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

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Friday January 16 2015

Money, generosity and transformation into Christ’s image

Money was my father’s joy in life. He loved earning it, and he especially loved investing it and managing it. My bedtime stories in elementary school involved tales of how compound interest works and why it is so wonderful. Dinner conversation in my teen years involved lessons about the Fed and how its actions impact inflation. When I took economics 101 in college, I was bored out of my mind. Doesn’t everybody know this stuff, I wondered. Don’t their fathers teach them?

As you can imagine, my father’s teaching about money impacted me profoundly. In my teen years, I was very, very careful with money, tracking every penny I earned, spent and saved. After I became a Christian at 19, I learned that financial generosity is a part of Christian living. I learned that Jesus said we cannot serve God and money. I felt that my world view was being subjected to an earthquake.

I can vividly remember the first time I put a ten dollar bill into an offering basket. I was 20 or 21. The offering was being taken at a student conference, and it would go for student missionary work overseas. As I put the money in the basket, I felt as if my heart was being torn out of my chest.  

At 22 I got my first full time job. I felt led by God to tithe, to give away 10% of what earned before taxes. I had a very small salary, so 10% wasn’t a very big sum of money (a good thing), but it felt like I was breaking everything I learned from my father about money (a painful thing). Two years later, I got married. My husband and I made the same decision about tithing.

We have tended to give 5% of our income to our local church and the other 5% to friends who missionaries and to microloans through Opportunity International. For a period of time in the early 2000s, we had a much higher income than we had ever had before, so we gave away more than 10%.

I have learned that many New Testament scholars and theologians do not believe that the Bible instructs Christian to tithe. Perhaps not. But the regular and consistent giving away of a set percentage of my income has shaped me. I still enjoy managing money, just like my father taught me. But I see clearly that generosity with money (and with time and possessions as well) reflects the generous heart of God revealed in Jesus. I’m so grateful that the selfish and self-absorbed girl who once struggled to put $10 into an offering basket has been transformed into a woman who enjoys acts of generosity, at least some of the time.

Part of the reason why we can’t serve God and money is that focusing on money too much removes generosity from our hearts, and generosity is close to the heart of God. “For you know the generous act* of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9, NRSV). When we serve or worship money, we are not allowing ourselves to be transformed into the image of Christ the Generous One. Tithing, more than any other thing I have done, has shaped me into a person who has moments of reflecting Christ’s generosity.

In addition, as my friend Steve Simon told me one time, God tells us to give because it builds our trust in God as our provider and because it keeps us from being enslaved to the god of More. I believe tithing sets up a structure that shapes us into people who trust God to provide and who resist the power of the god of More. At any time, a structure can become an end in itself and a source of pride and arrogance, and I’m sure in some cases tithing gets warped that way. However, if we tithe with the goal of growing in reflecting God’s generosity, increasing in trusting God and resisting the powers that tell us more is better, over the long haul this spiritual practice can be a significant source of transformation into the image of Jesus Christ. That’s what it’s been in my life.

Tithing is a spiritual practice or a spiritual discipline, and Lent, which begins February 18, is a great time to think about trying new spiritual practices. I encourage you to think about experimenting with a new spiritual discipline during Lent this year. You might enjoy an article I wrote entitled “I’m excited about spiritual disciplines.”

(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.)

Two little coins: the God of very small things

Tuesday October 14 2014

Two little coins: the God of very small things

On one memorable night in high school, I watched a world record being set for the 100 yard backstroke. The swimmer, Kaye Hall, went on to be an Olympic gold medalist. When I saw her on TV during the Olympics, it was fun to remember that night that I watched her swim in person.

The event took place in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, Washington, in the context of a high school boys swim meet. The warm-up was my first clue that something amazing was about to happen. Most of the high school boys were swimming freestyle laps to warm up for their events. Kaye Hall was on her back, warming up her backstroke kick, and she was moving through the water about half again as fast as the boys.

I’ll never forget that sight. Using only her legs, she was powering her body through the water much, much faster than the boys, sliding past everyone in the surrounding lanes. Backstroke with arms is generally not as fast as freestyle, yet she was so strong and so well trained that she could do a backstroke kick, passing freestylers using their arms and legs.

We sat through some of the typical events of a high school swim meet, and then it was Kaye’s turn. She swam 100 yards of backstroke all alone in the pool, and when she finished, the announcer said that a new world record had been set.

Recently, I've been thinking about that night. To see such excellence was a privilege. But I wonder how those boys in the lanes next to hers felt as they warmed up. I also wonder how they felt when they swam their races that night. Did think their races were silly and meaningless, because they weren’t Olympic class? Because they weren’t setting world records?

I believe that one of the most significant spiritual practices in daily life is to offer to God what we are, what we have and what we can do. Sometimes we are reluctant to act because we feel what we have to contribute is so small. Not Olympic class. Not remarkable. Just ordinary.

In an odd little incident in Mark 12:41-44, Jesus pointed out a woman to his disciples. She was putting two small coins into the treasury at the temple. Jesus knew she was giving a lot; her gift represented more than the sums the wealthy people gave. She gave “everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Perhaps, on that night in a high school swimming pool in Tacoma, one of those high school boys performed even more heroically than Kaye Hall. Perhaps one of those boys was even more courageous than Kaye as he swam his race. I’ll never know. But I do know that my job each day is to offer what I have to God, even if it feels pitifully small and insignificant.

(This post originally appears on the Thoughtful Christian's Gathering Voices blog. If you'd like to receive an email update when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column where it says "subscribe.")

Hearing God's voice

Thursday September 25 2014

Hearing God's voice

I used to have a joke that expressed my longing to hear God’s voice clearly. When I wanted to know what to do in a specific situation, I used to say I wished that God would hire a cute little plane to sky-write guidance for me.

On the one hand, it’s great to long to hear God’s voice. But on the other hand, I now see it as a bit lazy to long for God to sky-write. Here are some thoughts about why:

Throughout the centuries, Christians have heard God’s voice in a variety of ways, and many Christians have written down their experiences and advice about hearing God. On the one hand, they talk about God’s voice or a sense of God’s nudging coming in surprising, unexpected moments during daily life. And on the other hand, they talk about God’s voice or God’s nudging coming in the midst of consistent spiritual practices that make space to hear that voice.

We must always affirm that nothing we can do can make God speak to us; God’s voice to us through the Holy Spirit is wildly free and beautifully unexpected. However we can adopt a posture of listening that makes it more likely we will hear God when God speaks. And that posture of listening requires intentional effort, even discipline. What are some of the spiritual practices people through the ages have talked about in connection with hearing God’s voice?

1. Reading, studying, praying and meditating on the Bible, both alone and in company with others. The Bible is called “God’s Word” for a reason. All engagement with the Bible is good, but many of us come out of traditions that primarily emphasize engaging the mind. Many of us need to grow in engaging the heart and slowing down so we can hear God’s voice through scripture. Two prayer practices that engage both mind and heart are lectio divina and praying the Psalms and other prayers in the Bible.

2. Praying in many different ways, both alone and in company with others. All forms of prayer can help us hear God’s voice. Silence in prayer is indispensible for helping us learn to listen. Prayer practices like walking the labyrinth or praying while walking outdoors can help us engage our bodies as well as our minds and hearts.

3. Fasting, both alone and in company with others. Throughout most of Christian history, and in Africa, Asia and South and Central American today, Christians expect to hear God’s voice when they fast. People who have a history of eating disorders should not fast from food in any form, and today fasting can involve stopping media, electronic devices, music, shopping, and many other aspects of daily life, as well as stopping eating all food or certain food items. I have heard dozens of stories about how God has spoken during a fast.

4. Hospitality. I can remember the first time I heard that Mother Teresa expected to meet Christ as she encountered people in need. I remember being stunned at that idea. Since then I’ve read many times about the ways Christ is present in friend and stranger in hospitality settings, and God can speak to us powerfully there.

5. Spiritual Direction. The purpose of spiritual direction is to take time in the company of a guide, the spiritual director, to examine our lives and discern God’s presence and God’s guidance.

My skywriting wishes, at their worst, reflect a desire not to have to do any patterns of consistent discipline in order to slow down and make space to hear God’s voice. Saints through the ages tell us that we hear God’s voice  unexpectedly as we go about our lives, but that we also grow in ability to hear God’s voice as we make space to listen by engaging in spiritual practices that require consistent effort.

(If you'd like to get an email every time I post something on this blog, go over to the right column under "subscribe" and sign up. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Consensus Versus Discernment

Friday September 5 2014

Consensus Versus Discernment

Spiritual practices—various forms of prayer and Bible study, and other practices as well—can play a significant role in congregational discernment. In a time when congregations are dealing with unprecedented challenges—ethnic shifts in neighborhoods, dwindling financial resources, changes in family patterns, less time available for volunteering, and an increasingly secular society—discernment has become a central issue. What is God calling us to do? What unique contribution can we, in this specific congregation, make in our community? In the wider world?

If we want to be missional congregations, engaging with God’s mission in the world, modeling ourselves after the incarnational ministry of Jesus, these questions are vital. We need to hear the Holy Spirit’s guidance about exactly what we are called to do in our community and in the wider world. We need to grow in our ability to discern the difference between a good idea and the right idea, the direction where God is calling us to walk.

The question of discernment has come into view because of another issue as well. Many congregational leaders are tired of church organization being conducted by Robert’s Rules of Order. They quite rightly rebel against a kind of dualism that views worship and small groups as spiritual, while leadership of the church is treated like business. Either God is present in everything we do, and we expect God’s guidance in all our activities, or we are engaging in hypocrisy.

Some leadership boards in congregations have moved beyond Robert’s Rules of Order to embrace a process of consensus building, and consensus has many advantages over voting. Consensus involves discussion leading to general agreement about a conclusion or decision. This process is often slower than voting on a decision after only brief discussion, but it usually results in a greater degree of ownership by participants, and it provides the opportunity to deal with resistance earlier than when decisions are made by voting.

Often consensus building among congregational leaders centers on meeting the greatest number of needs or desires. The focus is on what we need and want. In contrast, discernment is radically different because it focuses on listening for God’s voice and guidance through the Holy Spirit. Discernment is grounded in the presupposition that our lives and our ministry belong to God, and that God’s Spirit will guide us into decisions that reflect God’s will and values. Our needs and desires need to be considered, but they are neither the starting point nor the primary motivator.

Both consensus and discernment require carefully listening to everyone involved, so the process is similar. In fact, consensus plays a role in the discernment process, as a group tries to come to a conclusion about what they are together hearing from God. The kind of consensus that plays a role in discernment involves the following:

  • Being willing to speak what we think we might be hearing from God
  • Listening carefully to others
  • Paraphrasing or summarizing what we think we hear others saying
  • Making sure quiet people have the opportunity to speak, and
  • Pausing from time to time to pray or reflect.

How do we arrive at consensus through discernment? Spiritual practices help us remember who God is and who we are, an essential first step. They give a foundation for peace and resting in God. They help us keep our roots in Christ. Engaging in centering prayer or the prayer of examen together, practicing lectio divina as a leadership group, or spending a long time in thankfulness prayers can get a process of discernment off to a good start because they remind us who we are and Whose we are. They remove the dualism of viewing worship as spiritual while dismissing planning as business as usual. They set the stage for a listening process.

In addition, spiritual practices can play a role in the middle or later stages of a process of discernment. In different ways, spiritual practices help groups of Christians discern what God is up to, the key component of all stages of discernment. One church member remarked that spiritual practices are “like cleaning my glasses,” restoring fresh and clear vision. Having clean glasses makes a valuable contribution to discernment at any stage.

(This post originally appeared on the Gathering Voices blog.)

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

Saturday July 19 2014

The Lord's Prayer and Spiritual Practices, part 2

As an adult, I have seldom prayed the Lord’s Prayer as a part of my personal prayer life, and I have not been in churches that use it regularly. Therefore, I simply haven’t thought of it very often. Earlier this year, a local minister asked me to preach as a part of his series on the Lord’s Prayer. Could I please do a sermon on how the Lord’s Prayer might inform our spiritual practices, he asked. So I began pondering that question.

In my first post on this topic, I wrote about the invitation to intimacy conveyed by the prayer. In this post I want to ponder the intercessory portion of the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one” (Matthew 5:11-13, NRSV).

I’m struck, right off, by the simplicity of this prayer. In a consumer age, when we are assaulted by ceaseless advertisements designed to create desire, this prayer is lean and spare, focused on essential needs. These intercessions, recommended by Jesus, make me want to be sure my prayers are focused on what really matters – what I need – and not on what the consumer culture tells me I want.

Two spiritual practices that have helped me detach from the consumer culture the most are Sabbath keeping and fasting.* Keeping a Sabbath gives me a day off every week from striving, from pushing hard, from believing I am essential and necessary. That step back from my everyday life enables me to separate needs from wants more easily. Fasting – from food or from other things like entertainment media, electronic devices, or shopping – creates space for prayer and clear thinking and for understanding my need for God.

The Lord’s Prayer also indicates the high priority Jesus puts on forgiveness. In an age when many church worship services no longer include a confession of sin, we need to make time in our personal prayer life to acknowledge our sin to God. This can happen silently in prayer alone, in prayer times with family members or small groups, while journaling or walking or singing a song about forgiveness. Confessing sin with some regularity requires intentional effort in our self-focused world.

Jesus couples two things: asking God for forgiveness and forgiving others. The first is challenging, and the second is sometimes next to impossible, which reveals our need for God’s help. These requests in the Lord’s Prayer trigger in me an awareness of my deep need for God. I need God’s help to know how to pray and what to pray for, to grow in praying in ways consistent with God’s priorities and not centered only on my own desires. I need God’s help to face my sins and particularly to forgive others. I need God’s help to desire not to follow evil paths.

What are the spiritual practices in your life that help you acknowledge and express your need for God? Which spiritual practices help you take steps to forgive others? In what setting do you pray most readily for forgiveness? In what ways do your prayers reflect your own needs, and the needs of others, and in what ways do your prayers reflect your desires? Which spiritual practices help you resist the consumer culture? These are just a few of the questions I think about when I read or pray the intercessions in the Lord’s Prayer.

(*If you'd like to learn more about the Sabbath or Fasting, I've written a book on each of those topics: Sabbath Keeping and Fasting: Spiritual Freedom Beyond Our Appetites. I've also written numerous articles about those two spiritual practices, which you can find on the articles page of this website. The Lord's Prayer and spiritual practices, part 1, is available here. If you like this post, you can sign up for email notices every time I post something on this blog. The place to sign up is at the bottom of the right hand column on this webpage. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. )

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