Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe 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 Baab

Lynne's Blog

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.

First post in a new series - Stories I ponder: The tulip

Friday August 18 2017

First post in a new series - Stories I ponder: The tulip

About fifteen years ago we lived in a house in Seattle with a rockery in the front yard. Two big heather plants spread across the rockery with their lovely purple flowers. I decided to get some lavender tulips to go with the heather, and I planted a couple dozen of them one year in the fall.

Spring came, and the tulips broke through the soil and inched their way taller and taller. I couldn’t wait to see how the flowers would look with the heather.

I watched every day, and one by one the tulips bloomed, so lovely. Two beautiful lavender tulips, then four, then six.

The next tulip that bloomed was red and yellow! Instead of smooth petals, the petals were jagged on the edges, like one of those extravagant and amazing tulips in an old Dutch painting. The red and yellow tulip, in the midst of all the green and purple, looked jarring and just plain wrong. I was mad at the person who had mixed up the tulip bulbs at the store, and I was mad that my plan for the garden hadn’t worked out the way I expected.

Maybe I should cut it and bring it inside, I thought, in order to restore harmony to the rockery. The tulip was unexpected and jarring, but so beautiful in itself, that I couldn’t bring myself to cut it.

For about four days, as I came and went from the house, I pondered that extravagant red and yellow tulip in the midst of all the harmonious purple and green. I wondered if God was trying to tell me something about unexpected gifts.

The next day, when I came home from work, the red and yellow tulip was gone. A couple of inches of stem remained, with a straight cut. Evidently someone had cut it off. Why? Because it was beautiful? Because it stuck out in our garden?

I was mad all over again. I had gotten used to the tulip as a sign of God’s unexpectedness and my utter and complete inability to control life. I had gotten used to enjoying that extravagant tulip, so beautiful in itself, but not at all harmonious with its environment.

I had reluctantly come to love that tulip, and it was gone before I could enjoy it for very long. That naked stem was one more reminder of my complete inability to control life. It spoke to me as much as the tulip had spoken: Enjoy each minute! Beauty is fleeting so savor it while you can! Pay attention to God’s gifts because they come and go!

I have a strong need to control and organize things. Over and over, as I have pondered this tulip story for so many years, I am forced to remember that God doesn’t act in predictable ways.

Jesus constantly surprised the people of his time. He chose a tax collector and uneducated fishermen to be his disciples. He allowed a prostitute to follow him. He touched a leper. He repudiated earthly power by rebuking Peter when Peter drew a sword. When I read the Gospels with fresh eyes, I see that he continues to surprise us today.

Truly we belong to an upside-down Kingdom, and the memory of that red and yellow extravagant tulip helps me remember.

(In this new series, I'm writing down stories that I have pondered over and over. Next week: The noisy washing machine. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe." For those of you reading this post on your cellphone, the left hand colum of the website contains images of all my books. You can access those images by clicking on "books" in the navigation bar. You can also access a couple of dozen articles I've written by clicking on "articles" in the navigation bar.)

Quotations I love: Four quotations about attention

Thursday November 24 2016

Quotations I love: Four quotations about attention

“Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”—Simone Weil

I’ve used Simone Weil’s words often when I write or teach about listening. When we listen well, we are paying attention to another person’s priorities, values, feelings and thoughts.

The notion of paying attention includes listening, but attention matters in many other areas of life.

“Can one reach God by toil? He gives himself to the pure in heart. He asks for nothing but our attention.”—William Butler Yeats

This Yeats quotation is wonderful to ponder, journal about or discuss in a group. What does it look like to pay attention in the way Yeats is describing here? I bet a group could list a couple dozen ways, including paying attention to what God is doing in the lives of the people around us, noticing answers to prayer, and being attentive to the ways God speaks to us through nature, the Bible, our conscience and other people.

I would also love to discuss with a group the connection Yeats highlights between purity of heart and paying attention. How are purity of heart and paying attention related?

“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.”—Mary Oliver

Maybe Mary Oliver’s words illuminate the connection between purity of heart and attention. To pay attention and be astonished requires some level of simplicity, a kind of humility or purity of heart that enables us to respond with wonder and astonishment.

Mary Oliver indicates that speech should follow attention and astonishment. I wrote a few weeks ago about paying attention to specific things other people do, so that we can give compliments that reflect precisely what we have seen, rather than general compliments like “good job.” So I would argue that one major form of doing what Mary Oliver suggests is helping others see what we see in them and in their actions.

A second form of speaking about what we have noticed and been astonished by involves witnessing. When we pay attention to what God is doing in our lives and in others’ lives, when we are astonished and grateful at what God has done, it is natural for us to speak about what we have experienced.

I have always believed that some Christians have spiritual gifts in evangelism (which I do not have), but that all Christians are called to be witnesses to what we have seen, heard and experienced in our life with God. Several years I wrote an article on that subject, and I just dug it out and posted in the articles section of this website. You can read it here.

The final quotation for this post focuses on the attitude of heart that is required for us to pay attention to where God is and what God is doing in every situation.

“Lord, give me an open heart to find you everywhere.”—Mother Teresa

How can we do what Mother Teresa suggests here – find God everywhere – unless we are paying attention? Her words are a prayer, and her prayer acknowledges that we need God’s help to have the kind of open heart that looks for God.

(Next week: Desmond Tutu on hope. 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 is the 13th post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts:         
Breton Fisherman’s Prayer  
Arnold Glasow on feeling at home with people  
A. W. Tozer on worship that illuminates work  
The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoying good things  
Thomas Aqinas on loving people we disagree with  

Paul Tournier on building good out of evil 
Thomas Merton on our transparent world  
Moving from intending to pray to actually praying  
Eugene Peterson on paying attention  
Regret and fear are thieves  
Rick Warren on love and disagreement  
Henri Nouwen on being beloved
 

Receptivity and listening

Thursday April 9 2015

Receptivity and listening

A term that helps summarize many of the themes in my book on listening is “receptivity,” my latest favorite word. In the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to grow in being more receptive to what God is doing all around me. I’ve been trying to notice the gifts God is offering me through my work, my home, my body, and the people in my life. I’ve been trying to control my life less and instead receive the gifts of my life with open hands. A key component of a receptive life is listening to God and to others, thus the concept of receptivity summarizes many of the themes of this book.

When two people have an honest discussion about where God seems present in daily life, those individuals are trying to be receptive to each other’s perceptions as well as to God. When someone has a conversation with a work mate who holds totally different political convictions, with the goal of trying to understand how he arrived at those convictions, the listener is trying to be receptive to another person’s reality. When members of a congregation listen to the wider community in order to try to figure out where they can make a difference, they are trying to be receptive to the actual needs and concerns in the community.

Around the year 2000 I read Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl, which immediately joined my short list of books that have changed my life. Pohl nudged me to see not just the significance of acts of hospitality involving food and lodging, but also to see hospitality as a paradigm for all relationships and all ministry. I began to try to be hospitable in every interaction with people. I’m sure this shift toward being hospitable played a role in my growing interest in listening skills. And I know my commitment to trying to be hospitable in every conversation brought into focus this posture of receptivity that has been so significant in my life in recent years.

Sitting around a table eating a meal together breaks down barriers. When I’m eating with someone who has political views that are different from mine and that person starts talking about those views, I try to listen. In fact, I have to listen, at least to some extent, because I can’t get up and walk away like I can in so many other settings. One of my interviewees talked about shared hospitality promoting a “different kind of listening.” When I eat with people, I am somehow more open to hearing their viewpoint. Food breaks down barriers and often brings a kind of magic to conversations. Pohl’s book encouraged me to bring that attitude, that magic, into all of life. Of course I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying to be more receptive to whatever people bring into a conversation. I’m trying to be hospitable in all settings, and listening skills are essential to that stance.

In our time, practicing that attitude of hospitality and receptivity requires us to make some careful and intentional choices. Slowing down in the midst of a busy schedule is usually required, and that is not easy to do. Multitasking, which divides our attention, must be set aside for period of time. Also necessary is ignoring the ringtone of the cell phone, the music on the iPod, or the lure of the Internet at our fingertips on the smart phone. One of my interviewees pointed out that technology points us to the next thing, which takes us out of the present and turns our focus onto our selves and nurtures narcissism. An attitude of receptivity requires abandoning that future focus and narcissism in order to be present to this moment and this person.

Receptivity includes being open to God’s guidance, and in any conversation, God may guide me to speak up about something. Receptivity does not mean being silent all the time. Some of us need encouragement to speak up more often, and some of us need encouragement to listen more, and in every conversation all of us need God’s guidance regarding both listening and speaking.

Listening is not an end in itself. Listening skills are tools that put us in a receptive, hospitable posture so we can appreciate, learn from, encourage, and speak wisely to the people in our lives. Listening skills help us learn how and where to serve individuals and local communities. Listening skills facilitate the kinds of conversations where we can talk about the overlap of our faith and our daily lives, and the ability to talk about and recognize that intersection shapes us into people who can participate in ministry and mission with energy, enthusiasm, wisdom, and love. In a follow-up email, one of my interviewees wrote, “Many of us may not choose to share information about ourselves unless asked by someone we know to be a good and interested listener.” I long for our congregations to be places where good and interested listeners are nurtured.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent and for this first week after Easter, I've been posting excerpts from my book on listening. This is the last week! Next week I'm starting a series on Celtic Christianity. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book  excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

A Cat with a Noble Character

Monday July 28 2014

A Cat with a Noble Character

Our older son, Jonathan, was two weeks short of one year old when we got a cat. She was all white, so we called her Vanilla. She was also about one year old. She was a wonderful cat for toddlers. Jonathan was so eager to have a relationship with her, and he would try to be gentle, but in his eagerness to relate to her, he would sometimes hurt her. She would walk away two feet and sit there, as if to say, “Hey, don’t hurt me. But if you want to keep trying to pet me, I’m here.” She seemed to know she and Jonathan were age mates, and that they would be important to each other in the future.

By the time Jonathan and Vanilla were three, they were best friends. She always slept with him, and he took such pleasure in her. When they were six, we got a second cat, black with hints of red in her fur. We called her Tiwi, and Vanilla welcomed her. During the day, they slept together curled around each other, but at night, Vanilla slept with Jonathan. Sometimes Tiwi joined her.

Whenever we had friends over for dinner who had small children, Tiwi would disappear, but Vanilla would stay there and let the kids pet her and play with her. Whenever they hurt her, she would walk away about two feet, still seeming to say, “Please don’t hurt me, but I’m willing to let you try again.”

As Vanilla got older, she loved to sleep in the sun. On cool days, she still slept curled around Tiwi, and on sunny days, she wanted to go outside and find a patch of sunshine. We learned later that white cats have white skin, and much like humans with fair skin, white cats are susceptible to skin cancer. When Jonathan and Vanilla were 14, she got a malignant melanoma on her nose. The vet told us there was nothing we could do about it, and as the months passed, the cancer ate away her nose.

When the time seemed right I took her to the vet to be put to sleep, and I took Jonathan along. I think it was right to take him with me, but I still agonize when I remember that he cried and cried and cried as she died.

I dreamt about Vanilla the other night, and I woke up overwhelmed with sadness that the lifespan of cats and dogs is so much shorter than the human lifespan. I can imagine someone might say, “She was only a cat.” No, she was a noble beast, and her love and patience reflected something important about her Maker.

You can’t plan a pet like Vanilla. She was a gift to our family. All you can do is receive a gift like Vanilla with gratitude. God, help us to see the gifts in our lives, both past and present, and help us receive your gifts with gratitude.

(If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage.)

(A note a few days after this post: A friend gave me a link to a song by Benjamin Britten called "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry," from "Rejoice in the Lamb." Some of the words go like this: "He is the servant of the living God . . . he worships in his way . . . for he knows that God is his savior, for God has blessed him with the variety of his movements.")

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