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Are You Going Home for Christmas?

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, told a story of a Christmas sermon he heard that moved him to tears. The minister used the most common question of the holiday season; “Are you going home for Christmas?” This question moved Buechner because he was longing deep in his soul to know where home was.

This question has haunted me for years, too, because it raises a painful recognition; I don’t go home for Christmas because I have no home to go to. My parents have been dead for years, and my stepchildren and my other “adopted” family members all have other places where they celebrate Christmas. So all the usual images of home are not relevant for me. Not relevant, yet painful. Over the years I’ve learned how to redeem Christmas in a healing way but the cultural pressure to belong somewhere still arises whenever I hear that perennial question, “Are you going home for Christmas?”

I’ve become aware of a larger sense of home, of belonging, that I’m also missing. I feel it in a variety of ways in my life. In my work life I am involved in a number of endeavors; teaching, connecting mainstream people with people in the inner city, spiritual direction and writing. These are all vital and life-giving but it’s not the same as going to one place every day and being part of one consistent community.

Then there is my spiritual side, which is central to my life. I need a lot of support and collegiality to maintain balance and to stay grounded. I get that through spiritual direction, small groups, supervision and close friends. I go to two churches because I’m called to be a bridge between a suburban church and an inner city church. So my spiritual support life feels a bit splintered.

Last, but not least, my living situation is not fixed. I am planning to move some day to a smaller and simpler place, so my sense of home will shift. But as yet, I have not moved and I am in limbo in this aspect of my life as well.

I do not feel totally homeless. I feel more homesick. At times I long for a cozy home, a committed community, a place to really belong. But it does not seem to be part of my experience anywhere in my life. It may seem strange but I sense this homesickness is God’s calling in my life. It’s not a fluke, it is part of a plan. All of the aspects of my work and spiritual life are life-giving. So it feels like a paradox that none of them feels like “home.”

So where, really, do I feel most at home? This is my burning question. Where do I feel at home, if not in any of those places that are the most obvious and the ones I long for most fervently?

I asked God this question.

The truth God brought to me, the truth that rings in my soul and brings me peace in this conundrum is this: I feel at home where God is. When I really listen for God, I feel at home with whatever God brings me, wherever God sends me as long as God is with me. I make my home in God. I will spend my Christmas Day in God’s presence as a retreat day. And I feel most whole when I am in communion with God.

So, whether I am in my condo or a café, God is my nest. I carry this nest with me wherever I go. When I feel homesick I can go to this new home. I can stop looking outside of myself for God and home. God brings me belonging, joy, courage, love and healing. God also surprises me with loving friends who seek me out during the most traditional family times in our culture; they make sure to call me, go to movies with me on Christmas night, and email me all throughout the holidays.

Home, for me, is not a physical place. It is my state of mind—at least on my good days! Home is ease with God, trust in God’s provision, intimacy and humor. My model for this relationship with God is Jesus. Jesus was an itinerant. He had no place to lay his head. He depended on strangers and on those he loved. And he spent a lot of time with his father in prayer—in the mountains, in boats, in the wilderness. He was in almost constant conversation with God.

I began this essay with a story from Frederich Buechner about a question he hears in a Christmas Eve sermon. As soon as he hears the question he knows the real answer for him. In his words, ”I can almost see Buttrick (the minister) with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again–”Are you going home for Christmas?”—and asked it in some way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move onto his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel. Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said…”

And he goes on to say that when we experience the life-giving power of Jesus alive within us we come closest to being truly home.

Home, for me, is my inner nest filled with the presence of God.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.
The Buechner quotes are from his book, Longing for Home.

Reflections on this essay
When you hear the question, “Are you going home for Christmas?” what emotion comes up for you?

Have you ever been homesick, even when you were with family? Homesick for what, whom?

What is your sense of home? Who, where, why?

What does it mean for you to hear that home is in the manger?

How is God or Jesus part of your sense of home?

The Richness of Not Wanting

“Oh, there’s that dreadful word again,” I said to myself. My spiritual director had just suggested to me that I might not be capable of getting myself up at 5:00 for an hour of prayer before getting ready for my usual 7:30 breakfast meeting for my business. She said that God would have to do that for me and that this was part of the process of surrendering to God. There was that word—surrender. I dreaded it. It felt like relinquishing my rights, my will, my choices. That conversation was quite awhile ago and, as result of those morning prayers, my spiritual journey has been one of steady descent ever since!

I’ve had to move steadily downhill from control, self-centeredness, ego, self-deception, success, security, busyness and fear. All because of that central compelling call from God to surrender. It is hard work and very counter to our culture, even much of our religious culture. And it’s easy to think that the downhill journey is all downhill, with little to be joyful about. I used to believe that.

I knew little of the other side of surrender, which is freedom, inner freedom. Freedom opens doors to the eternal. Surrender transforms us, it opens us, it heals us, it relieves us of our self-imposed burdens so we are cleaned out and free to be filled with God, in order to be our best selves. I doubt if surrender will become a subject of popular workshops or book titles though, because if most people are like me, they are afraid of what it will cost, how hard it will be and what they will be asked to give up.

There is a simple poem, written by a 15th Century Indian mystic named Kabir, that captures the essence of surrender in a compelling way for me.

Where the Shopkeeper Would Say

I was

Looking for that shop

Where the shopkeeper would say,

“There is nothing of value in here.”

I found it and did

Not leave

The richness of not wanting

Wrote these


The phrase that is most compelling for me is “the richness of not wanting.” Other ways to say this might be: let go and let God, not clinging, releasing, letting go. The word in that phrase that embraces me is the word, richness. How can there be richness in not wanting?

Freedom again. When I have to have…a house, a mate, cars, a certain job, health, money, fame, status, success, travel, clothes, attention from children, recognition, approval, the need to be needed, addictions, control, beauty, a body type etc, I am controlled by these desires, these longings. And I am not free to receive what I truly need instead.

Our culture pushes me to take the road to more—abundance, wider territory, more money, bigger job, multiple toys, having what I want right now. There are books that train our minds to deliver us whatever we dream of. I know best. I get what I want. The guarantee is that I will then be happy. Usually this regimen leaves me blind to what I actually need.

Moving into the richness of not wanting is a long, slow and incredibly satisfying experience. But it involves loss and letting go, releasing our wants in favor or our needs. It probably should not be done without guidance lest we lose track of the meaning in the process. But one thing I know; the journey is worth it and God is in the middle of it.

I would describe my spiritual journey as a slow downward spiral to the heart of God. This journey has brought me through several painful leadership experiences in which I learned to lead from behind rather than from the front. This journey brought me to the cusp of despair as a result of severely impaired relationships. It has transformed my work from traveling and key-note speaking to simpler yet deeper interactions with people. It has allowed me to downsize my living space and release many of my possessions. It has increased the richness and diversity of my friendships. It has deepened my spiritual life and increased my intimacy with God significantly.

So now whenever I crave something I do not need, I ask the simple question “why do I want this?” Usually if I go deeply enough and see what is beneath that desire, it is about security or filling an empty space within. When I can release these cravings I am free. I laugh more. I cry more too. I feel a deeper connection with the beauty around me. And I know joy.

Is this journey for everyone? No. One good church leader said to me, when I was describing the sacrificial life, “Why would anyone want this life?” I agreed. Why would anyone want this life, the richness of not wanting?

Good question. Ask God about it.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved

Reflections on this essay

What does surrender mean to you spiritually?

What have you surrendered that has felt life-giving for you?

When have you gotten something you wanted and found out it didn’t satisfy you?

How do you experience the richness of not wanting?

How do you experience the freedom of less…?

We are entering into the holiday season. I’d like to have us go together underneath the glitter and the celebrations to some of the deeper images of Christmas. I’ll start with an essay about having enough and being grateful, just in time for Thanksgiving. I hope these essays and art give you an alternative lens on the holidays.

I also wanted those of you in the Twin Cities to know that Central Lutheran on 12th Street and 3rd Avenue downtown (near the east end of the convention center) is having two special ways of praying in the quiet of Christmas this year. One is a month long opportunity in a quiet room (the narthex) where you can just BE for awhile. This starts next Sunday Nov 27th. One of my large quilted icons, called You Restore My Soul, will be part of that ongoing prayer experience. In addition, on Dec. 8-10 they will have special stations for prayer in the main sanctuary; Thurs 4-9, Fri 1-5, Sat 10-2. I hope you can stop by for one of these prayer experiences.

Die Before You Die

Die before you die. Jesus says that those who give up their lives will find them, that the greatest thing we can do is to sacrifice our lives for our friends. He suggests that we seek first his kingdom and not our own. These are lofty sounding things I wish I could do but they seem outlandishly out of reach, at least on my watch.

And then I wondered…what if I just leaned into this dying-to-self gently, by asking God to mold me into a person who would long for what lasts and does not go out of style next year? What if I asked God to slowly turn my life and my daily decisions toward the long arm of eternity rather than my next trip or business success? My life would slowly but surely change in deep and mysterious ways.

As a result of these prayerful reflections I came upon a real and practical way to face into dying before I die and that was to simply plan for my actual death, my end-of-life process. I thought what I was doing would be straight forward and reassuring but I found the process to be sacred in unusual ways.  I started by redoing my will, completing a new medical directive and planning my memorial service. While they did require me to make financial and medical decisions with intention, the whole process brought up more; cherished memories, joy, gratitude and humor. But it also brought up sadness, unfinished business, questions about my legacy, my sense of home and family; things that I may have avoided if I had not done this work. But in the end it allowed me to feel the deep love of those who will miss me and it allowed me to experience God more intimately in the midst of the process.

I’ve been with dying people and know that unfinished business with loved ones or estranged friends, family or spouses begs for attention in those last days. I decided to gently attend to those loose ends now, while I have the clear mind to do so. I needed to talk to some people, hear their stories, feel deeper compassion, and forgive. Another issue for me as a single person without close family around me, was to decide who I wanted to be my “family” in my death, who I wanted to give power to for my end-of-life decisions, and then who would plan my funeral, and sort out my possessions. This essentially meant looking death in the face and saying yes—whenever that time comes. I’ve found that when I am able to face into my own death with honesty and courage and vulnerability, humor also arises which lets me know I’m in good stead. Humor balances the morbid aspects of death. For instance, in my medical directive, it asks where I would prefer to die. I wrote, “At a Twins game, after a big win, but if not there, I prefer a hospice.” And when I give my body to the University of Minnesota Medical School, I will have a scarf around my neck with Goldie the Gopher mascot symbols on it so the medical students will smile when they open the bag.

One foreboding aspect of this process was deciding who would get my material possessions after I die. Not that I have so much but just deciding who would get what was a daunting task so I brought it to prayer. As usual, God had a much more interesting way to deal with this then just making a list of names with items next to them as an addendum to my will.

God brought to mind actual items in my home and then brought to mind the person who needed this item. Then God directed me to give the item to the person now while I could enjoy the process. This would give me the opportunity to share with each person why I was giving it to them. I loved the idea, and as the items came to mind, I realized that many of these would have been just overlooked in the process of cleaning out my condo after I’m gone. Their significance was more on a personal level and not on the material level. It makes such sense now that I reflect on it. And those heart connections went deeper the longer I engaged with the process.

One example is my personal photo album of the Silent Witness March to End the Silence about Domestic Violence in Washington DC in 1997. I felt strongly about giving it to one of the women I’d mentored when I lead this initiative. As I looked through the scrapbook it became clear to me why my heart had made this strong connection with her and this album. The day of the march was a turning point in her life. She was an abused woman and mistrusted men. At the march that day she heard a man who had been a former abuser speak of his healing and of how much working with Silent Witness had changed his life. His wife, who had already spoken, was standing next to him, holding his hand. Hearing his story, my young friend knew instantly that she had to change her mind about men and she needed to work with Silent Witness in order to do that. At the time, she was a coordinator of one of our newest state projects and she ended up as one of the leaders of the national organization. It changed her life. Here in my photo album was a picture of that man telling his story in front of the nation’s capitol with his wife holding his hand. It depicted a pivotal moment that I needed to pass along to my friend.

If I had not approached this giving-away process prayerfully, I may have missed the opportunity to gave this photo album away and it may have been put in a box or thrown into a dumpster. I know that a lot of my things will need to be thrown into a dumpster but the things that God gives me to pass along now are bringing healing, joy, and blessings to me and to the recipients.

Doing this work is engaging my soul in the joy of these deep connections. It is also freeing me to live more fully now, to engage in what is most important to me, to see more clearly the dream that God had for me when I was created. Now I have more inner space to attend to it. And as I part with more of my earthly things, I feel a closer connection, and sense an eventual reunion with the God who loved me into this process. Now that’s something worth dying for.

Janet O. Hagberg, 2011. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

How do you understand dying before you die?

In what way have you faced into your death?

What amends do you have left to make?

What material things have you or could you pass along now?

What connections would be special for you in this giving?

How does facing death free you to live fully?

How do you view death from a spiritual perspective?

God Smiles

I say hang on
God says let go
I say I’m afraid
God says I know

I say my way
He says fine
I say it doesn’t work
She smiles now mine

I say now your way
God says through pain
I say no painless
He says in vain

I say lead me on
God says through the night
I say I’m afraid
She says that’s all right

I say I let go
He says you got through
I smile I’m not afraid
God smiles too

©Janet O. Hagberg, 1987, 2006

Reflections on this poem

How do you give your fears to God?

What do you recall about doing things your own way and having them collapse?

How has God invited you to go through the pain of the night?

How has it changed you?

Recall how you and God smile at one another.

For a small book of these poems go to my web site

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