I have to admit something a bit painful out loud- I am addicted to shopping. It’s something I used to laugh about. Early on in our marriage Dylan would tease me each time I returned home from the store with a comment of “alright show me what you bought this time.” My closet became a popular place to borrow something out of for friends and family. I was prepared for any event- casual or black tie. Co-workers would also comment on how much they loved what I wore each day. It was always something new!
It started to not be so funny anymore three years ago when we moved into our new apartment and Dylan couldn’t put his clothes in the master bedroom closet with mine. He couldn’t even put his dresser in the room. Essentially, he had to move all of his belongings into the guest room to make space for my excess stuff.
I lost the complete ability to laugh about it one night when I was sitting in a Target parking lot with a receipt in my hand that reflected an amount of money I knew we did not have to spend on a shopping trip. I sat in my car, tears streaming down my face, trying to remember what event led me to the store in the first place.
I’ve done enough reflecting on the “why” behind this addiction to realize that it’s not actually about the shopping. Really, I have a desperate need for control. And the reason I need control is because I so badly want to feel safe. Shopping is just a poorly devised strategy to get me there. One that doesn’t even work. Because at the end of a day spent shopping I sit, surrounded by bags of new clothes with an astronomical receipt in my hand, filled with regret and still feeling wildly out of control and unsafe.
Shopping is not the way.
Have you ever heard of the concept “you are what you eat?” So, if you eat a donut then you’re a donut. To be honest I am not a huge fan of this framework because it can very quickly become shame focused. Shame festers and leads us down a path of bad and unhelpful feelings. I would actually argue that shame plays a huge role in leading us to our poorly devised strategies, like shopping.
I’m not here to shame you. And Christ wasn’t shaming his disciples in our passage today either.
Shame is not the way.
Philosopher James Smith takes the concept “you are what you eat” and reframes it in a way that I am much more comfortable with. He says that “you are what you love.”
The front of our bulletin this morning includes a quote from Smith’s book on this concept. He writes:
“Our hearts…are like existential compasses and embodied homing beacons: our loves are pulled magnetically to some north toward which our hearts have been calibrated. Our actions and behavior- indeed, our whole way of life- are pulled out of us by this attraction to some version of the good life. Liturgies, then, are calibration technologies. They train our loves by aiming them toward certain telos. But not all liturgies are created equal: some miscalibrate our hearts, pointing us off course toward pseudo or rival norths.”
A “telos” is an end goal. It’s the thing we most desire, long for, crave. Whether we recognize this as truth enough to verbalize it yet or not- we. crave. God.
Our entire being longs for God, or as Smith so eloquently put it, our “True North.”
All of the choices we make in life are an effort to turn ourselves back towards that True North. Sometimes, those choices lead us in the wrong direction, and without meaning to, we end up loving and devoting ourselves to false Gods: like control or shame.
In our reading from Isaiah 43 today God is reminding the Israelites that God is their True North. He proclaims in verses 10 through 13:
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
11 I, I am the Lord,
and besides me there is no savior.
12 I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.
13 I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it?
The Israelites have been tempted by other potential norths- They feel wildly out of control of their situation as exiles. They’ve been forced to live in enemy territory. They’re afraid and most likely don’t feel very safe. Their surrounding culture is turned towards other Gods, maybe some of the Israelites were tempted to do the same. Just to try and see if their situation improved by doing so.
But other Gods are not the way.
By the time we get to the New Testament, Jewish leaders like the Pharisees have clung to rules to gain control of their salvation and reorient themselves towards God. They demand strict obedience to religious laws like not socializing with unclean people and never doing any kind of labor on the Sabbath.
Following these laws sounds so stressful and awful. And, when people break them because they’re imperfect the Pharisees response is to shame them. Which we’ve already noted does not work.
But then Jesus begins his ministry. He shows his followers again and again in the gospels that rules are not the way.
Jesus heals people on the Sabbath. He hangs out with unclean people.
In chapter 13, right before our reading from the gospel of John this morning, Jesus has even washed his disciples very dirty feet right at the dinner table.
Jesus is a breath of fresh air.
And then he tells his disciples that he’s going to die. And if that wasn’t heart breaking enough, he also informs them that one of them will be the reason he’s taken and led to his death.
I would imagine that the disciples felt pretty out of control and unsafe in that moment.
So they start to strategize. Peter offers to go with him. Thomas wonders how they’ll know where Jesus is going. Phillip asks Jesus to show them the Lord.
And then we get to our passage from this morning. Jesus responds to these strategies and says, I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life.
God is our True North and Jesus is the only true and lifegiving way to turn ourselves fully towards God.
I think we can all agree that this past year of our lives has felt out of our control.
Our jobs look different or for some of us don’t even exist anymore.
We’ve been confined to home situations that are not ideal.
The constant threat of contracting a virus that can be deadly for us or for someone we love has weighed heavily.
And every time there’s a glimmer of hope that things might be returning to normal something new comes our way- an additional strain, numbers increasing in a new age group, classrooms shutting down again.
And we’ve all devised strategies to get through this. I looked up statistics, because I was curious. In March of 2020 when things first began shutting down:
- Calls to the national suicide hotline increased by 338 percent
- Alcohol sales increased by 55%
- And by May of 2020 there were a reported 81,000 overdose related deaths over a 12 month period. A 34% increase from the previous year’s numbers
These are heartbreaking numbers.
People have also added seemingly healthy strategies to their routines in the midst of quarantine and shut downs.
- Exercise routines were started
- Good eating habits became an achievable goal
- I personally added a weekly walk with my partner
But even those habits that we’ve decided as a society to deem acceptable, can disorient us or turn us away from God in less obvious ways.
- Exercise can become an obsession
- Good eating can lead to restrictive diets and body dysmorphia
- Even walks with a loved one can be sinister if the discussions engaged in on that walk aren’t exactly love based.
The point is not that we have to stop engaging in all the things we love.
Let me repeat that- the point is not that we have to stop engaging in all the things that we love.
But have we paused to consider in which direction these strategies are turning us? Are we intentionally inviting Christ into all spaces and through him reorienting ourselves back to God? Or, are we engaging in strategies that point us to false norths like shame or control?
Maybe your first step is simply recognizing your strategies. When you’re overwhelmed in life, are you turning towards a direction that may lead you down a path away from God? Be gentle with yourself in this space- try not to judge your strategies. Just be curious.
Maybe you already know what your strategies are and so your next step is wondering how, or if, God can be invited into that space.
If a strategy has turned into an addiction, this may mean replacing it all together. You might need to gain the support of friends, family or even a mental health professional.
For me, it meant inviting very trusted friends into my closet and allowing them to guide me through the process of decluttering and coming up with a plan for not letting my shopping addiction get so out of hand again.
Or, if your strategy has the potential to be healthy and life giving, it may mean continuing on and creating space for Christ to enter it with you. Maybe it’s intentionally adding prayer or some other form of worship in its midst.
Today we turn towards God by meeting Christ at the communion table. We remember the night that Jesus ate dinner with his disciples and told them he was the way. We can approach this table knowing that we are loved, seen, and forgiven. And we turn away from the things that threaten to point us toward rival and unhelpful directions.
Perhaps participating in communion this morning is your first step back towards our True North.
Whatever the journey of re-orienting yourself back to God through Christ may look like, know that you are loved. Just as we long for God, so too does God long for us. Christ walks alongside us in the journey back no matter how far in the opposite direction we’ve gone, and he is thrilled to bring us back in the right direction.