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: Art as symbol and metaphor

Wednesday February 27 2019

Creative prayer: Art as symbol and metaphor

I fell in love with Australian aboriginal art the first time I saw it as a young adult. I love visual patterns, and aboriginal art is full of them. A highlight of our first trip to Australia in 2001 was the art museums and art galleries where I got to see a lot of examples. I bought a book about aboriginal art and learned that many pieces are actually maps, representing the land forms, human settlements, and animals of specific places.

In 2011, my husband Dave and I began a new habit which we have continued. Several morning a week we pray silently together for 20 minutes. We do it in the late morning when I am ready for a break from working in my home office. In the first few years of that practice, I often picked up a book of art prints and prayed using the prints. Last week I wrote about doing that with paintings of biblical scenes.

One morning during our silent prayer time I picked up my book on aboriginal art. I thumbed through it, marveling at the shapes and colors, thanking God for the creativity of aboriginal artists. My eye landed on a 1987 painting called Emu Dreaming by Darby Jampijinpa Ross. You’ll see the painting at the top of this blog post. For many months, Emu Dreaming stimulated my prayers in unexpected ways.

I know that my interpretation of the painting bears no resemblance to the intent of the artist. I find myself hoping that my great love for the painting would please Darby Jampijinpa Ross anyway.

You’ll notice a circular center with eight wavy lines coming out of it. Seven of the eight lines end in a  spiral. In New Zealand Maori art, that spiral is a symbol of new life, modeled on fern fronds in the spring. In my symbolic interpretation of the painting, the circular center of the painting is God. The eight paths are various things we do in our lives. If we want the freshness of new life, we have to say connected to the center.

However, one line moves from the center to the upper right of the painting without ending in a spiral. This helps me accept that sometimes even when we are connected to the center, our actions don’t bear good fruit that’s visible to us.

The three black circles that are detached from the center circle represent to me the good things that God can spin off of our actions, blessings and good fruit that originate in our God-centered actions but take on a life of their own apart from us.

Between the wavy lines that are connected to the center, we can see eight sets of straight black lines with what looks like arrows on either side of the straight lines. The arrows are pointing away from the center. To me, those arrows represent the deep truth that when we get disconnected from the center, so many forces within us and outside of us want to move us further and further from the center.

Emu Dreaming has called me, over and over, to stay connected to the center. My center is God in Christ, experienced though the guidance and power of the Holy Spirit. The painting has helped me pray about the connectednesss of components of my life. Are various aspects of my life connected to the center, or are they actually like those thick black lines that want to draw me away from God? The painting has helped me evaluate and pray about habits, Christian ministry, and the relationships that shape and sustain me.

The painting has called me to confession. It has helped me renew, over and over again, my commitment to stay connected to the center so that I might experience new life in the various components of my life. It has helped me accept that sometimes – not often but sometimes – I engage in actions that result from my connection with God, but good fruit is not visible.

Thank you, creative God, for Darby Jampijinpa Ross and other aboriginal artists in Australia who delight me with the patterns they have painted.

(Next week: creative prayer for creation care. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sing up under “subscribe” in the right hand column of the whole web page.)

If you’re looking for a devotional for Lent (which begins in one week on March 6), consider the online devotional I co-wrote for our church. It focuses on creation care as a hopeful Lenten practice. Each week’s lesson begins with “walking with Jesus,” and each week offers numerous additional components: Scripture; suggestions for prayer; links to music, art and poetry; ideas for families; and options for further learning. It’s beautiful to look at, with my husband Dave’s paintings illustrating each lesson.

First post in a new series: Creative prayer

Wednesday February 20 2019

First post in a new series: Creative prayer

About a dozen years ago I attended a morning of prayer led by Louise Holert, a Presbyterian minister here in Seattle. Louise gave us postcards of sacred art to look at alongside scripture passages. The paintings illustrated the passages. She guided us into times of prayer where we pondered the passage. I found the juxtaposition of art and Bible stories to be very powerful. The paintings gave a richness and depth to my interaction with the biblical passages, and they helped me pray in new ways.

I was thrilled when I learned that Louise has put together a book using 31 paintings of the life of Christ, with instructions for how to prayerfully engage with each painting. I’ll describe the book below. But first I want to introduce this new series I’m writing for my blog.

When I was a young adult, I was taught that there are four components to prayer. We were taught the acronym ACTS to help us remember the four kinds of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanks and Supplication. Those forms of prayer are still vitally important in my life, and in this series I’ll be writing about creative ways to engage in those basic kinds of prayer. I’ll also be writing about forms of prayer that fall outside those four categories.

Let  me tell you about Louise’s book, Praying with the Arts: Illuminating the Church Year with Sacred Art. She opens with five pages of introduction, where she briefly discusses why she structured the book around the church year, and then moves into a helpful discussion of the power of art and how sacred art can play a role in prayer.

The bulk of the book is 31 paintings, each followed by 2-3 pages of instruction. The painters mostly come from the Medieval and Renaissance periods, including Vermeer, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Fra Angelico. The reproductions are good quality. The instructions begin with a few paragraphs about the painting, including some pointers about the symbolism in the paintings. The introduction is followed by the scripture passage that is illustrated by the painting. Next are two sections that are the meat of each lesson: “For your prayerful reflection on the art” and “For your prayerful reflection on the Scripture.” Each of these two headers is followed by four to ten bullet points with specific ideas to ponder. She concludes each lesson with brief suggestions for prayer and thankfulness/praise responses.

The introduction and the lessons include many wonderful quotations by a variety of authors. I appreciated the richness of the quotations Holert uses. I’m so grateful for this resource linking art, the Bible, and prayer, and I recommend it to you.

If you’d like to try doing something similar on your own, ask God to guide you. Then go into Google Images and search for a story you’d like to see illustrated, perhaps the prodigal son or the road to Emmaus. Or you can search for a specific painter like Fra Angelico or Rembrandt. Maybe one painting will catch your eye, or maybe you’ll be attracted to two or three paintings.

Read the Bible story connected to the painting, and ponder the way the artist or artists chose to illustrate the passage. Notice as many details as you can in the painting(s). You might want to imagine yourself in the painting watching the action or talking to Jesus.

You might want to use the four common forms of prayer, ACTS, as you gaze at the painting. What can you praise or thank God for as you look deeply at the painting? Do you need to confess anything to God? What would you want to pray for, for yourself or others?

A praise song or hymn might come to mind, and if so, sing it. See where God takes you as you look at the painting, and keep the dialog with God open as you gaze.

(Next week: another way of praying with art. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column of the webpage.)

I want to highlight one of the reviews of my book on pastoral care, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. You can find the review here. You’ll see that the reviewer says that my book would be great to use with groups. Please pass on information about my book to people in your congregation or other congregations who engage in pastoral care ministry or in local mission, especially those who lead pastoral care or mission teams.

What I learned from Bishop Aiden of Lindisfarne

Friday February 15 2019

What I learned from Bishop Aiden of Lindisfarne

I visited Lindisfarne, also called Holy Island, a few years ago. Connected to the northeast coast of England by a narrow bit of land that goes under water at high tide, it has a rich Christian history. On the island today, you can visit the ruins of a medieval priory and the ruins of a castle built in 1550, plus a chapel and other buildings still in use.

The Christian community at Lindisfarne was founded in the seventh century by Bishop Aiden of Lidisfarne. Aiden, who was born in Ireland, was a monk on the island of Iona when he was asked by the king in 634 to come to Northern England in the role of bishop. The king was a Christian, and he gave Aiden the mandate of spreading the Gospel in Northern England.

Aiden set up a base on the island of Lindisfarne, connected to the Northeast coast of England at low tide. He spent his first ten years as bishop wandering the countryside of Northern England, talking to people about the gospel. He set up numerous Christian communities.

He received money from various sources, and he used all of it to help the poor and to buy people, especially children, out of slavery. At one point the king gave him a horse to aid him in his travels and evangelism, but Aiden immediately gave it away. He felt that the best way to talk to people about Jesus was to walk at their level, not to be above them on a horse.

Aiden also established a community on Lindisfarne to train ministers. The training emphasized study of the Bible, prayer, fasting, and walking the countryside with Aiden to tell people about the Gospel. That community lasted long after his death.

Aiden is often called the apostle of England because of his evangelistic work that had such a lasting influence. A few lessons I’ve been pondering from Aiden’s life:

1. Aiden seemed to have a seamless commitment to:

  • evangelism
  • prayer
  • meditating on the Bible
  • spiritual practices like fasting
  • care for the poor
  • freeing slaves

I love his wholistic approach to physical well-being, spiritual practices, and social justice. I wonder which components of his approach are the most and least apparent in my life.

2. I ponder what it looks like today to walk at the level of people in need. Obviously horses are seldom involved in this decision in our time, but we still need to think about how to build bridges across barriers of culture and socioeconomic level. I wonder what acts and attitudes of humility today would parallel that moment when Aiden gave away the horse.

3. After ten years evangelizing the people of Northern England, Aiden retired to another island to pray and meditate for the rest of his life. Ten years is not a very long time to have made such an impact.

Thinking about Aiden’s ten years of ministry has been helpful to me. I am a very late bloomer, partly because I battled depression from age 27 to 43. After coming out of my depression, I was ordained as a Presbyterian minister at 45. I got my first book contract that same year. At 55, I began a ten-year teaching career. The past 21 years since my ordination have been full and rich, but still, I often feel a great sense of loss about those 16 depressed years. Twenty years of productive ministry don’t feel like enough.

I feel a sense of freedom when I ponder the fact that Aiden did what he was called to do for that significant decade, and then left it behind to engage in prayer and meditation on the Bible. I’m not comparing the significance of my ministry to Aiden’s, but I do find myself thinking that if ten years was enough for Aiden, surely I can accept that twice that could be enough for me.  

When I visited Lindisfarne (at low tide!), I was stunned by the number of visitors there on a weekday in September. There were several hundred cars in the parking lot, and people streamed across the island. What a joy to learn about the man who founded the monastery on Lindisfarne. May we soak up the model of faithful Christians who speak to us from across the ages.

(Next week: first post in a new series on creative ways to pray. Illustration: the ruins of Lindisfarne Priory. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column of hte web page. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Two related articles you may enjoy:

     Witnesses and Evangelists                                  
     Celtic Christianity: Paradoxes                  

Chinese New Year: A Case Study for Shifts in Christian Caring

Wednesday February 6 2019

Chinese New Year: A Case Study for Shifts in Christian Caring

Perhaps you’ve met someone of Chinese descent or someone from China. If so, you’ll know that Chinese New Year is a really big cultural celebration, sort of like Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Years rolled into one big, long holiday with lots of food and family time. The date changes each year based on the lunar calendar, and this year Chinese New Year is February 5.

A friend of mine who lived in China told me that the holiday lasts two weeks, with the first four to five days being an intense time of visiting with family and friends. Traditionally, the preparation for the holiday included cleaning the house and replacing the food for the kitchen gods at the family altar.

I learned about Chinese New Year in New Zealand – where I was migrant – from Malaysian students of Chinese descent – whose ancestors were migrants from China to Malaysia and who were themselves migrants from Malaysia to New Zealand.

Christian ministry in the 21st century has some new aspects, as a big rise in world-wide migration is changing the demographics of our communities and our congregations. In 2017, to love our neighbor must include paying attention to the culture of origin of the people we want to extend care to. When we make friends with people from China or of Chinese descent, that means learning about Chinese New Year and what it means to them.

I want to compare and contrast two ways of attempting to show love to people who come from different countries or ethnicities. One way is to work on being “color blind,” where we focus on what we have in common and do our best to ignore differences in skin color or other differences that come from our ethnic backgrounds.

Paula Harris, a speaker and writer, was raised as a missionary kid, and her parents encouraged her to be color blind, which she views as a loving approach. In Being White: Finding our Place in a Multiethnic World, she describes how she became aware of the significance of ethnicity and what it means to people who live as minorities or migrants.

Harris came to understand that being color blind is good, but inadequate. She and her co-writer, Doug Schaupp, give six reasons why developing an appreciation for ethnicity reflects God’s values. Harris and Schaupp write that colorblindness:

  • ignores the heart language of our ethnic minority friends;
  • misses kingdom riches God intended for our blessing;
  • misses who people really are at their core;
  • assumes everyone is “white like me”;
  • makes us vulnerable to stumbling into an Acts 6 rift; and
  • numbs our hearts to the suffering of our friends. [1]

This year I invite you to have a conversation with any people from China or of Chinese descent that you know. Ask them about Chinese New Year. What do they like best? What did it mean to them as a child? What are their plans for this year? What did they do last year?

If your friends are Christian, ask some additional questions about where they see God’s grace and joy in the festivities. Perhaps the fresh start implied in Chinese New Year makes them think of the fresh start we have in Christ. You could ask about this.   

Around the world, the number of people who do not live in their country of birth has increased to a sum larger than the population of Brazil. In addition, many people are second or third generation immigrants, who have retained holidays and practices rooted in the country of their ancestry. In many countries, indigenous people have cultural traditions, as do many African American people in the United States.

We can try to ignore cultural differences, or we can work on learning about them, affirming them and appreciating what they mean to people we care about. I’m trying to do more of the latter as a spiritual practice that I hope reflects the love of God.

I develop these ideas further in my recent book, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. I discuss shifts in Christian caring in recent years in the light of world-wide migration.

(Next week: Bishop Aiden of Lidisfarne. Illustration: The Chinese Gardens in Dunedin, New Zealand 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 of the web page. This post appeared on the Godspace blog for Chinese New Year last year.)

Here's article I wrote that discusses the kind of listening skills that help us understand across cultures: To be a neighbor must include listening. It won an Australian Press Award.