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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Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Friday February 17 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: Praying the Psalms

Lent starts this year on 1 March. You may be interested in the Lenten devotional I wrote two years ago, using a psalm for each day of Lent. The devotional is illustrated with beautiful paintings by Dave Baab. You can download the devotional in pdf form here: Draw Near.

Throughout the ages, the psalms have been the prayer book of the Bible, used by Jews and Christians for individual prayer and for prayer in congregations. As we learn to face with increased honestly the wide variety of emotions inside us, praying the psalms can be both comforting and challenging. During my years of psalm reading, described in last week’s post, I often found that my reading turned into prayer, and I came to love the psalms as prayers. They voice for me so many parts of myself, and they bring those aspects of my personality and emotions into God’s presence in prayer.

When I pray the psalms, I receive several gifts from God. I feel connected to people throughout the ages who have prayed these same words. Because so many of my unsettling emotions are expressed in the psalms, I feel that God must accept my volatile and passionate feelings because the psalm writers and so many people down through the years have brought those very same emotions to God in prayer. When I pray the psalms, I receive peace and acceptance from God.

If you want to begin a pattern of praying the psalms, here are some suggestions. If you want to pray a psalm that is completely new to you, or only somewhat familiar, it helps to read the psalm through first to get an idea of what it is about. Then pray it. You may feel most comfortable reading the words very slowly as you pray. I find that when I pray a psalm, I read the words more slowly than usual, but only slightly more slowly. The pace is up to you. Experiment with what seems most comfortable.

You may wonder where to start if you want to begin to pray the psalms. One suggestion is to start with psalms you have read or heard before. Find those familiar psalms in your Bible and, instead of reading them, pray them. Often I start with a well-loved psalm and then continue praying the ones that come next. You can also start at the beginning, with the first psalm, and pray one or more each day. A wide variety of emotions and styles of prayer can be found in almost any set of consecutive psalms.

Often when praying a psalm, I find that the emotions being expressed are not anywhere close to what I am feeling at the time. In those instances, I often find myself remembering other times when I’ve felt those emotions. I also remember that others all around the world must be feeling those emotions right at the moment I am praying. I try to pray the words on behalf of the people who God loves who are feeling those emotions right now. In that way, praying the psalms is a prayer form that connects me with people all over the world.

Praying psalms in a group setting is also very rewarding. Invite the group to begin by reading the psalm aloud as a group, either in unison or having one half read the odd numbered verses and the other half read the even numbered verses. Then give the group enough time to pray the psalm individually in silence. After a nice leisurely amount of time, read the psalm aloud again, using the same method as you used the first time. You may want to end with a time of sharing, allowing participants to describe what the experience was like for them. Or you may want to encourage participants to write in a journal after the prayer time.

These days, my most common form of praying the Psalms is to hum along with the Sons of Korah, an Australian band that sings the psalms. They've got many CDs, and many of their songs have been posted on YouTube, which you can find here.

This is the fourth post in a series about Drawing Near to God with the Heart. Previous posts:
Introduction: Drawing near to God with the heart         
God woos us          
A journey with the Psalms           

(The series continues next week with “God’s presence through the Holy Spirit.” 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. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: A journey with the Psalms

Thursday February 9 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: A journey with the Psalms

Soon after my fortieth birthday, I found I couldn’t read the Bible. All the ethical and theological truths of the Bible, which I had been studying consistently for the twenty years I had been a Christian, seemed dry and lifeless. It was as if my soul couldn’t bear to take in one more piece of truth. It seemed as though my soul was longing for something to touch my whole being, not just my mind.

As I look back, I can see that it wasn’t really a time of spiritual dryness; it was more a time to integrate what I already knew and to bring my whole self to God. At the time, though, it was disconcerting and occasionally scary.

I don’t really know how it happened, but one day I read a psalm and found that I could connect with the emotions expressed in it. Maybe I heard a psalm in Sunday worship, and I realized the Psalms could help me find the integration I was longing for. Maybe I picked up a Bible and by a random choice (and God’s grace), I read a psalm. However it happened, I read one psalm and felt a connection with the Bible for the first time in months. A few days later, I read another psalm. For the next two or three years, the Psalms were my constant companions, even though I still couldn’t connect with anything else in the Bible.

The psalm writers came to feel like friends. I was amazed at the variety of emotions portrayed in the Psalms. The integration of my whole being before God, for which I had been longing, came true for me through the Psalms. The Psalms modeled for me the radical truth that every part of me – the loving, peaceful and devoted self, along with the discouraged, irritable, and vindictive self – can be brought to God in prayer. The Psalms nudged me into a new kind of prayer involving my whole self and all my emotions.

The sheer overwhelming praises in so many psalms helps us capture that joy and exuberance in God’s presence with us. “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation” (Ps 95:1). “Praise him with trumpet sound, praise him with the lute and harp!” (Ps 150:3). Psalm 107 reminds us of a variety of ways that God acts in human history. “Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love, and for his wonderful works to humankind” (Ps 107:31).

Emotions that we consider negative are portrayed just as vividly. Discouragement and depression were very real to the psalm writers. “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck. I sink in deep mire. . . . I am weary with my crying: my throat is parched” (Ps 69:1-3). The psalmist feels distant from God: “My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God” (Ps 69:3).

Self-pity, anger, irritation, and desire for vengeance all appear in the Psalms. Here is just one example: “One who secretly slanders a neighbor I will destroy” (Ps 101:5). This profound honesty about the vicissitudes of human emotion can be very helpful in these challenging times, when life often seems more confusing than ever before. These kind of words help us grow in facing the inner darkness inside us so we can bring it honestly before God.

Longing and thirsting for God are woven throughout the Psalms, and the psalm writers move rapidly from longing to praise and thanks and confession and back to longing. The Psalms validate our spiritual experience in a way that no other literature can do, and they give us hope that our painful longings and uncomfortable yearnings may give way to praise any moment.

In my years with the Psalms, I read them, prayed them, memorized them, sang them, wrote bits of them in my calendar, and allowed them to shape my own prayers. I was aware in my mid-forties that I was not the same person I was in my thirties, and part of that change was brought about by my immersion for several years in the Psalms. The Psalms have allowed me to face my own inner turmoil more honestly and they have helped me bring more parts of myself to God in prayer. They have called me to praise and thanks in a powerfully transforming way. They have given me the kind of hope that resides deep in the heart and illuminates daily life.

(Next week: Praying the Psalms. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab: Organist in All Saints, Dunedin, responding to the common call in the Psalms to praise God using music. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

You may be interested in the Lenten devotional I wrote two years ago, using a psalm for each day of Lent. The devotional is illustrated with beautiful paintings by Dave Baab. You can download the devotional in pdf form by clicking here: Draw Near.

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: God Woos Us

Thursday February 2 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: God Woos Us

Brent Curtis and John Eldredge wrote a fascinating book that develops the idea that God calls us to draw near to him with our hearts. The book’s title, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God, expresses their conviction that God tenderly woos us and romances us. They believe that if we are not responding to God with our hearts, we are missing something central to the Gospel of Jesus Christ:

In the end, it doesn’t matter how well we have performed or what we have accomplished – a life without heart is not worth living. For out of this wellspring of our soul flows all true caring and all meaningful work, all real worship and all sacrifice. Our faith, hope, and love issue from this fount, as well. Because it is in our heart that we first hear the voice of God and it is in the heart that we come to know him and learn to live in his love. [1]

Curtis and Eldredge believe that we easily become preoccupied with “shoulds” and “oughts” and with external concerns like good works, and thus we often center our lives around activity for God rather than focusing on communion with God. We so easily spend energy on the management of our lives rather than addressing questions of meaning and values. They state, “Busyness substitutes for meaning, efficiency substitutes for creativity, and functional relationships substitute for love.” [2]

In this fast paced world, many experience a drive to turn inward and discover, or rediscover, the riches of the inner life. Curtis and Eldredge write, “The inner life, the story of our heart, is the life of the deep places within us, our passions and dreams, our fears and our deepest wounds. . . . The heart does not respond to principles and programs; it seeks not efficiency but passion. Art, poetry, beauty, mystery, ecstasy: These are what rouse the heart.” [3]

If we want to communicate with our hearts, we must adopt this language of “art, poetry, beauty, mystery and ecstasy.” We simply cannot continue to focus only on the outer life of tasks that need to be done and plans that need to be made. We have to devote time and energy to nurturing the things that inflame our souls with passion and lift our hearts to God.

The praise singing that has become so common in many congregations provides a way for people to open themselves to God and bring their whole being into God’s presence. Recently I read an article in a Christian magazine by someone who loves hymns and classical music. She dislikes the simplicity, even banality, of many praise songs, but she has reluctantly come to acknowledge that during the praise singing at church she is able to pray in a way that is integrated and very profound. There is something about repeating simple words and a simple tune that frees our heart and soul to enter into God’s presence.

Curtis and Eldredge discuss the power of stories to help us access our hearts. Jesus was the ultimate story-teller. The parables and incidents recounted in the Gospels contain immense challenge for people who want to develop their inner lives. The Gospel stories are not simple and easy to understand. Instead they are enigmatic and subtle, just the right kind of literature to help us engage our hearts and souls in order to explore what we really value and what is really important to us, in the light of Jesus’ priorities and values. The Gospel stories engage the heart as well as the mind.

Rediscovery of old friendships can play a part in unifying our past with our present. Honesty in facing powerful negative emotions and searing, painful memories can help us unify our public persona with our inner self. All of the emotions expressed in the Psalms seem more real and more immediate, and the Psalms are a wonderful place to find deeper heart connections with God.

(Next week: A journey with the Psalms. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Illustration by Dave Baab. This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here.)

[1] Brent Curtis and John Eldredge, The Sacred Romance: Drawing Closer to the Heart of God (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997), 3.
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Ibid.

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: first post of a series

Thursday January 26 2017

Drawing Near to God with the Heart: first post of a series

In the interviews for my two midlife books [1], I heard from many people about a desire to integrate all the parts of our lives into one whole. As we look back on our lives, we can see diverse threads, some of them meaningful and some of them trivial and inconsequential. Some of the aspects of our work, some of the things we do for recreation, some of the people we spend time with, and some of the habits we have clung to for years seem ridiculously meaningless. We wonder why we have continued to do them. But mixed in with these increasingly unimportant parts of our lives, we find threads that we know are deeply significant to us.

Our culture drives us toward fragmentation, which is coupled in early adulthood with the desire to try lots of things and experiment with many different options. At midlife and in later years, too, often people long to weed out the insignificant threads and find a unifying center for the threads that have meaning but feel dislocated and scattered.

Many describe this process as a move from the head to the heart. We have the sense that in early adulthood we strove to understand the world with our minds, and our minds generated all those enticing possibilities that took us in a variety of directions. As years pass, many experience a desire to live more from the heart, to center our lives more on things that have meaning, to embrace our values with our whole selves, to draw near to God in a way that involves our whole being, our hearts as well as our minds.

Some describe this process as finding and nurturing our soul. In Thomas Moore’s book, Care of the Soul, he writes that it is impossible to define the soul in a precise manner, but, “we know intuitively that soul has to do with genuineness and depth. . . . Soul is revealed in attachment, love, and community, as well as in retreat on behalf of inner communing and intimacy.”1

Inner communing, intimacy, attachment to heart values, integration of all the parts of ourselves, being centered . . . these are some of the most encouraging and meaningful aspects of growth and development I heard about in interviews about midlife. These themes are relevant to people of all ages.

Bill, 35, one of my interviewees for my midlife books, said:

In my very early years as a Christian, when I was in high school, I was connected with God in a genuine experiential way. But I quickly moved into theology and Bible study, focusing on knowledge and an objectified sense of faith. There was a small emotional part of faith, but it was disconnected to the analytical part. My brother died eight years ago, and that began a process of change. In the past year or so, I’m finally understanding who Christ is and what it’s all about. As humans we suffer. My early experience of Christianity was an upward journey to a higher place. Now it feels to me that the core of the message is that in the experience of pain, God brings redemption and comfort. The direction I’m headed is to experience God in the midst of my daily life, in creative activities, in pain and sorrow.

In my interviews with midlife folks, many people reported that tears are much closer to the surface than they have ever been before. These are not simply tears of pain; they may also be tears that connect us with profound realities beyond our comprehension, such as the great love of God, the great mystery of life, the enormous privilege of loving and being loved.

This is the first post in a series that I have entitled “Drawing Near to God with the Heart,” and I include under that title a variety of emphases that can help us live the whole of our lives in integrity and genuineness. In this series of posts I want to explore more of what it looks like to live a unified life, loving God with heart, soul, mind and strength.

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

[1] This post is excerpted from my book, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, available in paperback here and on kindle here. It focuses on spiritual paths for individuals at midlife. My other book on midlife addresses what congregations can do to support people at midlife, Embracing Midlife: Congregations as Support Systems.

My latest creative project: Short stories about self-discovery and spiritual growth

Thursday January 19 2017

My latest creative project: Short stories about self-discovery and spiritual growth

In 1990 I finished my seminary degree, having taken ten years to finish a three year master’s degree. My kids were 8 and 10. I was a candidate for ordination as a Presbyterian minister, but I knew I didn’t have the extraverted energy to be a minister while my kids were so young.

In my last year of seminary, I wrote a short story about a woman in transition. The 2,000 word story took me a year to write, and I found it helpful to write about a fictional person who was dealing with similar issues to mine. In the two years after graduation, I wrote seven more short stories. The main characters were all dealing with transitions, trying to figure out who they were, how they wanted to live and where God was guiding them. All of the stories reflected issues I was thinking about on my own faith and life journey, even though most of the characters bore little resemblance to me.

I recently dug out the stories and spent some time with them, smoothing out the dialog and editing small errors. I decided I liked them. In fact, I liked them a lot. So I have published them for kindle, with the title A Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual Growth. The cost is $2.99

I sent the stories out to several people for whom I have written book endorsements in the past, and they sent back really lovely endorsements, which I’ll paste in below. They actually liked the stories. I was thrilled.

I hope that readers will enjoy meeting the imaginary people who helped me process major issues at a time of transition. Here are the endorsements for the book.

The stories in A Garden of Living Water are about struggle, discovery and grace. Grace often comes clothed in a friend’s willingness to listen and to risk speaking the truth with sensitivity. Lynne Baab’s faith reverberates through these stories. God does not come like a genie from a bottle, granting wishes. Yet God abides in the nexus among friends and lovers, and in each narrative’s trajectory of hope.
Carol Simon, author of Bringing Sex into Focus: The Quest for Sexual Integrity

A back-yard garden, a new dress, a patchwork quilt, ordinary items from ordinary lives, except in the deft hands of author Lynne Baab. In the stories that make up this collection, the things of everyday life become the point of intersection for our deepest longings and God's faithful presence. It is rare to come across stories that capture both daily life and faith in God with the same level of intimacy and ring of truth.
Douglas Early, author of Abide in Me: Being Fully Alive in Christ

Lynne Baab has always been one of my favorite theology and spirituality teachers, but now she is also a favorite short-storyteller. In this volume, Lynne depicts a whole variety of people and places – all on the cusp of discovery. Who to be. How to interact with others. Where to invest time and talent. Get to know the folks in Lynne's Garden and take away truth and inspiration to help your own life.
Lucinda Secrest McDowell, author of Dwelling Places

In these captivating short stories Lynne Baab, a seasoned writer on topics of Christian spirituality, introduces us to people who are growing. Many of these characters are women who are wondering what will be next for them. Their discernment is aided by friendships of various kinds – with God, with husbands, children, parents, and friends. One of the women in the stories, standing on the cusp of new life, is counseled by a friend that "it’s a question of creation. Each of us was created by a loving God for supportive relationships and creative work." That faith permeates this book, bringing healing and hope to characters and readers alike.
Susan Phillips, author of The Cultivated Life and Candlelight

As with Lynne’s other fictional writings, these short stories are not only a compelling read, they are both thought-provoking and inspirational. Lynne has a real gift for dealing with some of life’s very real, but seldom confronted realities – such as grief, past hurts, loneliness, and belonging – in an honest, gentle and therapeutic manner.
Clare Ayers, Life & Business Coaching, Christchurch, New Zealand

Lynne Baab’s heartfelt and encouraging stories about people searching for meaning, yearning toward authenticity, and navigating family relationships and friendships are sure to resonate with anyone who’s wrestling with the perennial questions Who Am I? and Why Am I Here? Perhaps the most encouraging part of this collection is Lynne’s closing letter to readers, in which we hear how she wrote these stories out of her own struggle to discern her calling and purpose—and then get to see her 20 years later, with a Ph.D. and 16 books under her belt!
K. C. Ireton, author of Circle of the Seasons and Cracking Up

(Next week: the first post in a new series on worshiping and serving God from the heart. If you’d like to receive an email notice when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

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