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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Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

Thursday August 15 2019

Creative prayer: The Psalms and music

The Psalms have often been called the prayer book of the Bible. They help us pray even when we don’t feel like it, and they teach us to pray in new ways. They bring us into God’s presence in whatever mood we’re feeling. They are honest, vivid and sometimes raw.

I wrote last week about my friend Steve Simon’s wonderful book, Holy Walks. (I’m linking to the book on amazon. For my overseas readers, it’s also available at the Book Depository with much cheaper postage.) In the book, Steve describes the way he memorizes psalms as he walks his dog and then prays the psalms he has memorized.

I want to suggest that music can be a wonderful accompaniment to praying the psalms. While walking, sometimes I sing a psalm or hymn based on a psalm – aloud or in my head. I also listen to musical versions of the psalms in my car, and I sing them in my head at night when trying to get to sleep.

I have three suggestions for music to accompany praying the psalms.

1. An Australian band, the Sons of Korah, who sing the psalms word for word. I have all their CDs and have listened to them in the car so much that I find myself singing the words to various psalms using their tunes.

The leader of the band, Matthew Jacoby, has a PhD in philosophy and theology, and has written a book, Deeper Places: Experiencing God in the Psalms.

My favorite Sons of Korah song is Psalm 93, “The Seas have Lifted Up.” On YouTube, you can listen to their recording of the song here, or watch them playing a longer version in concert here.

Some of my other favorite Sons of Korah songs are Psalm 17, Psalm 51, Psalm 91, and Psalm 99. You can find many others on YouTube. Check out their website for more information.

2. Hymns that are paraphrases of psalms. The well-known hymn, “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven,” is a paraphrase of Psalm 103. There’s an additional verse of the hymn that is left out of almost every hymnbook, which summarizes verses 15 to 19 of the psalm and should be the fourth verse, before the verse about angels. I think it’s crazy to skip this verse, because the flow of the psalm is interrupted. Besides, I love the imagery of the flower flourishing, then it is gone.

Frail as summer's flower we flourish,
Blows the wind and it is gone;
But while mortals rise and perish
God endures unchanging on,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise Him, praise Him,
Praise the High Eternal One!

Another wonderful hymn is the “The Spacious Firmament on High,” which paraphrases Psalm 19:1-4. I love the concluding line: “The hand that made us is divine.” I always want to shout those words!

Some hymnbooks are explicit about which hymns are connected to psalms.

3. Praise songs that paraphrase psalms or sing them word for word. I looked around on YouTube, searching for some of my favorite psalms, and I found a wide variety. Here’s a version of Psalm 139 that illustrates a common pattern: some of the words are directly from the psalm, some are paraphrased, and some are added. For Psalm 23, here’s a version that uses the words of the psalm without changing them or adding to them. If you do a search for some of your favorite psalms, you’ll find an astonishing – and fun – array of musical styles.

Music helps us remember words, so that alone is enough reason to seek out musical versions of the psalms. Music also captures so many moods, and since the Psalms express so many different emotions, it’s interesting and sometimes enlightening to see which mood musicians choose to express when they write tunes to the words of psalms. And for many Christians, music is a heart language for prayer. Why not sing the Psalms when we draw near to God?

Next week: creative prayer using color. Illustration is the cover to Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms (available from amazon and also the Book Depository, with cheaper overseas postage), which I highly recommend. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column (for laptops).  

Some previous posts on the Psalms:

Creative prayer: Walking and memorizing psalms

Thursday August 8 2019

Creative prayer: Walking and memorizing psalms

I am so pleased that my good friend Steve Simon has written a book about the prayer practice that took his faith from his head to his heart. Steve memorizes psalms as he walks his dog, and then he prays those psalms. Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms is practical, humorous, and so helpful. He asked me to write the foreword, and here’s what I wrote.

Foreword for Holy Walks: Learning and Praying the Psalms. By Lynne Baab.

When I read a psalm—or listen to a sung version of a psalm—I am invited into something amazing and wonderful. The Psalms encourage me to approach God just as I am, with my messy emotions and disordered thoughts. The psalm writers model an extreme honesty before God that lightens my heart. I see that I, too, can be honest, that God welcomes my anger, frustration, sadness, and pain. Whatever has caused these emotions, however much I blame myself for feeling these things, God says, “Come.”

When I stay in a psalm, something else happens, equally wonderful and freeing. In almost every psalm, God turns negative emotions into praise, thankfulness, joy and singing. “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5, NRSV). For me, the period of weeping is often much shorter than a night because the psalm writers’ words lighten my heart as I pray along with them.

Steve Simon knows this. In Holy Walks, Steve describes the ways he has grown in becoming a person who loves God with his heart, not just his mind. Steve is one of the smartest people I know, and it has been a delight to the see the ways the Psalms have taken Steve’s faith from his mind into his whole being.

Steve’s fine mind is visible in Holy Walks, as he explains the variety of types of psalms, how psalms are structured, and how the language of the psalms works. But even more valuable is Steve’s description of the specific habits that enabled him to engage with the psalms:  memorizing specific psalms, pondering them, and praying them—while he walks his dog.

Memorizing passages in the Bible has been a key practice for me. The passages I know by heart have shaped me deeply. They have given me fodder for thought and prayer. They have helped me draw near to God. Countless other Christians throughout the ages have benefitted from memorizing portions of the Bible, and each person who wants to memorize scriptural passages has to come up with a system for doing it.

Steve provides helpful specifics for how he memorizes psalms. His method may well be beneficial for many readers.

The walking component of Steve’s engagement with the Psalms is also significant. Christians have long underemphasized the significance of the body, and I am thrilled that in recent years Christians have begun to rediscover spiritual practices based in the body, including fasting, pilgrimage, walking a labyrinth, and the stations of the cross. Friends increasingly tell me they are finding joy in a variety of bodily positions while praying. The rhythm of my feet hitting the pavement has always enabled prayer to flow easily for me, and I love Steve’s combination of walking while memorizing, pondering and praying the Psalms.

The strong presence of Emma, Steve’s beloved dog, adds lightness and humor to Holy Walks. The dog, the varied weather, the early morning air—Steve has grounded his book beautifully in the physical world made by God, the Creation mentioned so frequently and so tenderly in the Psalms.

Steve calls the Psalms a “remedy for lifeless prayer.” Amen to that! As I pray along with the psalm writers, I get to experience such a range of prayer forms and moods. In times of trouble, the Psalms help me experience God restoring my peace and joy. And as I pray outside in nature, I experience something wonderful about God’s creativity in our beautiful world.

Because the Psalms, scripture memory, and praying while walking have been such important aspects of my faith journey, I can enthusiastically tell you that if you adopt some or all of Steve’s method as he describes it in Holy Walks, you will grow in intimacy with God.

(For my readers in New Zealand, Holy Walks is available at the Book Depository, where the postage is cheaper than ordering it from amazon.)

Next week: the gift of music when praying the Psalms. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column (for laptops).

Some other posts about praying and walking:

Creative prayer nurtures stopping

Saturday August 3 2019

Creative prayer nurtures stopping

Have you ever thought about stopping as an important spiritual concept? I was in my late forties before that word had any traction for me.

I’ve written in many places about Dave’s and my experience of the Sabbath when we lived in Israel as young adults (see below for links). We brought our Sabbath practice home to Seattle and continued to embrace it enthusiastically for almost two decades before we started reflecting on what it meant and why it mattered.

When I began to write about the Sabbath, first as a chapter in my book on midlife, A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife, and then in my book Sabbath Keeping, I had to think theologically and analytically about why the Sabbath matters. I had always thought that the word “Sabbath” meant rest, and indeed that is one meaning, but another meaning is stop.

As I wrote about the Sabbath, I pondered the significance of stopping. So many aspects of life today call us to keep moving – busyness, shopping, looking good to others – and these patterns easily morph into idolatry. We will seldom be able to address those idols without stopping and looking at our lives. In addition, God speaks to us in so many ways, but we cannot hear unless we stop long enough to activate our listening ears.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the connections between mindfulness meditation and prayer, and an old friend wrote a Facebook comment about those connections. She wrote that an important overlap between mindfulness meditation and prayer “is giving yourself permission to stop completely. That is a wonderful gift to give to yourself and to honor who you are. In doing so, we can get in touch with our thoughts and feelings and explore them.”

Her words got me started thinking about the many forms of prayer that help us stop what we’re doing so we can remember God and ponder what’s going on inside us. Some of the kinds of prayer that help us stop:

Thankfulness prayers – alone or with others – help us stop thinking about our needs and the needs of the world in order to focus on God’s gifts. Thankfulness prayers also help us see our own lives differently.

Prayers of intercession for others help us stop thinking about our own needs. When we pray intercessory prayers with others, their prayers can help us stop some of our selfish thoughts.

Breath prayers help us stop our restless and unruly thoughts in order to focus on our body.

Praying while walking can also help stop the wandering of our restless minds so we can focus on our bodies and on God’s created world. Praying while walking has also helped me so many times to see my life more clearly.

Meditating on a verse from the Bible, or praying a psalm, can help us stop thinking about our to-do list and all the stuff on our minds.

Using a printed prayeralso helps us stop engaging with what’s on our minds.

Praying silently with otherscan help us focus our minds on God and stop the restless wandering of our minds because we know others are doing it. And praying silently with others can keep us in a quiet, reflective mode long enough to do some helpful reflection about the patterns of our lives.

As I write this list, I see that I am most concerned with stopping the wandering of my restless, unruly mind which so often goes in the direction of to-do lists and selfish needs. This is a good concern. In addition, I believe all kinds of prayer helps us stop our ego-driven certainty that we know best and that we are in control of the universe. Every time we come into God’s presence, we are acknowledging on some level that Someone Else is in charge of the universe.

Gracious God, help us turn to you in a way that helps us stop the restless and unruly pattern of our thoughts. Help us turn to you in a way that stops our silly belief that we know the right way to do things and that we are in charge of our own lives. Help us to stop what we’re doing long enough to reflect in your presence on the patterns of our lives. Help us honor you as God.

Next week: walking and praying the Psalms. Illustration by Dave Baab.

Some links to resources on the Sabbath:

Creative prayer as remembering truth

Friday July 26 2019

Creative prayer as remembering truth

The “impostor syndrome” is a name for those feelings when we doubt our accomplishments and wonder if we’ll be exposed as a fraud. A friend of mine sometimes feels this at work, and she recently asked for prayer that she wouldn’t let this thief steal her joy in her job.

Two years ago I wrote a post on this blog using a quotation from American journalist Fulton Oursler (1893-1952): “Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” He’s using that same notion that we can allow certain thoughts and perspectives into our minds, and once they’re there, they act like thieves.

When we spent a lot of time feeling inadequate, regretting something from the past, or fearing something in the future, thieves are stealing the joy, peace, confidence, and trust that God wants to give us today. Prayer is a way to thwart those thieves. In prayer, we remember who we are as children of a loving God, and we cement our belovedness into our minds as we pray.

The first step is to name the thief and to rebuke it in Jesus’ name. “Fear about the future, you are a thief and I command you in Jesus’ name to leave me and go to the foot of the cross.” After rebuking the thief, don’t mention it again in your prayers. Instead figure out the opposite and name that over and over as you pray.

Confidence. Trust. Hope. Joy. Patience. Kindness. Love. Belovedness. Peace. Faith. The presence of God. The light of Christ. The truth of the Gospel.

Figure out what you want in your heart and mind to replace the thief, and ask God for it. Recent research on the way the brain works shows that when we focus on what we don’t want, we continue to nurture the brain pathways that support that negative idea. And in contrast, when we focus on healthy thoughts and behaviors, we actually create new neurons that support those positive things.

Since God made our brains, we can embrace this research as a call to name and rebuke negative things in Christ’s name, then move on to prayers for the ability to rest in God’s goodness. Here are some suggestions for how to do that.

1. Praying the Bible.When we pray a verse or portion of the Bible, we move cognitive truth from our minds into our hearts. The psalms are a great place to start praying the Bible, but it’s possible to pray any verse. Here’s an example: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1). Those words arenot a prayer, but if I ponder them, even memorize them, and meditate on them, I find myself asking for faith, assurance and conviction. And I find myself resting in God’s gifts of faith, assurance and conviction.

2. Praying along with music.As I was thinking about the impostor syndrome, an old praise song came to my mind. (You can listen to it here.)

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks My face

Praying along with hymns and praise songs is a major part of my prayer life. I love to find a hymn or praise song that contains the word or idea – the truth that God wants in my mind – to replace a thief. Music seems to cement concepts into my brain, and the truths expressed in words accompanied by music seem to have power.

3. Pray for what you want, connected to Jesus. I like to use my breath for prayers like these:

     Lord Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace
     Have mercy on me, I need your peace.

     Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World,
     Have mercy on me, shine your light on my path.

     Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of the future,
     Have mercy on me, give me confidence about my future.

     Lord Jesus Christ, Lord of the past,
     Have mercy on me, give me peace about my past.

Two friends of mine recently sent out a prayer letter about their ministry. The letter contained these words: “Much of the work of faith has to do with us remembering the truth. Prayer is remembering that we are loved.” I want to encourage you to bring God’s truth to mind as you pray.

Next week: creative prayer nurtures stopping. Illustration by Dave Baab. I love getting new subscribers to my blog. Sign up below (for cellphones) or in the right hand column of the webpage (for laptops) to get an email when I post on this blog.

Two articles I’ve written that give hands-on suggestions for embracing God’s perspectives:

Creative prayer: trees

Friday July 19 2019

Creative prayer: trees

I was 15 the first time I saw a tree as a thing of beauty. Three trees, to be precise. We had just moved from Virginia to Tacoma, Washington, and our new house had three young birch trees in the back yard, planted close to each other. When the wind blew, they looked like three beautiful girls dancing. My heart always lifted when the wind tossed them into a dance.

For 17 years of my adult life, we lived in a house near Greenlake in Seattle with a huge Western red cedar in the front yard. I can’t tell you how many times I sat in the living room, gazing into the branches of that tree, awed by its size and beauty.

For 12 years we lived in Lake City, also in Seattle, with a tall hawthorn tree next to our deck. When it was covered with white flowers in the spring, I smiled. And for our ten years in Dunedin, New Zealand, our living room windows looked onto a rata tree, a non-deciduous tree with dark green leaves, where a European blackbird roosted each spring. Those leaves were a delight all year long.

Trees are a powerful metaphor in the Bible. For example, Psalm 1 compares people who loves God’s law to

“trees planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper.” (Psalm 1:3)

Comparing our lives, and the lives of those we love, to the four characteristics of a flourishing tree described in the psalm can draw us into some lovely creative prayer.

1. Praying for our placement by streams of water. In what places and circumstances do you feel connected to the streams of water that nourish you spiritually, physically, emotionally and relationally? While reading or pondering a passage in the Bible? While praying with a family member or friend or small group? While singing in church or playing a musical instrument or listening to a CD of praise music? While eating in a leisurely setting with loved ones? Perhaps in nature, gardening or walking or sailing or biking?

We can pray for ourselves and for the people on our minds that all of us will find streams of living water and make choices to spend time there. This opens up prayers for discernment, for our schedules, for self-discipline and for the sheer joy of experiencing God’s life-giving water in daily life.

2. Praying for fruit bearing. Do you ever look at your life and pay attention to the fruit you are bearing? I like to imagine a small vineyard beside an orchard full of a variety of fruit trees. Then I imagine myself standing with Jesus looking at the fruit my life has borne. I ask Jesus to help me see the fruit that pleases him, and I thank him for the privilege and joy of bearing fruit. I ask him to help me make choices every day that increase good fruit in my life.

We can pray for fruitbearing in our own lives and in the lives of friends and family members. This is also a great thing to pray for leaders in all settings of life.

3. Praying that our leaves will not wither. These are prayers for the kind of perseverance that comes from keeping our roots firmly planted in the streams of living water. These prayers focus on the ability to keep on loving, serving, and working hard. And these prayers must also focus on the kind of rest and renewal that enable us to maintain green leaves. Just like the rata tree in our yard in New Zealand, God wants us – and those for whom we pray – to have green leaves in all seasons.

4. Prayers for prospering. Here’s an opportunity for a variety of prayers for ourselves and others. We might pray for financial prospering, or for ourselves or others who struggle to prosper in their work or ministry. We might pray for prospering relationally, for relationships with friends, family, neighbors and colleagues.

Two other scriptures inform my prayers using trees as a metaphor. The oaks of righteousness in Isaiah 61:3 display God’s glory. I love to ponder what being an oak of righteousness looks like for me. And the Apostle Paul, in Ephesians 3, prays that the Ephesians would be “rooted and grounded in love” (verse 17). His whole prayer in Eph 3:14-19 focuses on love, and I find it helpful to pray for the ways I desire to be rooted in love, like a tree rooted in healthy, well watered soil, and for the ways I desire that rooting for the people I pray for.

Next week: creative prayer as affirming truth. Illustration: Dave Baab’s interpretation of the tree in Psalm 1.

A favor: I wonder if any of my blog readers have read my book A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife. I’d like to have more reviews of the book on amazon.com, and I would really appreciate it if some of you could post a few sentences about the book. (You have to have an amazon account to post reviews. Here’s where to post the review.) If you read the book in the past, and need a reminder of the content, the amazon page has a good overview of the content. I have excerpted several chapters of the book on this blog. Here are the first posts of those excerpted chapters:

Thanks for your help!

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