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Handing Over the Reins and Riding Shotgun

Death is usually messy, sad, frightening and unpredictable. Most of us fear it more than anything else in life. At least I do. But I’ve also found that death or the dying process brings, to some, deeper clarity, more profound peace, and a steady rain of grace. I’m not sure what accounts for the variety of responses people have in their dying process but I have been invited to journey with a number of people in their last months of life and I have sensed that my soul is taking in life lessons that I would be wise follow now instead of waiting to learn them from my own dying process.

In a recent experience of being with a dying man named David, I became aware of the intentional way he was approaching his earthly departure and his crossing over. When he asked me to accompany him on this journey I readily accepted. As is usually the case, I learned and received much more than I gave and I felt he was a wise and trusted teacher since God seemed to be speaking through him. David taught me some poignant principles that seem worth reiterating.

Courage to face his truth: The day David heard from his oncologist that his cancer was inoperable and he had one to three months left to live, he came to a meeting of our little leadership group at church because he wanted his spiritual “family” to know. He could have gone home, isolated himself and felt angry or betrayed, but he brought all of his fears and feelings to the group. He gratefully accepted our support and prayers. I remember feeling such a strong presence of God in the circle it was palpable. David’s courage and willingness to reach out awed and challenged us. He found that facing the truth took some of the fear out of it and allowed him to focus on the deeper movements of truth within him; peace, forgiveness and letting go.

Peace as his guideline: David faced the unknown. When we met together, he spoke of unfinished internal business and he had myriads of emotions swirling around. But he knew his bottom line. He wanted to find peace. So anything that granted him peace, even if it required acknowledgment of a tough truth, was what he sought. Sometimes this meant, for me, just being quiet with him in his room, other times listening to music, other times working out an issue. He asked for God’s peace to be his guide during his dying process.

Clearing the slate: One of David’s wishes was to make all the amends he could and grant forgiveness where it was needed. He did his as he said his goodbyes and saw all the members of his extended family and friends. He included himself in his forgiveness process so he could leave without regrets. He wanted nothing to hold him back, so, even though he was still open to a miracle of physical healing, he was getting ready to go.

Observing his blocks: Over the course of his last days, David noticed he was clinging to control, trying to hold on to it as a way to ward off fear and death. We talked about this and we found an image he liked, an image that helped him transfer his control to God. This was one of our most poignant conversations, when we latched on to the image of an old buckboard being pulled by a team of horses and driven by David himself. He decided to hand over the reins to God but still ride shotgun, right up in the front seat next to God. David smiled when we talked of this and said he thought this idea would work for letting go of control.

Surrounded by loving people: As soon as David and his wife learned of his prognosis they contacted home hospice to come in and get the process in motion. He wanted to be at home, surrounded by people who cared for him and loved him. His wife was quickly granted a leave from her work. His sister and several family members and friends gathered close. Favorite clergy came to be near him. He asked a couple people to be his spiritual mentors. He was aware that, although he would be ultimately dying alone, he did not have to die by himself. And he clearly recognized God’s presence, sometimes in care givers or the soothing voices or touch of friends. His family and friends stayed by him but also eventually gave him permission to go so he did not cling to life for their sakes.

Opening to God: David paradoxically wanted to live and hold on for his family but he was also willing to hold life more lightly and take the journey towards God. He gradually became more at peace with the process and he began to actively minister to the people who came to see him. His conversations stayed with us for days. Miraculous connections happened among people. Spiritual healing and serendipity happened in his presence. His peace and courage radiated out to us. His quotes from the precipice challenged and comforted us. His desire for music, scripture, communion, prayer, touch and poetry helped those of us around him as much as it helped him.

What David taught me from accompanying him on his dying journey is that there is nothing worth clinging to and the more I cling, the less free I am. He taught me that asking whom I need to forgive and what I need to be forgiven for are two of life’s keenest questions. He showed me that if something is not life-giving I need not engage it. And he showed me that spending more time around people I love is worth the effort. But the most important lesson for me was the importance of continually dealing with all the things that are piled up between God and me, so I can continue moving in God’s direction. As I acknowledge those things and turn them over to God, it is easier to let go and allow God to lead.

Sort of like giving God the reins and riding shot gun.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.
Reflections on this essay
When have you learned from someone who is dying?

What was the most important thing you learned?

What truth would change your life if you faced it?

Who or what do you need to forgive?

What, if anything, is in the way between you and God?

In what areas could you release the reins and ride shot gun?

Resting in God: In the Valley of the Shadow

Psalm 23:4 (NRSV)
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me.

Isaiah 40:4 (NRSV)
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

Reflections on this icon

What captures your attention in this icon?

What valleys are you walking through in your life at this time?

How do you embrace the phrase “I will fear no evil” even though you may feel you are in danger?

How have you experienced darkness becoming light by staying with God in the valley of the shadow?

I Could Die Now

Each January I am eager to participate in Martin Luther King’s birthday celebration. His life inspires me to be as deep, courageous and faithful as he was to his calling. I visited the King home and museum in Atlanta a few years ago and saw the replica of his kitchen where he agonized at the kitchen table with God all night over the constant death threats he was facing. In the wee hours of the morning he reached the end of his own strength and turned himself over to God and to his calling. He heard a voice say, “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.” After that, he said, he was ready to face anything. That kitchen table experience gave meaning to his famous speech about seeing the promised land but, like Moses, not going there with his people. Yet he was not afraid, for he had been with God in that kitchen and knew that all would be well. He would fulfill his mission. The next day he was killed.

I am reminded, on a simpler level, of a man in scripture whose life was fulfilled just by showing up in a field and giving directions. We do not even know his name yet all of history hinged on his part in the drama. Jacob sent his favorite son, Joseph to find his brothers in the fields. Joseph went to their usual spot but they were not there. The man-with-no-name showed up in the field and said to Joseph, “What are you seeking?” Joseph inquired about his brothers and found out they were headed for Goshen. When Joseph got to Goshen his brothers sought to kill him, out of jealousy and bitterness, but instead they sold him into slavery in Egypt where he miraculously rose to a powerful position in Pharaoh’s administration. He saved Egypt from starvation and eventually reconciled with his brothers when they came to beg for food. But this story would have ended early if Joseph had not encountered the nameless man in the field. He would have gone back home. So the nameless man’s calling was fulfilled with a question and an instruction. He did what he came to do. He could die now.

In Jesus’ first month of life his parents took him to the temple in Jerusalem to offer him to God. Simeon was an old man in the temple to whom God had promised a glimpse of the Messiah before he died. When Simeon came to Mary and Joseph and asked to hold the baby Jesus his words to God are so eloquent they have been immortalized in poetry and music: “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation which thou has prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel.” He must have died with great peace.

What about us? I wonder, sometimes, if I am afraid of death because I do not have a sense of having fulfilled my calling. I wonder if I would feel differently about death if I had a clear sense of call and I was given the grace, like Martin and Simeon, to know when my calling was fulfilled so I could literally rest in peace. I love the words I hear at bedsides of those who die with satisfaction about their lives, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

I’m not certain that I have had a clear calling that I have fulfilled. It seems I have ever-emerging calls and I’m not always clear when they are complete. Maybe the achiever in me is looking too hard for the rewards of a job well done! For whatever reason the answer is yet incomplete. I guess that’s why I’m still here.

I have had just a few times in my life, though, in which I felt that something I was part of was so significant that if I were to die right then, it would be OK with me because it felt ordained in a holy sort of way.

One of those experiences occurred in October of 1997. I stood on the Sylvan Theater stage near the Washington monument in Washington DC announcing the beginning of the March to End the Silence about domestic violence. We had gathered all fifty states and eight other countries to call for a healing of domestic abuse and an end to domestic homicides. We walked slowly to the US Capitol carrying 1500 red life-sized silhouettes of the women who had been murdered as a result of domestic violence in one year in our country. My involvement in this initiative was part of the healing of my family story as well, so my leadership had added significance. I felt, for just an instant, as I looked out over that sea of red silhouettes that fall day, that if I died then, it would be OK.

I’ve had that “mission accomplished” feeling a few other times as well. These are the times in which I have experienced reconciliation with someone I was estranged from. Two come to mind, that are the most memorable, The first is a reconnection with my brother in which we were able to talk to one another and say that we loved one another. Even though we do not spend much time together, it feels like a holy compromise. The other completion time was a miraculous reconciliation with a friend after several years of estrangement. The flow of grace after our hearts broke open was worth the wait. Seeing her smiling face with tears of openness was like seeing the face of God.

I suspect God has more surprises in store for me. I, of course, do not know when I will die. But I rather like the idea of thinking it could be at a time in which I had, with God’s grace, fulfilled something I was called to do; stand in a field and give directions, let God heal my heart, bless a special child, write an essay on dying, or pray a loving prayer for all who read the essay.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay
Who in history do you respect for fulfilling their calling as you imagine it?

When have you had a sense of a calling, a work or experience you were meant to have?

When have you sensed that something you were called to do was fulfilled?

How do you feel about death coming at the fulfillment of a calling?

What is your calling now, knowing it can be very simple or highly complex?

The Supersized Fear

In a vintage comedy series called Sanford and Sons, there was a signature gesture that the father, Fred Sanford, used when he was in conflict with his son or when he was under great stress. He would put his hand on his heart, look up into the sky where he envisioned his deceased wife to be, and say, “Elizabeth, this is it, The Big One. I’m coming to join you.” The audience laughed and the conflict would eventually be resolved. Humor and lightheartedness are a healthy way to deal with death. But most of us have a hard time feeling humor around anyone’s death, much less our own. Instead of seeing death as another significant part of our journey we usually deny death or try to avoid it. Most of us have little preparation for it so when we are facing death, our own or someone else’s, we are overwhelmed.

I am not an expert on death nor have I resolved my own issues about death. But I have lost a lot of people in my life at relatively young ages and, as a spiritual director and friend, I have assisted several people in their death process. I’ve lost my parents, in-laws, seventeen aunts and uncles, and three of my best friends, starting when I was in my early twenties. As a result, I’ve tried to prepare, as best I can, for my own death by preparing my will, my medical directive, some funeral wishes and my final resting place. More importantly, I’ve tried to come to terms with my life so when the time comes to die I will be spiritually ready. This, I’ve found, allows me embrace life in a different way, with more joy and less fear.

Three factors are crucial for me in attending to both death and life: forgiveness, gratitude and beauty. My reflections on these factors are not meant to be morbid but quite the opposite. They are intended to make my life more full, free and meaningful.

Forgiveness: I could carry so many burdens of regret and resentment to my grave if I didn’t stop to release them. Part of this process, for me, is to forgive myself first for the things I wish to God I could do over but can’t. In my twenties and thirties I know I hurt a lot of people with my folly and my drive. At the time it seemed rational to me, but I would make different choices now. So I gently forgive that young wounded woman who knew no better and did the best she could with what she had. Rev. John Claypool, a wise pastor, who knows grief firsthand says that we need to move from all of our “if onlys” to a focus on “next time.” When we do that we live our lives differently.

I can also forgive others who have hurt me; family, friends, and enemies. I do not deny the pain of what happened to me but through a healing process I can forgive. It is not easy and it takes years to do but eventually I find that the things that have hurt me ultimately have helped me to become whole. By facing them and learning how they were my teachers I have begun to heal. And my experiences have brought me more compassion, better boundaries and a path to my own self worth. I am learning to let go and to depend on God instead of blaming others for my unhappiness.

Gratitude: When I am faced with the loss of a loved one, I naturally focus on what is missing, what will never return. But I’ve found that if I stay intentionally focused on the loss I soon sink deeper into the despair. If I can also focus on what is here, right in front of me, that is life-giving, it slowly helps me to reclaim gratitude for the life I have. It does not mean I rush my grief, I just open my eyes to what I’ve overlooked. An old Jungian analyst summed up this life stance with the words, “Grieve the losses. Deal with what is. And work on wonder.”

I have learned this stance on gratitude most forcefully from the people at the inner city church I attend. There is a lot there that could drag us down yet the focus is on what we can praise God for each week, as well as what needs healing. I’ve learned there is always something we can be grateful for and that finding it allows us to build our hope. This church reminds me that I am especially grateful for people who, at critical times in my life, have embraced me in love and also held my feet to the fire. They have shaped my whole stance on life and healing. These are people like friends, spiritual directors, therapists, authors, pastors and of course, God. As a result of the profound journey they have lead me on, I know I will die in the arms of God with angels ministering to me.

Beauty: Beauty means different things to each of us but whatever it means, it touches a thin place, where the veil between this earth and the eternal is temporarily lifted, if only for a few seconds. When we feel that connection we are closer to our deaths in beautiful ways. We may not even need to define beauty as a thin place for it to have that affect. We just feel the split second connection with that which is beyond us but intimate with us. There are thin places of beauty everywhere and it is a gift to us when we recognize them.

I experience beauty in the poetic double play in baseball, a touch of the eternal in the arc of the ball as it floats between bases. I experience beauty in classical and jazz music, textured fabric, and in a Siberian Iris, but also in the freedom of letting go of control, of releasing my ego and of feeling compassion for someone who has hurt me. I feel beauty in being able to laugh gently at my own foibles and mean it. The more I touch the eternal while here on earth the more familiar it is. Consequently I am less afraid of entering it when my time comes.

I hope I will be able to someday touch my heart and look up to the heavens and say with humor and anticipation, as Fred Sanford did, “Friends, I’m coming to join you. Put on the tea pot.”

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

Reflections on this essay
What ways have you found to face your own death?

How does that affect the way in which you live?

Who have you chosen to forgive; and what happened as a result?

How have you found gratitude to be an antidote to fear or despair?

How does beauty alleviate your fears of death?

Dear Subscribers,

We are ready to launch into a new subject for the next several weeks. The experience I’m focusing on comes to all of us but most of us don’t want to think about it. It is our supersized fear, and that is death. I’ll try to write about it in a safe way, a spiritual, humorous, sensuous and personal way so the journey we are all on together will look more like a homecoming than a dreaded end to our life.

So please come along with me and don’t shy away. There is gold to be mined by facing into our deaths whether we are twenty-five or eighty. It need not be morbid, in fact, the opposite. By facing into death, we free ourselves to live more fully and freely. The holiest times of our lives are our arrivals (births) and our departures (deaths) so why not embrace them.

And remember, as poet John O’Donohue says, “our souls are not afraid of death,” not at all. Our souls see death as the ultimate reunion with the One who made us in the first place. So join me for this amazing foray into our ultimate joy.


Saga of the Black Skirt

Every time I wear my favorite black skirt I get a chance to tell the story of how it dropped into my life. And that story makes me deeply grateful for the graceful way this skirt came to be mine.

I was on a rare trip, since I have consciously chosen not to travel much. A group of women were gathering at a retreat center to apply a model of faith I had written about to their lives. The two leaders for the weekend were friends and colleagues of mine and I was enthralled with the creative ways in which they engaged us with the material. One after another, the retreatants shared their core life experiences with the group. It was a weekend filled with depth and holy surprises.

The reason that so many women could share at such deep levels was that the atmosphere at the retreat was safe, personal and inspiring. I felt my own soul being fed, which is sometimes difficult when my material is the subject of the teaching. But in this group I could participate fully and allow myself to be fed. There was something different about this retreat. There was a spirit alive within this group and we could feel it. We had a full and poignant opening day of learning and sharing.

As Ellen, one of the retreat leaders, was presenting a portion of the material on a specific stage of faith, I was mesmerized by her total persona; calm, grounded, inviting. Her whole appearance spoke of her grace, simple and beautiful. She wore a light yellow v-neck sweater and a charming long black skirt that had squares on it with fringed edges. The fabric inside the squares was thin enough to see though, giving the skirt a magical quality, yet it was black so it was very subtle. I fell in love with Ellen’s skirt because it was so magical and looked so good on her. After her session I complimented her on it and then laughingly said that if she discovered her skirt missing at the end of the weekend, she would know where to come look for it. She laughed and said this was her very favorite skirt.

The next morning when I opened my door to go to our shared bathroom, there was a little gift outside my door. It was Ellen’s favorite skirt wrapped in tissue with a note saying she really appreciated me and wanted me to have it. I was moved to tears and then a not-so-deserving part of myself convinced me that I had to give it back. I paused long enough to let my other more healed voice get a chance to speak and it told me that I had rarely experienced this kind of generosity with material things, and it moved me to a deeper place of gratitude. I am usually so independent and self sufficient and this was an opportunity to receive her kind generosity to me. So it may have been harder for me to receive the gift than it was for her to give it. Although, as I thought about it, giving away my favorite clothing item would not be easy either.

I stepped back into my room and put the skirt on. It was beautiful. I loved it even more when I felt it around me. I wore it that day and everyone loved it, but mostly they loved the story of Ellen giving it to me—her favorite skirt. It must have struck a cord for many women there as it had for me since I tend to hoard my stuff, especially my favorite stuff. I think I am afraid that if I give away my things they will not be replaced or I will not have enough, yet my closets are overflowing with clothes I rarely wear. What a messy predicament.

Ellen was offering me another alternative. Be generous out of love. Try letting go of my favorite things and see the joy they bring to others. Try letting go of things that are not even my favorites and notice the freedom I feel inside. I have a feeling that if I trust God more for all of my needs, it will easier to give away my stuff, even my favorite things. To my surprise, I was about to learn another important thing about giving generously because there was an even more delicious ending to the story.

The delicious ending is this: one of Ellen’s good friends who was also at the retreat, had an identical skirt to Ellen’s except that it was one size larger. Without Ellen knowing it, her friend had her skirt taken in and then sent it to Ellen, so she received her favorite skirt back and now we can both wear them. Ellen was as surprised and thrilled with her friend’s generosity as I was with hers.

Sincere generosity like Ellen’s spreads and moves others to do the same. It changes both the giver and the receiver. No guilt, no strings attached, no agendas. Just a free gift.

So the learning, for me, is to give out of love and out of a place of inner freedom, sometimes even giving something away before I have come to that place of inner freedom. If I believe that God will multiply my generosity and also provide what I need, then I can give freely to others. And the joy that comes from giving freely is like no other.

Now, after receiving this surprising and generous gift from a loving heart, I’m wondering how my grateful heart will respond and what I will be willing to give away in love.

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

Reflections on this essay
What has been the most generous free gift you have received from another person? How did it come to you? How did it affect you?

When have you gotten a gift or given one that was not given in freedom but had strings attached? How did that feel? What did you do?

Is there anything you feel called to give away now? How could you have the most freedom in giving it?

How is this process of giving freely out of love affecting you?

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