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

Providing Christian care: The importance of spiritual practices

Friday August 24 2018

Providing Christian care: The importance of spiritual practices

I am having a conversation at coffee hour with a woman who is struggling in her job. As she talks about her discouragement, I say, “Can I say a quick prayer for you?”

She says yes, and right there amid the people chatting over coffee, I put my hand on her shoulder and pray for God’s guidance, strength and mercy for her.

Pastoral care that is uniquely Christian must have a component of prayer. Sometimes we can pray aloud for the person we are caring for as I did at coffee hour that day. Other times, the prayer is silent within us, because we can see that the person we are talking with is feeling very far from God or would not welcome prayer for some other reason.

Pastoral carers can invite care recipients into many different forms of prayer, such as silent prayer, breath prayer, or inner healing prayer. In pastoral care settings like hospital visits, we might use a printed prayer or pray a psalm together. In order to pray with care recipients, carers obviously need to feel comfortable praying, which can only happen with experience praying on their own or in other settings with people.

Feeling comfortable praying – for the sake of praying with and for care recipients – is one reason by carers need to have a rich life of spiritual practices. I’ll write about three other reasons, and I bet you can think of even more.

1. Spiritual practices – various forms of prayer, various forms of Bible study, and other practices such as Sabbath keeping, fasting and journaling – enable us to perceive God’s guidance. Carers need God’s guidance in so many ways. Is God calling me to reach out to this person? In what way? What questions should I ask? What stories from my own life should I tell? Should I offer practical help or simply a listening ear?

I need God’s help to know what to do. Over time, spiritual practices train us in our ability to perceive God’s direction, an essential component of caring.

2. Spiritual practices help us rest in the fact that all caring is God’s ministry, not our own. Other people’s lives belong to God, not to us, and we are not responsible for what happens to them or what they experience. We are responsible to care, to walk beside people in their pain, but we cannot fix them, heal them, or change them. This is the single truth that I wish I had known more deeply when I was an associate pastor in a congregation.

In those years, I felt weighed down by people’s pain, as if I was somehow responsible to heal or fix their pain. I wish I had known more clearly that their lives belonged to God, and my responsibility was to journey with them. This perspective can be nurtured by spiritual practices.

3. If we have a rich understanding and experience of spiritual practices, we’ll be able to guide care recipients into spiritual practices of their own. One goal of Christian caring is to help people draw near to God. Therefore part of our caring involves helping care recipients figure out the best ways they can do that. If we have had a wide experience of spiritual practices, we will be more likely to be able to help care recipients talk through the ways they already draw near to God. We’ll be able to help them brainstorm new options.

I praise God that Jesus is the Good Shepherd who looks out for his sheep. We are called to be under-shepherds, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us into caring ministry, but God is the shepherd of all the sheep. We can rest in God’s care for us and for those we love.

This is the fifth and last post in a series about pastoral care today. I’ve been writing about themes from my new book, Nurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First Century. The previous posts covered: 

(Next week: the first post in a new series on the ways the Bible informs prayer, and the way prayer helps us meet God through the Bible. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

Thursday June 14 2018

Contrasts: Engaging in spiritual practices because of grace or guilt

I’ve been speaking and writing about the Sabbath for more than a decade, but I recently had an aha experience about Sabbath keeping in my life and its connection to other spiritual practices.

Much of my speaking and writing about spiritual practices flows out of my own Sabbath observance. The Sabbath taught me how spiritual practices work: we know God loves us, so we set up structures in our lives to draw near to this God of abundant blessings.

When we were young adults, my husband and I lived in Israel for 18 months. Our apartment was in a Jewish neighborhood in Tel Aviv, so everything was closed on the Sabbath day. Everything. We didn’t have a car, and the busses didn’t run, so it was a day with incredibly few options and a very slow pace.

For the first few months, we chafed at the sense of confinement, but later we relaxed into the rhythm of six days of activity and one day of vastly reduced options. When we returned to Seattle, more than 35 years ago, we decided to adopt a Sabbath pattern of our own. At that time, Christians weren’t talking about the Sabbath at all, so some of our friends thought we were a bit weird.

Some people told us we were legalistic. We were stunned by their comments, because we had experienced the slow pace and reduced options of the Sabbath as a major gift that we wanted to keep on receiving. Sure, the fourth commandment calls for a Sabbath, but we never experienced it as an onerous command. We had learned to receive it as a gift, and we wanted to keep receiving that gift.

My recent aha moment came when I compared Sabbath keeping to having a daily quiet time. In my early years as a Christian, I was taught that a daily quiet time with two specific components –  cognitive-based Bible study and intercessory prayer – is a non-negotiable, something all Christians have to do. As a young adult, I often tried to have a daily quiet time in that form, and I succeeded only intermittently. I have felt a lot of guilt around my quiet time failures.

I think about my grandfather, who grew up in a family with a very rigid Sabbath practice. For his parents, a quiet Sunday Sabbath was non-negotiable, and my grandfather as an active little boy was forced to sit still for one whole day every week. My grandfather stopped attending church as a young man, and seldom darkened the door of a church for the rest of this life. Far from being a gift, for him the Sabbath was one of the factors that drove him from the church.

Encouragement to have a daily quiet time didn’t drive me from the church, but the guilt associated with my failure to measure up hasn’t done much to nurture my faith. Yet the Sabbath has taught me oceans about God’s grace and love for me. The Sabbath has been a factor in shaping me into a person who loves God, receives good gifts from God and tries to respond in faithful service. The Sabbath has helped me understand that my form of a daily quiet time (although I don't use that name for it) needs to involve stillness and silence, many forms of prayer in addition to intercessory prayer, and meditation on the Bible rather than cognitive study.

We call spiritual practices “disciplines” because they require an act of the will and persistent obedience. Yet it seems increasingly clear to me that this discipline and persistence need to be rooted in receiving practices as gifts rather than as obligations.

My questions of the day: what Christian practices in your life feel like a gift? Do you perceive any ways they are shaping you?

(Illustration by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe." This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Some resources about the Sabbath:

articles I've written about the Sabbath       
my Sabbath book              
my Sabbath Bible study guide                    
my book Joy Together has a chapter on communal Sabbath keeping

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:

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

Saturday December 30 2017

Prayer as listening to God: Looking back at 2017

A year is ending. A new year begins in a few days. Newspapers and magazines are full of ideas for New Year’s resolutions, and how to keep them.

I wish more people wrote and talked about how to look back on the past year in a way that is fruitful and helpful. As a way to do that, I want to propose a prayer of examen for the whole year.

I wrote last week about Examen, an ancient prayer form that focuses on identifying where God was present and where we resisted God. The prayer has four movements, which I’ll describe and illustrate below. In many monastic settings, monks and nuns prayed the prayer of examen every night, looking back over the day.

The person who taught me examen called it “a gentle, unforced noticing.” I’m going to suggest numerous questions to reflect on, so you can look back at a whole year. Please engage with these questions in an gentle, unforced way. Let the questions help you see God’s hand in your life and your response to God.

1.Examen of Consciousness. Begin by thinking back over your year. What good things happened? Where did you see God’s hand in the good things? What aspects of the good things were clearly gifts from God?

What hard things happened? In what ways did God help you in the hard things? What good outcomes can you identify from the hard things?

Think back on the early months of the year. What were you praying for in those months? What answers did you see later in the year?

Use the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 to look back at the year. In what moments did you experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control in yourself or in those who you love?

2. Response to the Examen of Consciousness. In whatever way works for you, spend some time responding to God’s presence in your life in 2017. You may want to thank God verbally for the ways God was present in the year. You may want to imagine yourself turning to Jesus and smiling at him. You may want to sing a song or hymn.

3.Examen of Conscience. Listen to your conscience to help identify the ways you resisted God this past year. Do you have clear instances when you know God was calling you to do something and you didn’t do it? Can you see times when you did something you know didn’t please God?

Go back to the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness or self-control – and ponder instances when the Holy Spirit may have been nudging you in the direction of one of those fruits, and you chose to do things your way.

Imagine that Jesus was walking beside you all year. What moments during the year would you have felt embarrassed or ashamed to have Jesus close by?

4. Response to the Examen of Conscience. In whatever feels comfortable to you, bring those moments of resistance to God. You may want to ask God for forgiveness for the times you did not respond in obedience or love. You may want to read one of the penitential psalms as a way to bring these thoughts to God. Try Psalm 32, 51 or 130. You may want to say to yourself: “Whenever we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us” (based on 1 John 1:9).

Examen is a lovely prayer to do on our own or with others. If you have a spiritual partner – a friend, spouse, prayer partner – or a small group with whom you share honestly, consider working through the questions above with that person or group.

Noticing God's presence is part of learning to hear God's voice. We rob ourselves of his voice of joy and peace when we forget to look back at the past and identify the places God was present. We rob ourselves of joy and peace when we neglect to confess our shortcomings and hear God's voice of forgiveness.

(Next week: A new approach to 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.)

Some past Christmas and New Year’s posts you might enjoy:

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

Wednesday December 13 2017

Prayer as Listening to God: Distractions in silent prayer

If we want to listen to God in prayer, we have to quiet our racing minds. Several metaphors involving water have been helpful to me as I have encountered the inevitable struggles with wandering thoughts during contemplative prayer.

The wandering thoughts can include worries and preoccupations about my own life or the lives of people I love, projects I’m working on that I can’t resist thinking about, noises or other distractions from the physical environment, or even analysis of the spiritual profundity of what I’m experiencing. These distracting thoughts are particularly common at the beginning of a quiet prayer time, but they can unfortunately be all too frequent throughout the period of silence.

One of the people who led many of my early contemplative prayer experiences talked about these wandering thoughts as boats on a river. We can watch the boats, she said, and notice they are there, but we need to avoid the temptation of getting onto the boat and rummaging around in the hold. When we find ourselves boarding the boat and unpacking its contents, we can imagine ourselves stepping back off the boat and letting it float down the river without us.

Later someone else told me about the metaphor of a leaf on a river. This leader suggested that when we notice we have left the topic of the prayer and our minds have begun down another path, we view the random thought as a leaf. We let it float lightly down the river.

In her wonderful book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun suggests one more river metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. She suggests that we imagine God’s river of life running through us. Deep down in the river, the water is calm and slow, but the surface is cluttered with turmoil and debris. We can imagine our distracting thoughts as a part of that debris and turmoil on the surface, and let that part of the river be carried away by the current. The goal of quiet prayer is to return to the depth of the river where the presence of Jesus imparts peace and calm. [1]

I like the river analogies. Jesus compares the Holy Spirit to living water (John 7:37-39), and in Revelation, the river of the water of life flows through the heavenly city (Revelation 22:1-2). In contemplative prayer I relinquish my worries, my tendency to analyze everything, my preoccupations about work and all my other concerns into the hands of the Holy Spirit, who will take those thoughts into the River of Life. My concerns float lightly on the river like leaves. With the help of the Holy Spirit, those preoccupations and worries are not heavy and leaden. Instead, they float away, as light as leaves, entrusted into God’s loving care.

Calhoun suggests another metaphor to help with distracting thoughts. Imagine, she suggests, that you are visiting a friend who lives in a busy urban setting. The windows are open because it is a warm day, and you can hear the street noise and the voices of passersby. Sometimes you even hear sirens. But you love your friend and want to be attentive, so although you notice the sounds coming from outside the window, you don’t let your mind engage with them. Over and over, you return your focus to your friend. In the same way, in silent prayer, over and over you return your focus to Christ with you. [2]

Calhoun’s busy street metaphor is helpful in a slightly different way than the water metaphors because it emphasizes relationship. Jesus has invited us to be his friends (John 15:12-17), and when we spend time with any friend, we can find distractions to be troubling. But our love for our friend draws us back continually into conversation, caring, and listening. Our priority is our relationship with our friend, and in any form of prayer, our priority is our attention to God in Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

When leading contemplative prayer experiences, describing one of these metaphors for the group can be helpful, particularly with longer prayer experiences such as centering prayer, described below. Most people experience a lot of guilt when learning to engage in contemplative prayer because they are ashamed of their wandering minds. Everyone’s mind wanders in silent prayer, and the water and friend metaphors can help us return to an awareness of God’s presence over and over as we pray.

(Next week: looking back on our lives to see God’s hand at work. 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.)

Most of the posts in this series are adapted from my book A Renewed Spirituality, but this post is excerpted from another one of my books, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Joy Together discusses the pros and cons of engaging in various spiritual practices alone and with others, and it has six chapters on how to engage in specific spiritual practices – fasting, contemplative prayer, contemplative approaches to scripture, hospitality, communal discernment, and Sabbath keeping – with small groups and even whole congregations.

[1] Adele Ahlborg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 209.[2] Ibid.

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