Sacred Buildings by Lynne Baab

This morning’s post in the series Creating Sacred Space Do We Need Churches? is written by Lynne M Baab. Lynne is the author of numerous books on Christian spiritual practices, including Sabbath Keeping, Fasting, and Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. She teaches pastoral theology in New Zealand. Her website has numerous articles she’s written about spiritual practices, as well as information about her books.

When I started this series I asked people to write about how they connected to God outside of church, but I have been reminded by many of the comments of the importance of connecting inside church buildings too. Lynne’s article is another good reminder of this.

Monastery

The first time I set foot in a Benedictine monastery, I knew many, many people had prayed over many, many years in that place. It was St. Gertrude’s Monastery in Cottonwood, Idaho, and all the spaces felt sacred. I kept coming back every year until we moved away from that part of the world. In my visits there, my own prayers felt like part of a chain that spanned many years.

Around the same time as my first visit to the monastery, I discovered two sacred places in Seattle, the city where I lived. Places where I could pray easily. Places where I sensed the presence of God.

St. Mark’s Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in Seattle, has a heavy hugeness to it. Its solidity speaks to me of God’s safety and stability, and the enormous empty space inside of it tells me God is so much bigger than I can grasp.

St Mark's Cathedral, Seattle

The Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University is small and quirky, with odd curves and angles. Its colored glass windows come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The baptismal font near the entrance is very large, and the water rises exactly to the height of the font, giving a smooth still surface much like the pool of water outside the door of the chapter. The stillness of the water in the font and the odd shapes of the building and the windows speak to me of God’s peace coupled with the challenge of God’s unpredictable call to us.

Church

Fifteen years ago, around the time of my first visit to the monastery, I was a newly ordained associate pastor in a Presbyterian congregation in Seattle, and I knew I needed reflection time in order to hear God’s guidance for ministry. In addition to the yearly trips to the monastery, I booked out one Wednesday afternoon each month for thinking, praying and planning. On those Wednesdays I parked my car a few blocks from Seattle University, and I walked a circular loop that took me to both St. Mark’s Cathedral and the Chapel of St. Ignatius. I brought my journal, and I sat in each of the two worship spaces journaling for a while. I tried to sink into the space and listen for what God had for me in each of the two very different places of worship.

Walking between the two worship places got me out into the fresh air. I always enjoyed the urban walk along sidewalks, businesses, parked cars and busy streets. As anyone who engages in urban walking knows, small but beautiful signs of God’s creation peek out everywhere. A baby in a stroller, a flowering bush, a pocket park with interesting landscaping, a window box with petunias. My Wednesday afternoon combination of fresh air with signs of God’s creation, plus architectural spaces that speak of God’s character, fed my soul in profound ways.

Two years after I began that monthly practice, I had a knee injury that prohibited me from walking very much, so I had to find new ways to reflect and meet God. I’ll never forget those spaces that spoke to me of God’s character, spaces where I heard God’s voice of love, felt the companionship of Jesus, and sensed the Holy Spirit’s guidance for ministry.

 

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Open Hands, Open Heart

Today’s reflection for the Return to Our Senses in Lent comes from Lynne Baab. Most of this post is an excerpt from her new book Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. Lynne is a Presbyterian minister and lecturer in pastoral theology in New Zealand, and also the author of numerous books. She has three books which are particularly appropriate for the season of Lent: Fasting, Sabbath Keeping and Joy Together. Visit her website, to learn about her books and to read articles she’s written on topics related to her books.

open hands2

 

About ten years ago I led a worship service at a retreat. The setting was intimate, unlike the Sunday worship services at church where the leader—sometimes me—usually stood some distance away from the congregation. At the end of the retreat worship, I said a benediction. To my surprise, several of the younger women sitting close to me turned their hands so their palms faced up. They looked as if they were trying to catch the benediction in their hands.

I had often said, “Now, receive the benediction” before I ended a worship service, and these women looked as if they were taking those words seriously. They used their hands to indicate a posture of the heart, a posture of receptivity.

What might they have been trying to receive? What might they have been longing for?

Perhaps some of them had a specific need in mind as they turned their hands up to “catch” God’s blessing. Perhaps they were hoping for God’s action related to a specific need in their family or in their job, or maybe they were hoping for God’s guidance in a particular situation. Perhaps they had learned something new about God at the weekend retreat, and they were hoping God would cement that new knowledge into their lives. They could have had many other specific needs, requests or situations on their minds as they used their hands to “receive” the benediction.

Perhaps some of them were simply open to more of God in their lives.  Perhaps the motion of their hands expressed a willingness to receive anything and everything from God, an indication of their commitment to be disciples of Jesus who would follow their Master wherever he might lead them.

When I use this word “receptivity,” I am referring 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 we love, and the tensions and anxieties we experience in everyday life. God invites us to open our hearts and minds to see the way the Holy Spirit is moving in the situations we care about. Spiritual practices go a long way toward enabling us to see God’s activity because they help us slow down, recognize patterns, and listen to God.

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). God guides us into places we wouldn’t otherwise go, and challenges us to grow in ways we never imagined. God gives us gifts we could never have seen on our own, and calls us to use them in situations we never planned. Spiritual practices help us receive these utterly unexpected and unplanned moments of grace.

When I pray with my hands turned over and open to the heavens, my hands are a symbol of my willingness to be receptive to whatever God is doing in my life, whatever God wants to give me, and wherever God wants to guide me. But those open hands are more than a symbol. I find that simply turning my hands over opens my heart to God in a remarkable way, as if my hands are telling my heart and mind to shift toward God and to watch for what God is doing. I feel closer to God when I turn my hands over, a surprising but helpful fact. Lent is a perfect time to experiment with new spiritual practices, and a small thing like praying with open hands, facing up, really can make a difference.

 

Lessons From a Nomadic Childhood by Lynne Baab

Today’s post in the series Let Us Wait As Children Wait is written by Lynne M Baab.  Lynne is the author of numerous books, including Sabbath Keeping, Friending  and  Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation. She is a Presbyterian minister who teaches pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Child on beach

My father was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and we moved 12 times in my first 15 years. Almost all the moves took place in the summer. We would arrive at our new home a week, a month or even two months before the school year started.

It was hard to find new friends in the summer. In the absence of friends to play with, the days and weeks and months of summer in a new place seemed endless. I knew I would make friends once school started. I knew there had to be girls like me somewhere in my neighborhood who would be willing to play with me. I knew I wouldn’t be lonely forever.

But it was hard to wait. I played with my brother. I visited the library and checked out stacks of books. In elementary school I played with dolls on my own, and in junior high school I swam at the pool by myself. And I waited.

Early in my life I learned the skills needed to make new friends. I had to. Those skills were essential to the gypsy life the U.S. military gave us. I learned quite young that if I didn’t want to be lonely, I had to force myself to reach out to others. And I learned that reaching out usually paid off. So as I waited each summer, I wasn’t afraid that I would be lonely for the whole next year. I wasn’t afraid that the loneliness would last forever.

But those long hot days often felt endless. As a fairly young child, I learned to feel the signs that summer was drawing to a close. Even when the August days were hot at noon, I could sense that the days were getting shorter and the nights cooler. When I felt those changes coming, I knew my loneliness would soon end.

Years later, when my children were elementary school students, and then young teenagers, I often found myself depressed in the summer. One summer day my younger son blurted out to me, “Of course summers are hard for you. You moved so many times as a child during summer, and you were so lonely when you got to the new places. Of course those memories influence your summers now.” I gaped at him, astonished at his wisdom as a twelve or thirteen year old.

But I don’t remember being depressed during those endless summer days of childhood. I remember being bored and frustrated. I remember getting tired of playing with my brother. I remember the need for endurance and inner strength for the waiting. I remember that I felt certain I would be able to make friends once school started.

The waiting I experienced most summers as a child sheds some light on the waiting we experience as we anticipate our final adoption as children of God and the redemption of our body and soul. We wait with a combination of certainty and frustration. In Christ, our future is secure. But the waiting is sometimes really, really difficult. Endurance and inner strength matter.

Each of us has to discover the places where we gain the resources that nurture endurance and inner strength. For me it’s mostly prayer: out loud intercessory prayer with my husband and others, prayers of thankfulness, and various forms of silent prayer such as examen, lectio divina and centering prayer. The Sabbath and the Psalms also play a big role in helping me find endurance and inner strength in Christ. Where do you draw near to God and find endurance and inner strength for the waiting? Go there often.

Dead Sea: A Novel by Lynne Baab.

dead sea: A Novel by Lynne Baab

dead sea: A Novel by Lynne Baab

I don’t often post reviews of fiction books, in spite of the fact that I read 3-4 of them a week. However last week my friend Lynne Baab sent me a copy of Dead Sea: A Novelwhich is now available as an e-book on Amazon. I loved it. It not only brought back memories of my own time in Israel twenty years ago but also satisfied my desire for some good detective work. Her descriptions of a trip into Petra Jordan where I have not been, made me want to pack my bags and get on the plane.

This is not a complex novel of intrigue and thrill, but it is a delightful read for a quiet afternoon of relaxation and refreshment. I highly recommend it both to those who love the Middle East, and to those who enjoy a good detective story. 

Joy Together – An Interview with Lynne Baab

Joy together

Joy together

My friend Lynne Baab has just published a new book Joy Together:Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation.  I love her books on Fasting and Sabbath and am eagerly awaiting the arrival of this one. It has already received a great review from Publishers Weekly. and so I wanted to give a heads up to all of you who are looking for congregational resources. The following interview by Jana Reiss was first published on her blog here.

As you wrote your new book, why did you think it was important to emphasize communal spiritual practices?

So many excellent books stress individual spiritual practices. Some of them talk about communal practices a bit, but practical illustrations are few and far between. It’s time for a book that gives practical examples of the ways Christian can engage in spiritual practices (also called spiritual disciplines) in families, small groups and congregations.

What’s the relationship between communal and individual practices?

They flow back and forth. For example, I learned about several forms of contemplative prayer – centering prayer, examen, lectio divina – in group settings. After engaging in those prayer forms with others for a while, I found myself praying that way on my own more often. To illustrate a flow in the opposite direction, I learned breath prayer from a book, and did it on my own for more than a decade before I started teaching it to groups. The last two times I’ve been worship leader at church, I’ve led the whole congregation in breath prayer. For me, thankfulness is another interesting example. My husband and I started praying thankfulness prayers together. Then I began to notice the way my personal prayers shifted more in the direction of thankfulness. Even later, I began to encourage groups to pray thankfulness prayers more often.

What do you think are some of the strengths of your book?

It’s hard to be objective at this point, when only my wonderful editor, Jana, and a few other people (mostly the people who wrote endorsements) have read the book. I asked one friend to read the book in pdf form, before the release date, in order to have a review ready to post on amazon.com. He liked the many stories that illustrate the ways groups can engage in spiritual practices. He also liked the fact that I bring my own life into the book, my own successes and struggles with spiritual practices. One idea that intrigued him came from a section in the chapter on fasting that covers Eastern Orthodox congregations, where fasting is entirely communal, as is feasting together at the end of their many fasts.

What specific practices did you cover?

I have individual chapters on six spiritual practices: fasting, thankfulness, contemplative prayer, contemplative approaches to the Bible, hospitality and Sabbath.  I’ve written books on fasting and the Sabbath, but I decided to conduct more interviews for this book. With respect to the Sabbath, one interviewee said he believes keeping the Sabbath is one of the most challenging spiritual practices in our time. That surprised me, and I tried to address some of those difficulties in the chapter and make suggestions about how congregations can support Sabbath observance. Another chapter that surprised me as I wrote it was the one on thankfulness. My husband and I have been practicing thankfulness in our prayers together for almost 20 years, which has been transforming in the ways I mentioned above but in other ways as well. Writing the chapter was pure joy, because I long for others to grow in thankfulness and the good fruits that come from it.

Have you heard the growing concerns about spiritual practices?

William Willimon and others have spoken out about their concerns about spiritual practices. Willimon believes practices can become a way for us to attempt to take control of our relationship with God. He stresses that Jesus breaks in at unexpected times. Amen to that! I believe spiritual practices open up space and time for Jesus to do exactly that. The stories I’ve heard from people who engage in various spiritual practices certainly reinforces my perception. When we teach about spiritual practices, we need to emphasize that practices create space for God. They don’t in any way make God do something in our lives.

Willimon is also concerned that when we engage in spiritual practices, we may fall into thinking we are earning our salvation. That’s why it’s so important to teach about spiritual practices against a backdrop of God’s grace. Spiritual practices are a way to enjoy Jesus’ presence with us and spend time with the God who already loves us.

What do you think is the greatest contribution of spiritual practices in our time?

Spiritual practices nurture a posture of receptivity. In that posture, we are open to receive from God. We might receive guidance for ministry, or a sense of being loved way down deep, or relief of anxiety for the things on our mind. Or something totally unexpected. So much of life today requires us to take action and act like we’re in control. When we engage in spiritual practices, we relinquish control to God and open ourselves for God to meet us and surprise us.

Lord Teach Us to Pray: Breath Prayer by Lynne Baab

Our post for today, a contribution to the Lord Teach Us To Pray series, comes from Lynne Baab.  She is the author of several books on Christian spiritual practices. This post is excerpted from her upcoming book, Joy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your Congregation, which will be released in September from Westminster John Knox Press. Lynne is a Presbyterian minister who teaches pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand. On her website you can find articles she’s written about spiritual practices, as well as information about her books.

Breath

Breath Prayer

Because of its simplicity, breath prayer is a great way to start when introducing a group to contemplative prayer, and breath prayer is a great way for an individual to slow down and remember God’s presence in the midst of everyday life. I know a family that engages in breath prayer at the beginning of their Sabbath day, and if the parents forget to make time for it, the kids remind them. I’ve used breath prayer in many different small group settings and occasionally in worship services as well, and most people take to it easily.

One way to engage in breath prayer is to imagine breathing out all our concerns and worries into God’s presence, while breathing in God’s love and care. At the Areopagus in Athens, the Apostle Paul said about God, “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17: 28). If God’s presence and love surround us, then it is not a stretch to imagine exhaling our troubles into God’s presence and inhaling God’s love and care with each breath.

When I engage in this kind of breath prayer, I focus on one concern or one person in need as I breathe out. As I feel the air leaving my lungs, I picture myself relinquishing that concern or person into God’s care. Then I breathe in, imagining God’s love filling the empty space where the concern or worry was located inside me.

Sometimes the concern is so great that I spend several breaths on the same issue or person, always relinquishing the concern into God’s hands as I breathe out, and always imagining God’s love coming into me as I breathe in. Sometimes I simply name all my family members as I engage in breath prayer, saying one name silently with each breath out, knowing that God is aware of that person’s needs even more than I could be.

Another form of breath prayer uses the ancient prayer called the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This prayer is based loosely on the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 8:9-14 in which the tax collector says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (verse 13). One phrase of the Jesus prayer is prayed on each breath, with the breaths providing a rhythm for the prayer.

In groups, I have used a white board to list the favorite names for Jesus that the group members suggest, such as Prince of Peace, Bread of Life, Light of the World and True Vine. I suggest to the group that they pick one of those names and adapt the Jesus prayer to that name, along these lines:

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

Lord Jesus Christ, Bread of life, have mercy on me, feed me.

Lord Jesus Christ, Light of the World, have mercy on me, shine your light in me.

Lord Jesus Christ, True Vine, have mercy on me, help me abide in you.

Then we spend some time as a group praying the new prayer silently in harmony with our breathing.

Breath prayer works well as a first stage of prayer for many other kinds of contemplative or intercessory group prayer. It provides a good introduction to guided meditations. So simple and non-threatening, breath prayer helps people relax and feel competent about silent prayer when they might feel a bit unsure about engaging in quiet contemplative prayer in a group.

Breath prayer engages the physical body and helps us experience God’s presence in our bodies and in the physical world, integrating the physical and spiritual parts of our lives. Focusing on our breath slows down our breathing, which has the effect of slowing down all bodily functions, a way to experience peace from the One who gives us breath and longs to give us peace.

Breath prayer also reminds us of the Holy Spirit, the breath of God in our lives. When leading breath prayer with a group, any of these connections can be highlighted for the group, helping them to deepen their experience.

Life in a two-beat rhythm – by Lynne Baab

The posts for Worshipping God in the Real World have been few and far between lately.  Hmm I wonder if that is a symptom of something?  But more of that later.  Today we have another post from Lynne Baab the author of the recently released Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World, as well as numerous other books including Sabbath Keeping and Reaching Out in a Networked World. Visit her website for articles she has written and information about her books. Lynne is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, currently a lecturer in pastoral theology in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Walking the labyrinth - Celtic retreat 2010

Walking the labyrinth - Celtic retreat 2010

Have you ever walked a labyrinth? I’ve done it maybe a dozen times, and several of those times I have had a pressing issue that I wanted to pray about. My pattern in those times is to pray my desires on the way in, then stand restfully at the center for a few moments, enjoying God’s peace. On the way out I pray in a different way, sometimes expressing my willingness for God’s desires about the issues. I might ask God to open me to unexpected answers to my prayers or I might simply thank God for the fact that the issue is now firmly in God’s hands, no longer in my own. On one occasion , which I have been pondering recently, that movement in (focused on my own desires) and the movement out (expressing my willingness for God’s future) prepared me for a major life change.

That movement in/movement out pattern can be helpful in many everyday prayer situations. One way to engage in breath prayer is to breathe out our worries and struggles into God’s presence, one at a time with each breath out. Then with each breath in, to imagine ourselves breathing in God’s peace and love.

Another way involves praying while walking. As a young mom I used to hire a high school girl to come over after school a few days a week so I could get out for a walk. I had a two-mile route. I walked through our neighborhood to a lake, then took the path along the lake toward an aqua theater. At the aqua theater, I would turn around and walk home.

In the first half of the walk, I would think about the things I was worried and preoccupied about. When I reached the lake, I imagined Jesus in the boat on the lake, and I handed him each of those worries one by one as I walked on the path beside the lake.

At the aqua theater I turned around, and my prayers changed. At that point I might simply enjoy the birds and trees and water, thanking God for the beauty of the creation. Or I might pray thankfulness prayers, focusing particularly on the gift of God’s peace that comes when we hand over all our needs. I might pray intercessory prayers for needs in the world. Whatever I prayed on the way back came from the deep sense of rest and confidence that flows out of giving our concerns to God and knowing God is capable of dealing with them.

Any back-and-forth walk can be an opportunity to pray in this way. A short walk down the hall at work to photocopy a document can be an opportunity to hand our concerns over to God on the way there, then rest in God’s peace on the way back. A bike or car trip to run an errand can function the same way with prayers about needs and concerns on the way and prayers focused on thankfulness on the way back. The primordial rhythm of our breath teaches us life in a two-beat rhythm, and we can draw on those two beats in a variety of ways in our everyday prayers. The trick is to make it a pattern or a habit, so we get used to the idea that the first half of the journey is an invitation to hand over our worries to God, and the second half is a time to rest in God’s goodness to us.