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.