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How Outrageous
(For Gary K.)

My friend studies
at a seminary library

Christ appears here in sculpture
with arms veed in victory
aimed toward heaven
body still hanging
on that wooden death beam

A sign like a small tent
stands on the sculpture’s base

Please touch

My friend
reads it twice

How outrageous
How transforming

©Janet O. Hagberg, 2006

Reflections on this poem:

What feelings emerge for you when reading this victory poem about the cross?

Usually we are asked not to touch sculpture. What does it mean to you to see the sign Please Touch next to Jesus on the cross?

What is outrageous or transforming about this invitation?

What is dying in you this Lent and what is seeking to be resurrected?

 

 

A Rooster and Some Sheep: God’s Subtle Humor

God has a subtle and imaginative sense of humor in my experience—wonderful in its unpredictability. Imagine using a rooster in one of the most poignant stories in all of scripture. On the surface, the story of Peter and the rooster seems more tragic than transforming. He is one of Jesus’ closest disciples. He says he will never leave Jesus. He boasts of his fidelity. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, on Jesus’ last night before he died, Peter is among the most intimate friends of Jesus. So if anyone would be true to his master, it would be Peter

Yet Jesus warns him, “Peter, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” (Mark 14:20). Peter protests Jesus’ words vehemently. Yet within hours he is waiting outside the court where Jesus is being accused and a maid recognizes him as one of Jesus’ followers. He denies that he is one of them. . I know God had enormous compassion on Peter, yet it also seemed like Peter needed a wake up call, a wall experience, to fully become the rock he was called to be.

I’d like to stop and imagine what was going through Peter’s mind when that woman recognizes him as a disciple that night. For me it would be fear and a sense of self-preservation. When fear takes a strong grip on my heart I usually freeze. I feel there is no escape unless I capitulate to the fear and do whatever I need to do to relieve the immediate danger, hoping the threat will go away. Peter is no different. He denies Jesus, thinking the fear and threat will go away. But it doesn’t. He denies Jesus twice more in short order and then—the fateful moment—he hears the rooster crowing to the dawn. This is his moment of truth. He remembers Jesus’ words and he falls apart with shame.

I’ve been there too, with the stark realization that I have done myself in. I have failed myself, others—even God—by not facing my fear. It is the hardest thing for me to do, face my fears head on. For me to face my fear, usually the threat needs to get pretty bad or repeat itself over and over so I can’t deny it any more. Or the threat needs to drive me to God where I gain the strength to face my fear even though the consequences seem overwhelming.

One of my most threatening work situations occurred early in my career when I was working in an exciting new college that was on the cutting edge of its field. I was the major wage earner in my marriage because my husband was in graduate school. I loved my work of advising and teaching adult students. The trouble started when my boss began asking me to work late on special projects. We were the only two in his office and he came up behind me, putting his hands on my shoulders and rubbing my back. I was uncomfortable but said nothing. I thought he was just being nice. But one night he came up behind me did something very inappropriate. I was shocked and did not welcome his advances, but he was my boss. I was afraid. And this behavior came at a time when sexual harassment was not yet a household word. I didn’t know what to do, whom to tell. I wondered if it might have been my fault because I had let him rub my shoulders.

He had control of my job. I couldn’t afford to lose it since I was the major wage earner. I was young. I was petrified. I was stuck. I was like Peter. I stayed in denial, trying to work harder and be better. But nothing helped. He insisted on driving me home from work one night and veered into a parking lot, being even more sexually explicit. I told him I was not interested in this kind of a relationship. I just wanted to do a good job in the workplace.

But now I knew I had to face this fear or I would start to die emotionally. Somehow I knew that instinctively. I begged God for a way out. In my next performance review I said that I thought our working styles were incompatible. He said that I had become a problem in the office and that he was going to talk to his boss about me. Then out of my mouth came these words, “Well, if you are talking to your boss about me, than I’m going to talk to your boss’ boss.” The words shocked me. They came from a place deep inside, a little box labeled “Risk. Use only when absolutely necessary.” But they were out there and I had to act.

So with much trepidation, I went to talk to the vice president. I didn’t mention the sexual behavior but said our working styles were incompatible. I think he knew more than he let on, though he said nothing to me directly. The next week he gave me another job and I never worked for my old boss again. I had faced my worst fears; fear of conflict, financial insecurity, public shame and recrimination. With help from above, support from my husband, and help from the college vice president it all worked out. Now I can even have compassion on that boss because I realize the cycle of addiction he was living but at the time it was my nightmare work experience.

I felt God’s compassion for me in this crisis, and also a bit of God’s subtle humor when those words literally flew out of my mouth. If I had thought about them, I never would have said them. And once they were out, how would I proceed? I think this was an example of God’s divine way of helping me to move forward by facing my fear. Afterwards I felt differently about myself. I was a better risk taker. I had more inner confidence. I had a voice. Now I see it as one of the early turning points of my life.

What about Peter? He was filled with fear. He denied Jesus. And then a lowly rooster brings Peter to his knees. I experience this as a moment of compassion and subtle humor, which may have softened the blow for Peter as it did for me.

But the rooster is not the end of the story for Peter. He repents. He learns. He becomes a trustworthy disciple. He becomes the rock of the church. Jesus later redeems him by asking Peter three times if Peter loves him. Then he asks him to feed his sheep; such a sweet way to forgive and transform him. God uses roosters and sheep, simple farm animals, to transform Peter. Can’t you just imagine God with a little smile of humor and understanding?
© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a “Peter” moment in your life that lead to a different way of being or living in the world? What was it and how did it emerge?

What kind of letting go is God asking of you as you journey forward?

Is fear a factor in your next phase of the journey? If so how do you deal with it?

How is fear a friend or a teacher for you?

Sharing the Pain

As I walk the long, painful journey toward the cross, I must pause on the way to wash my neighbor’s feet. As I kneel before my brothers and sisters, wash their feet, and look into their eyes, I discover that it is because of my brothers and sisters who walk with me that I can make the journey at all. Henri Nouwen

Each year during Lent, the forty days preceding Easter, I use one artistic symbol in my home, to focus my attention on what Lent means to me. That symbol is a clay sculpture, about a foot long, of sixteen Peruvian peasants carrying a cross on their shoulders. They are wearing their traditional caps with the ear flaps and their peasant garb. (photo attached) When I first received this sculpture as a gift, it moved me deeply. As I’ve lived with it for more than fifteen years now, it has found a place in my soul and in my daily life.

What this simple rustic sculpture represents is my way of understanding the death and resurrection of Jesus, or the Atonement, as it is called in theological terms.

I have to confess that I have struggled all of my adult life with the theology of the Atonement. There are several views put forth from different theological positions. The most widely embraced view is that God sent Jesus to pay the price for our sins and so Jesus served as a sacrifice in our place. Another view is that Jesus death and resurrection declares victory over sin and death for all time. Yet another view sees Jesus’ life as a moral example that was so counter to the culture he was killed, and we are called to carry on his work. While all of these hold some truth for me, for some reason, none of them captures my soul like my sculpture of the Peruvian peasants carrying the cross together. But until recently I wasn’t sure why.

At lunch one day, a close friend, Gary Klingsporn, who is both pastor and scholar, was describing to me how vital community is to the life of faith. I added my perspective that, as humans, we form deeper bonds with one another when we share each other’s pain. As we verbalized those two thoughts I felt a new connection to the Peruvian peasants and the atonement; we make meaning of Christ’s death when we, as a community, shoulder each other’s crosses, and we make meaning of the resurrection when we share each other’s joy. We meet most deeply when we share our pain with one another. In seeing this, I felt like a veil was lifted for me and that the atonement had a new and deeper meaning.

Then my friend began to delineate how various events from Jesus’ life supported this view. For example, Jesus asked his disciples to pray with him in the Garden of Gethsemane the night he was arrested. He asked them to be his community in this dark hour, to be with him as he agonized. They fell asleep instead, but they were still there. We can relate to that. At other times he asked them if they could drink from the cup from which he was being asked to drink, to share the kind of pain he felt. He taught the disciples how to take care of one another and he encouraged his close women friends to continue his work. These people, along with his family, were his community and he asked them to share the whole journey with him, helping him in his darkest moments.

On the cross Jesus spoke to his mother and to his beloved disciple John, who were standing together. He showed them a new sense of family, where John was now Mary’s son and she his mother. This was an enlarged sense of family, of community as close as family. Jesus also promised the disciples that after he died and rose again he and his father would come and make their home with them, through the spirit, so that the community of faith would be enlivened.

After his death, Jesus’ community attended to him. Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body and placed it in his own tomb after the women followers prepared his body with spices and wrapped it in linen cloths. After Jesus arose angels stood at the tomb to give information to his close friends about what had happened. Here was a community sharing the pain, shouldering the cross together and now bonding with one another in the joy of the resurrection, eventually forming the emerging church that has survived for two thousand years.

I do not intend to discard any of the other views of the atonement just because of my sense that this one makes sense in my soul . None of us has a corner on the truth. But what I do resonate with in this view, that I would title the ”Call to Community,” is that it feels real and true to my life. It’s not abstract or theoretical. It’s my daily life. It’s where I live. When I am in pain, awful pain, I cry out to God but I also call a friend or go where I will be received in my pain. When a friend is in crisis I try to be a loving and stable force embracing their instability.

Shouldering the cross together feels like the essence of Jesus’ call in my life, and though painful, it is also comforting. It’s not just about Jesus’ boundless act of love on the cross, but about the courage and commitment Jesus calls me to have for myself and for others, when we are in pain. Jesus says, “If anyone wants to be a follower of me, let him take up his cross and follow me.” Of course, it is also important to share the joy with others in community. When I share a healing moment, a celebration or a renewed life with someone I feel a holy shiver moving through my body. We’ve been through the tough times and now we can laugh and share the festive moments as well. For me, joy seems much sweeter when we have shared our pain together.

This year my friend, Gary, moved far away but we are committed to remaining in close community with one another. As a going away gift I gave him my Peruvian cross and we promised one another we would work on fleshing out this shared view of the atonement. You are reading the first simple attempt.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
My friend, Rev. Dr. Gary Klingsporn is now senior pastor at First Congregational Church on Nantucket.

Reflections on this essay
When have you experienced the power of community in sharing pain?

How did it affect you?

What or who is your spiritual community now?

How has it changed over the years?

What is your experience of or view of Jesus’ death and resurrection?

Dear Subscribers,

We are in the season of Lent. The forty days of Lent are intended to prepare us for Holy Week and Easter. Some people view Lent as a time to be reflective and to consider changes in their lives. Some refrain from certain things like activities or foods while others add things that will remind them of their relationship with God, like going on a retreat or being more intentional about prayer. I like using the metaphor of death and resurrection to ask what in my life needs to die and what needs to come to life. This year I’m going through Lent by following the story of Mary Magdalene.

During the next several weeks before Easter I will share with you several different reflections on the season starting today with my homey view of what it all means and ending with a challenging essay called Threatened with Resurrection. I hope you all are inspired to take your personal meaning of Lent into your heart and let it feed and nourish you.

Janet

Fear as a Spiritual Gift

It may seem strange to think of fear as a spiritual gift since it is one of the most pervasive and destructive emotions, right up there with hatred, rage, and self-loathing. Yet countless courageous saints transformed their fear into a spiritual gift; Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teresa of Avila. How can we learn to claim fear as a gift?

For me, it’s helpful to first understand where fear comes from. Some of it is right in my DNA, the fear of saber-tooth tigers that I inherited from my ancestors. Some fear comes from the culture in the form of the daily news, prime time drama and radio talk shows. But I believe that my most intimate fear comes from my family, my role models for living my life.

One useful way I experienced my family’s fear was to do a guided imagery meditation. I started by getting quiet and asking God to surround me with light and love. Then I imagined my family, in my early teen years, sitting around the dinner table. During dinner someone knocks on the door, bringing us news that triggers an emotional and financial crisis. In my case the person tells us my dad has lost his major business client and we could be ruined financially. I imagine what each person does when this news breaks. My Dad gets mad and yells at us, my mother cries, my brother leaves to go and drink, and I try to soothe my mom and then I disappear emotionally. But very quickly we all squelch our emotions and jump into gear, moving to a solution.

What I learned from my family is still my first inclination in a crisis. I quickly comfort my loved ones and then disappear. I stay away from the fire. Protect myself. Shut down emotionally so I don’t have to feel. Then I forge a solution. I have done this countless times and the fear usually ends up lodging in my body as digestion problems, muscle cramps or spasms, tension headaches and other signs of ill health.

In the last several years I have consciously chosen to face into my fear instead of relying on the old script. I was worn out and needed some new ways to address fear. I’ve found that by bringing God directly into my fear, my fear can evolve into deeper self-awareness, courage, and, at times, transformation. God chooses imaginative ways for me to gain insights into my fear and the danger of not facing it.

Dreams are one of those ways. At a key juncture of my life I had a vivid dream that I believe came directly from God. I was inside of a train box-car which was moving in the shape of a figure eight, the symbol for infinity. The car was locked—and on fire. On the outside of the car was a plaque with my mother’s name on it. That dream, a fiery warning to me to break away from my mother’s life script, which had a death grip over me, was a turning point in my life. My mother died tragically young, partly because she could not face the fear in her life, especially her marriage. I felt I could die young too, if I did not face the fear in my own marriage. After that dream I couldn’t go back to my old script if I wanted to survive. It still took me several years to live into the new truths the dream brought me, but it took me to a new way of life. In facing into my fear and embracing it as a spiritual practice, I found a journey into deeper intimacy with God.

Fear is usually a signal that something new is calling us. We are being asked to let go, to step up to the plate, to release someone or something, to change a system, to live a new script, or to take a new direction. Whatever the call is, I find it becomes much more clear when I bring God consciously into the process of listening to my fear. A few of the ways I’ve found to bring God into the process are through art, dreams, journaling, prayer, scripture, poetry, honest conversations, staying in the present, processing unusual experiences, listening to body symptoms, and using wise counsel. God speaks to me in each of these ways, at times using all of them to get my attention. I consciously pray for the clarity to see what God is calling me to do and the courage to live it out.

Another effective way to face our old scripts about fear is to ask God to help us re-write our original family script that has had such a stronghold on us. I went back into the guided meditation of my family at dinner. But when the knock on the door came and we opened it, Jesus was at the door with the messenger. In my imagination, after the news broke, Jesus pulled up another chair, sat down and immediately took me in his lap. He put his arm around my brother and held him gently so he stayed in the room. He asked my dad to just be quiet and breathe for a while before we spoke, and he looked at my mother with calm compassionate eyes so she could stay present too.

We talked about our fears, anger and anxiety in ways that all of us could express. No jumping into action, no disappearing, no scape-goating. Then he reminded us of the other times we had experienced crises that had worked out well. He stayed right there with us. He gave us hope and compassion and love. I knew, after I reframed my family conflict, I could be confident, since Jesus would be my strength in times of fear.

Two of the most repeated words in scripture are “Fear not.” I think there is a reason for that. We are all afraid, more than we know. But God is present in fear. That is precisely where we encounter God. After each declaration of “Fear not” in scripture, a promise follows; for I am with you; for unto you a savior is born; for you have found favor with God. So if we embrace our fear and let God into it, if we allow our fear to be our teacher and to guide us into more intimacy with God, then fear is a spiritual gift. And what a gift!

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

Reflections on this essay

Try doing the guided mediation with your family as a child. What is the news?

How does each person react? How do you react? What is the result?

Do you still react as you did in your family? How does it work for you now?

When have you had a chance to break the family script, to do it differently? How did it work?

What are your best ways to face fear and bring God into it?

Try doing the meditation again, bringing Jesus into the reframing of your family crisis. What happens differently? What is the result? How do you feel in this script?

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