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Desire for Care


God of tall timber

Hold my heart like bark embraced

Rooted dark and deep


c Janet O. Hagberg, 2012.

Reflections on this poem

The Haiku poetry form is a short poem using a certain number of syllables in three lines. It says things in a very abbreviated way.

What word jumps out at you from the Haiku?

How do God and nature speak to you?

What special meaning do trees have for you, if any?

What in you is asking to be more deeply rooted?

Essential Sadness, Essential Joy

I remember a phrase from my twenties that went something like “Into every life some rain will fall.” There was also a song lyric that included the phrase “Many a tear has to fall, but it’s all in the game.” While I don’t like dwelling on tears and rain, I’ve also come to believe that they are essential to becoming healed and whole.


Our Essential Sadness

In fact I’ve thought about this a lot lately because I’ve encountered or maybe just named what I think is the essential sadness of my life. What I mean by that is that each of us has a fact of our life or a string of events or a personal characteristic that has caused us prolonged grief even if we are not conscious of it. I use the word essential in two ways. One way of using it means that sadness is necessary to be there and necessary for us to feel it in order to be whole, and the other is that it is essential or part of the core of who we are.


For example, I think there are a lot of people who, because of something that has happened to their kids, think they were not good parents. This thought lingers and saddens or even haunts them. Others have an essential sadness around persistent addictions that have gone unchecked. Many people feel as if they never found the job that allowed them to use their best gifts or even show their competence. Some people feel as if they have never really mattered to one special person because they are somehow flawed. Still others experience loss after loss after loss and wonder why this seems to be their lot in life. A long and primary relationship with illness is the essential sadness for some. Whatever it is, it carries strong emotional baggage even if we are not fully conscious of it.


My essential sadness is that I feel that the four most important men in my life, the ones that really mattered, didn’t love me because I was unlovable and unworthy. Even though there were complicating factors like two of them having drinking problems and thus having a difficult time loving, I still felt that I was somehow at fault. Sounds harsh but underneath it feels true. I have come to feel secure in God’s love and in the love of my dear friends, especially my close male friends, but there is still this lingering sadness in my heart.


What is miraculous about our essential sadness is that it can ease or even become a gift to us if we are open to the healing process and invite God into the pain. We can even see surprising and unexpected openings for healing. Some examples: you are at a wedding and an older relative says, in passing, that your kids turned out really well, just like you; you get an unexpected award for your volunteer service and realize that you have always loved volunteer work more than your paid work; you find a photo with an inscription on the back that changes a perception of someone else or of yourself; a family member tells you causally that you were really there for them when it mattered most; someone commends you for your courage in facing something and says you are their role model. If you attend to these off-hand comments and take them in, they can shift your story line and help to transform your essential sadness.


My story line shifted recently when I found a 35-year-old letter in a garbage bag filled with papers I was planning to shred. How it got there is beyond my recollection but there it was, a letter from my first husband the year that we were getting divorced. I don’t ever remember reading this letter at the time, although I’m sure I did. But what I noticed this time through was that it was clear that he still loved me but that our marriage was ending for other reasons. After 35 years of carrying around the idea that I was unlovable something shifted deep inside me and I felt a small opening for some healing of that essential sadness.


God intervened and spoke to me in this healing process helping me face my sense of unworthiness. God said that I don’t have to be or feel worthy of his love, I just need to be willing to receive God’s and other people’s love. And, as usually happens to me when God is involved, I just happen to be working on a set of icons of Biblical women, many of whom have very difficult, even treacherous relationships with men who deem them unworthy. So my story mixes nicely with their stories. Miraculously all of these women’s stories were somehow redeemed and they became prime stories in the Bible. You may remember a few of them; Bathsheba, Sarah, Rahab, Tamar, Naomi, Hannah.


John O’Donahue writes in his book, Beauty, about how our flaws can become beautiful. We can live into that breathtaking place within us where we can see the gift of not having it all together. He says, “In the shadowlands of pain and despair we find slow, dark beauty. The primeval conversation between darkness and beauty is not audible to the human ear and the threshold where they engage each other is not visible to the eye. Yet at the deepest core they seem to be at work with each other…Where woundedness can be refined into beauty a wonderful transfiguration takes place. For instance, compassion is one of the most beautiful presences a person can bring to the world and most compassion is born from one’s own woundedness.”


Our Essential Joy

There is another story that runs through each of our lives, that of our essential joy. Each person has a different experience of joy but for each of us it is like a thread that we can usually trace as far back as we can remember. For some people it is a quality they exhibit, for others it is relationships with other people. For some it is the ability to take risks or solve problems, for others it is creativity. Remembering what it is and noticing it can make a big difference in our lives.


I know a person whose sense of humor has been a consistent source of pain relief and balance. It is natural and not contrived—and brings him a calmer perspective on most situations. Another person told me that she has an uncanny way of finding mothers and mentors to teach her, love her, and watch out for her. One man has stayed close to nature all his life using it as his life-line, his God-place, his restoration. Another woman makes a nest of every place she has ever lived, no matter how small or bare or unstable. Having a nest makes coming home seem more delectable.


As I traced back in my life to find my essential joy or life-line, it has been two-fold (and frequently these two were combined); writing and my relationship with God. I have not always experienced smooth sailing with either of these two but the journey, even with the struggles, has been my essential joy.  I grappled with very difficult theological and emotional questions in my twenties and thirties, made large career changes in my forties, and had consistent social justice challenges and marriage issues along the way. Not only was God present but God invited me to take my experiences one step further. As a result, most of my published writing emerged out of my questions and struggles and pondering.


Now I am hearing God ask me to let his love permeate me deeply even in this place of feeling unlovable. And I hear God asking me to mold my essential sadness with my essential joy and bring it to the world in artful ways; in icons and essays and books. It’s hard to even imagine that these two could merge together in such beautiful ways. And to think that this all got started when I found a 35-year-old letter in a garbage bag filled with scrap papers. It just reeks of God.


Ó Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.


Reflections on this essay

What do you think is your essential sadness?

How has it affected the way you think about yourself?

What is the beauty in your flaw?

What has happened to start the healing process for you?

What is your essential joy?

How has it affected the way you think about yourself?

How have the two melded together to give you more depth or wisdom or hope?

Ask Me


Some time when the river is ice ask me

mistakes I have made. Ask me whether

what I have done is my life. Others

have come in their slow way into

my thought, and some have tried to help

or to hurt: ask me what difference

their strongest love or hate has made.


I will listen to what you say.

You and I can turn and look

at the silent river and wait. We know

the current is there, hidden; and there

are comings and goings from miles away

that hold the stillness exactly before us.

What the river says, that is what I say.


William Stafford

Let Your Yes be Yes and Your No be No

I’ve always been intrigued and challenged by the ideas expressed in two scripture verses about simply saying the truth. In Mark 5:37 and James 5:12 we are directed not to use oaths but let our yes be simply be yes and our no be simply no. I’m sure there are some theological nuances that I don’t understand at work here but what is challenging about this for me is that I have a hard time in conflictual situations just saying my truth (especially saying no) in love.

Look at a few examples that may be familiar for you:

People at work gossip about another person and it makes you feel uncomfortable

A friend turns bitter when her husband dies and it is very difficult to be with her now though she calls you frequently

A neighbor has asked you to take care of his three dogs whenever he travels and you don’t feel you can take it on any more

Your spouse has changed dramatically and is manipulating you to keep bailing him/her out of trouble without changing his/her behavior

You are in a couples group you’ve been in for ten years but you are newly single and feel that the group no longer welcomes you


In these situations I mostly use the most convenient ways out; I usually hedge or find excuses or use a cold or illness as an excuse not to get together, anything so that I don’t have to deal with the truth of the situation as it affects me. It’s hard, first of all, to be honest with myself about what I’m feeling or what I want out of the situation and what I’m willing to risk to do something about it. Then it’s hard to be honest with another person without using anger or resentment or bitterness as a motivator. Underneath all of this is usually fear and hurt, fear of loss, fear of retaliation, fear of abandonment, fear of being hurt, fear of vulnerability. In some families this fear of vulnerability is so strong that family members pick fights with one another right before they are about to part so the parting will be easier. It seems easier for them than saying that they will miss one another.

It’s hard to be sincerely honest without unintentionally hurting or irritating someone. But then Richard Rohr adds another dimension to our yeses and nos. He suggests that we ponder sacred yeses and sacred nos. So, for instance, if we are facing into a difficult situation and we bring God in, how would that change how we deal with our responses. God does not ask us to be a doormat nor does he inspire rage. Jesus was quite honest with people, especially in conversations in which he wanted them to think and grow.

So I’ve asked this question of God; how can I be honest, be grateful for the other person, be graceful and yet establish with them what I need in order to be in a more whole place within myself? Letting go of friends who no longer fit is an especially hard situation for me as is having boundaries with someone who is threatening to me. I’ve found that my intention is the most important thing to attend to. If my intention is healthy, it will work out in both of our best interests.

Here is my four-part way of addressing relationships that need to change. It can either be done in person or by a note.

*I am so grateful to you for…(Be prayerful about my intent and state my gratitude for what has been good about the relationship).

*I sense that…(State what is happening now or what has changed in the relationship without blame or shame. State how it is affecting me, not about what they are doing. Sometimes we just have less common ground, or we’ve gone different directions or I don’t feel like participating or I can’t handle the requests. The message can usually be heard better if I can keep it neutral but truthful).

*I realize this may mean…(Bear the consequences and be clear about my willingness to do that. Say what I can do and what I can’t do. In other words I need to give up what they have that I need or want so I can let go freely with no dangling issues).

*I wish you…(Bless them on their way or suggest a next step that would be helpful for you both without trying to control or chastise or be right. Humility counts for a lot here, knowing that both parties are involved in this conflict).


The result? Usually I feel as if I have preserved my own integrity and taken care of myself in the process. I am also grateful for what was meaningful about the relationship. I am less likely to be hooked in by others’ issues once I use this practice and I usually feel a stronger sense of inner power as well. And God usually either enriches the relationship or replaces those I have let go of with others who are more compatible.

I remember a situation in which a woman came to me to talk about her husband’s hurtful behavior towards her. I helped her sort it out and she sincerely appreciated it. In fact, she told her husband how good it was to talk with me. A few years later she died and her husband approached me to give me something she wanted me to have. In the process I felt that he was pursuing me in ways that were not comfortable for me. At one point he put his hands on my neck inappropriately and it sent shivers down my spine. I have a history of dealing with abusive men so it alerted me to do something right away. I wrote a note to the man thanking him for telling me that his wife wanted to give me a gift because she appreciated our friendship. But I said that I didn’t have any interest in becoming better friends with him. I wished him well and thanked him again for the story of his wife. I never got the gift she had left me but it was worth it not to have to deal with his behavior towards me. I felt clean and detached and relieved. Afterwards I felt God smiling at me for noticing this red alert and doing something about it.


Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What current person or group are you engaged with because you “can’t get out?”

What is not life-giving about it?
What feelings are lingering within you that you need to work though in order to change or leave?


Try writing a “sacred no” letter to this person or group. Use the four parts: I am so grateful…Now I sense that…I realize this may mean…I wish you…


What Life is All About

I asked God one day

to tell me

what life is all about

Well God said

that’s easy

It’s about coming

home to yourself

And coming

home to me

He winked at me

and we both took

a sip of our tea

c Janet O. Hagberg, 2013. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this poem

What  would you like to ask God?

How do you think God would answer?

How do you come home to yourself?

How do you come home to God?

What would a tea party or a shared lunch with God be like for you?

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