Friendship, listening, and empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Draw near: Praying about starting, stopping, and finishing

Lynne Baab • Tuesday February 28 2023

Draw near: Praying about starting, stopping, and finishing

When my husband Dave was a child and teenager, he spent a lot of time with his dad, Hubert, in Hubert’s workshop. When Dave would help Hubert with a specific project, Hubert frequently said, “You’re a finisher, Dave.” Those words of blessing helped Dave complete his undergraduate degree in three years, persevere in the challenging years of dental school, and learn to do academic research as an associate professor in a dental school. To my great benefit, Hubert’s words helped Dave persevere in being a consistent and loving dad and husband.

There are moments, however, when those words keep Dave from stopping things that need to come to an end. I usually see that pattern on a small scale. Sometimes he has to finish a task before he can move on to something else, when I would have no trouble stopping in the middle of something to get on to the more pressing issue. Recently I’ve realized that when I’m facing a difficult task like tidying up a messy room, I can get started only if I tell myself that I don’t have to finish. I only have to work on it for a set period of time.

These thoughts were triggered by an article by Alec Hill, president emeritus of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, about the important leadership role of stopping things. The subtitle of the article, “The importance of strategic retreats,” perfectly captures something I think is really important. Hill is writing for leaders when he says, “Too often, we hesitate to take any steps backward. How can we possibly retreat when everything about our mission has only has one gear – forward?” I think his words are relevant to both leaders and individuals, and can help stimulate our prayers.

Twenty years ago I wrote a book on how to prevent burnout among volunteers in churches, and it feels to me like that book is more relevant than ever. The pandemic did something strange in the area of volunteers, and many churches are struggling. Seeing a shortage of volunteers often makes it hard to quit something even when it’s time.

One of my interviewees for that book talked about her church having no “honorable discharge” for their volunteer roles. She said people were very reluctant to take on any responsibility because they felt they were going to be expected to do that role for many, many years. She also said that many of the volunteers who had served in roles for decades had lost a lot of the energy and joy that such volunteer roles could (and should) have, but they didn’t feel they could quit.

Do you allow yourself an “honorable discharge” in various areas of your life? I didn’t have a parent telling me I am a finisher, but I picked up a lot of strong cultural message about NOT quitting. In my experience, prayers about starting, stopping, and finishing often have some sadness or self-criticism mixed in.

I thank God for the Holy Spirit’s direction so many times for me, often in response to my prayers for guidance. I also pray for God’s empowerment to get started on tasks I don’t want to do. These prayers are often fueled by the sad reality that I’m finding it hard to do the thing I’m praying about. When I pray for guidance about stopping something, the prayers often come from a place of sadness and even pain. With widespread cultural messages about finishing everything we start, it seems almost impossible to pray to about stopping something (quitting!) without guilt.

Starting, stopping, and finishing are topics we can bring to God in prayer. Needing to pray for guidance is not a sign of some kind of failure. Even Jesus prayed to his Father and received guidance (Mark 1:35-38). Finishing is not always the best thing to do; sometimes stopping is the best strategy, even if it feels uncomfortable.

I suspect that we struggle most with prayers about starting, stopping, and finishing when we are trying to earn God’s approval or the approval of family members or friends. Knowing we are loved by God provides a foundation to pray about starting, stopping and finishing without guilt or self-criticism. Maybe the place to start in these prayers is a few minutes with Psalm 23, Psalm 139, Ephesians 1:3-14, or another scripture that helps you know God loves you.

(Next week: Praying to be present when people change. Illustration by Dave Baab: one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below.)

Lent began on February 22. If you’re still hoping to find something helpful for Lent, check out these two options:

1. Draw Near, a Lenten devotional I wrote several years ago (with illustrations by the talented Dave Baab). For each day of Lent I chose a psalm, including all the psalms quoted in the New Testament, and I wrote reflection questions for each day. You can download it directly as a pdf here (no cost), or read about how the devotional came to be, and how Dave's illustrations were added to it, and then download it here

2. "Creation Care as a Hopeful Spiritual Practice in Lent," an online devotional I co-wrote (also with illustrations by Dave). Janette Plunkett, my co-author, has been a climate change advocate at the national level of the Presbyterian Church (USA). We present ways to pray about creation care and experiment with various strategies of engagement. 

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