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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.

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Friday June 19 2015

Celtic Christianity: Ross’s story about art

Ross, 62, is a retired businessman who has been studying Celtic Christianity for many years. His involvement in creating an illuminated biblical passage in the Celtic style has helped him enter into the values and integrated worldview of the Celts:

Celtic Christianity allowed God to reach me on all sorts of levels. The Book of Kells [1] and the other Celtic illuminated manuscripts made me see another side of God’s truth, the way truth is connected with beauty.

I am awed by the Celtic monks’ willingness to put their lives into their art. I am awed by the beauty, elegance and style of their art. These dear brothers and sisters prepared themselves for the holy task of working with Scripture. Before they picked up a brush each day, they spent time in confession and received forgiveness. They viewed their work very much as a part of their worship.

I myself am working on a piece of Celtic art. I’ve got a nice big piece of vellum [2], and I’ve sketched out a Scripture verse. In this past paced world, where you can generate a piece of computer art in a few minutes, it’s amazing to think of the time and effort lavished on each page of the Book of Kells. Working on my own Celtic art connects me with the patience and long vision of the Celtic months. It may take me ten years to have something of quality that can be passed on.

There’s a lot to it. The art, the chemistry of missing the colors, the challenge of working with gold leaf. The Celts were so integrated with God’s creation, and I experience a little of that integration as I work on my own piece of art.


[1]The Book of Kells contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation. The book is written on vellum (prepared calfskin) in a bold and expert version of the script known as "insular majuscule". The manuscript’s celebrity derives largely from the impact of its lavish decoration, the extent and artistry of which is incomparable. Abstract decoration and images of plant, animal and human ornament punctuate the text with the aim of glorifying Jesus’ life and message, and keeping his attributes and symbols constantly in the eye of the reader. The date and place of origin of the Book of Kells have attracted a great deal of scholarly controversy. The majority academic opinion now tends to attribute it to the scriptorium of Iona (Argyllshire), but conflicting claims have located it in Northumbria or in Pictland in eastern Scotland. It must have been close to the year 800 that the Book of Kells was written. (More about the manuscript here, and images of it here.)

[2] Vellum often refers to a parchment made from calf skin, as opposed to that from other animals. It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books.

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

Celtic Christianity: the earth and art

Wednesday April 29 2015

Celtic Christianity: the earth and art

It’s no accident that there are rabbits, mice, lizards and fish drawn between the lines and around the edges of the pages of the Book of Kells. The profound connection that the Celts felt between their lives and God’s creation spilled over into their art.

Sister John Miriam Jones, in her book With an Eagle’s Eye, writes that their sense of God’s presence and love led the Celts

to artistic expressions using metal, wood, stone, paint, words, and music. These wholehearted art lovers found countless ways to utilize the arts in expressing their beliefs and their love. The monastic era coincides with the production of the best of Celtic metalwork, manuscripts and sculpture – all of which attest to their awareness of and yearning for God’s immanent presence. [1]

She believes that all of this creativity and artistry comes from the truth that “deeply felt love requires expression.” [2]

The Celts saw in the creation the deep love of the Creator, and they felt moved to create also. Their art was deeply symbolic. The Celtic knots that have become so popular in jewelry and art and symbolic of the love of God, which has no beginning or end.

The Celtic cross, which has also become popular in recent years, is a cross with a circle behind it. The circle probably represents the earth or the sun, and the cross represents Jesus dying to conquer the forces of evil. To the Celts, the cross as a shape in art would never be separated from the strong meaning of Jesus’ death.

Many of the ancient high crosses in Ireland and Britain, large stone works of art with a worn frieze decorating the surface of each cross, show the story of our God who rescues, saves and feeds us. Often both the crucified Christ and the risen Christ are depicted. On many of the crosses Christ is shown with outstretched, wounded hands to bless the world as both Creator and Redeemer.

Part of the appeal of Celtic Christianity in our time is this connection between the creation, artistic expression and our faith in God. As we experience God’s handiwork in nature, we may identify with the Celts who lived among the trees and hills and woodland animals, and who saw all of nature as an expression of God’s creativity and as a true gift from God.

As we engage in any artistic expression, whether it’s quilting or drawing or baking or making music or woodworking or writing poetry, we receive deep encouragement from the Celts who seamlessly integrated their faith and their art. They created art for the love of Christ. They experienced themselves as connected to their Creator as they pursued artistic expression, and they expressed their understanding of God in symbols that were full of meaning for them. We can do the same.

These symbols and images can play a role when we want to break free of the pervasive, materialistic images bombarding us in the media. They may help us deepen our connection to the eternal and the holy. Celtic knots and scampering mice can become anchors for us, connecting us to God in a nonverbal but profound way. Esther de Waal, herself descended from Celts, writes in her wonderful book, The Celtic Way of Prayer:

Above all the Celtic tradition has reminded me of the importance of images, those foundational images whose depths and universal character have always brought such riches to Christian understanding. Most people today are being constantly battered by the succession of superficial images that meet us in the world of consumerism, in television and in advertising, where there is no chance to spend time testing their true meaning. Therefore, it now becomes vital, more than ever, to recover the fundamental images of fire, wind, bread, water, of light and dark, of the heart. These are the great impersonal symbols that are universal, understood by Christian and non-Christian alike. An Indian Christian priest once said that they were like a great bridge that Christ has thrown across the world and across history so that men and women may walk to meet each other and be completed in him. [3]

(This post is excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Lynne M. Baab. If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

[1] Sister John Miriam Jones, S.C., With an Eagle’s Eye (Notre Dame, Ind.: Ave Maria Press, 1998), 65.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Esther de Waal, The Celtic Way of Prayer (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 27.

Other posts on Celtic Christianity:

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