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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Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

Thursday October 6 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Merton on our transparent world

"Life is this simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and the divine is shining through it all the time. This is not just a nice story or a fable, it is true."
           —Thomas Merton

I love the idea of a transparent world. I love thinking about ways I can see God’s character, beauty and creativity “shining through” the things, people and events of our world. But I’m not wild about the word “divine.” I looked up the word, and found two definitions: (1) like God and (2) very pleasing, delightful. This makes me wonder if “divine” is the right word for what Thomas Merton is trying to say here. I think he’s saying that God shines through this transparent world. What we see shining through is not something like God. It is God.

The definition of divine, “very pleasing, delightful,” is worth pondering. Christians have majored on intercessory prayer, not prayers of praise and thanks. Maybe if we looked more carefully at the world around us to see the pleasing and delightful aspects, we would see God's presence more clearly and engage in more prayers of praise and thanks. (I wrote two weeks ago about a Eugene Peterson quotation about paying attention.)

While I was thinking about what I wanted to say about Merton's words, I happened to look through my vast collection of quotations to find some more to use in the weeks to come. I found two that echo Merton’s thoughts.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
                        —Elizabeth Barrett Browning [1]

“God’s love is the water we drink, the air we breathe, and the light we see. All natural phenomena are different material forms of the love of God. . . . God’s love surrounds us, but we do not feel it, anymore than we feel the pressure of the atmosphere.
                         —Ernesto Cardenal, Abide in Love

These last two quotations imply that it’s not easy to see God’s love surrounding us or to recognize common things “afire with God.” Part of what I love about all the talk about mindfulness these days is the encouragement to stop right now, in this moment, and pay attention. For the rest of this post, I’ll write about the ways I have recently seen God’s love surrounding me and common things afire with God. Maybe my words will encourage you to write down (or draw! sing!) some of the places where you have seen God shining through the transparent world.

1. Flowers. It’s spring in New Zealand, and we’ve got trees and bushes covered with flowers. We’re at the end of the daffodils and the beginning of the tulips. We’ve had a bunch of sunny days in a row, and when I see sunlight shining through blossoms, I see God’s creativity and beauty.

2. Birds. I recently visited an aviary, and the colors of the parrots and parakeets made me smile. We have three blackbirds nesting in trees near our house, and it’s been a delight to see the mama birds flying back and forth with bits of grass in their beaks, while the papa birds stand sentinel. God created beautiful birds.

3. Activists. I feel shame and guilt at how little activism I have done over my lifespan to fight for things I care about. I love to read about activists, and I often see God’s passion and energy in them.

4. Children. Their pure skin, clear eyes and energetic movements give me deep joy, and I rejoice that God made such diversity in his children.

5. Poetry. Such creativity with words must reflect the creativity of God.

6. Art. Colors, shapes, lines curved and straight. I thank God that he gave us eyes.

7. Human kindness. I love seeing people extend love and care to others, reflecting God’s character in their actions.

I could list so many more: skies, clouds, the moon and stars; baby lambs and ducklings; chocolate, fruit, a good salad, roast beef; cool water to drink, warm water for bathing, a fluffy towel and clean clothes; dogs, cats and other pets; my home, my desk, my bed, the sofa, the kitchen, the table where we eat.

I’m sure you’ll think of other things. To paraphrase Thomas Merton: We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God’s character, beauty and creativity are shining through it all the time. Our job is to pay attention.

(Next week: Paul Tournier on bringing good out of evil. 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.)

[1] The quotation comes from a poem entitled “Aurora Leigh,” which you can read here.

Quotations I love: regret and fear are thieves

Friday September 16 2016

Quotations I love: regret and fear are thieves

“Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” Fulton Oursler, American Journalist (1893-1952)

I love the metaphor of the thieves. Engaging in regret for the past or fear of the future is like a thief sweeping through our mind stealing important things. What gets stolen when regret and fear dominate our thoughts? Joy in the present. The ability to see God’s hand at work. Gratitude for good gifts. Hope for the future based in God’s goodness.

The quotation highlights three challenges: (1) to see the past with faith and gratitude, (2) to see the future with hope and (3) to look for God’s presence and companionship in the present as much as possible. I want to suggest some spiritual practices for each of these challenges.

1. See the past with faith and gratitude

a. Sometimes regrets about the past are rooted in a sense of guilt and shame. God offers us full and abundant forgiveness, but sometimes we find it hard to receive that forgiveness. My suggestion: write down the specific sources of guilt or shame that contribute to your sense of regret about the past. When I am having a hard time feeling forgiven, I find Psalms 32, 51 and 130 helpful. Read your list of sources of guilt or shame, then pray one of the psalms I’ve mentioned. If a verse in the psalm jumps out at you, post it on your bathroom mirror. Dwell in God’s forgiveness.

b. Sometimes regrets about the past aren’t rooted in sin or shame, they’re just regrets about situations we wish we’d handled differently. Think about – or talk with a friend about – a situation where you wish you had responded differently. List as many aspects of the situation that you are thankful for. Note where God was present in the situation and where you experienced God’s guidance or comfort. Let those gifts from God exist in your memory alongside the aspects you wish you had done differently. You may want to pray Psalm103:1-5 as a way to think about God’s blessings to you, even when there are regrets about some aspects of a situation.

2. See the future with hope

a. In the midst of anxiety, many people find the Serenity Prayer helpful. It was written around 1934 by Reinhold Niebuhr. It’s a great prayer to memorize. Pray it several times slowly:

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

b. Pick a scripture about peace or hope. Memorize it or post it in your car, by your desk, on your bedside table or beside the kitchen sink. Repeat it to yourself and let it sink into your heart. Here are two possibilities for passages to use: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).

3. Look for God’s presence and companionship in the present

a. Breath prayer is one of the best ways to be present in each moment. Slow your breathing and focus on each breath. In God, “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Ponder the fact that you depend on God for each breath, and God gives you that breath in generosity and love. Breathe deeply and slowly, and rest in God’s presence and goodness that surrounds you.

b. Thankfulness is another great way to be present to God’s gifts in each moment. When you stop at a traffic light, stand in line at the bank, wait for a website to download or step outside to get your mail, look around and name several things that come to you as a gift. Or focus on all the individual parts of your body that are working well (even if some parts aren't working so well!), and thank God for each of them. “Wonderful are your works, that I know very well” (Psalm 139:14)

These are just a very few ideas. What helps you rejoice in the past and look forward to the future with trust? What helps you abide in Christ in the present moment?

(Next week: a quotation from Eugene Peterson about a pastor’s chief job, which I think relates to the chief job of a parent, family member and friend. Watercolor painting of Lake Hawea, New Zealand, 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.)

Thankfulness and sentness

Thursday December 10 2015

Thankfulness and sentness

When I was a young adult I got to hear John Stott speak about Jesus’ last words to his disciples in John 13 to 17. I remember so many things about those four talks at Urbana 76.

In John 17:18, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” Stott talked about this verse as a foundation that helps us understand what we are called to do on this earth. The notion of being sent into the world as Jesus was sent helps us understand our mission.

A brief note about Bible translation helps us understand the connection between John 17:18 and mission. As early as two centuries after Jesus said those words, Christians begin to translate the New Testament into Latin. (It was originally written in Greek.) And the Latin word for “sent” is “missio.” That’s the word from which we get “mission.” So mission is all about sentness.

It’s easy to think that mission is something done only by missionaries. Or that mission is something a bit exotic and strange that we only do occasionally, when we can gird up our loins to engage in something difficult and awkward. Instead, John Stott’s perspective that influenced me so much is that every day we are called to understand our sentness and live into it.

I’ve been writing on thankfulness the past two weeks, and I want to continue that theme by writing here about how thankfulness helps us participate in God’s mission. I believe that thankfulness helps us notice what God is already doing, so we can participate in God’s work in the world. Without thankfulness, we focus too much on what is lacking, which can be overwhelming.

There’s a lot of talk these days about figuring out where God is at work so we can join in. How can we do that without thankfulness? Here’s an example. Suppose you are deeply concerned about a cousin who has cancer. You get regular updates so you can pray, you bring meals over and you try to be helpful as you can.

Imagine that you engage in some thankfulness prayers for the situation. As you scan around for things to be thankful for – admittedly a hard thing to do when you are very worried about someone – you find yourself thanking God that this illness has brought your cousin closer to her sister. The two of them had always had a difficult relationship, and now they are finding more common ground.

How does this relate to mission? Maybe instead of bringing meals over, you could do something to help the patient and her sister have more time together. Or maybe when you bring the meals over you could say something like, “I’m hoping that maybe you can invite your sister over to share this meal with you.” Or, “Maybe this meal will free up some time for you so you can spend it with your sister.” Thankfulness helps us see what God is already doing so we can join in.

Thankfulness helps us see beyond the needs in any given situation, which are often so disheartening. Thankfulness prayers give us hope, because we see the small (and sometimes big) things that make a difference. Thankfulness prayers help us find motivation and energy to enter into God’s mission because they help us see the wonderful ways God is already working.

What a cool invitation from God. We get to participate in God’s work! And thankfulness helps us join in with hope and joy.

(Here’s a fabulous book that explains clearly and vividly the theme of being sent – Sentness: Six Postures of Missional Christians by Kim Hammond and Darren Cronshaw. 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 on this blog about thankfulness:

A thankfulness challenge 
Another thankfulness challenge  
Growing in thankfulness  
Drawing near to God by noticing patterns
A cat with a noble character

Another thankfulness challenge

Wednesday December 2 2015

Another thankfulness challenge

On the morning after Thanksgiving, my husband Dave said to me, “I found the most amazing passage. It really helps explain why thankfulness matters.”

Here’s the passage, Deuteronomy 8:11-18:

Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth.

After Dave read it to me, he said, “Part of what thankfulness does is exactly what is described here. It helps remind us that everything good we have came to us as a gift from God. Thankfulness helps us avoid boasting about our own prowess, exalting ourselves. It helps us remember God.”

I wrote last week about a thankfulness challenge. I got some interesting responses on Facebook. My friend Steve wrote,

Really good point about how prayers of thanksgiving help us keep God in the center. It’s so easy to think that the sole reason God exists is to do good things for us! Pretty crazy when it's put like that, but if we’re honest, that's the way we act and talk much of the time.

My friend Margui wrote,

What struck me in your blog was that our prayers of Thanksgiving remind us of what we have versus what we do not have. This is such a powerful act for our spiritual and emotional health.

So, to summarize Dave, Steve and Margui’s comments, here are some profound reasons why thankfulness matters:

1. It keeps us from exalting ourselves.
2. It helps us remember that everything good in our lives comes from God.
3. It helps us keep God at the center.
4. It helps us focus on what we have rather than what we don’t have.

These ideas are intimately connected with each other. If I’m not going to exalt myself, I have space to be able to exalt God, which helps keep God at the center. If I remember that God give me all the good things in my life, then it’s easier to keep God at the center. But if I’m not going to exalt myself for my competence and achievements, I might shift my focus onto what I’m lacking in my life rather than what I have. Thankfulness keeps the focus on what I have rather than what I don’t have, but I remember it all comes from God.

I am convinced that the consistent practice of thankfulness is one of the most important spiritual practices we can engage in. It shapes our heart in so many good ways. My thankfulness challenge for you this week is to identify the areas of your life where you might sometimes get cocky about your own competence, prowess and achievements. In that area, spend some time daily for the next week thanking God for the blessings you have received.

(The illustration is a watercolor by Dave Baab, and the telescope is a good image to remind us that thankfulness helps us see God at work in our lives. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

A thankfulness challenge

Thursday November 26 2015

A thankfulness challenge

In this week when most Americans are thinking about thankfulness a bit more than usual, I have a suggestion. A challenge, really. Consider trying this: Pick two situations that you are concerned about – one personal/local and one international – and spend time thanking God for everything you can dream up related to that situation.

Suppose the personal/local situation you’re concerned about is your sister’s cancer treatment. Your prayer might go like this:

God, I am concerned about my sister. I want to take some time to thank you for all the signs of your presence in the situation. Thank you that she likes her oncologist so much. Thank you that the side effects of the chemo are localized to only a few days after each treatment. Thank you that several of her friends are coming to visit so often. Thank you that you’ve given me some really good talks with her. Thank you that my work schedule is light enough right now that I can visit her often.

Now, maybe there are a bunch of really scary things going on with your sister’s situation, and maybe the majority of the time you pray desperately for those things. Those desperate prayers are perfectly appropriate. God loves us so much that God wants to hear the deepest desires of our hearts. But the thankfulness prayers are also appropriate because they help us shift our focus toward God’s goodness in the situation.

Pick an international situation as well. It’s a bit harder to think of as many positive things when the news is so awful, but here you can use your imagination a bit. Suppose you want to focus on the killings in Paris. Maybe you'll say something like:

Lord, I am so sad about Paris. But in the midst of all the painful news, I want to affirm that you are at work there, like you are at work in every situation on earth. I see signs of the love you implanted in humans when I hear about the people who opened their homes to strangers that night. Thank you for everyone in Paris who showed care and support for others. I know people all over the world have prayed for Paris. Thank you for Christians who pray for people in need. Thank you for these signs of your presence in all situations.

Why do these kinds of thankfulness prayers matter? At the same time that I affirm the significance and value of pouring out our pain to God, I also want to say that intercessory prayers can connect us with our consumer culture, where my needs and wants are preeminent. We don’t want to view God primarily as someone who meets our own needs and wants. God is Lord of the whole earth, majestic in spendor, overflowing with steadfast love, free to act in whatever way is best for us. God is at the center, not us.

Prayers of thankfulness shift our focus away from what we don’t have to what we do have. Thankfulness prayers help us see God’s many and abundant gifts. Thankfulness prayers give us new eyes. And thankfulness prayers help us keep God at the center. 

It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
   to sing praises to your name, O Most High;
to declare your steadfast love in the morning,
   and your faithfulness by night,
to the music of the lute and the harp,
   to the melody of the lyre.
For you, O Lord, have made me glad by your work;
   at the works of your hands I sing for joy (Psalm 92:1-4).

(Photo credit: Ian Thomson. Sunset in Bergen, Norway. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the left hand column.)

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