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Dear Subscribers,

I have a gift for you. I just finished writing a book on suffering and intimacy with God entitled, Who are you, God? It is about the ways in which we can grow deeper and closer to God as a result of the pain we go through. I’m going to publish half of it on my blog for you hoping that it will give you insights and hope during any of your suffering experiences.

 

In return I’d love to have your feedback and also your help in bringing this book to the world. I’d like to simultaneously publish it electronically and with a publisher but I don’t know how that will happen–yet. I just like the feeling of a grassroots and prayerful effort on behalf of this book. So if you feel inspired by the chapters I publish and you know talented people who can help me with iBook, kindle, nook or if your best friend is an editor at a publishing house, contact me. I can feel God smiling…
Janet

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When Fear Comes, Invite it to Curl up in Your Lap

Doesn’t it seem like an odd suggestion, to invite fear into your lap? Wouldn’t we want to get rid of fear, get as far away from it as possible? Embracing fear, letting it sit in our lap is counter to what most of us want to do. And it is very counter cultural. So you can imagine my reaction the first time the supervisor in my spiritual direction training program suggested this.

“You want me to do what???” I asked with a skeptical look on my face. “I’m just suggesting that you would learn what your fear has to teach you if you befriend it,” he replied, with one of those God-like smirks on his face. He was relishing this. I could tell. And I knew I was about to learn some deep truth, truth I wasn’t sure I wanted to know. But I trusted my supervisor and I agreed to try this approach. I’ve been practicing this form of deepening ever since.

A few weeks ago, for instance, I felt a familiar fear, the fear of abandonment. This is a real fear for me and it plagues me from time to time. The source of my fear was a misunderstanding I had with a good friend, a misunderstanding that I had not yet resolved. The feelings of disconnection and fear weighed heavy on my heart. I was hurt and angry. I wanted to make the amends that are my part of this issue and find a way back to a free and loving friendship. But my fear overrode all of this rational thinking. Feelings always override rational thought according to the latest brain research. And mine certainly do. I leaped to the conclusion that my friendship was in jeopardy and that I would lose this friend. I was afraid she would decide to give up on me.

Is this familiar to anyone else? Sometimes, because I am so accustomed to this fear—the fear of abandonment—I even assume it will automatically happen and I start down that road, going way too far before I turn around. The familiar is oddly comforting. Not healthy but familiar. This pain is real to me because I have been abandoned; my mother died when I was only 22, I’ve been divorced, I’ve lost a few good friendships and three of my best friends have died at young ages. So this road is well traveled and I need to consciously resist the urge to go there since it leads to self-pity and a victim stance, which is counter productive.

So what can I do as an alternative to taking that fateful road trip? I do as my supervisor suggested. I set still in prayer and invite the fear to climb into my lap. My stillness becomes inviting to my fear and I let it curl up as if it is a small child or a cat. I provide a safe haven in my lap for this fear to express itself.

My first step is to listen to the fear, hear what it is and name it; in this case it is the fear of abandonment. I embrace this fear. I cuddle it so it knows that I can be close and that I will not panic. This takes some practice though because neither I, nor the fear, really believe this will work. So I sit with the fear and help us both feel safe by inviting God in. When I can do this and not be reactive I know there is grace abounding already. When I can hear what my fear is trying to tell me, that it is trying to get my attention so I can get closer to my friend, I am skeptical, but I acknowledge that my fear is really my longing for healthier relationships.

The next step is turning this fear over to God. When I do I get some release. God knows I have this fear and that it plagues me. God loves me, even with this fear in my life. And God can transform this fear into love and a willingness to take risks to have deeper and healthier relationships that are not so fragile or so dependent that one misunderstanding can topple them. When I hear this deeper truth from my fear and from God I feel a small seed of hope growing within me. When I let God into my fear I feel new freedom. My body responds to this holy grace too, by slowly releasing tension, muscle strain and anxiety associated with the fear. This feels like a thin place, a place where God is breaking through and I get a glimpse of God’s healing essence. It is holy ground because I know I am not capable of doing it myself.

And a surprising thing happens. Thoughts start bubbling up about my past abandonment experiences and I can see how God has responded and transformed me as a result. I hadn’t seen this as clearly before. My Mother’s early death propelled my inner growth process. Loss of friendships brought open space for new and sometimes more compatible people to enter my life. The death of friends has shown me how vital my friends are to me and allowed me to bear things I didn’t know I was capable of. Divorce brought me humility and compassion I’d never experienced. So abandonment has not forced me into being a victim. That is merely a choice I make—to learn from the situation or to become bitter. Sometimes this is a hard choice but I’ve found that God is in these deep moments of choice in my life too, supporting me to choose life and not death.

Now that I’ve released my fear of abandonment to God, what are my options with my current relationship misunderstanding? I ask my fear and God what I need to learn in this situation and they tell me that I need to be vulnerable and honest about the situation. What part of the misunderstanding is mine and what kind of amends am I needing to make? Do I need to forgive myself? Do I need to acknowledge my friend’s part and extend forgiveness to her too? Do I need to affirm our relationship? Do I need to speak honestly to her if these kinds of misunderstandings are a repeating issue? What kind of loving, vulnerable and healing action is called for? How can I do that and also stay on what I call the middle path, the healing path, not the path of fear and not the path of denial or withdrawal or attack?

I pray for guidance and listen for God’s wisdom in my present situation. Then I act on what I’ve learned. After a few clarifying conversations, a lot of humility and honesty, and a request for forgiveness, the situation gets resolved, with even a bit of humor tossed in. It was far easier to approach it this way because, having embraced and soothed my own larger issue of abandonment, I kept the real issue small instead of fueling it. I kept to the message that I wanted to resolve it and make amends. That kind of sincerity is usually inviting.

So now my healthiest image of fear is as a child or a cat curled up on my lap. So unexpected, yet so real. The key to healing, in my experience, is to allow my fear to come close enough that I can recognize it, embrace it, listen to it and release it to God. And my image of myself as I experience this process is that I am curled up in God’s lap, feeling the love and the nurture of this healing process.

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

Reflections on this essay

When have you been most afraid? Afraid of what?

How have you taken fear in your lap as a child or cat and calmed it, learned from it, turned it over to God?

When have you felt abandoned?

How do you react to abandonment?

How have you learned to release the self-pity or victim stance that accompanies hard feelings?

How has God healed you from fear?

Becoming a Whole Woman (Man)

What does it mean to be a whole woman? Just for a minute, jot down the images or words that come to mind that describe a whole woman. (men, do this to describe whole men and follow your own path through this essay). If you follow cultural prescriptions you might have words like attractive, professional, thin, married with talented children (2.5, no more, no less), physically healthy, living in a beautiful and well kept home.

If you inquire of scripture to supply you with an image of the whole woman it gets more complicated. One place to start is a description of a good wife in Proverbs 31. This woman does everything, from raising children to creating and selling fine clothing to buying land. It raises two questions for me. How many servants did she have and what on earth was her husband doing besides sitting among the elders? Even so, that is one standard.

However there are many other scriptural references for women as role models who have very different circumstances; the two famous widows, Ruth and Naomi, who showed us how to be faithful to one another as women; Lydia and Debra, who were highly regarded as a business woman and a judge respectively; Miriam, a leader of the Israelites who not only saved Moses’ life by negotiating with Pharaoh’s daughter but also led the people in the celebratory dance after they had escaped Egypt; Mary, Hannah and Hagar who all had intimate and all pervading relationships with God and who all encountered God in extreme circumstances; Queen Esther who literally put her marriage and her life on the line to save her people; the barren woman in Isaiah 54 who has more descendants than anyone else and is to be praised. Even Paul gives us another theological model, that of singleness which he prefers to marriage for people in his time.

Add to that our own family expectations of what it means to be whole. For one family the expectations for women might be exactly the opposite of the expectations of another family. Interestingly, King Lemuel, who wrote the elaborate description of a good wife in Proverbs 31, got his ideas from his mother. There were mother-in-law issues in his marriage, to be sure.

So what are we to do? Whatever the list or source we ascribe to, one thing is usually clear. We personally do not meet the requirements nor match the description of what it means to be a whole woman. If we are single we usually adhere to the married with perfect children list. If we are married with children we may aspire to the professional woman list. Ultimately whole is something we’re not. So if we were just _____ (you fill in the blank), we would be whole. Not now. Maybe some day. Maybe never.

I have been plagued by all these expectations and descriptions most of my life because I, like most women, did things that got me no points on the “whole woman” list I adhered to. I married, as it turns out, to gain depths of compassion and wisdom, not anniversary parties; conceived books and not babies, have “adopted” most of my family members to augment the real ones, tend towards telling the story of my life as it really is rather than what would make me look better. I usually feel quite out of sync with both the cultural and biblical standards.

What a dilemma. How do we find deep satisfaction and comfort in life if we have so many competing voices telling us who we are to be? And even when we do achieve what “they” say we need to achieve, we still don’t feel whole.

Here’s a radical thought. How about just being grateful for who we are, just the way we are, believing that this is exactly where we need to be right now? Wow. How would we do that? One way to embrace this is to accept that we already have innate worth and we are whole because we are created in God’s image. We were created whole—any baby will confirm that. Sure we fall from that grace but before we fall, there is the glory of our creation. Even our fallenness, when embraced for its wisdom in our lives, is part of our wholeness. Our innate worth allow us to be whole in one, whole in ourselves and whole in ONE, whole in God. Whenever we embrace our wholeness as God’s beloved gift and see ourselves as redeemed women, we are living into God’s deeper truths.

God has given us a clear process for living into the truth of our wholeness. We find it in Deuteronomy 6:5 and expanded by Jesus in Matthew 22: 37-39. It has three parts. The first is this: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your might (mind). This means, to me, that learning about God, leaning on God, and allowing God to soothe, heal, forgive, refine, embrace and compose our lives is what will bring us even closer to who we are in our deepest selves. Second: Love yourself. To me this means believing in my innate worth and in the power of my own unique story as God’s unfolding story for me. It means finding myself, not in the cultural, family or even religious expectations but in my own story in God. Third: Love your neighbor as you have learned to love yourself. This is a natural outgrowth of loving myself, accepting myself and forgiving myself, thus freeing me to be compassionate and loving towards others.

Is it an easy 1-2-3 step process? No, because we have a lot to shed; cultural pressure, shame, guilt, self-loathing, fear. This is best done with the help of a wise and gifted counselor. But it is worth the effort because it makes all the difference. A seasoned pastor once told me that this three-part commandment from God was all I had to know about life and theology. He added, smiling, “All the rest is commentary.” I believe the same is true in the process of becoming a whole woman. If I focus on God as my creator and my Beloved, I can love myself and others; all the rest is commentary.

I wrote this poem to underscore that truth. I created you/now let me love you/that’s all I’ve got to say/would you like me to repeat that

What if the first words you think of when asked to describe a whole woman are intimate with God, deeply satisfied, loving self, wise as a result of embracing pain, grounded, a rose in full bloom, a full moon? It’s possible.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
Men are invited to do this exercise as well, identifying cultural, Biblical and family pressures to be a certain way and then clarifying who they really are separate from those expectations but within God’s perspective.

Reflections on this essay
What words or images first came to mind when I mentioned whole women/men?

What sources of expectations are strongest for you in describing whole women or men?

How would you describe yourself in relation to those expectations?

How are you accepting yourself as created in God’s image, with innate worth?

Which of the three steps; love God, love self, love neighbor, are you most drawn to?

What are you now doing (or could you do) to embrace that step in your growth?

What words do you claim for yourself as descriptions of you as a whole woman or man?

“ New Life for Dry Bones”

Ezekiel 37 (NRSV)
He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?”
I answered. “O Lord God, you know.”
He said, “Say to them, O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord…
I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live…
and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Psalm 23:6 (NRSV)
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

Reflections on this icon

What do you see in this icon that speaks to you?

When have you felt as if you were just a pile of dry bones?

How has God asked you to speak to your own “dry bones” situation and let God breathe new life into you?

What wisdom or gratitude has emerged from your dry bones experience?

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