Draw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave BaabA 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 SpiritualityFriendingAdvent Devotional

Lynne's Blog

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

Saturday December 30 2017

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

A year is ending. A new year begins in a few days. Newspapers and magazines are full of ideas for New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them.

I wish more people wrote and talked about how to look back on the past year in a way that is fruitful and helpful. As a way to do that, I want to propose a prayer of examen for the whole year.

I wrote last week about Examen, an ancient prayer form that focuses on identifying where God was present and where we resisted God. The prayer has four movements, which I’ll describe and illustrate below. In many monastic settings, monks and nuns prayed the prayer of examen every night, looking back over the day.

The person who taught me examen called it “a gentle, unforced noticing.” I’m going to suggest numerous questions to reflect on, so you can look back at a whole year. Please engage with these questions in an gentle, unforced way. Let the questions help you see God’s hand in your life and your response to God.

1.Examen of Consciousness. Begin by thinking back over your year. What good things happened? Where did you see God’s hand in the good things? What aspects of the good things were clearly gifts from God?

What hard things happened? In what ways did God help you in the hard things? What good outcomes can you identify from the hard things?

Think back on the early months of the year. What were you praying for in those months? What answers did you see later in the year?

Use the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 to look back at the year. In what moments did you experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control in yourself or in those who you love?

2. Response to the Examen of Consciousness. In whatever way works for you, spend some time responding to God’s presence in your life in 2017. You may want to thank God verbally for the ways God was present in the year. You may want to imagine yourself turning to Jesus and smiling at him. You may want to sing a song or hymn.

3.Examen of Conscience. Listen to your conscience to help identify the ways you resisted God this past year. Do you have clear instances when you know God was calling you to do something and you didn’t do it? Can you see times when you did something you know didn’t please God?

Go back to the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control – and ponder instances when the Holy Spirit may have been nudging you in the direction of one of those fruits, and you chose to do things your way.

Imagine that Jesus was walking beside you all year. What moments during the year would you have felt embarrassed or ashamed to have Jesus close by?

4. Response to the Examen of Conscience. In whatever feels comfortable to you, bring those moments of resistance to God. You may want to ask God for forgiveness for the times you did not respond in obedience or love. You may want to read one of the penitential psalms as a way to bring these thoughts to God. Try Psalm 32, 51 or 130. You may want to say to yourself: “Whenever we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us” (based on 1 John 1:9).

Examen is a lovely prayer to do on our own or with others. If you have a spiritual partner – a friend, spouse, prayer partner – or a small group with whom you share honestly, consider working through the questions above with that person or group.

Noticing God's presence is part of learning to hear God's voice. We rob ourselves of his voice of joy and peace when we forget to look back at the past and identify the places God was present. We rob ourselves of joy and peace when we neglect to confess our shortcomings and hear God's voice of forgiveness.

(Next week: A new approach to the Bible. 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.)

Some past Christmas and New Year’s posts you might enjoy:

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

Wednesday December 13 2017

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

If we want to listen to God in prayer, we have to quiet our racing minds. Several metaphors involving water have been helpful to me as I have encountered the inevitable struggles with wandering thoughts during contemplative prayer.

The wandering thoughts can include worries and preoccupations about my own life or the lives of people I love, projects I’m working on that I can’t resist thinking about, noises or other distractions from the physical environment, or even analysis of the spiritual profundity of what I’m experiencing. These distracting thoughts are particularly common at the beginning of a quiet prayer time, but they can unfortunately be all too frequent throughout the period of silence.

One of the people who led many of my early contemplative prayer experiences talked about these wandering thoughts as boats on a river. We can watch the boats, she said, and notice they are there, but we need to avoid the temptation of getting onto the boat and rummaging around in the hold. When we find ourselves boarding the boat and unpacking its contents, we can imagine ourselves stepping back off the boat and letting it float down the river without us.

Later someone else told me about the metaphor of a leaf on a river. This leader suggested that when we notice we have left the topic of the prayer and our minds have begun down another path, we view the random thought as a leaf. We let it float lightly down the river.

In her wonderful book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun suggests one more river metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. She suggests that we imagine God’s river of life running through us. Deep down in the river, the water is calm and slow, but the surface is cluttered with turmoil and debris. We can imagine our distracting thoughts as a part of that debris and turmoil on the surface, and let that part of the river be carried away by the current. The goal of quiet prayer is to return to the depth of the river where the presence of Jesus imparts peace and calm. [1]

I like the river analogies. Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to living water (John 7:37-39), and in Revelation, the river of the water of life flows through the heavenly city (Revelation 22:1-2). In contemplative prayer I relinquish my worries, my tendency to analyze everything, my preoccupations about work and all my other concerns into the hands of the Holy Spirit, who will take those thoughts into the River of Life. My concerns float lightly on the river like leaves. With the help of the Holy Spirit, those preoccupations and worries are not heavy and leaden. Instead, they float away, as light as leaves, entrusted into God’s loving care.

Calhoun suggests another metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. Imagine, she suggests, that you are visiting a friend who lives in a busy urban setting. The windows are open because it is a warm day, and you can hear the street noise and the voices of passersby. Sometimes you even hear sirens. But you love your friend and want to be attentive, so although you notice the sounds coming from outside the window, you don’t let your mind engage with them. Over and over, you return your focus to your friend. In the same way, in silent prayer, over and over you return your focus to Christ with you. [2]

Calhoun’s busy street metaphor is helpful in a slightly different way than the water metaphors because it emphasizes relationship. Jesus has invited us to be his friends (John 15:12-17), and when we spend time with any friend, we can find distractions to be troubling. But our love for our friend draws us back continually into conversation, caring, and listening. Our priority is our relationship with our friend, and in any form of prayer, our priority is our attention to God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

When leading contemplative prayer experiences, describing one of these metaphors for the group can be helpful, particularly with longer prayer experiences such as centering prayer, described below. Most people experience a lot of guilt when learning to engage in contemplative prayer because they are ashamed of their wandering minds. Everyone’s mind wanders in silent prayer, and the water and friend metaphors can help us return to an awareness of God’s presence over and over as we pray.

(Next week: looking back on our lives to see God’s hand at work. 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.)

Most of the posts in this series are adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality, but this post is excerpted from another one of my books, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Joy Together discusses the pros and cons of engaging in various spiritual practices alone and with others, and it has six chapters on how to engage in specific spiritual practices – fasting, contemplative prayer, contemplative approaches to scripture, hospitality, communal discernment, and Sabbath keeping – with small groups and even whole congregations.

[1] Adele Ahlborg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 209.[2] Ibid.

My new spiritual practice: A Christian perspective on thoughts

Wednesday June 7 2017

My new spiritual practice: A Christian perspective on thoughts

The writers of the Bible were quite concerned with how we think about things. Many times in the Psalms we are encouraged to remember the deeds of the Lord. The prophets speak often of God’s righteousness, justice and judgment, as if these attributes of God are important for us to think about.

Jesus teaches in parables, showing the significance of creative (and even sideways) thinking about life and God. Jesus also teaches in a more straightforward manner. The “Upper Room Discourse” in John 13 to 16 is profound and deeply thought-provoking.

The speeches by various apostles in Acts give a taste of their clear thinking about God, Jesus and salvation. The Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1 to 8 were used in law schools a century ago to illustrate good argumentation.

Philippians 4:8 is the most powerful statement in the Bible about the significance of the way we think: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When we think on “these things,” we are more likely to experience hope. In more than a dozen places in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we are encouraged to put our hope in God, as if hoping requires an act of the will or a particular way of thinking. In Psalm 78, we read that God established his law so that his people would “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” The close connection between hope, the way we think, and obedience are visible in that passage.

Hebrews 6:18 encourages us to “seize the hope set before us,” and we do that both in our thoughts and in our actions.

If I were to summarize God’s desires for the direction of our thoughts I would suggest that we are called to focus our thoughts on:

  1. God’s character and what God has done, our source of hope, peace and love
  2. God’s gifts to us in our individual and communal lives
  3. How to love and serve the people around us
  4. How to serve God in the world, participating in God’s work already going on

For me, the kinds of thoughts desired by God are impeded by three kinds of “demonic” thoughts:

  1. Regrets about the past
  2. Thoughts about catastrophic possibilities in the future
  3. Self-criticism.

For the past five weeks I’ve been writing about a process that’s new to me of trying to separate thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings using a process called RAIN, and then letting any remaining counterproductive thoughts go. The purpose of this process is to make space for the kinds of thoughts that honor God: thoughts that focus on who God is, what God has done, the gifts God has given, the ways I can serve and love people around me, and the ways I can serve God with my life.

Our thoughts matter. They shape the way we view life, honor God and love others. Our thoughts influence our ability to experience the joy, love, hope and peace God desires to give us. Our thoughts shape our actions. Learning to increasingly let go of counter-productive thoughts so I can focus on what God desires for my thought life has been really, really helpful. I wish the same for all who read this blog.

(Next week: Two common questions about the Sabbath. 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.)

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:

Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         
Is self compassion appropriate for Christians?

Resources on spiritual practices:

            My book on communal spiritual practices: Joy Together
            My books Sabbath Keeping and Fasting
            My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest
            Articles I’ve written on spiritual practices

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Tuesday May 30 2017

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Some Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus, and they bring a woman to him. They caught her in the act of committing adultery, and they ask Jesus about stoning her. Jesus says that only a sinless person can condemn her, and the crowd of accusers slips away. Jesus and the woman are left alone. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).

Jesus does not condemn a woman who has broken God’s law and human laws. Yet, at the same time, he calls her to be her best self in the future. We get into trouble because of the challenge of balancing these two components of his answer. Many of us were influenced by parents and teachers who were motivated to help us be our best selves, but they did it by shaming us and criticizing us.

As a result, we think that in order to grow into the people we want to be and were meant to be, we need to shame and criticize ourselves. Yet Jesus doesn’t do that. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen argues that “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved'.”[1] Jesus calls us to be our best selves in a way that is rooted in belovedness, not self-condemnation. Jesus treats us gently, as precious, beloved friends, yet calls us to growth.

We often think that treating ourselves gently is a form of self-indulgence, and self-compassion can work that way if it is not coupled with a commitment to excellence, health and holiness.

For the past four weeks I’ve been writing about my new spiritual practice: separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings and letting the thoughts go if they are not healthy. In order to feel the feelings, I’ve been using a process with acronym, RAIN. Advocates for RAIN call it a form of self-compassion. Here I want to address the question of the appropriateness of this practice for Christians, using an illustration from my own life right now.

One of the major stressors in my life is our upcoming move from New Zealand, where we have lived for ten years, to Seattle, where we lived for 30 years before we came to NZ. I have moments of fear about getting all the details done on time for the move. I have moments of anxiety related to new patterns of relationships after we arrive. I feel sad about leaving this beautiful place and the friends we have made. I tend to overeat when stressed, so I feel angry at myself when I eat too much. So, I’m experiencing fear, anxiety, sadness and anger, as well as excitement about seeing our beloved granddaughter, family and friends more often.

God led us to plan this move, and I want to honor God in the process. Yet I have moments when I’m a mess of unruly thoughts and feelings.

I’m going to imagine that I hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” What would that look like in this situation? Here are my ideas:

1. I must not let the voice of condemnation overwhelm me. In fact, I must turn away from that voice as much as possible. Of course I’m feeling a mix of sadness, fear, anxiety and excitement. Of course I feel stressed, which always makes eating well hard for me. RAIN helps me feel those feelings but not wallow in them. RAIN helps me feel them but also let them go, and then I focus on letting the negative thoughts go as well.

2. I must allow Jesus to help me live in as healthy a manner as possible, as free from sin as possible. That means I do several things: I try to talk and pray about my trust in God for the move. I try to soak up the great things about New Zealand before we leave, and I thank God for them. I try to honor and thank people who have cared for me here. I work on eating as well as I can. I try to serve God in each day, being faithful to the work and people he has called me to in that day.

3. When I fail to trust, enjoy, thank, and eat well, I must ask God for forgiveness and start again. I try to avoid self-condemnation because God has forgiven me in Christ. 

This process I’ve described in my three steps is what I consider to be self-compassion in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see it as honoring God much more than the cycle of self-condemnation that so many Christians fall into. I see it as freeing me to think about, and focus my actions on, things that matter to God (more on that next week). So, yes, self-compassion can be consistent with the Gospel.

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:
Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         

(Next week: A Christian perspective on thoughts. 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.)

[1] Henri Houwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 32.

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

Tuesday May 23 2017

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

I’ve been writing about what I’ve learned from counseling in the past year. My counselor suggested separating thoughts from feelings, which I described in the first post of this series. In the second post and third post, I described how I'm learning to feel the feelings. In this post, I’ll talk about thoughts.

I observe two major categories of thoughts that don’t help me in any way:

1. Catastrophic thoughts about the future. “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”

2. Judgmental thoughts about myself. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t I trust God more?” “What kind of a person would eat cookies for comfort instead of coping with her emotions in a more healthy way?”

My counselor called these kinds of thoughts “demonic,” and for me that’s accurate. The thoughts predict a future that might or might not happen, a future I have no control over. The thoughts express judgment for myself and show no compassion.

The thoughts mask feelings. I find that if I go through the RAIN process that I described in the previous two blog posts, it takes some effort to figure out what feelings lie behind the thoughts. Once I identify the feelings and walk through the four steps of RAIN, some of the demonic thoughts simply go away. They were functioning as cover-ups for painful feelings. They were enabling me to avoid feeling those feelings, an avoidance technique that was just as bad, or even worse, than the thing I was avoiding.

When the RAIN process simply dissolves the thoughts, it feels like a miracle. However, sometimes the thoughts remain or come right back after I do RAIN. Sometimes I find there are more feelings lying behind the thoughts, and a second round of RAIN, focused on different feelings, helps. But sometimes even then, the counterproductive thoughts remain.

In that case, I have a number of strategies:

1. Name the choice out loud.

“Do you want to keep thinking these thoughts or do you want to trust God with the future? I want to trust God with the future.”

“Do you want to continue to judge yourself, or do you want to have the kind of compassion on yourself that God has for you? I want to have compassion on myself because God has compassion for me.”

2. Pray the serenity prayer. I do it using my breath, three or four breaths for each line.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes I add another line, “Grant me the serenity to leave in the future the things that belong in the future.”

3. Pray the Jesus prayer with variations. Again, I use my breath, one breath for each phrase.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace,
have mercy on me, grant me your peace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, Bright Morning Star,
Light to my path, Lamp to my feet,
have mercy on me, guide my steps.

4. Imagine myself handing my thoughts to Jesus. I picture myself standing with Jesus beside a beautiful river, the river of God’s love. I hand my thoughts to Jesus and he throws them in the river, where they disappear into the hugeness of God’s love.

5. Pray a scripture. I find Psalm 139 and Ephesians 3:14-19 to be helpful.

This process I’ve been describing – separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings in a spirit of self-compassion, then dealing with any remaining thoughts by using a variety of spiritual practices – is helping me cope with stress so much better. This is a gift of healing that comes from God, parallel to the miraculous healings in the Gospels.

The purpose of this gift is so that I can trust, honor, love and serve God more fully. It’s a further step of my life belonging to the Triune God.

(Next week: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians? 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.)

<< Newer | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | Older >>