“I shop therefore I am.” That’s what the refrigerator magnet says anyway. The little magnet may be truer than we care to admit.
It was intended, no doubt, as a humorous turn on skeptical philosophy. The bedrock of what we can know was blasted by philosophers who doubted that we could prove even our own existence. This challenge was met by René Descartes who gave that proof as, “I think therefore I am.”
So the twist is quite appropriate. The philosopher’s thought was itself the proof of his existence. Today we, who are the later result of that same thinking, are reduced to being nothing but a shopper. Our existence is not about what we think, but what we buy.
Yes, I know the magnet is supposed to be a joke. But hang with me here, because there is some truth to what is underneath the humor and it relates very directly to our understanding of God.
Your identity can be made up of the products you buy. Don’t believe me? Imagine a man in fitted khakis, an Oxford cloth button down shirt and tassel loafers. He looks like he stepped off the page of a Land’s End catalog. Now picture a teenage girl in impossibly baggy black pants with chains hanging from them, a t-shirt that says “I’ll wear black until they make something darker” and frayed Chuck Taylor high top tennis shoes. Finally, think of a man dressed in a blend of well worn Real Tree camouflage pants and jacket with a Dixie Outfitters shirt and work boots.
I could go on, but you get the point. Each of them is wearing something more like a uniform for their place in society. You are what you buy.
Pushed further, we also see that the stores we shop in and the restaurants where we eat are designed to encourage our consumption. The kind of money once spent only to make great cathedrals went for decades into making the contemporary equivalent, a mall.
Every store from the greatest to the least is designed to encourage spending. The racks by the cash register are, after all, not for your convenience, but to maximize impulse buying. Your purpose for the great retail chains is to contribute as much as possible to the quarterly earnings statement of the company. You are the consumer of the goods they sell, but the stores want to consume as much of your disposable income as possible.
“I shop therefore I am” may be more of a cultural ideal than one would first think. This doesn’t just apply to the shoe-obsessed woman or the man who collects firearms and is always looking for the next gun show. The rest of us are consumers too.
Within this way of living where we can be defined by our shopping, everything becomes about my needs. What sort of car or living room set defines me as a person? What TV do I need to watch movies or NASCAR or CSI?
Without realizing we are doing so, it is easy to take this same consumer way of looking at the world into church with us. This way of thinking about church begins with me and my needs. What programs does this church offer me and my family? Is this church meeting my needs?
I am the first to agree with the idea of church shopping. If you are new to a community, you do need to find the church that is the right fit for you and your family. It needs to be a place where you will be comfortable enough to come frequently. The church you choose will need to be able to help you connect more fully to God. So the right fit does matter.
But beyond the right fit, you don’t need a church that meets your needs, because God is not another product to buy. God is not another way of meeting your needs. God is the creator of everything who lovingly made you for a relationship with him and with other people. God is not another product to consume and you are not to have your needs met all the time. There are times when what you need most is to help someone else get what they need. You are to love God with all your heart, mind, and soul and love your neighbor as yourself. That is the heart of everything Jesus taught and how he lived. “I love therefore I am” would make a much better magnet. Give me a little more room and I will make it read “I love God and my neighbor, therefore I am.”
So the church does not exist to meet your needs. The church exists to show you the needs you never knew you had, needs that go beyond the right house, car and clothes. Because after you get the house, car and clothes perfect, you will still be you and you will be even more miserable than before if you don’t work on the part of you that has nothing to do with what you buy.
Read through the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel where Jesus deconstructs a consumer mindset. The New Living Translation puts it this way:
“Life consists of far more than food and clothing….Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? Of course not! And if worry can't do little things like that, what's the use of worrying over bigger things?...Don't worry whether God will provide it for you. These things dominate the thoughts of most people, but your Father already knows your needs. He will give you all you need from day to day if you make the Kingdom of God your primary concern….Wherever your treasure is, there your heart and thoughts will also be.”
You were not created to be a consumer. You were created to be so consumed with love of God and love of neighbor that you come to realize that life isn’t all about you. In the process you can become more fully yourself than you could ever become by defining yourself through what you own.
Check you consumer tendencies at the door to church. Forget asking God to give you what you want and try asking God what it is you really need. I promise you this: what you really need is not available in any stores.
(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church.)
King of Peace Episcopal Church + P.O. Box 2526 + Kingsland, Georgia 31548-2526