NEW: Nurturing a contemplative stance for navigating challenging times

By Lynne M. Baab

(This article appeared in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality in July 2023.)

I never did enjoy golf, but my mother and brother loved it. I often overheard them talking about their stance as they used different gold clubs. They talked about intentionally changing their stance and practicing it until it came more easily. Stance matters in baseball and cricket, too, specifically for batters. In these three sports, a person might consider how far apart their feet are, the way their shoulders are positioned, and the angle of their head. According to Wikipedia’s entry on batting in cricket, an ideal stance is “comfortable, relaxed, and balanced.”[1] At first, a stance is a conscious choice of how to position one’s body. After a while, it becomes more natural, but tweaks to one’s stance are necessary from time to time.

When I taught pastoral theology at the University of Otago in New Zealand, I developed a course on the missional church, which refers to an approach to ministry centered on the idea that we are sent into the world as Jesus was sent (John 17:18), whether we live in our hometown or on the other side of the world. One of my favorite books on the missional church uses the word “posture” in the sub-title, a synonym for “stance.” Darren Cronshaw, an Australian minister and associate professor, co-authored the book with American minister Kim Hammond. Sentness: Six Postures for Missional Christians presents the idea that we can choose a stance in six areas that will help us serve and witness authentically in these increasingly secular times.

I am still committed to the notion of developing a missional stance, but in order to do so, we need to take a step back and consider how we can grow in listening to God for direction. In this time of limited resources, tired parishioners, and an increasingly secular world, we need to be sure we are following God’s guidance, both in how we nurture faith within our congregations and in the ways we mobilize Christians to reach out into out hurting world. Only God knows the best way to be Jesus’s people here and now, relying on the strength of the Holy Spirit.

I want to propose that alongside a missional stance, we also need to nurture a contemplative stance. This will help us receive the Holy Spirit’s guidance and empowerment. I am proposing seven components of a contemplative perspective.

What is contemplation?

The verb “contemplate” — and its related words “contemplation” and “contemplative” — is ancient. The Latin word means to gaze attentively, observe, or consider. By the late fourteenth century, Christians were using these words to refer to reflection, thought, and the act of holding an idea continuously before the mind. In twenty-first century language, we might talk about pondering or mulling over. The topic of contemplation for Christians then and now is the Triune God and the purposes and desires of God, most fully revealed in Jesus, and made real to us through the Holy Spirit.

For Christians today, who want to be God’s people who bring Jesus’s heath, healing, and wholeness into our communities of faith and our wider communities, we have to consider what exactly we are pondering or mulling over as we plan our congregational activities and outreach programmes. Is our planning primarily motivated by fear? By the desire to look good? By a need to appease influential groups of people? By pressure to make a decision right now? Too often, the pondering behind planning is not focused on God’s purposes and priorities, but instead on more pressing thoughts and emotions. A contemplative stance encourages appropriate pacing, clarity of motivations, and peaceful process toward decisions. The seven components of a contemplative stance for Christians today, described below, help focus our reflection on what God is already doing. This stance can enable us to hear God’s guidance and open ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit’s power.

Components of a Contemplative Stance

Paying attention.All too often, our minds are focused on regrets and fears. Regrets turn our attention to the past, what we could have done differently and what we wish we had known, thought about, or paid attention to before we made decisions we regret. Fears focus on negative future possibilities. A contemplative stance begins with letting regrets and fears wash away in the river of God’s love, enabling us to focus on the present.

From the Buddhist tradition, many Christians have profited from the principles of mindfulness meditation: a focus on this moment, including what I’m experiencing through my five senses and what I’m feeling and thinking. Christians can add a tweak to traditional mindfulness meditation by seeking to be attentive enough to identify God’s presence in this moment and place. This helps us develop a stance centered on a sense of God’s presence, guidance, and empowerment here and now. In addition to mindfulness meditation, breath prayer is an effective spiritual practice to help us locate ourselves in the present.

Receptivity.God gives good gifts to us (James 1:17), and an attitude of receptivity opens us to receive those gifts. Being receptive requires us to go beyond attentiveness to embrace holy curiosity about what God is doing in a situation before we arrive. Receptivity refers to being open to God’s gifts and God’s guidance in two different ways. On the one hand, God works in our lives in response to the needs we express in prayer, the concerns we have about people, and the tensions and anxieties we experience in everyday life. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to see the ways the Holy Spirit is moving in the situations we care about.

The second aspect of receptivity relates to our willingness to let God initiate, to let God be God in whatever form that takes. Jesus invites us to follow him, to let him set the agenda and lead us. “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” Jesus encourages us (Matthew 11:29, NRSV)[2]. God guides us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go and challenges us to grow in ways we never imagined. God gives us gifts that we could never have seen on our own, and calls us to use them in situations we never planned. Many forms of Bible study and prayer can nurture receptivity if we shift our emphasis to an openness to receive from God.

Listening to God.Receptivity opens us to God’s voice and initiative. When we talk about listening to God, we are zooming in to the specific component of receptivity where we expect God to speak. Isaiah describes his listening stance: “The Sovereign LORD . . . wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.” (Isaiah 50:4, NIV). The opening words of the ancient Rule of St Benedict emphasize listening to God with our ears and our hearts.[3]  

If we know we are already loved, it will be easier to respond in obedience to God’s voice. Two of the major ways God speaks to humans are through the Bible and nature, both of which are full of God’s love for us. In so many Gospel stories Jesus shows tender care for the people he talks with, and John summarizes Jesus’s ministry: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Pope Francis, in Laudato Si’, argues that nature also helps us to hear that voice of love:“The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us. Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”[4] We listen to God to know we are loved, then we listen for further guidance.

Reflection.After we have paid attention to what’s going on here and now, after we have opened ourselves to God’s gifts and tried to listen for God’s voice, we need to ponder what we have seen and heard. A stance that makes room for reflection usually involves both silence and conversation. Most of us need some amount of silence or stillness to reflect on what we hear from God, although for some, silence feels uncomfortable at first. A few strong extraverts do all their reflecting in conversation with others. Many spiritual practices and settings can help us reflect, including small groups, journaling, praying while walking in nature, and spiritual direction.

Imagination.Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) recommends that we use our imagination to place ourselves in stories from the Bible, picturing what’s happening, visualizing the smells, sounds, and tactile experiences of participants in the story. Many Christians imagine Jesus walking beside them, or they picture an encounter with Jesus where they talk to him and listen to him. In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, praying with icons involves imagining that God is looking at us through the eyes of the icon. These and other forms of imaginative prayer help us nurture a contemplative stance because they help us slow down, receive from God, hear God’s voice, reflect on God’s priorities and values, and know that we are loved.

Availability.Essential to a contemplative stance is the willingness to be guided by the Holy Spirit into whatever path God has for us. After Isaiah receives a vision of God in a majestic temple surrounded by angels, Isaiah says, “Here I am, send me” (Isaiah 6:8). Our availability to God is a natural response when we encounter God and know that we are loved. We model ourselves after Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Not my will but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

Simplicity. Most people find it extremely difficult to adopt a contemplative stance in the midst of chaos, pressure, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun writes that the goal of simplicity is “to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.”[5] In the same way that a stance in golf, cricket, or baseball requires a lot of attention at first, then frequent tweaks to keep it effective, Christians must intentionally consider the patterns of our lives so that we “can focus on what really matters.”

Resting in God’s Presence

The words used in Wikipedia’s entry on cricket, describing a stance as “comfortable, relaxed, and balanced,” can help us understand that developing both a missional and contemplative stance requires practice. I encourage lightness about the whole process. Try some components of a contemplative stance, practice them more than once, see how they feel, and then let go of those practices that don’t feel “comfortable, relaxed, and balanced” at least some of the time.

Psalm 131 presents a picture of a weaned child at peace in her mother’s lap. She no longer comes to her mother primarily for the comfort and sustenance of food. Now that she’s older, she leans against her mother to calm and quiet her soul. That child wouldn’t use the words “contemplative stance,” but she understands something significant about how to lean in to her nurturing mother to receive love. Our ministry in this hurting world must be grounded in moments of resting in God’s presence.

Psalm 46 is another vivid psalm that reinforces the significance of a contemplative stance. Because God is our refuge and strength, we do our best to ground ourselves in God’s goodness when earthquakes and storms happen. We know that God is like a river running through the city of God, bringing joy. We pay attention to each moment, we try to receive God’s gifts and listen to God, and we reflect on what we are perceiving and receiving. We use our imaginations to engage with the Bible and the needs of the world, and we make ourselves available to God. We embrace simplicity so we can clear away the clutter and focus on what matters most. These help us receive God’s words through the psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).


Rev Dr Lynne Baab is the author of numerous books and Bible study guides, most recently Two Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian Life. Her best-selling book, Sabbath Keeping, is now available as an audiobook as well as paperback and kindle. Lynne blogs weekly about prayer at She served as senior lecturer in pastoral theology at the University of Otago from 2007 to 2017, and continued to supervise PhD theses for the Theology Programme after returning to her home in Seattle in 2017.  

[2] The NRSV is used throughout this article, except when noted.
[3] The rule of St Benedict, Catholic Online.
[4] Laudato Si’, the Vatican.
[5] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015, 84.