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: Submitting AND entreating

Thursday May 23 2019

Creative prayer: Submitting AND entreating

Some friends were talking about prayer recently, and a couple of them mentioned their desire to shift their prayers away from constantly asking God for things. They expressed their hope to become more focused on praying for what God wants and submitting to God’s action in their lives.

As they were speaking, a vivid illustration came to mind. Several years ago, my husband Dave walked the Kepler Track, a four day hike (or “tramp” as they say in New Zealand), one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. The first day of the hike is a series of switchbacks that climb from an altitude of just over sea level to 1000 meters (3300 feet). The second day involves a slight increase in elevation, then a long walk along the top of a ridge.

The trail along the ridge is maybe 2 feet wide. On both sides are dramatic drop offs. Dave walked along that ridge on a calm and quiet day, but he found it scary even on a calm day. He heard stories about people crawling along the ridge in high winds. (You can see the ridge in the top photo on the Kepler Track website.) In prayer, we are called by God to walk along a kind of ridge between dangers on both sides.

I believe that in prayer we are called to ask God for exactly what is on our minds. God invites us to pray honestly and fervently for our needs and desires, as well as the needs and desires of friends and family members, people in need around the world, Christian leaders, people who work in government, scientists who do the research to help us take care of this beautiful earth, historians who help us learn about the past, journalists who help us understand what’s going on in our world, and whoever else we believe shapes our life on earth. This kind of prayer is right and good, but it can morph into selfish preoccupation with our own desires.

I believe we are also called to ask God to lead us into prayers that reflect God’s will. God invites us to listen, through the Holy Spirit, to the voice of Jesus guiding us into prayer. God wants us to be willing to submit to whatever God is doing in the situations that matter to us. This kind of prayer is also right and good, but it can morph into passivity and inaction.

Walking the balance between these two aspects of prayer is like walking along that ridge at the top of the Kepler Track. We are called to walk a path that avoids the cliff on one side – our obsession with our own desires and a belief that only our wants and needs matter – while also avoiding the cliff on the other side – a hyper-spiritual approach that expresses only our desire to submit to God’s will.

The Bible invites us to pray honesty about what’s on our mind AND also express willingness to let God guide us. We are called to both entreaty AND submission. We must pray with sincerity AND assent to the purposes of God, candor AND surrender.

Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane illustrates this perfectly: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39).

I’ve been studying the prayers of the Bible for most of my Christian life. I am awed by the honesty in so many of the Psalms. These prayers model a radical approach to God with everything that is within us – our hopes, desires, longings, and negative and positive emotions. The prayers in the Psalms also model a deep praise for God and God’s purposes.

I am also awed by the prayers in the Apostle Paul’s letters, which express his longing for growth in faith on the part of the people he’s writing to AND a deep desire for God’s will for them. (I’ve written blog posts about Paul’s prayer in Colossians, the two prayers in Ephesians, and the prayer in Philippians.)

I am challenged by the balance in the Lord’s prayer: we are to ask for food, deliverance from temptation, and forgiveness of sins, while also praying that God’s will would be done.

In our prayers, we are called to both entreaty AND submission, walking a path between excesses on both sides.

Next week: emotion and passion in prayer. Illustration: daisy on the Kepler Track, watercolor 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 (for laptops) or below (for cellphones).

Another post on prayer you may enjoy: Thankfulness in the Apostle Paul’s prayers

Creative prayer: Seasons

Friday May 17 2019

Creative prayer: Seasons

On Valentine’s Day when I was 41, I woke up unable to get my breath. I’d had the flu for a few days, but this breathlessness was something different. Dave took me to the Emergency Room where they tested my blood oxygen level (very low) and gave me a referral to a lung specialist. I walked out with a cute little oxygen tank and a bigger oxygen tank for refilling the little guy.

It took six weeks to get a diagnosis (hypersensitivity pneumonitis) and a drug to heal it (high doses of prednisone). Meanwhile one of my closest friends was dying of a brain tumor. Maggie died when I was about a month into the prednisone, and I went to her heart-breaking funeral carrying my little oxygen tank.

After two months on prednisone, I was healed, and they started the process of getting me off the drug. I felt awful during the two months of steadily reducing doses. I felt awful for the first two months after I was off the drug. Then I had to begin the long process of getting some level of fitness back. Another Valentine’s Day had come and gone before I felt good again.

During the weeks when I was waiting for a diagnosis, I found that the only part of the Bible I could read was the psalms. During the months on prednisone and the months of withdrawal from it, I found I could read only Psalm 90. I read the psalm over and over, praying the words. For the better part of a year, I’m not sure I prayed much else besides the words of that psalm.

I still don’t know why, of all the characteristics of God in the Bible, the words of verse 1 meant so much to me: “Lord, you have been our dwelling-place in all generations.” I can see the appeal of verse 2 for someone who is ill:

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2)

And I see the appeal of verses 3 to 6 for someone whose close friend has just died:

You turn us back to dust,
and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” 
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night. 
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning; 
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers. (Psalm 90:3-6)

In her wonderful new book, The Gift of Wonder, Christine Sine compares the rhythms of our life to the seasons of nature. She talks about the habits we can develop in the seasons of good weather that will take us through the dark and cold.  

I’m glad I had a habit of Bible study and prayer before Maggie died and before I got sick. I still find it absolutely fascinating that in a hard season, my Bible reading and prayer narrowed, first to the book of Psalms, and then to only one Psalm. I still have a deep connection with Psalm 90, which kept me spiritually alive in those long months of feeling awful and grieving a loss that I still feel.

As I look back on that experience, I resonate with a poem Christine Sine wrote and placed in her chapter on seasons:

God prepare us for the winters of our lives.
May we not forget
that hidden within winter’s dark embrace
are the seeds of life.
Remind us, loving God, that when all seems dark and empty,
you are still at work,
strengthening our roots,
healing our wounds
anchoring our souls. [1]

May God give you peace in all the seasons of your life. May God enable you to prepare in the good times for the dark months of winter.

(Next week: the balance between entreating God for what we want versus prayer as submission and relinquishment. 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 on laptops or below on cellphones.)

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

Listening to God in Prayer: Praying the Psalms         
Drawing near to God with the heart: Praying the Psalms          
Drawing near to God with the heart: All will be well            
An AHA moment on Mother’s Day           

[1] Christine Aroney-Sine, The Gift of Wonder: Creative Practices for Delighting in God (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019, 114.  

Creative prayer without co-dependency

Friday May 10 2019

Creative prayer without co-dependency

I am the oldest child and the only daughter in my family of origin. My parents were highly competent and organized individuals, and my mother at 94 still is. They expected a lot of me, and I wanted to do what they asked. I was a responsible child who grew into a responsible adult.

That characteristic of being responsible has many good sides to it, as well as a few negative aspects. At times, my spiritual life and my prayer patterns are influenced by a tendency to try to take control of things that I am simply not responsible for.

Here’s what it looks like: I’m praying for something I feel strongly about, perhaps care for the environment, and I’m focusing my prayers on people who make policy decisions about the safety of chemicals and food. As I pray, I wonder if I’m doing enough to care for the environment in my own life, and the prayer time turns into me feeling bad about myself.

Or perhaps I’m praying for a friend with a serious problem. I’ve tried my best to show care for that person, and ultimately the problem is not something I have any control over, but surely there’s something more I could do to help. The prayer degenerates into brainstorming about what I need to do next.

I call this “codependence in prayer.” Codependency usually refers to human relationships where the codependent person enables another person’s addiction or destructive behaviors. I don’t mean it like that in reference to prayer. I’m thinking of a couple of statements about codependency:

  • Someone who is codependent often builds their identity around helping others.
  • Among the core characteristics of codependency is an excessive reliance on other people for approval and a sense of identity.

Too often I feel the need to be a part of the answer to a prayer, rather than leaving the issue in God’s hands.

Surely all of us, even hyper-responsible people, are called by God in some instances to do more than we’re doing. But many times for me, I need to pray about things and leave them in God’s hands.

Some of the imaginative prayer I’ve described in a previous post is very helpful. As I pray, I can use my imagination and picture myself handing problems to Jesus or laying problems at the feet of Jesus. I can write my concerns on the pages of a journal and imagine God receiving that page from me.

I can also use my body. I can engage in breath prayer, and imagine that I am breathing out my problems into God’s presence. I can pray with hands raised to heaven as if I am entrusting the issue into God’s hands. I can put my hands on my knees face upwards and imagine lifting the situation into God’s hands. I can kneel or even lay flat on the floor in a posture of submission, indicating that God is lord of the universe and lord of this particular problem.

In the world of addiction and the codependency related to enabling addiction, many people use the language of “detachment with love.” The person with an addict in the family needs to keep loving that person, but detach in appropriate ways from that person’s life and decisions.

I’ve been pondering detachment with love in many areas of my life, including prayer. When I release something into God’s hands, and attempt to leave it there, I detach from the problem because it now belongs to God. Of course, it always did belong to God, so as I pray I am reflecting a reality that already existed.

I invite you to ponder what detachment with love looks like for you as you pray. I invite you to think about the ways you pray that enable you to leave things in God’s hands rather than snatching them back.

(Next week: creative prayer in seasons. Illustration by Dave Baab. 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 webpage.)

You may not know that I’ve written three novels for kindle that are loosely connected in a series. Come travel with me:

Creative prayer in a foreign language

Thursday May 2 2019

Creative prayer in a foreign language

My husband Dave helped lead an international student group for eight years while we lived in New Zealand. Twice a year he organized a retreat for the students, and at the retreats he often taught them the song “Dona Nobis Pacem.” I remember the song from Girl Scouts, and we sang it as a round. Dave taught the students the words, their meaning, and how to sing it as a round.

As I child, I didn’t know what the words meant. The Latin words mean “give us peace,” so the song is actually a prayer. (You can listen to it here.)

The international students loved the song. I suspect part of their appreciation had to do with the equalizing effect. Latin was a foreign language to all of them. The group used English for songs and Bible studies. The students’ ability in English varied greatly, ranging from native speakers to experiencing it as an uncomfortable language they were trying to learn. Here, in one song, they were all equally unfamiliar with the words, yet they were praying it together.

I love to pray in other languages. We lived in Iran for six months way back before the Iranian revolution, when I was in my twenties. I learned the Lord’s Prayer in Farsi while we were there. Today I only remember the Farsi for “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name.” I pray it often, to remind me to thank God for the gift of our time there, and as a stimulus to prayer for people we know from Iran, American politicians who make decisions about relations with Iran, and the church of Jesus Christ there. (You can read about our Iranian adventures here, and see amusing photos of Dave and me as young adults.)

We also spent a year in Sweden, where Dave did dental research. I was in my thirties. I learned one verse of the famous Swedish hymn, “Children of the Heavenly Father” in Swedish. Today I remember only one phrase, but I pray it often: “More secure is no one ever, than the loved ones of the Father.” Those words, in Swedish and in English, are so soothing! And they remind me to pray for Swedes we know and for the church in Sweden.

The foreign language I know best is French. I have a Good News version of the New Testament in French. The sixth or seventh grade French works well for me. I also have a simple translation of the Psalms into French. I find that when I pray the Psalms in French, I slow down (because I have to!), I think hard about what the words mean, and I am deeply aware that God is at work around the world in all countries among people who speak so many different languages.

Back in 1996, seminary professor Charles van Engen wrote, “We are all being radically impacted by the largest redistribution of people the globe has ever seen.”[1] This redistribution has continued to increase in the two decades since those words were written, and I see the effects of this global movement of people in so many ways, ranging from the Somali Muslim student who works at my gym (and told me how his family prepares goat meat for dinner) to newspaper articles about rising nationalism and tribalism in so many places.

Christians are always called to pray for changes going on in the wider society, especially changes that deeply impact human beings.  One way I find I can pray for this very large “redistribution of people” is to pray, in a very small way, in other languages.

(Next week – Creative prayer: avoiding co-dependence in prayer. Illustration – international students waiting at Warrington Beach near Dunedin, New Zealand, for an Easter sunrise service, watercolor by Dave Baab. 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 webpage.)

In my 2018 book on pastoral care, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century, I discuss seven trends in pastoral care, one of which is Pastoral Care Occurs across Ethnicities and Religions.” I discuss the seven trends in a blog post. Another item on this website that’s relevant to the topic of prayer in response to the global redistribution of people is an article called, “To be a Neighbour Must Include Listening.” How can we pray if we don’t listen?

[1] Charles van Engen, Mission on the Way (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996), 179, quoted in Kevin R. Ward, Losing Our Religion: Changing Patterns of Believing and Belonging in Secular Western Societies (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2013), 186.

Creative prayer while walking

Friday April 26 2019

Creative prayer while walking

In my late twenties and early thirties, when I was a stay-at-home mom with young children, I took a walk three times a week, My walks felt like salvation, givine me a breath of fresh air, literally and spiritually, and desperately needed silence in my extremely relational life. In the early years of mothering, I arranged various babysitting ventures to enable me to take my walks. After my kids started school, a priority for their time at school was a walk for me.

During my stay-at-home years, I studied part time at Fuller Seminar, working slowly toward the degree that would enable me to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister. When my kids were 4 and 6, I wrote an essay for a Fuller class where I explored the notion of “thinking in the presence of God” while walking.

My walks definitely involved times of prayer, and I described one prayer pattern last week, where I imagined Jesus in a rowboat on Greenlake, and I handed him my struggles and pain, and he handed me peace, love and joy. But I didn’t pray the whole time I was walking. Often I let my mind wander here and there in this pattern that I called “thinking in the presence of God.”

I felt as if I had a companion in my thinking, as if Jesus were right there, sometimes guiding my thoughts, sometimes entering into my thoughts, sometimes helping me clarify a thought or know what to pray for. And sometimes laughing at the ridiculous things I was thinking! I would think for a while, then pray about what I has been thinking about, then return to this pattern I had developed of thinking in God’s presence.

Of course I wasn’t aware of Jesus’ presence or the Holy Spirit’s guidance every minute I was walking. Some of this ruminating was just that – chewing on the details and pattern of my life like a cow chews its cud. But the awareness of God with me kept returning, in a kind of ebb and flow, that fueled my prayers as I walked.

The fact that I had memorized many verses of the Bible and many praise songs and hymns helped me center my thoughts on God as I walked. That combination – taking time to walk in nature three times each week, letting my thoughts freewheel while inviting God to enter into to them, and bringing scriptures, hymns and praise songs to mind – anchored my life and my faith. It gave me mental and spiritual rest in those relationally intense years of parenting small children.

My friend Steve Simon has written a wonderful book called Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms. Steve has memorized and prayed many Psalms while walking his dog, and the book recounts how he did that. When the book comes out, some months from now, I’ll be promoting it on this blog.

Steve asked me to write a foreword for his book. I’ve been working on it this week, and the book goes to the publisher next week. Here’s a paragraph from my foreword, relevant to my topic today:

The walking component of Steve’s engagement with the Psalms is significant. Christians have long underemphasized the significance of the body, and I am thrilled that in recent years Christians have begun to rediscover spiritual practices based in the body, including fasting, pilgrimage, walking a labyrinth, and the stations of the cross. Friends increasingly tell me they are finding joy in a variety of bodily positions while praying. The rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement has always enabled prayer to flow easily for me, and I love Steve’s combination of walking while memorizing, pondering and praying the Psalms.

I invite you to discern the places in your life where you “think in the presence of God.” Maybe for you it happens while driving or cooking or gardening. Wherever it happens, do all you can to cultivate an awareness of Jesus’ presence beside you and with you in your thoughts as well as your actions. Think about the connections between God’s presence in your thoughts and the way you’re using your body in that activity. And be sure to nurture the prayers that flow out of your thoughts.

Next week: creative prayer in a foreign language. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below (if you’re looking at an individual post on this blog) or in the right hand column (if you’re looking at this blog on a laptop).

Two previous posts about our bodies that you may enjoy:
          Bringing my body to the manger
          My body as a kind of home

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