Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

Fall in the Blue Ridge

Colors, colors, colors

Hiking on her own two feet

LOVES the woods

A perfect moment

Running up Mt. Pisgah, embracing the woods - and the world - with joy

Some days, gratitude wins. Not nearly as often as it should, but sometimes, thanksgiving wins the the day. Like on a day I get to go on a walk in the beautiful Blue Ridge that surround us, with the two remarkable girls who are - always - the very best part of each of my days.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keeping Watch

I'm spending the night in a church building, for the first time in a long time. Having a hard time remembering exactly when the last time was, to be honest. Likely, it was a youth lock-in in Santa Cruz -- and even then, I suspect I didn't stay all night, but 'let' the wonderful youth leaders do so and joined them again for breakfast after sleeping in my own bed for a few hours.

This time, it's different. This time, I'm awake - intentionally - for my share of the night. We're hosting a mobile women's shelter this week at our church, a shelter called Room in the Inn that operates in Asheville every night of the year. It happens to also be a program of the agency I work for (www.hbofa.org). So I have some insider knowledge in some ways. The women who are sleeping the rooms off the hallway where I am keeping watch are women I know, at least a little. I see them most days when I go to work, I know a little of their stories, of the circumstances that have led them to need an emergency shelter bed. I'm not here, though, because I supervise the program they're in. I'm here because this is my church. I'm here because it's necessary to put my feet where my words so often go. I talk with faith communities all over town about how we all must engage with our entire community, including those experiencing homelessness. And, so, tonight I am here in my church building, keeping watch.

It's not a particularly exciting position, sitting here in the hallway with bad lighting, finding ways to keep myself awake that don't involve a crying child or other reasons I'm accustomed to having for being alert from 1:00 a.m. onward. I'm reminded that I still want God to appear to me in spectacular ways, to make it all loud and clear - everyday - just which steps I should be taking to find Jesus in the shape of my days. And, truth to be told, I do get some pretty spectacular opportunities in the forms of my loving spouse, in our precocious and beautiful daughter, in the surrounding mountains and trees being touched with fall colors, in the faces of friends, in the support of gifted co-workers...the list is long, when I take time to think about it. I simply don't often take time to keep watch for all the ways the Holy pervades even the most mundane parts of my day.

This week has turned out to be a more-than-full one, as most do. Balance among work and family life and personal time struggles to find its place. Leaving my girls to come to this hallway post was hard, and I didn't want to do it. But these very early morning hours have reminded me that this overnight task is actually all about that balance. Keeping watch here reminds me why I'm called, in this moment in time, to the work I'm given to do each day through Homeward Bound. Keeping watch here is about my family life, and the community we want Abby to know, to value, to work for - a community where we take care of one another, in all circumstances. Keeping watch is about the quiet and personal time I crave to discover God's presence over and over.

It's just before 5 a.m. Soon the night sounds will turn to early morning waking noises. I'm turning off the computer, putting down my coffee cup, and giving thanks. Thanksgiving for the night, for the quiet, for the strength of spirit permeating the walls where these remarkable women sleep, for the holy that is in it all.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

To Our Two-Year-Old

Dear Abigail,

You’re sleeping right now, in your room, on the floor – because you refuse to get back in your bed these days after we will not let you keep running out of your room after bedtime.  So, you’re sleeping right up against your door.  I can see your blanket peeking out in the crack of space between the door and floor, as well as tiny glimpses of the stuffed animals and ‘babies’ who always accompany you during the night. 

Two years ago on this day, I was still waiting to meet you.  You were being pretty stubborn about coming out into the big, wide world, and had made yourself nice and comfortable in your Mommy’s womb.  We were ready for you to hurry it up – Mommy especially was more than ready for you show yourself to us.  And, finally, at 4:55 a.m. on September 30, 2008, you did.  My life has never been the same; from the moment I saw your immediately inquisitive and beautiful blue eyes.

You’re officially two years old tomorrow, a fact I almost can’t believe.  You are both so grown-up and so very young – sometimes in the very same moment.  Your vocabulary increases daily, as does your independence and your tendency to push every boundary you find.  Watching you discover the world is like discovering the world all over again for me too, through your amazing eyes, your open-wide heart and your incredibly adventurous spirit.

You remind me, every day, to open my eyes in a new way every time I walk out the door.  You show me, every day, that my heart closes too quickly, that I judge too harshly, that loving our neighbors (literally and figuratively) is not as hard as I’ve convinced myself that it is.  You push me, every day, to let go of my self-doubt, my insecurities and the demons that plague me to welcome the world and all of its chaos, to embrace myself and all God continues to create me to be.

I’ll admit that there are moments when I wonder why we thought we could be parents.  Particularly when you decide not to sleep – which was true mostly when you were a baby, and refused to nap at all and still woke up every 3 hours all night long to be fed.  I’m not so good at losing sleep, turns out.  Your mommy is better at adjusting to that than I am.  I wouldn’t trade those moments, though, even the middle-of-the-night moments trying to get you back to sleep while wondering if you were going to permanently damage my hearing.  You were then – and are now – worth every difficult moment, every 5 a.m. morning I don’t want to get up.  Because as soon as I see you, as soon as you look at me, lift your arms to me and lay your head on my shoulder, I remember how much I love you.  And I remember that the gift of loving you is a part of what saves my life everyday.

You make me a better person, the love I have for you creates new life in me all the time – new life that, in turn, helps me do the work God asks me to do.  New life that teaches me compassion and patience; new life that demands me to not be content with the world the way it is; new life that gives me what I need to stumble toward Jesus, to find Christ’s dwelling places here in this time and place.

Your Mommy says that your laugh, all by itself, could really go a long way in bringing about world peace.  She’s right about that (she’s right about a whole lot – almost all the time, but don’t tell her I said that).  You are so much like her, more like her everyday, seems like.   And I marvel at the blessedness of my life – that I go to sleep each night with a person as incredible as your Mommy, and a beautiful daughter, inside and out, just down the hall.

Thank you, Abby, for the honor and gift of being your Mama.  It’s been an incredible two years, and I look forward to the many ahead of us with all kinds of joy.  Happy 2nd Birthday, Abigail.  I love you, and am grateful beyond words to call you my daughter.


Friday, July 30, 2010

Slow Time

My girls w/ first fruits from the garden

It's been an upside-down summer, a summer that has not gone at all as I had planned, as we had planned as a family.   Lots to be grateful for, particularly for health and health insurance.  I started trying, a few weeks ago, to be intentional everyday about the gratitude piece of all of this - because it's really easy for me to get stuck in the frustration, the plans gone awry, the maddening pace of recovery from major abdominal surgery, the inability to parent Abby in the ways I need to (did I mention she hurt her foot last week making it impossible for her to be very mobile, thereby doubling my uselessness and Shannon's way-over-loaded household of people to have to take care of?). 

Today, on my morning walk - the only exercise I'm allowed, but exercise I'm encouraged to do and so have been doing religiously - I realized that I'm beginning to see the value of the slow time I've been forced into.  Yes, yes, I know - should be obvious.  But I'm pretty thick-headed when it comes to myself sometimes.  I can be good at telling others, like lots of preachers, that balance is incredibly important.  I tend to be horrible at it myself.  I thrive in jobs where the demand is constant and the challenge bar is set higher everyday.  I create long lists of expectations in my head about what I should be accomplishing at home every second that I am there.  My teaching, you see, both by example and word, was very centered in being productive at all costs -- and being productive means endlessly moving.  There's no slowing down, no relaxing.  If you do, then you're failing somehow, not good enough, not doing whatever it is you're supposed to be doing.

Abby and our goddaughter, Elisabeth
And so I can admit, out loud now, that there's an enormous lesson for me in all of this - that there is much for me to be attentive to in the slow time that has been forced upon me.  I have friends and colleagues who have traveled the world and the United States this summer, in all kinds of incredible ways.  It took awhile to discover that this small corner of the world is all I needed to see for now.   I can also admit that there are moments I even like it, that I enjoy the not rushing around that I am not physically capable of just yet.  Because all kinds of things happen in the slow time: gardens grow, toddlers discover the world beyond themselves, family comes, dear friends visit from the West Coast, loving spouse simply loves and cares.  And, as I write this on a small, screened-in deck in the mountains of western North Carolina, fireflies come out to play - to wink their light, to display their mystery held in brief, spectacular lives.  There's nothing more to say other than a prayer of thanks to the One who creates, and holds, the winking, shining fireflies - and who creates and holds me.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Right, Not a Reward

Possibly a further sign of healing - a post not about me.  I'm linking to an article written by a friend of mine, and published yesterday in Asheville's weekly free alternative press.  My faith tells me that all people are born equal, all people worthy of what is needed to live in freedom and in health.  Housing is one of those things needed - it's not a reward for a life well lived.  Being housed means many different things, but every person should have a roof over his or her head that is safe and dry.  Creating housing to truly meet the needs of a diverse community is contentious anywhere.  My friend Robin Merrell has done an excellent job of elucidating the situation here in our community.  I'm fortunate to call her both colleague and friend as we work toward a community that truly welcomes everyone - including having housing for all.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Tonight I'm able to simply feel gratitude, something I have struggled to uncover these last couple of weeks.   And uncover really is the right word - I've been thankful, deeply deeply deeply thankful for so much from the moment we entered the emergency room two weeks ago.  But I haven't been able to really feel it, it's been covered up with frustration and fatigue and the overwhelming feeling of uselessness.

Tonight, though, tonight I feel gratitude: for my exceedingly patient and loving wife; for our daughter whose unabashed joy at everyday things like running through the backyard and hugging her animals makes everything better; for co-workers who love me and care about me beyond what I can do for them in my job; for caring folks from the church who pray and bring food; for my parents who worry because they love me so much; for health insurance that made surgery possible...so many things, so many people, so many moments for which to be thankful.

I'm realizing that this healing is all about uncovering, removing what has made my body unwell for many years.  The bad stuff is out now, physically.  And what remains is new, raw, finding its way to wholeness and health through my resting, eating good food, laughing with my girls, sleeping deeply and often.  And I'm grateful to have been given the opportunity to heal, literally from the inside out.  My prayer tonight, tomorrow, and onward is to hold onto this gratitude in some measure each day, to hold it with an open hand and welcome what the healing brings.

Friday, July 9, 2010


So there's mention, over and over, about fatigue in my instructions for recovery.  I'm supposed to avoid it by alternating periods of rest with those periods of activity I mentioned yesterday.  Except the only way to avoid the fatigue is to sleep, all the time.  To not go outside my bedroom, not have a conversation, certainly not think about anything more taxing than whether I want water or, well, more water to drink next. 

It's not just physically frustrating to be incapacitated by this -- though I'd just begun to make strides back toward better physical health when I landed in the ER last week. I'll get through the physical recovery, I'll start running again in a month or so and will do some very smart eating to make up for the weeks of so little activity.  I know that it'll be slow, but I can do that.

The hardest, most painful part of this is the weeks between now and then, trying desperately to slog through the fatigue that is permeating my brain.  On my very best days - pre-surgery - I need some help managing the chemicals that bounce around up there.  Adding this debilitating fatigue on top of my already not-so-stellar chemical make-up has made for some really long days.  Mentally, I have a very hard time imagining how to get through the stretch of days that are still ahead.  I feel empty, useless and in the way.  Not to mention the added financial burden of the cost of a major surgery that's my fault.  I know, I know -- it's not rational.  I'm very aware of that.  But it's my reality right now, and there's no how-to for this on my recovery instructions.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Periods of Activity

(Practical Reflections, Part II)

"Pace your daily activities to avoid fatigue, alternate periods of activity with rest."  That is the first line of instructions in my discharge papers under the heading: "Ms. Spencer's Activity After Discharge."  Makes sense, really.  Be smart about what you're doing so you don't do too much, too quickly.  I'm fortunate, my nurses were clear with me that daily activity really means laying on the couch.  I thought I'd share with you, though, what some of my periods of activity and rest have been.

Periods of activity include the following, with the appropriate rest described after:
*Walking from the bedroom to the kitchen for coffee, down the hall to the living room and sitting on the couch to watch Abby welcome the day with her various antics.
Rest - 20-30 minutes sitting to gather energy for the next foray for 2nd cup of coffee
*Walk back to bedroom to change clothes, very strategically pull on shorts and t-shirt, go sit down to eat breakfast with my girls.
Rest - 1 hour of semi-awakeness laying on couch, attempting to focus enough to read a book but really just holding the book to make myself feel more human
*Walk out of house, down 1/2 the block and back at the approximate speed of a turtle.
Rest - 1.5 hours of deep, drug-induced sleep.
*Go to breakfast at local restaurant.  1.5 mile car ride each way, 1 hour alertness in the real world.
Rest - 6 hours on the couch, narcotics and ibuprofen as comfort aids, with 2 slow walks to the bathroom and back plus a 15 minute upright period for lunch.
*A phone call about work, breakfast, talking with Shannon about her day, getting Abby ready for school (she's figured out how to help me help her get ready w/out me having to lift her at all), hugging my girls good-bye, blogging
Rest - I'm thinking it's going to be a 1.5 hour nap.  I'll let you know how it turns out when I wake up.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Practical Reflections, Part I

Here I am, a week post-surgery, and will issue a warning to those who may be reading this blog: you may not want to know some of the information to follow.  I am going to attempt, for a few blog entries anyway, to translate some hospital and doctor-speak into real-life language.  A practical guide to recovery from a hysterectomy, if you will.

So, today, I'm going to talk about the real truth behind taking good pain medicine, at least for me.  Good pain meds means narcotics, heavy-duty ones, delivered initially through a tube inserted into the vein in my left hand.   Now, you'd think this would be a wonderful thing - narcotics not only deal with pain, they also make you not care about whether you're in pain or not.  After having my gut cut open from belly-button down, this sounds as though it would be welcome relief.  (oh, yes, as an aside: my hysterectomy was "old school," due to complicating factors, so no lasers or anything else that can often make them easier these days)

Here's the scenario in my hospital room:  nurse comes in with narcotic all ready to be neatly and quickly inserted into my i.v. for almost instant pain relief.  Wonderfully caring nurse readies the i.v., pushes in the pain meds...and I feel instantly, totally nauseous.  Which is not so much of a relief.  So, nurse runs out for more meds - it seems that everyone, including me, is very interested in me not vomiting through the 3 layers of stitches in my gut.   An anti-nausea medicine is immediately pushed into the i.v. and the next thing I know it's 3 hours later.  This goes on for a day or so, different drugs being tried to see if I can handle any of them any better.   Suffice to say, I don't remember very much of the hospital days.  Incredibly patient docs and nurses finally found a combination of narcotic and anti-nausea that is tolerable, that doesn't immediately knock me out for hours and that, most of all, does not induce vomiting.

Also included in the list of my daily 'medications' is metamucil and colace, to attempt to counter the difficult side effects of narcotics.  If you don't know what those are, be grateful.  If you have had to make their acquaintance, you have my complete empathy.  And we'll leave it at that for today.

Oh - except to say, with all seriousness, that the doctors of MAHEC  Women's Clinic, the nurses and CNAs of Mission Hospital, and Chaplain Dorri Sherrill are unrivaled in their skill, their care and their attentiveness.  I could not have asked for a better place to be and I am deeply grateful.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Change of Plans

I say often that I am fully, intellectually aware that I have very little control over most things - and also freely admit that I have what some would term control 'issues.'  Being in control of myself, my responsibilities, etc. is very important to me, despite the often futile nature of attempts at control.

And sometimes I learn the futility of these attempts at control in big, resounding ways.  Like being in a hospital room as the patient, not the visitor.  Being the one who is having the i.v. put in, not the one leading the prayer and holding hands.  Being the one who cannot do small things, like putting on a pair of shorts, without assistance.  Here I am, that one, that person who has to let go and let many others take care of me, and also let others handle my daily tasks, both at home and at work.

None of this was in my plans for the summer.  We're supposed to be close to a Florida beach about now, meeting up with my dad's big, loving, crazy family for a week.  But I can't travel yet.  Apparently, hysterectomies are kind of a big deal, and  riding in a car for that many hours would not aid in my recovery.  And so we'll miss the week, a loss that causes my heart to ache.  My parents are missing it, too as are sister and bro-in-law.  Mom and Dad came here, instead, to help our little family adjust to my drastically-different-than-planned needs.  I hope I'll be a parent like that, able to go, work, be present, etc. when Abby needs me.

I won't post pictures with this entry, they're really not fit for public viewing.  Suffice to say, this change of plans is also a much-needed gift to my body.  I've been carrying around too much stuff inside of me that needed to be excised, once and for all.

Maybe these weeks that must, for healing, be slow time, will allow other pieces, other stuff inside, to be let go of as well.  I'm praying for that possibility, for the grace to let what binds be freed.

And, I am grateful, beyond all words, for overwhelming, loving support from all corners of Asheville, and all parts of the U.S.  We have such a deep, caring community of people in our lives - healing is  already happening, and will continue to, simply due to all that love, and all that hope being held for us.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Casualties of War

We've gotten - my dad has gotten - a reprieve from what could have been a very long summer of recuperating from major surgery.   No surgery for now, a re-check in six months and we'll go from there.  That's good, relieving news because it means no new cancer or returned cancer evident.  Much thankfulness for that.  And then there's the other news he's gotten, news he would never have known if he hadn't been going through all these follow-ups from his original bout with cancer 5 years ago.

I know, now, that when he returned from southeast Asia in the early 1970s, along with many others, he came back carrying Hepatitis B.  He got checked, etc, and it lay dormant for decades.  But it's now reared its ugly head, as the specialist said today, and he's pretty sick.  Sick, and also asymptomatic.  Meaning, if he hadn't had all these tests trying to figure out whether cancer was present again, he still wouldn't know he was sick.  He lives 45 minutes from one of the best specialists in the country, so much to be thankful for there as well.   Sobering to think that something so significant could have gone undetected...

Dad was talking to my mom's brother about it, who also spent time in Vietnam.  My uncle, he's a cancer survivor as well - survived serious stomach cancer that most people don't, a cancer directly related to his exposure to Agent Orange, a dangerous pesticide used to defoliate the jungle so they could have some kind of fighting chance in the guerrilla warfare they were thrown into.  They're survivors, my dad and my uncle.  And my uncle said to my dad recently - "We just can't ever get away from it, can we?"

My uncle, laughing with Abby her first Christmas

They are survivors.  And they are casualties of war.  War that will never leave them, just as it never leaves the thousands of other veterans who came back to United States soil.  These are two men I know, and love, and who have managed to hold down steady jobs, own homes, care for others.  And so they make me think of the many others I now know who also were in the jungles of southeast Asia or in Korea or the mountains of Afghanistan or the streets of Baghdad.  These others I know now, these men and women, their whole lives seem to be a casualty of war.  They sleep under overpasses, tents in the woods, abandoned buildings.  Their wounds are so deep they physically shake with the weight they carry.  Or they try and bury the pain with alcohol, or have been wounded in such a way that they can no longer carry on a coherent conversation.

These are the stories that need to be told when we speak of the costs of war, when we watch billions of dollars poured into creating more casualties like my dad, my uncle, the men and women who do not show up for a parade because they cannot tolerate the noise of the crowds and the gun salutes.  All of these, they, too, gave up their lives in a way that too many of us cannot begin to understand.  How many generations will do so before our guns are made into tractors, and our bombs into hoes and shovels to plant life, not take it away?

Saturday, June 12, 2010

An Uncomfortable Welcome

A reflection on Luke 7:36-50, written to share with some UMC folks tomorrow here in Asheville:

I love to cook – to try out new recipes, make up my own, tinker with spices and marinades and fresh vegetables. It’s long been a kind of therapy for me, really: my time in the kitchen, maybe a little music on in the background, a chance to step away from the events of the day and into space that is just mine, even if only for a short while. The routine of this has changed dramatically since the birth of our daughter 21 months ago. Life is not so quiet at home anymore, but it’s still something that brings me great peace, and joy, to prepare a good meal for my family.
We love, too, having friends and family over for dinner, the time around the table together to share our laughter, and our lives. There’s no china or special napkins or crystal glasses in our house, but we do try and make the place look presentable and even a little cleaner than what we live with day-to-day caused by our toddler tornado. I continue to be baffled at how such a small person can cause such significant destruction in what used to be at least a semi-orderly house.
We both work full-time, and so we cherish the moments when our little family of 3 is at home together, in those short hours between getting home and bedtime for Abby. The center of that time is the meal together, and now we’re all involved in getting both the food and ourselves ready to eat. Those few hours are my favorite time of the day. There’s somewhat of a rhythm to most days, playtime outside now that it’s warmer – a walk with the dog or swinging on the playset in the backyard or simply running around the yard to find the dandelions. And then after cooking a simple meal and getting the table ready for dinner, we all sit down together every night we can to hold hands and thank God for the meal, for the day and for each other. It’s an ordinary kind of life, but it does have some order in its chaos and I have gotten accustomed to the embrace of the rhythm we’ve created as a family.
But the last few weeks there’s been some disruption to that late afternoon order, to the rhythm I’ve realized I love so much. A young girl lives in the rental property next door to us, she's 8 or 9 years old going on 40. I suspect she's taken care of herself most of her life. I do not know the technical details, but it appears she may be a foster kid, being cared for by adults who do not have much of an idea how to take care of themselves. It's abundantly clear that she's been wanting her whole life - wanting for attention, for support, for love. The adults in the household behave much like the adults I see all day long in my work life. There's too much drinking, not enough conversation; too much yelling, not enough laughing. And so this young girl does what anyone would do who doesn't get what she needs where she is - she looks elsewhere for the attention she craves, for the love she needs.
She comes to my house, this young girl, just about everyday. Sometimes she’ll bring Abby small gifts, like hair bows or stuffed animals she must have had in her bedroom that’s a few short steps away. Often, she’s running or skipping or occasionally riding one of those silver scooters so popular right now. Always, she is loud: loud in her approach, her calling to Abby, her barrage of questions about our life and our garden and our dog and our house…you’ve probably known a nine-year-old or two yourself, and know about the questions. This young neighbor of ours has crashed into my comfortable, lovely afternoons with my little family and I have not welcomed her presence.

This story of Jesus we heard a few minutes ago has something to do with welcome, something to say about how we see God in our lives, it has more than a little wisdom to give about just what happens when Jesus shows up. Unlike some other stories we have of Jesus, he’s invited to this dinner party by the host himself – an influential and important religious guy named Simon. It’s very possible Simon asks Jesus as a joke more than as an honored guest. Some say that Simon would have seen Jesus as an uneducated country rabbi, really – a colorful character for entertainment and not someone who actually could teach Simon anything. Simon, you see, didn’t get to be an important religious guy by just sitting around. He has studied every book available, goes to services every time the doors open, keeps his kitchen and his table ordered just as the book says to do, and prays all the right prayers at just the right times. Some rabbi from the country sure doesn’t hold a candle to what he already knows.
So let’s picture the scene for a minute: I’m thinking Simon’s house does have china and fancy napkins and crystal glasses laid out for all the guests. Maybe even those little name cards often used at wedding receptions sitting by each place setting. Lots of important folks are there, the mayor, maybe, a more well-to-do rabbi, Simon knows all the best-looking and most presentable people in town. For a dinner party, they’re all invited. Everyone has a drink of highest quality in hand, making small talk, name-dropping, telling stories that reflect lives of order and tranquility and following the rules.
And then some uninvited woman walks in crying. If that’s not enough, this public display of emotion, she walks right to Jesus and washes his feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Then she actually kisses his feet and anoints them with oil. This was not the kind of entertainment Simon was expecting when he invited Jesus. He might have been thinking about tripping him up with a hard theological puzzle – but this? To save face, Simon immediately distances himself from Jesus by calling the woman a sinner and declaring that to be evidence that Jesus cannot be any kind of prophet. If he was, he’d have known this woman was not to be touched, and certainly not allowed at the table to touch anyone else.
So Jesus tells Simon, and presumably everyone else who could hear, a story about canceling debts, a story of forgiveness. And then asks Simon if he really sees the woman kneeling there, and proceeds to detail Simon’s complete lack of welcome to Jesus in contrast to the crazy, crying woman who crashed the dinner party with her extravagance. Forgive just a little, Jesus says, and you’ll get just a little love. Forgive extravagantly, and you’ll know and give great love. Jesus then starts another scandal by telling the woman her sins are forgiven, her faith has saved her and that she can now go on her way in peace.
It’s not quite the evening Simon had planned, I don’t think. The text does not give us his response but I’m guessing he’s more than a little mad, maybe embarrassed and incredibly uncomfortable in front of all these folks he’d invited to dinner. And, he’s probably wishing he’d left Jesus off the guest list. And the woman? We don’t know what happens to her, either, but I’m betting she never regretted crashing that party. Somewhere along the way, prior to this party at Simon’s, she’d seen Jesus and recognized the grace and mercy of God in him. She knew there wasn’t any amount of good deeds she could do to earn that grace, that peace. There weren’t any rules that would give her the mercy she had discovered she needed. But she had seen it in Jesus, and couldn’t contain her gratitude for it. This unnamed woman, with no fancy clothes or invited place at the table, she’s the one who understood forgiveness and love in a way that Simon could not fathom.
Simon saw a sinner. Jesus saw a woman. There’s a big difference, isn’t there, in the way the two men see in this story? I have no doubt that Jesus knew the woman had made some mistakes, wrong decisions, maybe even horrible ones. He also knew there was more to her than those sins. Just as there was more to Simon than the face he put on for the dinner party. I think it’s also important to note that nowhere in the text does it say that this woman was a prostitute, as is so often assumed. She may have been, but we do not know that. Truth is, it doesn’t matter whether she was or not. She could have committed any number of deeds seen as unclean or evil and Jesus would have still seen her as a woman, first. A child of God, first. Jesus would have welcomed her, regardless of her missteps, bad judgments or even harm she had done to others.
It is a most uncomfortable welcome that Jesus asks us to give to the world we live in, to the people we meet, to the neighbors who crash into our comfortable late afternoon routines. Realizing Jesus is how we see God most clearly is one thing, putting it all into practice and trying to walk in those steps is a huge leap of faith to take, every day. A walk of faith that will spin us around, turn comfortable routines into unrecognizable patterns, and maybe, just maybe move the world a little closer to the wholeness God intends for all of us.

I am fortunate to spend my days in a job working with co-workers I genuinely love, and truly blessed to be able to see Jesus among the most vulnerable and needy in our community. He’s there, I promise you, walking in and among the addicts, the mentally ill, those who live on the streets and in shelters, who sleep under overpasses and in abandoned buildings. We work daily to provide hope and help to the over 800 homeless men and women in the Asheville-Buncombe area. There are many who work with us, it’s no small job to work to end homelessness as I am sure you can imagine. The Salvation Army, ABCCM, the Western North Carolina Rescue Ministries, Pisgah Legal Services, the Western North Carolina AIDS Project, the Veterans Administration, the more than 30 faith communities that assist with the Room in the Inn shelter for women – these are a few of our many partners in this work. It’s work that Jesus calls me to, and I am grateful for the support of my family and co-workers that allows me to get up every morning and do it again.
I tell people that I get to hang out with Jesus at work. It’s true, and I’m grateful. What I’ve realized, though, over these last few weeks through the voice and presence of our young neighbor is that God expects more of me than that. God expects me to welcome Jesus at home, too. And it’s often no more easy to do that on a late afternoon when all I want is quiet time with my family than it is when confronted with a severely mentally ill crack addict who hasn’t taken a shower in weeks.
Our young daughter is helping me learn, though. She sees more clearly than I do, sees more like Jesus does, to be honest. Abby, in the true wisdom of a child, simply sees someone who wants to play with her. She doesn’t see all the baggage that comes with that – the outwardly dysfunctional family that this neighbor girl lives in, the inappropriate loudness and language, the awkward social behavior. My spouse is much the same, thankfully, so they’re both gently pushing me to extend the welcome to our neighbor that Jesus extends to us all.
The truth is, we’re all sinners. Not one of us more worthy of God’s welcome than another. Some of us wear our shortcomings right out in the open, for everyone to see. Others of us hide them deep inside, certain that if we do not admit to a mistake then somehow we’re better people. Most of us are somewhere in between: we make mistakes that everyone sees, and, at the same time, we squirrel away our deepest pain where no one can get to it. The truth is, Jesus sees it all. Just as Jesus saw Simon, who hid his faults behind all his rule-following and perfect dinner parties. Just as Jesus saw the woman who crashed the party, whose tears of pain and gratitude flowed openly for all to see.
“Do you see this woman,” Jesus asks Simon. We do not know Simon’s answer. But the absence of Simon’s answer gives us the chance to answer Jesus’ question for ourselves. For our church, for our neighborhood and our neighbors. Do you see? Do you really see me, Jesus asks?

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Worn Bedposts

I slept last night in a bed I have slept in - off and on - for most of my life. It's a twin bed, made of wood whose original finish has long been rubbed and worn down to a well-loved and well-used shine. Covering its mattress is a quilt, made by my mother's mother (Nanny to the grandkids) for me, out of quilt squares my mom stitched when she was 12. There's a matching bed at the other end of the room, with another quilt made of mom's quilt squares, this one made for my sister. Years ago, these twin beds were in a room in Nanny's house, and we slept in them there, under windows looking toward the Pigeon River and the rolling tops of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Abby slept in a portable crib in the room next to mine, underneath a quilt that was made for me when I was born. Throughout this house, there are all kinds of things with deep history, deeper than I know, I'm sure. My parents - well, mostly my mother - have lots and lots of stuff. Most of it, to me, is really just stuff that I hope they'll clean out themselves so I don't have to. Last night, though, sleeping in that old twin bed mattered.

Facing the mortality of my parents doesn't come easy for me. I want them to be around when Abby graduates from diapers and from college. The diaper graduation, we've got a great chance at making. College is another question (and, yes, it's okay with me if she chooses not to go to college). Spring and early summer 2010 haven't brought great news for them. And so I worry. I worry about their house here in central NC with long flights of stairs, I wonder if they're asking all the doctors and specialists the right questions. And I feel frustrated, and helpless, and sad.

Being with them helps. Seeing Abby with them heals. Abby following them around and wanting them to play with her helps them forget for awhile about all the tests, and the waiting, and the unknown future. And the worn bedposts comfort me, remind me of the depth of family at its best, and most life-giving.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Spreadsheets and Tractors

Too much of my time has been spent slogging through Excel spreadsheets the last several weeks. I get why all the data is necessary, and, truth be told, the numbers I search for and record help me tell Homeward Bound's stories. I've learned that this will be a big part of April and May for me in this job - it's grant application and grant reporting season for us. (and, yes, it's really always grant season, but several really big ones happen this time of year) It's been hard for me, though, and not because of the work itself - it's not difficult, just confusing sometimes. What's hard is that it's all piled on top of an already very full plate. Balance eludes me often, and this past month it's completely escaped my feeble grasping.

Today, I got a couple of good reminders that spreadsheets do not, in fact, capture everything. Shannon's been really sick this week, so I've been daycare-driver more than I usually am. Abby is now talking just about all the time. And, I'm learning to understand some of what she's saying. Most of the time she tries over and over to tell me something and ends up shaking her head at my complete incompetence at understanding her. A very important part of the ride to daycare is a stretch of road that is under construction. My initial reaction to this, of course, was irritation at the inconvenience of dump trucks and tractors and orange cones changing the traffic pattern.

Abby, though, is delighted with the construction because of the tractors. This morning, we happened to drive that way at just the moment that 3 tractors were moving around making noise, moving dirt, in general getting in the way of traffic. For Abby, it was her own personal show and she loved every second of it. "Tractor," she shouted, and pointed out the window. "Mama, tractor, tractor!" our little one exclaimed, and then laughed with pure joy. Tractors on an ordinary morning, getting in the way, reminding me that it is often what is right in front of us that's most important: my child's simple, extraordinary joy erupting from the backseat.

And the spreadsheets and reports? They'll get finished. After we find some more tractors tomorrow morning.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Jesus Moves in Next Door

What happens when Jesus moves in next door? Do you throw out the welcome mat? Have him over for dinner? Watch every move he makes in endless awe? Not if you're me. If you're me, you run into the house quickly without saying hello most days. I run for cover, want to hide under the covers and protect my safe little life in our predictable - albeit chaotic - household.

The stories we have of Jesus make it clear that God shows up in the least desirable, the down-and-out...possibly, those who make our lives most uncomfortable. I see it everyday at my job. At my job, not at my house. The last few months I've realized I like it that way. I can see Jesus, hang out for hours, throw out all kinds of welcome mats all day long. Then I get to go home.

"How will we know it's you," the disciples ask Jesus in Matthew 25. Jesus' responds with the mission trip slogan many of us know so well: "clothe the naked, feed the sick, visit those in prison..." It's a much-romanticized passage, one that too many of us have used to drop in and do good works -- and then go home.

A young girl lives in the rental property next door to us, she's 8 or 9 years old going on 40. I suspect she's taken care of herself most of her life. I do not know the technical details, but it appears she's a foster kid, being cared for by adults who do not have much of an idea how to take care of themselves. It's abundantly clear that she's been wanting her whole life - wanting for attention, for support, for love. The adults in the household behave much like the adults I see all day long. There's too much drinking, not enough conversation; too much yelling, not enough laughing. And so this young girl does what anyone would do who doesn't get what she needs where she is - she looks elsewhere for the attention she craves, for the love she needs.

She comes to my house, this young girl, or other neighbors' houses until she wears out her welcome. For several weeks, she didn't come over when I was home - I'm pretty good at non-verbal communication, and apparently it was very clear I wasn't interested in her company. But my remarkable wife, and my open-hearted daughter are - thankfully - much better at welcoming Jesus than me. And they're pushing, in their own very able non-verbal ways, to get me to welcome her too.

Turns out that it's not enough to hang out with Jesus at work. God wants more of me than that.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Number One

Right now, I’m less than one mile from North Carolina’s number one tourist attraction. 18 million visitors a year come through here, many of them probably using the very same motel room I occupy tonight. North Carolina is my favorite place on the planet, I should say that now, before going on more about tourist attractions. My roots are deep here, deep in the western corner of the state where I now live, running through the mountains and down toward upstate South Carolina where my blood is also intermingled with the soil - soil made of several generations of my ancestors. I’ve had the unearned privilege of traveling and even living in many extraordinary places, and I am grateful for each and every one. No matter where I was, though, my internal compass always pointed to North Carolina. It’s home, in a way no other place is able to be.

And it’s because North Carolina is my home that I am unable to sleep tonight until I write this. I hadn’t realized I was going to be sleeping less than a mile from the number one tourist attraction in my state. I came here, to Concord, NC (on the outer edges of Charlotte) to attend a conference for work. It was at the opening lunch that I learned, from the mayor of Concord, just how close I was to this place 18 million people visit each year. How could I have missed being one of those 18 million people? I’ve visited this state – or lived in it – every single year of my life.

Concord Mills is the number one tourist attraction in North Carolina. It’s a gigantic shopping mall, mostly outlet stores. It’s surrounded by just about every chain restaurant you can imagine, a multi-plex cinema, budget motels, luxury hotels, resorts, conference centers, and a very popular NASCAR raceway a mere couple of miles away. I don’t know what came first, but certainly an entire concrete city has built up around this mall.

It says a lot about us as a culture, doesn’t it? Pisgah National Forest, the winding roads that snake out from I-40 revealing beautiful land that’s been farmed for centuries, the white sands of the Outer Banks…not nearly as many people drive towards those places. Number one is a shopping mall. And tonight I added a “+1” to that 18 million. I exercised some restraint, I didn’t go into all the stores or even make it around the whole mall. The Stride Rite outlet pulled me in, yes, but I managed to not buy Abby the two pairs of shoes I really wanted to see her put her little running feet in. And I resisted the Osh-Gosh-My-Gosh store completely. For myself, I tried on a whole lot of clothes, purchased a small fraction of what went into the dressing rooms, and walked away from far more stores than I walked in. Oh – and bought Shannon’s birthday present. But I still went. And bought. Bought in, really. Bought in to the pull of sales and deals and one-day-only specials.

My spending has dramatically changed over the last several years, it’s become far more responsible and broader-minded – largely due to the influence of my wife, who has taught me a whole lot about faithful stewardship of our resources. Our conversations about finances (okay, some of them have been heated arguments) have led me to think more wholly and deeply about what money is in my life, and what the consequences are for how I spend it. More importantly, how I share it and use it for the good of more than me.

Thinking these last couple of days about NC’s number one tourist attraction has caused some of Walter Brueggeman’s writing to haunt me. I preached a sermon a few weeks ago that touched on Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…” Breuggeman says that what this really means is that God is the one compelling loyalty in life. The one, not one of, not equal with others…the one compelling loyalty.

Is that true for me? I want it to be. I see it being true for Jesus. In his ability to persevere with God’s message when people laughed at him, in his compassion for those no one else would talk to, in his capacity for learning from unnamed women who called him out, in his unswerving walk that led to the cross. The one compelling loyalty. The more true it is for me, the more maybe I’ll go to Pisgah, or find one of those winding roads off I-40 or visit the Outer Banks’ white sand. And find a deeper well of compassion – daily – on the streets where I work. Or notice more often my daughter’s sparkling eyes and rapidly expanding vocabulary. And tell my wife how much she teaches me everyday by how she lives.

To know the one compelling loyalty to God that Jesus did. That’s my prayer tonight.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Lessons in Home Improvement

Step 1:
Pull ugly wall-like substance off walls of original bathroom. (do this only if you have another bathroom to spare) Discover that this is a very time-consuming project. Allow your wife to finish it for you on her day off after she realizes you've done too much demolition to fix it. Assure your loving wife that you can absolutely re-do this mess. Drywall isn't hard, you've been told.

Step 2:
Do research for several months about dry-walling and tile work. Then decide it is far beyond your capabilities to put back together. Assent to some partial help from professionals.

Step 3:
Schedule professionals recommended to you. Wait 5 weeks for their 3-day job to be completed. Pull up old floor so that old hardwoods will be revealed. Notice there is no old hardwood. Call in a colleague's husband for advice. Listen to him when he tells you that you are looking at asbestos tile. Go buy materials to cover old floor. Read instructions about how to install new floor. (also, be glad you live within 2 miles of both Lowe's and Home Depot)

Step 4:
Install 1/2 of new floor. Again, allow your incredibly patient and capable wife to finish the job. Make sure most of the wall painting happens on her day off while you're at work.

Step 5:
Work at your day job all weekend. Come home to beadboard, baseboards, crown molding installed by your wife with lots of help from your daughter.

Step 6:
Do finishing touches on walls with your wife. Be confident you can install the sink with no problem. Try valiantly for the remainder of the day. Then call in professional help.

Step 7:
Be very, very grateful you have a loving and understanding and talented spouse. And keep your day job.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Reaching Beyond

Sometimes seems like things happen in a series of snapshots, or at least that’s how it all comes together in my head. The last few days went something like this.

A staff discovers things will never be the same again -- some are relieved, some heart-broken, all at least a little shell-shocked with the news of big changes. The boss manages to make it through the day on the steady and sturdy prayers of loved ones and wonderfully supportive colleagues.

A few hours later, it appears as though another winter storm is indeed going to hit. Less than 24 hours later, it does. Friday afternoon ends in the chaos of snow and sleet and staff members who live miles away getting home before getting stuck and clients rushing to get to the evening shelters to get a spot of the floor so the night is at least a dry one. At some point, there is also the realization by this boss that the entire Saturday crew will not be able to get to work. And probably not Sunday’s regular crew either.

Lots of snow, with a top layer of ice. Might not be a coincidence that my car is one that has all-wheel drive. I drove around West Asheville in my Subaru picking up the other two staff members who were close by, both of whom did not hesitate one second when I asked if they would work through the weekend so we could keep the day center open in the bad weather. There is no better group of human beings in the world than the people I work with – and I don’t say that lightly. They are the most selfless, generous and compassionate people I’ve ever known.

The thread through the chaos of the weekend was the Presbyterians. Seriously. Not that it’s a contest, but they won the award for the widest reaching arms this past weekend. Our emergency shelter for women that rotates churches each week for sleeping space was housed at Grace Covenant Presbyterian last week. The inclement weather plan for the shelter is for the women to move to a church in walking distance to A HOPE so the churches can keep to the nights-only schedule they’ve agreed to for housing these 12 women. They called Thursday and said they would keep them all weekend so they wouldn’t have to move and be out in the bad weather. And they did. First Presbyterian Church has been opening all winter on Saturday afternoons to give street folks a place to be inside with hot coffee, snacks, movies, games and lots of friendly faces. My friend M., the Assoc pastor there, called to tell me that their volunteers were going to spend the night Friday to make sure they could open the church Saturday afternoon – they didn’t want to take a chance on not being able to get back into town. And they did.

Saturday morning, a high school senior walked 25 minutes to volunteer because his parents couldn’t get the car out. Sunday morning, a Mars Hill student who volunteers regularly had her dad drive her into Asheville in his 4-wheel drive because she knew we would be really busy and that extra hands would be very helpful. And our women’s shelter director and her husband drove into town to welcome the women back from Grace Covenant, feed them homemade soup and give them some extra time for laundry and showers.

It was a full, difficult few days. And a big lesson in remembering what it means to reach beyond our own needs. A witness to what can happen when people take seriously what it means to follow Jesus’ commands in Matthew 25. A step toward understanding the life changes we all need to make for everyone to have permanent, safe housing available to them.

Balance eludes me, still. Working a 70 hour week was good for the shelter. It wasn’t good for my family. I suspect that struggle will not go away for me, particularly on weeks like this one where events beyond my control necessitate long working days. I like to think I’m working toward a foothold in some kind of foundation, though. Work-related, the new world coming at A HOPE will be more balanced for everyone involved and, I firmly believe, equip us to more adequately assist our clients in making strong and healthy lifestyle changes. My loving wife got into my calendar and scheduled workouts for me. I’ve made inquiries about starting to work with a spiritual director. Only steps, I know. But steps nonetheless. Steps that I hope will move me closer to balance, and closer to learning to reach beyond what I know to where God calls.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Year Later

A year ago I was still stumbling around a place called A HOPE, still wondering a little what was going on and definitely not having much of an idea where I might land in the midst of Homeward Bound of Asheville's (www.hbofa.org) chaos. Fast forward to a year later, to this moment, and it's clear my heart's invested and my soul tied in to all of that chaos in so many ways. Shannon reminds me (at just the moments I need reminding, she always knows somehow) that when I was a pastor I would say that working with homeless folks and poverty issues is something I would say I would do "if I wasn't in a church." And here I am. A full 18 months since I drove out of Santa Cruz on my last Sunday as a local church pastor.

I'm still coming to terms with it, wondering what to say about this crashing into a new career, maybe even a new - or should I say wider - calling from the One who creates me. It's been a whirlwind, to be sure, but also full of salvation and many moments of redemption. I've met Jesus face-to-face even when I've felt the widest chasm I've known between me and the God I seek. I said in a sermon once that the world's brokenness is not so easily passed by once you've glimpsed Jesus in some way. Unlike some other things I've said in past sermons, I still stand by that statement. And now I know what it means a little more. I'm pretty sure I am not any more equipped to deal with that brokenness now than I was when I wore a preacher's robe. What I am sure of is that Jesus brought me here, to this moment, to the A HOPE Day Center, to the streets of Asheville.

Many days I get up pretty early, and arrive at work in the dark, before the chaos begins when we open the doors at 7 a.m. to the homeless men and women of Asheville. I creep around the house, trying desperately not to wake up Abby as I tiptoe on our 1945 creaking wood floors. Most early mornings I fail miserably at this, and Abby wakes up as soon as I walk out the door - if not before, so it's certainly not just me having to adjust to this new career of mine.

And, so, in the dark and quiet of the morning, I enter into a different kind of sanctuary. There are no pews, no organ or grand piano, no majestic stained glass windows or weathered crosses of wood. Instead, there are mis-matched, dilapidated chairs down an entryway and lined around a room built for a quarter of the number of people that come through our doors everyday. Smells of cheap coffee, bleach, cigarette smoke and body odor are constantly in the air. (even though no smoking is allowed in the building) Most days I wear jeans, and use my former work clothes only for particular community meetings and appearances. We all clean toilets, and all clean up after ill and intoxicated clients.

My office is in the basement with a slit of a window at ground level. I retreat there for awhile before the other staff arrive. And I try to remember to breathe, try to remember to seek compassion for everyone I'll encounter that day - including the angry neighbor who doesn't understand why we provide space for all these "losers and junkies." I am grateful, every moment, for the extraordinary staff of people I get to work with - their hearts are big, their souls deep, their compassion and patience unrivaled.

Once the door opens, the work, the movement, the noise is unending until I leave the building since something is happening 24 hours a day in the building. At the end of the day, we've usually seem more steps backwards than forwards. Minute progress is celebrated and held onto tightly. 24 hours of sobriety is a beginning, as is even a passing mention of mental health treatment. We learn to begin, a lot, and then to begin again. We try to hold hope for folks who no longer remember what it is - if they ever knew what it was in the first place. On a good day, I think maybe we're helping save the world a little bit at a time. On a bad day, I think maybe all we're doing is stemming the tide of brokenness in our little corner of the earth. Maybe both are true, all days.

Some days, when I walk out the door, I get to drive a few blocks to the YWCA and pick up Abby from daycare. I get to walk into her little classroom, and her little feet come running toward me - or she just looks at me and decides her snack is more important for the moment. She wants to walk on her own now to the car, but she still reaches up to hold on to my finger. And our little family sits down for dinner, we say a blessing for the food, and enjoy the chaos of mealtime with a 16-month-old. Sometimes, even, after Abby goes to bed, Shannon and I are awake enough to talk about days before our heads hit the pillows.

I am blessed beyond measure. I am still trying to figure it all out - what life outside church work is, who I am becoming as a wife, mother, advocate and activist, continually seeking the steps of Jesus here in this corner of the earth. And I realize that my days are perfect. They are not without challenge or conflict, not without room for improvement, I still need more balance. But they're full of real life, messy and beautiful, stunning and broken.

Tomorrow may be the most difficult day I've faced in my professional life. Decisions I have had to make for the health and sustainability of the agency will affect my staff in incredibly hard ways. My soul aches. I pray for wisdom, for compassion. And, yet, despite what tomorrow will bring, I wouldn't trade a minute.

This life of mine, it's a real, full, messy, stunning life. There's a beautiful toddler sleeping in a room not far away who calls me Mama, and an amazing woman who still puts up with me who's sleeping in a bed that has space in it for me. For tonight, that's enough. For a life, it's more than I could have ever dreamed possible.