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Humility as God’s Ho Ho

There is a wonderful, even magical, story in the Old Testament. It involves Elisha, one of the famous prophets in history, and the widow of one of his colleagues. (II Kings 4:1-7) The widow comes to him in crisis, telling him that a creditor was about to take her son as a slave because she could not pay her debts. In fact, all she had left was a small amount of oil in a jar.

Elisha, in what seems like an unusual bit of advice, tells her to ask all of her neighbors for empty jars, then take her two sons with her into her home, close the door and start pouring her small portion of oil into the jars. As she does what he asks, (I can only imagine what she was thinking to herself) the oil somehow increases until it has filled all of the jars. Since oil is a valuable commodity she now has enough oil not only to purchase her son’s freedom, but to support her family for the foreseeable future. It is a miracle story, one we would all like to claim for our own lives when times are hard and resources are thin.

I was pondering this story during my prayer time, letting the truths of it soak into my heart. At the time I was particularly grateful to God for letting me see a plan he was laying out for me to move from my condo and my current life style in a “happening neighborhood” to a simpler and smaller life style in a “green” development in a more racially and economically mixed neighborhood. It was a major move for me and reflected a change in priorities, values and commitments.

Yet, I was grieving this move from a place I loved, on the bank of the Mississippi River, with gorgeous views of the city. I was also going to miss the regular contact with the neighbors I had come to care about. And facing this new neighborhood brought its challenges too. I was a bit fearful of the potential for crime in a lower economic neighborhood, even though I had friends there and a welcoming church waiting for me.

But the unmistakable truth alongside the fear and the loss was the clear sense that God was calling me to this new home.  He had already provided human “angels” to help me make the transition. I had mentors and friends in this new place. I felt as if I was moving to a new way of being, feeling a renewed energy in my life, seeing a vision for my place in the world. I felt God paving the way, providing me with the people, resources, and a willing spirit.

So while I was reading this story, I could identify with God’s largess and could even see this move as a way for me to help multiply God’s love, like the widow’s oil in the story. I was praying for God’s guidance about how to share the abundance of grace—God’s oil—poured into my life. I felt much like the widow, that even though I was in a difficult transition and my future was unclear, God was supplying for me in generous ways. I felt so grateful and honored to be in this place of abundance with God.

 

In the quiet of my prayer I heard a voice from that place within me where God dwells. The voice chimed in, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, my dear one. You are not the widow in this story. You’re the empty vessel.” The voice sounded light-hearted and gentle like it was singing a nursery rhyme or something like that, starting on a high note and descending like a slide. The message was clear and challenging, yet I could sense a chuckle behind the challenge.

Just like that. Few words. TRUTH. Humility. Loss of ego again. No gentle approval of my claim to be the widow in the story, just a gentle truth with a chuckle. And, of course, God was right. My ego would love to be the widow, the unsung star of the story, and I would love to identify with God’s largess for me. I’d love to have the small amount of oil in my own vessel multiply and be of great worth. I love redemptive endings and being part of them.

But God was clearly telling me that being an empty vessel was more closely attuned to my current state, or needed to be. The vessel represented the acceptance of my emptiness, my dependence on God to fill me, which was really my new calling.

Empty, waiting to be filled, unsure, dependent, surrendered; new words that I was not totally longing for, but now learning to live into. In the story, the empty jars were also a gift from God, a sign of hope for the widow, who must have been elated that her neighbors would give them to her, even though she was unsure what would happen once she got them. So I became a vessel, willing to be given, willing to be part of a miracle of love. I am of value precisely because of my emptiness. I was not moving to my new neighborhood to simply pour out my gifts but to be a vessel, willing to be, to learn, to receive, to love. We are all of immense value in our emptiness—an emptiness that God knows how to fill so much better than we do.

As soon as I heard those rhythmic words, “Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. You’re not the widow; you’re the empty vessel.” I knew God was messing with me again, in that familiar way, gently nudging me off of my pedestal, bringing me to a richer, simpler and even more profound truth—empty vessels are more likely to be filled. It was what I needed to be—an empty vessel. I could feel the gentle humor, the loving nudge. It felt familiar. I could hear the chortling chuckle. I could imagine the twinkle in the eye, the sly smile that accompanied those words, “Empty vessel.”

One of my friends would call this experience one of God’s Ho-Hos. I like that. And, as a result of this God Ho-Ho, I felt a joyful sense of expectation in my emptiness.

End Note: I did not make that move to a different neighborhood, since I could not sell my condo in the economic environment of the time, but I felt the significance of being open, willing and eager to move. And the empty vessel image is still meaningful to me. several years later.

© Copyright, Janet O. Hagberg, 2009.

 

Reflections on this essay

Which figure or symbol from the story would you be?

How have you felt God leading you into a new direction that is unknown?

Where has God surprised you with a new truth about yourself?

How have you experienced being empty and then being filled?

What is one of God’s Ho Hos in your life?

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God laughing at us

“He uses complicated diagrams to make himself look really smart.” A few months my 12-year-old son offered to make a commercial about my consulting business. It turned out that my son had some fun with earnestness and use of complicated diagrams. Here’s the commercial he made:

I’ve learned a lot about spiritual formation and prayer from the author, Richard Foster. I recently heard a talk where Richard talked about one of the most transformational moments in his spiritual life–where he heard God laughing at him. Richard had been trying hard to discern an issue that he saw as an important ethical decision, about whether to wear a tie or not. In loving response, God laughed at him, which helped Richard laugh at himself.

As I’ve been very busy doing lots of work lately, I’ve had a sense that God is laughing at me, in inviting, challenging, loving ways. I can sometimes laugh at myself or others in ways that are cynical and distancing. I think God is asking me to listen, feel, and join God’s laughter–that can be unsettling, but also an invitation to intimacy and freedom. I’m leaving soon to help facilitate a gathering of 500 church leaders, where we’ll be listening for new things God is doing in their region. I pray that we may hear and join God’s disarming, healing laughter, at the conference and beyond.

 

Many of us wonder how and why God does what God does! And we question God’s role in our lives. Here is a short video that Tamie Koehler and I did showing how we experience God working in our lives, calling us ever closer and sometimes with humor.

 

Reflections on this video

How do you experience God in your life?
What is your image of God?

How does God meddle in kind ways in your life?

What would you like from God now?

 

 

My Black Angel

I was raised in what I would call a “wheels” family. My dad operated a small trucking company that he started during the depression. Our family took several driving trips when I was a young girl and my brother was a fifties Chevy and Ford aficionado—when the cars were much “hotter” than they are now. He was a mechanic, like my dad, and also liked doing body repair so as a hobby he restored old Corvettes.

I got my permit and my driver’s license on the first day I was eligible for each of them. I loved to drive. We were loyal to the Ford brand and got a new car every few years because my dad respected a fine running automobile. Not top of the line, but nice looking and reliable. In our family, if you had a car you were expected to take care of it– wash it, change the oil, do the upkeep. So I come by my love of cars honestly.

My very favorite car of all time was my thirty-something dream car: a Datsun 280 Z. I drove it for ten years and cried when I had to part with it. I loved the whole idea of driving that car. I know this makes some of you yawn, but stay with me, there’s a spiritual story in here somewhereJ

Just this summer I decided that, after seventeen years with my sturdy, reliable Nissan Maxima, it was about time to get a newer car. The upkeep was getting tiresome and expensive even though it remained a good car. So in my routine meeting with Lance, my financial planner we talked about starting to look for cars so I would have a newer one before winter. That sounded good to me although as a single woman over sixty the process of buying a used car seemed daunting.

On the way home from my appointment I stopped at the Somali Brothers’ car repair place I’ve been going to for eleven years, to drop off some chocolate chip cookies for the guys who fixed my car the week before. As soon as I drove in the owner, Ali, said to me, “Janet, I’ve found a car for you.” “You WHAT?” I said. He explained that he bought cars that had been repossessed or had been in accidents and fixed them up for resale. He also said that he had found just the one for me, a 2010 Black Honda Accord. Since I was one of his best customers he wanted me to have first dibs on it. I looked at it and it was, in a word, elegant. He gave me the price (which was far below blue book) and said he would take my car in trade at a good price. This felt to me like a wonderful gift directly from God.

Then the machinations started. Why was the car cheaper than expected? What had happened? What if it was structurally damaged? What if I bought a lemon? Could I trust Ali? Who would I call to ask questions? Should I look up the vin number? Should I bargain more? I got quite anxious and did battle with these questions for two days, asking friends and getting contradictory views about what to do. One of my friends came to view the car and said he liked the deal so that was reassuring.

But finally I sat down, prayed and pared the whole situation down to some basic facts. 1-I realized that if something was wrong with this car Ali’s reputation as a business owner was on the line. 2- I decided that the trust relationship I’d had with Ali for eleven years was worth believing in. 3-I affirmed that this event really did feel like a gift from God. In fact, God assured me that it was. So I asked Ali if he was willing to take the car back in thirty days if it was flawed and to buy it back if it was a lemon. He agreed.

I surmised what this car might have been through and what may have happened to the previous owner. It could have been a reclaim for financial purposes, or involved in drugs or even prostitution. Whatever the reason the car was repossessed I invited the previous owner to be restored and I did a blessing on the whole car.  I had an image of this car as an angel in my life and decided to name it Amelia, my black angel. I accept this car now as a grace filled gift from God.

The best confirmation of all that this car was meant for me was the joy I felt the day I picked up my new car and saw the new license plates. I just chuckled. My two initials, JH, were on the license plate. Just God, playing another nice little cosmic joke.

ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2012. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

What were your family’s most highly valued material possessions when you were growing up?

What memories do you have of those things for you personally?

How is God involved in the big decisions of your life in obvious or hidden ways?

Who do you choose to trust? Why?

What little confirmations do you receive that make you smile or feel comforted?

Animals as Angels

Humans have had special relationships with animals for a long time. Some good. Some not so good. In Biblical lore there was the divisive talking snake in Eden, all the plagues in Egypt, and the big fish Jonah encountered. On the positive side there was the warning from the talking donkey, the bird scout who returned with the olive branch after the flood, the dove that showed up for Jesus’ baptism and the image Jesus used of a mother hen with her chicks to depict his love for Jerusalem.

Many of us have special relationships with animals. Domesticated animals like birds, dogs, cats, horses, cows, sheep. Our pets are very significant to us. People in senior housing do better when there are pets around. Even the pets do better when people are around. Horses and dogs are used as therapy animals because of their ability to read people’s moods. Cows are healthier when they have personal names and are loved. What is it about pets that is so important to us that when they die, it is like losing a family member? Is it love, companionship, protection, something to care for, a forgiving presence? Maybe all of the above. One of the most important things we get from pets, I think, is loving attention and touch. Our pets love to be touched and to touch us in return—contact with another living being. We are starved in our culture for non-sexual loving touch. Pretty simple. Pretty core.

Then there are the contacts and relationships we have with wild animals. These contacts are even more intriguing because they are more mysterious and seemingly happenstance. When people are willing to talk about these experiences a lot of soothing stories emerge. One friend, whose daughter Robin died young, encountered a robin at her daughter’s gravesite nearly every time she visited. Another friend who had breast cancer, and who had as her personal story the image that she was emerging from a cocoon, watched as a butterfly landed on her shoulder and stayed for forty-five minutes only to brush her cheek as it flew off.

I have had a lot of memorable contacts with birds. On the anniversary of my co-author’s death a bird sat on my shoulder for thirty minutes. Then a few years later when I was arriving to teach our material at a venue that made me anxious, another bird came and sat on a friend’s hand just a few inches away from me and looked at me for a full minute. Another time when I was on retreat and was making a difficult decision I encountered an owl in the wild for the first time and we just watched one another for about twenty minutes. Coincidences? Could be.

I know this is more spiritual than rational but I like to think that these unusual experiences with animals are little angel appearances. In scripture angels come to deliver messages, to warn, to comfort, to challenge and to call. Women who were powerless in those cultures heard some of the most revered messages. Hagar, Hannah and Mary are good examples. They were all called to be courageous and to enter into a new way of life. Their stories still inspire us.

So our animal contacts, if we think of them as angel appearances, can bring more meaning to the encounter. I’d like to think that the robin in the cemetery is a personal sign of comfort for my friend in the loss of her daughter. I felt the presence of my co-author with both bird experiences. As I walked into that new venue to teach I was calmer and more prepared, knowing he was with me. We’ve all heard other more amazing stories about contacts with porpoises, eagles, owls, and turtles that defy conventional wisdom.

What about the domesticated pet encounters as angel presences? This may seem far fetched but let’s explore it anyway. Take my cat, Mr. Nelson. He, like many other cats, has an uncanny sense of me and other people. He picks up my moods and acts accordingly. When I am sad or grieving he sits on my lap in a certain way so his warm tummy is in contact with mine. It is amazingly comforting to have a pet sit so close to me when I am sad. In the morning during my prayer time, he normally jumps in my lap and eventually rolls over on his back so I will rub his chin, neck and tummy while he purrs. Soon he’s asleep with his soft snoring. Bliss.

But on those days that I am a bit tense, he either doesn’t turn over on his back or he doesn’t even sit in my lap. So now I can measure how calm I am by whether he jumps into my lap, turns over, or does all that and falls asleep. He’s like a barometer for me and he is so honest. He never pretends to be or feel anything other than what he is, so I can trust that. He seems like an angel presence to me, comforting me but also helping me to monitor my moods and get back on track. Each time he comes near my chair, he looks into my eyes and scans them to see what my mood is. It feels as if he is looking right into my soul.

Speaking of looking into people’s souls, when I have clients at my home I can gain additional perspective on their level of anxiety by the way in which Mr. Nelson reacts to their presence. If he just sits next to me on the sofa or on a chair or in another room, it is a sign of calm. But if he noses around them or even nips at their feet, it is a sign to me of their inner stress. I just escort him into another room and take in this information so I can be more compassionate with my client. The same holds true for me. If I am too stressed or wound up or busy he will turn into a warning cat or will even get nippy with me. Sometimes when I’ve been on my computer too long, he will even jump up and sit right on the keyboard so I can’t type any more. I know then, that it’s time to take a break, maybe even follow him to the sunniest spot in the house (all cats know where the sunniest spot in the house is) and take a catnap with him.

Perhaps these deep encounters with pets are simply God’s ways of continually comforting us so we feel connected and loved. That would be enough. But to me a cat’s purr sounds like an angel hummingJ

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

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a pet that you felt knew you at a deep level?

How did your pet affect you?

What encounters have you had with “wild” animals?

When have you felt there was a more-than-coincidence factor with a wild animal?

How do you encounter angels or God’s presence in any of these encounters?

God’s Joke: the Vanishing Cemetery Plot

Several years after my divorce was completed, I realized that my ex husband and I had not settled the issue of our cemetery cremation plots. Having forgotten this, I had even offered the other half of my cremation site to a Ugandan refugee friend who had no money and no burial plans.

As part of my inner journey at the time, I was practicing the art of letting go, gracefully, of things I did not need or want any more, or that I was clinging to. Lots of things had already left my life, I had reduced my expenses significantly and I was beginning to practice living more consciously. This process of letting go brought up a lot of old memories that I needed to either celebrate or heal. It also allowed me to live more simply without feeling diminished. So I knew that there was wisdom in letting go and in living smaller.

But when the cremation plot issue arose, I got frightened. A cremation plot seemed a necessity and the cost of buying half of it back was prohibitive. I checked the costs of a new site and they were four times what we had paid. I simply could not afford it. I needed wise discernment on this decision. It felt big to me, almost foundational. I needed to make a good decision so I prayed, wrote in my journal and listened carefully to God’s direction.

In a graced moment that could only be God speaking to me, I received an idea, a small plan, that I felt would free me from the fear and provide me a way to the future. I needed to let go of my fear of not having a place to rest after I died. I knew the plan was right the moment it came to me. I would be cremated but have my ashes scattered in a place that was meaningful for me. I could then release my cremation site to my ex husband if he wanted to buy it from me. God transformed my fear into generosity and I offered to sell him my half for a low price if he would include a stipend for my refugee friend. I presented him with the options. He agreed to buy me out and the case was closed.

Or so I thought. But God was not done yet.

Several months later I heard about someone who had given her body for medical research. I remembered a dear friend of mine who had done the same thing. He even worked with the undertaker to have an athletic supporter put on his body that said, “Go Hawks,” the name of the mascot of the university he chose for his bequest. I chuckled when I remembered this story.

I pondered this bequest and called the University of Minnesota to see what the process entailed. I even told the story of my friend’s bequest to the man who was in charge of this process at the university. He chuckled too. I asked if I could do something similar, like have a silk scarf with the university logo on it put around my neck. He said he thought that would be fine. So I sent for the forms and kept praying about this donation as an option, as a way to keep on giving after my death. I was already an organ donor so I thought, “Why not give my whole body?” As I pondered this choice, it felt better all the time and I was deeply satisfied with my decision.

The day the forms arrived from the university, I sat down to read through the details and the alternatives. One of the issues was what to do with my body when the university medical school was finished with it. I knew they would pay for the cremation but would I just have them give my ashes to my friends to scatter them in a meaningful place? As I read the four options proposed by the university, one read like this: The university will, upon request from the donor, put the ashes in a special plot for all donors with an appropriate marker of gratitude at Lakewood Cemetery.

I began to chuckle. I knew this was God’s doing, God’s way of joking with me. It had to be. Lakewood Cemetery was the very cemetery I had just relinquished to my ex husband as my final resting place. Now it could, once again, be my final resting place. Not only was it free but it held more meaning and humor for me than it had before. And I would be totally disentangled from the cremation site that had become so complicated. This new site felt like a whole, healed place for me. I completed the paper work and got a silk scarf with little insignias of Goldie, the golden gopher, mascot of the university, running all over the scarf. I sent it all in to the university and now I cannot help thinking about those medical students who open the bag and have a reason to chuckle.

God’s humor is so imaginative.

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

Reflections on this essay

When have you been surprised or frightened by some unfinished business that could affect you adversely?

How did you step back and bring some calm or perspective to the situation that helped you cope?

What new insights came to the situation?

What humor was involved in the solution?

How do you experience God’s sense of humor?

It’s Nothing to Worry About But…

Have you ever sat in your doctor’s office and heard her say, ”Well, I don’t think you need to worry about this, but I’d like you to see a surgeon.” (Or take another Xray or go to a specialist). In my head when I hear the work “but” alarms go off, fear leaps in and I begin planning for my funeral. I can fast forward in a nanosecond to the ultimate conclusion that I am dying.

I think we have a monumental fear of death in our culture—so much so that we spend millions of dollars on prevention, then billions more on feats of technological wizardry to cure whatever ails us. Our once firm faith can fly out the window as soon as someone we pray for to be cured dies instead. Why is this?

For one thing, death is not considered normal any more. We often put dying people away somewhere and we rarely have dead bodies lying in our living rooms for reviewals as in years gone past. Another reason we fear death is that the process has shifted from a spiritual realm to the realm of medicine and technology. It almost seems like a technological failure when a person dies, despite the fact that we all die. We even have health care directives to protect ourselves, in some cases, from too much medicine and to let our own final wishes be known. I heard a sobering but intriguing way to think about death in a  sermon recently in which the pastor said that fear of death may indicate that, ultimately, we may not take our faith or spiritual seriously. This is very challenging for me to hear but he added that if we could conceive of our death as the spiritual end of a satisfying and healed life and a reunion with our God, it would make for a different death experience.

I’m not saying these things to indicate that I have this all worked out. I get scared, just like everyone else, when I have a serious health scare. But I have learned that it all works out better if I bring my fear to God and ask God to show me how to proceed. I also ask for God’s clear presence with me so I can be fully present and not live in so much fear.

I had an example of God’s presence—and God’s droll humor—a few years ago in what, to me, was a medical scare. In a routine physical my doctor noticed that one of my ovaries was larger than the other. She grew immediately concerned but shielded me by saying, “It’s nothing to worry about BUT I’d like you to have an internal ultrasound.” I told her I had had surgery on my ovary and had some of it removed but she seemed not to hear me. I knew that her mother had just died at a young age and I supposed she was being overly cautious but I agreed to go for the test. Even with these facts I got scared that something bad was happening in my body.

I went home, made the appointment and began praying into my fear. I looked at what this could mean, what the message was, and what I was being taught by this experience. I was learning to trust God and to listen to my own truth from my body—that nothing was wrong. God told me clearly that Jesus would accompany me the whole way through this process and I would be OK no matter what.

When I got to the lab I met the gentleman who would be doing the procedure. As we met I could tell he was Hispanic and he said he was from Spain. During this uncomfortable procedure we talked about Spain, where I had spent time and we talked of his family. At the end of the procedure he was kind enough to tell me that he could tell that part of one ovary had been removed but he could see no further issues. I breathed a sigh of relief that I did not have to wait a few more days to find that out.

I told him I had brought some chocolate to give him if the procedure was done with as little discomfort as possible. He said “thanks” and that I could leave the chocolate at the front desk for him. When I asked his name he said it was Jesus (pronounced Hey-sous). I chuckled inside because it was now clear that God had done exactly what he had promised—had Jesus accompany me the whole way through this process.

It seems to me that whenever I get scared because of an illness or fearful about  my end-of-life process it reveals that there are still issues “under the rug” for me to embrace. In this case, trusting God with the whole process no matter what the outcome. And if I had not addressed my fear with God I would have missed God’s assurance of Jesus’ presence—and I certainly would have missed the humor of my Spanish tech Jesus.

By facing into each fear or issue more fully, with God’s help I feel life becomes fuller and freer. Our lives are in God’s hands anyway so whatever happens we know God is present and is accompanying us along the way, not always rescuing us or giving us all that we want, but holding us and loving us and those we love in all circumstances. This holy presence also helps us make courageous and wise choices, not out of fear but out of hope and love.

And I believe this deep intimate faith, accompanied by friends and supporters who are not afraid of death, help us deal with our health issues as an integral part of our spiritual journey—so we can both live and die well.

ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2011. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you had a medical scare that you turned over to God?

How did God appear in your situation?

What did you learn from the experience about you and about God?

How do you view your end-of-life from a spiritual perspective?

How does your medical team respond to your faith?

How do you sense God helping you discern different medical choices?

 

 

A Reluctant Healer: Please Don’t Do That To Me Again

Recently I received an email from a woman who said she would like to see me in spiritual direction because she was at the “wall.” She had read my book in which I described the wall and she identified strongly with it. I have committed to working primarily with people at the wall so I told her I would pray about her request and get back to her. The wall is a difficult but holy place in which we come face to face with God’s deep healing power and the release of all that has separated us from God. It is a dark and lonely place at times but it is precisely in this dark place that we are most likely to find God.

As I prayed about seeing this woman, God gave me a strong yes to her request and added, almost as an after thought, “And I want you to wash her feet.” I said “What? I’ve never done that before.” I figured it must be a metaphor. I shrugged it off, and emailed the woman to set up an appointment.

When she arrived she was grateful for my willingness to see her and sincere in her desire to heal. She was ready to engage with the wall, to find God’s healing there and to do whatever it took to move with God’s spirit and call in her life. I sensed early in our session that we would work well together.

Even so, her story of childhood abuse, at the hands of her older brother and his friends, for ten years was horrendous. She had already done a lot of therapeutic work on the abuse so she could talk about it coherently but it was still deeply sobering. We both cried for her lost childhood. She even had an understanding of why her brother was so calloused. He was born in the midst of her mother’s deep depression following the loss of twin babies and he and his mother never bonded. This did not excuse him but helped my client understand that the abuse was not her fault.

She related a few distinct memories to me, which have stayed with her. One was of Jesus appearing to her while she lay crying between some hay bales in the barn, after one of the abusive episodes. Jesus said she could come home with him then, or if she chose to stay here, he would give her meaningful work in her career that would arise out of her pain. She chose to stay. Jesus fulfilled his promise to her.

The other memory was more difficult. When she was ten she needed to have foot surgery or she would be unable to walk. Her brother told her he heard their parents saying the medical costs of her care were too high so they were going to have the surgeon cut off her feet. She was petrified. During surgery she either woke up or imagined she heard a saw cutting off her feet. The moment she awoke from surgery she checked to see if her toes were still there. They were. But the memory is encased in her cells. Every time a friend has any foot problems, she quickly checks to make sure their toes are in tact. As I heard this story about her feet, you can imagine what I was thinking! God already knew her story and was preparing me in advance for my part in the healing. At the end of our session I told her the story of what God had told me to do with her—wash her feet. Heal her memories. We both cried over the loving and healing potential of our work together. And I asked her to tell me when she was ready for me to wash her feet. I was grateful and, honestly, a bit dazed by the holiness of it.

This experience reminded me of a story that the great preacher, George Buttrick, told of a routine visit he made to a woman in the hospital at the end of a busy and tiring day. He wanted to see her, get out, and get home. As he spoke with her and asked about her health she asked him to pray for her. He uttered what he thought was a perfunctory prayer and was ready to leave. But she restrained him, ”Pastor, I’m feeling better already. Yes, I’m feeling so good I want to get out of bed.” She got out of bed and began walking around her room. “Pastor,” she said, “I believe I’ve just been healed. Oh, I’m so grateful. Thank you Pastor, thank you.”

Buttrick left her in this ray of gratitude, went out to his car, sat in the driver’s seat and said to God, “Please, don’t do that to me again.”

As miraculous as both of these stories seem, mine with my client and Buttrick’s with his parishioner, I have to admit I felt a bit like Buttrick did. As grateful as I was, and as amazing as it felt to me to be a bit of God’s grace in the world, I shy away from that kind of holy power. I believe in the power of God’s spirit but I have never sought out any training to be a healer. And I have memories of the faith healers on television in my childhood that were deemed pretty strange but very intriguing at the same time. At a deeper level I also suspect that I do not feel worthy to be used by God in this way. Yet, even though I don’t understand it, since it defies logic, I still long to be so open to God that God can use me in some healing way.

I don’t want to get in God’s way but I also don’t want to be a source of attraction as a result of my gifts. As one of my friends said, following a successful program he had orchestrated, “It’s nice to be liked but I hate to be the rage.” Besides it’s all mystery; how God works, when God works and through whom God works. So I guess I am a reluctant but obedient servant of God’s healing power when God chooses to use me in a healing way. Henri Nouwen would likely call me a wounded healer. I like that because it allows me to stand under the same fountain of grace as those I serve—and we all get soaked together.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved. (My client granted me permission to tell her story, and we did do the foot washing several months later. It was a holy act and God was fully present.)

Reflections on this essay
When have you had an experience of God that seemed miraculous or that defied logic?

Did it happen during a time of joy or sorrow and was that a factor for you?

How did the experience effect how you perceive yourself?

How did the experience effect how you perceive God?

How do you feel about having greater intimacy with God that these experiences may engender in you?

                                         Is This God, or What?

I read a book recently about how science is beginning to decipher some of the mysterious happening in our lives. Mystery is usually left in the realm of faith but with more scientists and quantum physicists acknowledging a Master Mind, the interest in this non-linear world is increasing. Still, though, there does not seem to be unequivocal proof of something beyond us. However, no one can disprove it either. I’m intrigued by these studies but in the end, my relationship with God does not rest on what others can prove or disprove. It depends on my lived experience of the intimacy, love and power of God and the subsequent transformation of my life as a result. Interestingly, others agree. The author notes that a lot of us—more than 50%–have had at least one miraculous experience of a presence beyond us. She starts the book with this quote from Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

What if you slept? And what if, in your sleep you dreamed? And what if, in your dream, you went to heaven and plucked a strange and beautiful flower! And what if, when you awoke, you had the flower in your hand? Ah, what then?

I think of God as big–transcendent–as well as close and intimate–imminent. At times these two characteristics of God come together in wonderful, strange, humorous or even frightening ways. But most people never talk about these amazing occurrences even though they are apparently quite common.

Here is a sampling of these experiences that friends have shared with me.

• One friend experienced a spot of blue/white light in her bedroom one night that moved around the room and came from no identified source but offered her a deep kind of calm.

• Another person mentioned that, during a time of great unrest in her soul about what her calling was, she saw the word SING spelled out in the clouds. Her husband saw it too. She took it to mean that she had to find her voice in whatever her next career would be.

• A friend with cancer visited her oncologist’s office and saw a heavenly figure standing in the corner of the office soothing her in this time of stress.

• A colleague, after making a difficult decision about his housing, felt strong confirmation from a hawk that flew under his deck to his office window and sat there looking at him from a distance of about two feet. When he looked up the symbol of the hawk in a spiritual book, it suggested that hawks represent God’s grace.

• A woman sitting in the woods one day felt an overwhelming sense that everything in life; plants, people and animals are all deeply interconnected.

• A male friend was in the path of an out-of-control vehicle that should have hit him and all he remembers is that some non-human force pushed him out of the way so he was not even touched by the car.

• A woman friend was stranded in an unfamiliar place with a broken bike. A small garden shop owner helped her in exceptionally generous ways, even driving her across town to a bike shop. When she stopped to thank him, he just said, “Isn’t that what we’re all here for?” She felt quite strongly that he was an angel.

• And when my mother died at a young age, her spirit appeared to me to give me a guide for my life, a figure from a scripture story that was meaningful for me. That spiritual guide is still with me and gives me comfort and guidance.

I hope that you will add your own story to this listing, since 50% of you (or more in this group!) have a story to tell…

If so many people have these experiences, why don’t we talk about them more often? When someone is about to tell me one of these stories they usually say, “Well, I wouldn’t say this in public,” or “this may sound really strange to you.” Yes, these stories sound strange, maybe even irrational, but ultimately they feel undeniably spiritual—and intimate. Perhaps that is why we shy away from sharing them. So why do they happen and what can we do with them?

My experience is that these mysterious experiences are God’s way of breaking through barriers of time and space to speak directly to our hearts and souls. Since it is soul communication, it can’t be proven or disproven. The experiences bring about comfort or affirmation for some, while for others they are a way of capturing their attention, to call them to a more intimate relationship with God. For others, the experiences could even be a caution about a path they are on that may not be healthy. Sometimes these experiences are just God’s way of reminding us that God is here among us.

We can enter into an intellectual debate about these experiences but if we do, we may miss out on the grace of the experience, which is to TOUCH us in our deepest places. So when any of these experiences happen, stop, and be aware. Be grateful. Take it in. Let yourself be touched by God. Listen for deeper messages—you are loved, you are remembered, you matter to God. Ultimately God desires us to come closer, to be more vulnerable.

And if you are willing to answer the call to go deeper, just ask God to visit you again…

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2010. All rights reserved.
The book mentioned in this essay is Fingerprints of God, by Barbara Bradley Hagerty.

Reflections on this essay
What is the battle that goes on in you between the rational and the mysterious happenings in life?

How do you respond to Coleridge’s poem?

When have you had a mysterious unexplainable experience?

If this was the presence of God in your life, what difference did it make?

How do you allow God to touch you now?

What goes through your mind when you consider asking God to visit you again?

God is Enough

This essay is from Sally Manhard, a friend and guest blogger. A few weeks ago she came up to me at church to tell me this story and I asked her to write it so I could share it with you. I’m overjoyed to hear these stories of how God works in our lives when we open our hearts to hear and see that God is enough…

 

God is alive and active in our lives.  My husband and I have just returned from six months in Niamey, Niger, West Africa.  I would like to tell you how our going to Niger happened and share a great story of God speaking to our lives.

Elgin and I like to get out of Minnesota in the winter 🙂 so in February 2011 we travelled to Florida where it is warmer – and where there are wonderful state parks for us to stay in our camper van – our home away from home.

Because we left in February we were missing an important faith time for us – Lent.  Much to our delight we discovered that Janet Hagberg was doing an online Lenten devotional that we could participate in.  Her theme was “God is Enough” – based on the life and ministry of Teresa of Avila.

For several years now we have used our camper van time as a chance for us to process and plan pieces of our life.  In 2011 we were discussing how we wanted to celebrate 50 years of marriage in July 2012.  That got us reflecting on our life and experiences we had shared that had deepened our faith and our marriage.  We were wishing God would “call” us to something that would show us more of his activity in our lives.  We thought that would be a great way to celebrate our 50 years.

The next day God answered our prayer with an email from Wycliffe Associates about upcoming volunteer opportunities!  So we decided to see what was available and thus we started our faith journey of “following Jesus” to Africa.

Because this “call” of God’s was filled with so many unknowns, we decided to use Janet’s theme – God is Enough – as our guide.  I must say I wasn’t all that sure what “God is Enough” meant but it felt like this might be one of those times when our usual way of living life would change and we would be looking for and depending on God’s presence and help.

You must appreciate God’s sense of humor here, calling two “older” adults to one of the hottest, poorest countries on earth. The job description said we needed to speak French, so we spent the summer on Rosetta Stone. We appreciate Rosetta Stone as a great language tool but it did not make us fluent in French.  Even this did not deter God, who didn’t disqualify us even though we were old and we couldn’t speak French.  Without the language, though, our job choices changed and we were left with the option of “undefined jobs.”

In some ways the undefined work and the lack of French were gifts because we decided we were working for God and that meant we would do – whatever!  And “whatever” is what we did – much of it unimportant busy work – but in the process we developed some endearing relationships and experiences that were priceless.  Not knowing exactly what any day was going to look like left us open, and dependent on God for “direction.”

The learning in this for us was that God is enough!  What that meant for us was that God does provide – often through others- but only enough for a short time – which kept us looking to Him each day for those six months of our lives.

This is so different from our life in Minnesota where we have a tendency to take charge of our own lives, because we think we know what we need.  In Niamey we didn’t always know what we needed but God must have known because he provided and kept providing – enough manna for each day.

With God’s presence and provision, Niamey, Niger was a wonderful faith growing experience for us.  God wanted to be sure we understood, it was He who was providing for us.

The next part of the story shows how this amazing God was even more deeply active in our lives. Our church in Niamey was the Niamey English Worship Service. On our last Sunday before we came back to the United States the speaker talked about growing through dark or difficult times and to illustrate how growing through hard times is actually a way faith grows, he put up a slide taken from the book The Critical Journey, co-authored by – you guessed it – Janet Hagberg and Robert Guelich!  By having Janet at the beginning of this journey and then again at the end, we believe God was saying, “I was with you as you began this journey, I’ve been with you the whole time, and now I’m showing you that I’m still with you!”

We are very grateful for all the ways we saw God in Africa.  But knowing that God would provide a companion like Janet to remind us He was with us, was a special way of God showing us that He is alive and active in our lives.

 

Reflections on this essay:

When have you prayed and experienced an invitation shortly afterwards?

When has God asked you to go forward even though you weren’t exactly qualified?

How do you experience God as “enough?”

How does God provide for your everyday needs and your heart’s desires even when you don’t know exactly what they are?

What companions has God sent along on your journey to remind you of God’s presence?

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