Every day, it seems, I find myself looking up words and their etymologies, trying to get at the root of what something I've just read means. Sometimes it's a word in the Bible, and I end up wading my way through ancient languages I've never studied, searching for clues. Other times it's just words from daily life that suddenly pertain to some matter I'm struggling with or considering. Often the word has changed over the centuries; I find such words particularly fascinating—particularly when, as is often the case, the word's current meaning is at odds with what it once meant. Some of these word studies find their way into my writing projects. My goal is to post new words weekly, sometimes brand new material and sometimes excerpts from my books.

03 August 2007

Locating—and Loving—My Circle of Influence

My daughter Charlotte just got back from camp a couple of weeks ago. It was her first summer in leadership training, and she came home bragging about all the work she had done. In addition to washing dishes nightly and serving the other campers their food, she was part of a work group that hauled and split logs, scraped the rust off of outdoor furniture, collected trash, and spent fifty hours doing community service which amounted to clearing out a vacant lot full of probably toxic junk and weeds so overgrown they had to use machetes to get through them. She came home with blisters and scrapes and bug bites and bruises and an enthusiasm for hard work that was entirely new to me. "I want to find some more community service to do!" she planned out loud, as she hummed the camp theme song for this summer, which was something about being consumed.

This glow, this enthusiasm for hard week, lasted just long enough for me to manipulate her into cleaning her room to welcome her friend from Atlanta, who spent last week with us. By the time the friend left, so had Charlotte's sweet desire to serve, and now she's back to her old teenage self. Her shoes are piling up inside the front door, her room cannot be discussed in this public place, and her freshly washed clothes waiting to be hung up to dry are starting to smell moldy.

Just the familiar story of the camp high that goes away when you've been home a few days, I'm sure you're thinking if you've ever been to church camp. (I haven't, but the youth leaders always talk about this phenomenon at the chapel to which we parents are invited when my girls go to camp.) Today it occurred to me that there's another problem at issue here, though. Not the problem they warned about in the camp chapel in an effort to fix it, but rather one that church camps—and, frequently, churches themselves—cause in the first place. Namely, the mistaken belief—common to all sort of missionaries, religious and secular—that service to others is primarily to be accomplished by going out of one's sphere of influence, rather than deeper into it. Evangelism and service to one’s community are thus appropriately called, in current church lingo as well as the social services communications of the secular community, “outreach.”

My family and I have recently been visiting churches with youth groups—our old one had none—looking for a spiritual home with more appeal for our daughters. The kids in these youth groups plan expensive mission trips to Mexico and Uganda and return with glowing reports of how they painted a community center somewhere or helped pour a church foundation. But not one kid has approached either of our girls at church and said, “Hey, you want to hang with us?” As far as I can tell, none of the adults leading these youths has told them that it is just this sort of inreach—to the lonely and churchless and needy and damned within their community—that is likeliest to reach the goals they are purporting to set in doing mission work in the first place.

Yes, I am aware of the Great Commission. And that even in the Old Testament God was forever telling his chosen people to "go out" somewhere. And that Jesus told us, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even life itself—such a person cannot be my disciple.” But Jesus, we know, was being hyperbolic here to emphasize his own importance over fidelities we are probably already honoring. He didn’t mean we were to hate those around us any more than he meant we were to hate life by committing suicide on his behalf.

I'm ranting, I know—and I was going to give that up, I think I reported in a recent post. But this isn’t just about my daughters. And it isn’t just about the missionary kids—frequently among the neediest of my students at the Christian university where I work—who were raised in boarding schools instead of at home with their missionary parents. The business of outreach—of mission work and social justice and volunteerism—is becoming increasingly a topic in the news and, correspondingly, for me as well.

Here’s the thing. Although I have a longstanding love for other cultures, I believe our first mission work—our first calling—should be to address the needs within our communities. Not the aliens in some other place—They aren’t even aliens there!—but the aliens in our midst. Not orphans in Russia or China, but our kids’ friends—maybe even our own kids—that come home from school to empty houses and microwave Hot Pockets for dinner. Not even the widows at church—though they are certainly worthy—so much as the widows God has selected for our very particular notice—my mother-in-law, in my case. Over those close to us we have more influence than we have over recipients of our charity that we see for the space of a morning or a week or even a year and certainly more influence than we have over someone we never meet at all but who simply receives a portion of the check we sent to some organization we hope is trustworthy.

My particular widow, at 85, increasingly needs help with daily activities like shopping, driving places, visiting doctors, but she’d never accept help from anyone but one of her own family. Although Mamaw—as we all call her—is undoubtedly lonely and her days are long, she locks herself in her house and longs only for the company of Charlotte and Lulu or Kris or me. She hangs on every sentence that drops from my mouth, listens to me read my essays aloud, and tells me only complimentary things. She’s conveniently located—just a quarter of a mile from my house—and it doesn’t cost me a thing besides time and patience to assist her. She’s also the recipient of my notice likeliest to appreciate and remember it. She is the widow I should find easiest to love.

But in other ways she is the hardest to love. She calls me perpetually, stays on the phone longer than I want her to, repeats herself, can’t hear and won’t get a hearing aide, and generally gets on my nerves. She needs more and more, the older she gets. I have no doubt about my call to mission work in her regard. She is definitely the one God intended me to think about when he told me to look after widows.

Some of my more socially just friends—with whom I like to argue on this topic—tell me, Yes, but why not do both? Love your widow and widows at large! Your aliens—like the international students in my classes and the Vietnamese checker in the grocery store—and those in other countries. Your orphans—those kids who have never eaten squash before and blithely throw trash out my car window when I take them somewhere—and the child prostitutes of Thailand and the Walking Boys of Sudan (who are now men) and and and. You see the problem. It’s overwhelming how much good work there is to do out there. And the time and effort you spend on one area of service, necessarily takes time and effort away from another. This is an aspect of charity I have never heard discussed in church.

The poor will always be with us, Jesus said. And the widows, he might have added. And the aliens. And the orphans. The best we can do is focus in on, as he did, the needy ones we encounter in our daily lives. Love them. Touch them. Minister to them. And above all, get to where you enjoy them—instead of viewing them as a hated chore that slips further and further down the to-do list and then, thankfully, off the page and past your notice entirely.

Dickens’ appalling character in Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby, who neglects her many children in her devotion to the “natives” in Africa, and, similarly, the Suffragette Mrs. Banks, who ignores her children in the Disney adaptation of Mary Poppins (in P. L. Travers’ novel she is a much more sympathetically rendered feminist who does not return to her childrearing duties at the end of the book) demonstrate well the kind of faulty prioritization I am objecting to here.

And the mispriorization of love that I, unfortunately, too often end up emulating. Even as I type these words, the neglected waif Lulu stands behind my chair, trying wistfully to get my attention. I have been working, she says, all day. Now it’s her turn.

So, with that, I will end this weird little mission work of ranting that I am doing here and make dinner or ferry the girls down to their Mamaw’s house or do whatever it is that she’s wanting. And then, in the spirit of inreach, I will go hang Charlotte’s damp clothes before the mildew sets and I have to wash them all over again.