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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Two common questions about the Sabbath

Wednesday June 14 2017

Two common questions about the Sabbath

I speak and teach a lot about the Sabbath because I have kept a Sabbath for more than 30 years. Plus I have written a book, a Bible study guide, and many articles about it. When I speak or teach, I get two questions quite frequently: what’s the difference between a Sabbath and a day off, and what do you do on your Sabbath? I’ll use some thoughts about the first question as a bridge to my answer to the second question.

A day off and a Sabbath are similar because they are both a day to stop working. Many people, however, have found that a day off can easily become a harried blur of errands and chores with nothing Sabbath-like in it. So what is the difference?

Part of the difference lies in a person’s intent, and the intent shapes the actions on the Sabbath day. The two versions of the Ten Commandments have two different reasons to keep the Sabbath day, which illuminate two of my three significant Sabbath intentions.

1. Remember creation.

In Exodus 20:11, the reason for the Sabbath goes back to creation: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Because God is our Creator, and God rested on the seventh day, we stop our own productivity and remember that God made us. We also remember that everything good we have comes from our loving Creator.

Many of the Sabbath keepers I interviewed for my book and articles find that the best way to draw near to God on the Sabbath is to enjoy nature: a walk, bike ride, beach, or garden. On the Sabbath we are invited to enjoy God as Creator.

2. Remember freedom from slavery.

In Deuteronomy 5:15, we are invited to keep a Sabbath because we have been freed from slavery. “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” We know that in Christ, we have been freed from sin, evil, death and fear of death. The Sabbath is a day to celebrate the freedom God gives.

For most people, spending a day running errands or doing housework doesn’t feel like freedom. What activities do you need to stop in order to feel free? What activities help you feel free? The answers to those questions should shape your Sabbath day.

3. Stopping.The Hebrew root word that “Sabbath” comes from means stop, cease, desist, or rest. Stopping much of our activity one day a week helps us remember God is God and we are not. We are not in charge. We are not at the center. We are not indispensible. We stop work so we can know, deep in our hearts, that Someone Else runs the universe and we do not.

I check my email first thing in the morning on my Sabbath day, and then I don’t look at it for the rest of the day. Why? So I can act on the truth that I am not indispensible. (I also experience freedom from email for a day.)

What else do I do? My husband and I spend about 45 minutes praying together on our Sabbath day. Half of that time is prayers of thankfulness. God is Creator and has freed us from so many forms of slavery. Taking the time to notice the good gifts and the various forms of freedom in our lives helps my husband and me lift our focus off of the hard things of life.

My major Sabbath activity is reading novels. Someone Else is running the universe and I can relax. I sometimes cook, skype with family members, or sit on a bench at the beach or in a park. Sometimes I go to the gym and enjoy experiencing the profound truth that God created my body. The day has no “shoulds” about it. I stay out of my home office so I won’t be tempted to work, and I stay out of stores so I won’t be tempted to focus on what I don’t have.

The Sabbath is a day to stop our everyday activities so we can experience God as Creator – the One who gives every good gift – and Redeemer – the One who frees us from slavery. The intent shapes the day.

(Next week I begin a new series on initiative in friendships. Illustration by Dave Baab: Me on my Sabbath day. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

My new spiritual practice: A Christian perspective on thoughts

Wednesday June 7 2017

My new spiritual practice: A Christian perspective on thoughts

The writers of the Bible were quite concerned with how we think about things. Many times in the Psalms we are encouraged to remember the deeds of the Lord. The prophets speak often of God’s righteousness, justice and judgment, as if these attributes of God are important for us to think about.

Jesus teaches in parables, showing the significance of creative (and even sideways) thinking about life and God. Jesus also teaches in a more straightforward manner. The “Upper Room Discourse” in John 13 to 16 is profound and deeply thought-provoking.

The speeches by various apostles in Acts give a taste of their clear thinking about God, Jesus and salvation. The Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 1 to 8 were used in law schools a century ago to illustrate good argumentation.

Philippians 4:8 is the most powerful statement in the Bible about the significance of the way we think: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

When we think on “these things,” we are more likely to experience hope. In more than a dozen places in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, we are encouraged to put our hope in God, as if hoping requires an act of the will or a particular way of thinking. In Psalm 78, we read that God established his law so that his people would “set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” The close connection between hope, the way we think, and obedience are visible in that passage.

Hebrews 6:18 encourages us to “seize the hope set before us,” and we do that both in our thoughts and in our actions.

If I were to summarize God’s desires for the direction of our thoughts I would suggest that we are called to focus our thoughts on:

  1. God’s character and what God has done, our source of hope, peace and love
  2. God’s gifts to us in our individual and communal lives
  3. How to love and serve the people around us
  4. How to serve God in the world, participating in God’s work already going on

For me, the kinds of thoughts desired by God are impeded by three kinds of “demonic” thoughts:

  1. Regrets about the past
  2. Thoughts about catastrophic possibilities in the future
  3. Self-criticism.

For the past five weeks I’ve been writing about a process that’s new to me of trying to separate thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings using a process called RAIN, and then letting any remaining counterproductive thoughts go. The purpose of this process is to make space for the kinds of thoughts that honor God: thoughts that focus on who God is, what God has done, the gifts God has given, the ways I can serve and love people around me, and the ways I can serve God with my life.

Our thoughts matter. They shape the way we view life, honor God and love others. Our thoughts influence our ability to experience the joy, love, hope and peace God desires to give us. Our thoughts shape our actions. Learning to increasingly let go of counter-productive thoughts so I can focus on what God desires for my thought life has been really, really helpful. I wish the same for all who read this blog.

(Next week: Two common questions about the Sabbath. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:

Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         
Is self compassion appropriate for Christians?

Resources on spiritual practices:

            My book on communal spiritual practices: Joy Together
            My books Sabbath Keeping and Fasting
            My Bible study guide, Sabbath: The Gift of Rest
            Articles I’ve written on spiritual practices

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Tuesday May 30 2017

My new spiritual practice: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians?

Some Pharisees are trying to trick Jesus, and they bring a woman to him. They caught her in the act of committing adultery, and they ask Jesus about stoning her. Jesus says that only a sinless person can condemn her, and the crowd of accusers slips away. Jesus and the woman are left alone. He says to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11).

Jesus does not condemn a woman who has broken God’s law and human laws. Yet, at the same time, he calls her to be her best self in the future. We get into trouble because of the challenge of balancing these two components of his answer. Many of us were influenced by parents and teachers who were motivated to help us be our best selves, but they did it by shaming us and criticizing us.

As a result, we think that in order to grow into the people we want to be and were meant to be, we need to shame and criticize ourselves. Yet Jesus doesn’t do that. In The Life of the Beloved, Henri Nouwen argues that “self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the ‘Beloved'.”[1] Jesus calls us to be our best selves in a way that is rooted in belovedness, not self-condemnation. Jesus treats us gently, as precious, beloved friends, yet calls us to growth.

We often think that treating ourselves gently is a form of self-indulgence, and self-compassion can work that way if it is not coupled with a commitment to excellence, health and holiness.

For the past four weeks I’ve been writing about my new spiritual practice: separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings and letting the thoughts go if they are not healthy. In order to feel the feelings, I’ve been using a process with acronym, RAIN. Advocates for RAIN call it a form of self-compassion. Here I want to address the question of the appropriateness of this practice for Christians, using an illustration from my own life right now.

One of the major stressors in my life is our upcoming move from New Zealand, where we have lived for ten years, to Seattle, where we lived for 30 years before we came to NZ. I have moments of fear about getting all the details done on time for the move. I have moments of anxiety related to new patterns of relationships after we arrive. I feel sad about leaving this beautiful place and the friends we have made. I tend to overeat when stressed, so I feel angry at myself when I eat too much. So, I’m experiencing fear, anxiety, sadness and anger, as well as excitement about seeing our beloved granddaughter, family and friends more often.

God led us to plan this move, and I want to honor God in the process. Yet I have moments when I’m a mess of unruly thoughts and feelings.

I’m going to imagine that I hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” What would that look like in this situation? Here are my ideas:

1. I must not let the voice of condemnation overwhelm me. In fact, I must turn away from that voice as much as possible. Of course I’m feeling a mix of sadness, fear, anxiety and excitement. Of course I feel stressed, which always makes eating well hard for me. RAIN helps me feel those feelings but not wallow in them. RAIN helps me feel them but also let them go, and then I focus on letting the negative thoughts go as well.

2. I must allow Jesus to help me live in as healthy a manner as possible, as free from sin as possible. That means I do several things: I try to talk and pray about my trust in God for the move. I try to soak up the great things about New Zealand before we leave, and I thank God for them. I try to honor and thank people who have cared for me here. I work on eating as well as I can. I try to serve God in each day, being faithful to the work and people he has called me to in that day.

3. When I fail to trust, enjoy, thank, and eat well, I must ask God for forgiveness and start again. I try to avoid self-condemnation because God has forgiven me in Christ. 

This process I’ve described in my three steps is what I consider to be self-compassion in the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I see it as honoring God much more than the cycle of self-condemnation that so many Christians fall into. I see it as freeing me to think about, and focus my actions on, things that matter to God (more on that next week). So, yes, self-compassion can be consistent with the Gospel.

Posts in this series on my new spiritual practice:
Separating thoughts from feelings       
Feeling the feelings using the RAIN process        
Coping with feelings that want to dominate         
Dealing with “demonic” thoughts         

(Next week: A Christian perspective on thoughts. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to get an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] Henri Houwen, The Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 2002), 32.

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

Tuesday May 23 2017

My new spiritual practice: Dealing with “demonic” thoughts

I’ve been writing about what I’ve learned from counseling in the past year. My counselor suggested separating thoughts from feelings, which I described in the first post of this series. In the second post and third post, I described how I'm learning to feel the feelings. In this post, I’ll talk about thoughts.

I observe two major categories of thoughts that don’t help me in any way:

1. Catastrophic thoughts about the future. “What if this happens?” “What if that happens?”

2. Judgmental thoughts about myself. “What’s wrong with me that I don’t I trust God more?” “What kind of a person would eat cookies for comfort instead of coping with her emotions in a more healthy way?”

My counselor called these kinds of thoughts “demonic,” and for me that’s accurate. The thoughts predict a future that might or might not happen, a future I have no control over. The thoughts express judgment for myself and show no compassion.

The thoughts mask feelings. I find that if I go through the RAIN process that I described in the previous two blog posts, it takes some effort to figure out what feelings lie behind the thoughts. Once I identify the feelings and walk through the four steps of RAIN, some of the demonic thoughts simply go away. They were functioning as cover-ups for painful feelings. They were enabling me to avoid feeling those feelings, an avoidance technique that was just as bad, or even worse, than the thing I was avoiding.

When the RAIN process simply dissolves the thoughts, it feels like a miracle. However, sometimes the thoughts remain or come right back after I do RAIN. Sometimes I find there are more feelings lying behind the thoughts, and a second round of RAIN, focused on different feelings, helps. But sometimes even then, the counterproductive thoughts remain.

In that case, I have a number of strategies:

1. Name the choice out loud.

“Do you want to keep thinking these thoughts or do you want to trust God with the future? I want to trust God with the future.”

“Do you want to continue to judge yourself, or do you want to have the kind of compassion on yourself that God has for you? I want to have compassion on myself because God has compassion for me.”

2. Pray the serenity prayer. I do it using my breath, three or four breaths for each line.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes I add another line, “Grant me the serenity to leave in the future the things that belong in the future.”

3. Pray the Jesus prayer with variations. Again, I use my breath, one breath for each phrase.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.

Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace,
have mercy on me, grant me your peace.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, Bright Morning Star,
Light to my path, Lamp to my feet,
have mercy on me, guide my steps.

4. Imagine myself handing my thoughts to Jesus. I picture myself standing with Jesus beside a beautiful river, the river of God’s love. I hand my thoughts to Jesus and he throws them in the river, where they disappear into the hugeness of God’s love.

5. Pray a scripture. I find Psalm 139 and Ephesians 3:14-19 to be helpful.

This process I’ve been describing – separating thoughts from feelings, feeling the feelings in a spirit of self-compassion, then dealing with any remaining thoughts by using a variety of spiritual practices – is helping me cope with stress so much better. This is a gift of healing that comes from God, parallel to the miraculous healings in the Gospels.

The purpose of this gift is so that I can trust, honor, love and serve God more fully. It’s a further step of my life belonging to the Triune God.

(Next week: Is self-compassion really appropriate for Christians? 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.)

My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

Wednesday May 17 2017

My new spiritual practice: Coping with feelings that want to dominate

I’ve written the last two weeks about a new spiritual practice that I have been engaging in for the past year: separating thoughts from feelings, letting the thoughts go and feeling the feelings. Last week I wrote about the RAIN acronym that helps me feel my feelings. I argued that this is a Christian spiritual practice because it helps me bring my feelings into God’s presence, as modeled in the Psalms. It helps me love and serve God more fully because I am less distracted by negative thoughts and feelings.

In this post I want to talk more about the third step of the RAIN process: investigate the feeling or feelings. Part of that investigation involves figuring out where in my body the feeling has the most impact. That helps me grow in identifying feelings more easily.

Another part of investigating involves trying to figure out if there is something I need to do right now in response to the feelings. Since many of my negative feelings involve fears for the future, occasionally I can see that something specific can be done right now which will help me feel less anxious. Most often, though, there is nothing that I can actually do right now. This is quite enlightening, because if there’s nothing concrete I can do right now, then all I can do is pray and relinquish the situation into God’s hands.

A third part of investigating feelings involves asking the feelings what they want. This takes some practice. Our feelings do have a voice, and we can learn to listen to that voice.

Sometimes my feelings just want to be acknowledged. “Oh, okay,” I say in response as if I’m talking to the part of me that’s having the feeling. “You’re there. I’ve been ignoring you. I hear you and see you.”

More often, though, my feelings want to dominate. They are saying something like, “You’re scared about X. You’re right to be scared. Something awful could happen! Fear is the right response! It’s awful! It’s terrible! Be afraid every moment!”

A few years ago I learned a mind-body technique called the Lightning Process. The first step is to say no to the thing we don’t want to do or think. So when I hear my feelings saying they want to dominate, I simply say, “No, I don’t want that.”

The second part of the Lightning Process involves asking a question: “Do you want that, or do you want something else?” The “something else” needs to be spelled out clearly. So here are two of the questions I ask, along with my response, when I’m on the investigate step of RAIN. Saying the response in our minds, or even saying it out loud, is very significant because it shapes our brains.

Do you want fear to dominate, or do you want to see your fear as only one part of your life? I want to see it as one part of my life, and I want to be aware that I experience many other joyful emotions over the course of every day.

Do you want sadness to overwhelm you, or do you want to let Jesus come alongside you and experience his comfort? I want to let Jesus come alongside me. I want to experience his comfort and peace. I want to know he feels every emotion with me. I want to know I’m not alone and that Jesus bears my burdens.

The “N” step of RAIN, non-identify, is very helpful in dealing with feelings that want to dominate. Saying, even saying out loud, that feelings are like weather and this one is transient, not permanent, is helpful. Equally helpful is naming other positive emotions that have been present that day, no matter how fleeting. Naming tiny moments of joy or thankfulness will help those moments increase.

The challenge with RAIN is remembering to use it when negative thoughts are swirling in my brain or when I feel a strong desire to eat when I’m not particularly hungry. It’s so easy to let the thoughts or the desire for food to dominate. They lead me away from God’s peace. RAIN has helped me grow in experiencing God’s peace so I can love and serve God more fully.

(Next week: dealing with “demonic” thoughts. 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.)

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