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The Shedding

She walked out of the old stories Each one a garment worn and reworn One by one she loosened the buttons and they fell away behind her on the trail of her footsteps She did not look back The chain of stories clung together Rattling from her silent throat Reeling out in Great loops that lay like the harmless shadows of snakes in the dust Where other travelers trod them unheard The old skin shed Layer by layer As her body moved forward step by step Into presence Until she was Naked under the sky Only her feet bare on the ground Only her new skin Smooth Feeling the wind and the drops of rain Only the word now on her tongue That she tasted and savored And did not speak

 

Sarah Kitchian (New Mexico)

Reflections on this poem

What are the old stories you need to walk out of?

How will you move forward, shedding your old skin?

How do you help keep yourself grounded and solid?

What does your new skin, your new life feel like?

 

 

Is God’s Grace Sufficient?

It’s curious what we remember about our childhoods. What stands out is usually the really bad stuff or the really good stuff. But scattered here and there amongst the memories are some poignant stories that just have a category of their own. One of these stories for me started out as an innocent adolescent’s question but has taken on more theological significance to me now than when it happened.

I was in junior high, probably about confirmation age, experiencing a fabulous week of summer Bible camp, something I looked forward to all year. The week was jammed with sports, swimming, boating, ping pong and hiking, in addition to the mornings of Bible study and Missionary teaching. And then there were the boys. One of the reasons we loved camp was that we developed crushes on boys at camp. Maybe there were just more opportunities to be together there but it always seemed special to go out in a boat together or to sit holding hands at campfires. It seemed magical. Actually the whole experience seemed magical.

But this particular year during the teaching time in the morning the pastor said that the definition of sin was “anything contrary to the will of God.” That confused me and, being the curious girl I was, I started wondering just how we would know what the will of God was. This was an exceptionally important question because at the church of my childhood, sin was a mighty big concept. We were taught to take it very seriously. If you accumulated a lot of sins you could potentially be damned. And being damned had serious consequences; an eternity in you-know-where.

I knew what the big sins were for teenagers; dancing, SEX, smoking, gambling (including Bingo), card playing and movies. Then there were the really big sins which seemed more for adults; adultery, murder, wanting other people’s stuff, and working on Sunday. But this idea of sin being anything contrary to the will of God troubled me.

After thinking about this all week at camp, I went to ask my cabin counselor a confusing question. “Does God will us to fall into big holes?”  She said “Of course not,” and tried to reassure me. “So,” I asked, “Why isn’t falling into a big hole sin if it’s against God’s will?” She got a troubled look on her face, almost a panicky look as I recall, and took me immediately to the pastor so he could counsel me. I told him my question and his response was simple; God’s grace is sufficient.

That may have solved the problem for him but it did nothing for me. He didn’t ask me to elaborate on my question so he could find out what was behind it. I may have not even known what was behind it but I’d guess it was something about an arbitrary and sometimes mean-spirited God who felt a lot like my father. My pastor’s answer wasn’t wrong theologically, it was just too abstract for my junior high mind to grasp, and I got no further explanation, so I went away bewildered.

But that phrase “God’s grace is sufficient” has hovered around the periphery of my life ever since. I must have assumed there was something positive about this grace, yet it remained pretty abstract.

Then I went through a multi-year period in my life in which everything I thought I needed to be happy disintegrated, leaving me with just the bare core of who I am. During those years I came into contact with a powerful women, an intelligent, funny and theologically deep woman from the 16th Century who became my spiritual mentor and friend. Teresa of Avila, saint, mystic, reformer. She had many of the same struggles I did and she developed a keen and rich intimacy with God as a result. She taught me to trust that God was involved in everything because all of life was meant to teach us more about ourselves and about God. Her theological stance was “all is gift.” She even wrote a treatise on intimacy with God called The Interior Castle. Her life and writings really spoke to my heart about the journey to intimacy with God. The more I went to God with all of my fear and anguish, the closer I felt to God.

It took years for me to really grasp this intimacy, not to be afraid of it, but once I owned its truth, God transformed my life. In my darkest hours I still felt like I was mysteriously on the right track. But the most important thing she taught me was not to rely on myself for anything but to rely on God alone. Her favorite phrase, one she used as her motto was “Solo Dios basta,” meaning “only God suffices” or “God is enough.” Her shortened version, the words she muttered as she walked the convent halls was “Basta, basta, basta.” What caught my attention was the word suffices, meaning enough. There was that word again. It felt like I had returned to a journey I began in 8th grade.

Teresa, a feisty wonderful woman of the 16th Century brought home to me, in practical and concrete ways, the true meaning of the phrase “God’s grace is sufficient.” Now I know in my soul that it is true. God’s grace IS sufficient. And now, when I think of that junior high school girl within me who was already seeking God’s compassion and unconditional love with her questions about God’s will and deep holes, I just whisper “Basta, basta, basta.”

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

 

Reflections on this essay

What do you remember most about your childhood religious teaching?

Was it life giving or neutral or fear based?

How do you define sin for yourself today?

How have you found God’s grace to be sufficient?

How do you find more intimacy with God in your life?

No Whining: Reflections on Jonah’s Dilemma

Before reading this essay, please consider reading the very short book of Jonah, in the Hebrew scripture. It is right there next to Obadiah and MicahJ

I hate to admit this, but I really can identify with Jonah. He resists God’s call over and over again, simply because he wants his own way. He even puts the lives of his fellow shipmates in danger because of his disobedience. And then when he finally agrees to take the incredible journey God has in store for him and he successfully completes his mission at Ninevah, he whines to God that God did not grant him this success with his own people in his homeland. Even when God provides a large vine to give him comfort and then withers the same plant, Jonah can only find pity for the plant and not for the people of Ninevah. He seems totally oblivious to God’s provisions for him. God has blessed his life and his mission and is giving him more. And yet Jonah can do nothing but whine.

Jonah seems caught up in his small vision of his life, caught up in his own needs and, some would say, in petty feelings. After the two great miracles; living for three days in the belly of a fish and successfully saving Ninevah from destruction, he is still angry because God didn’t do things his way. So in the end Jonah seems like a pathetic but familiar character. He’s so pathetic that I find humor in his consistently whiney behavior.

I find humor that is, until I look at the Jonah-like experiences in my own life. One area of Jonah-likeness in my life is in my way of overlooking what God has done for me. I have had so many wonderful gifts from God and yet it is sometimes easier to focus on my petty grievances.  In my plan to move to an inner city neighborhood near where I go to church, I was lamenting that my condo was not selling, even though it was the worst market in decades, and I was a bit peeved, since this move represented a surrender of my life style and a lot of my “stuff,” a process that was showing me a new freedom I’d never felt. This self-emptying was drawing me closer to God. I felt this move was a calling and yet the selling process became frustrating and anxiety producing. I had a few committed buyers yet no sale. I thought I was doing all the right things and yet nothing was working out.

God stopped me in my tracks and put the sale process on hold, but kept showing me how to live more simply, reminding me of all the incredible deepening experiences we had been through together. It wasn’t this move that would change me, it was God who would change me. God had changed the nature of my work, brought me more meaning and joy, shifted my identity, healed me from unhealthy relationships, granted me deep gifts in prayer, brought me incredible new friends from the margins of society, graced me with new levels of creativity, and provided me freedom from fear of financial insecurity. All these were sheer gifts, and most of them were transformational. Until I could appreciate all of this, it would be useless for me to more forward to any new life.

Whenever I whine and then realize, with chagrin, how faithful and present God is for me, I’m reminded of a powerful painting of Jonah by He Qi, an inspired artist. His paintings shimmer with vibrant color and meaning. In his painting of Jonah’s story he captures the moment that the shipmates are tossing Jonah overboard. Jonah is large, as large as the ship, but beneath it. As you look more closely at the painting, there is another figure that nearly dominates the whole scene, an angelic looking figure above the boat watching over the tragic event at its worst point. He Qi captures the essence of the story for me, that God is there, even at the worst times, working in me and with me, whether I am aware or not, and even when I am whining.

Now when I think about whining, which I still do, I try to embrace my Jonah-likeness and treat myself kindly, perhaps even smiling inwardly when I realize how like Jonah I am. And I also try to reach out to others during these times so I practice compassion for others who have difficulties far worse than mine at the moment.  This is one of God’s finest traits, compassion for us. It is something we can always count on and always draw from, no matter what. At the very end of the Jonah story God reminds Jonah of this compassion and faithfulness with these words, “You have pity on the plant…Should I not also pity Ninevah?”

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

If you would like to see the painting of Jonah by He Qi go to this web address and look for # 48in the gallery, Jonah. http://www.heqigallery.com/shop/gallery_OT_A.html

 

Reflections on this essay

What do you whine most about?

What gifts from God are you overlooking as you whine?

How does whining affect you and your journey?

How do you show compassion for yourself when you are whining?

What art or story or music reminds you of God’s presence?

Jesus Walked on By

Picture this scene. Jesus has just fed a multitude of people with a few loaves of bread and a few fish. The disciples are pretty overwhelmed by this and do not yet fully understand Jesus. And Jesus, as is customary for him, needs some time alone to pray. So he sends the disciples into a boat to cross over the Sea of Galilee and plans to join them later. Jesus stays to disburse the crowd and then goes up into the mountains to pray.

By now it is nighttime and the disciples head off by sea to Bethsaida. A strong wind comes up which rocks the boat. They make very little headway and the wind begins to seriously toss them around. They are tired and scared because they are fishermen and know the dangers of storms at sea.

Jesus sees all of this from the spot he has chosen for prayer, and he has compassion on his disciples. He loves them and he does not want to lose these brave followers. So, what does he do; he walks on the water out to where their little boat is threshing about.

In the most famous version of this story, (Matthew 14) the disciples all get terrified but Jesus calms them, letting them know that the mysterious figure walking on the water is their master. Peter is so moved, he gets out of the boat to come to Jesus—and as long as he keeps his eyes on Jesus, he is fine. But Peter looks down at the swirling waves and immediately begins to sink. Jesus, of course, rescues him and challenges the disciples’ lack of faith. At the end of the story they all believe in him.

But there is another version of this story that we usually don’t hear. This version is in Mark 6. In this version Jesus also walks on the water. But the next line in Mark really catches my attention. Jesus meant to walk on by. That’s right. He walks right past them. What in the world does that mean? What immediately comes to mind for me have been times I have felt rocked around by life, in a sinking boat, about to drown. When I called for help, or pleaded for assistance, for rescue or for safe passage, it felt like Jesus walked on by, hardly even noticing me. Doesn’t he hear me? Doesn’t he care? Where is he?

One time I remember most vividly. I had been working quite hard on the healing of my family issues of alcohol abuse and codependence, and simultaneously I had been working with my husband on our marriage. We had been at it, in therapy and spiritual direction, for six years. It just didn’t seem to me that all that work was making a difference.

One night I awoke in the wee hours feeling enormous sadness, fear and anger. I began talking to God about all of my feelings. My internal boat was rocking recklessly and I felt desperate. I called to God. Where are you? Why are you ignoring me? Why are you not answering me after all my faithful work? Why, God? Why?

To my surprise, I heard a small voice that seemed to be within me yet separate from me, answer me with these words: “Do you not see this time, too, as sacred? I took this in, this seemingly impossible statement and responded to God. “No, actually I don’t. I’m sorry but that sounds like theological double-talk and I don’t get it. I need more.” It felt like God was not hearing my story or was not feeling my pain. God was walking on by. I waited to see if there would be any response. And I worried that my anger may have offended God.

But there was that gentle voice again. “My dear, for what I am preparing you for in the world, you need more than six years of courage. You need prolonged courage.” I took these stunning words into my soul. They rang true. I didn’t like the truth of these words but I knew instinctively that I did need more courage. This internal resonance helped me trust God and know that God would help me through this crisis.

In the Biblical story, when the disciples see Jesus walking on by they scream, thinking it is a ghost. Jesus hears them, comforts them and invites them to release their fear. When he enters the boat, the wind dies down and they are stunned. It is one more miraculous event in their amazing journey with their master.

After my calls to God in the night and God’s profound message to me about prolonged courage, I calmed down too. Within the next several years I knew more fully why God was giving me courage at a deeper level. I needed to face several angry leaders in an initiative I was part of, leaders who were quite intent on disabling the organization I was seeking to build. I found out that my experience and willingness to face the issues in my marriage was a step in finding the courage to stand firm on this national stage. I now had prolonged courage, accompanied by compassion and a non-confrontational way of leading. I had been transformed so I could be a wiser leader.

Even now, when I come to a difficult leadership crossroad, I think back to that turning point when God spoke so compassionately and prophetically to me in the middle of the night. Truth. Hard to hear. Prolonged courage. God had not walked on by. God was in my boat. And still is…

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

 

Reflections on this essay:

When have you felt as if Jesus just walked on by you in your pain?

How did it affect you and how did it eventually work out?

When have you been in chaos and called out to God?

What kind of a response did you receive?

How does God speak to you; images, internal words, ideas, intuitions, other people?

When have you been invited by God to have courage to face something in your life?

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