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Heaven or Heavenly?

 Reflections on Near Death Experiences

and the Afterlife



Let not your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? John 14: 1-2


Paul: I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven–whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. And I know this man was caught up into Paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows–and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 2 Cor. 12: 2-4


Jesus withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed…And there appeared to him an angel from heaven, strengthening him. Luke 22:42, 43


For behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. Is 65:17 RSV Also Rev. 21:1


For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any thing else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Rom 8:38


What about the mysteries of heaven, angels and the afterlife?

These verses above have been mysterious and inspiring verses for me, some since my childhood, before I understood anything about their meaning. Not that I know that much more now, but at least I’ve had a few more years to reflect on them and experience a bit more of life and God.


I’ve wondered and desired and doubted and anguished over heaven, hell and the afterlife on and off and have not had the courage nor the academic training to take this journey more seriously. And there are so many scary and threatening scenarios in the Bible about the afterlife that I’ve shied away from looking at it more closely. Just hearing about the weeping and gnashing of teeth or seeing the painting of hell in the Sistine chapel (where Michelangelo painted his arch rival writhing in hell) are scary enough to make me want to run the other way.


Yet when I read scripture passages like the heavenly angels appearing to comfort Jesus in his agony, I pause. I’ve been there too, where angels attended to me. Yet these passages are all so mystical that we usually skip over them because we are either too modern to take them literally or we see them as just part of that great poetic and visual scene-making that makes scripture so beautiful; the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, Jesus promising the man hanging on the cross next to him that he would be with him in paradise that day, the angels soothing the shepherds, scenes about streets paved with gold and places being prepared for us, personal angels negotiating conflict situations with other people’s angels in the book of Daniel.


So let’s ask a few evocative questions…what if there were times that our spirits were actually drawn beyond the veil between earth and heaven to catch a glimpse of the eternal as Paul described in Corinthians? Or what if Jesus had described heavenly things in detail as suggested in John 3:12, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” Or what if people do come back from the dead, as Lazarus and several others did? What then? What would we fear? How would we live our lives differently? What would we believe? Who would we believe in?


Do these experiences describe realities of heaven or are they merely heavenly? And what do we do with all this information– what difference might it make in our daily lives?


We are not alone in our pondering of the sacred unknown. Albert Einstein was aware of something way beyond himself, of the mysterious. He states in his credo: “The most beautiful and deepest experience a man can have is the sense of the mysterious…To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and simplicity are but a feeble reflection…To me it suffices to wonder at the secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”



My personal interest in angels, near death experiences and the afterlife

Ever since I decided to take my relationship with God more seriously and personally, and I began having deeper spiritual experiences of God’s presence and love, I’ve gotten more interested in the things of heaven, intimacy with God and the afterlife.


I’m also interested in angels, near death experiences and the afterlife in my role as a spiritual director and healer, or maybe especially in those roles, since whatever you believe about these things makes a big difference in how you live your life, how you view your death, and what kinds of decisions you make. It’s been a gift from God for me to be present to people who are in crisis, making big transitions, hitting the “wall,” or dying, and moving into the afterlife where, I believe, God dwells so richly. To be fully present to my friends and clients who are experiencing these things, it is vital that I have opened my heart and mind to what is happening on a spiritual plane as well as on a physical one. I seek to be present with as little fear as possible but rather with joy and awe. This allows me to stay grounded and be a calm presence to others.



So what about these near death experiences and the afterlife?

I had a chance to soak in the latest research on near death experiences at a class put on by my spiritual mentor and former supervisor, Matt Linn, SJ, a longtime healer, respected Jesuit and author of more than 20 books on healing and the inner life. He travels around the world, teaching and doing healing work, taking absolutely no credit whatsoever for the healing results; it is all God pouring love and light through him to people.


Whenever I hear of someone experiencing the unfathomable I want to learn more. And Matt was offering information from people in the scientific community as well as in the spiritual world. Scientific people, by nature and training, are more skeptical so I figured if they were writing about near death experiences there must be more validation and credibility than I’ve heard before.


And then, as I heard Matt describing near death experiences, I came to realize that the things he was describing were very familiar to me. So I asked him if it was possible to have an emotional near death experience and he confirmed that it was. I believe God was present to me during my experience, transforming my life as a result. Perhaps that’s another reason this research is so important to me.


I only have space here to touch on the highlights of Matt’s talk but I hope this raises enough curiosity, wonder and perhaps even push-back in you to warrant further investigation. His sources of research are listed at the end of this essay.


Let’s start by calming down and praying for wisdom, discernment, guidance—and perhaps a few angels to accompany us on this journey! Let’s ask God for his truth, his ever-deepening call to intimacy with Him. Let’s open our hearts to Jesus’ love. BTW, I’m not claiming to be objective. I’ve had too many personal and client experiences to claim that, but I’m willing to continue being on the journey, especially as a result of my experiences.


What are some common experiences for people who’ve experienced a near death experience (NDE) whether emotional or physical? There are roughly 600 NDEs a day now, according to the research.


*A feeling of peace and quiet; pain is gone

*The awareness of being dead, an out-of-body experience, viewing themselves or the situation from a position outside and above their bodies

*A dark space and being pulled towards a pinpoint of light, described as a tunnel where they are drawn rapidly towards the light. About 15% of people report this as frightening.

*An unearthly environment, dazzling landscape, with beautiful colors, music, gorgeous flowers

*Meeting and communicating with deceased people, mostly relatives

*Seeing brilliant light, or a being of light, complete acceptance, unconditional love, access to deep knowledge and wisdom

*A panoramic life review, seeing their entire life flash before them, and the capacity to talk for days about a life event that lasted for only a few minutes.

*A flash-forward, giving the impression that they are witness to part of life that is yet to come.

*The perception of a border to cross and if they cross it they will never be able to return to their body.

*The conscious return to the body, accompanied by great disappointment at having something so beautiful taken away.


David Sunfellow describes a few other take-aways from an NDE: God is intensely personal, actively involved in our lives. God is overwhelmingly loving, forgiving and compassionate, and also has a wonderful sense of humor. Many perceive oneness with God, as with everything else. We are all eternal. No one is ever lost. Our true nature begins to reveal itself again. The purpose of life is to love, to bring heaven to earth.


He noted a few other truths that people with NDEs experienced: that a kind word, a tender smile, and a gentle touch are important acts of life and that money, fame, power, material goods, and ego are painful wastes of time. We were all born with a specific purpose to accomplish. All aspects of life are good—even the distressing aspects. Everything serves a glorious purpose.



The astounding and transforming experience of the life review

The most astonishing finding for me was the often-cited life review. Details of it were described, that it was very intense, that our entire lives passed before our eyes slowly, and we had to feel everything that happened, to relive it. It was not a judgment, but parts of it were painful. The revelations are true and revealing, some are even glorious. And when it was over, it was over. No punishment beyond feeling those difficult feelings, no retribution, no hell or fear of hell.


Now that is astounding. It’s almost scary to mention it because it goes so much against the grain of what I and most others have been taught—and what, ostensibly, helped keep people in line for two millennia now. Could it actually be true?


I will leave this essay at this point and revisit this life review idea in my next essay called “Hell or Hellish?”


So is it Heaven or just heavenly? You decide.



Janet O. Hagberg, 2015, all rights reserved.

I did not cite the work of Dr. Eben Alexander in this essay but his work on the near death experience he had, is quite compelling. His book is called Proof of Heaven. He was a very skeptical agnostic neurosurgeon who got meningitis and was “gone” for about a week. His experience of the afterlife could not be attributed to any medication or treatment-induced hallucinations which is how some of these experiences are written off by the medical community. He even had an experience of the core of heaven and describes it as well as he can, using ordinary language. I’d recommend reading his book or listening to his CD.



Reflections on this essay:

What do you remember from what you learned as a child about heaven, death and the afterlife?


How does it affect you now? What feelings emerge from those teachings?


How does your current image of God reinforce or challenge those teachings?


What questions do you have now about heaven or heavenly things?




Chris Carter, Science and the Near-Death Experience: How Consciousness Survives Death.2010.

Jeffrey Long, Evidence of the Afterlife: the Science of Near-Death Experiences, 2010.

Raymond Moody, Glimpses of Eternity: Sharing a Loved One’s Passage from ths Life to the Next, 2010.

Anita Moorjani, Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to near Death, to True Healing, 2012.

Kenneth Ring, Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience, 2006.

Pim van Lommel, Consciousness Beyond Life: The Science of the Near-death Experience, 2010.


Web sites: Dr. Jeffrey and Jody Long’s site, summarizing their research. Included thousands of NDE. Kevin William’s site, summarizing the research on major NDE topics International Association of Near-Death Studies Index to NDE Literature, 1877-2011.



A few well known people in history who had a near death experience and write about it: Julian of Norwich 1373, St. Catherine of Sienna 1370, John Newman, 1833.

What is Church? Why Church?

Three essays have come my way that all mention AA/Al Anon as church so I share them all at once. Hmmmm. 

This essay is by Chelsea Forbrook, a thirty-year-old who is an “old soul.” She has been thoughtful about her spiritual journey for several years and has taught workshops with me on “Becoming a Whole Woman” and “Spirituality and Sexuality” at a church we both attend on the North Side of Mpls. 

What is Church: A Place of Radical Hospitality

When I think about the spaces that feel the most sacred to me, they are intentional places and times when people meet together to practice love, acceptance, vulnerability and trust; a place where friendship is genuine and hope in humanity is restored. Part of this hope in humanity is restoring hope for myself. When I find myself in intentionally loving circles, I see that I too have something beautiful to contribute to the process, that I can learn, and encourage others to be their best selves, even as I am trying to discover what that looks like for myself. The following are a few examples of where I experience this.

Last December, I was breaking up with my partner whom I loved dearly, due to their active alcoholism, which was leading to a complete sense of insanity within me. I was crushed, defeated, heartbroken, and panic-stricken. Feeling like a failure, and with nowhere else to turn, I walked through the doors of an Al Anon meeting on Christmas Eve. I was terrified, not knowing anyone, and not even sure the meeting would still be held on this holiday. Three faithful people were gathered in the dingy church basement, waiting, it seemed, just for me. I broke down and cried, and they just let me talk without judgment. They offered their words of courage, strength, and hope based on their similar experiences with alcoholism in their families. They hugged me, connected me to resources, made me laugh. I knew I had landed safely in God’s lap. I was home. They joked about being the only “heathens” in the group because they didn’t celebrate Christmas, but to me, they were the compassionate hands and feet of Jesus, and they truly saved me that night.

Another place I experience complete acceptance is through my amazing group of friends. From the first moment my friend Ryan invited me over to his house to meet all his housemates, I knew I had found my new family. They weren’t exclusive, and immediately made me feel valued and welcome. The first thing they all asked me was not “where do you work?” but instead, “what are you passionate about?” This caught me a bit off guard, but it spurred a lively conversation that is still continuing to this day. There are no prerequisites or qualifications to be included in this friend group, no certain style of dress or ideology which to ascribe. Everyone is intensely unique, and we cheer each other on in our pursuits and beliefs. Within this large network of friends, I am one of only two self-identified Christians. Everyone else is deeply spiritual, and we learn from each other and are curious about each other’s experience and beliefs. We have found that while our religious affiliations are different, our values are the same, the most important being radical hospitality. This means we welcome and integrate everyone who comes through the door, and we welcome all parts of ourselves and others, even the ugly or embarrassing parts, or the times when we make mistakes or are in a bad mood.

The other place where I find Church is at church (surprise!). I oftentimes struggle with the Church because it has a history (and current reality) of being judgmental and exclusive, of prescribing morality and certain lifestyles as a one-size-fits-all model that is damaging to those of us who don’t find ourselves within this small window. Luckily, I have found a church that truly welcomes everyone. Much of the time, I feel like I don’t need Sunday morning worship, because my spiritual needs are met through other means. But there is something unique about gathering together in a group around a common ritual. I don’t even feel it is a common belief that we share, because I know that the theologies represented in the congregation are scattered across a spectrum. For me, that’s ok. It’s the Spirit in that space that matters. It’s singing the familiar songs that get me so choked up that I can no longer sing. It’s knowing that my pastor knows me and loves me, despite my eclectic and radical theology. It’s taking the bread and wine and knowing that my Best Friend is with me. It’s saying the confession, not as a precaution against hell, but as a deterrent to my self-righteousness and in solidarity with all of a suffering humanity. It’s seeing my friends, and also some annoying people, and committing to be in relationship with them all. It’s having an opportunity to work as a collective force against societal injustices. This type of Church is a great and powerful Mystery.

The last place I find Church is in meditation. It is here that I enter into relationship with my inner being and have an opportunity to practice loving and accepting myself. Just like the radical hospitality practiced in my Al Anon group, my friend group, and my church, sitting in mindful meditation is sometimes difficult. At first glance, there are unwelcome visitors (thoughts based on selfishness, fear, or cruelty), but when I take the time to get to know them, they all have a lesson to teach. There is a house in my heart built for My Friend, and when I dive into intentional contact with my inner self, it is a deeper relationship with God that I find, a God who loves me unconditionally.



This essay is by Rev. Dr. Keith Meyer, a long-term pastor, author and pastor to pastors. He has served in mega churches and small parishes. His heart is all about stretching himself and his flock to be more radical in their love for God and neighbor.


What is Church? Why Church?

I have more of an idea of what church isn’t – but after 36 years of being a pastor or attendee of 6 churches and everything from higher church Anglican to low Mega-church Independent, I have an idea of what it might be and occasionally, I think have experienced it.

As a kid I was taught a fun little hand trick to remember what church is. You took the five fingers of each hand and intertwined them and then closed your hands to make a fist with the thumbs straight up. Your hands now looked like a typical church building with a steeple. You held your little church hand up, a performance art piece, for you and others to see and you recited, “Here is the church, there is the steeple.” Then you opened up your hands and turned them upside down so your intertwined fingers stood up and closed with “open the doors and here are the people.” Is that church? Don’t think so. So what is it?

Church is not a building. Not a gathering of people at 11AM or an organization with programs, or a denominational identity, although they might have these, they don’t guarantee church is there or happening. My sons don’t go to this kind of church. They go regularly to a meeting where other drug and chemically dependent people tell their deepest secrets, practice steps of spiritual growth with a mentor, and cultivate gratitude and humility, and dependence on God and service to others rather than alcohol or drugs. Recently they have been working on emotional sobriety – not being driven by their fears or their pride. I think this is church to the power of what God intended or at least embodies whatever and whoever first thought synagogue in the Messiah could look like. I think you could go to such a group for an hour and grow more than going to a million typical church services.

Church is not the Kingdom of God. That means it isn’t all that God is doing – he is wherever he is wanted. I am really distrustful when I hear a Pastor say that their church is bringing the Kingdom. It is always less than, by a great deal, what it looks like when God’s will is effectively done. And it often means that the Pastor’s organization is a small “k” kingdom of his or her own and is put before God’s actual Kingdom rule.

Church is not a perfect place. Where I think I have been in it…It has wrinkles no one seems to be able to iron out, spots that can’t be laundered and yet, when in spite of itself, it shines with the unfailing love, compassion and Kingdom dream of God for human beings it seems like it is following a calling out of this dark fallen world…and sadly, out of many churches that stifle that calling… to live in the light of God’s presence and power – I think that might be what Paul and the Apostles had in mind when they described what they termed, ecclesia, the “called out ones”. And it may have been what Jesus had in mind for his disciples after his little band of 12 began to go back to bring Jesus’ message to those early and various synagogues, or God-fearing Gentile seekers gathered together. Called out ones…out of hate, fear, death, darkness into Jesus’ light and love, hope, resurrection and a sign of a new kind of humanity.

So, what is church? Why church? Seems like any group of people called to live in the life of the Kingdom of God as best they can by God’s grace, forgiving each other and offering that kind of life to others as a sign of what a new world might be where Jesus would feel at home…even with just two or more, and people thrive and flourish…a family, best friends, and yes…maybe even a typical church.



And this essay is by Frederick Buechner, which is so fortuitous. I read it the same week that Chelsea sent me her essay. I love how that works out. Buechner is an author and chaplain. This is from his book, Whistling in the Dark, pp. 4-5.


AA and Church

Alcoholics Anonymous or A.A. is the name of a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give it up and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God. The ones who aren’t so sure about God speak instead of their Higher Power.

When they first start talking at a meeting, they introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic,” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” They are apt to end with the Lord’s Prayer or the Serenity Prayer. Apart from that they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. They do not advertise or proselytize. Having no buildings of their own, they meet wherever they can.

Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.

You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the Church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be Big Business. Sinners Anonymous. “I can will what is right but I cannot do it,” is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Romans 7:19).

“I am me. I am a sinner.”

“Hi, you.”

Hi, every Sadie and Sal. Hi, every Tom, Dick and Harry. It is the forgiveness of sins, of course. It is what the Church is all about.

No matter what far place alcoholics end up in, either in this country or virtually anywhere else, they know that there will be an A.A. meeting nearby to go to and that at that meeting they will find strangers who are not strangers to help and to heal, to listen to the truth and to tell it. That is what the Body of Christ is all about.

Would it ever occur to Christians in a far place to turn to a church nearby in hope of finding the same? Would they find it? If not, you wonder what is so Big about the Church’s Business.


Reflections on these essays

Where do you find that place in which you can be real, honest and vulnerable; fully embraced for who you are without judgment?

Where would you go on Christmas Eve if you had a crisis in your life?

How does God’s kingdom show itself in your life?


 A Turquoise Gown, Mice and Jesus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What surprise did you experience this holiday season?

How did it affect you or change your focus?

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

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

The Poor in Spirit; Why are They Blessed?

I’ve been intrigued with the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 5) all of my adult life. I think my interest comes from the challenge that Jesus is extending to us, to be so counter cultural, so unrealistic, maybe even unhealthy. The three beatitudes that bother me—or perhaps intrigue me—the most are blessed are those who mourn, blessed are those who are persecuted for my name’s sake, and the ultimate one, blessed are the poor in spirit. I’ve always wondered about this one. What does it mean to be poor in spirit and how can that be blessed?

After years of experiencing the pilgrimage we call the inner life I have found some kindred spirits throughout history who describe rather profoundly what it is like to be poor in spirit. People like Teresa of Avila, Evelyn Underhill, Macrina Weideker, Ignatius of Loyola, Barbara Brown Taylor and Jean Vanier all speak of the journey of being poor in spirit in words that are simple and yet profound. I find their words best summed up this way: self-emptying.

Macrina Weideker’s description send chills down my spine whenever I hear it. She says, in an excerpt from her poem, Blessed are the Poor in Spirit,
Being poor in spirit means
having nothing to call your own,
except your own poverty.
It is a joyful awareness of your emptiness.
It is the soil of opportunity
for God has space to work
in emptiness that is owned.

Being poor in spirit means
knowing that you are so small
and dependent
needy and powerless
that you live with an open heart
waiting to be blessed.
For only then can you be blessed
If you know
that you need blessing.

Jesus is our ultimate role model for self-emptying. He gave up equality with God, the writer of Philippines tells us (Phil. 2:3-7). He emptied himself, was born in human form and became obedient to the point of giving up his life. It’s hard for me to read these words yet they are so inspiring. I want to let go of the illusion of control in my life. I want to live a smaller, simpler and more meaningful life. I want to live with an open heart and open hands. I long to feel blessed. I know I need blessing. But it is so hard to live into this in a culture that values all of the opposites of what I long for. I need daily reminders and a lot of support from kindred spirits just to stay focused on wanting to live these desires.

Just recently I had a vivid reminder that I am not yet able to take everything in stride because it is not mine to control. I thought I had sold my condo. A woman had been to see it several times, emailing me for more details. She had offered to rent it with a large deposit until she could sell her own home. I thought we were well on the way to closure. Then I got an email saying she had found another condo that fit her needs better. This jarred me and I slipped into fear and dread.

Why was this so upsetting? Well first, it was just plain disappointing. But more than that, I had orchestrated this deal so that I could move when I wanted to and get a particular apartment. So I had it all completed in my mind. This really upset my plans. And beneath that there was also another truth.

I really don’t trust God. In fact, I am afraid of God.

I can see this truth as my cutting edge in life. Can I trust God? Do I believe God is there for me, that God will care for me, find me worthy to be loved? When I calm down and reflect, I have had dozens of examples of ways in which God is there for me, cares for me, seeks me out to show me how cherished I am, whether I feel worthy or not. Yet I still need reminders, especially when the unexpected happens. This condo sale is a way for me to simplify, to get smaller, to move closer to the heart of God, to self-empty; yet some part of me is afraid that I might lose myself completely, so that part of me fights to hold on, to get control.

Only God can help me with this dilemma. Only God can soothe me to the point where self-emptying feels holy and where dependency feels sacred. Only God can bless my emptiness and show me the way to God’s heart and a new way of living my life, a life of love.

Henri Nouwen puts into words what I am longing to experience in my emptiness.
It is very hard to allow emptiness in our lives. Emptiness requires a willingness not to be in control, a willingness to let something new and unexpected happen. It requires trust, surrender, and openness to guidance. God wants to dwell in our emptiness. But as long as we are afraid of God and God’s actions in our lives, it is unlikely that we will offer our emptiness to God. Let’s pray that we can let go of our fear of God and embrace God as the source of all love.

Maybe the secret to moving forward in faith, no matter where we are, is to ask God to help us even to let go of our fear of God. That may seem risky but it also feels like the beginning of a new adventure. After all Jesus did say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Self-emptying brings us into the kingdom. Self-emptying connects us in community at deeper levels than we can describe. Community is the kingdom on earth. When I am open to love, to my poverty, to my need for blessing, I am in that kingdom community which is my deepest hearts desire. I’m not afraid of God when I experience that community– and I’m no longer bothered by that beatitude.

© Janet O. Hagberg, 2009. All rights reserved.
Macrina’s poem excerpt is from Tree Full of Angels and Nouwen’s quote is from his book, Gracias.

Reflections on this essay
What does poor in spirit mean to you?

Which line in Macrina’s poem most resonates with you? Why?

Do you trust God? How do you know that?

Are you afraid of God? How do you know that?

When does self-emptying feel holy and dependence feel sacred for you?

Healing Threads

When I read the biography of Gandhi many years ago, one of the things that stayed with me was that he prayed a whole day a week; on Monday. Part of his Monday ritual was to spin wool or cotton into yarn, perhaps as a form of meditation. I was awed by his discipline of praying for a day but also his inclusion of a creative art form in his prayer. I have been drawn to various creative art forms my whole life, especially drawing, paper arts and knitting, but I had not yet equated my art form with prayer.

Then quilting gently entered my life. A friend of mine is a master quilter and her quilting stories intrigued me. I had a family heirloom, a cedar chest, filled with quilt tops from the 1930s that had not been finished but I did not know how to complete them. My friend helped me get the appropriate fabric to complete the quilts and showed me how to do simple hand quilting. Once I got started I felt more connected to my grandmother, who I did not know well, and to all the other women in my extended family. A quilt expert told me that one of my quilts dated from 1865 and that the quilter had a mind of her own. I liked hearing that there was a spunky woman in my family tree. I felt an even deeper connection with those women who had come before me.

When it came time to create my own quilts, I got stuck. I was not drawn to the repeated patterns of most quilts nor to the pastel flowered fabrics of the quilting tradition. (My 1865 quilt maker ancestor chose bright red and white as her colors, and an unusual pattern.) It seemed my quilting days were short lived. But that year my friend just happened to be an officer in the state quilt group and asked if I would go with her to the quilt show. As we were walking along the aisles of quilts I noticed one quilt style that I had never seen before. It was called a One Block Wonder. It included different configurations of hexagons made into a creative larger pattern—amazing, creative and beautiful. I said to my friend, “If I can make a quilt like that I’ll start quilting.” She assured me I could make quilts like that. So I did. In the process I learned that my creativity and sense of adventure could be part of this process. I, too, could have a mind of my own!

But in the quilting process I found something else that really surprised me. Quilting calmed my soul. Quilting felt prayer-like. When I quilted people who I needed to connect with or forgive came to mind. Sometimes the quilt I was working on needed my love poured into it. I quilted slowly so it was not just a goal to accomplish. I let the quilt speak to me of what else it needed. During tense times I could use quilting projects as a way to soothe and comfort me. I felt that quilting was a strong and creative antidote to anxiety and stress.

Along the way I joined a small quilt group, called the Redeemer Block Club, at the inner city church I belong to. Our goal was to make quilts for an annual quilt action. The proceeds all went to projects in other countries, for the empowering of women and children, including HIV/Aids orphans. It was much more meaningful to quilt for a cause and see the results in people’s lives.

One of the African refugees at our church slowly got involved in quilting. She didn’t like it as first, partly because she was so depressed. So in the beginning, we just asked her if she wanted to sit by the ironing board and press fabric. Pretty soon we found some African fabric and asked her to help us design a quilt named for her. Her inner light began to get a little brighter. She began quilting her own designs that spoke of her story of surviving torture and leaving her country to come to America. Just a few months later, we asked her to write her story and send photos of her quilts to the state quilter’s group. She was awarded the new quilter’s award, which included a trip to the statewide quilt show where her quilt was displayed.

More crucial though, was what quilting was doing for her soul and for our souls. When she quilted she said she felt calmed and connected to a new life and to the creativity within her. She forgot, at least for a little while, about all the bad memories she also carried with her from her past. Quilting was healing for her. And quilting with her was creative, healing and satisfying for us too.

Eventually some of her colleagues who were also survivors from Africa got interested in quilting just from seeing and hearing what it had done for her. We formed a small subgroup of quilters, made up of experienced quilters and new quilters, to sew together and form a community across cultures. We called it Healing Threads. As we came together monthly, those of us who are experienced quilters shared our skills to help each woman make the quilt she wanted. New quilters created their own designs, their own work of art, and we were all deepened by the experience. It was a safe atmosphere for all of us to create and to heal. Each new quilter went home with a sewing machine and supplies so she could keep quilting at home. Now one of the new quilters has a small sewing class in her apartment. So it grows…

I am reminded that if I listen to my heart, like I did when I first started quilting and if I allow the art to move more deeply within me, it just naturally takes me to places of new life. I see quilting as prayer now—and also creativity, community, joy and healing.

I’m still curious, though, about Gandhi. If spinning was part of his quiet Monday ritual, what inner journey did it stimulate and how was that related to his outer work of freeing his people from British rule? Something more to ponder while I make my next quilt.

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

Reflections on this essay

What art form or hobby most holds your attention? Describe it.

How did you get started and why?

What does it do for you now beyond the skill and time commitment?

How has it lead you to new activities or people you would not have met otherwise?

How is it a source of healing or calm for you?

I Put God on Probation

My friend, Pedro, grew up on the south side of Chicago, which is a rough neighborhood. As a small boy he was his mother’s caregiver through her serious illnesses. When he was about eight, his mom died and, at the same time, his dad told him he was not his real father. Pedro spiraled into sheer survival mode, joined a gang and lived mostly on the streets. Miraculously, because of something within him, he completed middle school and high school, although he says he had to steal in order to get money for a cap and gown.

By the time he moved to Minnesota in his twenties, he was deep into drugs, physically ill and well acquainted with jail. He was sick and tired of life. He was sick and tired of God too. As a young child he had felt close to God in the rituals and music of the Catholic church, but now that all these bad things had happened to him, and since God had done nothing to take care of him, he decided to put God on probation. He had no use for God at all.

Although I didn’t grow up in violence on the south side of Chicago, I put God on probation in my twenties too. I’ve been tempted to do it again a few times since then but not as keenly. I put the old fear-and-shame God of my childhood on probation because I couldn’t live in that dread. And I was mad at him for not healing my mother. Like Pedro, my mother died tragically and suddenly, at a young age. I didn’t have the heart capacity not to blame God and this death was a devastating blow. I had no need for a God who refused to heal. I didn’t know a way to replace that God except to join intellectual pursuits and reason myself away from my faith. I guess that was my drug of choice. It took me a dozen years, and another crisis, to bring me back to God.

These two scenarios happen to most of us with some variations. We want things to be good for us, to go well, to be fair. We try to behave well and we expect to be rewarded. When we are instead, in pain, most of us say “Why me?” (Good me, kind me, successful me☺). And then we blame God because God is supposed to be powerful and should be able to prevent bad things or at least fix them when they happen. This is a view of God as a cosmic magician who can and should perform miracles at our request. That is the reasoning that got both Pedro and me in serious trouble and caused us to put God on probation.

Without getting too theological here, let me say that if we could command God to grant all of our wishes and get life the way we wanted it, most of us would not become better people, more loving and compassionate. Sad but true. We would become more selfish, egotistical, needy and perhaps even greedy. So instead we get life with all of its joy and pain. Life just happens. We suffer most if we demand things our way, and fail to grow deeper from our experiences. Yet, we need to be real, to get angry at God, to rant and call for mercy. And sometimes we need to fire our old God or take a sabbatical from God in order to step back and get perspective. We need to search out new paths and discover new ways to experience God. We can find God precisely in our pain if we look. This happens if we enter into a process of embracing and not running from our pain. God then becomes even more intimate in times of pain. Finding this intimate God is a path of great, though unsettling, transformation.

This searching and questioning of our faith, or even the apparent loss of faith, is a crucial part of the faith journey but there is also a danger of getting so bitter that we get stuck in our anger, stuck in our intellectual search, stuck in our victim-hood. Sometimes we stop the search all together and drop out completely, which can be shattering to our psyches since meaning and purpose are central to our well-being. Hopefully, for most people this time of searching brings them to a new and more intimate relationship with themselves and with God, to a different level of meaning and a new chapter in their lives.

In Pedro’s case, in the middle of his pain, an angel appeared in the form of a judge, who could have sent him to prison, but instead saw something in him that suggested he might succeed in a special drug rehab and prison diversion program. Over the next few ears of intense inner work, Pedro got clean, found a steady home base in long-term housing and joined an ongoing spirituality group. He became a mentor for a non-profit organization that connected suburban people with those on the margins and he started volunteering for Mad Dads (a men’s anti-violence group). He reunited with his two kids and he became the head of the residents’ council, working for healthier living conditions, like an exercise work out room.

Although Pedro still lives with MS and diabetes and Parkinson’s disease, he feels close to God and says God is with him all the time. He has wisdom beyond his years and many people seek him out for guidance. He recently received one of eight volunteer-of-the-year awards from a prominent magazine. He said, smiling, that he was the only poor and powerless recipient of the award. The judge who got him started on this road has become a mentor and close personal friend.

God showed up, in the middle of the pain, Pedro says, in the form of this judge. And Pedro was able to see that and respond. It wasn’t a miracle in the sense that Pedro was miraculously healed. He still had to work hard to get sober, but God stood with him as he worked his program. I wonder if God had secretly showed up long before that by fueling that drive within him to get through school☺

God showed up for me in another crisis in my life, to bring me out of my no-need-for-God era to a community of faith that included a deep heart connection as well as a strong intellectual component. Just what I needed in order to grow. Anger and fear were slowly replaced by love. And from that place I found a spiritual director and a new personal intimacy with God. I think God was there waiting for me all along.

For both Pedro and me God survived probation and is now “off-paper.” God is a well functioning member of our society again and has been fully rehabbed in our lives. Amen.

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

Reflections on this essay
When have you put God on probation and why?

When do you say “why me?”

When have you left God or a church and found a new alternative?

When have you been stuck in anti-God or anti-religion sentiments?

How has God always been with you, even in the desolation?

What is your community of faith now? And is it life-giving?

The Black Madonna

I am standing in front of an antique statue, about four feet high, encased in protective plate glass, listening to the wisdom of one of the most intriguing women I’ve ever seen. I am alone, amazingly enough, in a Benedictine monastery nestled into the side of a mountain in Montserrat, about thirty miles from Barcelona, Spain. This is the second day of my silent retreat here, which is an important part of my pilgrimage to Spain to visit sites honoring two of my women mentors.

I have already been to Avila to connect with Teresa, a 16th century reformer and Christian mystic and now I am here at Montserrat, on a retreat with the Mary, the mother of God in the form of the Black Madonna. I come to see her early in the morning and late in the afternoon before and after the thousands of pilgrims visit. I am staying here by myself and am the only English speaker except for the young monk who registered me and showed me to my room.

Why had I chosen to visit the Black Madonna? It’s a long story. A short version suffices. Several years before my pilgrimage I heard about this mysterious phenomenon, of statues or paintings of Mary the mother of God, frequently with Jesus on her lap, whose skin tone was black. There were various explanations, like the fumes from candles causing the darkening, but there were statues with no candles that were also black. I was intrigued. I read a book describing holy female figures in several religious traditions who represented compassion, strength, suffering and pain well embraced. I found out that Lech Walenca, the solidarity poet and hero in the freeing of Poland from Soviet rule, and later it’s President, wore a Black Madonna lapel pin. I read about various sites of the Black Madonna all across Europe and how millions of pilgrims came each year, some crawling the last mile, to be in the presence of the Black Madonna.

Some nearly cultish stories have surfaced recently about her but I don’t believe them nor find them compelling. In searching for information I found a more in- depth MA thesis by Frederick Gustafson, which helped me to understand why she was so appealing to me. In eastern and southern Europe she had come to signify life’s suffering as redemptive and transformative. Gustafson writes:

The Black Madonna not only touches those in the “valley of tears,” she is the “valley of tears.” She is life with all its entanglements…She is intriguing to so many simply because of her ability to entice the agony of death, senseless pain and suffering, meaninglessness, futility, sense of loss out of a person’s soul into harsh but clear consciousness. In her case, there seems to be another quality here, however, in that she not only entices these out of a person; she also blesses them. She blesses the despair, so to speak…She blesses these experiences in turn as holding a viable place in the harmonious balance required if life, as known through the psyche, is to have not only depth and continuity but also hope and promise. She blesses the dark side of life and places the unanswerable within the context of a greater master plan, which lies, for the most part, outside the consciously visible.

I was in a difficult time of my life, struggling with choices I had made that were wreaking havoc on my life. I felt there was no way out of my self-made prison and I was trapped. I wish I could have called on the other version of Mary, the virgin Mary, to walk beside me as many people could, but my childhood had pretty much sanitized her to the point of uselessness. She was a totally submissive woman and if you weren’t like her you were in danger of being labeled more like Mary Magdalene, who in those days was depicted as a prostitute. It seemed those were the only alternatives. It left me with no female role model to relate to who was at all in the inner circles of Jesus.

So when I learned about the Black Madonna’s sense of pain and suffering while still being a strong woman, I could relate to her. Her blackness for me epitomized the wisdom of the Black experience which has emerged out of deep pain and injustice and which, in a deeply moving way, has mostly transcended that pain by not revenging it. The Black Madonna represents, for me, an internalized post-resurrection image of Mary, as the woman the mother of God became.

When I visited her site at the Benedictine Monastery I felt soothed as I looked into her face.   She had a deeply compassionate look about her, the look of a woman who knows all pain and has not only survived, but has become who she was meant to be. Her dark face and eyes were intense, yet searching and loving. If you faced her for a few minutes, her eyes penetrated your soul. I knew this was a holy place and that she would be my teacher. As I stood there in front of her she instructed me by saying, “I understand pain. I transcend pain.”

The next morning I went to a small chapel behind the statue. There was a hole in the wall so we could see her. I wanted to have Eucharist in her presence and the brochure said all were welcome to participate. There were just two of us in the chapel so it was intimate. But when I went forward to be served, the priest refused to serve me. I sat back down feeling shamed and unclean. I looked up at the back of the Black Madonna in a lament of how broken the church is. And she soothed me with these words. “There is so much shadow in the world, even here in my home, right here in this room. Don’t let this deter you. I am shadow. I am beyond shadow. I represent all. I care for all. I heal all. Peace. Let peace prevail over shadow.”

I’ve had this experience of injustice, misunderstanding, and hurt from men before. She knew it. She spoke into my pain. After that I knew her heart personally. And I knew she would be my guide for life. I went to the quiet prayer corner of the monastery and lit a candle for that priest. I carried her healing light, giving it to him, to overcome shadow. Now, on my prayer altar, along with my sculpture of open hands, my scripture cards, and my candle, I have a small statue of the Black Madonna of Montserrat with Jesus on her lap. I can feel her soothing me and smiling just a little bit in recognition of our shared strength.

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

Reflections on this essay

Which historic religious/spiritual figures do you most admire and why?

When have you taken an intentional trip or pilgrimage to be in touch with a spiritual person or place?

What did you experience and how did it affect you?

What truths about yourself did you uncover?

How has your faith changed as a result of this experience?

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?

The Elk that Stayed

I watched a nature show on TV this spring about a young couple who spent a year in the wilderness of Utah tracking wolves. Sometimes they sat in the same area for days waiting for the wolves to pass through. Their waiting eventually paid off when they saw the new wolf pups close up and recorded the wolves’ protective pack behaviors.

One particular scene from the documentary stayed with me and seeped more deeply into my psyche. The scene took place when the wolf pack came across a herd of elk. Wolves are natural predators of elk so the elk went on high alert and fled. But one of the elk had been injured during rutting season and could not move quickly. It stood on the top of a rise, silhouetted against the sky.

Now, we can all foretell what will happen next. In nature, the weak and vulnerable do not survive long. We all know the phrase survival of the fittest. I know this is a law of nature but it is still painful for me to watch. In this scene the wolves were gathering closer to the elk obviously stalking it and I did not want to watch the elk being attacked by the wolves. I was just about to change the channel when the young narrator said that something was about to happen that he had never seen before in nature. That got my attention so I kept watching, knowing that my remote was ten inches away.

What happened next was astounding. Another elk, a healthy one, came up the other side of the rise and stood between the wounded elk and the wolves, putting her own life in danger. For a moment nothing happened, just a very tense pause. Then silently and mysteriously the wolf pack backed off. The young narrator mentioned that even the next morning he saw the two elk walking around together.

This story resonated in me on a personal level.  I couldn’t help asking, “Have I ever been the elk that came up the other side of the rise into a precarious or dangerous situation to stand in the gap between the wounded and its predator?” Of course, I’d like to think I would do that but it is very hard to do, since I am one who seeks my own survival instinctively. We all do. We may be able to imagine protecting children, but what about standing in the gap, being a protector of another adult? What do we do when our own safety is affected?

I make no claims of courage or selflessness, but have, on occasion been a part of a process that helped women who are in abusive relationships leave their partners. Although I did not physically stand between the two, it felt like my spirit stayed in that gap, and the wounded women found safer lives.

But then a deeper question arises. When have I been the wounded one and someone stood in the gap for me? A male therapist once came between a dangerous person and me and told me gently and clearly what would become of me if I did not walk to safety. I am forever grateful to him for those words that filled that void and saved me.

An even deeper question arises: “When have I been part of a wolf pack encircling wounded or weaker people?” Certainly I have and need to admit it.

Spiritually I think the sacred elk-like figure who is always faithful in standing between us and predators is God.  Sometimes we are asked to play a part in God’s protection, like walking away from danger or reporting behavior to someone else or accepting that we are loved and worthy of safety. But it is always God, the courageous elk, who is standing there silhouetted on the rise for all to see. I savor that image. It gives me hope even if it seems to go against human nature. But in God even human nature can be changed. Amen.


ÓJanet O. Hagberg, 2012. All rights reserved.

Reflections on this essay

When have you noticed a scene in nature that you can relate to, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon or a rock clinging to a ledge?

When have you been a “healthy elk” choosing to stand between a wounded elk and a predator?

How have you been the wounded one and who stood in the void for you?

How has God been a “courageous elk” for you?






It is a simple pleasure, requiring only a pencil and paper.  But it opens up the game of baseball for a fan like no other vice.  We speak, of course, of scoring a baseball game.

We knew the scorecard would appeal to some Twins fans.  We hoped Gameday would introduce the pleasure of scorekeeping to others.  But the genuine satisfaction fans have expressed has surprised even us.  Dozens of fans have thanked Gameday for providing an affordable scorecard.  Hundreds of fans who otherwise would not have scored the game are using Gameday to do just that.  And countless fathers and mothers have bought the scorecard to introduce their sons and daughters to scoring a game.

One of the fans who took the time to tell Gameday how much she valued the scorecard was Janet Hagberg.  In one of our streetcorner conversations, we asked Ms. Hagberg if she would write about what scoring has meant to her.  Graciously, she agreed.

We hope what she wrote will help convince those who do not score to try their hand at this lost art.  We believe what she wrote will affirm the scoring experience for those who already indulge in it.  And we know that what she wrote will remind you of ways in which baseball has been woven into the fabric of your lives, as it has in hers.




Baseball Brings You Home Again

Why Keep Score!


For when the one great scorer comes

To write against your name,

He’ll write not that you won or lost,

But how you played the game.

Grantland Rice, 1908


I’ve been a Twins fan since my childhood when Bob Allison, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat and Harmon Killebrew were household names. It was such an adventure going to games at the old Met Stadium with my Dad or watching the team play on TV on summer evenings. I played softball on a park board team through most of elementary school and middle school so I learned how to play the game at the “dirt” level. Our team made it into the regional competition several times and I remember batting against a pitcher who threw so fast we could hardly see the ball go by. That made me appreciate at a deeper level just how good those major leaguers were. I followed professional baseball, sometimes closely sometimes haphazardly during my twenties and then my two stepsons brought baseball to the front burner by their involvement in the game.

But the day that changed my life was the fateful day about ten years ago when my stepson, who had become a sports writer after college, taught me how to keep score.  That did it. I was hooked. Permanently. Never before had I gotten so totally involved in the game. It increased not only my enjoyment and understanding of the game but also my commitment to it.

Some of you reading this are doubters. You’re saying, “I enjoy the game enough without keeping score.” Well, that might be true, but think of these other reasons for keeping score before you decide for sure.

IT KEEPS YOU IN THE GAME: When you keep score you always know the line up, who’s at bat, who’s up next, and how each player has done so far in the game. You know who’s hot and who’s not. You can see the trends in the game, such as the likelihood of more hits in the first inning of the pitcher has not gotten into his groove, or in the sixth and seventh innings when the starting pitcher begins to tire.  You can see at a glance how the pitcher is doing, whether he’s getting batters to ground out, fly out or strike out. You can see how beautiful a shut-out looks on paper. And keeping score keeps your mind from wandering to stressful or unwelcome subjects like work or cleaning the garage!

IT’S FUN TO LEARN—AND THEN TO DESIGN–YOUR OWN SCORING SYSTEM:  There are certain simple symbols that are part of baseball tradition: like K for strikeout, BB for walk, and CS for caught stealing.  Whenever a player gets a single, you might draw a line that starts the diamond shape, from home to first, in the box next to his name.  There are numbers assigned to each fielder as a short hand way to identify them quickly.  Soon marking a groundout to the third baseman as “5-3” becomes second nature.

But the fun part is learning and making your own scoring “code,” like asterisks for great defensive plays.  And whenever I come across a play I haven’t scored before and it baffles me, I just email my stepson and he fills me in. It makes for great conversation.

YOU CAN KEEP TRACK OF HISTORICAL MOMENTS:  What you add to your scorecard or scorebook is up to you, but I love to record great defensive and offensive plays, historical moments, controversial plays, as well as the standings of various teams at the time they played the Twins.

Here are a few examples of things – big and small — I’ve kept track of in my score book in just the last few years.

*September 1999:  Eric Milton pitches a no hitter against Anaheim. 13 strike outs, 2 walks. Only 5th pitcher in Twin’s history to accomplish this. Twins win 7-0.

*April 2000:  Cal Ripken gets his 3000th hit at a Twins game.

*June 2000:  Fan interference takes a home run away from Mitch Meluskey (Houston Astros) in a game against the Twins.

*July 2000:  Sammy Sosa hits home run #25 against the Twins in his bid for the HR title.

*July 2000:  Milton vs. Clemens (Yankees). Both pitchers have no hitters going until the 6th and 5th innings respectively.

*June 2001:  Guzman gets four bases (and 2 RBIs) on a BUNT (and a defensive error) against Cleveland.

*June 2001:  10th Anniversary of the World Series Win in 1991. Twins are currently leading the AL Central.

*August 2001:  Celebration of Kirby Puckett’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

YOU GAIN RESPECT FOR THE GAME AND FOR THE PLAYERS:  Keeping score has increased my appreciation for the finer points of the game, the underlying rhythms, ups and downs of players, and the incredible preparation and practice it takes to be a major leaguer day in and day out. Now I watch the signs from the third base coach to the batters and the base runners. I watch the pitch count. I am more aware of the reasons for the order of line-ups and pitching changes. I am in awe of the diving catches of Doug Mientkiewicz and the twisting-in-mid-air throws by Guzman and Rivas. I believe, with Alistair Cooke, that the double play is the most beautiful play in baseball.

Because I keep score I read more books on baseball and watched Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary.  I understand better now the long and sometimes glorious, sometimes sordid history of baseball as a chronicle of America.  And I watch the game become more international each year.

IT TAKES YOU BACK TO THE BEST MEMORIES OF CHILDHOOD:  Baseball is part of the fabric of summer. Keeping score takes me deeper into the richness of that fabric. It brings me back to some of my best memories of childhood, playing softball every day, sharing the experience of winning and losing with good friends (with  whom I am still close), and being with my Dad at games. Baseball brings you home again in your mind after you’ve been away for a long time. I think Robert Benson describes this aspect of baseball well in his philosophical book, The Game, (2001):

“I hope my kids will remember that baseball is a game about going home. And in that way at least, it is a game that mirrors everything, because everything in life is about going home again. It is about leaving home, and going out to a place where home is far away, and then doing the things that you must to get home again, some of them simple and routine, some of them occasionally heroic and glorious.”



Janet O. Hagberg

Written in 2006


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