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 In the Potter’s Hands (paper icon)

Isaiah 64:8 (NRSV)
Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

Jeremiah 18: 2-6 (NRSV)
“Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Can I not do with you…just as this potter has done?” Says the Lord. “ Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

Reflecting on the icon:

Recall a time when you felt formed by God, as a potter would form a pot?

What vessel did God create you to be; a glass, plate, bowl, pitcher, cup, a piece of art etc?

When you, as the clay, have been spoiled, how did God rework you into another vessel, worth of God’s use in the world?

What comfort do you feel knowing that you are held in the potter’s hands?

Tears, Dredlocks and a Street Retreat:
Facing Fears of Moving Forward

In the past two years I have felt a call from God to consider a radical life change. The call is to leave my current life style, living in a comfortable “happening” neighborhood, and move to the near north side of my city, into a racially and socio-economically mixed neighborhood. I’ve been attending a church there for several years and my heart is engaged with the mission and people there. I have also had a shift in values and I find that my current housing does not fit for me as well as it once did. I desire a smaller and simpler life.

But this will not be a simple move. My heart encourages me to go on this adventure with God and take the risk. My head comes up with a lot of questions, fears and what-ifs. Is this really what God is calling me to do or am I just caught up in the emotion of the moment? What about the crime in this neighborhood and my safety as a single woman? Where I will live; in a home, an apartment or a town house? Should I own or rent? Hmm…I do not feel ready to move.

And then there is the issue of my crying. Over the last few months I cry more easily than ever before in my life. I cry when I am moved by joyful news or sad news. I cry when I hear stories of selfless people, when I read lyrics that move me, or when someone is compassionate. And it feels like I can’t stop crying. So I check out the obvious. Am I depressed? I seem to be functioning well and feel optimistic. I have good friends and meaningful work.

I bring up this crying issue with my spiritual director and she tells me that St. Ignatius, one of my mentors from the 16th century, had the same issue when he was deep in a discernment process. She gives me a book of his journal entries for a period of time when he cried uncontrollably, and I am surprised and elated that this may be a sign from God, an indication of more intimacy with God. Ignatius was asking God to let him know if the religious order he was founding should be supported by wealthy donors or whether they should beg for their sustenance. His tears were a gift from God to show how close and present God was during this time of important decision-making. I can identify with Ignatius just a bit, choosing whether to have comfort or to sacrifice some of my comforts. That is my dilemma too. I felt God coming closer to me and holding me gently in this decision/discernment process. I still don’t know the answer but I feel the tears are a reminder of God’s presence.

I know I need to deal with my fears of this neighborhood or I will never move. This is a part of the city a lot of suburbanites are afraid to drive through and I’m considering moving there. So what, exactly am I afraid of? In a small support group with my pastor and a colleague I try to name my fears; drugs, assault, gang violence, young black men with dredlocks, racial hatred. Just naming these things brings up more fear because I remember and recount an incident early in my career in which my male boss sexually harassed me.

My colleague listens to me tell my story and suggests that we do a street retreat. “A what?” I ask. He explains that we could just explore the neighborhood together and look for two things, the things I fear and also sanctuaries, places that feel welcoming, holy or safe. He offers to go with me on this street retreat and I accept. We invite the new pastoral intern and his wife to join us and set a date.

On our retreat, we find no drug paraphernalia in the local market, which is one of my fears. We find relatively well-kept homes and even an intriguing new housing development. We have great conversations as we get to know the new intern and his wife. We discover a walkway next to a creek and stand there for fifteen minutes just taking in the calm quiet of the crystal clear water. A girl and her younger brother are scouting for frogs nearby. Right next to the creek is a large abandoned building covered with graffiti. We all think it looks sort of like an urban cathedral and we wonder if homeless people live in this quiet pristine place. I return from our retreat satisfied and calm. My stereotypes of this neighborhood are beginning to change.

My fear of black teenagers is still looming so I decide to ask one of the teenage leaders in my church, who has dredlocks, to be my mentor on this journey of facing my fear. He is really surprised, though, that I am asking him to mentor me. Usually, he says, it is the other way around. He wonders what he has to offer me? I just say I want to have us tell our stories to one another and we will see where it goes.

Our stories, it turns out, level the field between us considerably. He sees that I am a real person with pain in my life and a hunger for relationships. I see that in him too. So I feel safe to ask him what his advice is for me if I move here and I get scared in this neighborhood. He says, without a pause, “Whenever you get afraid, don’t stay home.” This is very wise, in my opinion. When I ask what I should do if I get afraid in the middle of the night, he says to call him because he’s got my back. Over the next few months he teaches me how to hip hop and he gives me more of his wisdom. I deeply appreciate who he is and how he is changing my view of his world.

I am seeing and experiencing an amazing paradox. Facing fear is one way to help dissipate it. Usually I run from fear but in this case I look at it, name it and then step forward into it. Now that I’m feeling God at work in this process of moving, I’m gaining confidence that God will also forge a path for the next steps of the move—where to live. But I’ll save that for another chapter in this saga.

(Note: I wrote this essay a few years ago but felt it was more powerful to leave it as I originally wrote it; in the present tense. I am not currently considering moving.)

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

Reflections on this essay
What do you feel God calling you to do or be that you are afraid of?

How have you tried looking at this fear?

Who is helping you on this exploration or change?

How does this exploration bring you closer to God?

What is your next step in the process and how will you do it?

God is Enough

This essay is from Sally Manhard, a friend and guest blogger. A few weeks ago she came up to me at church to tell me this story and I asked her to write it so I could share it with you. I’m overjoyed to hear these stories of how God works in our lives when we open our hearts to hear and see that God is enough…

 

God is alive and active in our lives.  My husband and I have just returned from six months in Niamey, Niger, West Africa.  I would like to tell you how our going to Niger happened and share a great story of God speaking to our lives.

Elgin and I like to get out of Minnesota in the winter 🙂 so in February 2011 we travelled to Florida where it is warmer – and where there are wonderful state parks for us to stay in our camper van – our home away from home.

Because we left in February we were missing an important faith time for us – Lent.  Much to our delight we discovered that Janet Hagberg was doing an online Lenten devotional that we could participate in.  Her theme was “God is Enough” – based on the life and ministry of Teresa of Avila.

For several years now we have used our camper van time as a chance for us to process and plan pieces of our life.  In 2011 we were discussing how we wanted to celebrate 50 years of marriage in July 2012.  That got us reflecting on our life and experiences we had shared that had deepened our faith and our marriage.  We were wishing God would “call” us to something that would show us more of his activity in our lives.  We thought that would be a great way to celebrate our 50 years.

The next day God answered our prayer with an email from Wycliffe Associates about upcoming volunteer opportunities!  So we decided to see what was available and thus we started our faith journey of “following Jesus” to Africa.

Because this “call” of God’s was filled with so many unknowns, we decided to use Janet’s theme – God is Enough – as our guide.  I must say I wasn’t all that sure what “God is Enough” meant but it felt like this might be one of those times when our usual way of living life would change and we would be looking for and depending on God’s presence and help.

You must appreciate God’s sense of humor here, calling two “older” adults to one of the hottest, poorest countries on earth. The job description said we needed to speak French, so we spent the summer on Rosetta Stone. We appreciate Rosetta Stone as a great language tool but it did not make us fluent in French.  Even this did not deter God, who didn’t disqualify us even though we were old and we couldn’t speak French.  Without the language, though, our job choices changed and we were left with the option of “undefined jobs.”

In some ways the undefined work and the lack of French were gifts because we decided we were working for God and that meant we would do – whatever!  And “whatever” is what we did – much of it unimportant busy work – but in the process we developed some endearing relationships and experiences that were priceless.  Not knowing exactly what any day was going to look like left us open, and dependent on God for “direction.”

The learning in this for us was that God is enough!  What that meant for us was that God does provide – often through others- but only enough for a short time – which kept us looking to Him each day for those six months of our lives.

This is so different from our life in Minnesota where we have a tendency to take charge of our own lives, because we think we know what we need.  In Niamey we didn’t always know what we needed but God must have known because he provided and kept providing – enough manna for each day.

With God’s presence and provision, Niamey, Niger was a wonderful faith growing experience for us.  God wanted to be sure we understood, it was He who was providing for us.

The next part of the story shows how this amazing God was even more deeply active in our lives. Our church in Niamey was the Niamey English Worship Service. On our last Sunday before we came back to the United States the speaker talked about growing through dark or difficult times and to illustrate how growing through hard times is actually a way faith grows, he put up a slide taken from the book The Critical Journey, co-authored by – you guessed it – Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich!  By having Janet at the beginning of this journey and then again at the end, we believe God was saying, “I was with you as you began this journey, I’ve been with you the whole time, and now I’m showing you that I’m still with you!”

We are very grateful for all the ways we saw God in Africa.  But knowing that God would provide a companion like Janet to remind us He was with us, was a special way of God showing us that He is alive and active in our lives.

 

Reflections on this essay:

When have you prayed and experienced an invitation shortly afterwards?

When has God asked you to go forward even though you weren’t exactly qualified?

How do you experience God as “enough?”

How does God provide for your everyday needs and your heart’s desires even when you don’t know exactly what they are?

What companions has God sent along on your journey to remind you of God’s presence?

Surrendering to God

I feel God calling me to a deeper fuller kind of love—like an intimacy of the soul. Yet when I came upon Psalm seventy seven in a much beloved version of the Psalms, my old fears were triggered. Here are the closing sentences of that Psalm.

“When our fears sense you, O Beloved,

when our doubts encounter your love,

they are afraid and tremble.

Our eyes pour forth oceans of tears;

our countenance grows cloudy;

we hide behind walls of resistance.

The power of your love seems too much for us;

your light unveils the secrets hidden in our hearts;

can you wonder that we tremble?

Yet, you stand beside us as we walk through our fears,

the path to wholeness and love, though our footsteps are unsure.

You send a Counselor as a guide to lead us on the paths of peace, truth, and love.”

Then I wrote the following in my journal in response to this Psalm. It reads like a lament Psalm, a Psalm that pours out my heart before God.

“You’ve given me so much love and light, yet I still have so much fear and doubt. Always more fear and doubt. Your glory, your love, frighten me. I am not worthy of so much grace, so much care, so much compassion. My fears rule me day and night. I beg for your mercy. I feel you longing for me, and it scares me. I feel you waiting for me to surrender and it paralyzes me. I beg you to send the Counselor, your Spirit, to walk with me, to calm me, to deepen me, to take my hand and then lift me, and carry me over this threshold of fear. I am willing, as I was a decade ago, to take a new path, if you but tell me which one or take me on it. My whole being longs for you, like a deer longs for flowing streams, yet my fear engulfs me. Take me to a new place of love.”

A spiritual coincidence happened during this process. At a Eucharist service I received an amazing blessing: a personal prayer from the leader that God would grant me love greater than I can imagine. So I am asking God to show me that love, to let me melt and rest in that love. I beg, “Take me into your soul, my final and forever place of rest, restoration and reconciliation…take me to the next place of love, and grant me your radical calm. Grant me a whole life of love arising from a deep place of surrender to you. Take me anywhere your heart desires and carry me so I don’t offer so much resistance.”

And God’s response to me…”Janet, you are mine now. The healing of your wounds is complete. A decade of growth and deepening, preparing you to be exactly who I’ve called you to be. The Counselor is here with you. I am carrying you. You need do nothing. You need not work on this. All is prepared. All is well. I am enough. It is well with your soul. I am bigger than your fear. I am wiser than your experience. And I want to live through you, to bring my love to the world. I adore you. I grant you radical calm. Trust me and let me grant you the fullness of my love. Be still. Be still.”

After that reassuring response I opened Thomas Merton’s book to a passage about his own fear of growing close to God. He has the same issue I do.

“Lord, I have not lived like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself–and that I am still afraid of You. Take my life into Your hands, at last and do whatever You want with it. I give myself to Your love and mean to keep on giving myself to Your love–rejecting neither the hard things nor the pleasant things You have arranged for me. It is enough for me that You have glory. Everything You have planned is good. It is all love.”

Surrender is incredibly hard. It means that we are not in control any more. We do not get what we want; we are drenched in that which we need. God’s love is fuller when we surrender because we are more dependent on it. God is faithful and supplies miracles of healing and deep calm, but rarely in ways we imagined or can speak of or write about. So we get no cultural or religious gain from surrender. What we get is a solitary journey, even when accompanied by others.

So why would anyone want to surrender to God and live sacrificially, longing only for more of God? I think one answer is that when we learn to live in love and to ask only for what we need, we have found the path to God’s soul. Ironically what we most need represents our deepest heart’s desire. We find ourselves trusting God as we relinquish our own wants and wills. We have to trust that what we need will heal our hearts and cleanse our souls and free us for God’s work in the world.

For instance, what I want is external security, being taken care of, when what I need is inner security and trust in God’s provision. What I want is total health when what I need is a chronic condition that keeps me from getting busy in order to avoid being alone. What I want is for others to apologize to me when what I need is to forgive myself. The things I need bring me more intimacy with God and greater interior freedom. Yet what I need is so counter to the culture, my will and my ego that I would rarely choose it for myself.

The reward for a surrendered life is a life lived in God’s radical grace and love, without having to find outward security, without having to blame others for my experiences or having to be healthy in order to be happy. In this surrendered place I can feel the fullness of God’s love and have more time to immerse myself in it. This love stretches me far beyond what I could ever imagine, and expands my capacity for joy.

One of the most beloved saints and mystics, Ignatius of Loyola, speaks eloquently of this surrender: “Take Lord, and receive my liberty, my memory, my understanding, my entire will, everything I have and call my own. You gave me all these gifts, and to you I return them. Dispose of them entirely according to your will. Give me only your love and your grace. That is all I ask.”

This is not a prayer to be taken lightly. God may answer it in ways you did not expect. Pray it anyway.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
The version of the Psalms I quoted is Nan Merrill’s Psalms for Praying. Mertons’ quote is from A Book of Hours. The Ignatian quote is available on line in a search engine.

Reflections on this essay
When God comes close to you, how to you respond?

When are you most afraid of God’s love?

What part of your life are you most afraid of surrendering to God? Why?

What have you experienced when you do surrender?

What do you need verses want?

How does it feel to pray the Ignatian prayer of surrender?

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