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

Lynne's Blog

Letting go of agendas as we listen

Saturday December 6 2014

Letting go of agendas as we listen

Eleven years ago our son came to us asking advice about whether we thought he should marry his girlfriend of three years. They were both 23, and he felt that was too young to get married. My husband and I agreed with that assessment, but we also agreed with him that this lovely young woman was just about the best thing that had ever happened to him.

After our son talked through the pros and cons of getting married, I said: “Yes, you’re both too young to get married, and yes, she’s an absolutely wonderful person. You have a tough decision to make.” For the first time as a parent, I genuinely did not have an opinion about what he should do. Previously, I struggled and prayed about whether or not to voice my opinion. This time, I truly didn’t know what he should do.

I’ve looked back on that moment many times. The quality of my listening changed when I realized I genuinely didn’t have an opinion, and that I genuinely wanted to support him in whatever he decided to do. Yes, I would pray for guidance for him, but it was his (and her) big decision to make, not mine.

In the past three years I’ve been researching, teaching, speaking and writing about listening. I have come to believe that many of the same listening skills and listening obstacles apply both to listening to people and listening to God. One of the biggest obstacles comes from having an agenda while listening.

That agenda might be our certainty that we know what another person should do or believe, which I so frequently experienced as a mother of teenagers. My kids would talk about something they wanted to do, and I could see so clearly it wasn’t a good idea, and my struggle in the conversation was to find wisdom. What was the best way to influence them?

(These are the opening paragraphs of an article that was recently published in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality. Read the rest of the article here. If you'd like to receive email updates when I post something on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right colum of this webpage.)

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.)

An amusing story of why listening matters

Sunday September 21 2014

An amusing story of why listening matters

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.)

Holy Listening

Saturday September 13 2014

Holy Listening

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:

  • understanding the viewpoints of others in order to serve them, respect them, pray for them, or respond appropriately to what they have said
  • allowing people to talk through the events and concerns of their life, so they can articulate the way their faith has intersected with those events and concerns
  • paying attention to God’s voice in order to draw near in love and obedience, for individuals and for groups

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.")



[i]“Holy and Active Listening” by Craig Satterlee, Alban Weekly, No. 98 (June 5, 2006).

[ii]Ibid.

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Friday August 15 2014

The Role of Listening in Nurturing Christian Discipleship

Two years ago I was in the middle of writing my book on listening and I was stuck. I had written a good chapter on listening for the sake of mission. I had written three chapters on listening to God in communal discernment, in communal spiritual practices and through communal engagement with the Bible. I had written basic chapters on listening skills, why and how we listen, and obstacles to listening. I had one chapter left to write, focused on listening to each other within a congregation.

I had quite a few good stories to use in that one remaining chapter, but I didn’t have a central idea for the chapter. My stories and ideas felt scattered.

I set the book aside to go to an academic conference that I was not particularly excited about. The only thing I was anticipating was two keynote talks by Nancy Tatom Ammerman. She described her most recent research on spiritual patterns among people in various religions, and to my great delight she gave me the unifying idea for my troublesome chapter. In addition to helping with that chapter, her research helped me gain an entirely new perspective on the significance of listening in all forms of discipleship and spiritual formation.

Ammerman and her team of researchers interviewed dozens people in Boston and Atlanta about their spiritual convictions and practices. They sought out people with diverse religious commitments: Protestants, Roman Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Wiccans, atheists, agnostics, New Age practitioners, etc. They found that the people who had the deepest spiritual commitment also had friends with whom they talked about the overlap between their spiritual commitment and their everyday lives, between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the ordinary. Ammerman called these friends “spiritual compatriots.”

The research showed that people most often found these spiritual compatriots in three settings: congregations, the home and the workplace. The congregation has special significance, because congregations provide places for people to learn to talk about this overlap between God and daily life. People then brought that ability to talk about God’s role in everyday life into their homes, and they often found people at work with whom they could talk about it.

Ammerman said that the people who were the most comfortable talking about this overlap of the holy and the ordinary were the people who were the most involved in mission of various forms.

After listening to Ammerman, I spent a lot of time thinking about the places in congregations where people talk about the overlap between their faith and their daily life: small groups, men’s and women’s events, retreats, coffee hour, etc. Good sermons model ways to talk about this overlap. The key is to make space for people not just to chat and get to know each other, but to go deeper to the place where they are able to talk about where God is in their daily lives, how they feel called to follow Jesus in everyday life, where they feel the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowering.

I began to think about pastoral care, which has often been viewed as a good and necessary thing, but somewhat separate from discipleship or mission. Often the major crises of life are the places where we see God at work most profoundly. Maybe God seems clearly present guiding the cancer patient to the right doctor or helping feuding siblings to get along at a funeral. Maybe God seems particularly absent in a crisis. Making room for people to talk about God’s presence and absence in big challenges, a major task of pastoral care, now seems to me to be integrally connected to Christian discipleship and mission.

Conversations where we can talk about the overlap between the Christian faith and daily life require good listening, drawing people out, and asking perceptive questions. We need to allow conversations to go on long enough for people to work their way around to the issue of where and how they experienced God in a particular situation. Because of Nancy Ammerman’s research (recounted in her book Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life) I saw the significance of listening in congregational life in a whole new light.

(If you'd like to receive an email alert when I add a new post to this blog, sign up over in the right hand column where it says "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

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