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Janet O. Hagberg, 2012, all rights reserved

Reflections on this poem:
When have you noticed that you said yes when you wish you would have said no?

When has a crisis ended up making you a better person? How?

How has fear or anger been your greatest liberator?

When have you observed a deeper part of you that emerged as you gained wisdom in your life?

Broken Bones Rejoicing?

One of the age-old questions of faith is this: what role does God play in our pain? Does God cause our pain, allow our pain, watch as a bystander, deliver us from pain, prevent it, or heal it? Underneath that question is usually another more difficult one. Is my pain deserved—in other words—am I being punished for something I did? Or is my pain some kind of test, a teaching experience, even an act of love? We all ask these are difficult questions at some point in our lives.

One of the Psalms of lament that speaks to me in painful times is Psalm 51, in which the Psalmist asks for physical and moral healing. The words are familiar; “Create in me a clean heart…cast me not away from your presence…wash me and I will be whiter than snow…hide not your face from my sins…restore to me the joy of your salvation…open my lips and my mouth will show forth your praise.” This Psalm is a strong call for God to be present in pain, to heal and to renew. There is one verse in this Psalm that troubles me, though, because it adds to the dilemma of God’s role in pain. It is Psalm 51:8, “Fill me with joy and gladness; let the bones you have broken rejoice.“ I know this is not meant literally, but how can I understand God’s role in even the symbol of broken bones? Does God break us down somehow, and if so, how does this work?

My dilemma is this: I have a loving image of God and an intimate relationship with God. My God is not revengeful or punishing. When crises come I often feel even closer to God because I know God is there for me. I also know that crises usually call for changes, at times difficult ones for me to consider. And I know that God is involved with me in those changes. I have a phrase I use in times like this; crisis “reeks” of God, meaning that even in the bad stuff God is at work, sometimes in really messy ways. I don’t believe that God causes my pain or tries to hurt me. However I do experience God occasionally dabbling in a situation that is crying out for redemption.

God dabbled in the lives of the Israelites in Egypt too. One of the best examples of God’s mysterious involvement in a crisis is the story of the ten plagues in Egypt when Moses is trying to free the Israelites from slavery. The pharaoh is very stubborn, refusing time after time, to release the people, even after several fearful plagues make everyone suffer. Each time a plague hits he tells Moses he will let the people go but quickly changes his mind. Then in the sixth plague there is a new twist (Exodus 9:10): God hardens pharaoh’s heart, making him more stubborn. God deeply engaged the enemy in a rather shocking way so in the larger deliverance story, it would be clear to the Israelites that God is God and that they were to leave Egypt. In fact God hardened pharaoh’s heart three more times before the death plague that resulted in the Israelites’ final deliverance. The Bible commentator, Eugene Peterson, sums up the remarkable story in these words, “God got Israel out of the mess they were in… It’s called salvation: God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” Salvation as a personal story of deliverance. Remarkable.

That Biblical story is powerful for me personally because I have had an experience of God dabbling in a crisis of mine too, doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. Relationships have been a source of great joy and learning for me, but I take on too much responsibility when relationships go awry.  Therefore I have difficulty leaving the relationship, even if I would be healthier without it.

I have been in a relationship that was unhealthy and, at times, unsafe. I was unable to summon the courage to leave. All I could do was muster the energy to do my own inner work. Beyond that I prayed for a miracle or at least a sign of hope. There were good days and bad days but no substantial change. Then a strange God-reeking thing occurred. I felt the heart of the other person suddenly harden and that caused something to happen that became the last straw. It was as if God “meddled” and did something for me that I would not have been able to do for myself—just like God did with the Israelites. God engaged the other person on my behalf and that allowed me to finally give up and leave. My salvation story. A different kind of hope. I would not have been able to articulate this at the time; I just felt my resolve change and my courage grow and my decision become clear. It still was a very difficult journey but I knew that I was on the right track and that God was delivering me.

Did it feel like symbolic bones were breaking in that relationship? Well, something was breaking open. Did God do the breaking? No, but God was part of the event that broke up old patterns that had to go. Did I feel punished? No, but I did have to deal with my guilt and shame. And that’s how I started healing in a new way. God’s presence brought me to a deeper level of healing.

Psalm 51, it turns out, is credited to David, written at one of the lowest points in his life, after he has been confronted with his own treachery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband. Nathan, the prophet, confronts him. He’s busted and he knows it. Something has to change. His old life is breaking apart, breaking open, so he can become the great servant of God that he becomes. So is there life after these “broken” experience? Yes. God is alongside us, no matter what state we are in. When I allow my loving God into all of my life experiences, whether the experience reeks of God or not, I know that I am not alone, that I will grow. Is it easy? Not usually, because life is complicated and so are we, but there is always a next step in our lives with God. So when we come to a breaking apart or a breaking open place in our lives we know that we are being reshaped and that we will eventually be filled with joy and gladness.

Now when I read Psalm 51:8 I can take in the whole verse with a knowing smile, and a story of my own deliverance and gratitude, rather than a twinge of doubt.

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

Reflections on this essay

What do you feel is God’s role in your pain?

When has God intervened or meddled in a crisis for you?

How has God done something for you that you couldn’t do for yourself?

How does your life “reek” of God now?

When you read Psalm 51:8 what words grab your attention?

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 for a few years with a small group of people from my church 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 as a result of 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?

Dear Subscribers,

We’re shifting gears just a bit from Lent and Easter to a theme of “reshaping our lives.” This will include essays, poems and visuals about how our lives may be changed by surprises, shocks, new people or other spiritual mysteries. I invite you to journey with me and reflect on times in your life when God has mysteriously nudged you into a new direction.

As always, I really appreciate that you are willing to accompany me on these little spiritual adventures.


Threatened with Resurrection

I awoke early Easter Sunday morning expecting to feel joy and relief after a difficult Lent in which I was called to finally heal my divorce issues and be internally free. That healing has been a graced conclusion to a multi-year process of letting go of fear, resentment and vindication. In this healing I began to see my ex-husband as a gift in my life. I was letting go of my old hurts and entering into a whole new phase of my life; a life of love.

So I awoke expecting joy and instead I awoke with the title of an achingly inspiring poem in my heart.  It is Julia Esquivel’s magnificent poem, “They Threatened Us With Resurrection.” Julia is an exiled poet, writing about people in Guatemala who disappeared in the political unrest there but who inspired others to move beyond the losses.  I have had that poem and the idea of being threatened with resurrection at the back of my mind ever since I read about it in one of Parker Palmer’s books. But to awaken with this idea of being threatened with resurrection on Easter Sunday was more than coincidence. Something was going on in my inner world that needed tending.

In my prayer time I realized that I had a vague sense of uneasiness in letting go of my pain, which I had been doing gradually for several years. God had been so faithful to me in staying with me during this healing process and I was so grateful. As a result I developed a deeper level of intimacy with God, learned to trust God with my life, and was now living into a season of grace. This journey was my source of transformation; in it God brought me to my knees and then taught me how to stand up again with a heart of forgiveness.

I began to wonder if I was really afraid to move into this resurrection time because I might lose my intimacy with God if I was not in pain. I knew it was not healthy to wallow in pain or stay in an unhealed place, but how would I navigate this resurrection dilemma? Would I need to come up with more pain in order to be close to God or could I trust God for intimacy beyond pain? It did feel a bit threatening.

My spiritual director helped me by listening and then asking me if there were times I felt close to God when I was not in pain. I went inside and got quiet. Of course, there were times of intimacy with God when I wasn’t hurting. But I had lost track of them in this threatened place. I began remembering times I feel close to God when I was not in pain; my tears of deep emotion when I hear about people who sacrifice for others, when I am overcome by beauty, when I am honored to be with people in their times of transformation, when I am writing, when I pray, when I listen to a Tchaikovsky symphony. I felt a sense of relief spreading over me, relief that I do feel intimacy with God in times of calm or joy. That thought led me to a truth that God has been giving me recently in my prayer time but which I had also forgotten in my threatened state.

The truth from God is that joy emerges from pain that is well attended. When we do our inner work, joy is one of the outcomes. When we face into our fears God faces into them with us. When we forgive others for things that never should have happened we are free from the burdens of resentment and anger. When we disentangle from being enslaved by our chronic pain we heal. We let go of the heavy burdens so joy has room to grow.

Another deep truth emerged as I was pondering how joy emerges from pain. This one came from the Fra. Giovanni. “Our joys too; be not content with them as joys. They too, conceal diviner gifts.” This intriguing quote led me to ponder how a consideration of joy might usher in a whole life of resurrection.

I wanted a life of resurrection joy, not the happiness that comes and goes at a moment’s notice. I can feel happy when my athletic team wins or I can feel hopeless when I hear of another tragedy, but how can I feel joy in the midst of everything. I wanted to feel joy somewhere deeper and not have it disappear just because I was having a bad day. Joy, I think lives in a deeper place within us and has a permanent address. It is a life stance, a signature on the soul, a way of seeing God in all things. It emerges from transformation, from pain well attended. It leads to interior freedom and it comes from a life not threatened by its own resurrection.

For me the diviner gift of joy is what emerges in our lives when we drink sacred water from deeper wells and pass that water along to others. As we courageously live out our calling from God joy emerges and spreads. People feel calmer while in our presence even if they are in pain. They long for that calm themselves and it gives them hope. Sometimes we find ourselves gently laughing even in painful times and it casts a softer light on the circumstances, like a balm for the wound. Joy is apparent in people’s eyes and on their faces, even in their physical stance. It can’t be hidden or bluffed. Living it out with gratitude is a diviner gift.

During the time I was writing this essay I was teaching a class in which I had the opportunity to read a poem that helped to tell a painful but healed part of my divorce story, the very story that started me on this essay. In the hearing of my poem and story, one woman in class not only identified with me but felt a call to go deeper into her own healing as a result. Even though I knew it would be painful for her, I felt a deep joy knowing that she would be finding a different part of herself as a result. I could also feel the joy growing in her. She even glowed as she told her story to our small group. And she contacted a friend who she thought might also benefit from her experience. The diviner gifts of joy…When I see this amazing healing grace, how can I be threatened by resurrection?

Joy emerges from pain well attended…

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

The quote of Fra. Giovinni is from Prayers for Healing, edited by Maggie Oman, selection for April 20th.

Reflections on this essay

How have you been threatened with resurrection in your life?

What could you do to grow into that resurrection stance in life?

What stimulates joy for you?

How do you distinguish between happiness and joy?

How have you experienced joy as a diviner gift, seeing it pay forward?

                                    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:

How do you consider Christ’s death a victory for you?

How unusual does it seem to you to be asked to touch a piece of public art?

How transforming is it for you to be able to touch Jesus and be touched by Jesus?

What is being asked to die in you this Holy Week?

Where is God for you in this poem or this dying process or this victory?


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