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

Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

Saturday September 12 2015

Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

A friend forwarded me a wonderful blog post about good listening as a way to build relationships. Out of six pieces of advice about listening, the first item in the post suggests that good listeners should view themselves as detectives instead of tennis players who are waiting to hit the ball back as quickly as they can.

The author writes, “Rather than having to fake being interested, turning it into a detective game actually makes you interested. And this makes the other person feel special.”

Yes, yes, I totally agree, being a detective is a great idea. And I agree that the fruit of being a detective is that that other person usually feels valued. I have to disagree slightly with one point. Yes, it’s true we often become more interested as we listen carefully, but not always.

Here are some other good fruits of being a detective in conversations:

  • we learn things, often really interesting things
  • we are able to reflect back to the other person what we think we heard, which helps them clarify their thoughts
  • we give people the time and space to think out loud about how they might solve their own problems
  • we help people know they are not alone in their struggles, pain or joy

Being a conversational detective seems to me to be the absolutely right thing to do. But why, then, do so many people engage in conversation as if they were tennis players, waiting eagerly for their turn? What lies behind the willingness (or unwillingness) to be a detective? One or more of these significant attitudes has to be present in order for us to be willing to listen like a detective:

1. We have to believe that good listening shows love.

2. We have to desire to show love to the person we’re listening to.

3. We have to care enough about others to want them to be able to process out loud what’s going on in their lives, and we have to believe that the person can indeed get to their own solution if they work through the problem as they talk about it.

4. We have to believe we can learn something from others.

5. We have to believe that God is present in other people and will speak to us through them.

These are a big, big ask. We can’t assume people feel love for each other or want to learn from others. We can’t assume people understand that letting a person talk through their challenges actually helps the person meet those challenges. After all, often when people talk about painful things in their life it sounds like they’re just complaining.

Number 5 is possibly the biggest ask. I often use a quotation by Craig Satterlee about what he calls “holy listening.” It’s definitely worth pondering what might help us view listening as holy. Satterlee writes:

Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us. [1]

Satterlee’s description of holy listening has helped me think creatively in so many ways about listening, and I wrote more about that in an earlier blog post. Do I really believe God is embodied in the people around me? Even when they are poor listeners? Despite the time I spend thinking about listening as a holy activity, I still get so frustrated (and feel so unloving) when people talk and talk and talk. And I have to confess that I often lack several if not all of those perspectives I’ve labeled 1-5 above. Listening is hard work because love is a challenge in so many ways and in so many settings.

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[1] Adapted from When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transformation (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2005).


Other posts about listening on this blog:
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

Can novels teach? Should novels teach?

Thursday September 3 2015

Can novels teach? Should novels teach?

I’ve just had the interesting experience of watching my husband read my new novel, Death in Dunedin. His favorite aspect of the novel was the relationship between Lena, the guest minister of the church in the story, and two young women, Susanna and Holly, who are the “uni group” at the church. “Uni” is a New Zealand name for university. Susanna urges Holly to tell Lena about a trauma she experienced, and Lena listens to her quite well. The novel also features a scene where Lena prays for healing for Holly.

I have been passionate about good listening for most of my adult life. Back in the early 1990s I wrote an earlier book about Lena, Deadly Murmurs, and a major theme of that book was Lena’s ability to listen well. My passion for listening bore good fruit in my 2013 book, The Power of Listening.

When I edited Death in Dunedin in 2014, I wondered if I was too heavy handed – too “teachy” – on the subject of listening. Lena doesn’t go on long tirades about listening, but she mentions it a few times, and I created scenes where she would demonstrate good listening. I was so relieved that Dave felt the novel illustrated pastoral care vividly.

I wondered whether I had been too heavy handed or teachy about another topic as well. The parish council in Lena’s church is debating two proposals from elders. As the parish council discusses the proposals, I try to have the various elders talk about what it would mean for the congregation to be missional, to try to engage with God’s mission more deeply in a way that would be appropriate specifically for them. Dave didn’t comment on that issue, but a friend in New Zealand, Clare Ayers, did.

She said to me in an email that after she finished the book she found herself wondering, “What did the Church do to connect with its community?” In a review on she wrote, “There are a couple of intriguing plots bringing in theological beliefs within the contemporary community, raising questions that take the reader into profound depths and insights.” So maybe I wasn’t too “teachy” on the subject of congregational mission either.

Another friend and Presbyterian minister, Anne Thomson, wrote in an email that she felt motivated a couple of times reading the novel to take notes on things that were said. Anne said those words in a positive way.

Three weeks ago, I wrote about the difference between writing non-fiction and fiction. I am first and foremost a teacher, so I have to watch out for an overemphasis on teaching in the midst of what should be simply a good story. So I was very grateful for feedback from Dave, Clare and Anne.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve learned as I’ve read novels and how I learned it. What do you think? Can novels teach? Should novels teach? And how do they do it? I’d love to hear your observations about novels that have taught you something and how they did it.

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Location-specific prayer

Thursday August 27 2015

Location-specific prayer

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how I pray differently in different places. For the past eight years I’ve lived in Dunedin, New Zealand, a city of 120,000 people in a beautiful setting with water and mountains. Now I’m in Seattle for seven months, another city in a beautiful setting with water and mountains. Despite the similarities, I see the need for different prayers here than in Dunedin.

I read Dakota: A Spiritual Geography in 2001, soon after Kathleen Norris released it. In fact, I devoured it. She talked about how her spiritual life, her prayer life, was impacted by the place where she lived, South Dakota, and the people who lived there. At that time I was living in Seattle, and I realized how deeply my prayers were impacted by my sense of place. Mount Rainier has always been a lodestone to me, and the water and mountains speak to me of God’s creativity and majesty.

Now I’m thinking about my prayers in Seattle versus Dunedin in a different way. My spiritual geography of 2015 is calling me to make some shifts in prayer. Here are some examples:

1. Prayers for people who are far away versus prayers for people who are close by. My older son, his wife and daughter live in Seattle. My mother lives one hour away. My brother, his wife and my nephew live three hours away. My niece and her family live a few hours further away. When I’m here in Seattle I see these people with some regularity. When I’m in Dunedin I go months or years without seeing them. Praying for people close by is different in many ways than praying for people far away. Close by, I need to pray for my conversations with them. I need to ask God’s help for showing love to them by my actions when I’m with them. When I’m far away I pray for them differently, asking God to bless them and help them, asking God to help me to show love to them from a distance. Despite all the wonderful ways to communicate with people far away, love looks different from different distances, and so we need to pray specifically for God’s help in giving and receiving love based on location.

2. Prayers for specific location-based stressors. The traffic in Seattle is horrific. I find myself angry at someone in another car almost every day. I can see that I need to begin some entirely new prayer practices around this tendency to get angry so easily at the way other people drive. This is something we don’t deal with in Dunedin, where a “traffic jam” might involve 10 cars at an intersection. In Dunedin, my primary stressor is different. There, my major stress comes from living so far from so many people I love. I believe God will call us back to Seattle someday, and I need to trust God for the timing of that move and trust God for peace in living so far away. Identifying the major stressors in different places calls us to pray (and ask forgiveness) in location-specific ways.

I pray often for the rivers in New Zealand, because one of the biggest environmental issues on the South Island is the number of farmers switching from sheep to cows, and cows have a much bigger impact on the rivers. But what should I be praying for in Seattle related to caring for the earth? Politics is another arena where prayers for specific local issues vary from one place to the next.

What are the location-specific needs and issues that inform your prayers? In what ways do you pray differently in different places? In what ways do you need to?

(Watercolor of Discovery Park Lighthouse in Seattle by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive email notification when I post on this blog, please sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

The spiral upwards because of knowing God (and how to pray for it)

Friday August 21 2015

The spiral upwards because of knowing God (and how to pray for it)

Recently I got together with two old friends. We met 40 years ago next month! As old friends do, we talked about our children, our parents, our siblings. At some point, we moved onto the subject of praying for the needs of these central people in our lives. One of my friends enthused, “My favorite way to pray for the people in my family is to use that prayer from Colossians chapter 1, about being filled with the knowledge of God’s will in order to live lives worthy of the Lord. I pray it for my kids, and I often pray it for your kids, too. Sometimes I name one person at a time and pray the whole prayer for each person.”

She went on to say, “I even use those words to pray for non-Christians I know. After all, why wouldn’t it be good for them to be filled with wisdom so they can lead a life worthy of God?”

I think the prayer in Colossians 1 is deeply profound because it shows how, in the Christian life of faith, one thing builds on the next in a kind of spiral. Here’s the prayer:

We have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light (Colossians 1:9-12).

The Apostle Paul prays for the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. What’s the purpose of that? In order to lead lives worthy of the Lord, which pleases God and enables us to bear good fruit. But note the idea that comes right after bearing fruit: “and as you grow in the knowledge of God.”

Knowledge of God leads to a fruit-bearing life that pleases God, which involves further growth in the knowledge of God. It’s a spiral upwards.

Many of us are intimately acquainted with a spiral downwards. For me it looks like this: I eat too much, I feel angry at myself for eating too much, so I punish myself (or perhaps I’m soothing myself) by eating too much one more time. Then I feel bad, then I overeat some more. Down, down, down, until something interrupts the spiral.

My propensity for downward spirals has given me a great appreciation for the upward spiral described in Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1. Knowledge of God leads to good fruit which leads to further knowledge of God. Strength, endurance, patience, joy and thankfulness play a role in this spiral, as Paul indicates in the remainder of the prayer.

It’s worth noting that Paul was speaking out of his deep study of Jewish tradition. Remember that in the world of the Old Testament, the word “knowledge” didn’t refer only to concepts and abstract ideas. “Knowledge” was experiential and relational. A man “knew” his wife, a way of describing sexual intercourse (for example in Genesis 4:1).

The “knowledge of God’s will” that Paul refers to involves our whole being: heart, soul, mind and strength. We can pray for it for ourselves and others using the words from Paul’s prayer, and we can enter into a life-giving and joyous upward spiral.

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Creating alongside God

Friday August 14 2015

Creating alongside God

This week I published a novel, a murder mystery set in Dunedin, New Zealand, my adopted home town. The title is Death in Dunedin. Like me, the main character, Lena, is a Presbyterian minister from Seattle who moves to Dunedin, New Zealand. Her story diverges from mine pretty dramatically at that point. She’s on a church exchange, and soon after her arrival she finds a dead man in the church parking lot.

Since I normally write non-fiction, I want to spend a little time reflecting on the differences between writing fiction and non-fiction.

I LOVE studying something and then helping someone else learn it. I might help them learn by leading a discussion on the subject and steering the discussion in the direction that I think will help people grasp the content. That’s my primary teaching style. I also love explaining things clearly to help people learn. I view this attribute – loving to learn and then loving to help others learn the same material – as the key component of the spiritual gift of teaching (mentioned in Romans 12:7 and Ephesians 4:11). I believe teaching is my primary spiritual gift, and I believe I use that gift when in the classroom and in my writing.

So my style of writing non-fiction comes from my spiritual gift of teaching. I value clarity above all else. I want to help people see things more clearly and think more deeply.

Fiction is something different. Sure, I still value clarity in my fiction, but fiction mirrors God’s creativity in a way that writing non-fiction doesn’t. Theologians say that God created ex nihilo, meaning from nothing. Because humans have to use something in the created world in order to make something else from it, theologians say we cannot possibly create ex nihilo.

I agree with that statement theologically, but on a visceral level when I write fiction I feel that I am creating ex nihilo in a way that reflects God’s creativity. With non-fiction, I take ideas I have learned from books and interviews, and I synthesize them, organize them and clarify them. Writing non-fiction definitely doesn’t feel like creation ex nihilo.

With fiction, sure I’m taking words that I didn’t create and I’m using them to build a story. But my characters and what happens to them come out of my imagination. In fact, they seem to come to me from nothing. They are just there in my head. When I get an idea for a character and when that character’s actions and words come to me, it feels like I’m creating ex nihilo alongside God in a very, very small way. It’s the coolest feeling, thrilling and full of passion.

It’s clear to me that I write non-fiction better than fiction. But hey, my non-fiction is quite good (speaking in attempted modesty), so maybe my fiction is pretty good. Back in the early 90s I wrote 8 short stories and 4 novels. I’ve already revised and published two of those novels (Dead Sea and Deadly Murmurs). The novel I published this week was written in 2009, two years after we moved to New Zealand. The main character, Lena (also the heroine of Deadly Murmurs), enjoys learning things about New Zealand and explaining them clearly in blog posts (like me) but she is also intrepid physically with lots of energy for kind-hearted interchanges with people (unlike me).

I’m hoping to revise the other two novels I wrote twenty years ago and publish them, and I’d also like to publish a collection of my short stories. Someday.

Meanwhile, I’d encourage you to think about the forms of creativity that fill you with joy and that help you experience that feeling of creating alongside God, even if it’s in a very small way. Human creativity in myriad forms is one of the joys of life, and I think that’s because it helps us feel God’s companionship in a unique way.

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