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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Creative prayer with Jeremiah

Lynne Baab • Friday May 31 2019

Creative prayer with Jeremiah

I fell in love with the book of Jeremiah in my early twenties. Ever since I hit puberty, I had felt that my emotions were unruly, confusing and sometimes overwhelming. I found a soul mate in Jeremiah, who (in God’s presence) cursed the day he was born and even cursed the man who brought the news of his birth to Jeremiah’s father. Jeremiah shouts at God, “Why did I come forth from the womb to see toil and sorrow, and spend my days in shame?” (Jer 20:14-18).

Talk about unruly emotions!

Jeremiah obeys his call to be God’s prophet, but he is not at all happy about it, and he pours out his frustration to God in three passionate prayers (Jeremiah 12:1-4, 15:15-18 and 20:7-18).

The prayers are noteworthy because mixed into the complaints and anger are statements of trust and faith. “My heart is with you,” Jeremiah affirms (Jer 12:3). In chapter 15 he says, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me,and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors” (verse 15). And in the middle of his long complaint in chapter 20 are these words: “Sing to the Lord; praise the Lord! For he has delivered the life of the needy from the hands of evildoers” (verse 13).

Jeremiah’s complaint at the beginning of chapter 12 is followed by a long response from God. I wonder if dialog with God, described in so many places in the book of Jeremiah, is part of why Jeremiah can affirm trust and faith in the midst of the deep pain he expresses.

In addition, the prophecy that God gave to Jeremiah contains numerous mentions of God’s compassion, mixed in with the vivid and powerful statements of judgment that Jeremiah is famous for. The reminders of God’s compassion must have influenced the prophet personally. Here’s an example. God describes “plucking up” the people of Israel from their land, a form of judgment for sin. Then God says, “And after I have plucked them up, I will again have compassion on them, and I will bring them again to their heritage and to their land” (Jer 12:15).

I wrote last week that in our prayers we must balance direct requests with submission to God’s purposes. I said that we are called to both entreaty AND submission. We must pray with sincerity AND assent to the purposes of God, candor AND surrender.

God also invites us in our prayers to balance honest expression of emotion – even what we consider to be negative emotions – with statements of praise, thankfulness and submission.  

Like Jeremiah’s, our honest expressions of emotion might include complaining and pain. They might involve deep lament at something going on in our lives or in the lives of people we love. They might include passionate expressions of sadness about world events or people in need on the other side of the world.

But, that pain we’re expressing is not the whole story. Sometimes we are so sad we have to wait for God to give us encouragement, but even in those cases we can expect that God will bring eventual comfort. Sometimes we can find the energy to shift our thoughts to the blessings we have, all of which come from the hand of God.

“Lord, you know” (Jer 15:15) may be one of the most helpful ways to balance pain and faith. Whatever we are feeling, God knows about it and enters into it with us. My husband’s sister died last week, and we have just returned from her funeral in Ohio. I’m grieving with her husband, daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as well as with my husband. Lord, you know.

Almost every day I see homeless people on the streets of Seattle, and I grieve. Lord, you know. I’m thinking of children starving to death in Yemen and in other countries, crop failures in Central America that send refugees north, and a piece of plastic found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. All of this hurts. Lord, you know. My heart is still with you.

Next week: creative prayer as pressing pause. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to sign up to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops).

I’ve posted a new article on my website, “Local Ministry: A Cord of Three Strands.” In it I’m arguing that in this increasingly secular time, local mission must be woven together with pastoral care and spiritual practices in new ways. The article was originally published in the Christ and Cascadia online journal.

Creative prayer: Submitting AND entreating

Lynne Baab • 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

Lynne Baab • 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

Lynne Baab • 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:

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