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

Spiritual practices that helps us journey

Friday November 20 2015

Spiritual practices that helps us journey

The first time I walked a labyrinth, there were about six other people walking it at the same time. I found myself bemused by the parallels between my walk in the labyrinth and my journey of faith. At some moments walking the labyrinth, a person would be beside me, walking on his or her own path right beside mine. Then our paths would diverge. I was reminded of close friends from certain points in my life, friends who shaped me and cared for me, but who have moved away and who I seldom see. Yes, we got to walk together for a while, but our journeys diverged.

That first labyrinth I walked was modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres, France. The path winds all over the place, and it feels like there’s no progress toward the center. In fact, there’s a section of the path furthest from the center. You walk on that outer rim, then take one turn, and boom, you’ve gotten to the center. This seemed so much like my life. Often I feel far from God, but my life takes a turn and suddenly God is present and real.

The time at the center of a labyrinth is quite special. You’ve walked a winding path to get there, and now you can stop for a minute to think and pray. Sometimes some other people are in the center with you. Maybe you don’t know them, but they know God too, so they are sisters and brothers. You are resting together in God’s presence, knowing you have to rejoin the path pretty soon and keep walking. That time at the center is like Sunday worship or other communal experiences of worship and prayer, a pause in the week to regroup with others before going back onto the journey. I may not know everyone who’s in church with me on Sunday, but together we are enjoying God’s presence in that pause from daily life.

A labyrinth is only one spiritual practice that evokes the notion of life as a journey. What are some of the other spiritual practices that help us experience the journey-like aspect of life with God?

1. The Stations of the Cross. In the medieval period, very few people could travel to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorsa with Jesus. Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross helps everyday Christians to walk with Jesus to the cross.

2. Praying while walking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been preoccupied, upset or angry about something. I set out on a walk, pondering and praying as I go, and when I get home, my perspective has completely changed. That one brief hour seems to expand to represent a long faith journey.

3. A thankfulness list or journal or prayers of gratitude. Writing down, naming or praying things we’re thankful for has at least two benefits. It helps us in the moment as we write, but it also helps later on when we refer back to the list. We can see the pattern of the way God has led us and blessed us on our journey.

4. A prayer request list or journal. In the same was as described in #3, referring back to prayer requests, and checking them off when they’re answered, is a great way to see the pattern in our journey of faith.

5. Pilgrimage. Whenever we take a physical journey for a spiritual purpose, that trip becomes a pilgrimage. We might visit a childhood home or school, a retreat center where God met us in a special way, or the setting of a significant life event. A pilgrimage is a physical journey that helps us see the journey God is leading us on in life.

6.Examen. In this ancient prayer form, we are invited to look back over a period of time, perhaps one day, and look for God’s presence and also for the moments when we resisted God’s presence. Doing examen with some regularity enables us to see patterns in the places and times where we meet God and the places and times we resist God.

I wrote last week about the ways that the journey metaphor works so well to help us see moments and purpose in the life of faith. Many spiritual practices help us experience life as a journey.

(Illustration: The path under spring flowers by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

Friday October 23 2015

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

The human brain loves to find patterns even when none exist. This explains the popularity of conspiracy theories, some of which must be false. (Only some of them? See, I can’t say, “all of which are false”! I love patterns and categories as much as the next person!)

We can use the human love of patterns to nurture our prayer life and to help us observe the pattern of our spiritual growth. Here are three ideas:

1. “Word for the year.” Some people advocate picking a word in January that you want to have as the theme for your year. My experience is that words pick me, not the other way around. In 2012 and 2013, the word I kept coming back to was “receptivity.” It was so helpful in understanding that God was calling me to pay attention to where the Holy Spirit was guiding me and to where God was already working in my life, rather than always trying to direct things myself or to see what’s missing in my life. I wrote sections in two of my books, Joy Together and The Power of Listening, about receptivity.

In 2014, the word “joy” was forced on me by the Caring Bridge posts of a wonderful (and joyous) man, Steve Hayner. His posts while he was dealing with terminal cancer were the single biggest source of spiritual growth for me in 2014. Those posts have been turned into a book, Joy in the Journey, which I highly recommend.

Suggestion: Look back at last year, or an earlier year, and ponder whether there’s a word that captures what God was doing in your life. Take that word and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

2. Daily, weekly, monthly or yearly highlights. What was the best thing that happened yesterday? Last week? Last month? Last year? “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). We miss so much because we don’t take the time to look and remember. My favorite Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”

Suggestion: Use the human propensity to find patterns to help you see the pattern of God’s blessing in your life. Then turn those highlights into prayers of thanks.

3. Theme for the decade. I can see very clearly the major life lesson God was teaching me in my 50s: you cannot change another person. You can speak your own truth, you can say how another person’s behavior affects you, and you can encourage others to change. But you cannot change them. I can’t believe I was in my 50s before I learned this. I would have been a much better mother if I had learned it earlier. This big life lesson has helped me pray and speak differently in so many relationships, and I am a happier (more joyous!) person because of it.

Because I can see so clearly my biggest life lesson from my 50s, I’ve been thinking perhaps I can identify a major life lesson from each decade of life.

Suggestion: look at your life in decades or in five-year blocks and see if you can identify a major life lesson in some of them. Take that life lesson and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

The human propensity to see patterns can help us see the patterns of gifts and growth in our lives, which can help us pray and act in new ways. Let your brain’s love of patterns serve your growth in faith. “For you, Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4).

(Photo credit: John Mawurndjul, “Mardayin Ceremony 2000,” Gallery New South Wales. I love Australian Aboriginal art, and I’m sure it’s because I love the patterns. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Growing in thankfulness

Wednesday January 21 2015

Growing in thankfulness

Just over twenty years ago my husband and I began a habit that has changed the way we pray individually, with each other and in groups. At that turning-point moment, we decided to try to begin every prayer time with a few prayers of thankfulness.

At that time, Dave and I usually prayed together before bedtime a couple of times each week, and we had begun to notice that our prayers seemed repetitive, boring, and often desperate. It was a stressful time. Dave was deeply unhappy at his work. Our kids had entered adolescence, and we were baffled and frustrated by their increasingly challenging behavior. I had finished a seminary degree and was a candidate for ordination as a Presbyterian minister, but I basically still didn’t have a clear idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

Dave and I began our thankfulness experiment. Some nights all we could manage was to thank God that we had food on the table and that the four of us were healthy.

A year went by, then another year. Our prayers of thankfulness blossomed even though my husband’s work situation became worse, our teenagers baffled us more than ever, and I experienced no resolution of my job questions. We were amazed by how many things we could notice for which we wanted to thank God: friends, extended family, our neighborhood, bursting flowers in the spring, colorful leaves in the fall, a comfortable home. Answers to prayer.

The specifics of daily life became more visible to us as manifestations of God’s care. We had always been thankful for food on the table each day, but now many more aspects of our life seemed to flow from the hands of a gracious and generous God.

We became more aware of what we had been missing in all those years of prayer times that were packed with our needs and wants. We simply hadn’t noticed God’s good gifts to us. Looking back, we felt a bit ashamed of the “give me this, give me that” orientation of our prayers before we began our experiment.

I began to pray more thankfulness prayers as a part of my own personal prayers. And I began to experience frustration when I prayed with others. I was an elder in my congregation, so I attended session meetings every month and one or two committee meetings in between. At our church, all committee meetings ended with a time of conversational prayer, and I began to notice how quickly the committee members dived into making requests of God.

I found myself thinking, This is the maker of the universe we are addressing! The giver of every good gift in our lives! And we have the audacity to come into the presence of this generous and gracious God without acknowledging our gratitude and our dependence? We launch right into a list of requests. What kind of brats behave like this? I got angry so many times in meetings that I finally began to take initiative. When the leader of the meeting would say, “Let’s spend some time in prayer,” I would immediately chime in, “Could we please begin with some prayers of thankfulness?” It became clear to me that in committees and other groups, we were able to see God’s hand in our midst more clearly when we regularly set aside time to notice God’s gifts and blessings.

Prayers of thankfulness enable us to see what God has been doing and where God has been working. Prayers of thankfulness help us to notice the specifics of God’s work and the patterns of God’s goodness in our lives and the lives of others. Prayers of thankfulness make us stop and look. We are missing so much of God’s work in the world because we don’t notice and because we don’t express our thanks.

Lent, which begins February 18 this year, is a great time to try new spiritual practices, and a new pattern of thankfulness prayers might be a lovely thing to try this year. To think about options for Lent, you might enjoy an article I wrote on “small” spiritual practices. The article has lots of practical ideas: Small Habits, Big Benefits.

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I put a new post on this blog, please sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

A Cat with a Noble Character

Monday July 28 2014

A Cat with a Noble Character

Our older son, Jonathan, was two weeks short of one year old when we got a cat. She was all white, so we called her Vanilla. She was also about one year old. She was a wonderful cat for toddlers. Jonathan was so eager to have a relationship with her, and he would try to be gentle, but in his eagerness to relate to her, he would sometimes hurt her. She would walk away two feet and sit there, as if to say, “Hey, don’t hurt me. But if you want to keep trying to pet me, I’m here.” She seemed to know she and Jonathan were age mates, and that they would be important to each other in the future.

By the time Jonathan and Vanilla were three, they were best friends. She always slept with him, and he took such pleasure in her. When they were six, we got a second cat, black with hints of red in her fur. We called her Tiwi, and Vanilla welcomed her. During the day, they slept together curled around each other, but at night, Vanilla slept with Jonathan. Sometimes Tiwi joined her.

Whenever we had friends over for dinner who had small children, Tiwi would disappear, but Vanilla would stay there and let the kids pet her and play with her. Whenever they hurt her, she would walk away about two feet, still seeming to say, “Please don’t hurt me, but I’m willing to let you try again.”

As Vanilla got older, she loved to sleep in the sun. On cool days, she still slept curled around Tiwi, and on sunny days, she wanted to go outside and find a patch of sunshine. We learned later that white cats have white skin, and much like humans with fair skin, white cats are susceptible to skin cancer. When Jonathan and Vanilla were 14, she got a malignant melanoma on her nose. The vet told us there was nothing we could do about it, and as the months passed, the cancer ate away her nose.

When the time seemed right I took her to the vet to be put to sleep, and I took Jonathan along. I think it was right to take him with me, but I still agonize when I remember that he cried and cried and cried as she died.

I dreamt about Vanilla the other night, and I woke up overwhelmed with sadness that the lifespan of cats and dogs is so much shorter than the human lifespan. I can imagine someone might say, “She was only a cat.” No, she was a noble beast, and her love and patience reflected something important about her Maker.

You can’t plan a pet like Vanilla. She was a gift to our family. All you can do is receive a gift like Vanilla with gratitude. God, help us to see the gifts in our lives, both past and present, and help us receive your gifts with gratitude.

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(A note a few days after this post: A friend gave me a link to a song by Benjamin Britten called "For I will consider my cat Jeoffry," from "Rejoice in the Lamb." Some of the words go like this: "He is the servant of the living God . . . he worships in his way . . . for he knows that God is his savior, for God has blessed him with the variety of his movements.")

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