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My Christmas gift for you is a quote from the 100th anniversary St. Olaf College Christmas Festival Program:

“The infinite bends down and takes (or, better said, accepts),

And wears, without regret, our finite flesh.

In that breathtaking act, eternity steps gently into time;

Not just a former time in Bethlehem, but Time.

Take off your shoes! Now everywhere is holy ground.

Reflections on this quote:

What does it mean to you that God wears, without regret, our finite flesh?

How do you experience that thin place, where eternity breaks into time?

How has this Christmas been holy ground for you?

How will your life be different as a result?

Holy Homeless Hug

This Christmas God assigned me the role of the innkeeper in the nativity scene to keep my focus on the real story instead of on the painful memories that can derail me. In that innkeeper role, as a woman, I became the mid-wife for Jesus’ birth and also a mid-wife for people who are experiencing their own rebirth at the manger. I felt this role as a profound calling and I was grateful for this compassionate gift from God.

But God, in infinite wisdom, had more in store for me this Christmas.

The first sign that something new was opening in me was a verse that just happened to be in my daily scripture journal the day in early December when I taught at my church on the theme “Finding Home at Christmas.” The verse is from Zephaniah, not a book that most people even recognize; Zephaniah 3:18-20 (The Message). “I’ll heal the maimed; I’ll bring home the homeless. In the very countries where they are hated, they will be venerated…All those painful partings turned into reunions!” I was struck by the coincidence of this verse showing up but also the message to me; God would attend to my own homelessness of Spirit, which rises up each Christmas.

In the next week I felt as if a deluge of homelessness mysteriously enveloped my life. I went to the movie, Blind Side, about a family that was deeply affected by a homeless teenager. As I was describing this movie to a friend, he asked me if I had read the book, Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Bell and Denver Moore. When I said I hadn’t he quickly said, “Don’t buy it. It’s in the mail today.”  When I got it and read it I knew something deep was stirring in my soul. I felt I was embarking on a Christmas journey, not unlike Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It is a powerful story of a deeply entrenched homeless man, and an international art dealer and his wife, who encounter one another and are mutually transformed. The two women, the mother in Blind Side and the woman in this book, were strikingly similar as well. I read the book twice in the next two weeks and copied a number of quotes. One of them captured my sentiments about home: “We’re all just regular folks walkin down the road God done set in front of us. This earth ain’t our final restin place. So in a way, we is all homeless—just workin our way toward home.”

Homelessness was still mostly an abstraction for me though. I’ve lead pilgrimages to homeless shelters and met several homeless people, but I was unprepared for what happened next. A week before Christmas a homeless man I’ve known for three years as a regular at my favorite coffee shop, asked me to help him fill out paper work for more permanent housing. I readily agreed. I wondered how he would get that paper work or even if there was housing available. Coincidentally, a friend invited me to accompany her to a memorial service and dinner honoring the 150 homeless people who had died in our state this year. I went. One of the speakers was a woman who is in charge of outreach and permanent housing for homeless people. I spoke with her, got her card, and told her about my friend. She said the outreach workers knew of him and would love to help him. Amazing grace. The next day I left a message for him at the coffee shop, saying I had a surprise for him. Here I was, serving as an actual innkeeper helping a person find his place in the inn.

I didn’t see my homeless friend again until Christmas Eve when our whole city was snowed in. As I was walking home from breakfast at a local restaurant, snowflakes were gently falling, the temperature was about 20 degrees, which we consider balmy for this time of year in snow country. Just as I rounded the corner in front of our local grocery store, I bumped into him coming the other direction. I greeted him and gave him the business card from the outreach worker. He seemed pleased. But I sensed something was wrong. I asked him how he was and he said he was bummed out by an article in the paper about a sexual predator. I asked if he had anyone to talk to about his feelings and he said he should probably find someone.

Then I responded to an urge within and told him that sometime I would like to hear his story. He said, “No, you wouldn’t,” and looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a few seconds. And out it tumbled, right there on Christmas Eve as we stood in the new fallen snow. He grew up in what he called an Ozzie and Harriet home and was active in a boys’ youth organization as a pre-adolescent. One of his leaders, who had a lot of problems in his own life, sexually molested him for days when the two of them stayed together in a cabin while working on a special project at a youth camp. It is one of those tragic heart-wrenching stories of immanent loss that can never be restored, only held in healing love. I felt deep compassion for him. He went to camp a happy eleven-year-old and came home a mean and angry boy. As he looked at me with my tears welling up he said, “It’s not what kills you, but how you live your life.”  He touched my shoulder gently and then was distracted by a friend who drove by in a pick up truck.

Several days later I saw him and asked how he was. It was colder now—below zero and I was worried about him He said he was OK but hadn’t called the lady yet about the housing. He asked how I was and I said my good friend had died the day before, I was bummed and could use a hug. He gave me a gentle hug right there on the street by the coffee shop in the sub zero temperature.

Our hug was one of those holy moments. We were both in pain. We both had a ways to go to heal, although our journeys were different. But our encounter gave me another sense of home, of an emotional home, in an encounter of mutual pain and shared compassion. It was love reaching across boundaries and being real. God is showing me where home is even in homelessness.

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

Reflections on this essay

When have you experienced a meaningful coincidence?

How did you feel God might be at work in it?

When have you experienced someone you considered very different from yourself?
What did you learn from them?

What did you find you had in common or how are you like one another?

How did you experience love, wisdom or healing from that person?

Surviving Christmas

 I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. On the one hand, I love the beauty of Christmas; the carols, twinkling lights, snow (hopefully), and trees with glistening crystal ornaments. I enjoy traditions like watching one my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. I love the kindness and generosity of Christmas and I love seeing the sheer joy of children’s glee. Once, in mid-December, I was in a restaurant at the top of a downtown building and I happened to sit next to a couple who got engaged right in front of me. The young man knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend just like in a Hollywood movie. It oozed with romance.

On the other hand, I have painful memories of the holiday season. I spent the first Christmas after my mom died in Florida with no snow, which was bad enough. But we were too tired to cook so we had a depressing Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Another unforgettable memory was the Christmas my marriage ended. I also have alcohol addiction in my family and anyone with that history knows that Christmas is never pretty. I could have the Christmas blues from a whole sleigh full of painful memories. So I come by my holiday grievances honestly. And I am not alone. Counselors and physicians will tell you that depression, anxiety and health issues escalate at Christmas and their offices fill up in January.

Somewhere along the way I decided to try to heal Christmas as part of my spiritual journey. I did not want to dread the season any more. My blues usually started around Halloween when I became angry and anxious. As I prayed about this quandary I experienced a curious invitation from God to actually participate in the nativity scene by taking on one of the characters and living into their story during the season. I didn’t know how to do it at first but I accepted it as a spiritual challenge and I noticed it slowly shifted my focus from pain to more awareness of my nativity character.

One year I was an angel and I became much more aware of the angel message “Fear not.” The message rang true since that was the year my major source of income dried up. I was Joseph during a season in which I needed to learn from his complicated journey of trusting God’s message to him while he had a fiancé who was pregnant—and not with his child.  The courageous way he faced that shame was inspiring. I could feel his trust in God, his enduring love for Mary. I needed his kind of courage and faithfulness that year to face a betrayal and yet believe that God was leading me forward. This idea of an assignment each year has been so fruitful that now I anticipate it at Halloween instead of getting so stressed.

That brings me to this year. My assignment was to be the innkeeper. At first I wondered about this choice since the innkeeper probably turned the Holy family away initially due to a full house. Then I realized that the inner keeper may have seen how important it was to show compassion to this family and provide a humble but safe place for them. He gave then all he had left. As I lived into the story of the innkeeper I became his wife, a co-innkeeper there in the stable that holy night. I heard God asking me to be an innkeeper and mid-wife for people who are experiencing spiritual rebirths into a deeper inner life. But how, exactly, would I do that?

The answer came in a beautiful sensuous experience. I awoke early one morning and, while I was still emerging from sleep, felt a Presence caressing my shoulders and back. I felt the Presence move to a place near my heart and just rest there. I melted into this embrace and kept still. The soothing Presence stayed as I awakened more fully. Then I felt a little nudge to move to my living room sofa with my comfy quilt, and when I did I noticed my Peruvian nativity scene on the table. I lit a candle near the scene and, in the predawn darkness, the candle light bathed the faces of Mary and Joseph in a gentle glow. They were both looking at the infant Jesus, in the manger. I could almost see them smile and hear them humming.

I sensed a deeper glow in the nativity scene, coming from the Presence, a holy Presence. I was pondering the meaning of all of this when I heard a message to me: “Don’t try to figure this out. Just experience my Presence, my Beloved. Just watch and feel it move beyond the scene into you as well.” So I stayed still, and was taken into the holy scene, engaging with the wonder of it all.  I felt the holy Presence was the spirit of Jesus inviting me again to be an innkeeper mid-wife for his birthing process and also for other people at crucial intersections.

Then this message followed: “I just want you to be a presence, my presence, in the world. Attend to your intimacy with me and all else will follow. You will be a mid-wife for people. You will be a non-anxious presence bringing healing, joy and beauty to the world. Trust me completely. Just be a presence.”

This predawn appearance of a holy Presence soothed me in such a deep way that I wonder if maybe, just maybe, my love-hate relationship with Christmas is now healed. My heart desires this healing. Time will tell. But now, when I look at the nativity scene I go back to my memory of that Presence in the glow on the faces of the holy family. I recall that I helped with this birth and that I am called to attend to more spiritual births as I continue in an intimate relationship with God. I am a tiny presence of the holy, a small spark of light, a mid-wife innkeeper.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved

Reflections on this essay

What joyful or meaningful memories do you associate with Christmas?

What pain resurfaces for you at the holidays?

How have you healed your experience of Christmas?

Which of the nativity characters do you most identify with this year? Why?

What is being born in you this Christmas?

How do you experience the holy Presence in your life?

The Beauty of Winter

Photo by Janet Hagberg, 2008

Reflections on this photo:

What feelings does this snow scene evoke in you?

What would you be reflecting on if you were sitting with a cup or coffee or cocoa on the bench in the middle of the scene?

What does a “snow day” allow you to do that you wouldn’t ordinarily do (besides shoveling)?

How do you to have fun in the winter?

If winter is a time of hibernation in your soul, what is resting in order to bloom in the spring?

If you are willing to take just 10 minutes out of your busy schedule and view this video I think you will find something even more beautiful to contemplate:

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