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Introspective Sojourner

The journey inward following Christ’s path to that person I was uniquely created to be.

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Faith

One Last Chance

Jake was giving God one last chance as he got out of his car at the church on the corner. Life had been so hard, especially lately. Shoving the pain down one more time he headed towards its doors.

She saw the elderly woman take a shaky step onto the ramp that covered the stairs. It didn’t have any handrails. She thought about how her own mother was comforted and steadied by taking her arm as they walked, so she offered it to the woman. The elderly woman smiled and thanked her. They chatted about the weather as they walked down the ramp and parted ways.

A mom carrying a small child saw the woman offer her arm and smiled. She loved this church even though she had only been there a couple of times. 

“Good morning, did you need help finding something?” a man standing at a visitor’s booth nearby asked her.

“Is the children’s ministry still down this way?” she asked just to be sure.

“Yes, but you have to go around because of the construction. Here let me show you,” he said walking towards her.

They walked around a shed to get back to the doorway. He was pleasant and her son warmed up to him quickly.

Someone met them at the door and the nice man told her to have a wonderful day. The young woman at the door showed her how to check in her son and walked her to the room with children his age.

The man who had walked her around the construction went back to his booth, greeting everyone he passed. He stopped for a second to chat with someone he knew. They exchanged a laugh.

Probably an inside joke, Jake thought as he approached them.

The man looked Jake in the eyes and said, “Good Morning!” His smile was bright.

Jake mustered a small smile and a nod. He was following the people who seemed to know where they were going, but in the few seconds it had taken to walk here from his car, he was feeling his mood brighten.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” asked another man coming along side of Jake.

Jake nodded thinking, it was a pretty friendly church but that didn’t really prove anything. Still, he was glad they were.

A pleasant woman with bulletins greeted them at the door. The man Jake had walked up with told him to have a nice day as he stepped away to greet someone he knew.

Jake slipped into the back row on the left as the worship team moved towards the front. A large screen was counting down for something. Jake assumed that was when the service would start. He was right. As soon as the countdown hit zero there was a soft drum roll and the music began.

Jake didn’t sing. The lyrics were displayed on the screen over a view of waves crashing at a cliff. The video mirrored his feelings lately. Jake was determined not to participate. He stood without singing. This was God’s last chance and he wasn’t going to make it easy on Him.

There was a break in the music and someone came up and asked visitors to fill out the card in the backs of the seat in front of them. Jake stared at the little red card and pen in front of him, but didn’t pull it out. The music resumed and people around him lifted their hands in the air. Jake stared at the words, feeling lost in their midst.

Soon the music was ending and a man, presumably the pastor, bounced up onto the stage as the worship team stepped down. Happiness seemed to ooze out of him. The screen now held a Bible verse as the pastor began. He spoke of fighting for your joy and how he wanted them to be happier today than they were yesterday.

“There’s more joy in Jesus than in anything…” the pastor said and Jake felt like he looked him directly in the eyes when he spoke.

Jake was thinking he hadn’t felt joy since his before his father got sick. It had been a long fight against the cancer that had caused his father so much pain. He had passed away a fraction of the size he had been when he was strong. Cancer had devastated every part of him. Jake’s small mother had seemed to have no trouble lifting him from his wheelchair to the couch or bed.

A single tear threatened to roll down his cheek as his heart ached at the thought of it. Jake did his best to will the tear to stay. His mind wandered, barely taking in the sermon, though a visual or two broke through. God’s presence hovering like a cloud over the temple and God’s light showing them the way in the dark.

Jake thought to himself. “It would be nice to know where you were supposed to go.”

Jake felt like life had been filled with darkness lately. His mom’s health was deteriorating now as well. She missed his dad so much. No one expected her to be with them much longer. He wasn’t sure he could take the pain of losing her too.

“We were designed to be in relationships, in relationship with God…”

Jake thought about being alone soon. Those thoughts scared him.

“How can I be in relationship with you God? I’m not even sure you exist. Where were you when Dad died? Where are you now?” Jake thought.

Jake felt a warmth fall over his shoulder. He looked to his side but no one was there. His heart beat wildly in his chest as if he were a rabbit caught out in a field alone. He froze, afraid to move. The feeling didn’t go away. It was as if God sat down in the chair beside him and put his arm around Jake and whispered in his ear, “Here. I’m right here.”

Jake didn’t hear another word of the sermon. It was all he could do to keep the tears from falling. The pastor finished and sat down a few rows in front of him as the music began again. Jake didn’t stand when the worship leader asked them too. He was too afraid the feeling would leave him.

A paraphrase of a Bible verse he knew, where two or three are gathered, bounced around in his head. Had God truly met him here today? Jake couldn’t shake the feeling and he couldn’t explain it. 

As he walked slowly from the building several people smiled and spoke to him. Jake was still miles away, focusing on what he had just experienced, and trying not to let it overwhelm him. He looked down and realized he was carrying the visitor’s card and that somewhere in the service he had filled it out. Barely, but still, his name and email were present.

The man who had walked in beside him stepped up next to him again. “If you take that to the booth over there, they have a gift for you,” the man said patting him on the shoulder as he pointed to the visitor’s booth.

“Thank you,” Jake said in almost a whisper. The warmth of the man’s touch reminded him of the warmth he had felt in the sanctuary.

People were smiling and chatting all around him, but Jake was still lost in what he couldn’t explain. Even though he had arrived to give God one more chance, he had dismissed all that he had witnessed.

It was a friendly church. They did seem joyful and Jake longed for that joy. More importantly Jake longed for the relationship he thought they must have with God, if there was a God.

He handed the man at the booth his visitor’s card and the man handed him a small bag of things. Jake peered down into the bag at a coffee cup and some other small items. It was nice. If this man had any idea how he had felt when he arrived, Jake wasn’t sure he would still be as kind to him.

No one thing had made a difference. Determined to walk away sure there was no God, Jake had dismissed them all one by one. He couldn’t dismiss God’s presence.

But God had a different plan and each thing Jake had witnessed or experienced had brought him one step closer to the place God planned to give him back his faith, the place where God showed up in Jake’s story.

God knew Jake had only one more chance to offer Him, and He used His people to bring Jake close, and to complete the morning that Jake would never forget. Just the way He would use Jake in someone else’s story in the very near future to move His Kingdom forward. His plan was perfectly woven.

You see, little things don’t mean much… they mean everything.

 

By

Vicki L. Pugliese

That’s my son

I knew the second I laid eyes on him, even though his back was to me. No doubts – none at all. I immediately started to cry. Seconds before, at the fish tank, at the entrance of the restaurant, I had just said, “Wow, that kid looks so much like Thomas.”  – our grandson.  They lived on the other side of the country, thousands of miles away. The thought that it was Thomas never entered my mind. 

My husband had decided to take me to lunch. We rarely did that because where I worked wasn’t close. I should have seen that as a clue. They had cleaned the house too. That was the big clue I missed. I wasn’t complaining. Seriously though, really clean, and that was the big clue.

My son and his family had conspired with my husband and daughter to surprise me with their visit. I had absolutely no clue. They had been coming and then there was some valid excuse that they couldn’t. I had no reason not to believe they couldn’t make it. By the time I walked into the little Chinese restaurant, it was forgotten. 

But the second I saw his frame – I knew. The clues fell into place. My son had come home for a visit. My daughter-in-law smiled up at me from across the table with her precious face. It filled my heart. It was the best surprise ever.

Our church uses a word “communitas” – not community. It signifies that deeper relationship – the idea of doing life together or serving together. A little like the way that my small home town was more like a community or the way we made our fellow veterans our family when I served in the Navy.

The type of relationship we all search for. That knowing the second you see them – there is someone I love – who loves me. The way I knew that was my son even though he was facing away from me.

It’s that kind of relationship that gets my super introverted family to go to church. They belong there and people know them and love them exactly as they are, no hidden agendas, no wish list of things they should do better at, or be better at. The smiles of those we’ve known and loved for years now, tell us that we are welcomed. Just the way we are. Just as far along in our journey as we have come. No one there sees us with a big list of how we’ve failed or let them down. They’re just happy to see us – as we are them.

I suppose it isn’t a perfect church – that was never the point. It’s our communitas. Other Christians who aren’t perfect, who love us even though we aren’t perfect, even though we make mistakes.They want us to be there. They want us to be part of their journey and to experience God’s love through the way He moves in all of our lives. It brings us and keeps us closer to Him. The one who called us by name before we ever took a breath. He knew what knuckleheads we would be. He knew the mistakes we would make and yet He loved us so perfectly. There’s no stronger desire than to be loved that way, completely loved and fully known.

We have to lay down our lists. Our lists of the wrongs others have done to us. Our list of the disappointments we have felt. Our past hurts. Our lists of how we think this person in our life “should” be. Expectations that set us up for barriers in our relationships that do exactly the opposite of what we desire. To be truly loved in spite of our mistakes and bad choices.

We have to stop judging our church services and having roast pastor for lunch. Stop the hate. The “I hate this kind of music”.  I hate when the church is too full or too empty, too dark, too loud. I hate when other Christians aren’t perfect…   because just like us, they want to be loved while imperfect. 

God put so many wonderful people in my life and none of them are perfect. What an amazing blessing that is. Others just like me, on a journey to spread the great news about how God loves them and isn’t fooled by their masks, or public faces. He knows my heart and loves me more deeply than I could ask. That’s such great news. He put a whole group of people to journey with me, so we could help each other to deepen our relationship with Him and reach out to those who are yet to believe. What a mind blowing blessing that is, don’t you agree?

I hope you find your communitas, or that you create a communitas. So that everyone can know, somewhere out there is someone who loves me so much that they’ll cry at my sight. They love me so much that they recognize me instantly from far away or with my back to them even if I was supposed to be miles away. Someone who knows what a dunderhead I am, but choses to love me anyway. Just the way our Savior does. Just the way I am.

By

Vicki L. Pugliese

The Search for Joy

There’s something very attractive about Joy. We seem designed to search for it, to fill our insatiable need. It warms us and lingers. The belly laugh of a baby, or the antics of a puppy; they bring a smile to our face. That look on an old friend’s face as you walk through the door; so happy to see you. We long to have our lives filled with it, and will do almost anything to obtain it.

We’ll substitute Joy’s cousin happiness, if our cup gets too empty. Happiness seems so much easier to find. We find happiness in relationships, achievement, and material things. But happiness is intricately linked with disappointment. Relationships that start out somewhere in the stratosphere end up being plagued with boredom, or worse – apathy. We are selfish by nature, and the work it takes to maintain a relationship gets tedious. Our prior achievements quickly lose their sparkle. The happiness they brought inevitably devolves into “what have you done for me lately?” The next shiny new toy only makes us long for more. Happiness becomes, at best, contentment with a side of obligation.

The difference from true joy seems obvious, even though, at first, they felt the same. We are drawn to it.

Our pastor regularly tells us “There’s more joy in Jesus” and that he wants us to have more joy today than we did yesterday. What seems like a simple focus change, in practice, is not as easy as it sounds.

I try to trust and follow, only to find I’ve wandered off. I go through the motions of church attendance, and reading His word. It isn’t changing me. There isn’t a list of minimum things to do to achieve Joy. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m certainly going to end up looking to do the minimum even if I start out zealous.

Once I mess things up, I’m quick to hand it over to Jesus, but when things get back on track… Well… then I start pushing Him off the throne of my heart. I forget and strike out on my own – hoping to find an unending source.

And in the process, walk away from it.

Jesus doesn’t need my help. There is no minimum list because nothing I could ever do could ever earn what He has already done for me. He wants my whole heart. His plans are far greater than anything I could imagine. Complete with the redemption from careless actions I’m sure to take.

But do I trust Him enough?

I want to hang on to my pet wound that I’ve tucked down so deep. I want to pick it up and hold it close, to shed a tear. I want it healed – but I don’t want to let go, even as it leads me away from joy. I allow it to hurt me all over again. Had I only let Him heal it, I would have found joy in that story. Over and over I could return to His healing to find strength, faith and hope. Over and over I could have received the joy He intended.

All He ever wanted was for me to trust Him, to follow Him, to allow Him to be in control – and then my life would be filled with the Joy I so deeply desire. My cup would be filled and overflowing, so that I might let His love flow out onto others. So that I might be this joy that someone is drawn to, and I could tell them of the unending source. I could tell them of Him.

By Vicki L Pugliese

DO I TRUST GOD?

My childhood was filled with song. My stepmom and my dad were both prone to breaking out in song for no particular reason. Sometimes it would be hymns or Barber Shoppe songs or even silly children songs. One would start and the other would usually harmonize. It was common to go for a “drive” to give us more chances to sing as a family.

We sang at church as well. Sunday evenings were my favorite because most of the service was spent singing hymns. The pianist would ask for favorites. People would raise their hands and if selected, call out the number to their favorite hymn. You could count on being called on a couple of times each Sunday, if you wanted. I made my fellow congregation sing “In the Garden” most weeks. It has always been my favorite.

I remember just singing to God when I was by myself as a teenager. I talked to Him far more regularly then. I did have more time. My faith was strong, before life had a chance to batter it – tarnish it. Not that my childhood didn’t have struggles too. I have the emotional scars and abandonment issues to prove it. I had reason to need my faith just as much then. I clearly recall the whirlwind moments when the enemy was screaming lies and fear in one ear. God always sent someone to whisper gently the truth in my other. He has sent His love for me through the arms of His followers so often that I can’t count them.

This weekend our Pastor was reminiscing about a trip he just returned from. His sermons often remind us that “God’s better is better.” This weekend he completed that conversation and his words pierced my heart. He had asked himself, “Do you trust God?” Of course this is always the point of God’s better is better. His reply is what struck me. “I do but not enough.”

“I do but not enough.”

Me too, I thought. As a kid, I believed without a doubt that God had a plan and all of my sorrows would be used for good. I did my best to follow His leading. Do I still do that? Mostly, but it’s often not my first instinct.

Life has a way of wearing you down, stealing your innocence, beating you back until your faith is not your first response. Fear has a way of being my gut reaction. I know it’s the opposite of my faith. I have to remind myself of all the angels in my life, all of the times God rescued me from my own bad choices or the wrong instincts of others.

When I remind myself “God’s better is better”, I am putting my trust in God. I would not have survived my last job loss without that phrase and I truly hung onto it every day. But I wished God might bring his better to fruition a little faster, as if the timing wasn’t also just as perfect – because I do trust God, but not enough.

That kid, the one who’s home and life was filled with song, mostly worship, she did. The beauty of that childhood is a blessing. Not everyone had parents who valued music like mine. Not everyone had parents that valued the community our church brought to our lives. The blessings I had as a child, humble me.

It takes more work to polish up that faith that life has tarnished, beaten. I can’t help thinking the big difference is that life and work have marginalized my faith. I no longer run around the house worshiping, and I should. I no longer talk to God throughout the day as effortlessly as I once did. He is still faithful, waiting, working in me. He still rescues me and has plans that are far better than my own. I do still trust Him.

But maybe not enough

By Vicki L Pugliese

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