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An Inconvenient God

A word that is being thrown around a lot in the media and conversation these days, in relation to Black Lives Matter, is “inconvenience.” It’s inconvenient when bus lines are diverted to go around marches demanding police transparency and accountability downtown. It’s inconvenient that people have to wait at stop lights for seven extra minutes while the throng of protesters file down the street, chanting “Black Lives Matter.” It’s inconvenient when highways get shut down by human chains demanding justice in exchange for peace. And most recently, it has been inconvenient for holiday travelers to have some flights delayed for 45 minutes at the MSP airport, and shops closed at the Mall of America for a couple of hours so that the protestors could disturb the status quo and remind people that Black Lives are inconvenienced every day. Every day a black person steps out of their house, they must live in fear of police violence. Black mothers fear that their sons won’t live past their 18th birthday without ending up dead or in jail. Schools, places of employment, housing, banks, food systems, and the “justice” system are all stacked against Black Americans. The daily stress of discrimination grates on Black Americans to the point of causing higher rates of depression and anxiety, heart disease, and high blood pressure. I’d say that is much more inconvenient that a single incident of tardiness for travelers.

Dr. King certainly had similar conversations with city officials, asking him to “move slower and more gently” but they shut down the bridge in Selma anyway. The bus boycott in Montgomery inspired by Rosa Parks was highly disruptive to the city. White Jim Crow shop owners who had their business disturbed by protestors at lunch counter “sit ins” were outraged at the disturbance of business as usual. (Sound familiar?) If things are to change, we must all of us be disturbed and inconvenienced. 400 years of oppression and discriminatory systems don’t just disappear on their own. They will not go away by people being nice.

While these actions are meant to disrupt and create discomfort, let us remind ourselves that they are being done with the greater purpose of equality, peace, and justice, through a motivation of love. Come to think of it, most love is inconvenient. I just got a puppy, and he has quickly become the love of my life, even though he takes up all my free time and has churned my daily schedule into chaos. Having children does the same. So does falling in love romantically. We make sacrifices for love, but never would we consider doing otherwise, because there is such great reward. And it just feels good.

This week being Christmas, with all of creation groaning in anticipation for the arrival of the baby who brings peace and justice to the world, let us stop and consider the inconvenience of his arrival. First, his poor parents had to travel to another city while pregnant, then flee to a neighboring country because the government was slaughtering Jewish babies because Jesus was threatening the throne. As he grew to be a man, his radical love disrupted many people’s lives. The disciples left behind families and jobs. Pharisees and Sadducees were put “on blast” for their discriminatory religion that barred women, children, the poor, and sick people from entering the temple. Through embarrassing confrontations with Jesus, some of those leaders changed their ways. The disciples were frustrated that Jesus was constantly slowing down and changing their schedules so they could play with children, talk with Samaritan women, and feed thousands of hungry people. The disciples were tired. They just wanted business as usual. They wanted to keep their reputations intact, but Jesus didn’t care about maintaining their egos or schedules of sleep. He constantly went out of his way to show mercy and love to those who showed up in his path, to those experiencing oppression, sickness, and isolation. He asks the same of us.

Black Americans (and other Americans of color) are currently experiencing oppression, sickness, and isolation. And they are showing up in our path. They are refusing to be cast aside, ignored, locked up, beaten, shot, used, and blasphemed. They are saying that their lives matter. This doesn’t mean that white lives (or any other lives) matter less. They are just pointing out that black lives currently do not matter, according to all the staggering evidence of history and current times, and they should matter.

When people get desperate, they reach out to touch the hem of Jesus’ cloak. They cry out “Son of Man, have mercy on us!” They lower family members down through rooftops. They demand loaves and fish. Black America is desperate. Jesus’ merciful hands were so far-reaching that they were threatening enough to be nailed to a tree. His disciples could have gone back to business as usual after his death, had the story ended there. But they saw him resurrected, and with that sight, there was no turning back. What is seen cannot be unseen. What is known cannot be unknown. As the inconvenient prophet Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, we have been to “the mountaintop” and have seen the other side, the Promised Land! With determination, we will have justice and peace! So go ahead, #blacklivesmatter, do your thing. Let’s get uncomfortable in the name of Love.

Chelsea Forbrook

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Dear Subscribers

I’m sending you a few bonus Christmas messages this year. One is my now annual essay called “Are you going home for Christmas?” I’m happy to say that I’ve found home more deeply, at least for now!

Tomorrow I will send a poem about peace and justice and how they share a cup of coffee together! Sunday I will have a guest blogger (Chelsea) sharing more about God. May God gently invade whatever plans you have for these two days and drop in a few memorable surprises. Janet

 

Are You Going Home for Christmas?

 

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, told a story of a Christmas sermon he heard that moved him to tears. The minister used the most common question of the holiday season; “Are you going home for Christmas?” This question moved Buechner because he was longing deep in his soul to know where home was.

 

This question has haunted me for years, too, because it raises a painful recognition; I don’t go home for Christmas because I have no home to go to. My parents have been dead for years, and my stepchildren and my other “adopted” family members all have other places where they celebrate Christmas. So all the usual images of home are not relevant for me. Not relevant, yet painful. Over the years I’ve learned how to redeem Christmas in a healing way but the cultural pressure to belong somewhere still arises whenever I hear that perennial question, “Are you going home for Christmas?”

 

I’ve become aware of a larger sense of home, of belonging, that I’m also missing. I feel it in a variety of ways in my life. In my work life I am involved in a number of endeavors; teaching, connecting mainstream people with people in the inner city, spiritual direction and writing. These are all vital and life-giving but it’s not the same as going to one place every day and being part of one consistent community.

 

Then there is my spiritual side, which is central to my life. I need a lot of support and collegiality to maintain balance and to stay grounded. I get that through spiritual direction, small groups, supervision and close friends. I go to two churches because I’m called to be a bridge between a suburban church and an inner city church. So my spiritual support life feels a bit splintered.

 

Last, but not least, my living situation is not fixed. I am planning to move some day to a smaller and simpler place, so my sense of home will shift. But as yet, I have not moved and I am in limbo in this aspect of my life as well.

 

I do not feel totally homeless. I feel more homesick. At times I long for a cozy home, a committed community, a place to really belong. But it does not seem to be part of my experience anywhere in my life. It may seem strange but I sense this homesickness is God’s calling in my life. It’s not a fluke, it is part of a plan. All of the aspects of my work and spiritual life are life-giving. So it feels like a paradox that none of them feels like “home.”

 

So where, really, do I feel most at home? This is my burning question. Where do I feel at home, if not in any of those places that are the most obvious and the ones I long for most fervently?

 

I asked God this question.

 

The truth God brought to me, the truth that rings in my soul and brings me peace in this conundrum is this: I feel at home where God is. When I really listen for God, I feel at home with whatever God brings me, wherever God sends me as long as God is with me. I make my home in God. I will spend my Christmas Day in God’s presence as a retreat day. And I feel most whole when I am in communion with God.

 

So, whether I am in my condo or a café, God is my nest. I carry this nest with me wherever I go. When I feel homesick I can go to this new home. I can stop looking outside of myself for God and home. God brings me belonging, joy, courage, love and healing. God also surprises me with loving friends who seek me out during the most traditional family times in our culture; they make sure to call me, go to movies with me on Christmas night, and email me all throughout the holidays.

 

Home, for me, is not a physical place. It is my state of mind—at least on my good days! Home is ease with God, trust in God’s provision, intimacy and humor. My model for this relationship with God is Jesus. Jesus was an itinerant. He had no place to lay his head. He depended on strangers and on those he loved. And he spent a lot of time with his father in prayer—in the mountains, in boats, in the wilderness. He was in almost constant conversation with God.

 

I began this essay with a story from Frederich Buechner about a question he hears in a Christmas Eve sermon. As soon as he hears the question he knows the real answer for him. In his words, ”I can almost see Buttrick (the minister) with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again–”Are you going home for Christmas?”—and asked it in some way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move onto his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel. Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said…”

 

And he goes on to say that when we experience the life-giving power of Jesus alive within us we come closest to being truly home.

 

Home, for me, is my inner nest filled with the presence of God.

 

 

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

The Buechner quotes are from his book, Longing for Home.

 

Reflections on this essay

When you hear the question, “Are you going home for Christmas?” what emotion comes up for you?

 

Have you ever been homesick, even when you were with family? Homesick for what, whom?

 

What is your sense of home? Who, where, why?

 

What does it mean for you to hear that home is in the manger?

 

How is God or Jesus part of your sense of home?

Christmas: Words and Voices

I sang in a choir this Christmas for the first time in years. I wanted to sing praise to God out of gratitude for God’s presence in my life. After our worship concert last weekend I could hardly speak for all that moved within me from the experience.

I would like to share with you just two of the most precious of my memories–for whatever gift they may be for you.

The first is the words to one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard:

For Him All Stars Have Shone

He is so small the stars bow down

The fierce winds ease their breath,

And careful shepherds look upon

the one unsullied birth.

They kneel and stare while time seems gone

and goodness rules the earth.

The blight on man is all undone,

And there will be no death,

For though this child will be nailed on a cross,

he’ll be so since he is the jewel of untold worth.

For him all stars have shone.

Bob Chilcott, sung by the Colonial Chorale

Oba Ti De: Here Comes the King

The second gift is a recording of a song we sang that not only stunned the audience but the choir as well. This recording is of a different choir, but the feeling is the same. I felt like we were angels singing to the skies. It is an African song, in two African languages, and it is translated as Here Comes The King. I’m including the link to youtube. It’s about 4 minutes long and well worth it.

Jeffrey Ames, sung by the Choral Union.

What moves you about these words, this music?
How does it speak to you of Christmas?

 A Turquoise Gown, Mice and Jesus?

When I am driving around in December I have one Christmas CD I usually listen to because it is so beautiful. It’s called Our Heart’s Joy, by the all male choir, Chanticleer. The Ave Maria they sing by Franz Biebl brings tears to my eyes; their acappella harmony has a divine quality to it. One of my other favorite songs on that CD is a fast paced spiritual called “What Month was Jesus Born in?” Half of the choir asks “Was it January?” The others sing “No, no.” The first group sings, “February?” “No, no.” “March April May?” “No, no, no.” They move all through the months until they arrive at December. Last month of the year. That’s the month. The rhythm and words of this song stay with me the rest of the day once I’ve heard it.

As I’ve reflected on what have been the most significant moments for me this Christmas, this song popped back into my head. The reason is that most of the things that should have been or are usually significant weren’t and my heart was singing “no, no, no” to those things that were just not important this year. My own rendition of this song would go something like this:

What gives Christmas meaning? What whispers in my ear?
Is it tinsel, toffee? No, no.
Gifts, good coffee? No, no.
Cards, music, sleigh? No, no, no.

Well then, where does meaning come through?
The sad, the tiny, the true.

I had several rich times with dear friends this Christmas. I cherish that. Yet, the deepest meaning of Christmas came to me in some sad, tiny and true ways. The sadness for me was that one of my close friends entered hospice care on Nov 30th. She was a strong, vibrant woman and a wise soul. Just a few days before Christmas, when she was beginning to withdraw into her transition time, she requested that her family get her a turquoise gown and earrings to match. This request made me chuckle. It was so authentic. My friend was true to herself right up to her death and it gave me hope that I would be able to be myself in my death too, with as much peace in the process as she had. So I grieve, a holy grief. I will miss her greatly but one of my best stories about her will be the turquoise gown and earrings. She brought a poignant joy in the middle of grief.

A very different yet vibrant memory was a tiny incident that made me laugh and, at the same time, warmed my whole body with new meaning. It happened at an outdoor parade called Holidazzle. Yes, we have outdoor parades four nights a week for a month over the holidays in snow country. Crazy as it sounds, thousands of people show up. And regular people; adults, teens and lots of children, dress up as fairy tale and Mother Goose characters to march in the parade. So, I was standing at the curb and along came the three blind furry mice, although in this case there was a dozen, of all shapes and sizes, each one holding onto the tail of the mouse in front of them. They pranced down the street in time to the music of a nearby float. All of a sudden one of the little mice in the middle of the pack saw his grandmother standing on the curb waving to him. He broke rank, pulling all the mice behind him to the curb, while he hugged his grandmother. Then he ran back trying frantically to grab onto the tail of the mouse who had charged on ahead. I still smile when I think of it. Would that we all could break rank more often to hug someone we love.

Yet another highlight of Christmas was the surprise contact I had with a homeless man one morning at my local coffee shop. I’ve known him for about three years and I usually greet him and ask how he’s doing. He is a proud man, not wanting to be pitied. When I was chatting with him recently, he said he needed a wife. I asked why. He said he was thinking about finding permanent housing and he couldn’t fill out the forms. I thought for a few seconds and said, “Well, I won’t be able to be your wife but I can help you fill out those forms.” I felt as if he was telling me he trusted me to be his friend and it moved me deeply.

A sweet and divine moment was my intimate connection with Jesus in the early pre-dawn light in front of my Peruvian nativity set. The manger. The lowly. The candle light. Emmanuel: God with us. The Presence beside me, soothing me and calling me to a place of healing grace in the world, a calling to be a spiritual mid-wife to people yearning for transformation. A brief moment of divine intimacy.

These four experiences were all deeply spiritual for me, even though they were not part of the usual Christmas expectation of family, friends, gifts, or religious services. Yet I felt, in all of them, that God was breaking through the noise and clutter of my world to bring me a word of love and peace—even in the sadness of death and homelessness. Perhaps the reason these gifts of God’s love came through is precisely because these experiences were different from my expectations of Christmas. All were beyond my control. So powerful. Yet at times I am so afraid about the power of Christmas to throw me a curve, that I over plan and don’t give space or time for these little miracles.

At the core of Christmas is the truth that God is breaking through all the barriers we put up in order to bring us the reality of peace, hope, joy and love. Listen. Watch. Be alert. Here comes another miracle of divine humor and love.

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

Reflections on this essay
What do you usually look forward to at Christmas?

What surprise did you experience this holiday season?

How did it affect you or change your focus?

Did you do anything out of the ordinary this year? What? Why?

How did God break through for you or what was most meaningful this Christmas?

Friends,

This week I will give you three translations of the same verse, from Psalm 119. It speaks of how famished our souls are for God’s nourishing. May you feel this longing during this busy and stressful time. Stop occasionally to be cared for by God. Then become a silent benediction of blessing to others, especially when they rush past you or cut you off or forget about you or do an unkind thing.

Psalm 119:20

My soul is starved and hungry, ravenous–insatiable for your nourishing commands.  (The Message)

My soul is consumed with an intense longing to be blessed and sustained by you,  O Divine Lover.  (Nan Merrill translation)

My soul is consumed with longing for thy ordinances at all times. (NRSV)

Silent benediction: May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you. May he lift up his countenance upon you and give you his peace. In the name of the Father (Mother) and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

 

Reflections on this verse

What is your soul ravenous for?

What does “nourishing commands” mean to you?

What part of God’s nurturing is hardest for you to accept?

How would the holidays be different if you absorbed this benediction for yourself?

Who in your life needs your silent benediction?

Are You Going Home for Christmas?

One of my favorite writers, Frederick Buechner, told a story of a Christmas sermon he heard that moved him to tears. The minister used the most common question of the holiday season; “Are you going home for Christmas?” This question moved Buechner because he was longing deep in his soul to know where home was.

This question has haunted me for years, too, because it raises a painful recognition; I don’t go home for Christmas because I have no home to go to. My parents have been dead for years, and my stepchildren and my other “adopted” family members all have other places where they celebrate Christmas. So all the usual images of home are not relevant for me. Not relevant, yet painful. Over the years I’ve learned how to redeem Christmas in a healing way but the cultural pressure to belong somewhere still arises whenever I hear that perennial question, “Are you going home for Christmas?”

I’ve become aware of a larger sense of home, of belonging, that I’m also missing. I feel it in a variety of ways in my life. In my work life I am involved in a number of endeavors; teaching, connecting mainstream people with people in the inner city, spiritual direction and writing. These are all vital and life-giving but it’s not the same as going to one place every day and being part of one consistent community.

Then there is my spiritual side, which is central to my life. I need a lot of support and collegiality to maintain balance and to stay grounded. I get that through spiritual direction, small groups, supervision and close friends. I go to two churches because I’m called to be a bridge between a suburban church and an inner city church. So my spiritual support life feels a bit splintered.

Last, but not least, my living situation is not fixed. I am planning to move some day to a smaller and simpler place, so my sense of home will shift. But as yet, I have not moved and I am in limbo in this aspect of my life as well.

I do not feel totally homeless. I feel more homesick. At times I long for a cozy home, a committed community, a place to really belong. But it does not seem to be part of my experience anywhere in my life. It may seem strange but I sense this homesickness is God’s calling in my life. It’s not a fluke, it is part of a plan. All of the aspects of my work and spiritual life are life-giving. So it feels like a paradox that none of them feels like “home.”

So where, really, do I feel most at home? This is my burning question. Where do I feel at home, if not in any of those places that are the most obvious and the ones I long for most fervently?

I asked God this question.

The truth God brought to me, the truth that rings in my soul and brings me peace in this conundrum is this: I feel at home where God is. When I really listen for God, I feel at home with whatever God brings me, wherever God sends me as long as God is with me. I make my home in God. I will spend my Christmas Day in God’s presence as a retreat day. And I feel most whole when I am in communion with God.

So, whether I am in my condo or a café, God is my nest. I carry this nest with me wherever I go. When I feel homesick I can go to this new home. I can stop looking outside of myself for God and home. God brings me belonging, joy, courage, love and healing. God also surprises me with loving friends who seek me out during the most traditional family times in our culture; they make sure to call me, go to movies with me on Christmas night, and email me all throughout the holidays.

Home, for me, is not a physical place. It is my state of mind—at least on my good days! Home is ease with God, trust in God’s provision, intimacy and humor. My model for this relationship with God is Jesus. Jesus was an itinerant. He had no place to lay his head. He depended on strangers and on those he loved. And he spent a lot of time with his father in prayer—in the mountains, in boats, in the wilderness. He was in almost constant conversation with God.

I began this essay with a story from Frederich Buechner about a question he hears in a Christmas Eve sermon. As soon as he hears the question he knows the real answer for him. In his words, ”I can almost see Buttrick (the minister) with his glasses glittering in the lectern light as he peered out at all those people listening to him in that large, dim sanctuary and asked it again–”Are you going home for Christmas?”—and asked it in some way that brought tears to my eyes and made it almost unnecessary for him to move onto his answer to the question, which was that home, finally, is the manger in Bethlehem, the place where at midnight even the oxen kneel. Home is where Christ is was what Buttrick said…”

And he goes on to say that when we experience the life-giving power of Jesus alive within us we come closest to being truly home.

Home, for me, is my inner nest filled with the presence of God.

 

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

The Buechner quotes are from his book, Longing for Home.

 

Reflections on this essay

When you hear the question, “Are you going home for Christmas?” what emotion comes up for you?

Have you ever been homesick, even when you were with family? Homesick for what, whom?

What is your sense of home? Who, where, why?

What does it mean for you to hear that home is in the manger?

How is God or Jesus part of your sense of home?

https://i2.wp.com/conservation.catholic.org/MarySisterMaryGraceOP.jpg

A Magnificat: in honor of Mary’s song

The Magnificat is Mary’s song of awe in learning of her role in God’s plan for Jesus’ birth in Luke 1:46-55. It is in the tradition of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel 2:1-10. This is my personal version, my magnificat.

My spirit is lifted up

to commune with God

All that I worry about

is like a spot of dust

on a magnificent icon

 

No one knows me better than God

God has been with me since my birth

Even before that, God knew me

and sent me into the world in love

 

God is my rock and my resting place

I can do nothing without God

God knows and loves my whole journey

All the pain and grief of growth

as well as the sheer joy of beauty

emerging from my wounds

 

Even though I’ve been hurt

and tossed about by my own

and others’ demons

I find the most comfort

in my weakness—for there

God flourishes

 

When things are going well

because of my efforts

I usually have the most to learn

God feeds me best

when I am hungry

for sacred food

and thirsty

for water

from deeper wells

 

My entire life is in God’s hands

and it all unfolds as God intends

God is with me in the lows

just as surely as in the highs

God restores me whenever I sink

into my own anxiety

 

God gives me courage

clarity and inner strength

I know God loves me

unconditionally

When I wander

from that truth

I stumble

 

I can’t do life by myself

God cleans me out

calms me down

and makes my journey clear

God gives me strength

for each day’s work

 

God sets me on the wings

of an angel

to soar low and

gently over the earth

 

ÓJanet Hagberg, 2012. All rights reserved

Painting is by Sr. Mary Grace OP, from Fulton Sheen’s book, The World’s First Love: Mary, Mother of God.

Reflections on this painting and poem:

In the painting Mary has a look on her face that indicates she is pondering something? If this was you what would you be pondering?

How would the meaning of Mary’s look change for you if she was depicted as a woman of another culture from yours?

What words or phrases speak most deeply to you in this poem?

What four or five words would you use to show your awe for God?

How is God present in the details of your life?

How do you relate to Mary’s dilemma (pregnant unwed mother) or Hannah’s dilemma (giving her only child back to God) after reading their stories?

Try writing your own Magnificat pouring your heart out to God.

Surviving Christmas

I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. On the one hand, I love the beauty of Christmas; the carols, twinkling lights, snow (hopefully), and trees with glistening crystal ornaments. I enjoy traditions like watching one my favorite movies, It’s a Wonderful Life. I love the kindness and generosity of Christmas and I love seeing the sheer joy of children’s glee. Once, in mid-December, I was in a restaurant at the top of a downtown building and I happened to sit next to a couple who got engaged right in front of me. The young man knelt down and proposed to his girlfriend just like in a Hollywood movie. It oozed with romance.

On the other hand, I have painful memories of the holiday season. I spent the first Christmas after my mom died in Florida with no snow, which was bad enough. But we were too tired to cook so we had a depressing Christmas dinner at a Chinese restaurant. Another unforgettable memory was the Christmas my marriage ended. I also have alcohol addiction in my family and anyone with that history knows that Christmas is never pretty. I could have the Christmas blues from a whole sleigh full of painful memories. So I come by my holiday grievances honestly. And I am not alone. Counselors and physicians will tell you that depression, anxiety and health issues escalate at Christmas and their offices fill up in January.

Somewhere along the way I decided to try to heal Christmas as part of my spiritual journey. I did not want to dread the season any more. My blues usually started around Halloween when I became angry and anxious. As I prayed about this quandary I experienced a curious invitation from God to actually participate in the nativity scene by taking on one of the characters and living into their story during the season. I didn’t know how to do it at first but I accepted it as a spiritual challenge and I noticed it slowly shifted my focus from pain to more awareness of my nativity character.

One year I was an angel and I became much more aware of the angel message “Fear not.” The message rang true since that was the year my major source of income dried up. I was Joseph during a season in which I needed to learn from his complicated journey of trusting God’s message to him while he had a fiancé who was pregnant—and not with his child.  The courageous way he faced that shame was inspiring. I could feel his trust in God, his enduring love for Mary. I needed his kind of courage and faithfulness that year to face a betrayal and yet believe that God was leading me forward. This idea of an assignment each year has been so fruitful that now I anticipate it at Halloween instead of getting so stressed.

That brings me to this year. My assignment was to be the innkeeper. At first I wondered about this choice since the innkeeper probably turned the Holy family away initially due to a full house. Then I realized that the inner keeper may have seen how important it was to show compassion to this family and provide a humble but safe place for them. He gave them all he had left. As I lived into the story of the innkeeper I became his wife, a co-innkeeper there in the stable that holy night. I heard God asking me to be an innkeeper and mid-wife for people who are experiencing spiritual rebirths into a deeper inner life. But how, exactly, would I do that?

The answer came in a beautiful sensuous experience. I awoke early one morning and, while I was still emerging from sleep, felt a Presence caressing my shoulders and back. I felt the Presence move to a place hear my heart and just rest there. I melted into this embrace and kept still. The soothing Presence stayed as I awakened more fully. Then I felt a little nudge to move to my living room sofa with my comfy quilt, and when I did I noticed my Peruvian nativity scene on the table. I lit a candle near the scene and, in the predawn darkness, the candle light bathed the faces of Mary and Joseph in a gentle glow. They were both looking at the infant Jesus, in the manger. I could almost see them smile and hear them humming.

I sensed a deeper glow in the nativity scene, coming from the Presence, a holy Presence. I was pondering the meaning of all of this when I heard a message to me: “Don’t try to figure this out. Just experience my Presence, my Beloved. Just watch and feel it move beyond the scene into you as well.” So I stayed still, and was taken into the holy scene, engaging with the wonder of it all.  I felt the holy Presence was the spirit of Jesus inviting me again to be an innkeeper mid-wife for his birthing process and also for other people at crucial intersections.

Then this message followed: “I just want you to be a presence, my presence, in the world. Attend to your intimacy with me and all else will follow. You will be a mid-wife for people. You will be a non-anxious presence bringing healing, joy and beauty to the world. Trust me completely. Just be a presence.”

This predawn appearance of a holy Presence soothed me in such a deep way that I wonder if maybe, just maybe, my love-hate relationship with Christmas is now healed. My heart desires this healing. Time will tell. But now, when I look at the nativity scene I go back to my memory of that Presence in the glow on the faces of the holy family. I recall that I helped with this birth and that I am called to attend to more spiritual births as I continue in an intimate relationship with God. I am a tiny presence of the holy, a small spark of light, a mid-wife innkeeper.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved

Reflections on this essay

What joyful or meaningful memories do you associate with Christmas?

What pain resurfaces for you at the holidays?

How have you healed your experience of Christmas?

Which of the nativity characters do you most identify with this year? Why?

What is being born in you this Christmas?

How do you experience the holy Presence in your life?

My Christmas gift for you is a quote from the 100th anniversary St. Olaf College Christmas Festival Program:

“The infinite bends down and takes (or, better said, accepts),

And wears, without regret, our finite flesh.

In that breathtaking act, eternity steps gently into time;

Not just a former time in Bethlehem, but Time.

Take off your shoes! Now everywhere is holy ground.

Reflections on this quote:

What does it mean to you that God wears, without regret, our finite flesh?

How do you experience that thin place, where eternity breaks into time?

How has this Christmas been holy ground for you?

How will your life be different as a result?

Holy Homeless Hug

This Christmas God assigned me the role of the innkeeper in the nativity scene to keep my focus on the real story instead of on the painful memories that can derail me. In that innkeeper role, as a woman, I became the mid-wife for Jesus’ birth and also a mid-wife for people who are experiencing their own rebirth at the manger. I felt this role as a profound calling and I was grateful for this compassionate gift from God.

But God, in infinite wisdom, had more in store for me this Christmas.

The first sign that something new was opening in me was a verse that just happened to be in my daily scripture journal the day in early December when I taught at my church on the theme “Finding Home at Christmas.” The verse is from Zephaniah, not a book that most people even recognize; Zephaniah 3:18-20 (The Message). “I’ll heal the maimed; I’ll bring home the homeless. In the very countries where they are hated, they will be venerated…All those painful partings turned into reunions!” I was struck by the coincidence of this verse showing up but also the message to me; God would attend to my own homelessness of Spirit, which rises up each Christmas.

In the next week I felt as if a deluge of homelessness mysteriously enveloped my life. I went to the movie, Blind Side, about a family that was deeply affected by a homeless teenager. As I was describing this movie to a friend, he asked me if I had read the book, Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Bell and Denver Moore. When I said I hadn’t he quickly said, “Don’t buy it. It’s in the mail today.”  When I got it and read it I knew something deep was stirring in my soul. I felt I was embarking on a Christmas journey, not unlike Mary and Joseph going to Bethlehem. It is a powerful story of a deeply entrenched homeless man, and an international art dealer and his wife, who encounter one another and are mutually transformed. The two women, the mother in Blind Side and the woman in this book, were strikingly similar as well. I read the book twice in the next two weeks and copied a number of quotes. One of them captured my sentiments about home: “We’re all just regular folks walkin down the road God done set in front of us. This earth ain’t our final restin place. So in a way, we is all homeless—just workin our way toward home.”

Homelessness was still mostly an abstraction for me though. I’ve lead pilgrimages to homeless shelters and met several homeless people, but I was unprepared for what happened next. A week before Christmas a homeless man I’ve known for three years as a regular at my favorite coffee shop, asked me to help him fill out paper work for more permanent housing. I readily agreed. I wondered how he would get that paper work or even if there was housing available. Coincidentally, a friend invited me to accompany her to a memorial service and dinner honoring the 150 homeless people who had died in our state this year. I went. One of the speakers was a woman who is in charge of outreach and permanent housing for homeless people. I spoke with her, got her card, and told her about my friend. She said the outreach workers knew of him and would love to help him. Amazing grace. The next day I left a message for him at the coffee shop, saying I had a surprise for him. Here I was, serving as an actual innkeeper helping a person find his place in the inn.

I didn’t see my homeless friend again until Christmas Eve when our whole city was snowed in. As I was walking home from breakfast at a local restaurant, snowflakes were gently falling, the temperature was about 20 degrees, which we consider balmy for this time of year in snow country. Just as I rounded the corner in front of our local grocery store, I bumped into him coming the other direction. I greeted him and gave him the business card from the outreach worker. He seemed pleased. But I sensed something was wrong. I asked him how he was and he said he was bummed out by an article in the paper about a sexual predator. I asked if he had anyone to talk to about his feelings and he said he should probably find someone.

Then I responded to an urge within and told him that sometime I would like to hear his story. He said, “No, you wouldn’t,” and looked at me out of the corner of his eye for a few seconds. And out it tumbled, right there on Christmas Eve as we stood in the new fallen snow. He grew up in what he called an Ozzie and Harriet home and was active in a boys’ youth organization as a pre-adolescent. One of his leaders, who had a lot of problems in his own life, sexually molested him for days when the two of them stayed together in a cabin while working on a special project at a youth camp. It is one of those tragic heart-wrenching stories of immanent loss that can never be restored, only held in healing love. I felt deep compassion for him. He went to camp a happy eleven-year-old and came home a mean and angry boy. As he looked at me with my tears welling up he said, “It’s not what kills you, but how you live your life.”  He touched my shoulder gently and then was distracted by a friend who drove by in a pick up truck.

Several days later I saw him and asked how he was. It was colder now—below zero and I was worried about him He said he was OK but hadn’t called the lady yet about the housing. He asked how I was and I said my good friend had died the day before, I was bummed and could use a hug. He gave me a gentle hug right there on the street by the coffee shop in the sub zero temperature.

Our hug was one of those holy moments. We were both in pain. We both had a ways to go to heal, although our journeys were different. But our encounter gave me another sense of home, of an emotional home, in an encounter of mutual pain and shared compassion. It was love reaching across boundaries and being real. God is showing me where home is even in homelessness.

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

Reflections on this essay

When have you experienced a meaningful coincidence?

How did you feel God might be at work in it?

When have you experienced someone you considered very different from yourself?
What did you learn from them?

What did you find you had in common or how are you like one another?

How did you experience love, wisdom or healing from that person?

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