The 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 BaabNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century

Lynne's Blog

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

Saturday May 12 2018

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

The setting: a worship service on Mother’s Day

The AHA moment: the prayer that gave permission for people to struggle on that day

About 20 years ago on Mother’s Day, my good friend and colleague was leading the prayer time in the worship service. Over the years, I had sat through many prayers on Mother’s Day that expressed thanks to God for mothers, a good thing to do.

This was the first time I heard a prayer that expressed those appropriate thanks to God, but also acknowledged that Mother’s Day is hard for some people. My friend mentioned couples who struggle with infertility or had lost a child, women who were single and wished to be married and have children, and those who had difficult relationships with their own mothers or their children.

It truly was an AHA moment for me. For various reasons I had never liked Mother’s Day very much, and here was someone naming some of my ambivalence and struggle. Her words conveyed such freedom and acceptance to me.

Right now I’m teaching an online class for Hope International University on leading communal spiritual practices. In some of our online discussion we have talked about the fact that all leaders of communal spiritual practices need to lay out the goal and structure of various practices with optimism for the great experience spiritual practices offer. However, at the same time, leaders need to affirm that people come into those practices with diverse feelings, and they will have different experiences as they engage in the practices as well.

As leaders in any setting, we have to make room for people to talk about, pray about, and think about their gratitude for the great blessings they experience, as well as the sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings they experience. Both are real. Both sets of feelings can and should be brought into God’s presence.

With respect to motherhood, I suspect most mothers have at least some mixed feelings, no matter how much they appreciate the gift of children. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned feelings of great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings. I suspect that most mothers experience all of those at various times when they think about their children. I know I did when my children were still living at home. Sometimes I still do.

Many people have experienced great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings related to their relationship (or lack thereof) with their own mother.

What does it look like in Christian spirituality to praise God for the good gifts we experience and also allow honest expression of the thoughts and emotions we consider to be negative? What does it look like to encourage thankfulness and praise, while also giving people permission to pray and talk about the struggles?

And what does it look like for someone who loves Mother’s Day to make room for those who experience the day as a mixed blessing? And vice versa?

The Psalms provide a powerful model for the movement between thanks, praise, sadness, anger, loss, and lament. I’ve been praying the Psalms for many years, and the variety of emotions in the Psalms has helped me bring my own mixed and complex emotions into God’s presence so many times.

But what about those emotions expressed in the Psalms that we’re not feeling? Someone once told me that whenever we come across an emotion in a psalm that we’re not feeling, we can pray that verse on behalf of the people around the world who are having that experience.

I wonder if we could adopt that strategy on Mother’s Day. In prayer, we can express our own emotions about the day, but we can also enter into the feelings of those who experience the day differently. The Psalms model God’s welcome of everything we feel, as well as God’s compassion for those whose experience is different from ours.

(Next week: Let’s thank 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 originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

One year ago on this blog: the blog post series that got more comments on the blog and on Facebook than any other series I've written. It focuses on the spiritual practice, new to me at that time, of separating thoughts from feelings. That spiritual practice is still hugely important to me. The first post is here, and you can click "next" at the end of the post to get to the next one. The series has five posts.

Nature speaks about God: Jesus in a boat on Greenlake

Friday March 30 2018

Nature speaks about God: Jesus in a boat on Greenlake

Greenlake is a little gem of a lake in North Seattle, with a three mile long walking track around it. I lived 16 years of my adult life within a few blocks of Greenlake.

When my kids were young, I tried to walk and pray three times a week at Greenlake. Sometimes my husband, Dave, stayed with the kids and sometimes I hired a teenager babysitter.

I would leave our house and walk the eight blocks to the lake. I entered the lake path right by a patch of cattails where red winged blackbirds liked to hang out, so as I turned to begin walking beside the lake, I would look for birds. After a few steps, the clear water of the lake was on my left, and I imagined Jesus there in a rowboat.

As I walked, I handed things to Jesus in the rowboat: my concerns, my worries, my desires, and the needs of my kids. As I handed Jesus each object, he threw it into the lake. I imagined those thoughts and emotions hitting the water and disappearing, and I felt lighter and freer.

When I reached the south end of the lake, I turned back and continued to imagine Jesus in the boat. Now, as I walked the opposite direction, I pictured him handing me things from his seat in the rowboat on the beautiful lake: peace, joy, and patience.

When I got to the cattails, and Jesus could no longer be there beside me in the boat, I usually felt refreshed and renewed by being in his presence.

In his earthly life, Jesus was outdoors a lot. He spent time on boats on the Sea of Galilee. He walked the hundred miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem many times, crossing the wide plain of the Jezreel Valley and climbing up and down big hills. He went out alone in the mornings to spend time with his Father in prayer.

When Jesus gave me peace, joy, and patience from the boat I imagined on Greenlake, he was speaking to me from a place in nature. Jesus is at home in nature as its creator and as the one who came from heaven to walk our dusty paths.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been writing posts about how nature speaks to us about God. I want to summarize the patterns I have described. As I’ve written the posts, I have been surprised at the diversity of the messages God has spoken to me through nature:

I invite you to ponder the variety of ways nature has spoken to you. What diverse things does God say to you through nature?

(Next week I’ll write about the ways nature has spoken to me about my experience of the absence of God. Illustration: the walking path at Greenlake right by where I used to turn around. Watercolor 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.)

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Saturday February 24 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Below are thought-provoking quotations about contemplative prayer, which has as a central focus listening to God in prayer.

“Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is ‘an intimate sharing between friends,’ to use the words of Teresa of Avila.”
—Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water

Ben, 56, says, “The contemplative experience helped me focus on knowing God and the presence of God and God’s love for me. It’s what got me outside myself and outside of thinking about how I’m doing in life. The traditions that I grew up with emphasized holiness and obedience. Even though the focus was supposed to be on God, you ended up focusing on yourself and how well you were doing in obeying God. By receiving God’s love in contemplative prayer, it freed me from self-focus, and that opened me to other people, to God’s work in the world, as well as the character of God in my own life.”

“Contemplative prayer is addressed to the human situation just as it is. It is designed to heal the consequences of the human condition, which is basically the privation of the divine presence. Everyone suffers from this disease. If we accept the fact that we are suffering from a serious pathology, we possess a point of departure for the spiritual journey. The pathology is simply this: we have come to full reflective self-consciousness without experience of God. Because that crucial reassurance is missing, our fragile egos desperately seek other means of shoring up our weaknesses and defending ourselves from the pain of alienation from God and from other  people. Contemplative prayer is the divine remedy for this illness.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love

Brian, 40, reflects, “The goal of prayer is prayer, entering into intimacy with God. Period. It’s not for the purpose of dealing with midlife or depression or to be better adjusted or anything else. Lectio divinaand all those contemplative prayer forms are good, but not if they are confused with prayer itself. Any sorts of patterns will stop working eventually. They can lead you into prayer initially, but they can also get in the way. That’s one of the common blinders in the popularizing of spirituality – mistaking the helpful thing for the thing itself. People are self-help junkies, spiritual consumers looking for the next best thing to consume. We are broken people, we need God, and the heart of spirituality is to recognize our brokenness and need for God. We are too quick to replace God with all kinds of tips, ideas, plans, and programs to help us draw near to God.”

“It is unwise to judge a prayer period on the basis of your psychological experience. Sometimes you may be bombarded with thought all during the time of prayer; yet it could be a very useful period of prayer. Your attention might have been much deeper than it seemed. In any case, you cannot make a valid judgment about how things are going on the basis of a single period of prayer. Instead, you must look for the fruit in your ordinary daily life, after a month or two. If you are becoming more patient with others, more at ease with yourself, if you shout less often or less loudly at the children, feel less hurt if the family complains about your cooking – all these are signs that another set of values is beginning to operate in you.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Heart, Open Mind

This is the last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: The first post in a new series: Nature Speaks About God. 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.)

Previous posts in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             
Availability

Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

Thursday February 15 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Availability

The contemplative prayer tradition has always emphasized listening and receptivity. Richard Foster points out the dangers inherent in this tradition. Foster believes that the most common danger is the separation of prayer from everyday life. In addition, he mentions the peril of devaluing intellectual efforts to articulate our faith and the tendency to become so individualistic that we neglect the community of faith.[1]

M. Robert Mulholland, Jr., Asbury Seminary professor, might respond to Richard Foster’s concerns this way: “A life of abiding in God is characterized by a heart whose deepest cry echoes and re-echoes through every aspect of its life – ‘Thy  will be done.’ . . . True prayer is a life of radical abiding in God.”

Mulholland goes on to say, “True prayer is a life of radical availability to God in the world.”[2]

When we try to listen to God in prayer, we are doing one thing that helps us abide in Christ. As we grow in our ability to abide in Christ, we will find ourselves drawn into his ministry and his concerns. In his life on earth, Jesus modeled a radical dependence on God his Father, coupled with a radical availability to people in need. We cannot love Jesus Christ without loving the people around us. We cannot love Jesus without caring about his priorities and values.

If we are available in this way to God, the messages we receive from God will often be practical, even mundane. Joyce Huggett, in The Joy of Listening to God, writes, “Early in my prayer pilgrimage, I discovered that listening to God did not necessarily result in mystical experiences. Often, it was not other-worldly at all. Rather, it was a deeply practical affair.”

Huggett recounts the time she was praying when the words, “Ring Valerie,” kept coming to her mind. She responded by phoning her friend Valerie at just the right moment to help with a crisis situation.[3]

Over and over as I pray, God has brought to my mind people who I need to call, write to, or pray for. As I respond in obedience to the voice of God in this way, I continue to grow in my ability to hear his practical instructions to me for how to love the people around me.

Surely God’s will for me is that I become more like Jesus. This means that I am called to be available to the people God brings into my life, just like Jesus was. This kind of availability is integrally connected to prayer.

This is the second to last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: some vivid quotations about listening to God in prayer. 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.)

Previous posts in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             

[1] Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water (New York: Harper San Francisco, 1998), 53-56.
[2] M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. “Prayer as Availability to God,” Weavings, Sept/Oct 1997, 24-25.
[3] Joyce Huggett, The Joy of Listening to God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986),  206-206.

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Thursday February 8 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Ben's story

Ben is 56 years old, and he works as an administrator at a university. He describes the way he learned to listen to God in prayer, and what he listens for:

In my twenties and thirties, I was a history professor and department chair. I always loved studying and learning and teaching, and I always kept very busy doing it. There simply wasn’t a lot of time for reflection. Or, to be more accurate, I didn’t choose to take any time for reflection during those years. When I’m honest about it, I can see that in my forties, I didn’t have any fewer pressures to do things, it’s just that I could no longer resist the pressure from within to spend some amount of time reflecting.

In my forties, I pastored a church and I had to preach every week. Week after week I found myself preaching about the inner journey of faith. What a surprise to me!

I had known about contemplative prayer for years, but I never felt drawn to it until I experienced this irresistible drive to spend time focusing on my inward journey. That’s when contemplative prayer began to make sense to me.

Some people call it midlife, but I don’t want to trivialize this huge shift that I experienced by giving it such a trite label. To me, it was an earthshaking change, to shift my focus from the outer world of teaching and activities to the inner world of feelings and reflections.

I can see now what a gift it was that I was able to be a pastor when that shift was going on. Each week I had time to study for my sermon. Sure, as a professor I had studied to prepare for my lectures. But that was study of something out there -- history. My sermon preparations were truly a study of what was inside, my own personal journey with God.

I began to see the centrality of grace. I had always believed grace was at the heart of the Christian faith, but through contemplative prayer I began to experience God’s grace for me. For me! Just for me!

My quiet times changed. Before the shift, I had focused on Bible study and intercessory prayer. Those are both good things, and I still engage in both. After the shift, the center of my quiet time became sitting in silence, waiting for God to speak to me. I’ve learned that I’m not listening for words or even guidance; I’m looking for an assurance that I am loved. When I take the time in the morning to wait until I have that assurance, my day is transformed. I find I can act out of the abundance of God’s grace rather than out of a need to prove myself. This sounds like a small change, but it is a revolutionary difference.

In my fifties, I’ve returned to a university setting. From the outside, my life looks a lot like it did in my thirties when I chaired the history department at the university where I taught. Every day I’m busy meeting with people, teaching, creating vision, making plans. But now everything is different because I have an attitude of listening to God that permeates everything. 

I still try to spend time each morning in the university chapel, waiting until I hear God’s word of love and grace for me. All the activities of my days are centered in that voice of love and grace. I’m living my life much more in response to God’s initiative now. Before my big shift I lived my life based on what I thought I should be doing.

For me, that’s the main point of contemplative prayer: listening to God so our lives can flow out of his love and grace.

This is the 13th post in a series on growing in listening to God in prayer. The previous posts are:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms               

(Next week: Availability. 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.)

Lent this year begins next week on Valentine’s Day. If you’d like a devotional for Lent, you may enjoy the one I wrote a couple of years ago with reflection questions on a psalm for each day of Lent. I've had good feedback from people who have used it on their own and also from others who used it in a small group. My husband Dave’s beautiful paintings provide illustrations for it. Available here.

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