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Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Friday February 17 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Lent starts this year 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.

Throughout the ages, the psalms have been the prayer book of the Bible, used by Jews and Christians for individual prayer and for prayer in congregations. As we learn to face with increased honestly the wide variety of emotions inside us, praying the psalms can be both comforting and challenging. During my years of psalm reading, described in last week’s post, I often found that my reading turned into prayer, and I came to love the psalms as prayers. They voice for me so many parts of myself, and they bring those aspects of my personality and emotions into God’s presence in prayer.

When I pray the psalms, I receive several gifts from God. I feel connected to people throughout the ages who have prayed these same words. Because so many of my unsettling emotions are expressed in the psalms, I feel that God must accept my volatile and passionate feelings because the psalm writers and so many people down through the years have brought those very same emotions to God in prayer. When I pray the psalms, I receive peace and acceptance from God.

If you want to begin a pattern of praying the psalms, here are some suggestions. If you want to pray a psalm that is completely new to you, or only somewhat familiar, it helps to read the psalm through first to get an idea of what it is about. Then pray it. You may feel most comfortable reading the words very slowly as you pray. I find that when I pray a psalm, I read the words more slowly than usual, but only slightly more slowly. The pace is up to you. Experiment with what seems most comfortable.

You may wonder where to start if you want to begin to pray the psalms. One suggestion is to start with psalms you have read or heard before. Find those familiar psalms in your Bible and, instead of reading them, pray them. Often I start with a well-loved psalm and then continue praying the ones that come next. You can also start at the beginning, with the first psalm, and pray one or more each day. A wide variety of emotions and styles of prayer can be found in almost any set of consecutive psalms.

Often when praying a psalm, I find that the emotions being expressed are not anywhere close to what I am feeling at the time. In those instances, I often find myself remembering other times when I’ve felt those emotions. I also remember that others all around the world must be feeling those emotions right at the moment I am praying. I try to pray the words on behalf of the people who God loves who are feeling those emotions right now. In that way, praying the psalms is a prayer form that connects me with people all over the world.

Praying psalms in a group setting is also very rewarding. Invite the group to begin by reading the psalm aloud as a group, either in unison or having one half read the odd numbered verses and the other half read the even numbered verses. Then give the group enough time to pray the psalm individually in silence. After a nice leisurely amount of time, read the psalm aloud again, using the same method as you used the first time. You may want to end with a time of sharing, allowing participants to describe what the experience was like for them. Or you may want to encourage participants to write in a journal after the prayer time.

These days, my most common form of praying the Psalms is to hum along with the Sons of Korah, an Australian band that sings the psalms. They've got many CDs, and many of their songs have been posted on YouTube, which you can find here.

This is the fourth 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           

(The series continues next week with “God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.” 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.)

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: A journey with the Psalms

Thursday February 9 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: A journey with the Psalms

Soon after my fortieth birthday, I found I couldn’t read the Bible. All the ethical and theological truths of the Bible, which I had been studying consistently for the twenty years I had been a Christian, seemed dry and lifeless. It was as if my soul couldn’t bear to take in one more piece of truth. It seemed as though my soul was longing for something to touch my whole being, not just my mind.

As I look back, I can see that it wasn’t really a time of spiritual dryness; it was more a time to integrate what I already knew and to bring my whole self to God. At the time, though, it was disconcerting and occasionally scary.

I don’t really know how it happened, but one day I read a psalm and found that I could connect with the emotions expressed in it. Maybe I heard a psalm in Sunday worship, and I realized the Psalms could help me find the integration I was longing for. Maybe I picked up a Bible and by a random choice (and God’s grace), I read a psalm. However it happened, I read one psalm and felt a connection with the Bible for the first time in months. A few days later, I read another psalm. For the next two or three years, the Psalms were my constant companions, even though I still couldn’t connect with anything else in the Bible.

The psalm writers came to feel like friends. I was amazed at the variety of emotions portrayed in the Psalms. The integration of my whole being before God, for which I had been longing, came true for me through the Psalms. The Psalms modeled for me the radical truth that every part of me – the loving, peaceful and devoted self, along with the discouraged, irritable, and vindictive self – can be brought to God in prayer. The Psalms nudged me into a new kind of prayer involving my whole self and all my emotions.

The sheer overwhelming praises in so many psalms helps us capture that joy and exuberance in God’s presence with us. “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation” (Ps 95:1). “Praise him with trumpet sound, praise him with the lute and harp!” (Ps 150:3). Psalm 107 reminds us of a variety of ways that God acts in human history. “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, and for his wonderful works to humankind” (Ps 107:31).

Emotions that we consider negative are portrayed just as vividly. Discouragement and depression were very real to the psalm writers. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire. . . . I am weary with my crying: my throat is parched” (Ps 69:1-3). The psalmist feels distant from God: “My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Ps 69:3).

Self-pity, anger, irritation, and desire for vengeance all appear in the Psalms. Here is just one example: “One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy” (Ps 101:5). This profound honesty about the vicissitudes of human emotion can be very helpful in these challenging times, when life often seems more confusing than ever before. These kind of words help us grow in facing the inner darkness inside us so we can bring it honestly before God.

Longing and thirsting for God are woven throughout the Psalms, and the psalm writers move rapidly from longing to praise and thanks and confession and back to longing. The Psalms validate our spiritual experience in a way that no other literature can do, and they give us hope that our painful longings and uncomfortable yearnings may give way to praise any moment.

In my years with the Psalms, I read them, prayed them, memorized them, sang them, wrote bits of them in my calendar, and allowed them to shape my own prayers. I was aware in my mid-forties that I was not the same person I was in my thirties, and part of that change was brought about by my immersion for several years in the Psalms. The Psalms have allowed me to face my own inner turmoil more honestly and they have helped me bring more parts of myself to God in prayer. They have called me to praise and thanks in a powerfully transforming way. They have given me the kind of hope that resides deep in the heart and illuminates daily life.

(Next week: Praying the Psalms. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab: Organist in All Saints, Dunedin, responding to the common call in the Psalms to praise God using music. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

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 by clicking here: Draw Near.

Jesus' model of hearing God's guidance

Wednesday January 4 2017

Jesus' model of hearing God's guidance

As we begin a new year, I’m thinking about what I desire for this year. I’d love to hear God’s guidance more clearly and more often. A story from Jesus’ early ministry is shaping how I think about this desire.

The Gospel of Mark records a busy first week of ministry for Jesus (Mark 1:14-34). Jesus announces the “good news of God” and calls disciples. He heals a man with an unclean spirit and many other people, including Simon’s mother-in-law. He casts out demons. He teaches in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

The next morning, “while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35).

Simon and the other brand new disciples hunt for him. When they find him they tell him that everyone is looking for him, presumably to ask for more healing. Instead of jumping up and going back with the disciples to the village where they were the day before, Jesus replies, “Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do” (Mark 1:38).

Jesus’ time of prayer in the dark morning gave him a renewed sense of his purpose. He was able to say “no” to other people’s agendas because he knew what he “came out to do.” I long to have that kind of clarity about my purpose, so I wish the Gospel writer had recorded more details. I have so many questions about this incident.

I wonder what Jesus was thinking and feeling when he talked about going on to the neighboring towns to proclaim the message. Was he frustrated that so many people came to him to be healed the day before rather than wanting to hear more about the good news of God? Did he want to go on to the other towns so he could get back to his ministry of preaching? Or did he view his healing ministry as a part of proclaiming the good news? Did he simply want to scatter the seed widely, both by preaching and healing, so it was important to move on to new villages? I admit that the answers to these questions wouldn’t have a huge impact on my own life and ministry, but I’m curious.

I have other questions that are more relevant to my desire to hear God’s guidance clearly. I wonder about what happened in the very early morning in that deserted place. Did Jesus hear the voice of his Father giving new instructions? Maybe he heard, “You did a lot of healing yesterday in only one town. You need to go to other towns and focus on proclamation as well as healing.”

Perhaps being alone, away from the clamoring crowds, helped Jesus recover his original sense of call. He says, “This is why I came out,” and perhaps some time alone enabled him to evaluate the previous week in the light of his resolve. Maybe solitude and prayer renewed his clarity about his goals.

I wonder if maybe the time alone with his Father in prayer was simply pure joy. Maybe he knew his calling clearly and felt that the days before had been significant and purposeful. Maybe he just wanted a few peaceful moments to enjoy intimacy with his Father.

I also wonder if being in a deserted place, enjoying the beautiful world he helped create, gave him a sense of restored purpose. It was full dark when he got there, but perhaps the birds’ raucous dawn chorus began while he was praying. Perhaps a sliver of light on the eastern horizon announced the arrival of the sun and revealed the trees and green hills of Galilee. Perhaps the beauty of what he could see and hear reminded him that he came to earth to restore the whole created order to its original design.

I don’t want to say that time alone in prayer at dawn is the only way to gain or regain a clear sense of the goals and purpose God has for us. But I do think Jesus provides a model that combines several components: intimacy and joy in God’s presence; listening to God’s guidance; and enjoying the beauty of the earth that came from the mind and Word of God, and which now needs to be restored back to its intended purpose. I want to listen to the pattern of Jesus’ life and learn how to draw near to God more often and more fully.

(You may enjoy a blog post from last January about two postures for entering the new year. Next week: Four kinds of home. 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 originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Quotations I love: Breton Fisherman's Prayer

Thursday November 17 2016

Quotations I love: Breton Fisherman's Prayer

Dear God, be good to me. The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.
          —Breton fishermans’ prayer

What component of your life feels like a wide sea: overwhelming, scary, hard to navigate, with storms that might arise any moment? Is it a health issue for you or someone you love? A relationship challenge? A job or financial issue? Something political?

I love the power of the metaphor here, acknowledging that we often feel that our boat in the wide sea is just too small for safety. We need God’s help because on our own, some components of life are just too overwhelming. We need a sense of God’s enfolding, God’s arms holding us up, because some aspects of life are just too scary. We need God’s guidance because the sea looks the same in every direction.

I can’t remember where I came across this prayer many years ago. I have used it on cards and stationery for at least two decades. I have prayed it many times, and I’ve given the prayer to others in times of crisis.

When I did some online research to try to find the source of the quotation, I learned that this prayer was given to new submarine captains by Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986). He gave President Kennedy a plaque with the words. Kennedy used this quotation in his remarks at the dedication of the East Coast Memorial to the Missing at Sea, May 23, 1963.  He kept the plaque on his desk in the Oval Office, and a replica of the plaque is available at the Kennedy Presidential Library.

The words on the plaque, however, are slightly different than the words I’ve been using for decades. The Rickover/Kennedy version goes like this: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.”

In the past few days, since I found that information and the slightly different version of the prayer, I’ve been pondering the difference between “the sea” and “thy sea.” The former, which I have been praying and thinking about for years, implies that the sea is simply there. The latter implies that the sea somehow comes from God or belongs to God.

I’m not willing to assert that evil comes from God, so I don’t believe God causes the bad things in our lives. But can get on board with the idea that “thy sea” implies that the big, overwhelming and challenging aspects of our lives, in some way, belong to God.

How are we to respond to this sense of being overwhelmed and challenged by big things? Build bigger boats? My husband, Dave, spent two years on the USS Enterprise floating around off the coast of Vietnam. The Enterprise is about as big as a ship can get, 247 meters (810 feet) long, almost one quarter of a kilometer and just over one sixth of a mile. Even on a ship that big, Dave says tropical storms in the Pacific were scary.

The only solution, as the prayer describes, is to rely on God’s mercy and help. And that’s okay, because that’s what we were created for. “This I declare about the LORD: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him” (Psalm 91:2, NLT). “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him. He alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.” (Psalm 62:5, 6, NLT).

(Next week: a few quotations on attention. 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.)

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

Friday September 30 2016

Quotations I love: moving from intending to pray to actually praying

“There is a moment between intending to pray and actually praying that is as stark and silent as any moment in our lives. It is the split second between thinking about prayer and really praying. . . . How easy it is, and yet – between us and the possibility of prayer there seems to be a great gulf fixed: an abyss of our own making that separates us from God.” – Emilie Griffin [1]

It is no accident that throughout history, Jews and Christians have prayed at meals and at bedtime. Humans are creatures of habit, and we do anything more easily when it’s connected to a life rhythm so it can become habitual. When I was a child, my parents, my brother or I said a memorized grace every night at dinner, and my mom sat with me at bedtime and encouraged me to say a memorized prayer. With these memorized prayers at meals and at bedtime, did we make the leap from perfunctory words – intending to pray – to actually praying? I think sometimes we did.

I collect stories about people’s actual spiritual practices, and I’ve heard about praying while:
     watering flower pots
     taking a shower
     taking a deep breath after children go off to school
     driving past a school or hospital
     hearing an ambulance or rescue helicopter
     gardening
     walking
     swimming laps
     washing dishes
     waiting in line

One of the more intriguing stories I heard recently is a fellow who has set his cell phone to make a beautiful bell sound at 9 am, noon and 3 pm. When he hears the sound, he stops what he’s doing and prays – briefly or not so briefly.

My husband Dave and I say grace together every night at dinner, but I wish I were better at thanking God for food when I eat alone. At various times in my life, I’ve had habits of praying while walking outside to get the mail, doing laundry and flossing my teeth. I recently read an article in the New York Times about linking mindfulness meditation to brushing teeth. The same could be done with prayer. (The article made me feel better about my somewhat weird praying-while-flossing habit!)

I always pray after I turn out the light at night. I wonder if that practice is rooted in those bland prayers I prayed every night as a child with my mother. Surely every Christian parent who prays at bedtime with children hopes that the habit will stick.

If you have trouble getting from thinking about praying to actually praying, I encourage you to ponder your daily habits and patterns. Which habits could you link to prayer? People of faith throughout the centuries have found it helpful to make a connection between daily patterns of life and prayer. New habits take a while to develop, but eventually the new action (prayer) becomes linked to the already existing pattern of life.

A second suggestion for making the leap from thinking about praying to actually praying relates to our need for God. Someone once told me there are basically only two prayers: "thank you" and "help me." I’ve written many times about prayers of thanks which can easily be connected to daily habits (see the list below), so I’ll say something here about the significance of considering our need for God.

What exactly do I need from God? Lots of things! Lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to express my need for God in the simplest manner possible, and I’ve come up with four basic needs:
     comfort
     guidance
     empowerment/energy
     a sense of God’s presence

I find that when I can name what I need from God, it’s easier to make the leap from intending to pray to actually praying.

Ultimately, the character of God is our biggest invitation to prayer: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 3:15, 16). Here’s the Message version of the same verses: “He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all – all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.”

(Next week: a quotation by Thomas Merton on the divine shining through everyday life. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Previous posts on thankfulness:
     A thankfulness challenge    
     Another thankfulness challenge    
     Thankfulness and sentness    
     Regret and fear are thieves    

[1] Foster, Richard J. & Yanni, Kathryn A., Celebrating the Disciplines: A Journal Workbook to Accompany Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper Collins Publishers: 1992), 14.

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