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.