inseparable from our perception of beauty, which emphasizes again the significance of art, music, poetry, and all things that minister beauty to our hearts. As we accept our state of longing, and as we experience glimpses of beauty that remind us of heaven, our hearts will grow soft and receptive to the grace of God.

This is the seventh post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:

Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          
All will be well            

(The series continues next week with "What do you want?" Illustration by Dave Baab: Central Otago from a photo by Ian Thomson. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Curtis and Eldredge, The Sacred Romance, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997),179.
[2] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980). 16.
[3] J. R. R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in Essays Presented to Charles Williams, ed. C. S. Lewis (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1981), 81.
[4] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, 16-17.T

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: All will be well

Wednesday March 15 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: All will be well

In the Psalms we read, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me” (Ps. 34:4). God meets us and cares for us and answers our prayers. At the same time, the Psalm writer acknowledges, “my tears have been my food day and night” (Ps. 42: 3). We ache to see God’s pure beauty and majesty in the face of this broken world we experience every day. We long to be free from all the seductive desires that sidetrack us so often. We long to see the people we love freed from illness, addictions, pain, and suffering.

We are people with such a mix of thoughts and emotions inside of us, and the Psalms help us so much as we strive to live in the tension of pain and joy. In Living with Contradiction, Esther de Waal writes,

The psalms allow me to face my inner conflicts. They allow me to shake my fist at God one moment, and then next to break out into spontaneous song. I am angry, but then I am grateful. I complain at the bitterness of my lot, and then I rejoice at the untold blessings which I receive. If I discover the fullness of my own humanity I also discover the many faces of God. If the story of the people of Israel and their struggle in holding on to the covenant is also my own story, the psalms leave me in no doubt, as to the difficulties involved in that relationship. That in itself is consoling. For here is a people who experience struggle and sacrifice, who know the light and the dark, hunger and thirst, who grumble and complain, and who rejoice and praise – and who have no inhibitions in doing this completely openly and vigorously.20

The variety of emotions in the psalms is stunning: praise and thankfulness can transition into sorrow, vindictiveness, discouragement and tears within only a few verses. As I wrote in two earlier posts (here and here), the psalms have encouraged people throughout the ages to bring all our passions and concerns, and even all our pettiness and irritation, into the presence of God. There is no human emotion that is foreign to God; nothing surprises him. “You have searched me and known me. . . . You discern my thoughts from far away” (Psalm 139:1, 2).

We live in joy because God loves us, and we can know that love in Jesus Christ. We live in longing and emptiness because sin and death still have so much power. Our hearts are full, and our hearts are broken. We are thirsty for the One who can meets us in our longing.

David Rensberger reassures us:

Our thirst for God will be satisfied. Once we have become aware of this yearning, once this passionate need and longing has opened up with us, we can hear a stream off in the distance gurgling toward us. We bend every effort to find that stream. However strong or persistent our efforts, though, they are insignificant compared with the mighty rush of water coming to meet us. Though we may try to slake our thirst elsewhere, the Living Water will find our parched mouths. It will not be our small dippers that finally bring the water to our tongues. Rather, it will be the desire of the Water itself to meet our need, the love of the One whom we have struggled to learn to love, that will overcome our last resistance and pour delicious satisfaction on our aching lips. [2]

Rensberger’s words provide such a delightful contrast to the conflicts described by Esther de Waal and expressed so vividly in the Psalms. Truly Jesus calls us to bring to him our hearts, our souls, our very beings – no matter how conflicted or painful – because he is giving back to us his heart of love in a mighty rush of Living Water. All will be well.

This is the seventh post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         
Tears          

(The series continues next week with "Longing for Heaven." 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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997), 130.

[2] David Rensberger, “Thirsty for God,” Weavings, July/August 2000, 25.

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Tears

Wednesday March 8 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Tears

Some years ago I attended a session of a class on the Desert Fathers, those monks of the fourth and fifth centuries who lived in the deserts of Syria and Egypt and who dispensed wisdom to those who came to visit them. I was blessed indeed that this one particular class covered the topic of the Desert Fathers and their attitude toward tears.

The Desert Fathers advocated weeping. They experienced tears as an excellent way to express sadness and sorrow at our own sin. They believed that at the same time that we are crying for our sins, we will find that our tears are also about the joy and wonder of God’s grace and forgiveness. These two components of tears, sorrow for sin and joy in God’s grace, will not be separate, they believed, but we will switch from one to the other almost instantaneously.

When I became a mother in my late twenties, I was surprised to find how much more easily I cried than ever before. Tears have been closer to the surface for me for since then, but in my forties my tears somehow changed. I couldn’t put my finger on the change until I sat in on that class on the Desert Fathers.

The tears I experience now really are about both sorrow and joy. I do cry about my own sin. These are seldom tears about one-time sins. My tears seem to center on the sins I can’t stop doing: recurring negative thoughts about specific people, my tendency to hate myself because of being overweight, and longings and attractions I have for things I don’t have. As I wrote last week, part of maturity for me has been facing my inner darkness.

Just like the Desert Fathers predicted, mingled in with my tears of sorrow for sin, I find tears of joy and wonder that God’s love is so great and that he has shown that love to me. In fact, it’s in the face of the God’s abundant love and grace that I feel such sorrow, because I can’t seem to receive his overflowing love in some parts of my life. Some parts of my life are so broken. I am so blessed, yet I continue to turn away from God’s blessings and seek my own way. Not all the time, but more often than I want to. I cry about that.

I also cry about sin in the world. I cry about the 21,000 people who die each day from hunger-related causes, mostly children,[1] and I cry at the hugeness of evil that keeps the rich and poor so separate and living such different lives. I cry about the hugeness of evil that would motivate people to give their lives so innocent people would die in terrorist attacks. I cry about the people I know and love who are experiencing pain from so many different awful things in their lives. And simultaneously I am crying because God’s grace and love are much more immense than evil. His love and grace are so real and significant and tangible in so many ways, yet there are so many places in human life that seem immune to his love. How can this be? It makes me cry.

I cry because of my longing for heaven. I long for the place and time where everything will be made right, where evil will no longer exist, and where my love for God will be able to flower into the kind of joyous obedience and peaceful acceptance that I long for now. I cry because my moments of emptiness now are so painful in the light of the reality that heaven is coming one day.

Sometimes I find myself getting tears in my eyes in public setting where it is embarrassing to cry. I’m trying to learn to let those tears be there, as an expression of a deep heart and soul reality that I believe mostly pleases God. As I have accepted my tears more fully, I am finding I can identify more clearly the emotions that lie behind the tears. Mixed in with the tears that please God – sorrow for sin, the awareness of God’s grace, and the longing that everything will be put right – are also tears of self-pity and self-aggrandizement. Even in my tears I find the bizarre mix of faithfulness and selfishness that characterizes all of human life – this mix that got me started crying in the first place!

I commend to you tears as a way of expressing deep longings and heart realities. Our tears can be a tutor to help us understand what we are truly feeling and what we truly value. In our tears the Holy Spirit brings out heart realities too deep for words. When we are consumed by embarrassment at our tears, we lose the opportunity to let our tears teach us and express inner realities without words.

This is the sixth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms       
God's presence through the Holy Spirit          
Facing the inner darkness         

(The series continues next week with "All will be well." 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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] http://www.poverty.com/

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Facing the Inner Darkness

Wednesday March 1 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Facing the Inner Darkness

Lent begins this week, on Ash Wednesday, March 1st. If you'd like to look over my Lenten devotional using a psalm for each day of Lent, you can download the pdf here.

As we grow in maturity, many of us experience increasing honesty about the powerful and dark forces at work inside of us that draw us away from God and from what we know to be good. In our early adulthood, we can often fool ourselves into the illusion that we are pretty good people, free of irrational anger, vindictiveness, all-encompassing fear, and petty desires. Many of us find that as we age, we experience all sorts of ugly emotions, and it is no longer possible to hide the truth from ourselves. We truly do have a lot of ugliness inside us. We realize the complexity of our inner emotions: rejoicing and content in God’s grace one moment, irritable and unpleasant the next.

With maturity many of us face our addictive behavior with new honesty. We begin to see more clearly the various counter-productive ways we have tried to fill the God-shaped vacuum inside us. We know our deepest longing is for God, yet over and over we choose food or shopping or pornography or alcohol or something else to try to satisfy that longing. Common to maturity on the journey of faith are honesty and humility in acknowledging the incredibly inappropriate ways we strive to fill our emptiness.

How can we change? How can we learn to live with our emptiness and longing, when all the cultural voices around us are telling us to hurry up and fill up that hole? Gerald May believes that we need to change the way we view life and come to understand that emptiness is a part of the earthly journey, a part that our culture will do nothing to affirm and everything to negate. As I expressed in the blog posts in this series about the Psalms, praying and pondering the Psalms has been a significant source of help, comfort and re-orientation in addressing this issue for me.

Gerald May, in his book The Awakened Heart, discusses the seeking and longing that characterize our lives.

Emptiness, yearning, incompleteness: these unpleasant words hold a hope for incomprehensible beauty. It is precisely in these seemingly abhorrent qualities of ourselves – qualities that we spend most of our time trying to fix or deny – that the very thing we most long for can be found: hope for the human spirit, freedom for love. This is a secret known by those who have had the courage to face their own emptiness. [1]

Gerald May writes that we are able to fall in love with life and enjoy each day when we learn to befriend our yearning rather than try to avoid it, when we enter into the “spaciousness of our emptiness” [2] rather than trying constantly to fill it up. This is easier said than done, but many Christians have described a kind of contentedness and peace that comes in accepting life as it is and looking for God’s presence in daily life, rather than constantly expecting God to make everything easy and nice.

Unfortunately, in our culture, we are encouraged to fill our longing for freedom, wholeness, and joy with countless material objects and endless thrilling experiences: clothing, cars, home furnishings, food, sex, alcohol, drugs, vacations, sports, and so forth. Our culture tells us that if we are experiencing desire of any kind, the most important thing to do is fill that desire with something – anything! – immediately. Thus we rush to satisfying our yearnings and cravings without sitting with them long enough to learn from them and to allow them to draw us towards God.

Seminary professor David Rensberger writes,

Although our hunger and thirst are for God, we are always trying to satisfy them with other things. . . . Indeed, our consumer society energetically organizes these means of avoiding the quest for God, offering us a false quest that is sustained with enormous force and skill by the engines of economy, media, and government.[3]

Rensberger believes that it requires an equal force and determination to resist our culture and cling to the truth of the Gospel that only in God can we find what we long for. How do we find in God what we long for? By facing our inner darkness, accepting it, bringing it to God (perhaps by praying the Psalms), relying on God’s grace and forgiveness, and resting in God’s love and presence with us through the Holy Spirit. These are all part of drawing near to God with the heart.

This is the fifth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms        
God's presence through the Holy Spirit

(The series continues next week with "Tears."  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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Gerald May, “Entering the Emptiness,” inSimpler Living, Compassionate Life, Michael Schut, ed. (Denver: Living the Good News, 1999), 48. (An excerpt from The Awakened Heart.)
[2] Ibid.
[3] David Rensberger, “Thirsty for God,” Weavings, July/August 2000, p. 23.

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: God’s presence through the Holy Spirit

Thursday February 23 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: God’s presence through the Holy Spirit

Lent this year starts next week, on 1 March. You may be interested in the Lenten devotional I wrote two years ago, using a psalm for each day of Lent. The devotional is illustrated with beautiful paintings by Dave Baab. You can download the devotional in pdf form here: Draw Near.

In the interviews for my midlife books, many people told of their new appreciation for the daily guidance of the Holy Spirit. They have grown, they tell me, in their ability to hear the nudging and prompting of the Spirit, and they have grown in their willingness to follow what they hear. They have come to realize that God knows much better than we do what needs to be done in the world. Anyone of any age who wants to draw near to God with the heart needs to do some pondering of the role of the Holy Spirit in everyday life.

On the night he was betrayed, Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13). After the resurrection, Jesus told the disciples to stay in Jerusalem “until you have been clothed with power from on high” by the coming of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). The work of the Spirit in us, leading into truth and giving us the power to obey, helps us feel a heart awareness of God’s companionship, guidance and empowering.

For me, most of the Holy Spirit’s promptings involve people I need to contact or to pray for. “Make that call now,” I seem to hear quite often, and I will find the person at home, needing to talk or wanting to share a prayer request. Often I am right in the middle of something else when I feel nudged to act. Often it’s an interruption in my life. But time after time good fruit results from my obedience. I believe that each time I hear the voice of the Spirit and obey, I am training my soul and spirit in a kind of responsive living that can only result in good things for me and for others.

This responsiveness to the Spirit can bring about a spirit of rest and peace, as we realize more deeply that our lives are in God’s hands and that God is guiding us each moment. We don’t have to strain to obey a set of distant and stringent rules. God calls us gently to obedience as a part of a tender relationship with him. We don’t have to rush around, frantically filling our lives with meaningless possessions and thrilling experiences. There is nothing as thrilling as being in the right place at the right time to help someone, and to know that we are there because we listened to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking into our daily lives.

We often feel we should be working extremely hard, straining to serve God and make a difference in the world. Iin contrast, this dependence on the Holy Spirit can lead us into a very different style of service and ministry. Instead of feeling like we have to dream up ways to serve God and then execute our ideas with our own energy and perseverance, we can trust that God, through his Spirit, will show us where he is working and where he wants us to be a part of what he is already doing. This view of ministry can free us from pressure to perform and enable us to rest in God as we try to serve him.

This reliance on the Holy Spirit plays a significant part in our desire to bring our hearts before God and know God deep in our souls. It is the Spirit who illuminates our hearts with God’s wisdom and values, guiding us “into all the truth” as Jesus promised (Jn. 16:13). The Spirit brings the love of God to our inner being. The Spirit guides us in our inner journey, and the Spirit calls us to intimacy and community. Without the Spirit, we cannot experience the passionate wooing of God, and we cannot know how tenderly God longs for us to bring our whole selves to him in integrity and genuineness.

This is the fifth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           
Praying the Psalms         

(The series continues next week with “Facing the inner darkness.” Illustration: St Clair Beach Dunedin at high tide 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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

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