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In the middle of the night with Dr. King

Last month I received the unexpected news that I had a cancerous brain tumor. A few days later, I had brain surgery, and started radiation and chemo not long after that. A complication from the surgery put me back in the hospital for a week with a tube threaded up my spine.

Between 1 and 2 am on one of those nights in the hospital, I felt like I was floating in some anxiety and sadness, making it hard to sleep. Then I felt like Martin Luther King, Jr. came to hang out with me in my hospital room, reminding me of my favorite speech of his–the one he gave the night before he died. When he gave that speech, he knew that his life was especially in danger. Next to me in the hospital bed, it felt like he delivered the ending of the speech again, as a message for me:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”

“And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

In talking with my primary care doctor, Mt. Nebo has been an important reference point for both of us. This is the place where Moses first saw the Promised Land, which his people eventually made it to. While on the mountain, Moses realized that he was going to die there, but that the rest of his people would make it to Israel without him. My doctor told me recently about a powerful experience he had while visiting Mt. Nebo. In my hospital room, MLK was bringing home the connections between his life, Mt Nebo, and my journey, like the preacher that he is. My imagination and emotions might’ve been partly driven by the hospital stay and meds from a couple days ago, although hanging out with MLK felt as true as almost anything to me.

MLK reminded me that the biggest gift I can personally receive is knowing I did my part in getting us to the new land that is coming, and feeling the satisfaction of knowing how my little part is part of a larger movement towards that land. That feeling of faithfulness takes away fear. It removes the sting of death or failure. Dr. King reminded me that the Promised Land, for him, is not just solving one social issue or campaign. It is living now in the reign of God’s love on Earth. He breathed some of that power into me last night, washing away the pool of anxiety that had been in the hospital bed with me.  It felt like MLK was asking each of us to continue moving towards the beloved community he gave his life for.

MLK has been an important inspiration for me for the past 25 years, but I’ve seen him from an intimidating distance. We’ve never been on close speaking terms before. Last night, though, he seemed to be quite close, frequently calling me “son.” He talked with me about a night after his house was bombed and how he had to get to know God in a new way, instead of just knowing the God secondarily through his father or through others. Dr. King told me that was true for me now, that God was with me in new ways.

The conversation with Dr. King seemed to then shift away from just the two of us, to include all of you that I’m connected with, even though I was still alone in the hospital bed in the middle of the night. Dr. King seemed to be asking all of us questions like:

What is the Promised Land you are committing your lives to get to?

Who are your people, your land?

What would make that land good and real enough that it would be worth contributing your life to the journey, even if you don’t personally make it there?

What will help you let go when your part is done, and stay at your own Mt. Nebo?

I’ve grieved recently for the ways I probably won’t be to make it to all the places I long to go, with my family, with my community, with my nation, with our planet.

I’ve said before that I want to contribute my life in service of broader shifts in society from systems of domination to cultures that sustain life:

From wealth for a few to enough for all
From security based on force to security based on the quality of relationships
From predict and control management to trust and equip self-organizing
From industrial growth to local sustainability

I also long to see my kids graduate from high school, to impatiently hope they have kids of their own that I can fall in love with, to bike across the country with my son, to befriend a dolphin in the ocean with my daughter, grow old with my wife, and much more.

I still want all those things very much. But my conversation with Dr. King last night helped me feel more deeply in my body that what I most want is to be attentive and faithful to the small parts I’m asked to do, while fully breathing in the gifts of mountain top views of where we, together, can go. None of us can go to all of those places,

I feel sobered to realize that I’ve already lived five years longer than MLK. I affirm that his life was not lived in vain, and I left the time with MLK also clearer that my work is not done.

I pray that we may all see the glory of the coming of the promised land, see and trust our parts to play, and live savoring the reality of the reign of love, even as we help it be born.
Michael Bischoff

Here are Dr. King’s own words:

Estrangement: Journey to Wholeness


Most people have experienced estrangement of one kind or another. Estrangements can occur abruptly, like a big fight that ends a relationship (family feuds for example). While other estrangements happen to us, like a job loss we felt was unfair. And some estrangements we initiate ourselves, like choosing conscious boundaries with a dangerous person. Whatever the reason, estrangements may linger in our psyches and some part of us longs for pardon, forgiveness or reconciliation. In our heart of hearts we also, for the most part, put the responsibility for the estrangement on someone else, finding it hard to name our role in it.


With all that baggage we bring to estrangement, it is hard to see a way out, a healing journey or even an oasis in the middle of the stress. And if we invite God into the mess at all, it’s usually to take our side or make things right. Or we are deep in our own remorse, shame, anger or hurt. What a tough spot.


To add insult to injury, many of us build this scenario: we think that if we just try hard to fix the situation, it will work out to our benefit (and secretly, we will be vindicated). Oh what a heavy load we carry. So we try to be nice, to reach out, to do what the person wants, or to show the other person what they could do to change. We usually get strange and hurtful kickbacks from this effort, or we find ourselves in between people, which is even more exhausting. Our motives may be well-meaning, such as avoiding pain, being a good Christian, wanting to look good or innocent, or wanting everything to be easier. Whatever our motives, we usually get sick and tired after we’ve tried to do all we can to solve the estrangement. And the beat goes on 😉


It’s so hard to have compassion for ourselves, but that is just what we need: kindness, honesty and utmost compassion. But how do we find that in the middle of such strife?


Let’s start with an understanding of how we got to that place of unrest and stress in our estrangements. It happened largely because of our “efforting.” Here is a model that shows this “efforting” and its side effects.



The model has concentric circles with feelings on the outside, actions next, outcomes or results next, then God in the middle. We move from the outside to the inside in this model, starting with our feelings of anger, hurt or shame. Our natural inclination is to try whatever actions we can to relieve, change or fix the situation. The results are often messy or get us more mired in the pain. By the time we get to the middle of the circle to God, we are usually hurt, exhausted and without much hope.




Let’s stop at this juncture of exhaustion. I’d like to suggest a real oasis, a place to pause right in the middle of this chaos and pain: an oasis where we can breathe and reconsider our options. Perhaps this can be the beginning of our self-compassion and love.


First we need to listen to our inner selves and bring God more attentively into this process. Put your hand on your heart. Quiet yourself. Sit in a comfortable position. Make your space as soothing as possible. Then breathe in and out slowly for a minute and clear your mind of things that clamor for your attention. Listen to your heart and ask God to be present in your situation.


When you have quieted, read over this French pantoum poem several times. First just hear it. Then listen for a word or phrase that speaks to you. As you read it again, let that word or phrase take you on a journey. Where does it connect to your life, to your estrangement? Ask God to show you how this word or phrase speaks truth to you. Write about this or draw a symbol of it for yourself.


I Long to Be Free


I long to be free loving Lord

My hurt and anger cling

Can I own-forgive-release

I claim the comfort of pain


My hurt and anger cling

My heart cries out to you

I claim the comfort of pain

I let you heal my soul


My heart cries out to you

Can I own-forgive-release

I let you heal my soul

I long to be free loving Lord


You may want to stay with this poem for quite some time, taking your pain and unanswered questions with you back to the poem, to see which words and phrases speak to you over time. Ask God to show you the path to freedom. Keep asking. Then watch what happens in your heart and in your life.


Now for the next steps in the healing journey: I would like to suggest that you use a similar circle model as before but this time start in the middle with God. You probably need support to do this: a spiritual director, counselor, pastor, coach or healthy friends. Start with God, bringing it all to God and listening to your heart, so you hear what the personal healing call is for you on this reconciliation journey. It is all about compassion, first from God and then from you to yourself and finally, in whatever form, to the other person or situation.



God is at center where we start, owning our own issues and forgiving ourselves. Then we move outward, to outcomes—actions—feelings, in that order.




The reconciliation journey consists basically of three steps: own, forgive, release. They may sound overly simple, but they are, in reality, difficult and complex. Remember, with God in the middle of the circle, which is where we now start, we have much more likelihood of finding peace.


Owning is perhaps the most crucial part and the first step of the healing process. It is important to take compassion into this phase of truth telling. In this phase, we own our part of the estrangement without taking on too much shame or guilt. This opens our hearts to new insights and truths that we may find painful. Most of us have a lot of baggage to unload. It may be hard to feel our anger at the other person, to give up our feelings of superiority or rightness, to find our newfound voice, to name our own complicity, to stand up to intimidation, to own our codependence, to release what the other person has that we want, or to let go of hurtful memories. After we own our part, we take a deep spiritual step with God, one that is necessary in order to heal our wounds.


Forgiving ourselves is the second step. This is the key, to heal and forgive ourselves before we try to resolve our estrangements with others. It is hard, but whatever it is, it is not too big or too hard for God. This forgiveness happens in the center of the circle where we commune with God. It may take years to be kind to ourselves and to forgive, knowing that we didn’t know enough or weren’t aware of what we needed to do or felt we didn’t deserve respect or love. Usually we don’t even realize that we need to forgive ourselves. So growth is available all along this journey. Once we forgive ourselves, we are in a much better position to forgive the other person or situation. And that is what ultimately heals us: forgiving someone whether they know it or not. But that is usually an inside job.


Releasing the other is the last step. This happens as you move from the center of this model outward. But you are now focused on God and on your own healing so the next steps take on new and different possibilities. You can now ask, what outcomes are healthy and which are idealistic, vindicating or revengeful? What actions will be life-giving, safe and freeing? And as you choose healthier and more lovingly detached outcomes, you see that your feelings are quite different as a result.


When you use the model this way, you can look more honestly at the outcomes or actions that would be healthy for you. If you are dealing with a person with severe mental illness, an abusive person, someone who brings back strong memories from the past, or an organization that has blacklisted you, it may not be safe to expect any reconciliation. Then the finest, most healing thing happens only within you, the healing and forgiveness that only God can provide.


Sometimes praying for that person from afar is the only healthy option. In other cases you may write a letter to make amends, meet with the person and a third party, or meet with them yourself. For some, a heartfelt word or touch at a deathbed is a healing gesture. There are many options. But in order to have the best option for the situation, we may have to release our expectations of complete reconciliation. But, paradoxically, once you use this model with God at the center, the options open further than you may have imagined.


The results, actions and feelings may surprise you. You may find peace, humor, new perspectives, sadness, calm, love, patience, grief, loving detachment, compassion, caring, loss, self-care, etc. And the best outcomes may include having clear and comfortable boundaries, being content to send love with no contact, or having partial or full reconciliation. Whatever the outcome, you are in God’s hands all the way and you will heal.


©Janet O. Hagberg, 2014. All rights reserved.

Poem, I Long to Be Free by Janet Hagberg


Reflections on this essay:

What estrangements do you currently carry?

How have you tried to fix them?
What has happened as a result?

Where is God in this process with you?

How have you owned your own part of the estrangement?
What new options do you see for your situation with God at the center?



This outline and model were developed as part of a workshop I did with Tamie Koehler. Kudos to her for adapting this circle model.








This model did not transfer to the blog so you need to imagine three concentric circles with feelings on the outside of the widest circle, then actions in the next circle, then results and lastly, God in the small circle in the middle. If you would like a copy of these circles email me at


  1. Outside the circle, write the FEELINGS you have been experiencing in the estrangement.


  1. First circle moving inward, write the ACTIONS you have been taking to deal with the estrangement.


  1. Second circle moving inward, write the RESULTS you have been experiencing from your feelings and actions.


  1. Center circle write your connection with God in this estrangement.




This circle did not transfer either so you need to imagine the same set of circles except that the middle circle is much larger than before. God is in this inner circle, then as you move outward, results, actions and feelings reside in the outer circles.




  1. Center circle write your connection/process with GOD as the main focus in healing and reconciliation.


  1. Second circle moving outward, write the RESULTS you are experiencing in the reconciliation process.


  1. Third circle moving outward, write the ACTIONS you have been taking when God and healing are the focus of the reconciliation.



  1. Outside the circle, write the FEELINGS you are experiencing.




“Set your


on fire

and seek

only those

who fan

your flames.”


Reflections on this quote:

What does setting your life on fire mean to you right now?

What would have to change in order for you to do this?

Who would you choose to fan these flames?

What feeling emerge for you as you read this quote?

Where is God in this process for you?

The Burning Bush

Exodus 3: 1-12 (NRSV)
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law …
and he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Horeb…
There an angel of the Lord appeared to him

in a flame of fire out of a bush;
he looked, and the bush was blazing yet it was not consumed…
God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!”

And he said, “Here I am.

And he said; “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground…I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery

of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them
from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…”

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2007

Reflections on this icon

When has God appeared to you in an unusual way?

How did you respond?

When have you stood on what felt like holy ground? Where?

How is God being “fire” in your life now?

What is the call from God in the midst of your experience?

Sacred Fire

God gently holds our feet

to the sacred fire

in  unconditional love

As a result

we are able to experience

God’s promise

that joy will emerges

from pain well attended.

Janet O. Hagberg

Reflections on this entry

Where in your life is God holding your feet to the sacred fire?

How do you experience God’s unconditional love in that?

What joy are you embracing in your life now?

How has your pain become a gift?

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?

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…


Marriage: Excruciatingly Wonderful

I have found marriage to be excruciatingly wonderful. It sounds like an oxymoron when really it is a both/and. Let’s start with the wonderful part. Romance is one of life’s keenest compliments. It feels magical to have another person love you, choose you, woo you. And it feels equally good reciprocating that love. You are best friends or good companions, sexual intimates, home builders and partners through the challenges of life. You may raise children together or care for extended family members. In marriage you get support to be the person you were meant to be and, as a marriage team, you bring your gifts to the world. You are enlarged to embrace complexity, to learn tolerance and to overlook your partner’s dirty socks. Through the tragedies you share, you develop an even deeper bond, and maybe even a special calling in your lives together. Together you enrich, heal or challenge the world.

In the movie, Shall We Dance, Susan Sarandon, the wife of an attorney (Richard Gere) is secretly having him followed because she thinks he is having an affair. It turns out he is learning to dance and is embarrassed to tell her. In a conversation with the investigator she describes the importance of marriage. She says the most important thing about it is that you have another person who is a witness to your life. Someone who knows you best and is there for the most important moments of your life, both positive and negative. It is, indeed, wonderful to have that special someone who knows more about you than anyone else and still loves you. I have experienced profound witnesses to my life in marriage. And I believe that marriage has been the single most transforming experience of my life, molding me into the kind of woman I was always intended to be. Even though marriage as an institution, has been through some tough times, with high divorce rates, these rough times seem, also, to make it resilient.

And…in all marriage there comes the excruciating part as well, when your romantic expectations aren’t met, when your witness doesn’t show up for the important event, or when your life together feels nothing like a team. All of these experiences are normal. They are things that happen to get our attention that it is time for us to grow.

Here’s my version of the truth about marriage. Marriage brings us our work to do. My advice: Do it. Get help. Go for classes. Ask others how they manage the issues they face. Don’t get adept at complaining about your loved one. Learn to have your own voice and speak your truth in love. And remember, sometimes tough love is the best kind for a while. I’m not a marriage expert and, Lord knows, my own track record is sub-par, but there are a few things I’ve learned about marriage that lead to life instead of resignation. I offer them for your reflection.

I’ve learned that love is what you’ve been through together. Live it to the fullest. I now know that if there is an addiction or mental illness going on in either of us, it’s my job to do my own inner work to get healthy and not take on the other person’s work, while still holding them accountable for their behavior. Sort of like the airline instruction of putting on your own oxygen mask before attending to others! It’s clear to me that if I’m drawn to another man outside my marriage it is a sign that I am avoiding some important issues I need to address within my marriage. I’ve learned that if marriage is not safe, due to any kind of abuse, what I need are clear boundaries, a strong advocate and an exit plan. I believe that God has to be central to my marriage or I am less likely to have the courage to do my inner work in order to grow. It is just too easy to stop growing if I get scared, insecure or withdrawn. Once I learned how to face my own fears in my marriage, I could see a similar pattern was going on everywhere else in my life, so facing it and changing my own fear response had a transforming effect on my whole life. Lastly I’ve learned that if you are waiting for someone else to make you happy, you will wait for a very long time indeed.

Healthy marriages grow deeper layer upon layer upon layer. They just keep getting better and more intimate. It’s not easy and sometimes it looks rather bleak. In fact sometimes there are years in which the marriage sustains your love rather than your love sustaining the marriage. But if we stop growing we settle into a pattern of resignation or, worse yet, bitterness. A wonderful therapist gave me this wisdom on marriage; we marry a person who is like one of our parents so when we do the work we need to do within our marriage, it can heal both relationships. I have found this to be a profound truth.

And let’s not forget the most transforming gift of marriage, that which has the most potential to form us as human beings—its ending. All marriages end, either in death, divorce or dissolution. We rarely consider the emotional cost of these losses going in. But how we deal with these losses, whether we deny them, embrace them, get bitter, get depressed or sick determines who we will become. Each loss takes us deeper into wisdom if we embrace it well or with good support. Those who have loved and then lost well—even though the loss is excruciating—are those who can love well again. It is a difficult truth to ponder but worth the effort. If we can be truly present to what we have together as a couple now, and if we can talk about it, it will be an easier journey after one of us is gone.

I’m in favor of marriage even though I do not think it is necessary for everyone. What I’m really in favor of is the opportunity to do the personal work that marriage calls us to do in order to heal our inner selves and live well. Then marriage has fulfilled its purpose in us. God uses marriage to profoundly heal us and open our hearts to who we are called to be. For me, marriage is also a metaphor for our relationship with God—our Beloved. If we have come to know how great it feels to bask in the glow of love from a person on earth …

What if we lived as if we really were God’s Beloved?

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

Reflections on this essay

What is your positive experience of marriage or a long-term relationships?

What is your excruciating experience?

How are you a different person because of marriage?

Did you make a decision to “settle” or to grow in your marriage? What resulted?

How did you process the loss of marriage if you’ve experienced it?

How do you experience yourself as God’s Beloved?

Fear as a Spiritual Gift

It may seem strange to think of fear as a spiritual gift since it is one of the most pervasive and destructive emotions, right up there with hatred, rage, and self-loathing. Yet countless courageous saints transformed their fear into a spiritual gift; Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., Teresa of Avila. How can we learn to claim fear as a gift?

For me, it’s helpful to first understand where fear comes from. Some of it is right in my DNA, the fear of saber-tooth tigers that I inherited from my ancestors. Some fear comes from the culture in the form of the daily news, prime time drama and radio talk shows. But I believe that my most intimate fear comes from my family, my role models for living my life.

One useful way I experienced my family’s fear was to do a guided imagery meditation. I started by getting quiet and asking God to surround me with light and love. Then I imagined my family, in my early teen years, sitting around the dinner table. During dinner someone knocks on the door, bringing us news that triggers an emotional and financial crisis. In my case the person tells us my dad has lost his major business client and we could be ruined financially. I imagine what each person does when this news breaks. My Dad gets mad and yells at us, my mother cries, my brother leaves to go and drink, and I try to soothe my mom and then I disappear emotionally. But very quickly we all squelch our emotions and jump into gear, moving to a solution.

What I learned from my family is still my first inclination in a crisis. I quickly comfort my loved ones and then disappear. I stay away from the fire. Protect myself. Shut down emotionally so I don’t have to feel. Then I forge a solution. I have done this countless times and the fear usually ends up lodging in my body as digestion problems, muscle cramps or spasms, tension headaches and other signs of ill health.

In the last several years I have consciously chosen to face into my fear instead of relying on the old script. I was worn out and needed some new ways to address fear. I’ve found that by bringing God directly into my fear, my fear can evolve into deeper self-awareness, courage, and, at times, transformation. God chooses imaginative ways for me to gain insights into my fear and the danger of not facing it.

Dreams are one of those ways. At a key juncture of my life I had a vivid dream that I believe came directly from God. I was inside of a train box-car which was moving in the shape of a figure eight, the symbol for infinity. The car was locked—and on fire. On the outside of the car was a plaque with my mother’s name on it. That dream, a fiery warning to me to break away from my mother’s life script, which had a death grip over me, was a turning point in my life. My mother died tragically young, partly because she could not face the fear in her life, especially her marriage. I felt I could die young too, if I did not face the fear in my own marriage. After that dream I couldn’t go back to my old script if I wanted to survive. It still took me several years to live into the new truths the dream brought me, but it took me to a new way of life. In facing into my fear and embracing it as a spiritual practice, I found a journey into deeper intimacy with God.

Fear is usually a signal that something new is calling us. We are being asked to let go, to step up to the plate, to release someone or something, to change a system, to live a new script, or to take a new direction. Whatever the call is, I find it becomes much more clear when I bring God consciously into the process of listening to my fear. A few of the ways I’ve found to bring God into the process are through art, dreams, journaling, prayer, scripture, poetry, honest conversations, staying in the present, processing unusual experiences, listening to body symptoms, and using wise counsel. God speaks to me in each of these ways, at times using all of them to get my attention. I consciously pray for the clarity to see what God is calling me to do and the courage to live it out.

Another effective way to face our old scripts about fear is to ask God to help us re-write our original family script that has had such a stronghold on us. I went back into the guided meditation of my family at dinner. But when the knock on the door came and we opened it, Jesus was at the door with the messenger. In my imagination, after the news broke, Jesus pulled up another chair, sat down and immediately took me in his lap. He put his arm around my brother and held him gently so he stayed in the room. He asked my dad to just be quiet and breathe for a while before we spoke, and he looked at my mother with calm compassionate eyes so she could stay present too.

We talked about our fears, anger and anxiety in ways that all of us could express. No jumping into action, no disappearing, no scape-goating. Then he reminded us of the other times we had experienced crises that had worked out well. He stayed right there with us. He gave us hope and compassion and love. I knew, after I reframed my family conflict, I could be confident, since Jesus would be my strength in times of fear.

Two of the most repeated words in scripture are “Fear not.” I think there is a reason for that. We are all afraid, more than we know. But God is present in fear. That is precisely where we encounter God. After each declaration of “Fear not” in scripture, a promise follows; for I am with you; for unto you a savior is born; for you have found favor with God. So if we embrace our fear and let God into it, if we allow our fear to be our teacher and to guide us into more intimacy with God, then fear is a spiritual gift. And what a gift!

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

Reflections on this essay

Try doing the guided mediation with your family as a child. What is the news?

How does each person react? How do you react? What is the result?

Do you still react as you did in your family? How does it work for you now?

When have you had a chance to break the family script, to do it differently? How did it work?

What are your best ways to face fear and bring God into it?

Try doing the meditation again, bringing Jesus into the reframing of your family crisis. What happens differently? What is the result? How do you feel in this script?

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