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My Black Angel

I was raised in what I would call a “wheels” family. My dad operated a small trucking company that he started during the depression. Our family took several driving trips when I was a young girl and my brother was a fifties Chevy and Ford aficionado—when the cars were much “hotter” than they are now. He was a mechanic, like my dad, and also liked doing body repair so as a hobby he restored old Corvettes.

I got my permit and my driver’s license on the first day I was eligible for each of them. I loved to drive. We were loyal to the Ford brand and got a new car every few years because my dad respected a fine running automobile. Not top of the line, but nice looking and reliable. In our family, if you had a car you were expected to take care of it– wash it, change the oil, do the upkeep. So I come by my love of cars honestly.

My very favorite car of all time was my thirty-something dream car: a Datsun 280 Z. I drove it for ten years and cried when I had to part with it. I loved the whole idea of driving that car. I know this makes some of you yawn, but stay with me, there’s a spiritual story in here somewhereJ

Just this summer I decided that, after seventeen years with my sturdy, reliable Nissan Maxima, it was about time to get a newer car. The upkeep was getting tiresome and expensive even though it remained a good car. So in my routine meeting with Lance, my financial planner we talked about starting to look for cars so I would have a newer one before winter. That sounded good to me although as a single woman over sixty the process of buying a used car seemed daunting.

On the way home from my appointment I stopped at the Somali Brothers’ car repair place I’ve been going to for eleven years, to drop off some chocolate chip cookies for the guys who fixed my car the week before. As soon as I drove in the owner, Ali, said to me, “Janet, I’ve found a car for you.” “You WHAT?” I said. He explained that he bought cars that had been repossessed or had been in accidents and fixed them up for resale. He also said that he had found just the one for me, a 2010 Black Honda Accord. Since I was one of his best customers he wanted me to have first dibs on it. I looked at it and it was, in a word, elegant. He gave me the price (which was far below blue book) and said he would take my car in trade at a good price. This felt to me like a wonderful gift directly from God.

Then the machinations started. Why was the car cheaper than expected? What had happened? What if it was structurally damaged? What if I bought a lemon? Could I trust Ali? Who would I call to ask questions? Should I look up the vin number? Should I bargain more? I got quite anxious and did battle with these questions for two days, asking friends and getting contradictory views about what to do. One of my friends came to view the car and said he liked the deal so that was reassuring.

But finally I sat down, prayed and pared the whole situation down to some basic facts. 1-I realized that if something was wrong with this car Ali’s reputation as a business owner was on the line. 2- I decided that the trust relationship I’d had with Ali for eleven years was worth believing in. 3-I affirmed that this event really did feel like a gift from God. In fact, God assured me that it was. So I asked Ali if he was willing to take the car back in thirty days if it was flawed and to buy it back if it was a lemon. He agreed.

I surmised what this car might have been through and what may have happened to the previous owner. It could have been a reclaim for financial purposes, or involved in drugs or even prostitution. Whatever the reason the car was repossessed I invited the previous owner to be restored and I did a blessing on the whole car.  I had an image of this car as an angel in my life and decided to name it Amelia, my black angel. I accept this car now as a grace filled gift from God.

The best confirmation of all that this car was meant for me was the joy I felt the day I picked up my new car and saw the new license plates. I just chuckled. My two initials, JH, were on the license plate. Just God, playing another nice little cosmic joke.

ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2012. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What were your family’s most highly valued material possessions when you were growing up?

What memories do you have of those things for you personally?

How is God involved in the big decisions of your life in obvious or hidden ways?

Who do you choose to trust? Why?

What little confirmations do you receive that make you smile or feel comforted?

Move on to Your Glory

What can you see of existence’s attempt to honor

you, when you keep turning back to a time

where some event you seemed to take part in may

cause you to lower your head, and whisper

again…I am sorry?

 

We are waiting for you to arrive at your own

coronation, but you really can’t accept the crown

with any regrets in your past. Where does

that then leave you…in line for the throne?

 

What can you see of every object’s attempt

to pay homage to you, because of your divine

lineage, if you are stuck in any kind of

confessional?

 

All happenings needed to be; accept that, my

dear. Ask for any forgiveness one more time

if you must,

 

ask for forgiveness one more time if you must,

then move on to your glory and sublime reign.

 

Hafiz from A Year with Hafiz, editor, Daniel Ladinsky

 

Reflections on this poem

What event in your past keeps you coming back to your regrets?

What gifts or what crown are you avoiding by living in those regrets?

How do you stay stuck in the confessional, like a victim of your own sabotage?

Can you accept that everything mattered and was there for a purpose?

What forgiveness do you need to ask for (one last time) in order to move forward?

Healing Threads

When I read the biography of Gandhi many years ago, one of the things that stayed with me was that he prayed a whole day a week; on Monday. Part of his Monday ritual was to spin wool or cotton into yarn, perhaps as a form of meditation. I was awed by his discipline of praying for a day but also his inclusion of a creative art form in his prayer. I have been drawn to various creative art forms my whole life, especially drawing, paper arts and knitting, but I had not yet equated my art form with prayer.

Then quilting gently entered my life. A friend of mine is a master quilter and her quilting stories intrigued me. I had a family heirloom, a cedar chest, filled with quilt tops from the 1930s that had not been finished but I did not know how to complete them. My friend helped me get the appropriate fabric to complete the quilts and showed me how to do simple hand quilting. Once I got started I felt more connected to my grandmother, who I did not know well, and to all the other women in my extended family. A quilt expert told me that one of my quilts dated from 1865 and that the quilter had a mind of her own. I liked hearing that there was a spunky woman in my family tree. I felt an even deeper connection with those women who had come before me.

When it came time to create my own quilts, I got stuck. I was not drawn to the repeated patterns of most quilts nor to the pastel flowered fabrics of the quilting tradition. (My 1865 quilt maker ancestor chose bright red and white as her colors, and an unusual pattern.) It seemed my quilting days were short lived. But that year my friend just happened to be an officer in the state quilt group and asked if I would go with her to the quilt show. As we were walking along the aisles of quilts I noticed one quilt style that I had never seen before. It was called a One Block Wonder. It included different configurations of hexagons made into a creative larger pattern—amazing, creative and beautiful. I said to my friend, “If I can make a quilt like that I’ll start quilting.” She assured me I could make quilts like that. So I did. In the process I learned that my creativity and sense of adventure could be part of this process. I, too, could have a mind of my own!

But in the quilting process I found something else that really surprised me. Quilting calmed my soul. Quilting felt prayer-like. When I quilted people who I needed to connect with or forgive came to mind. Sometimes the quilt I was working on needed my love poured into it. I quilted slowly so it was not just a goal to accomplish. I let the quilt speak to me of what else it needed. During tense times I could use quilting projects as a way to soothe and comfort me. I felt that quilting was a strong and creative antidote to anxiety and stress.

Along the way I joined a small quilt group, called the Redeemer Block Club, at the inner city church I belong to. Our goal was to make quilts for an annual quilt action. The proceeds all went to projects in other countries, for the empowering of women and children, including HIV/Aids orphans. It was much more meaningful to quilt for a cause and see the results in people’s lives.

One of the African refugees at our church slowly got involved in quilting. She didn’t like it as first, partly because she was so depressed. So in the beginning, we just asked her if she wanted to sit by the ironing board and press fabric. Pretty soon we found some African fabric and asked her to help us design a quilt named for her. Her inner light began to get a little brighter. She began quilting her own designs that spoke of her story of surviving torture and leaving her country to come to America. Just a few months later, we asked her to write her story and send photos of her quilts to the state quilter’s group. She was awarded the new quilter’s award, which included a trip to the statewide quilt show where her quilt was displayed.

More crucial though, was what quilting was doing for her soul and for our souls. When she quilted she said she felt calmed and connected to a new life and to the creativity within her. She forgot, at least for a little while, about all the bad memories she also carried with her from her past. Quilting was healing for her. And quilting with her was creative, healing and satisfying for us too.

Eventually some of her colleagues who were also survivors from Africa got interested in quilting just from seeing and hearing what it had done for her. We formed a small subgroup of quilters, made up of experienced quilters and new quilters, to sew together and form a community across cultures. We called it Healing Threads. As we came together monthly, those of us who are experienced quilters shared our skills to help each woman make the quilt she wanted. New quilters created their own designs, their own work of art, and we were all deepened by the experience. It was a safe atmosphere for all of us to create and to heal. Each new quilter went home with a sewing machine and supplies so she could keep quilting at home. Now one of the new quilters has a small sewing class in her apartment. So it grows…

I am reminded that if I listen to my heart, like I did when I first started quilting and if I allow the art to move more deeply within me, it just naturally takes me to places of new life. I see quilting as prayer now—and also creativity, community, joy and healing.

I’m still curious, though, about Gandhi. If spinning was part of his quiet Monday ritual, what inner journey did it stimulate and how was that related to his outer work of freeing his people from British rule? Something more to ponder while I make my next quilt.

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

Reflections on this essay

What art form or hobby most holds your attention? Describe it.

How did you get started and why?

What does it do for you now beyond the skill and time commitment?

How has it lead you to new activities or people you would not have met otherwise?

How is it a source of healing or calm for you?

I Put God on Probation

My friend, Pedro, grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is a rough neighborhood. As a small boy he was his mother’s caregiver through her serious illnesses. When he was about eight, his mom died and, at the same time, his dad told him he was not his real father. Pedro spiraled into sheer survival mode, joined a gang and lived mostly on the streets. Miraculously, because of something within him, he completed middle school and high school, although he says he had to steal in order to get money for a cap and gown.

By the time he moved to Minnesota in his twenties, he was deep into drugs, physically ill and well acquainted with jail. He was sick and tired of life. He was sick and tired of God too. As a young child he had felt close to God in the rituals and music of the Catholic church, but now that all these bad things had happened to him, and since God had done nothing to take care of him, he decided to put God on probation. He had no use for God at all.

Although I didn’t grow up in violence on the south side of Chicago, I put God on probation in my twenties too. I’ve been tempted to do it again a few times since then but not as keenly. I put the old fear-and-shame God of my childhood on probation because I couldn’t live in that dread. And I was mad at him for not healing my mother. Like Pedro, my mother died tragically and suddenly, at a young age. I didn’t have the heart capacity not to blame God and this death was a devastating blow. I had no need for a God who refused to heal. I didn’t know a way to replace that God except to join intellectual pursuits and reason myself away from my faith. I guess that was my drug of choice. It took me a dozen years, and another crisis, to bring me back to God.

These two scenarios happen to most of us with some variations. We want things to be good for us, to go well, to be fair. We try to behave well and we expect to be rewarded. When we are instead, in pain, most of us say “Why me?” (Good me, kind me, successful me☺). And then we blame God because God is supposed to be powerful and should be able to prevent bad things or at least fix them when they happen. This is a view of God as a cosmic magician who can and should perform miracles at our request. That is the reasoning that got both Pedro and me in serious trouble and caused us to put God on probation.

Without getting too theological here, let me say that if we could command God to grant all of our wishes and get life the way we wanted it, most of us would not become better people, more loving and compassionate. Sad but true. We would become more selfish, egotistical, needy and perhaps even greedy. So instead we get life with all of its joy and pain. Life just happens. We suffer most if we demand things our way, and fail to grow deeper from our experiences. Yet, we need to be real, to get angry at God, to rant and call for mercy. And sometimes we need to fire our old God or take a sabbatical from God in order to step back and get perspective. We need to search out new paths and discover new ways to experience God. We can find God precisely in our pain if we look. This happens if we enter into a process of embracing and not running from our pain. God then becomes even more intimate in times of pain. Finding this intimate God is a path of great, though unsettling, transformation.

This searching and questioning of our faith, or even the apparent loss of faith, is a crucial part of the faith journey but there is also a danger of getting so bitter that we get stuck in our anger, stuck in our intellectual search, stuck in our victim-hood. Sometimes we stop the search all together and drop out completely, which can be shattering to our psyches since meaning and purpose are central to our well-being. Hopefully, for most people this time of searching brings them to a new and more intimate relationship with themselves and with God, to a different level of meaning and a new chapter in their lives.

In Pedro’s case, in the middle of his pain, an angel appeared in the form of a judge, who could have sent him to prison, but instead saw something in him that suggested he might succeed in a special drug rehab and prison diversion program. Over the next few ears of intense inner work, Pedro got clean, found a steady home base in long-term housing and joined an ongoing spirituality group. He became a mentor for a non-profit organization that connected suburban people with those on the margins and he started volunteering for Mad Dads (a men’s anti-violence group). He reunited with his two kids and he became the head of the residents’ council, working for healthier living conditions, like an exercise work out room.

Although Pedro still lives with MS and diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, he feels close to God and says God is with him all the time. He has wisdom beyond his years and many people seek him out for guidance. He recently received one of eight volunteer-of-the-year awards from a prominent magazine. He said, smiling, that he was the only poor and powerless recipient of the award. The judge who got him started on this road has become a mentor and close personal friend.

God showed up, in the middle of the pain, Pedro says, in the form of this judge. And Pedro was able to see that and respond. It wasn’t a miracle in the sense that Pedro was miraculously healed. He still had to work hard to get sober, but God stood with him as he worked his program. I wonder if God had secretly showed up long before that by fueling that drive within him to get through school☺

God showed up for me in another crisis in my life, to bring me out of my no-need-for-God era to a community of faith that included a deep heart connection as well as a strong intellectual component. Just what I needed in order to grow. Anger and fear were slowly replaced by love. And from that place I found a spiritual director and a new personal intimacy with God. I think God was there waiting for me all along.

For both Pedro and me God survived probation and is now “off-paper.” God is a well functioning member of our society again and has been fully rehabbed in our lives. Amen.

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

Reflections on this essay
When have you put God on probation and why?

When do you say “why me?”

When have you left God or a church and found a new alternative?

When have you been stuck in anti-God or anti-religion sentiments?

How has God always been with you, even in the desolation?

What is your community of faith now? And is it life-giving?

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