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

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

Tuesday June 27 2017

Initiative in friendships: What Mary might have missed

I wrote last week about initiative in friendships. One of my favorite friendship stories in the Bible reveals an easy-to-miss act of initiative. Luke 1 and 2 describes the miracle pregnancies of two cousins, Elizabeth and Mary, and the friendship that grows between them.

Elizabeth and her husband were getting on in years, and they had no child. In a series of dramatic events, God reveals to Elizabeth’s husband that they will have a child who will have a significant role in God’s plan. That son will be John the Baptist.

Mary is also pregnant with a miracle baby, Jesus. The angel Gabriel gives Mary the news that she will bear a son who will be called “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). After Mary asks how this can happen, given that she is a virgin, Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will make it possible. Then Gabriel says, “And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).

Immediately after the conversation with the angel, Mary sets out on a visit to her cousin. She stays with Elizabeth three months, and we can only imagine the comfort these two women gave to each other. They undoubtedly talked over the miraculous events surrounding the conception of their babies. They probably shared their fears about the life their sons would lead and the impact of God’s call on each of them. According to Luke, Mary is in Elizabeth’s presence when she says the famous prayer often called the Magnificat, a prayer beloved by Christians for two thousand years (see Luke 1:46-55).

What we so easily miss is the fact that the angel did not tell Mary to visit Elizabeth. Gabriel simply announced that Elizabeth was pregnant after waiting so long. Mary chose to go visit. Her willingness to take initiative in this way nurtured the friendship between her and Elizabeth and benefitted both of them.

I can imagine another scenario that could very easily have happened if Mary hadn’t taken that initiative. In my alternative story, Mary stays home. The angel tells her that Elizabeth is pregnant, and Mary is happy to hear it. She tells her mother about it, and maybe local female cousins as well, and they spend a lot of time talking about how wonderful it is for Elizabeth to be pregnant. They tell each other stories of women they knew who struggled with infertility. They talk about women who became pregnant after giving up hope. Perhaps they refer to Abraham and Sarah from the Bible, or maybe they remember Hannah, another biblical character who became pregnant after waiting a long time. Pregnancy after infertility is a wonderful gift, and, just like today, probably everyone in Mary’s village had a story to tell about it.

But Elizabeth’s pregnancy had additional significance beyond the gift of a baby after a long period of infertility. Elizabeth’s son would grow up to be “great in the sight of the Lord” and would speak and minister “with the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:15, 17). If Mary hadn’t taken the initiative to visit Elizabeth, she would have missed talking with the one woman who had some inkling of the amazing thing that had happened to her and the high calling of her son.

After Jesus is born, Joseph and Mary present him in the temple. A faithful man named Simeon recognizes that Jesus is the Messiah. He says a beautiful prayer in response to seeing Jesus, and then turns to Mary and tells her what he sees about Jesus’ ministry. His final words to Mary are sobering: “A sword will pierce your own soul” (Luke 2:35).

Mary’s conversations with Elizabeth may very well have given her the foundation for the kind of strength and resilience she would need in order to live with that sword piercing her heart. Because of her visit with Elizabeth, she entered into her role as mother of the Son of God, knowing she was not alone in bearing a miracle baby who would be called to do extraordinary things.

We have no record of Elizabeth and Mary meeting again. When horrible things happened to John the Bapist and then later to Jesus, the memory of those three months with Elizabeth must have given Mary comfort. Mary would have rejoiced in her friendship with one other woman called by God to bear a child who would change history and who would bring tears and great sadness to his mother.

Next week: Obstacles in taking initiative. 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 Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World. For a complete list of my books, click here.)

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

Tuesday June 20 2017

New series of blog posts: Initiative in friendships

I often think of friendship as a verb, and when I think of actions that shape friendship, what comes to mind first and foremost is the willingness to take initiative. Over and over.

Initiative means making some kind of response after a friend has surgery. Perhaps a card, a meal, a gift, a phone call or a visit. Initiative means creating opportunities to listen when a friend is going through a crisis—suggesting a conversation over coffee, making time for a phone call or sending an email with specific questions about the situation. Initiative means checking in with friends when you haven’t heard from them for a while. Initiative means remembering to pray for a friend’s needs.

I know that initiative is so important to me because I had to navigate eleven moves in my first fifteen years. As I look back on my childhood, I can see clearly that if I hadn’t taken initiative over and over to reach out to potential new friends, I would have been desperately lonely.

The emphasis I place on initiating in friendship also comes from conversations I’ve had with both men and women over the years. “I have trouble initiating,” many people have told me as they talk about feeling isolated and wanting more friends.

Serena, a librarian in her fifties, expressed two important beliefs when I interviewed her: “friendship takes time” and “to be friends requires intentionality; it rarely ‘happens.’” She noted that people so often say, “Let’s get together,” but find it hard to follow through. “I wouldn’t have either,” she said, “had I not scribbled notes to myself on my calendar or scraps of paper in my car to ‘call this person’ or ‘invite that person over for dinner.’”

Serena has nurtured the habit over the years of having people over for tea or dinner, either individually or in groups, and in this way has developed friendships with neighbors, coworkers and church members.

Tabitha, in her eighties, has reflected a lot about initiative in friendships. She takes frequent initiative with friends, but is always grateful when someone else jumps in and makes connection with her. She reflected: “Good friends are caring, loyal and understanding. They’re strong, so you can lean on them. They have integrity, so you know that what you tell them won’t go any further. They have time for you, and they make connection with you at least sometimes, so it’s not always you who has to take initiative.”

Initiative in friendships today takes many forms, and in this series of blog posts I’ll describe a variety of kinds of initiative. I’ll also explore some of the obstacles to initiating. I’ll close with a lovely quotation from Orlando A. Battista (1917–1995):

The greatest weakness of most humans is their hesitancy to tell others how much they love them while they’re still alive.

(Next week: “What Mary might have missed.” 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: "Walking at Greenlake." This post excerpted from my book Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World.)

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.

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