I was saddened this morning to see a news story about a man who was trampled to death at a Wal-Mart in Valley Stream New York on Black Friday http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/29/business/29walmart.html?ref=business . Black Friday has become quite a cultural phenomenon in recent years as the day to cash in on some of the best bargains in the Christmas shopping season, yet more and more it is becoming a day when some of the worst tendencies in people surface, sometimes, as with this Wal-Mart, with very destructive consequences.
Upon seeing this story I was reminded of a passage from the Book of Romans:
What happened was this: People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn't treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives. They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand (Rom. 1:21-23, The Message).
The trampling of the Wal-Mart employee is a tragic picture of the deeper problems in our society. These last few months, filled with their economic woes, are really beginning to reveal how deeply we Americans have trusted in money and stuff and government for our happiness. Our world has become so confused that the only solutions that seem to get proposed or passed have to do with consuming more and buying more as if spending more money on useless things didn’t have anything to do with how we ended up here. This is like a drug addict rationalizing that just a little bit more drugs will actually give him the clarity to think up a way out of his addiction.
Yet whenever we start down the path of ignoring God, and seeking life from the various “cheap figurines” we will ultimately find ourselves in a state of spiritual, relational, and emotional confusion and clinging anxiously to worthless things or worse trampling an employee to death at a Wal-Mart early on a Friday morning.
One of the saddest comments on the Wal-Mart riot came from a Ms. Cribbs who said, “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since yesterday morning!’ ”…“They kept shopping.”
They Kept Shopping?
The Apostle Paul wrote a letter from prison to the church in Philippi in which he claimed to know the recipe for happiness—“I don't have a sense of needing anything personally. I've learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I'm just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I've found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.” Philippians 4:11-13 (The Message).”
We would do ourselves tremendous good to meditate on this truth during this holiday season, to revisit this passage over and over, to let it adjust our bearings.
Take a deep breath and ask yourself, “What matters to me?”
Your first thoughts will likely turn to your job, or your house, or that new car you’ve been wanting, or getting your kids into a good school.
None of these things are bad but what really matters to you?
Last Sunday morning I sat with my wife and kids around a camp fire in the Homachitto National Forest and read a passage from Matthew before we set off on a hike. I was truly dumbfounded by the sense of God’s presence with us in our connection to each other, in the beauty of the trees, in the cool morning breeze. It’s moments like those that I feel compelled to get out my digital camera and take a picture, knowing that it won’t do the moment justice. The best I can do in those times is to simply be there in that moment and enjoy it.
Just a few days after our camping trip I found myself sitting in a living room in rural East Texas hearing my aunt’s words of how she has been utterly transformed in her battle with cancer this last year. Dina and I sat listening as she told us how through the chemo, and the weakness, and the nausea, she felt a nearness to God like she had never experienced before. She could not deny the closeness of His presence. While she is not completely out of the woods she has found the richness of God’s life and love that transcends her physical pain and sickness. I get the feeling, as I listen to her that in some sense she has considered this struggle a gift. A hard, gut-wrenching battle, yes. But in it she has found the grace of God. And in listening to her stories we began to sense the very grace and presence of God among us.
Thursday evening, following the traditional thanksgiving dinner and the obligatory Dallas Cowboys game, my dad and I sat out on his deck late into the evening having a talk over a couple of cigars that lasted long after the cigars were spent. As we shared stories of joy and hardship, of wrestling with faith and meaning, of our family history and our own personal journeys, I felt the very same presence of God as days before. His presence was right there with us and we walked away a little bit different than before.
The truly great things in life, the things that matter most to us, the things which open our hearts and connect us to God and one another cannot be bought or held or saved but no doubt they exist and we have all tasted of them.
So why then do we forget and turn to worthless things so easily?
The apostle Paul found the secret recipe to happiness—A recipe which requires retracing our steps from the roadside stands selling trinkets back to remembering who God is, a recipe which demands that we lay down these cheap idols which only keep us confused and fragmented within and estranged from one another and turn again to the One who makes us whole.
And we can turn to Him, like Paul, even in a prison—hungry, chained, and surrounded by soldiers.
We can turn to Him even now in our offices, classrooms, homes, even in our relationships with one another.
We can turn to Him even in the midst of a battle with cancer, in relational brokenness, and in financial crisis.
Christmas gifts are fun but the truest most valuable gifts of all we cannot buy. Realizing this is the first step to receiving that which matters most.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”—Jesus
You can turn to Him right now.
Just stop what you are doing.
Let the veil of the tyranny of the urgent be pulled back so in this moment you can gaze in wonder on He who is your life.