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

Nature speaks about God: Tropical fish in the Red Sea

Friday March 23 2018

Nature speaks about God: Tropical fish in the Red Sea

When Dave and I moved to the Middle East as young adults, we had never lived anywhere that wasn’t green. We moved to Shiraz, Iran, for Dave to take up a position teaching in a dental school.

Shiraz sits in a wide bowl at 5,000 feet, in a landscape best described as mountainous desert. The city is surrounded by completely barren mountains. After the green of all the places I’d lived, it took a while to see the beauty of stark mountains, especially vivid at sunrise and sunset.

We left Iran after only six months because of the impending revolution. (Our son wrote an article about our dramatic departure from Iran, complete with old photos of us.) We went to Israel on vacation, where Dave was offered a teaching job at the Tel Aviv University Dental School. We ended up staying in Tel Aviv 18 months.

We saw so many biblical sites and experienced the joy of a weekly Sabbath, which I have written about in many places (see below). I have never before written about a trip we took to Eilat, the Israeli town at the northwestern tip of the Red Sea.

Here the landscape reminded us of Shiraz. From Eilat, you can look southeast into the mountainous desert of Saudi Arabia with those same kind of barren hills we saw in Iran, gorgeous at sunset and sunrise but pretty bleak the rest of the time. The cloudless sky meant that the water of the Red Sea was deep indigo, a beautiful contrast to the dry, dusty landscape.

We had heard that the Red Sea offered world renowned scuba diving and snorkeling, so we rented snorkels and masks in Eilat and drove about an hour south along the west side of the Red Sea. To our left was the vivid blue water, with the barren mountains of Saudi Arabia on the other side of the water. To our right, we could see the equally stark mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.

At that time, the Sinai Peninsula belonged to Israel. Shortly after we were there, the Sinai was returned by Egypt as a part of the peace process. So as we drove south along the Red Sea, we were driving in what is now Egypt.

We found the park along the sea that had been recommended to us, and we snorkeled. Beneath the crystal clear water we found schools of beautiful fish. The visibility in the water was amazing, so we could see gorgeous fish close by and far away. Individual fish. Schools of fish. Blue, yellow, orange, red, silver, and gold fish. Small fish and big fish in abundance, a colorful contrast to the brown hills that surround the Red Sea.

Why, I wondered as I snorkeled, would God create so many beautiful creatures and keep them hidden from the view of most of the people of the world?

Those fish spoke to me about God. They seemed to say, “Yes, we are beautiful. Yes, we thrive in abundance here. Yes, we live our lives mostly hidden from view. God’s grace is just as beautiful, just as abundant, and sometimes hidden from view."

The lesson from the fish has influenced me for many years. Those fish I remember seeing in the Red Sea, and other tropical fish I’ve seen in Hawaii and at Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, have continued to talk to me over the years. They seem to say, “You’ve seen us and you’ve seen God’s grace. Remember what you’ve seen. Live in that abundance. Share that abundance with others. You don’t need to concern yourself with why God created us and caused us to thrive in a hidden place. Your job is to thrive in your place, trusting in the abundance of the God who made us all, living in his love and sharing that abundant love with others as much as you can.”

(Next week: Jesus in a boat at Greenlake. 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.)

Since Israel taught me most of all about the Sabbath, and since the Sabbath is a practice that teaches us to live in abundance, I’ll give you some resources on the Sabbath here.

Nature speaks about God: Algae and stars

Friday March 16 2018

Nature speaks about God: Algae and stars

The view under the microscope was gorgeous. The slimy mass of green scum I had scooped out of a drainage ditch revealed itself to be long strands with bright green geometric patterns. The color was beautiful. The patterns were beautiful.

I lifted my head from the microscope and stood in that biology lab praising God for creating something so amazing, yet hidden from view most of the time. Who would have thought that algae could speak to me, calling me to praise the God who made it?

I was 20 years old that fall day in the biology lab. I had become a Christian the previous Christmas, and I had studied for a total of four weeks at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland – two weeks at Easter and two weeks in June – diving deep into the book of Romans. I had learned a great deal of Christian theology by listening to recordings of Francis Schaeffer talking, hour upon hour, about Romans. Romans, and Francis Shaeffer’s reflections on it, helped me learn to worship God with my mind. (I wrote about my time at L’Abri last week.)

I returned to Willamette University in Oregon, eager to get involved in the Christian fellowship group there. We met on Sunday nights. Some of the students played guitars, and I learned the praise songs they taught us. We often had speakers at our meetings, usually staff from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The praise music and the speakers called me into God’s presence and gave me a place and words for praising God.

But in that first semester back at Willamette after becoming a Christian, some of my most powerful moments of praising God were stimulated by what I saw in the microbiology lab. The green geometric forms of algae were probably my favorite, but I also loved bacteria. We grew various kinds of bacteria on Petri dishes, then spread them on slides, stained them with dyes, and looked at them under the microscope.

The bright colors caused by the dyes and the repeated shapes of the bacteria spoke to me of the intricacy of God’s creation. Bacteria, like algae, called me to praise the God of tiny things.

That semester I was working part time for an astronomy professor, typing up his handouts and exam questions and serving as a lab assistant. He took the students, and me, on some field trips on moonless nights to look at stars. The dark, cold nights with stars blazing overhead called me to praise the God of immensity, who created a huge and expansive universe.

In the long hall of the science building, the astronomy professor had created a scale model of the solar system. The sun and planets were tiny dots with many feet of hall between them. I loved walking down that hall, pondering the amount of space between the planets and then also between our solar system and other suns.

We stand in the middle, with parts of the created order that are much, much smaller than we are, as well as created objects that are much, much bigger than we are. The scale of smallness and hugeness is astonishing, yet one more thing to praise God for.

Not everyone has the privilege of looking at algae under a microscope or serving as a lab assistant in an astronomy class. But most of us are exposed in some way to the wonders of the created world as revealed through science. I encourage you to ponder something you’ve read about or seen on a science show or in some other science-related setting that calls you to praise God.

(Next week: tropical fish in the Red Sea. 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: The last post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. That post was one woman’s story about a trip to a Benedictine monastery, a great place to start the series. At the bottom of the post are links to the other posts in the series. I highly recommend developing an understanding of Benedictine spirituality because of its three vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience – all of them so helpful in our time with so much emphasis on constant movement, self-focus and pride.

Nature speaks about God: Mountains and clouds on Easter

Friday March 9 2018

Nature speaks about God: Mountains and clouds on Easter

On my first Easter Sunday as a committed Christian, I sat on a balcony overlooking the Rhone River Valley in Switzerland, listening to a sermon about the resurrection. My back was to the church building, with a window right next to me, so I could hear the sermon. In front of me, the hillside dropped away to the valley floor 2000 feet below me. On the other side of the valley, the seven peaks called Les Dents du Midi rose to an altitude of 10,000 feet.

The preacher was Francis Schaeffer, and the church building was the chapel of the community he founded in Huémoz, Switzerland, called L’Abri. I had arrived for the service fairly early, but the chapel was already full, so I took a seat on the balcony on the valley side of the chapel. I’m so glad I did.

While Francis Schaeffer talked about Jesus’ death and resurrection, I watched clouds rising up the side of the hill. First, I would see a cloud below me. Then it would slowly rise past me and continue to move upward. Then another cloud would appear below me, move past me, and continue up. Over and over the clouds moved up the side of the hill.

The clouds illustrated the sermon and spoke to me of the resurrection of Jesus and his release from the tomb. The clouds spoke to me about the “upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). I didn’t know the verse in Philippians at that time, but I had a sense of God’s call to me to grow upward, to develop in character, to become the honorable and faithful person God had created me to be.

I had been raised in the church. Throughout junior high and high school, I grew further from God. By the time I was 18, when I left my home in Tacoma, Washington for Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, I was calling myself an atheist. At 19, I went to Avignon, France, to study for a year. For the long All Saints weekend in November, some friends and I travelled to Switzerland.

We stopped by L’Abri Fellowship because one of my friends had a friend who was studying there. We intended to stay only a few hours, but we missed the bus down the mountain and had to stay an extra day. That extra time allowed us to attend a seminar where so many of my questions about the Christian faith were answered.

We returned to Avignon and our studies there. For the rest of the fall, I pondered what I had heard at L’Abri. When I left Avignon to travel to Scandinavia over Christmas vacation, I was still not a Christian. When I returned to Avignon two weeks later, I knew I was a Christian. I don’t know exactly when or how it happened, but I knew a giant shift had occurred in me.

I wrote to the people at L’Abri, asking if I could come and study there for the two weeks of my Easter break, and they said yes.

During my time at L’Abri, as I walked from one chalet to the other, going from the place I stayed to the places they assigned me to work, and then to my study carrel, the mountains spoke to me over and over. They spoke to me of God’s grandeur, majesty and sheer beauty.

Easter Day was the icing on the cake, with those clouds moving up the side of the hill, like a vivid metaphor for the very act we were celebrating at Easter.

I wrote last week about the way God spoke to me through Mount Rainier when I was 15, saying there’s more, there’s something holy and beautiful beyond this life. God’s message to me on the side of that steep hill in Switzerland was focused more clearly on God as known in the Bible: Jesus, his resurrection, and the holy, beautiful and majestic God who created mountains, valleys and clouds.

I want to ask the same questions I asked last week: What specific places in nature have spoken to you? What have those places said?

And I’ll ask an additional question: In what ways do you think God’s voice to you through nature is informed by what you know about God from the Bible?

(Next week: Algae. Illustration: Huémoz, Switzerland 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.)

Bible study focus: My Bible study guide, Prayers of the Old Testament, just went into its fifth printing. It presents study/reflection/discussion questions about eight specific prayers in the Old Testament, with the goal of deepening our prayers. To learn more, click here.

First post in a new series: Nature speaks about God

Friday March 2 2018

First post in a new series: Nature speaks about God

I was 15 the first time nature spoke to me. We had lived in southern Virginia while I was in junior high school. My dad was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, and right before I turned 15 he retired from the air force. My parents decided we would move to the West Coast.

We traveled by way of Toronto, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Colorado, pulling a 14 foot trailer behind our Dodge. We visited grandmothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, and family friends. For a teenager, six weeks of close intimacy with her family, while driving 8,000 miles and mourning the loss of her friends and her life in Virginia, was really, really, not fun.

We arrived in Tacoma, Washington at the beginning of August and immediately found a wonderful house, where my mother still lives. The owners weren’t able to move out until early September, so we needed a place to stay for a month. The owners offered us their summer cabin on Puget Sound, just north of Gig Harbor.

The cabin looked east onto Puget Sound. To the left was Vashon Island. To the right was Point Defiance in Tacoma. Between these two pieces of land, Mount Rainier rose up over the waters of Puget Sound, perfectly framed by the two wooded hillsides.

August that year was clear and sunny every day. Throughout each day, we watched the light on Mount Rainier change. In the morning the mountain was backlit by the rising sun, looking mysterious and other worldly. At midday, the mountain was illuminated from above, with the sun slightly to the right, reflecting off the glaciers. In the afternoon, the mountain was vivid, clear and gorgeous in the full light of the sun. At sunset, the magical rose and peach colors of sunset illuminated the mountain.

The summer had been so hard for me, and Mount Rainier spoke to me. It said, “There’s more.” There’s more than everyday life, there’s more than struggle and sadness. There’s something beautiful beyond this life.

I had attended church almost every Sunday of my life. At 12, I believed in God and Jesus pretty strongly, but our church in Virginia hadn’t advanced that faith at all. In fact, by 15 I was on my way to rejecting everything I had been taught about God.

So when the mountain told me that there is something beyond this life, I didn’t connect that something with God at all. But still I held onto the message from the mountain. In my high school years, as my faith in God in Christ dwindled further and further, I saw Mount Rainier frequently from numerous places around Tacoma. The mountain always lifted my heart and spoke to me of something beyond. The mountain was an anchor and a whiff of holiness in the midst of the volatile years of high school.

This is the first post in a series about the ways nature speaks about God. I’ll tell stories of the way nature has spoken to me at various times, and I’ll look at scriptures that help explain how this works. In this first post in the series, I want to encourage you to think about times nature has spoken to you. What specific places in nature have spoken to you? What have those places said?

(Next week: mountains and clouds on Easter. Illustration: Mount Rainier from Puget Sound. Sadly I can’t find a photo of that exact view we could see from the cabin north of Gig Harbor. If you’d like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

One year ago on this blog – “Drawing near to God with the heart: Facing the inner darkness.” In this season of Lent, facing inner darkness can play a role in preparing us to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Saturday February 24 2018

Listening to God in Prayer: Some helpful quotations

Below are thought-provoking quotations about contemplative prayer, which has as a central focus listening to God in prayer.

“Put simply, the contemplative life is the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us. It is ‘an intimate sharing between friends,’ to use the words of Teresa of Avila.”
—Richard Foster, Streams of Living Water

Ben, 56, says, “The contemplative experience helped me focus on knowing God and the presence of God and God’s love for me. It’s what got me outside myself and outside of thinking about how I’m doing in life. The traditions that I grew up with emphasized holiness and obedience. Even though the focus was supposed to be on God, you ended up focusing on yourself and how well you were doing in obeying God. By receiving God’s love in contemplative prayer, it freed me from self-focus, and that opened me to other people, to God’s work in the world, as well as the character of God in my own life.”

“Contemplative prayer is addressed to the human situation just as it is. It is designed to heal the consequences of the human condition, which is basically the privation of the divine presence. Everyone suffers from this disease. If we accept the fact that we are suffering from a serious pathology, we possess a point of departure for the spiritual journey. The pathology is simply this: we have come to full reflective self-consciousness without experience of God. Because that crucial reassurance is missing, our fragile egos desperately seek other means of shoring up our weaknesses and defending ourselves from the pain of alienation from God and from other  people. Contemplative prayer is the divine remedy for this illness.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love

Brian, 40, reflects, “The goal of prayer is prayer, entering into intimacy with God. Period. It’s not for the purpose of dealing with midlife or depression or to be better adjusted or anything else. Lectio divinaand all those contemplative prayer forms are good, but not if they are confused with prayer itself. Any sorts of patterns will stop working eventually. They can lead you into prayer initially, but they can also get in the way. That’s one of the common blinders in the popularizing of spirituality – mistaking the helpful thing for the thing itself. People are self-help junkies, spiritual consumers looking for the next best thing to consume. We are broken people, we need God, and the heart of spirituality is to recognize our brokenness and need for God. We are too quick to replace God with all kinds of tips, ideas, plans, and programs to help us draw near to God.”

“It is unwise to judge a prayer period on the basis of your psychological experience. Sometimes you may be bombarded with thought all during the time of prayer; yet it could be a very useful period of prayer. Your attention might have been much deeper than it seemed. In any case, you cannot make a valid judgment about how things are going on the basis of a single period of prayer. Instead, you must look for the fruit in your ordinary daily life, after a month or two. If you are becoming more patient with others, more at ease with yourself, if you shout less often or less loudly at the children, feel less hurt if the family complains about your cooking – all these are signs that another set of values is beginning to operate in you.”
—Fr. Thomas Keating, Open Heart, Open Mind

This is the last post in a series on listening to God in prayer. Most of the posts were excerpted from my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I have a box of 52 copies of the book that I am hoping to sell at an attractive rate. It’s a great book for small groups because there are discussion questions after each chapter. The book has three chapters about spiritual issues that arise at midlife, plus six chapters about spiritual paths that are helpful at midlife. More information about the book is here. For shipping to the U.S., I can sell the books for $10 for the first book and $5 for each additional book including shipping. For shipping to New Zealand, I can sell the books for NZ$30 for the first book and NZ$15 for additional books including shipping. Check with any groups you know about to see if they’d like to buy them at this price. Contact me if you're interested.

(Next week: The first post in a new series: Nature Speaks About God. 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.)

Previous posts in this series:

Listening to God in prayer        
My journey         
Alone or with others         
Breath prayer         
Distractions in silent prayer        
Noticing God’s presence         
Looking back at 2017         
A new approach to the Bible         
Key questions about listening to God         
Lectio Divina: A pattern for letting God speak through scripture          
Imagining yourself in a Bible story       
Praying the Psalms            
Ben's story             

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