Lynne is a Presbyterian minister and author of numerous books and Bible study guides. She lives in Seattle. Read more »
Soon before she left her position in New Zealand as senior lecturer in pastoral theology, Lynne recorded a one-minute video for her departmental website describing what's most important to her in her writing and teaching.
Lynne spoke last year on "Spiritual Practices for Preachers" (recorded as a video on YouTube.) The talk is relevant to anyone in ministry and focuses on how to draw near to God simply as a child of God as well as engaging in spiritual practices for the sake of ministry.
"Lynne's writing is beautiful. Her tone has such a note of hope and excitement about growth. It is gentle and affirming."
— a reader
"Dear Dr. Baab, You changed my life. It is only through God’s gift of the sabbath that I feel in my heart and soul that God loves me apart from anything I do."
— a reader of Sabbath Keeping
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Friday August 18 2017
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.)
Thursday November 24 2016
“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
Thursday April 9 2015
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.)
Monday July 28 2014
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.")
Thursday June 26 2014
About ten years ago I led a worship service at a retreat. The setting was intimate, unlike the Sunday worship services at church where the leader—sometimes me—usually stood some distance away from the congregation. At the end of the retreat worship, I said a benediction. To my surprise, several of the younger women sitting close to me turned their hands so their palms faced up. They looked as if they were trying to catch the benediction in their hands.
I had often said, “Now, receive the benediction” before I ended a worship service, and these women looked as if they were taking those words seriously. They used their hands to indicate a posture of the heart, a posture of receptivity.
What might they have been trying to receive? What might they have been longing for?
Perhaps some of them had a specific need in mind as they turned their hands up to “catch” God’s blessing. Perhaps they were hoping for God’s action related to a specific need in their family or in their job, or maybe they were hoping for God’s guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps they had learned something new about God at the weekend retreat, and they were hoping God would cement that new knowledge into their lives. They could have had many other specific needs, requests or situations on their minds as they used their hands to “receive” the benediction.
Perhaps some of them were simply open to more of God in their lives. Perhaps the motion of their hands expressed a willingness to receive anything and everything from God, an indication of their commitment to be disciples of Jesus who would follow their Master wherever he might lead them.
When I use this word “receptivity,” I am referring to being open to God’s gifts and God’s guidance in two different ways. On the one hand, God works in our lives in response to the needs we express in prayer, the concerns we have about people we love, and the tensions and anxieties we experience in everyday life. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to see the way the Holy Spirit is moving in the situations we care about. Spiritual practices go a long way toward enabling us to see God’s activity because they help us slow down, recognize patterns, and listen to God.
The second aspect of receptivity relates to our willingness to let God initiate, to let God be God in whatever form that takes. Jesus invites us to follow him, to let him set the agenda and lead us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus encourages us (Matthew 11:29). God guides us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and challenges us to grow in ways we never imagined. God gives us gifts we could never have seen on our own, and calls us to use them in situations we never planned. Spiritual practices help us receive these utterly unexpected and unplanned moments of grace.
When I pray with my hands turned over and open to the heavens, my hands are a symbol of my willingness to be receptive to whatever God is doing in my life, whatever God wants to give me, and wherever God wants to guide me. But those open hands are more than a symbol. I find that simply turning my hands over opens my heart to God in a remarkable way, as if my hands are telling my heart and mind to shift toward God and to watch for what God is doing. I feel closer to God when I turn my hands over, a surprising but helpful fact. Lent is a perfect time to experiment with new spiritual practices, and a small thing like praying with open hands, facing up, really can make a difference.
(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. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog. It is an excerpt from Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation by Lynne M. Baab.)