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

Creative prayer: trees

Friday July 19 2019

Creative prayer: trees

I was 15 the first time I saw a tree as a thing of beauty. Three trees, to be precise. We had just moved from Virginia to Tacoma, Washington, and our new house had three young birch trees in the back yard, planted close to each other. When the wind blew, they looked like three beautiful girls dancing. My heart always lifted when the wind tossed them into a dance.

For 17 years of my adult life, we lived in a house near Greenlake in Seattle with a huge Western red cedar in the front yard. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in the living room, gazing into the branches of that tree, awed by its size and beauty.

For 12 years we lived in Lake City, also in Seattle, with a tall hawthorn tree next to our deck. When it was covered with white flowers in the spring, I smiled. And for our ten years in Dunedin, New Zealand, our living room windows looked onto a rata tree, a non-deciduous tree with dark green leaves, where a European blackbird roosted each spring. Those leaves were a delight all year long.

Trees are a powerful metaphor in the Bible. For example, Psalm 1 compares people who loves God’s law to

“trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:3)

Comparing our lives, and the lives of those we love, to the four characteristics of a flourishing tree described in the psalm can draw us into some lovely creative prayer.

1. Praying for our placement by streams of water. In what places and circumstances do you feel connected to the streams of water that nourish you spiritually, physically, emotionally and relationally? While reading or pondering a passage in the Bible? While praying with a family member or friend or small group? While singing in church or playing a musical instrument or listening to a CD of praise music? While eating in a leisurely setting with loved ones? Perhaps in nature, gardening or walking or sailing or biking?

We can pray for ourselves and for the people on our minds that all of us will find streams of living water and make choices to spend time there. This opens up prayers for discernment, for our schedules, for self-discipline and for the sheer joy of experiencing God’s life-giving water in daily life.

2. Praying for fruit bearing. Do you ever look at your life and pay attention to the fruit you are bearing? I like to imagine a small vineyard beside an orchard full of a variety of fruit trees. Then I imagine myself standing with Jesus looking at the fruit my life has borne. I ask Jesus to help me see the fruit that pleases him, and I thank him for the privilege and joy of bearing fruit. I ask him to help me make choices every day that increase good fruit in my life.

We can pray for fruitbearing in our own lives and in the lives of friends and family members. This is also a great thing to pray for leaders in all settings of life.

3. Praying that our leaves will not wither. These are prayers for the kind of perseverance that comes from keeping our roots firmly planted in the streams of living water. These prayers focus on the ability to keep on loving, serving, and working hard. And these prayers must also focus on the kind of rest and renewal that enable us to maintain green leaves. Just like the rata tree in our yard in New Zealand, God wants us – and those for whom we pray – to have green leaves in all seasons.

4. Prayers for prospering. Here’s an opportunity for a variety of prayers for ourselves and others. We might pray for financial prospering, or for ourselves or others who struggle to prosper in their work or ministry. We might pray for prospering relationally, for relationships with friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

Two other scriptures inform my prayers using trees as a metaphor. The oaks of righteousness in Isaiah 61:3 display God’s glory. I love to ponder what being an oak of righteousness looks like for me. And the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 3, prays that the Ephesians would be “rooted and grounded in love” (verse 17). His whole prayer in Eph 3:14-19 focuses on love, and I find it helpful to pray for the ways I desire to be rooted in love, like a tree rooted in healthy, well watered soil, and for the ways I desire that rooting for the people I pray for.

Next week: creative prayer as affirming truth. Illustration: Dave Baab’s interpretation of the tree in Psalm 1.

A favor: I wonder if any of my blog readers have read my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I’d like to have more reviews of the book on amazon.com, and I would really appreciate it if some of you could post a few sentences about the book. (You have to have an amazon account to post reviews. Here’s where to post the review.) If you read the book in the past, and need a reminder of the content, the amazon page has a good overview of the content. I have excerpted several chapters of the book on this blog. Here are the first posts of those excerpted chapters:

Thanks for your help!

Creative prayer: apples and wings

Friday July 12 2019

Creative prayer: apples and wings

“Keep me as the apple of your eye.
Hide me in the shelter of your wings.” (Psalm 17:8)

I’ve been praying those words often since I heard a recording of the Australian band Sons of Korah singing Psalm 17. That was a few years ago, so I’ve had a lot of time to ponder the various ways a person could interpret those words.

First, some information about the meaning. “Apple of your eye” is a very old term in English, slang for something or someone who is cherished above all else. In old England, the pupil of the eye was viewed as round and solid, often called the apple of the eye, so using the term to refer to something or someone highly valuable to us is a metaphor, comparing the value of that thing or person to the preciousness of our eyes.

“Apple of my eye” first appeared in English literature in 885 (!), and Shakespeare used it in 1600. (You can read some more history here.) The King James translation of the Bible uses it several places.

The Hebrew wording for the first line of Psalm 17:8 means something like protect/guard/attend to me like the pupil/middle of an eye. So the apple idea in many English translations of the verse comes from the early English view of the pupil as a solid ball like an apple.

“Hide me in the shadow of your wings” is more straightforward to understand, and the translation from the Hebrew is direct and clear. The comparison is to baby birds who hide in the shelter of their parents’ wings. Oddly enough, at the time I first heard the Sons of Korah sing this song, I had collected several photos of parent birds sheltering their children. I’ve used one of them above.

As I’ve prayed these words for several years, I have come to love the juxtaposition of ideas. The “apple of your eye” metaphor conveys preciousness and the “shadow of your wings” metaphor evokes safety. I need both in my life, and the two build on each other. When I feel loved by God, I feel safer. When I feel safe in God’s care, I’m more able to rest in my belovedness.

I’ve also noticed the various moods I can feel as I pray these words. Sometimes my prayer has a bit of desperation about it. “I don’t feel particularly loved at this moment, and I’m overwhelmed with anxiety. I’m begging you to help me to know I’m the apple of your eye and that I’m safe in your care.”

Other times, I’m asking God to help me continue to experience the belovedness and peace I'm feeling right now. I know how quickly my feelings of intimacy with God shift into anxiety and self-criticism. In a way, this prayer is a form of fire insurance. Things are good now, but I know they won’t always be. “Thanks for your love that I’m feeling in this moment. Keep me there, in a place of feeling loved, even when my emotions shift. Help me to keep on knowing that I’m the apple of your eye, that you are so good to me and will keep me safe.”

Sometimes, in God’s great mercy, I am simply at peace in God’s presence, and I can pray these words in gratitude, joy and rest. Those are great moments.

If you don’t want to listen to the Sons of Korah singing Psalm 17, be sure to read the whole psalm, so you can see the context of this beautiful prayer. The psalm is attributed to David, so it’s fun to think about the possibility of such a complex man – sometimes so violent and sometimes so full of love for God – writing or singing the psalm.

Next week – creative prayer: trees. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below or in the right hand column of the whole web page.

Some related blog posts:

Creative prayer: Learning from mindfulness meditation

Wednesday July 3 2019

Creative prayer: Learning from mindfulness meditation

For the past five to ten years, I’ve been reading about mindfulness meditation, analyzing it from a Christian view point and pondering the connections between Christian prayer and mindfulness. I want to make four suggestions about how mindfulness can help us pray more creatively.

1. Thankfulness. My first thought, at least five years ago, relates to the connections between mindfulness and thankfulness. How can we be thankful for God’s gifts in our lives if we aren’t paying attention to our lives? In mindfulness meditation, we are encouraged to experience this moment, and this moment often contains so many gifts from God that we miss in our busyness and preoccupation.

2. Guidance from God. In much the same way, how can we perceive how God is guiding us if we aren't paying attention to our lives? 

3. Noticing without judging. Later I learned about the encouragement in mindfulness meditation to pay attention to what we are thinking and feeling without judging it. My mind might do this: “I’m really frustrated with xx (a certain person in my life). I shouldn’t feel that way! I should be more loving! What’s wrong with me that I am thinking judgmental thoughts about xx?”

What I’ve read about mindfulness meditation encourages me to do this: “I’m really frustrated with xx. . . . Hmm, interesting. Frustrated. What a variety of emotions all people have. I’m going to let the frustration go now.”

Or, “I’m really frustrated with xx. I shouldn’t feel that way! . . . Hmm, I’m judging my own thoughts and feelings. I’m going to sit with that feeling of judgment for a moment, then let it go.”

From a Christian point of view, the inner dialog, inspired by mindfulness meditation, might go like this: “I’m really frustrated with xx. I shouldn’t feel that way, and in fact I don’t want to feel that way. God, forgive me for my judgment of the other person and my judgment of myself. Help me to feel forgiven and to let these feelings go, knowing your love is so much greater than my sin. Fill me with your love.”

One of the things that mindfulness meditation has taught me is the depth of my tendency to judge and criticize myself. “What’s wrong with me that I . . .” Because of mindfulness meditation, I have grown in letting that personal judgment go.

4. Body awareness. One more area that mindfulness meditation has impacted me is by helping me to return to my body. Last  week in my post on returning prayer, I quoted from a new book on the Enneagram: “Returning prayer begins with returning to body awareness. We remember that we are inhabited by the Spirit of God. As we become present in our bodies, we can breathe into our hearts so they open up and return to a place of listening to God.”[1]

Before I can remember that I am inhabited by the Spirit of God, before I can breathe deeply, I have to become aware that I am actually dwelling in a body. My breath, my heartbeat, the ability to smell the food baking in the kitchen and hear the fan running in the bathroom, the feeling of my back against the chair, my fingers touching the keyboard as I type this blog post . . . everything about my body is part of who I am, given to me by God, and inhabited by God’s spirit. I live in this body in this moment.

I often focus so deeply on my thoughts that my physical body is forgotten for long stretches of time. Mindfulness prayer has helped me re-connect with my body. As a Christian, I can thank God for the various parts of my body that work well, and I can ask for God’s help for the parts that could work better. But I can’t do any of that without the foundational awareness of being in my body.

Please comment below or on Facebook, or email me (LMBaab [at] aol.com), with further thoughts about the connections between mindfulness meditation and Christian prayer. I am sure there are many more than I have mentioned here.

(Next week – Creative prayer: Apples, wings and roots. Illustration by Dave Baab.)

Some posts where I write about paying attention to our lives:

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 199.

Creative prayer: Returning prayer

Thursday June 27 2019

Creative prayer: Returning prayer

“Returning prayer is a way of coming back home to God and to ourselves. We leave the ‘far country’ and our false self efforts and return to who God made us to be.” [1]

I found this language of “returning prayer” in a new book on the Enneagram that I really like. The words reminded me of a statement I love from the Church of Ireland Prayer Book: “When we were far off, you met us in your son and brought us home.”

In one sense, any prayer is a returning prayer, because we draw near to God through Jesus Christ, who met us in the far country and brought us home. In any moment of our life, the forces of our culture (materialism, the fast pace, etc.) as well as forces from within us (ego, fear, etc.) try to pull us away from God. These human forces are amplified by the demonic forces at work in our world and in us as well.

To call all prayer “returning prayer” can help us remember that so many forces are pulling us away from God, and we need to consciously chose to return. But to identify “returning prayer” with all prayer dilutes the meaning. I have found it helpful to be more specific. What exactly do I need to return from?

We have a very talented musician in our congregation, Ben Newton. Last Sunday we sang one of his songs, “Bring us Home.” (You can listen to the delightfully rhythmical song here.) The song opens with the refrain:

"Bring us home, God our Father, how we need to know your touch
To feel your arms around us, to know your love
Because you are home, God our Father, you are everything we need
How we need to know you love us, bring us home"

The first verse focuses on the role of the speed of life that we need to come home from: “Our world is rushing by, we are missing the deeper life.”

The second verse focuses on our tendency to run after the many distractions of life that draw us away from God: “We have spent our time chasing distractions from the center of life.”

Yes, we need to return to God when we get absorbed in rushing around. We need to return to God when we have chased distractions that have taken us away from God our center.

I can think of several additional things that I need to come home from. One of them is sadness and grief. My husband’s sister died last month, and our granddaughter will probably be moving away with her parents in a few months. I am grieving. I need to come home to the arms of Jesus for comfort and peace.

The authors of the Enneagram book where I got this idea of returning prayer, Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, write, “Returning prayer begins with returning to body awareness. We remember that we are inhabited by the Spirit of God. As we become present in our bodies, we can breathe into our hearts so they open up and return to a place of listening to God.”[2]

I definitely need reminders to return to awareness of my own body and my location in a specific place. My scattered thoughts and unruly emotions take me so far away from this present, physical moment. So for me, one application of these words “returning prayer” has to do with mindfulness of this moment, this body, this place, these people, this work. My body is inhabited by the Spirit of God, but I often don’t pay any attention to that reality.

In the bridge of his song, Ben Newton uses the words “real water for our true thirst.” We can pray that the various things that draw us away from the ability to rest in God will create in us a thirst for the real water that comes from God, our true home. We can ask God to help us feel a deep need to return to our center, God’s very real presence.

Next week: Some ponderings about the ways mindfulness meditation can inform Christian prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. Words to Ben Newton's song used with permission. His band is called Lightcure, and his playlist on YouTube is "Doubt Melts Like Snowmen." If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below (for cell phones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

Two blog posts about the giant AHA moment I had in 2011 about the concept of “home.”

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 199.
[2] Ibid.

Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

Friday June 21 2019

Creative Prayer: Relinquishing and welcoming

My favorite of the young adult novels by Madeleine L’Engle is A Ring of Endless Light. The main character, Vicky Austin, makes friends with a dolphin (always a dream of mine!) and has a sweet romance with an admirable teenage boy. In addition, she wrestles with what it means to be so full of self that there’s no room for God.

The vehicle for her wrestling is a poem by Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1685). The poem uses the metaphor of a shell, either empty enough that God can fill it, or so full of self that God cannot enter in:

If thou could’st empty all thyself of self, 
Like to a shell dishabited, 
Then might He find thee on the ocean shelf, 
And say, “This is not dead,” 
And fill thee with Himself instead.

But thou art all replete with very thou
And hast such shrewd activity, 
That when He comes, He says, “This is enow
Unto itself– ’twere better let it be, 
It is so small and full, there is no room for me.” 

A Ring of Endless Light came out in 1976, and I read it soon afterwards. I have pondered the phrase “thou art all replete with very thou” for most of my adult life. A major part of my journey has involved finding my own voice. How can I discover my true self – created by God – and find my own voice if I believe that God wants me to empty myself of self?

I came across an interesting twenty-first century version of Thomas Browne’s words in a wonderful new book on the Enneagram written by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, her husband and two other authors. Calhoun wrote the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, which I have used extensively in my teaching. In a series of appendices, Calhoun and the other authors propose numerous prayers and other spiritual practices.

They offer a prayer in four movements called the “Welcoming Prayer.”

  1. I let go of my desire for security and survival. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  2. I let go of my need for approval and affection. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  3. I let go of my desire for control and power. Welcome, Jesus, welcome.
  4. I let go of my desire to change this reality. Welcome, Jesus, welcome. [1]

I have no idea exactly what Sir Thomas Browne meant by being too full of “very thou,” but maybe he meant being too full of desires for security, approval, and control. I’m totally on board with relinquishing those into God’s hands and welcoming Jesus into our heart, into the space those desires usually occupy.

And I do love Browne’s metaphor of the shell in the ocean. We do need to welcome Jesus into our lives, and feeling like an empty shell is one vivid metaphor to help us make space for Jesus. I wonder, though, if we have the capacity within ourselves to make space for Jesus. Maybe our first prayer should be to ask God to identify and remove the desires that take up the space God wants to occupy in the shell that is our heart. I’m not sure we can do it on our own.

Next week: Returning Prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to get an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" below (for cellphones) and in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

Two posts on this blog with themes somewhat similar to this post:

[1] Adele and Doug Calhoun and Clare and Scott Loughrige, Spiritual Rhythms of the Enneagram: A Handbook for Harmony and Transformation, InterVarsity Press 2019, page 209.

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