Friday, May 23, 2008

My Testimony: A Love Story

My testimony, by Barbara Ruglio, presented at the Mothers Of PreSchoolers (MOPS) Spring Tea

When I began to think of sharing a story with you, my first task was to decide which one, because a woman of my age has many stories. I decided to tell you my love story. It is a story about a girl, some toads, her prince, and about how the story never ends there.

A lost girl

My favorite stories start when the heroine becomes of age, so I’ll start there too. I grew up in Belleville, not far from here, and attended Belleville High School and after that Montclair State College. Like all teens, I was searching for myself, and I found I had a talent for math, and for taking tests. Because of that, I graduated close to the top of my class in high school, Suma Cum Laude in college, with a BA degree in Math, a teaching certificate K-12, and a minor in computer science.

After student teaching, I decided that teaching was not for me. I wanted something much more glamorous, so I took a job at IBM as a computer programmer. In 1977, they were hiring like crazy. The office was filled with top-notch graduates, smart and ambitious, plus the current staff, men with gray at their temples, all in business suits, treating us new-hires, like equals. It was heady stuff. If you asked me what my goal in life was at that point, it was to be rich and famous, and as I looked around myself each day, I felt I had arrived. Relatively quickly, I moved up the ranks from team member to team leader, from project leader to manager.

My romantic life was not running as smoothly, however. I first fell in love in my sophomore year of high school with a junior I had met in an advanced math class. His name was Tony and he was an athlete, a gentleman and a scholar. Unlike some of the other boys in my classes, Tony had the good looks and charm that others had to wait to grow into. Eventually, my young heart was crushed by our breakup, his subsequent dating of other girls and his leaving town for college. Recently I talked to a mutual friend who told me that Tony had been married three times. God was indeed merciful to me.

I spent my college years exclusively involved with Stan, an ambitious young man who wanted to become a dentist like his father. Unfortunately, he also wanted a wife to stay home, cook, clean and iron his sheets, plus finance him thought dental school. He ridiculed my success, and was troubled by it because of his own academic insecurities. When I joined IBM, the light bulb went on, and I left him. But the damaged was done, and I spent the next two years not dating at all.

Enter the hero

A friend of mine was concerned that it had been two years since I had a date. Mostly she wanted to match me up with her cousin Al. Al and I had met previously 7 years ago, when we were both 17. At that time, we could not have been less interested in each other. But, 7 years later, I discovered that Al was one of those who had "grown into himself." We felt comfortable with each other immediately, and eventually fell in love and married in 1981.

My decision to marry Al was not something I did lightly. I had mistakenly attached myself to other men before and I was looking for a man of good character and someone who loved me for who I was. Al was all that. There were only two draw backs. One was, he worked nights, but I thought that would change as soon as he had the opportunity to work the day shift. The other was that he was unable to share with me on a deep emotional level. However, I thought that his other good qualities overshadowed that, and besides, isn’t that what girl friends are for?

Enter the real Hero

While my career and my marriage were settled by age 26, my spiritual journey was more complicated. It is difficult to pinpoint when Jesus and I started our relationship together. There are things I remember from childhood that when I recall them, I know now they were Jesus, trying to get my attention.

I grew up in a Catholic church, went to CCD, received my sacraments, and attended church. I had good experiences and bad experiences there, as most people do in any church environment. I was in awe of the nuns, in their black habits and large crosses on their chest and the wedding rings they wore. "We’re married to Jesus," they told us. Most of them seemed to have a spiritual depth and understanding that was beyond what other mere mortals had, but they were not able to explain it in a way I could understand. I remember desiring what they had, and yet, I did not. I wanted to live a "normal" life, with a husband and children, with a home and a car, like my mom and dad. They spoke of a "calling" and I wanted that, and was terrified of it, all at the same time.

When I turned 18, I left the church, but not God. We continued to have conversations, God and I, but I no longer thought it was necessary to follow the doctrine of the church I grew up in. However, being church-less left me spiritually ship-wrecked. Being connected with God, I found, is difficult to do on your own. By age 25, I was more open to getting re-connected to others. My friend Joan approached me and said she had been hosting a Bible-study in her apartment and invited me to come. Thus in 1980, I began to study the Bible in small groups.

In 1987, something extraordinary happened to me that affected all three of these aspects of my life: my career, my romance, and my spiritual journey. I became pregnant with my first child, Christina. Christina was due at Christmas time, and I had been attending a Catholic church in Montclair. As the season of Christmas drew near, and I grew swollen too, I felt a distinct affinity with Mary, the mother of Christ, in a way I never had before. The wonder of the new life, the fear of how I would care for her, the concern of how this child would affect my career and my marriage, was something I pondered as Mary did in scripture. Christina was born on Christmas Eve in 1987, and with that, I entered the mysterious world of motherhood, never to return to the other side.

I had taken a one year leave of absence from work, and at first, fully intended to return. Before Christina was born, I was still a woman who did not understand the great love a mother has for her child. After Christina was born, however, I remember looking at one particular day care center and leaving hugging my tiny baby to my chest and saying to her, "Never will I leave you in that place!" Of course, I didn’t give it much of a chance because, honestly, my heart’s desire was not to return to work. By summer, God had sealed the bargain for me. I got the news that my IBM department was moving to Connecticut (the joke was that IBM really stands for “I’ve Been Moved”). They were also downsizing, the first time ever for IBM. The package that year was the best of all the ones that followed, too good for a woman with a new baby to refuse: one year’s salary and two years of continued benefits.

In spite of that excellent package, leaving IBM was a great act of faith. In essence, we cut our income in half. I gave up my dream of being rich and famous, the business suits, expensive lunches, and business travel. I gave it up for poopy diapers, oatmeal faces, and being able to stroll my baby in the afternoons. Truthfully, many times I have looked back, but never with enough regret to make me want to return to where I was. Even now, knowing what I know and giving up what I did, I can tell you, it was worth it. Not for what it did for my daughters, that story is yet to be told. It was worth it for what it did for me.

What exactly He was proposing, and saying yes

All this time, I continued to attend Bible studies, but I was careful never to become "fanatical" about it, you know the way some people were, who just kind of lost their minds and their whole life began to revolve around religion. I thought that was silly and a dangerous thing, something that I, my family and friends ridiculed and avoided. Although I had continued to meet with friends and study the Bible, and I knew a lot more facts about God, I never became fanatical about it.

But that summer when Christina was a baby, I went to a Christian seminar with a friend from my current Bible study. The speaker read two Bible verses that I had never read before. It was Revelation 3:15-16 and it said, "I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth." The speaker explained that this meant that Jesus does not want us to be half-hearted about Him, He wants us to be a fanatic. Suddenly I understood. It was not enough to believe the standard information about Jesus: that He was the Son of God; that He died and rose again, and lives forever in heaven. That belief had to be deep enough to make a difference in my life. Jesus wanted me to commit to Him totally.

The speaker said, "If you are unsure if you did make that commitment to Jesus, make today the day that you are sure." So that day, June 24, 1988, I drew a sign in my seminar notebook, and put the date inside. I prayed the prayer and committed my life to Jesus Christ. Later I realized that that day was Christina’s 6-month birthday. I would never forget that date and the commitment I made on that folding chair, praying with the man on the video tape. That day changed my whole life, just as getting married and having children did. It colored my world, and suddenly everything took on new meaning.

One of the things that had held me back from making that commitment to Jesus was I knew I would be entering into another mysterious world, and I would have to leave my husband, and my family and my friends back on the other side. It was the most difficult thing I have ever done. But I finally realized that I had to make that commitment, even if it meant separating myself from those other people I so deeply loved.

Trying to explain

At first, I tried to tell them about Jesus, and my deeper faith. They did not understand. Some family members ridiculed me. Others just nodded. Al treated my desire for spiritual things as just another hobby, a better one than some of the other habits I had, especially staying out late with friends drinking at bars.

It is not that Al and my family were not Christian in their beliefs. They were. They believed, as I had, all the essential information: the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the virgin birth of Jesus, that He suffered, died and was buried, and rose again on the third day. It is just that this knowledge was not making any difference in their lives. They were not on a walk of faith. They did not have the intimate relationship with Jesus as I did.

I tried and tried to explain it. The response I continued to get was, "oh yeah? That’s nice for you. What else is on TV?" Finally frustrated, I gave up and just was quiet about what I did and what I believed. I felt like the nuns. I had moved into their world, and could no better explain what was different, or what had happened to me than they could.

When I started attending Montclair Community Church, my new friends here encouraged me to explain my faith again, especially to Al. They prayed for him, tried to get him to attend church social events, Bible studies and services. With each spiritual activity, I prayed fervently, "Please, Father, let this be the time!" But the Holy Spirit had His own timing, and it was not mine.

The Bible was clear on what I was to do. If Al was not interested in leaving me, which he wasn’t, I was to stay with him. My presence, even as the only one committed in this way to Jesus, sanctified my home, which is a fancy religious word, so let me explain. Because I was committed to Jesus, my family was set apart, like we put the fancy china in a different cabinet and use it only for holidays. We were like fine china to God, and He was able to work in our family, even though I was the only one committed in this way. I continued to pursue my faith, teach my daughters, bringing them to church without Al. I thank God that He led me to a church with people who never made me feel uncomfortable to attend without my husband, and always were exceptionally warm to him when they saw him.

Being myself, sharing myself

Eventually I stopped inviting Al to do "church things" with us. Instead, I devoted myself to my daughters and my work and ministry at church. I had joined the church staff as a part-time administrative assistant, led a Bible study and was involved in other activities. As I continued my faith journey, it seemed like I was leaving Al further and further behind, that we were becoming more and more disconnected. I think this is a problem for many parents as their children and work demand more and more of their time and energy.

Finally, I realized I needed to reconnect with Al, even though at first, I didn’t know how. He was still working nights and was still unable to share himself emotionally with me. But I realized that if I shared my faith walk with him, and my emotional struggles, even if he could not enter into the conversation himself as I would have liked, it was better than not trying at all. So I did this. I am not saying this is a magic formula to produce the results that happened for me. I am just telling it as part of my story.

I believe the real magic was in prayer: my prayers, the prayers of my daughters and dear friends. My friends continued to pray when I struggled and wanted to give up. I had always prayed for my husband’s safety, especially since he worked driving a truck at night. Eventually I began to pray the scary prayer: “Father God, do whatever you need to do to get Al’s attention!”

And God, in His faithfulness and mercy, got Al’s attention while still keeping him safe. One night, on his way back to the plant in his truck, he was hit broadside by a Mack truck, almost sliding into nearby gas lines. Although the impact alone could have killed him, he left the truck that night with a cut on one finger. Later Al told me what he was afraid to tell anyone else for fear they would think he was crazy: he felt an angel protected him that night. Al also told me that was a turning point in his faith.

Going deeper still

It was a year and a half later before I understood what really happened to Al that night. Meanwhile, although I had committed my life to Jesus, He continued to pursue me as a lover would, encouraging me to grow into a deeper and deeper relationship with Him. I began to better understand the nature of that relationship, and became better at explaining it, so let me try now with you.

When I was attending church as a child, or Bible study groups as an adult, it was like I was "dating" Jesus, like I had dated Al, and the others before him. I was checking Jesus out, making sure of His character, and that He really loved me for who I was. But finally, when I was ready (even though it took a really, really long time!), Jesus popped the question. Jesus didn’t want to "just date" me forever, He wanted to "marry" me. He wanted me to become His bride and for us to be together forever. Just like the symbolism of the nun’s ring, He wanted that with me. Me!

And as I explored this, I realized that Jesus didn’t even want my love for Al to surpass my love for Him. This is difficult to understand, and took me a very long time, but I finally got it, and here it is in a nutshell.

The greatest love we will ever experience, and the greatest love choice we will ever make is not about what career we will choose, or what man we will marry, or even if we choose to stay home with our children or not. Our greatest love, if we choose it, is to enter into a love relationship with Jesus. And He is there and available for all of us. We don’t have to be smart, or pretty, or young, or a good cook. Jesus wants us, He pursues us, and loves us just as we are.

I think this revelation was a turning point for me, that God wanted me to experience as well as all the turning points He orchestrated for Al. Just before our 25th wedding anniversary, I understood, and even wrote in my blog, that my love for Jesus had surpassed my devotion to Al, this man I so deeply loved, had two children with, and was married to for 25 years. Even if Al never changed, never shared my faith, Jesus was enough.

Watching him turn, watching him grow

For our 25th wedding anniversary, Al and I went to Pennsylvania, just to be alone and to celebrate. I was reading a Christian book entitled The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. As was my habit now, I read parts aloud to Al and we talked about spiritual things, and I restated, for what seemed like the millionth time, what it meant to commit your life to Jesus. And that night, October 10, 2006, the night before our 25th wedding anniversary, Al committed his life to Jesus too. Another date we’ll never forget.

Working in the church as I had been, I saw a lot of different families’ lives. I understood that there are no guarantees of a total transformation when a man makes a commitment to Christ. Still I wanted and prayed for Al to make a commitment for his own sake, even though I knew that it might not make a big difference in the quality of my married life.

I could not have been more mistaken. Al, who mostly read computer and car magazines, now not only reads the Bible daily, but also has been reading Christian relationship books. Now he reads them to me. I never prayed for Al to become emotionally deeper, although I wanted this desperately. I had under estimated how important this was in marriage. But God gave this to me too.

Al blossomed emotionally and now, he is my best and closest friend, in a way he could never be before. His commitment to Jesus changed everything, our marriage, his parenting, how he looks at his job, even our sex life. It has, as they say, "rocked our world."

This could be you

When I was asked to tell this story on Monday, I was not certain I would have enough time to do it justice. So as is my habit, I walked my dog and talked to Jesus. I wanted to make sure He wanted me to do this, because I needed His help in a major way. So I prayed and said to Him, "Jesus, if You are not in this, I do not want to do this, because without Your help, I just can’t."

And not to sound too mysterious, so hang in here with me, ok? I heard Jesus say to me "Do you really think if you did this, I would not be with you? Besides, this is not your story." Jesus said, "This is My story. I’ve just written it with your life."

Jesus longs to write His story into all of our lives. He wants to have a love story with you. But it must begin with you choosing Him. Jesus pursues us with a persistent and patient passion, but He never forces us.

I don’t know where you are this morning in your relationship with Jesus. If you are not "dating" Jesus yet, I hope my story has introduced you to Him. I hope it encourages you to start checking Him out. He really is a great God.

If you have already been introduced, and are "dating" Jesus, seeing if He has good character and if loves you just the way you are, I hope my story has assured you that He does.


Jessica said...

Barb, what a beautiful testimony!

How blessed the MOPS ladies must have been to hear it from your lips!

The Richardson Family said...

Hey Barb!!! Loved your "Love Story" really are gifted with your writing. Love you.

srjanesmic said...

Dear Barbara,

Since I did not get your story for critique, I thought maybe this was it. So anyway, I got to read this great story--one you really could publish to benefit many people. So beautifully told, with great glory for Jesus whom you love so much and who so deeply loves you! Sr. Jane

Gloria said...

Hi Barbara! Thank you for sharing, brought tears to my eyes!

Anonymous said...

Great story! I could identify with "Stan." I had dated a man like that when I was younger. My problem was, after that, I had developed this need to be abused by men -- I actually was attracted to that quality in a man. It took me years to get over that. I can only hope that "Stan" learned enough to change his ways. I often wonder about how those people turned out later in life.

Unknown said...

Barb, I loved reading this story. It is indeed a love story in every respect. Thank you for writing and posting!