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

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Listening to God in prayer: My journey

Wednesday November 22 2017

Listening to God in prayer: My journey

I learned about contemplative prayer when I was around 40. It dovetailed perfectly with other things that were going on in my life.

I am an introvert. My mother is extremely extraverted. In recent years, she has developed some ability to pray alone and to appreciate quiet things, but in my childhood and early adult years, her values were totally and completely placed in the realm of activity and socializing. She has a very high energy level, she values action over being quiet, and she has always kept a social schedule that makes me feel exhausted just to hear about it.

In my teen and early adult years, I strained to be more like my mother. It was only at midlife that I began to accept myself and allow myself to be an introvert. Ironically, people call me energetic. They don’t see the hours of quiet that I need to balance outward activity.

I have always valued quiet prayer and reflection, but I felt somewhat guilty for how much I like to be alone with my thoughts and alone with God. This drive to spend time alone made me feel ashamed and inadequate. Learning about contemplative prayer gave validation to these inner drives. In fact, I find contemplative prayer very natural. I’m actually good at something that more outwardly-oriented people find difficult. But it took me until midlife to appreciate the strength of my inner life.

The specific prayer styles of contemplative prayer – examen, lectio divina, breath prayer, and so on – have given me more options for quiet prayer, more things to do as I pray. I love them all. They are very helpful to me.

What is even more helpful is the general attitude that we embrace in contemplative prayer. At midlife, I began to slow down, let go of some of my need for control, and tried to live my life more in response to God. In intercessory prayer, which I still value highly, we say, “Dear Lord, here are the things that are on my mind.” And we tell God what we long for and hope for.

In contemplative prayer, we say, “Lord, enable me to hear you. What is in your heart that you want to communicate to me today? What do you want me to think about, do, say, pray?” This posture of listening changes the whole focus, and it fit perfectly with what was going on in my life in my forties.

In my teens and twenties, I really believed I knew a lot, and I was always striving to know more. I felt that I had right answers a lot of the time. In my forties, I began to realize I am so much less certain about lots of things. That lack of certainty has continued.

I still pray lots and lots of intercessory prayers for people in need, for my children, granddaughter, husband, family members, and friends, and for the needs of the world. But because I’m less certain about so many things, I really want to be guided in how to pray. I really want to listen to God’s concerns, God’s priorities, God’s passion. I want to hear his voice in how to pray.

In my twenties and thirties, I felt very optimistic that I could do most things that came along; that I would have time and energy to explore what I wanted to. In my forties, I found I have so many relationships, so many options, so much to do, and that feeling of too many possible directions has only gotten more intense with each passing decade. I need guidance and a sense of priorities. I find that guidance through listening to God in contemplative prayer.

And I want to hear God’s voice of grace, too. All that busy activity of my early adult life came in part from my doubts about who I am and what I do. Now that I’m older, I’m more able to rest in God’s love for me, but I need to hear and feel that love. Contemplative prayer encourages me to wait and listen for it.

The specific patterns of prayer that we call contemplative are just a means to an end. And that end is a posture of listening, an attentiveness to the voice of God. I find I can’t live without it.

(Next week: The blessings of contemplative prayer, alone and with others. Illustration: Me in Stockholm in my early 50s, 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, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

In case you missed these last week, here are two articles I’ve written that relate to listening to God:

     Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others   
     Following Jesus each day 

First post in a new series: Listening to God in prayer

Thursday November 16 2017

First post in a new series: Listening to God in prayer

Throughout the centuries, Christians have valued quiet prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, and meditation on the character and purposes of God. In the twentieth century, these quiet prayer forms were largely eclipsed by an emphasis on more outwardly oriented expressions of faith. Christian spirituality of the twentieth century often emphasized service, evangelism, caring for people in need, fellowship and sharing, at the expense of quiet, reflective forms of prayer.

In recent years, more Christians are rediscovering the joys of meeting God in quiet prayer and reflection. Retreat centers offer quiet retreats. Congregations sponsor contemplative prayers events. More Christians visit monasteries to soak up the quiet and peace.

At midlife, many people experience a turn inward, and contemplative prayer can feel more natural than in the first half of life. For those of us who find quiet reflection natural, learning about contemplative prayer can be a freeing and joyful midlife experience. Next week I’ll write about the way that worked for me.

Others at midlife find themselves surprised at the comfort and delight they experience in quiet prayer, often for the first time in their lives. In the first half of their lives, they thrived on all the abundant opportunities for fellowship and ministry offered by their churches. They are often surprised in their forties and fifties to find themselves seeking out opportunities to spend time with God in a quiet setting. They are also surprised to find how refreshing it feels.

Several extraverted and very social people have told me that at midlife they began to wonder if they really are introverts after all, because they find such joy in being alone and praying alone. Being alone takes on a richness and peace that it never had before. Journaling, creating a prayer space in the home or in the garden, walking alone in nature, and many other forms of prayer and reflection in solitude can take on new meaning and satisfaction as a way to be alone yet not alone, because God is present.

The long history of contemplative prayer offers quite a few prayer forms that can be very helpful tools. In this series of blog posts I will explore those forms:

  • Breath prayer, a way of stopping and experiencing God’s nearness;
  • Examen, a way of reflecting back to see God’s presence in past moments;
  • Lectio Divina, a four-fold pattern of sitting with a passage of Scripture;
  • Ignatian Prayer, a way to meet Christ by entering into a biblical story.

These are very helpful prayer forms to learn, because they give us something to “do,” somewhere to direct our thoughts and prayers, as we learn to sit still in God’s presence.

All these contemplative prayer patterns are simply skills to get at the deeper issue. They are useful skills, and I will write about them because they are helpful, rich and rewarding. But the deeper issue that lies behind contemplative prayer, and the goal of using all the skills, is to learn to be present to God and to grow in our ability to hear God’s voice, so we can live lives that are responsive to God’s presence.

In the first half of life, we can easily delude ourselves that we are competent, in-charge people who can easily know and obey God through our own efforts of discipline. In the midlife years, many people find it difficult to sustain these illusions of control and competence. In addition, we find ourselves longing to know if God is real, if God really can communicate to us, if God really does love us just the way we are. We long to experience God’s presence.

Contemplative prayer can give us the space and time in our lives so we can hear God’s voice and rest in God's presence.

(Next week: my journey of growing in listening to God. Illustration: Cambridge, England, 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, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife.)

Two articles I’ve written that relate to listening to God:

     Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others   
     Following Jesus each day    

Stories I ponder: My dad the pilot

Friday November 10 2017

Stories I ponder: My dad the pilot

My father was born on April 25, 1915, the day the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps landed at Gallipoli in Turkey. The military action there over the next six months would be so inept and bloody that on my father’s first birthday, April 25th would be declared a national holiday in New Zealand. ANZAC Day is still celebrated passionately in New Zealand, and people with no religious affiliation enthusiastically attend worship services commemorating New Zealand’s soldiers.

Of course, I had to move to New Zealand to learn the significance of my father’s birth date. It seems an appropriate day to be born for someone who flew fighter planes in World War 2. My dad flew P-51 Mustangs in North Africa and Italy for about a year before he became very ill with what was then called jaundice, some unspecified form of hepatitis. After returning to the U.S. to recover, he spent the rest of the war selling war bonds and training pilots. When the war ended, he left the military, but returned to the air force a couple of years later.

My parents met in Washington, D.C., when my father was stationed at the Pentagon. In 1948, he was transferred to Sofia, Bulgaria. My mother waited nine months to get a visa to join him. They were married in Bulgaria, spent a year there, and when Bulgaria severed diplomatic relations with the United States, my dad was transferred to Ankara, Turkey. My mother was pregnant with me when he was again posted to the Pentagon. After I was born, my father was stationed in Greece, Germany, Michigan, upstate New York, Germany again, and Virginia. My younger brother was born when we were in Germany the first time and I was almost four.

In all those places up through Germany the second time, my father flew cargo planes for the air force. My favorite memories include my father returning from a flight, pulling out a map and showing me where he’d been. Sometimes he brought me little presents, which I loved, but those moments with the map were just as precious as the gifts.

When I was nine, my father quit flying because he had reached the mandatory age for stopping.

My father died in 2005 at 90. My mother asked my brother, Mark, and me to give a little talk at his funeral service. When Mark and I compared notes about what we were going to say, I found out that Mark did not remember my father in his pilot years at all.

For me, the quintessential memory of my father involved his return from a trip and that lovely moment of poring over a map together. I was astounded to realize my brother did not have that memory of my father at all.

I have loved maps all my life. I love them on paper and I love them online. My father gave me that gift. That love of maps and distant places motivated me to study for a year in France at 19, and live in Iran, Israel, Sweden and New Zealand with my husband, Dave. God used those conversations with my father over maps to kindle something significant in me that profoundly shaped my life and ministry.

We are shaped by the events in our lives, and it is remarkable that a brother and sister growing up in the same home can have such different memories. Even when people experience the same events, they can remember them so differently.

I’ve been writing a series of blog posts about stories I ponder. All of these stories have shaped me in one way or another. I have LOVED writing these stories. Writing down these events that shaped me has helped me see God’s hand in my life in new ways.

I want to encourage each of you to think about the events that have shaped you. Maybe you could journal about them, talk to a friend or family member, or allow time in a small group meeting for people to share stories.

Here are the key questions:

  • What are the events in your own life that you still ponder sometimes?
  • How did those events shape you?
  • Where do you see God in the events or in your memories of the events?

We must make spaces to share these kinds of stories.

(Next week I begin a new series on prayer as listening to God. Photo: my father during World War 2. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

The posts in this series about stories I ponder:

     What I learned in Sweden    
     How I learned about introversion and extraversion, and why it matters    
     The high cost of pretending to be someone we’re not    
     Dave’s sister’s end of life    
     How I changed my mind about women in ministry    
     We are necessary and superfluous    
     My mother and her sister    
     My father-in-law and money    
     A tale of two grandmothers    
     Aunt Lynn  
     The noisy washing machine    
     The tulip

Stories I ponder: What I learned in Sweden

Thursday November 2 2017

Stories I ponder: What I learned in Sweden

Back in the 1980s, when our sons were 3 and 5, my husband Dave got a fellowship to spend a year doing research in Sweden. He had met a visiting Swedish researcher at the University of Washington Dental School, where Dave was teaching, and that researcher invited Dave to come to Sweden to do research together. We were thrilled at this opportunity.

I was a part time student at Fuller Theological Seminary at the time, and I set up a couple of independent study projects to do in Sweden.

To our great surprise, after we arrived in Linkoping, a town two and a half hours southwest of Stockholm, we found we were eligible for a stipend from the government of about $400 every month because we had children. After we returned to the U.S., I wrote an opinion piece for our local newspaper about how this stipend seemed like such a good idea to me. Everyone got it, no matter what their income, so it was simple to administer. It validated the importance of children in a lovely way, and obviously it helped financially.

We also found out that we were eligible for part-time daycare because I was a part-time student. So, for five hours each day, our boys went to a daycare located on the ground floor of the apartment building where we lived. Our older son was the right age for kindergarten, so for three of those five hours each day, he and about a dozen other children had their kindergarten class in a room attached to the daycare.

The daycare was attractive and well staffed, supplied with toys and art supplies. The bathroom had a cute little cubby for each child with a toothbrush and toothpaste. Dental hygienists came into the preschool to do dental exams and to teach the children about how to care for their teeth.

We paid nothing for the daycare and kindergarten.

At the daycare, our boys made friends with a little Swedish girl named Jenny, and Jenny’s parents invited us over for a meal. They lived in a large apartment building that was a co-housing project, my first experience of co-housing.

Jenny’s mom told me about the 18 month maternity leave she had taken when Jenny was born, mandated by law in Sweden. Most of her leave was paid. She told me about the fact that she and her husband were entitled by law to work two-thirds time for several years after each child was born without losing any advancement at work. She said that government employees were given even more generous conditions in their early years of parenting. Government employees were entitled to work half-time for five years after the birth of each child, without losing the right to advancement.

As you can imagine, I was astounded at all of this. Much later in our time in Sweden, someone explained to me that feminists and people concerned about the rights of women had taken a very different tack in the United States than in Europe, especially Scandinavia. This person explained that in the United States, activists pushed for equal pay for equal work. In Scandinavia, they pushed for things that help mothers (and fathers) and children: free daycare, parental leave, and subsidies for parents.

The older I get, the  more I see examples of the law of unintended consequences. If I had been an activist 50 or 75 years ago, I might have been more concerned about equal pay for equal work rather than benefits for mothers, fathers and children. After all, not all women are mothers. Now I deeply wish that the United States had more structures in place to support parents in the early years of parenting.

God has a special concern for the vulnerable, which includes young children and their parents. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11). I am so concerned that in the United States, we don’t care for young children and the parents of young children very well. I grieve about this, and I pray for God's mercy for young families.

(Next week: my dad the pilot. Illustration by Dave Baab: our wonderful daughter-in-law and our beautiful granddaughter at one of Seattle’s wading pools. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.

Two years ago on this blog, a favorite post of mine: When fear, ego and ambition drive the bus