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Lynne's Blog

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Friday June 22 2018

First post in a new series: The friendship skills of asking, giving and thanking

Daniel, in his sixties, was raised with notion that men are supposed to be independent and strong, able to meet their own needs. He jokes that the Simon and Garfunkel song, “I am a rock, I am in island” summarizes the philosophy of manhood he learned as a child. In his childhood, the stoicism encouraged for men spilled over to all of his family life. Even his mother was afraid to acknowledge weaknesses or needs. The shame of needing someone’s help was very strong.

People have told Daniel that asking others for help can be a way to build intimacy. He has found it difficult to act on that idea, but he has tried. He can see that the extreme self-reliance of his parents wasn’t good for them or for their children because it resulted in isolation and alienation from neighbors and family members.

Daniel volunteers with an international student ministry at the local university. The small group of students decided they would like to hold a retreat over spring break. As Daniel was praying about the possibility of holding a retreat, he remembered that a couple he knew from his church had a holiday cottage. He wondered if perhaps they might be willing to loan the cottage to the student group for the retreat.

He didn’t know the couple well, but he got up the courage to ask about the cottage. They were enthusiastic about the idea, and asked Daniel and his wife to meet them at the cottage for lunch a couple of weeks later.

The lunch was fun, and Daniel got a good preview of the cottage so he could begin to make plans for the retreat. As the retreat drew nearer, Daniel consulted with the couple about some of the plans for the retreat, and afterwards Daniel was able to share with them some of the good things that happened. All those conversations about the retreat drew Daniel closer to the couple, and after the retreat was over, Daniel realized he knew them much better. Asking for help had indeed increased intimacy and set him on a path toward friendship with that couple.

Friends ask for all sorts of things: help with physical projects, a listening ear when times are tough, prayer support in the midst of challenges, companionship in activities, a few moments to brainstorm possible solutions to a problem, and many other things. The give and take of asking and receiving is an integral part of friendship.

Why is asking so hard for so many people? I have observed that the most isolated people often have a hard time asking for help.

Daniel’s story illustrates the impact of the “rock and island” philosophy of being a man. “What’s wrong with you that you can’t figure it out on your own?” These words float around in Daniel’s head when he considers asking for help. The pride of being self sufficient is a strong motivator for many men, and it influences many women as well.

In fact, Daniel’s mother experienced as much, if not more, shame than Daniel’s father when she had needs. She found it excruciatingly difficult to ask for help or acknowledge a weakness. She experienced a major health crisis without telling her family members. When they found out about it many years later, they were stunned that she had not been able ask for support and encouragement in the midst of a medical challenge that could not possibly have been considered to be her fault. She died a lonely, isolated woman. Her inability to acknowledge her need for help played a significant role in her isolation.

Pride in self sufficiency and shame in asking for help are two major forces that make it difficult to admit we have needs. In addition, we may fear that our friends are too busy to help or have too many struggles of their own. We don’t want to impose on people who are already stretched. We don’t want to be a burden.

(Next week: Giving, asking, noticing and thanking. 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, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. To learn about what the book covers, look here. I have several boxes of the book and I am hoping to sell them at low cost to people to use in groups. Every chapter ends with discussion questions, and numerous groups have used the book and told me it generated great discussion.

Here are prices for the United States, including postage:
     5 copies - $25
     10 copies - $40
     15 copies - $55
     20 copies - $70
Contact me at my email LMBaab[at]aol.com if you’d like to order books, or if you’d like to get prices for New Zealand, which are sadly much higher because overseas postage is so much.

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

Thursday May 31 2018

Contrasts: Thankfulness and optimism

We often conflate thankfulness and optimism, but they are not the same thing. Christians who want to enjoy God’s economy of abundance will find it helpful to tease out the differences.

I recently wrote a book on pastoral care which will be released in August by Fortress Press. One of the chapters focuses on stress, because caregivers in any context need to know how to deal with their own stress, and they also need to help care recipients cope with stress better. Research shows that optimism helps people survive stress better, because how we think about the things that are happening to us makes a difference. One of the people I interviewed talked about the difference between optimism and thankfulness for people under stress.

Optimism can be defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something.” Hope is a major theme in the New Testament. The Apostle Paul uses the name “God of hope” in Romans 15:13, and in 1 Corinthians 13:13, he lumps faith, hope and love together as things that endure.

So if optimism is composed of hope and confidence, why would we not want to embrace it all the time? The woman I interviewed for my book, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, said that optimism can be overemphasized. When we focus on optimism too much, she said, we can slide into denial, which is the refusal to admit the truth or reality of something. She said thankfulness can bring about the same good results as optimism in many difficult situations, but without any denial.

Here’s how it works. Thankfulness is a choice to focus our eyes on good gifts. Those gifts might come from the people around us – a stimulating conversation, an act of kindness, direct help that meets a need, an encouraging word, a doctor or other professional who gives help we need, or many other specific gifts, big or small, from people in our lives.

Thankfulness also enables us to see God’s good gifts that come directly to us – an answer to a prayer, a situation that works out well despite the odds, inner strength to do something difficult, or peace that passes all understanding. Thankfulness also helps us notice the good gifts in the physical world God created – a delicious meal, the clear eyes of a child, colorful fall leaves and beautiful spring flowers, a vivid sunset, dramatic mountains, and towering clouds.

The kind of thankfulness I’ve mentioned creates a foundation for hope. We are hopeful and confident about the future because of God’s faithfulness that we observe in the present. We trust in God’s promises because, by being thankful, we have taught ourselves to see the fruit of his promises already.

When we focus on the good gifts that are present in our lives, we do not deny the reality of pain, stress and challenges. Thankfulness involves turning our eyes to see good things even in the midst of those difficulties, and we take a moment to thank the giver of the gift.

 Thankfulness nurtures relationship. David Steindl-Rast, in his beautiful book Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, writes, “When I acknowledge a gift received, I acknowledge a bond that binds me to the giver. . . . The one who says ‘thank you’ to another really says, ‘We belong together.’ Giver and thanksgiver belong together.” [1]

Steindl-Rast wonders if our society suffers so much from alienation because we are reluctant to offer thanks. I agree with him. It seems clear that our friendships and family relationships suffer when we feel uneasy acknowledging bonds with other people, when we hold back from expressing gratitude.

 Steindl-Rast points out that everything is a gift, yet we find it hard to acknowledge gifts because we don’t like to admit our dependence. Thankfulness involves acknowledging that we belong with others and with God, and that we depend on the people around us and on God. We are not alone. We are not self-sufficient. We cannot navigate life on our own. 

 In contrast, when we feel pressure to be optimistic, we often feel we have to generate positivity within ourselves. Optimism can be quite individualistic, while thankfulness nurtures community. 

Sometimes, focusing on optimism is exactly the right thing to do, but we have to be careful not to take it so far that there’s no room for our own – or others’ – sorrow, pain or tears. Thankfulness leaves more room for sadness and tears because we can be thankful for God’s work in a situation while grieving that the situation is happening. 

I invite you to ponder the role of thankfulness and optimism in your own life. Think of the models you’ve seen for both thankfulness and optimism. 

(Next  week: the guest-host shift. 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, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Past posts about thankfulness:

Growing in thankfulness         
A thankfulness challenge         
Another thankfulness challenge         
Five quotations about thankfulness         
Thomas Merton on our transparent world         
Thankfulness and sentness                    

[1] David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer (New York: Paulist Press, 1984), 15-17. 

Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Thursday December 21 2017

Listening to God in Prayer: Noticing God’s Presence

Have you noticed all the emphasis these days on mindfulness? Pay attention, people are saying and writing, to what’s going on right now in your life. Breathe. Be present and notice.

Christians have emphasized a form of noticing for centuries. In the ancient prayer of examen, we take time to look back and try to see the hand of God in our lives. Examen, like all contemplative prayer forms, is most effective when it is unforced, when we try to let our awareness of God float into our minds rather than forcing ourselves to review every event in an analytical fashion to see if we can detect the presence of God.

First, select a period of time to focus on. It’s best to look at one day, although you could also choose to look at a period of a few days or even a week. Focus your thoughts and your heart on the time period you have selected. Ask God to bring to mind one or two times when God was present in your life.

Don’t analyze. Don’t try to go sequentially through all the events in that time period. Just try to gently notice. In the prayer of examen, to notice is to pay attention, to turn your gaze from worries about the future and absorption in present tasks to events that took place, the meaning you placed on them, and the possibility that God was working in and through what happened.

When you are able to identify one or two times when God was present to you, respond to God in the light of your noticing. You may want to imagine yourself holding in your hand that moment of God’s presence, offering it back to God in thanks. You may want to picture yourself smiling at God. You may want to thank God for that moment using words.

Continue in an atmosphere of noticing. This time, ask God to bring to mind one or two moments when you resisted God’s presence. Again, don’t try to analyze or examine your life’s events sequentially. Try to let a memory of resistance to God float into your conscious mind.

When you are able to identify one or more moments when you resisted God, spend some time responding to God. You may want to pray, “Lord have mercy.” You may want to offer that moment to God and ask him to heal and transform you. You may want to move into a time of confession of sin.

We so often forget to take the time to notice the patterns of our lives. Examen is a lovely discipline because it gives a structure to pay attention to God’s working. Often God is present in our lives and we fleetingly experience that presence, but we rush on to the next event and we neglect to ponder the patterns of his presence and to thank God for the gift of our awareness of him. Examen gives us the opportunity to notice the hand of God, something many midlife folks are longing for.

Examen also gives us the opportunity to notice the patterns of our resistance to God’s work in our lives. Sometimes we can change those patterns by conscious discipline. More often all we can do is offer our patterns of resistance to God and ask for his help and mercy. Either way, simply noticing our resistance makes us more likely to notice God’s presence next time.

My husband and I have found that the prayer of examen has impacted the way we talk to each other at the end of the day. Often my husband will ask me at bedtime, “When did you feel closest to God today?” or “When did you experience God’s hand in your life today?” I am always grateful for that question, because it makes me stop and notice.

Examen is a wonderful discipline for midlife. The speed of our lives and the necessity to focus on the future keeps us from recognizing when God has been at work in us. So many of us long for meaning and the assurance that life has value. What better way to find meaning and value than to take the time to notice what God is already doing?

(Next week: looking back on 2017 in preparation for the new year. Illustration: Golden Gardens in Seattle 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 adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

*** If Advent isn’t feeling real to you, even though Christmas is rapidly approaching, I encourage you to download my Advent Devotional, which links psalms with the themes of Advent. Even if you work through only one set of questions, pondering relevant psalm may help you be more ready for Christmas. ***

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

Tuesday April 18 2017

Spiritual practices for the Easter season

This week I’m reposting an earlier post because the ideas are still so relevant. Maybe I’m reposting it because I need to follow my own suggestions!

Did you know that in many times and places in Christian history, Easter has been viewed as a season, not just a day? The Easter season goes from Easter Day to Pentecost Sunday (June 4 this year), a period of seven weeks. Because Jesus’ resurrection is such a huge, amazing, overwhelming, fantastic gift to us, focusing on it for seven weeks allows time to ponder many aspects of what we receive on Easter Day.

The liturgical color for the Easter season is white to reflect the holiness and purity of Jesus, which enabled him to die in our place. White also symbolizes light. Jesus submitted to the darkness of the grave, and Easter morning he came back into the light, and his own light was again revealed. Paintings of Jesus after the resurrection often show him surrounded by light.

What spiritual practices are appropriate in a season of light and joy? This is a season of feasting, not fasting. Celebrate joy and light in whatever ways you can. Ponder, journal or talk with others about the joyful events of Easter and what they mean for you. Here are some suggestions for spiritual practices for the Easter season:

1. Practice thankfulness. Watch for God’s good gifts in your life and your loved one’s lives. Look for signs of Jesus’ resurrection life in events and people around you. Go out of your way to express gratitude and love to people who have cared for you. Pay attention to the small gifts of daily life, and thank God for them. To help you pay attention, consider starting (or re-starting) a thankfulness journal and commit to adding five items to the list each day. Or partner with others to talk through the things you’re thankful for every day. Be sure to pray your thanks as well.

2. Focus on light. Watch for the word “light” in scriptures, praise songs, hymns and poetry. Write a poem or statement about the ways Jesus is your light, and ask for further light in specific areas of your life and in the lives of loved ones. Use various names for God and Jesus in breath prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, light of the world, shine your light on me” (John 8:12). “Jesus, bright morning star, guide my steps” (Revelation 22:16).  “Word of God, be the lamp to my feet and the light on my path” (Psalm 119:105). “Lord God, sun and shield, give me your light and protection” (Psalm 84:11). All of these prayers can be prayed for others as well as for yourself.

3. Ponder the fact that Jesus has freed “those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). In what ways has Jesus freed you from that fear? In what ways would you like to experience more freedom? What do you think that might look like? Journal or talk with a friend about the role fear of death has played in your life. Pray your thanks, and pray for further growth in this area.

The seven-week Easter season nudges us to look at life through the lens of resurrection power. Maybe you’ll think of additional ways to do that.

Bless the Lord, O my soul.
   O Lord my God, you are very great.
You are clothed with honour and majesty,
   wrapped in light as with a garment (Psalm 104:1).

(Next week: Support for Earth Day from hundreds and thousands of years ago. 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: Five quotations about thankfulness

Thursday December 29 2016

Quotations I love: Five quotations about thankfulness

“A thankful heart is the parent of all virtues.”—Cicero (106-43 BCE)

Another year will draw to a close in a few days, and the self-help magazines are full of ideas for New Year’s resolutions. I wonder why the recommended task of the last week of year focuses on looking ahead in the area of self-improvement, rather than looking back at the past year for the purpose of thankfulness.  

I’ve started this post with a quotation that dates from a long, long time ago in order to show that the significance of thankfulness was recognized, at least by one person, in the ancient world. I love Cicero’s idea that thankfulness gives birth to other virtues. Thankfulness as a psychologically helpful practice is being recognized both in the secular and Christian worlds these days. I wonder how much more motivation for thankfulness we would have if we saw it as “the parent of all virtues.”

“Who does not thank for little will not thank for much.” —Estonian proverb

This second quotation implies that an attitude of thankfulness either permeates a person’s life – with a focus on everything, large or small – or not. The proverb suggests a connection between noticing big and small things to be thankful for. Do you try to notice both?

“The choice for gratitude rarely comes without some real effort. But each time I make it, the next choice is a little easier, a little freer, a little less self-conscious. Because every gift I acknowledge reveals another and another until, finally, even the most normal, obvious and seemingly mundane event or encounter proves to be filled with grace.” —Henri Nouwen

Nouwen is so right that there’s a kind of training involved in learning to be thankful. If we practice thankfulness, we’ll get better at it: “Every gift I acknowledge reveals another.” Noticing things to be grateful for, and extending thanks to the giver on earth or the Giver in heaven, helps us notice more things. Over time our hearts are shaped in the direction of receptivity, and we realize everything good comes to us as a wonderful gift.

“Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightning.” —Karl Barth

Barth like Nouwen connects thankfulness with grace. Barth uses a vivid metaphor to help hammer home this connection. He implies that for people who are aware of God’s grace, thankfulness will be automatic. Is it possible our lack of thankfulness comes from our inability to perceive the magnitude of the grace of God in Jesus Christ?

“For what has been—thanks! For what shall be—yes!” —Dag Hammerskjöld

This last quotation illustrates the connection between thankfulness and hope. We can enter a New Year with hope because we have seen the many gifts of 2016. Even if 2016 was hard year, and I’m sure it was for many people, there were gifts from God and from family and friends mixed in with the hard things. We can look at 2017 with optimism and hope because those good gifts will continue, sometimes in the same form, sometimes in new forms. God’s grace will continue to flow abundantly in the New Year.

In this last week of the year I want to challenge you to do two things:

1. Think of three people who have contributed something positive to your life in 2016. Drop them an email, a text message or a card to express your thanks. Be specific about what you’re thanking them for.

2. Make a list of ten things you can thank God for in 2016. Include things like a place to live and food on your table and the people in your life. Stretch the list to 20 if you can. Post the list on your bathroom mirror, in your kitchen or by your desk, and each time you see it, express your thanks to God.

(Next week: Enter the New Year by listening in on Jesus’ early morning prayer. Illustration: someone I’m thankful for, our son Mike, drawn by another person I’m thankful for, my husband 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 last post in a series on quotations I love. Here are the earlier posts:
Richard Halverson on being sent
Secrets and compassion    
Four Quotations about attention            
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
 

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