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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On Pentecost, let's ponder the Holy Spirit

Saturday May 19 2018

On Pentecost, let's ponder the Holy Spirit

We celebrate Pentecost this Sunday, the day when we remember the coming of the Holy Spirit to the people gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival. You can read about it in Acts 2 (which you can access here.) Almost two millennia after Pentecost, we benefit every day from the presence of the Holy Spirit with us.

One of my seminary professor called the Holy Spirit the “shy” member of the Trinity. This professor was referring to the fact that the Holy Spirit’s role is to bring glory to the Father and the Son. Thus the Holy Spirit is the least visible person of the Trinity.

I invite you to ponder with me the role of the Holy Spirit in various Christian spiritual practices, to shine some light on this “shy” person in the Trinity.

Bible reading and meditation. The Holy Spirit opens our eyes and ears so we can see God more clearly through the words on the pages of the Bible. The Spirit also helps us apply the passage to our lives, helping us see the relevance of the words to our exact setting and context.

Intercessory prayer. The Holy Spirit guides us to pray for the things God values, giving us eyes to see God’s priorities and purposes. The Spirit helps us to see the places God is working so we can join our prayers with God’s current activity and priorities. In addition, the Spirit brings people to mind who need our prayers and helps us remember specific situations where God’s presence is needed.

Prayers of confession. The Holy Spirit brings to mind our sins and shortcomings, and reminds us of God’s forgiveness when we confess our sins.

Praise of praise and thankfulness. The Holy Spirit helps us see God’s gifts in our daily life and reminds us of the big picture of God’s creation and redemption of the world.

Prayers of lament. The Holy Spirit grieves over the brokenness of the world and invites us into that grief and sorrow.

Various  forms of silent prayer. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in silence, bringing to mind truths about God and speaking that truth into our situations.

Worship. All that I’ve mentioned above illustrates how the Holy Spirit enables us to engage in worship, both alone and with others.

Fasting. The Holy Spirit gives us guidance of when to fast, what to fast from, strength and endurance during the fast, and guidance in what to pray for during the fast.

Sabbath keeping. The Holy Spirit calls us into rest, reassuring us that God is keeping the world going even when we are not participating. The Spirit gives peace and the ability to trust into God’s hands the things we could be doing but aren’t.

Communal spiritual practices. The Holy Spirit draws people together and provides love for one another. The Spirit guides and empowers groups of people as well as individuals.

Gordon Fee wrote a wonderful book about the Holy Spirit called God’s Empowering Presence. For Pentecost this year, I invite you to ponder that title. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence with us. What does God do in us? Empower us to hear God’s voice, empower us to receive God’s direction, empower us to persevere in following that direction, empower us to rest in God’s goodness and grace, and more. The Holy Spirit is God present with us in dozens of ways that empower us.

I’ve listed some of the ways God, through the Holy Spirit, is present with us and empowers us as we engage in spiritual practices. I’m sure you can think of more ways.

Jesus says to his disciples in the Upper Room, the night he was betrayed: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you” (John 16:13, 14, NRSV).

A prayer related to the Holy Spirit from the Book of Common Prayer: “O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

(Next week: the first post in a new series on contrasts in the Christian life. Next week I’ll focus on peace versus shalom. 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.)

Some earlier Pentecost posts on this blog:

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

Saturday May 12 2018

An AHA moment on Mother’s Day

The setting: a worship service on Mother’s Day

The AHA moment: the prayer that gave permission for people to struggle on that day

About 20 years ago on Mother’s Day, my good friend and colleague was leading the prayer time in the worship service. Over the years, I had sat through many prayers on Mother’s Day that expressed thanks to God for mothers, a good thing to do.

This was the first time I heard a prayer that expressed those appropriate thanks to God, but also acknowledged that Mother’s Day is hard for some people. My friend mentioned couples who struggle with infertility or had lost a child, women who were single and wished to be married and have children, and those who had difficult relationships with their own mothers or their children.

It truly was an AHA moment for me. For various reasons I had never liked Mother’s Day very much, and here was someone naming some of my ambivalence and struggle. Her words conveyed such freedom and acceptance to me.

Right now I’m teaching an online class for Hope International University on leading communal spiritual practices. In some of our online discussion we have talked about the fact that all leaders of communal spiritual practices need to lay out the goal and structure of various practices with optimism for the great experience spiritual practices offer. However, at the same time, leaders need to affirm that people come into those practices with diverse feelings, and they will have different experiences as they engage in the practices as well.

As leaders in any setting, we have to make room for people to talk about, pray about, and think about their gratitude for the great blessings they experience, as well as the sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings they experience. Both are real. Both sets of feelings can and should be brought into God’s presence.

With respect to motherhood, I suspect most mothers have at least some mixed feelings, no matter how much they appreciate the gift of children. In the previous paragraph, I mentioned feelings of great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings. I suspect that most mothers experience all of those at various times when they think about their children. I know I did when my children were still living at home. Sometimes I still do.

Many people have experienced great blessing, sadness, sense of loss, and unfulfilled longings related to their relationship (or lack thereof) with their own mother.

What does it look like in Christian spirituality to praise God for the good gifts we experience and also allow honest expression of the thoughts and emotions we consider to be negative? What does it look like to encourage thankfulness and praise, while also giving people permission to pray and talk about the struggles?

And what does it look like for someone who loves Mother’s Day to make room for those who experience the day as a mixed blessing? And vice versa?

The Psalms provide a powerful model for the movement between thanks, praise, sadness, anger, loss, and lament. I’ve been praying the Psalms for many years, and the variety of emotions in the Psalms has helped me bring my own mixed and complex emotions into God’s presence so many times.

But what about those emotions expressed in the Psalms that we’re not feeling? Someone once told me that whenever we come across an emotion in a psalm that we’re not feeling, we can pray that verse on behalf of the people around the world who are having that experience.

I wonder if we could adopt that strategy on Mother’s Day. In prayer, we can express our own emotions about the day, but we can also enter into the feelings of those who experience the day differently. The Psalms model God’s welcome of everything we feel, as well as God’s compassion for those whose experience is different from ours.

(Next week: Let’s thank the Holy Spirit. 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. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

One year ago on this blog: the blog post series that got more comments on the blog and on Facebook than any other series I've written. It focuses on the spiritual practice, new to me at that time, of separating thoughts from feelings. That spiritual practice is still hugely important to me. The first post is here, and you can click "next" at the end of the post to get to the next one. The series has five posts.

Nature speaks about God: The Bible and nature

Friday May 4 2018

Nature speaks about God: The Bible and nature

In our Seattle church, children bring flowers on Easter Sunday, mostly daffodils and tulips, with a few hot house flowers like carnations thrown in. The flowers are inserted in a cross specially designed for Easter. At my friend’s church in Oamaru, New Zealand, children also bring flowers on Easter to place on a cross. Because Easter is in the late summer in the Southern Hemisphere, the flowers are mostly roses and dahlias.

Different flowers, different seasons, different locations. Same God, same Easter, same celebration of Jesus’ triumph over death.

The cross speaks of Good Friday, Jesus’ sacrifice for us, and God’s great redemption of the world through Jesus’ obedience and love. The flowers speak of seasonal beauty. In the Northern Hemisphere, the daffodils speak of new life in the spring. In the Southern Hemisphere, the late summer flowers speak of abundance and rich fullness of life.

These flower crosses are a good illustration of a profound truth. God reveals God’s nature and character to us in two major ways: through the wonder of the created world and through the Holy Scriptures of the New and Old Testament.

Nature speaks of her Creator. I’ve been writing weekly posts for more than two months about how God has spoken to me through nature, and you can see a list of all those posts below.

The Bible also speaks about who God is and what God does. God's speech through the Bible is very focused and specific. Through the Bible, we learn the story God’s work through the nation of Israel. We learn about God’s law, the prophets who spoke of God’s truth, and the kings who led God’s people. Through the Bible we learn about Jesus’ coming to earth, his death on the cross, his glorious resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit. Without the Bible, the voice of nature is pretty general, diffuse and vague.

Theologians have a name for these two kinds of revelation about God. “General revelation” refers to God’s revelation through nature. “Special revelation” refers to God’s specific and particular revelation through the Bible.

These two kinds of revelation are visible in Psalm 19, vividly portrayed in The Message translation:

 God’s glory is on tour in the skies,
    God-craft on exhibit across the horizon.
Madame Day holds classes every morning,
    Professor Night lectures each evening.
Their words aren’t heard,
    their voices aren’t recorded,
But their silence fills the earth:
    unspoken truth is spoken everywhere. . . .

The revelation of Godis whole
    and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of Godare clear
    and point out the right road.
The life-maps of Godare right,
    showing the way to joy.
The directions of Godare plain
    and easy on the eyes.
God’s reputation is twenty-four-carat gold,
    with a lifetime guarantee.
The decisions of God are accurate
    down to the nth degree.
God’s Word is better than a diamond,
    better than a diamond set between emeralds.
You’ll like it better than strawberries in spring,
    better than red, ripe strawberries.
There’s more: God’s Word warns us of danger
    and directs us to hidden treasure.
Otherwise how will we find our way? —Psalm 19:1-4, 7-11, The Message

In one of my earlier posts, I wrote about how my perception of God’s voice through nature changed after I became a Christian. My knowledge of God through the Bible shaped the way I heard God speak through nature.

As this series comes to an end, I encourage you to continue to ponder the voice of God through nature. Compare and contrast what you “hear” about God’s character and actions in nature and in the Bible. What do you hear about who God is? How God views you? How you are called to respond today?

(Next week: An AHA moment on Mother’s Day. Illustration: An Easter flower cross in Oamaru, New Zealand, on the left and an Easter cross in Seattle on the right. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

This is the tenth and final post in a series on the ways God speaks through nature. Previous posts:

The first time nature to spoke to me about God         
Mountains and clouds on Easter               
Algae and stars       
Tropical fish in the Red Sea         
Jesus in a boat on Greenlake         
The feeling of God’s absence         
Familiar and unfamiliar landscapes        
The miracle of trees        
Patterns in God's speech

Nature speaks about God: Patterns in God’s speech

Friday April 27 2018

Nature speaks about God: Patterns in God’s speech

When we think about the ways God speaks through nature, a key passage is Psalm 119:1-4:

“The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.”

The first verse tells us the content of the words: the glory of God. The remaining verses describe the nature of the speech. It goes spreads to the end of the earth, speaking without words or audible voice.

What do the speechless words say? That God has glory? Anything else about God’s glory?

Romans 1:19-21 is the second key passage related to this topic. “Them” in the passage refers to “those who by their wickedness suppress the truth” (verse 18).

 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened.”

So the heavens (from Psalm 19:1) and all things God has made (Romans 1:20), speak of God’s eternal power and divine nature. The Romans passage makes clear that these attributes of God are invisible, yet they become visible in the things God has made. What is the appropriate response to what is revealed through the creation? Honoring God as God and giving thanks to God (Romans 1:21).

I’ve been writing about the ways God has spoken to me through nature, giving examples in the eight previous posts in this series. I started the series because I wanted to explore some specific memories of God speaking to me through nature. What I’ve learned from writing these posts has been quite surprising. I’ve been surprised by

1. How clear it is that before I was a Christian, God’s voice through nature was quite diffuse and general. “There’s something more than this physical word,” Mount Rainier seemed to say to me when I was 15.

2. How God’s voice through nature became so much more focused after I became a Christian and was reading the Bible regularly. My first Easter Sunday as a Christian, the clouds moving up a mountainside spoke to me of God’s resurrection and God’s upward call to us in Christ.

3. How God’s voice to me through nature is often quite metaphorical. Those clouds floating upward functioned as metaphors for the resurrection. Mount Rainier’s disappearance into clouds is a metaphor for the feeling of God’s absence even though I know God is still there. The three birch trees in my back yard that looked like young girls dancing were a metaphor for our joy in God’s presence.

4. How nature helps me imagine Jesus as a man who spent a lot of time outdoors. I wrote about my practice for many years of imagining Jesus in a boat on Greenlake, and I handed him my sorrows and fears. This picture of “Outdoor Jesus,” who enjoyed nature and who spent time with his Father outdoors in the early morning, is something I’d never thought about before.

I invite you this week to ponder the speech of God through nature to you. What new things does that speech reveal to you about God?

(Next week: harmonizing God’s voice through nature and the Bible. 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.)

This is the ninth post in a series on the ways God speaks through nature. Previous posts:

The first time nature to spoke to me about God         
Mountains and clouds on Easter               
Algae and stars       
Tropical fish in the Red Sea         
Jesus in a boat on Greenlake         
The feeling of God’s absence         
Familiar and unfamiliar landscapes        
The miracle of trees          

Nature speaks about God: The miracle of trees

Thursday April 19 2018

Nature speaks about God: The miracle of trees

I have always loved trees. They speak to me of God’s creativity, complexity, beauty and provision.

In high school, we had three young birch trees in our back yard. To me, they looked like young girls dancing, reflecting the joy of living in God’s beautiful world.

As a university student, I took hundreds of photos of the sun shining through trees. I particularly admired the translucence of maple leaves backlit by the sun, speaking to me of the beauty of the Light of the World.

I often remember the trees from places I’ve traveled. The first time I travelled to New Mexico and Colorado in the fall, the round, golden aspen leaves made me gasp with pleasure. The trees looked like they were covered with gold coins, a picture of God’s rich beauty and abundance.

The eucalyptus trees in Australia were a revelation. I had always loved the smell of eucalyptus trees when I visited Northern California, but I thought “eucalyptus” referred to one kind of tree. In Australia, dozens of species of eucalyptus fill the streets and parks, each species with a slightly different color or shape. Of the 700 species of eucalyptus in the world, most are native to Australia. Seeing all those different kinds of eucalyptus trees made me feel like a kid in a candy shop of trees, all of them intricately created by the Maker of all beauty.

Trees are used throughout the Bible as metaphors for various aspects of faith. The tree planted by streams of water in Psalm 1 bears fruit in its season and has green leaves even in a drought. Who is like that tree? A person who loves God, does what is right, and meditates on God’s law day and night.

The vision of God’s abundance described in Isaiah 55:12 talks about joy and peace, which will be so powerful that the mountains will sing and “all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” I read that verse for the first time as a very young Christian, during my photographing-trees-in-the-sun phase, and I posted the verse on my bulletin board because it was so vivid and joyous.

In John’s vision of heaven, recounted in Revelation 21 and 22, the river of life flows through the city, with the tree of life growing beside it, “and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:2). The nations so desperately need God’s healing, and I wonder if those healing leaves will perhaps look like golden aspen leaves or like maple leaves with the sun shining through them.

Trees take simple ingredients from the air and soil – carbon dioxide, water, and minerals – and turn them into sturdy branches, shimmering leaves, delicious fruit, and precious oxygen. Because humans and other mammals breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, trees give balance, providing the oxygen that is essential for human life. Without trees, the rising carbon dioxide level of the air would make life impossible for two reasons: lack of oxygen for mammals to breathe and ever increasing temperatures caused by carbon dioxide’s greenhouse effect.

Arbor Day focuses on planting trees, these miracles of beauty and oxygen. The first known Arbor Day was celebrated in 1594 in Spain. The United States celebrates Arbor Day on April 27, and many other countries have their own Arbor Day.

Between now and Arbor Day, look out your window or go outside and enjoy the trees that you can see. Plant a tree. Draw a tree. Photograph a tree. And don’t forget to thank God for trees.

For further reflection:

The Arbor Day Foundation provides a wonderful webpage showing the benefits of trees. Take a look here.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How they Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben will blow your mind. Did you ever think that trees communicate with each other? They do it through chemicals they release into the wind and through fungi and other plants in the earth.

(Next week: patterns in the way God speaks to us. Illustration: eucalyptus trees in Field National Park, Tasmania, Australia,  watercolor 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.)

This is the eighth post in a series on the ways God speaks through nature. Previous posts:

The first time nature to spoke to me about God         
Mountains and clouds on Easter               
Algae and stars       
Tropical fish in the Red Sea         
Jesus in a boat on Greenlake         
The feeling of God’s absence         
Familiar and unfamiliar landscapes        

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