I sat at the table on the lawn outside my door, the warm October breeze ruffling the pages of my journal as I filled page after page. The tears that threatened to spill from my eyes made it difficult to see his approach clearly, until he was standing right in front of me. I looked up from my writing and saw a face full of concern and kindness – the face of a man I only knew from afar, and not one I would have expected here, looking like this. “Hi. You look like you’re having a rough afternoon. Can I come join you?” My tears no longer contained at the evidence of his care, I mumbled a tentative, “sure”, welcoming his presence with a shaky smile.
Doug was on staff at our church, the church founded and led by his son-in-law. I had only met him once before, 6 months earlier, in this same place where we were both attending OHM’s SALTS (now The Journey) conference. My conversation with him then had been brief, just long enough to confirm that his rather intimidating appearance matched his personality. So what was he doing here now, and looking concerned no less? Over the next hour, as our conversation unfolded, we began to share bits and pieces of our stories with each other. I learned he was returning from a lunch that some men from his group had invited him to, only to find out that their invitation was a thinly disguised excuse to try and get information on his son-in-law – an up and coming, well-known pastor on the emergent church scene. I recognized in him a familiar longing to be pursued, included, and known.
I shared my own disappointment connected to belonging, disappointment that had touched a deep wound in my story as I watched all the other leaders meet up and head off campus for our long afternoon break. Being a first time leader, I wasn’t sure I even belonged here leading, much less belonged enough to ask any of the others if I could come along and join in on whatever they were doing. Instead I sat in familiar space, alone, listening to shame’s whisper that there was nothing loveable about me – so why would I be invited? The longer we talked, the more connections we found in our stories, and I experienced something incredibly healing as a kind, older man spoke words of blessing that softly landed in some of the deep holes my father had left behind in my heart. And I offered the curiosity of a genuine friend, one who was interested in knowing him, not in using him as a means of connection to someone “famous.”
Looking back, I believe Jesus incarnated himself through my friend Doug that day, bringing a love that I could tangibly experience.
I have come to love watching for the unexpected moments when Jesus shows up, bringing love and care to my anxious heart that fears I am alone.
What began that day so many years ago was an awareness of how shame from my past was dictating how I related to others in the present. I was so sure that there was nothing about me anyone would seek out, that I anticipated, and even unconsciously ensured rejection before it ever happened.
Over the next several years, each time I would return as a leader, my stomach would tighten up in anxious knots as Wednesday approached. Would anyone invite me to join them? Would I be brave enough to risk inviting anyone to join me? I had good experiences, and painful ones. And over time, something in my heart began to settle, and my question was no longer, “will I be alone?” but rather “can I be alone and still be ok? Can I make choices that affect whether I am alone or not based on what is best for my well-being at this particular time? Will I believe that I am good, and that my goodness is not dependent on being invited?”
I think back to some of the invitations I said yes to, from a place of fear. Shopping on the one day we get a break from the incredibly intense, emotionally draining experience of leading a Journey group…particularly when you HATE shopping? What possessed me to say yes to that?! Brene Brown suggests it is FOMO.
I remember the first time I read these words, feeling like they had been written directly to me. The fear of missing out had me saying yes to shopping excursions when I knew my introverted heart needed some stillness and quiet in my own space before re-engaging with the world. The truth is, there is no simple rule that can dictate my yeses and no’s. What is required is connection to that incarnational, invitational love of Jesus that tells me I am loved and I belong. Period. When I am firmly grounded in that truth, I can say “yes” or “no” from a place of gratitude, knowing that even when my “no” leaves me alone, I am still good, still loved. All I am missing out on is the maddening effort to convince myself of something that is already true. I will always be grateful that I didn’t miss out on Jesus’ invitation that day to sit with him and my friend Doug.
Janet Stark is a woman learning to bless her depth and sensitivity. She is grateful for the deep love she shares with her husband, Chris and their kids and grandkids. Janet loves curling up with a good book, trying new recipes on her friends and family, and enjoying long conversations with friends over a cup of really good coffee. She is a life-long lover of words and writes about her experiences here.