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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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Joy

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

The 11th Mile

“How is your soul?” our pastor asked us to ask each other. “Tired”, “Fine”… I heard around me. “Wounded and a bit beaten,” was my response. It was such a small moment with such a big impact. My words stuttered as they came out. Emotion caught in my throat as the truth of them hit me.

As the day wore on, flashes of five years ago kept creeping into my mind. Five years ago my husband and I trained for a Disney Half Marathon – which we completed. For some reason my mind was connecting the feelings my words had described to that day.

I am not a runner by nature, and I’m slow.  My husband said when I jog it’s more like a cross between moseying and jogging. He’s not wrong.  It took a little over a year from when I first got off the couch and prepared for my first 5K. I was diligent at training. Don’t applaud my efforts too soon. I’m an “all in” and then “quickly all out” kind of girl – I get bored easily. Injuries have sent me back to my old ways and I have gained back the weight I lost. But that day when I was “all in”, despite an injured ankle – I finished my race. The finish line is not where I felt those feelings – that was at the eleventh mile.

At the eleventh mile I stopped and soaked my sore knee and ankle in bio-freeze, as did many of the other runners.  I made a pit stop, and when I came back out, I saw her run by; the balloon lady.  For those of you who have never run a half marathon, or didn’t run it at the back of the pack, there is a pacer and she has balloons tied to her so that you know that’s who she is. For a Disney half, you end up out running on the streets near the park. So for safety reasons, if you are behind the balloon lady at a mile marker, there is a bus sitting there ready to take you to the finish line. You are not allowed to continue – it’s a hard and fast rule.

As I saw her run by, my heart sank. I was already exhausted and there was over two and a half miles left to go, and now I was behind the absolute slowest I was allowed to go. I immediately took off in an attempt to catch up with her. I caught her and fell behind her several times in the next mile.  At one point she reminded several of us that if we were behind her at the mile marker, we would be asked to stop. I remember thinking I wasn’t going to make it. I had trained so hard and yet I was going to be asked to stop. It was defeating.

Then several of us began plotting her demise as we ran just in front of her.  She would laugh and tell us that she could hear us. It helped to lighten that despair, even if it was silly. Somehow the journey took on a value of its own. I was laughing.  I was enjoying commiserating with others but knowing I wasn’t going to give up. We encouraged each other. Eventually I would pull away from her enough not to have her presence be a constant worry. Worry is exhausting. I found my second wind, somewhere deep down and finished; running into the happy arms and smiling face of my husband who had finished much sooner.

That feeling I had at the eleventh mile – that’s how my soul has felt many times recently. I suppose I’m in the eleventh mile of my career. Close enough to want it to be over but tired enough to also want to give up and get on the bus. Some days I’m not sure I’ll find my second wind.  

I lost my job a little over a year ago. I was not a match for this little company I had joined. It’s been a hard battle back for my self-esteem. I was injured in the process. Injured where it doesn’t show, if you don’t know me. I long for retirement – the finish line. But in the process, I’m missing the journey.  In the process, I’m longing for my future and dismissing the value of my present. I see the balloon lady and I’m discouraged. It’s hard to keep working when you aren’t sure you can do it. When with every mistake made or unrealistic deadline missed, I wonder if this failure will be my undoing. The voice in my head is my own worst enemy. It’s like running and trying to keep up with the balloon lady, passing her only to have her pass you again.

Our pastor told us to pray for those answers we heard. Pray for those, like me, who answered honestly from a place of less than victory. And now, after my pastor’s question – I’m looking for my pack. The one that will plot the balloon lady’s demise… and make me laugh, and make me enjoy the journey again. I need to find my “communitas” as our church calls it. I need to fight for my joy and I need their help with that.

I’m looking for them now. I’ve realized how much I need them, so I won’t end up on the bus. How much I need them to change my focus because I’ve realized I don’t want to quit. I want to finish the race. I want to finish and run into the smiling arms of Jesus. Somehow I think someone else out there is looking for their pack too. I want to encourage you to fight for your joy. Find your pack. Don’t miss out on the journey wishing for the finish line. Because the best memories are there even in the eleventh mile and you’ll miss them if you get on the bus.

 

 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

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