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Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

Thursday September 22 2016

Quotations I love: Eugene Peterson on paying attention

"I think the pastor's chief job is not to get something done but to pay attention to what's going on, and to be able to name it, and to encourage it – nobody else is going to do that."
              – interview with Eugene Peterson [1]

When my kids were in elementary school, I read a book on parenting that made an interesting suggestion. The author wrote that compliments should focus on what the child had done, rather than just saying, “great job” or “beautiful painting.” Compliments like this would help the child be motivated to do more of the same, the author suggested: “You put a lot of time into that tree you drew. Look at the leaves and the fruit!” “I watched you welcome that new girl into the group. You showed kindness to her.” “I see careful and precise writing on this homework assignment.”

That book changed the way I complimented my kids, husband, friends and family members. Later, when I was a minister in a congregation, the fact that I had been practicing those kinds of specific compliments helped me pay attention to what was going on. I tried to notice what people were doing well in their congregational ministries and in other activities, and I worked hard to find specific things to notice and mention.

This week one of my Māori students mentioned a Māori proverb: He tāngata kitea, he tāngata ora – A person seen is a person alive. Part of what I love about my husband, Dave, is that he sees me. He notices moments when I show love or kindness to people, and he mentions those moments to me later. When I speak or preach, if he’s in the audience or congregation, he often tells me something I said that he appreciates. This noticing makes me feel so loved, and I feel encouraged to continue to do the same kinds of things.

In the interview where Eugene Peterson said the words above, he was contrasting the role of pastors in getting things done versus being the kind of person who notices what God is doing through the people and the community. I wonder if most of us focus too much on getting things done in our roles as parents, spouses and friends. I wonder if focusing most of the time on the task at hand mutes the ability to see the other person – child, spouse, friends, family members – and what God is doing in them and through them.

What are the spiritual practices that help us see? Last week I wrote about the challenges of focusing on the past with faith and the future with hope, as well as living in the present as much as possible. The practices I mentioned last week – including breath prayer, thankfulness, reflecting on helpful scriptures – can also help us see because they show us down, help us set aside fear and regret so we can be more present to each moment.

Here are some things to watch for in the actions of people we love:

1. Acts of kindness.

2. Creative activities in many areas of life.

3. Acts of perseverance, faithfulness and risk.

4. Innate personality attributes and how they manifest themselves (such as seeing the big picture, being good with details, thinking analytically, considering the impact of actions on people, being organized, being flexible).

Then, after you see these things, mention them to the person in your life. Let that person know that you see him or her. A person seen is a person alive. A person seen feels encouraged to show more love, act more faithfully and use their gifts more often and more fully.

(Next week: moving from that moment of thinking about praying to actually praying. Watercolor by Dave Baab, the wonderful husband I mentioned above. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] from a talk at Catalyst West, 2011 about being formed as a pastor. You can listen to it here.

Two postures for entering into the New Year

Wednesday January 6 2016

Two postures for entering into the New Year

What do I need to remember as I enter 2016? What do I need to embrace for a fresh start in a new year? Here are two foundational ideas or postures that I’m hoping will shape 2016 for me. “Posture” implies a way of standing, and I hope I can stand firm in these two truths.

1. I am beloved. Henri Nouwen talks about being beloved more vividly than anyone else I’ve read. In his wonderful book, The Life of the Beloved, he writes:

Becoming the Beloved means letting the truth of our Belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say, or do. . . . What is required is to become the Beloved in the commonplaces of my daily existence and, bit by bit, to close the gap that exists between what I know myself to be and the countless specific realities of everyday life. Becoming the Beloved is pulling the truth revealed to me from above into the ordinariness of what I am, in fact, thinking of, talking about, and doing from hour to hour (pages 45 and 46).

I love that he discusses the “gap that exists between what I know myself to be” as God’s beloved and “the countless specific realities of everyday life.” God’s love is described so vividly in the Bible, and it pours into my life in so many ways, yet so often I don’t feel it or dwell in it. It’s so easy to feel self-critical. The task, according to Nouwen, is to pull “the truth revealed to me from above into the ordinariness” of daily life.

This is not necessarily easy, and I’m so glad he affirms the challenge. In the middle of the quotation above, he writes that this “entails a long and painful process of appropriation or, better, incarnation.” In 2016 I want to grow in beginning each day from a place of belovedness that flows into daily life. I want to see belovedness incarnated in my life more and more each day. I am God’s beloved child and I want to live that way.

2. I am sent. My second foundational attitude or posture for 2016 comes from the benediction Pastor Doug Kelly says most Sundays at Seattle’s Bethany Presbyterian Church: “You go nowhere by accident. Everywhere you go, God has a purpose for your being there.”[1]

Our word “mission” comes from the Latin “missio,” which means sent. In his prayer for all believers, Jesus says, “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world” (John 17:18). We have been sent into the world as Jesus was sent, so it’s true that we go nowhere by accident. (If you'd like to read more about being sent, I highly recommend Sentness: Six Postures for Missional Christians by my friend Darren Cronshaw and Kim Hammond.)

So God has a purpose for us wherever we go, even in the moments when that purpose seems quite small or insignificant. What is that purpose? Here are some of the ways I would describe it:

To be faithful to God’s call each day.
To show God’s love to the people around me as much as possible.
To be God’s agent of reconciliation in as many settings as possible.
To abide in Christ so that I can bear the lasting fruit God wants me to bear.

I want to go into 2016 knowing I am beloved and knowing I have been sent to exactly the place where I am. I want to follow God’s guidance and fulfill God’s purposes as much as I can, resting in the fact that I am God’s beloved child.

As you enter 2016, here are some questions to reflect on:

1. In what settings do you know deep inside that you are God’s beloved? Make plans to go to those places often in 2016.

2. What are the biggest obstacles to knowing you are beloved? With whom could you talk and pray about those obstacles?

3. If someone asked you, “what is your purpose in Christ,” how would you answer?

4. What are the biggest obstacles you experience to knowing you go nowhere by accident? With whom could you talk and pray about those obstacles?

(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 originally appeared on the Godspace blog. Illustration: Lynne Baab at age four, watercolor by Dave Baab.)

[1] Doug Kelly's benediction comes from Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the U.S. Senate. Halverson's benediction went like this: "You go nowhere by accident. Wherever you go, God is sending you. Wherever you are, God has put you there. God has a purpose in your being there. Christ lives in you and has something he wants to do through you where you are. Believe this and go in the grace and love and power of Jesus Christ." When corresponding with Doug Kelly about this blog post, Doug wrote: "I heard the benediction at a conference where the speaker had met with Halverson at the end of his time at a church and he asked him what was the most impactful thing he had given his church.  Halverson thought it was probably this benediction."

Words matter

Sunday November 9 2014

Words matter

My husband remembers her as peaceful and serene. I remember her as a contented woman with a cheerful, almost fey, personality. Remembering her makes me smile because being around her was a joy.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this particular woman. We knew her when we were in our thirties. Perhaps I’ve been thinking about her because I’m so concerned about the lack of civility in public discourse today. I wrote about that last week.

Words shape us. Words give us lenses through which we view the world. We need to be so careful with words because of their impact on the us – the one speaking or writing the words – as well as on the hearers or readers.

This woman I’m thinking about was slim and pretty. I always knew there was something a bit odd about the skin on her face, but I never really focused on it because her lovely personality and graceful way of moving overshadowed anything about her skin. After I had known her for several years, I learned that she had been in a car accident when she was about 10. The windshield exploded into her face, and she had hundreds of small scars on her face.

The plastic surgeon told her mother that the most important thing the mother could do was tell her daughter she was pretty. So this mother obeyed the surgeon, and the result was a confident woman who was lovely inside and out, even though she still had tiny scars all over her face.

Words matter. The words that come out of our mouths can indicate what’s going on in our hearts and minds. Jesus is absolutely right when he says, “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). Sometimes, though, our hearts are in the right place, but we simply don’t speak the words of affirmation or comfort that we’d like to say. Perhaps we’re afraid to sound stupid or vulnerable.

Words help us describe reality, and words shape the way we understand reality. James uses the metaphor of the tongue as a rudder that steers a ship. Sometimes we need to speak up, in a positive or encouraging way, so our own hearts and minds will be steered more profoundly in the direction of love. And we need to speak up, with encouraging and gracious words, in order to describe and even shape the reality of the people God has put around us.

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column of this webpage.)