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Shocking Me into New Directions

We can all recall times when a seemingly small but emotionally charged incident made a big change in our lives. It is like coming to an invisible corner in the road and being clearly nudged in a new direction. Sometimes the incident, though charged at the moment can only be seen for its transforming quality months later. At other times the incident involves a coincidence that is so amazing we recognize it immediately and can laugh with the recognition that only God could pull off something like this.

I had one of those emotionally charged incidents inside a prison. This incident changed the direction of my life and the way I perceived the world, though I didn’t know it at the time. I just knew it was big. I was at a weekend retreat devoted to understanding and experiencing God’s unconditional love for us. I had chosen to be a participant alongside the insiders, the women inmates, so I was sitting at a table with three inmates and a group leader. It was the first evening of the retreat so we were all a bit anxious about what we were getting ourselves into.

At the time I was a new spiritual director. I had been coming to the women’s prison with a small group of people from my church for a few years to do a poetry group. In the group, we all chose a book of poetry out of a big box and read a poem that spoke to us. It was a good experience and I was gratified to see that the women who attended seemed to be receiving support from the group by reading these poems. Their lives seemed sad and, at times, tragic and I was drawn to keep attending this group because they were so faithful to it. So I was eager to see if this new experience, this retreat, was anything I could be part of as a leader in the future. But first I had to experience it.

I turned to the woman next to me, a dark haired, bright eyed, startlingly attractive young woman and asked her name. I wondered if she was an inmate or the table leader. She said her name was Janet. “Hey,” I said, “That’s my name too. I don’t meet a lot of Janet’s around.” She said she didn’t either and I felt instant rapport with her. “So,” I said, “What’s your middle name?” “Marie,” she responded. “Well, what a coincidence,” I retorted, “My middle name is Marie too. What are the odds of that?” We both laughed. This was getting interesting.

We couldn’t stop there. “So, what’s your last name?” I asked. She had an unusual last name so we joked that the odds were way too high that we would have the same last name. Something prompted me to ask her maiden name. When she told me I may have audibly gasped. She and I had the exact same maiden names. This was more than coincidence. It was a trademark of God’s sense of humor, to get my instant attention and show me something… but what?

This incident stunned me. I also found out she was, indeed, an inmate. It turned out to be the beginning of a long relationship between us. But at the time I have to admit that I still had stereotypes of women in prison, even though I had been coming there for a couple of years. She broke my stereotyped mold, just by who she was; her flair, her beauty, her quick wit, her intelligence. She had my attention.

The deeper truth beyond the stereotype is that I identified with her immediately and I could see how similar she was to friends of mine. I could even see a bit of myself in her personality. How could this be? I had never met a woman in prison who I thought was like me before and I had to conclude that it was possible. Now I know that, given the right circumstances I could end up in prison, any of us could, but I had not thought of that before. There have been a few times in my life I was so backed up against the wall I could have reacted with violence. Now this was coming home to me.

Janet and I shared the same name but we were sisters in more ways than one.

This startling incident and my subsequent revelations of our similarities led me to continue to do work at the prison and I began volunteering as a spiritual director. I saw my new friend, Janet, twice a month for the next eight years and we had an amazing relationship. I walked with her through some of the most excruciating experiences of her life and she taught me important lessons about what matters most in a relationship. One day when I came to see her she said, “Do you know what I like most about you, Janet?” “No,” I laughed, wondering what she was about to say. “What do you like about me?” “Well,’ she said, “You come out here even when it snows.” It was one of the highest compliments I had ever had from a friend. I think she meant I cared about her enough not to let the weather be an excuse to skip our session, since I had to drive a considerable distance to get the prison.

I am forever indebted to her for being in my life. I think of those years of work with women in prison as a different form of higher education. They taught me about survival, friendship, abuse, candor, generosity and faithfulness.

God is probably still chuckling a bit recalling how all those strings got pulled so I got to sit next to Janet Marie that evening at the retreat. Nice work, God.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay
When have you had an emotionally charged incident that changed a direction in your life, either positively or negatively?

How was the incident, in retrospect, something you needed in order to grow?

How was God involved in this incident, then and now as you reflect?

How have you broken down stereotypes of people you thought were different from you?

When have you been aware that you could do something violent and it scared you or awakened you?

When have you met someone who you had more in common with than was comfortable for you?

Resting in God: In the Midst of a Storm

Mark 4:35-39 (NRSV)
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But Jesus was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

Psalm 107: 28-32 (NRSV)
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out from their distress; he made the storm be still,

and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad because they had quiet, and be brought them to their desired haven.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

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