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Hell or Hellish?

Reflections on the Afterlife and Near Death experiences


Hell. Hellish. Gates of hell. Go to hell! Gnashing of teeth. Hell to pay. Hellion. Hellfire. Brimstone. Millstones. To hell and back. To hell with you! Eternal damnation. Unforgivable sin.


What is hell and how does it inform our lives? Is it a place or an experience? In the future or in the present? To be honest I don’t know the answer to these questions but I will give a few observations from what I’ve read and then offer my own satisfying explanation that calms the issue for me.


I will cite four sources for my observations; Eben Alexander, MD, Fr. Matt Linn, Rev. Flora Wuellner and Rev. Rob Bell. I’ll start with Bell, who brings to light some little known information about the concept of hell. Hell is not uniformly defined in scripture but referred to in various ways, which adds a bit to the confusion about it.


*The Greek word for hell is Gehenna which means Hinnon Valley, an actual valley south and west of Jerusalem. It is the city dump, which is constantly burning and attracts wild animals who eat, fight and gnash their teeth. Jesus used this word in some of his strongest language about hell, giving his listeners a visceral image of what happens to people who mistreat others. Matt 5, 10,18 Mark 9, Luke 12,


*Peter uses the term Tartarus in II Pet 2, a term from Greek mythology where Greek demigods were judged in the abyss. Another Greek word is hades, like the Hebrew word, sheol, an obscure, dark murky place used in Rev, Acts 22, Luke 10, Matt 16 and Luke 16.


*Some would say hell is a holdover from a primitive mythical religion to promote fear of punishment in order to control people for devious reasons.


*Others suggest that hell is any separation from God and God’s intentions for us.


*Still others experience hell right here on earth—the stories of genocide in Germany, Rawanda, Cambodia. Limbs deliberately cut off. Medical experimentation. Child soldiers. Rape. Domestic violence. We use our freedom to make our own hells. We make our own hells here on earth by not believing that we are loved, and by creating our own suffering.


*Bell points out that, in the story of Lazarus and the rich man reaching out to him from hell, the rich man is a warning to people to change their hearts. The chasm was the rich man’s heart. Jesus uses this story to overturn the power structure, to show that the poor will be cared for. The rich man’s torment is that he has not died to his ego, status and pride. Therefore he is in torment.


Whatever we believe about hell, Jesus uses very strong language, images, metaphors—millstones around our necks, gouging out our eyes—to point out the consequence of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity. He appears to want his listeners to ask themselves probing questions about their behavior.


But so often the people most concerned about hell are those who want to make sure their enemies are punished and that justice, in their eyes, is done. Bell points out that those most concerned about others going to hell seem less concerned with the hells on earth right now, while people concerned with hells on earth seem less concerned about hell after death. What an irony. Bell’s summary statement on hell: Jesus seems to be saying, hell now, hell later. Take both seriously!



There is a stronger message than hell consistently offered in the Bible

Bell goes on to describe the most prevalent theme of God in the Bible, not that of punishment but restoration. Renewal, restoration, correction, and blessing. God always has a purpose for his people’s lives.


An example is Israel’s exile and banishment, ending in restoration, correction and renewal. God’s intention is always to heal, redeem, love and bring people home rejoicing. This does not mean our behaviors do not have consequences but that God is not a scorekeeper.


Theologian and healer, Flora Slossen Wuellner, goes even farther than God’s acts of renewal of his people, to God actually allowing us to experience eternal life in the here and now. She writes about a feeling of an inner wellspring, a sense that, while still wounded, we are also so open to love and trust that we are enfolded into the arms of God now. She uses the story of Anna (Luke 2) who never left the temple but lived in that place of intimate relationship to God all her life, abiding in the One as a branch abides in the living vine and relating to all others as equals loved by the One.


My personal experience of God over the last thirty years has been consistent with both Bell and Wuellner, that of a God of love and forgiveness, compassion and faithfulness and divine intimacy. Certainly God feels angst and sadness over what I and others do to ourselves and one another, but the God I know is not a punishing God. The messages I consistently get from God are these:


~I am love. I live in love. I relate in love. I love you. You are my Beloved

~Nothing can separate people from my love even when they choose to remain

distant from it

~I am always faithful in welcoming people back to my love

~I would never condemn people to eternal punishment, banishment or hell



The Life Review: Owning our behavior while being unconditionally loved

In the ongoing research about the afterlife and near death experiences, the concept of the life review (rather than a hell experience) has come up repeatedly with people who have had these experiences and have actually been brain dead for lengths of time. Dr. Eben Alexander writes cogently and convincingly of his own experience in Proof of Heaven. And Fr. Matt Linn leads seminars that cover the recent research on Near Death Experiences, showing that these life review experiences and the overwhelming grace of God in the afterlife are consistent across all people and groups. And there are 600 Near Death Experiences a day.


I realize that these ideas fly in the face of much Biblical teaching, but for me, the new research provides a new combination of truths and a new experience of accountability. So when I combine an intimate loving image of God, a conviction that we all need some way to be accountable for our lives, and this new research, it leads me to ponder with stronger conviction, the experience of the extended life review.


The life review could be God’s solution to hell, accountability and the afterlife. I embrace the life review as helpful to the way I live day-to-day, to know that my actions, be they good or bad, have consequences and that they are not going unnoticed. I no longer fear that I will burn in hell but it helps me to be aware of hellish experiences I’ve either had, caused or helped alleviate here on earth. The life review also reinforces my view of God as unconditionally loving as well as correcting and restoring. And I have had some experiences of this life review on this side of the grave.


So what about this life review, and how we do we experience it as a way of making amends and of making meaning of our lives in the end?


The life review, as described by those who have had near death experiences, consists of a period of time in which we relive our entire lives. We relive everything that has happened, not just from our experience but from the perspective of the people involved. If we intimidated someone we feel that but we also feel what it was like to be intimidated. In the process of the review, we are held accountable for everything we thought, felt and did and—at the same time we are completely loved, accepted and understood. We feel what others have done to us as well. The feelings are real and intense. We feel compassion for those who hurt us when we know what affected them so deeply. While this process is not a judgment it is painful and may be even hellish. And there are glorious parts to it as well, the things we did that are exemplary or didn’t even know we did well. And the relief we feel in knowing the truth of our lives, the hidden secrets revealed. I have a young friend who recently had an initial life review experience, during his cancer journey. His first memory on the review, a bully episode, opened up a story of his ancestors’ trauma that no one had yet uncovered. It was a major step in the deeper healing of his family.


And after the review is over—it’s over. No punishment beyond feeling the feelings; no retribution, no hell or eternal damnation or fear of hell beyond that.


Now that is astounding. For me it’s also a scary to write about because, as I said, it goes so much against the grain of what I and may others have been taught, and what it says in the Bible (see references on page one). In some theological traditions we could even go to hell for believing in the life review! But could it actually be true? Could it? Thousands of people have now reported it to be true. But who knows?


Hell or hellish? Which is it? You decide.


I end with a lovely blessing for death by John O’Donohue


From the moment you were born,

Your death has walked beside you.

Though it seldom shows its face,

You still feel its empty touch

When fear invades your life,
Or what your love is lost

Or inner damage is incurred.


Yet when destiny draws you

Into these spaces of poverty,

And your heart stays generous

Until some door opens into the light,

You are quietly befriending your death;

So that you will have no need to fear

When your time comes to turn and leave.


That the silent presence of your death

Would call your life to attention,

Wake you up to how scarce your time is

And to the urgency to become free

And equal to the call of your destiny.


That you would gather yourself

And decide carefully

How you now can live

The life you would love

To look back on

From your deathbed.



Janet O. Hagberg, 2015. All rights reserved.



Reflections on this essay


What did you learn about hell as a child? What is your belief about hell now?


Do you know anyone who has had a near death experience? How has it affected them/you?


How does the concept of a life review affect your view of the afterlife?


What are you most afraid of, and looking forward to with your own death?





Eben Alexander, MD, Proof of Heaven

Rev. Rob Bell, Love Wins

Fr. Matt Linn, professional talks; plus numerous books by the Linn brothers with

Sheila Fabricant Linn

Rev. Flora Slosson Wuellner, Beyond Death

Holy Scripture

Lived experience, client experiences


The Interior Castle (a book by Teresa of Avila)

illustrated by Michael and Isaiah Bischoff

Good Grief

by Barry A. Thomas


2005 sucked. There is not a much better way to describe my experience of that year. In the beginning of that year I was leading a small group and using the book The Emotionally Healthy Church by Pete Scazerro as curriculum. When we got to the chapter titled “Embracing Grieving and Loss”, I told the group, “I don’t think I know how to grieve, much less embrace it.” Within a few weeks of saying those ill-fated words, I was hit with a series of losses: my dad was diagnosed with cancer, I resigned from serving in a ministry I loved and my spiritual mentor moved away to another state. It felt like big parts of my world were falling apart. This happened during a period in my life when I was doing some intensive soul work. Before this period I would have stuffed my emotions, stayed busy and got on with my life. I would stay calm and carry on (as the Brits say). But not this time. For the first time in my life I was learning to pay attention to my heart, so for the first time in my life I gave myself permission to be sad. I didn’t try to hide it or deny it, I simply allowed myself to feel the sadness. This may not seem like much, but for me it was a huge step. I didn’t try to make myself sad; I simply acknowledged the sadness that was there and created space in my calendar to experience it.

So here is what grieving looked like for me:

First, I blocked off time in my calendar for solitude – time to simply get away to think, feel and be with God. This too was a new area of growth for me. I’m a “do-er” and have a difficult time being a “be-er”. Often times I would (and still do) approach a time of solitude asking, “How do I do solitude?” I was nervous at first. I wanted to “do” solitude right. It got easier and I got more comfortable the more times I practiced. I took whole days of solitude several different times. I read. I journaled. I prayed. I slept. The solitude gave my heart the space it needed to feel the sadness, anger and confusion of the grieving process.

Second, a friend of mine recommend I read a book by Sue Monk Kidd called When the Heart Waits. In it the author uses the analogy of a cocoon, the transformation phase between a caterpillar and a butterfly, to describe the dark and unknown experience of grief. She explains what it looks like and feels like to go through times of darkness. God used this book to tell me that what I was feeling was normal and that there wasn’t anything wrong with me. This was huge. Without reading this, I would have been full of fear. Instead I was able to okay with grief. I didn’t like it. It was not enjoyable, but somehow, deep down, I knew what I was going through was good.

Third, I was given the opportunity to get angry. This was a big deal for me because I usually stuffed anger. I have learned that if anger doesn’t get expressed in healthy ways, it will get expressed in unhealthy ways. I had some men teach me how to express anger in a healthy way and gave me the opportunity to let it rip in a safe, controlled environment. This was the lynch pin for me. By letting the anger flow I believe it propelled me through the grief cycle.

So that’s what it looked like for me. Eight months from the time I told my group that I didn’t know how to grieve, I had taken one full trip around the block.


So here are some of the things I gave earned about grief over the years:

  1. Any kind of loss is meant to be grieved. Obviously, the loss of a close friend or loved one is meant to be grieved; however, less obvious losses are meant to be grieved too. Losses that are not so obvious can be: a change in job; a change in season of life; loss of health; or a change in a relationship. In fact, any kind of change brings some sort of loss.
  2. The amount of grief to be experienced is proportional to the depth of the loss. Big loss – big grief. Small loss – small grief.
  3. People grieve differently. Some are very open about it; others are very private. Some need support; others need space. There is not some recipe book or formula on how to handle grief. It looks different for different people. I have seen several sets of parents who have lost a child. Most of the time, the mother and father have grieved the death in completely different ways. Friction can occur when one spouse expects the other to grieve the loss the same way. Perhaps this is why the divorce rate for parents who have lost a child is near 80%.
  4. Grief is experienced in stages. Depending on who you read, there are anywhere from 3 stages to 12 stages in the grieving process. If you were to ask ten different counselors to label the stages of grief, you would probably get twelve different answers. However, the stages look something like this: denial, anger, sadness, despair, confusion, void, hope, imagination, action and order.

The first benefit of embracing grieving and loss is that I have experienced God’s love and favor in new ways. I know what it is like for Him to walk with me through dark times and to have peace in the process. The second benefit is that I have much more compassion for other people. I am able to mourn with those who mourn. There is no doubt my heart has become more alive.

Yes, 2005 sucked. And because it did I grew by leaps and bounds. I now see grief as a good thing and my life and relationships are much richer as a result.




What are some of the losses you have experienced recently?

Which loss feels like the biggest one on the list?

What emotion are you feeling in regards to that loss? Anger? Sadness? Fear?

The Hem of Jesus’ Garment

An Icon in the “shiver series”


In the Gospel of Mark (chapter 5) the writer tells a powerful story of how Jesus healed a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years. She was too filled with shame to come directly to Jesus but she merely touched the hem of his garment and the bleeding stopped. Immediately Jesus noticed that someone had touched him and the power had gone forth from him. He asked, “Who touched me?” The woman came in fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth, how she had been an outcast from the society and lived in shame. No one would even touch her. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”


I read this story and then heard about a retreat leader who made hem-like cloths for each person in the group, so they could also touch Jesus’ garment. I felt God asking me to use my sewing gifts to make such hems for people who need any kind of healing; spiritual, emotional, physical, cultural, relationship. I chose fabrics that also speak to the healing process; beautiful, loving, vibrant, soothing, radiant.


This woman wanted her story told so that anyone who felt unworthy of healing or was outcast in any way, would feel the courage that she felt, allowing her to reach out and touch Jesus hem, for healing. She wanted to show that telling Jesus the truth or our lives is the most healing moment. It allows us to go out in peace too.


Feel the love and healing power of God flooding your soul as you reach out and touch this hem of Jesus’ garment.


How have you been put aside in some way but family, church, or society?


When have you felt the courage to reach out to Jesus for help or for healing ?


How has telling your story to Jesus or to another person helped you to heal?

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:

Loving Yourself in 4 Hard Steps (Part 2 of 2)

By Barry Thomas

In last week’s blog post I began talking about how to love yourself by focusing on the parts of yourself you hide and deny. I presented the first two steps in the process: AWARENESS and ACCEPTANCE. (If you didn’t see it, read last week’s post for an explanation of what I mean). So now I’m going to pick up from where I left off.

How is a person to respond when he becomes aware of a part of himself he has hidden or denied and accepts that that part is truly part of him? After all, that part was hidden for a reason. What do you do when you bring it out in to the light?

The next step in loving yourself is FORGIVENESS. When I think of forgiveness, I imagine forgiveness moving in three directions:

The first direction is forgiveness moving from God to us. If there was enough space in this post, we could walk through the Bible and see how forgiveness is a major theme throughout Scripture. In Exodus 34: 6 and 7, God describes Himself as compassionate, gracious and forgiving. And Hebrews 10:11-18 describes how Jesus’ death was the ultimate sacrifice for our forgiveness.

The second direction of forgiveness is from us to others. In Matthew 6:14, Jesus teaches. “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will also forgive you.”

The third direction of forgiveness is from us to…ourselves. For many people, this is the most difficult form of forgiveness. It is hard to believe that forgiveness is really free, so we punish ourselves. In his book, Gateways to God, Dmitri Bilgere writes about the “Mercy Exception.” The Mercy Exception is when you believe there is some part of you that is too terrible for God to love; and therefore, is an exception to God’s mercy. Here is what I have learned: we all have them. We all have mercy exceptions and they tend to be the parts or ourselves we don’t like.

So which comes first, being able to receive forgiveness from myself or forgiveness from God? I think it depends on the person, but my observation is that most people have a more difficult time forgiving themselves. The most transformational ministry I have ever been a part of is The Crucible Project ( A key part of this ministry is conducting men’s retreats. I help lead a few of these each year. Recently a pastor named Jim participated in one of these weekends. The very next Sunday after he went on a Crucible Project weekend he shared with his congregation about the forgiveness he was able to receive from himself on the retreat. He explained to the church how he and God were fine. He already received forgiveness from God, but he hadn’t received it from himself. He said, “I decided to let myself off of the mat. I am good enough. I do have what it takes. Does anyone else here need to let yourself off the mat?” Jim had been living with a Mercy Exception. He decided it was a horrible way to live and it was time live differently.

Why is forgiveness needed? When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, I believe a lie from Satan instead of a truth from God. When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, those parts are blocked off to God’s love. When I believe parts of me I don’t like are Mercy Exceptions, I do not become the man God has created me to be.

The final step in loving yourself is… (surprise!)…LOVE. Once I’ve become aware of the parts of myself I don’t like and have accepted that they are truly part of me and have received forgiveness for keeping them hidden, then those parts can be open to be loved.

We, as humans, have a high propensity to adapt, cope and survive. One of the key ways we adapt, cope or survive is by hiding. In his book, Hiding From Love, Dr. John Townsend breaks down the different ways people hide internally and relationally. For most of us, these hiding mechanisms were put in place early on in our lives and most of the time, they were needed for protection. One of the problems is that we typically no longer need these ways of hiding as adults, yet we keep them in our lives because they had served us so well. Often times the hiding that served us so well is the very thing that keeps that part of ourselves from being loved.

For example, I have a friend who lost several loved ones in her life. Her mom, her aunt, her brother, her boyfriend – they all died through tragedy. She learned to hide (to protect herself) by keeping a relational distance to people she really liked. She was afraid they would literally die and she would experience the pain of losing them. This way of hiding may have allowed her to cope when she was younger; however, this hiding was getting in the way of her being able to have a close relationship and find a husband.

So when you bring the part of yourself that you don’t like out into the light, ask yourself this question, “What does that part of me really want?” Look past the behavior and underneath the hiding. What is that part longing for? There is a deep desire that is going unmet. Maybe that part never got the love and support it needed at a younger age.

Can you feel compassion for that part? What if the tables were turned and you saw someone else that needed love and support, how would you treat them? Now turn the tables back around. Can you bring love and support to that part of you in such a way that you can receive it?

Self-Facilitated Exercise

  1. Invite Jesus to join you in this exercise.
  2. Imagine yourself being the part that you don’t like about yourself.
  3. Take on the posture of that part. Now exaggerate that posture.
  4. Step out of that part by taking a couple of steps back as if to observe that part in that posture.
  5. As you observe the posture, look beyond the posture to the heart and ask yourself, “What does that part really want?”
  6. Imagine yourself going to that part to deliver the love and support he or she really needs.
    1. What are the words he or she need to hear?
    2. When you look into his/her heart, what do you see?
    3. Imagine yourself communicating the love and support physically (through a hug, or putting your arm around him or her, or through a simple touch).
  7. Now step back into the part you haven’t liked and imagine that love and support you gave now is pouring into you.
  8. Ask Jesus to reveal to you what He wants you to know about yourself and, in particular, this part of yourself you have kept hidden.

It is important for you to know that some of the parts of yourself you have labeled as “shameful,” “bad” or “evil” may actually be good, pure and beautiful. They are simply parts that have needed ACCEPTANCE, FORGIVENESS and LOVE.

Holy Delicious Desires, Part Two:

God’s Longing for Us

Janet O. Hagberg

In the Holy Delicious Desires essay, Part One, I delineated three ways in which we start our initial search for God, for that something beyond us, the Mysterious, the Eternal. These three ways are wine, women (men) and song, or sex, drugs and rock and roll. In this essay I hope to illustrate how that initial search for our Source moves to a deeper longing if we acknowledge it. Eventually we feel God’s longing for us as an invitation to a sacred dance. If we accept God’s lead, we dance as One, in union with the one we adore.


What, then, are these ways in which we may grow to anther level of understanding of the path that leads to that sacred dance?


Let’s start with a key concept that we need to understand before the rest will make sense. That concept is that God dwells within us as well as outside of us. The place in which God dwells is called our soul, holy place, grounded center, solar plexus, or as people in the Eastern Orthodox Church call it, our hesychia. It is that place in which we house many holy desires, among them a desire to create, a desire for intimacy and a desire for spirituality, a deep connection with the Holy. In fact, when we open ourselves up to a deeper relationship with God often some of these other desires (creativity, intimacy, spiritual longing) come into bloom as well. It’s as if they are all housed together and when one gets some attention the others are aroused as well. At our core, we have a rich mix of desires for the Holy.


An old mystic described this place within by yet another image when he said, “God puts within us a spark of the Divine. How close are you willing to come to the Fire?” That is the key question, in my experience. How much do I trust God to love me, care for me, desire me, invite me to Union with Godself? And how can we approach the divine fire if we fear the heat, if we don’t trust God, or if we feel totally worthless? How can we even witness this Holy fire without being burned or deeper yet, how can we let our egos die, and let ourselves be consumed by the Fire, so to speak?



Soul Work: the way we approach the divine fire within

Let me describe three ways we can approach the Fire, and then conclude with a special story about Dorothy, a young girl who dances with flame. The term I use to describe this process of deliberately coming close to the Fire within is Soul Work.


Soul work transforms the three desires represented by wine, women and song into an inward relationship with the Holy that is no longer ruled by addictions, lust, or craziness.


Soul work as an approach to the divine fire is not dependent on other people but more dependent on the Holy and the inner connections that God creates in our hesychia, our center where God dwells. Soul work transforms us through the distilled strength of God’s love and desire for us, and the sacred egoless place that develops in us as a result.


And the fruits of these experiences are outward, for the good will of the world. The fruits of this inner work are always more love for and good will in the world. No matter what our work or our social position, we are called to be God’s representatives on earth, vulnerable, trusting, repentant, forgiving, loving, healing, humorous.


The three ways I suggest we approach the Fire are creativity, desire for intimacy and spiritual longing. The final image is a delightful scene of Dorothy dancing.


These three, creativity, intimacy and spiritual longing parallel the three ways in which we began our search; wine women and song (or drugs, sex and rock and roll). Each of these three morphs into its sacred counterpart, and then accepts the divine invitation and collaboration with God. I will explain each set of changes in order. This sacred journey is a gift from God. Our role is to acknowledge that gift and to make wise and sacred choices, to be intentional about approaching the Holy, and to find wise and grounded people around us to mentor and guide us.



Wine (drugs) stimulates creativity, then accepts divine inspiration

Wine, or the desire to be transported into another world, is the desire for a touch of the mysterious, a journey beyond ourselves, a “trip” as the drug world calls it. This often shows itself as creativity or personal expression and can take us in a number of directions. So when we find our mode of expression, our voice, we are witnesses to our desire for a connection with this mysterious creative experience. Our desire is to express something with the use of our hands, heads, bodies. Our creation may make use of our inner ideas, thoughts, colors, wood grain, crops, fabrics, machines, type, knitting needles etc. We accept ourselves as artists in our chosen voice, whatever it may be. Artists of all types speak of this mysterious desire to express themselves via inspiration, muses, or unexpected connections. Creativity is a gift and is unique to each individual. Finding ours is like uncovering a treasure in a field.


The deeper movement of accepting divine inspiration, molds us into Union with God. We hear the Holy, our Source, asking to be the divine inspiration behind all our work, longing to be our main collaborator. We become part of the eternal flow of the Holy presence on earth when we say yes to God’s request to be our muse. We are bringing God’s love and spirit to the world. It does not mean that we necessarily create sacred art but that the work we create has sacredness about it, no matter what the content. People can feel it when they view or hear or touch what we have created. It has a healing or deepening affect on them. Creativity in this form, is a way of releasing our wills and being embraced by the Holy Fire within.



Women (men-sex) stimulate a desire for intimacy, then accepts the Divine invitation to Sensuous Beauty

Our love of bodies and body connections is an overlooked desire for intimacy with ourselves and with others. When we misunderstand this we can have many sexual connections without meeting our needs for companionship and understanding. Intimacy comes in many forms, including sexuality, conversation, collaborations, support groups, therapy, even physical touch in massage or body work or sports. People in the military experience intimacy through shared experience, especially in dangerous situations. So we know we all need strong connections.


Once we acknowledge that need for connection and seek a wide range of intimate experiences, our bodies believe that we can be trusted and invite us into a deeper relationship with our body-self and with God. Our bodies desire an intimate relationship with our soul, our hesychia. Our bodies send us messages from God through dreams, symptoms, sleeplessness, visions, tears, coincidences, visits from heavenly beings, cravings. If we listen and embrace these messages as God-given, we grow to a new level of intimacy in the world.


The divine invitation to a deeper level of connection is this: to know sensuousness and beauty as God’s longing for sacred contact with us in our bodies and our earthly experiences. Sensuousness is a way to honor the beauty of our bodies and to show our self-love, as a gift from God, no matter what we look like or how much we weigh. We can claim our life stance, our own scent, our texture, our sound, our unique look, because it is God who is present to the world through us. God’s desire for intimacy with us unites our two souls. It is a high form of discernment. It is thirst without gulp. It is touch without lust. It is beauty without vanity.


At last, a deeper experience of God’s beauty also becomes clear. We see God’s beauty in all of life, even in the storm, the dark, the grief of life. Beauty is what God leads us to as we journey into this union. There is beauty in the flaw, beauty in illness, beauty in surrender, beauty in Godself.



Song (Rock and Roll) stimulates spiritual longing, then accepts the invitation to intimate prayer: God praying us in the world

The human journey is filled with spiritual longing. We see it in the way we reach out for meaning; music, pilgrimages, books, gurus, getting lost in adventure and danger. In music, especially pop music, it seems the spiritual longings of our souls desire connect with the mystery of the beat, the lyric, the performer, or the song writer. In sacred choral music the longing is for expressing the inexpressible through our voices and especially our hearts. We long for elevation to another plane of life. We look for ways to get lost. We look for ways to get found. Spirituality: the longing for deeper meaning.


Then the most amazing thing happens. We’ve looked all over for God and finally we stop and realize that it was not about us looking for God at all. It was about us stopping and letting God find us. And once that happens all we desire is more contact with the Source, more desire for losing ourselves in God, even the desire for death (not suicide) in order to be reunited. The deepest way to be reunited is prayer in my experience. Not rote prayers or memorized prayers, although those are useful as mantras, but individual prayer as an intimate relationship with the eternal. The way God finds us is primarily through our willingness to stop, to listen and to hear God’s still small voice when we pray.


The ultimate journey is this: over time God’s desire for us becomes a life style infused with prayer that leads to gratitude for all of life. God is infused into each and every transaction and relationship, each gain and loss. God everywhere. God in everything. Once this happens we start to see that God has invited us to be so close, so intimate that we are no longer praying to God. God is now, in fact, praying through us. We become God’s prayer form in the world. God uses us as a conduit to Godself.



Dorothy Dancing: Flesh has Danced with Flame

As we experience these forms of soul work, we come at last to the image I described of Dorothy dancing. In a poem by Louis Untermeyer, Dorothy, a young girl, dances with flame. She embraces the flame, unafraid, and lets it be her dance partner. Miraculously, Dorothy and the flame become one. The Soul unites with Flame. In the dance of intimacy with God we become One.


In the words of Untermeyer, “Then, as the surge of radiance grows stronger/ These two are two no longer/And they merge/Into a disembodied ecstasy/…What mystery/Has been at work until it blent/One child and that fierce element?/ It is enough that flesh has danced with flame.”


This whole journey, the change from wine women and song ultimately into divine inspiration, sensuous beauty, and God praying us into the world, happens for one reason and one reason only. The powerful force behind it all is God’s unconditional love and longing for us. The love and longing of God are what draw our souls to Godself and reunite us with our creator in a final burst of divine flame.


I will end with the best way I know of describing this breathtaking love of God that we come to know intimately in the process of soul work. I offer the words to one of my favorite hymns that uses a writer’s images to describe this love that we can only point to but not adequately describe with words.


Could we with ink the ocean fill

And were the skies of parchment made

Were every stalk on earth a quill

And everyone a scribe by trade

To write the love of God above

Would drain the ocean dry

Nor could the scroll contain the whole

Though stretched from sky to sky



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

Excerpt of“Dorothy Dancing” by Louis Untermeyer, from The Barefoot Book of Classic Poems, compiled by Jackie Morris. The hymn, “The Love of God,” is so old that it does not appear in most hymn books. It was written by Frederick M. Lehman in 1917 and arranged by his daughter, Claudia L. Mays. The song is based on a Jewish poem written in 1050 by a cantor in Worms, Germany. The words from the stanza I cited were first seen penciled on the wall of a patient’s room in an insane asylum after he died, and were assumed written in a moment of sanity.


(The following chart didn’t transfer well or accurately so if you want the information on it, email me and I will get it to you.

Summary Chart: The Journey to Union with God


Downward Spiral     Most Human Desires         Upward Longing     Union



Addiction                   Wine; Drugs                         Creativity                  Divine



Lust                            Women (men); Sex              Desire for                  Sensuous

Intimacy                    Beauty


Madness                    Song; Rock and Roll           Spiritual                     God

Longing                     Praying us


ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2014. All rights reserved.




Reflections on this essay


How have you experienced creativity, desire for intimacy or spiritual longing as a healthy practice in your life?


What mysterious and/or sacred experience have you had that touched you deeply?


What is the call to you that emerges from reading about this deeper journey?


What gives you hope that your journey represents God’s longing for you?





Hands of Reconciliation

An icon in the “shiver” series: Janet O. Hagberg, artist, with Joseph Mallard


Listen, O people, in the silent chapel of your heart; and the Beloved will speak of peace to you, to the hidden saints, to all who turn their hearts to love. Surely new life is at hand for those who reverence love; O, that harmony might dwell among nations… Restore us again, O Spirit of Truth; burn us with the refining Fire of Love! We cannot live separated from you; cast out demons of fear, doubt, and illusion. Revive us again, we pray, that your people may rejoice in You! Have compassion on your people, O Holy One, and grant us our salvation. Psalm 85 excerpts, Psalms for Praying, Merrill


Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity! It is like vistas seen from atop a mountain one has climbed…or like the stillness of a sunset after a long day’s work. It is like a shimmering rainbow breaking through a summer rain. When men and women dwell in harmony, the Star of Truth appears! Ps 133 Psalms for Praying, Merrill


To you I lift up my Spirit, You who are enthroned in every heart! For, as the young child holds tightly the hand of its parent, as those in the throws of disease look to one who brings them comfort, so our spirits seek the Heart of Love, that we might find mercy and forgiveness. Have mercy on us, O Compassionate One, have mercy, that we might turn from our blind and ignorant ways. Too long our souls have been veiled by fear; have mercy, lead us to the path of wholeness. Ps 123 Psalms for Praying, Merrill




This icon emerged from the idea that people can choose to be part of the solution in the racial reconciliation process, each in his or her own way. My mentor, Joseph Mallard, who is an African American male agreed to draw his arm and hand on a piece of cloth for me. And then I, a white female, drew my hand and arm as well. I put them together to depict an icon of people working together to reach the heart of love in all of us. We chose to represent racial reconciliation but this image could also depict family reconciliation, brothers and sisters, males and females, friends, or colleagues. We hope this image spreads far and wide and gets healing conversations going.




What message of reconciliation do you desire to bring to the world?


How will you go about doing that with your gifts and skills?


With whom, if anyone, do you have a desire to reconcile?


All Loss is Gain


Last week God dropped a little nugget into my lap. God said, “All loss is gain.” This is hard to wrap my mind around since the usual arguments ensue: what about babies who die? What about the holocaust?


While reflecting on this some particularly challenging scripture came to mind as well; verses about losing your life in order to gain it or giving up important things in order to experience something else or seeing good things coming out of seemingly bad things. These all trouble me and make me wonder whether I would ever be able to live like this—or even want to live like this. Who, in their right mind, would deliberately give up all they have or love with no guarantees for the future?


Here are some of the verses or quotes that cause me the most consternation.


*Anyone who holds onto life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal. John 12:25 Message


*All is gift. Teresa of Avila, 16th century abbess, mystic and saint


*Think of your sufferings as a weaning from that old sinful habit of always expecting to get your own way. Then you’ll be able to live out your days free to pursue what God wants instead of being tyrannized by what you want. I Peter 4;1-2 Message


*Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and the sake of the gospel will save it. Mark 8:35 NRSV


But then, after pondering these challenging verses, I decided to see this new little nugget as God’s way of inviting me to more intimacy and to a deeper truth growing within me. I like this shift but I still can’t quite fathom what it means for me to lose my life or to be reckless in my love for God or to embrace loss lovingly. How do I even taste of this radical call to loss as gain? I cautiously asked God to show me little glimpses of it in my own life. What a dangerous prayer. Use only with caution!


God gently pointed out a few places in which I am getting a small taste of what it means to count loss as gain, to be “reckless” for what I need instead of what I want.


One place I’ve experienced this is cleaning out all the hidden clutter in my condo. I’m sure readers can relate to thisJ It seems deceptively simple until you try it. I now have a list of more than fifteen areas of my condo that need shedding but as soon as I move toward any of them I come up with excuses to keep or cling to my things. I mean things like photos by the hundreds, files of old careers, teaching notes that are no longer relevant, clothes I’ve not worn for a year, rag rugs made by a friend, gifts that I don’t have room for any more. It is just plain hard work to deal with all the memories that come up as I sort through things. And I usually bump into the less attractive reasons I cling to things: guilt, loss of identity, ego, even self-pity.


But on my better days when I have more perspective on the bigger picture, and I get into what I call my flinging mode I can release boxes of unnecessary, even sentimental or worn out items and feel cautiously elated, lighter, less burdened. Something within me is decluttering as I toss. It is like a small symbolic act to actually toss or recycle something. Not easy, because it reminds me of moving towards death (which may be the ultimate reason I don’t want to do it) but still strangely liberating.


The harder area of my life that illustrates this “letting go and losing” concept is in relationships. I am a relational person and take the nurturing of my close relationships seriously. So when a particularly close relationship ended in a surprising and deeply unsettling way this year, I felt a deep loss. In order to be fully present to this break I called upon God to be fully present and God responded by providing me with clarity, vulnerability and honesty within the hurt, anger and sadness. The parting was emotionally and spiritually excruciating. The loss was great. The grief was intense.


It’s difficult for me to see clearly the bigger picture for both of us but I do catch small glimpses of the larger story this break is a part of. And I do trust God to show me some day what the ultimate gain will be from this loss, as hard as it has been to endure.


What I am experiencing is a deeper internal cleaning so that I am available with more energy and presence for something else, perhaps more of the holy to fill the empty space. I feel God gently calling me to more creativity, both in my writing and with my icons. I feel like I have more compassion for myself and for others who lose people they care about.


I also feel as if the process of navigating the loss brought me to a new place within myself, a place of deeper honesty, relative calm, new self-regard and an understanding of the other person—ultimately the capacity, for the first time, to stay present to the searing but cleansing power of pain. None of this would have happened without God’s help. I would have just withdrawn or found a way to blame myself or the other person.


I feel like I’ve found a new part of myself through this loss. I believe I am learning to be a healer, a compassionate truth teller. While I am still very sad, I feel the sadness is creating a cleaner heart in me. I’m reminded of David’s words in Psalm 51, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. (v 10). Another verse from that same chapter resonates in me as well, “Behold you desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. “(v 6).


Oh, to have that wisdom that only God can give… Maybe there is gain in this loss after all. And it occurs to me that maybe my two glimpses of “loss as gain,” of cleaning out my condo and cleaning out my heart are more related than I realized.




ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2014. All rights reserved.


Reflections on this essay

What comes to mind when you hear the words, “all loss is gain”?


Which of the verses listed trouble you or draw you the most?


How have you experienced loss that resulted in some gain; freedom or new life for you?


How do you embrace God in the difficult or unfathomable realities of your life?


What have you learned about yourself or about God that enables you to trust God in the process of life?



Yes, God heals. But what does that mean? And why is it important? As I’ve meditated on this I’m increasingly impressed with how vital God’s healing is, yes for our bodies but just as importantly for our spiritual well-being. Healing is about release from pain and limitations. It’s about return to full function. It’s about restoration to wholeness. To health. To well-being. As Healer, God seeks to bring us back into unobstructed union with the Divine.



It’s important to know that God wants to heal. Longs for us to be whole. Heals so that we can be restored to true and full fellowship with God. The following scripture verses underscore God’s persistent, unrelenting desire to have us be whole and in relationship with him/her. God is proactive as Healer.


“I am the Lord who heals you.” (Jehovah-Ropheka = the Lord your Healer). Exodus 15:26   “See now that I, even I, am he; there is no god besides me……..I heal….” Deuteronomy 32:39   “…they did not know that I healed them.” Hosea 11:3 “I will seek the lost and bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” Ezekiel 34:16a “I have seen their (willful) ways, but I will heal them; I will lead them and repay them with comfort…” Isaiah 57:18 “(God) binds up; …. his hands heal.” Job 5:18 “He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Matthew 8:17 “He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24 “He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3 “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” Matthew 4:23 “Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. Mark 1:41-42



Next, it’s good to remember that faith accompanies healing. We need to reach out. To ask. To receive. We need to believe and accept God at work in our lives. To be complete, God’s work as Healer requires belief and acceptance on our part. True, some healing seems to occur without the recipient actually asking. Who, but God, knows the readiness of that person’s heart? As a gift offered is not complete until the intended receiver accepts it, so God’s gift of healing is not complete until we believe and make it our own. The following verses illustrate several stories of seeking healing, believing and being healed.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.” Psalm 30:2 “Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue (whose daughter was ‘dead’), “Do not fear, only believe.” Mark 5:36 “Then (Jesus) said to him (the tenth leper), ‘Get up and go on your way, your faith has made you well.’ “ Luke 17:19 “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” 2 Chronicles 7:14 “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” James 5:16 “Wherever (Jesus) went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.” Mark 6:56 “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved…” Jeremiah 17:14 “Jesus said…‘Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.’ And instantly the woman was made well.” Matthew 9:22 “Come, let us return to the Lord; for…he will heal us;….he will bind us up.” Hosea 6:1 “Daughter, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” Mark 5:34



Finally, the result of healing is to be made whole. To be set free. To know the joy and peace of physical and spiritual renewal and well-being. To have union with God and fellowship fully restored. Surely our response after this should be thanksgiving and praise to God our Healer. Consider the following stories.


“I will bring health and healing…I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security.” Jeremiah 33:6 NIV “Jesus….said…’Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick;   I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’ ” Mark 2:17 “…God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power;…he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” Acts 10:38 “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases…..he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” Isaiah 53:4a, 5 “I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely….” Hosea 14:4 “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds I will heal, says the Lord.” Jeremiah 30:17a


“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits – who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases…” Psalm 103:2,3   “So (Naaman) went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan…his flesh was restored…and he was clean….Then he said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel; please accept a present…your servant will no longer offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god except the Lord.’” 2 Kings 5:14-17   “…ten lepers…were made clean….one turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He prostrated himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him…Jesus asked, ‘…the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’ “Luke 17:14-19 “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” Luke 13:12,13



…Have you prayed for healing and thought your prayer was not answered? What might be going on that makes it feel that way?

…How do you know when God has healed you? What has your experience been?

…After healing, in what ways do you integrate thanksgiving and praise into your life?



We thank and praise you, Healer God, for pursuing us so that we might know healing, wholeness and full intimacy with you.



Hi, I’m Bobbie and am what some would call seasoned. Now in my early eighties I look back on a life full of experiences through which God has shaped and refined me – still a work-in-progress – and for which I’m so very grateful. My first husband and I raised three daughters and both of us worked full time. Following his death from leukemia, God gave me another good man to partner with. Our combined families now delight us with 17 grandchildren. Our church’s prayer ministry is my passion. I also enjoy reading, journaling, long walks, jig-saw puzzles and knitting prayer shawls. I’ve known Janet and treasured her friendship for close to 35 years and am honored to share on her blog.


c Barbara Spradley, 2015, All Rights Reserved


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