If you watch television, you will come to believe over time that your calling in life is to buy and consume – food, cars, technology, clothes, hair products, movies, music, books, sex, alcohol, and more television. These things are so seductive. They are salve. You know that feeling of putting your hand under cold water after you have burned yourself on the stove? Instant relief. The pain ceases immediately and all you want to do is hold your hand under flowing faucet until the burn heals. This is how I am with consuming. Other than food that I actually need to survive, most of my purchases (sometimes even food) are made to relieve some burn I have. This is not always a conscious thing, but I think probably almost always there. For a moment or even many moments, consuming feels like satisfaction of some deep need. I take something into my life and the space inside is filled, like the cold water rushing over a burn.
When I was a kid, I lived in an area of Chicago called the “Gold Coast.” And, it was as it sounds. People there had the means to consume whatever was advertised. Just to the southwest of the Gold Coast was one of the most gang-, drug-, poverty-, and crime-infested projects in the country at the time: Cabrini Green. During this particular period in history, we all had a hero, whether we lived in the Gold Coast or Cabrini Green, named Michael Jordan. Michael Jordan had a product line, you’ll recall, called Air Jordans. One pair of these shoes was over $100, which was quite high during that time. But to have these shoes meant something about your status, your allegiance, and your worth. Despite this high price, many people who lived in Cabrini Green and in other impoverished areas wore these shoes. The people who could “afford” these shoes complained about how sad it was, and what flaws it exposed in the character and perseverance and values of the poor, that they would spend what little they had on these expensive, unnecessary Air Jordans. No wonder they were poor, they said.
Today, those who can “afford” smart phones – i-Phones, etc. – make these same comments about those who cannot afford such things. I have heard people complain that poor people should use the money they spend on i-Phones to buy healthcare and then at least that problem would be fixed. If people would save their money and spend it on the things necessary for survival instead of on these unnecessary things, then they would be better off. There are homeless people I know who have been screamed at by passers-by for having new shoes or expensive looking jackets or bags. How can you be begging for money on the street and then using it to buy such things, they ask.
Unquestionably, people make bad, illogical purchasing decisions. This is true of poor people and wealthy people. And, I cannot explain every poor choice, clearly. But I am willing to bet all I have on this: most of our poor purchasing decisions (and by this I mean purchases we make that we cannot afford or that we simply do not need by any objective measure) are driven by a burn that we would do just about anything to relieve. The people who lived in Cabrini Green and bought Air Jordans and the people who lived in the Gold Coast and bought Air Jordans suffer from the same affliction. They have a huge space inside of them and when a salve that offers the hope of alleviating the pain appears, they will take it at any cost. This is true whether it ultimately undermines healing, busts budgets, causes longer-term pain, or looks like the most illogical choice one could make under the circumstances.
Last week I hosted a dinner for about 25 people in my life with whom I have experienced the presence of God. We gathered to celebrate God’s goodness and from the outside, a description of this collection of individuals sounded a little like the beginning of a joke: a lawyer, a homeless guy, and an ex-prisoner walk into a bar . . . We were from all walks of life, literally. As one friend said, you could not have come up with a more diverse and unlikely group had you simply taken everyone on a local city bus and put them at a table together. We shared communion together, prayed together, shared a meal, and then shared stories about the work of God in our lives. There are simply no words to describe the holiness of that night, and my head is still reeling from it. I have struggled to understand all that happened and all that I felt for days. I only realized this morning, while reading my Bible, some of what I believe God showed us the night of our gathering.
1 Corinthians 8:1-3 says this: “But while knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Anyone who claims to know all the answers doesn’t really know very much. But the person who loves God is the one whom God recognizes.” Each of us at the table had our own Air Jordans at one point in our lives. These Air Jordans came in different sizes, shapes, and packages, but we all had them, we all fell for them, we all sought their immediate relief from the deep burn in us. We also all at one point in our lives came to the realization that these Air Jordans did not heal us. They only made the burn deeper and more painful. We came face-to-face with the fact that nothing we consumed could heal the deep burning in us. No amount of cold water, no immediate relief, no Air Jordans and no cell phones, would suffice.
We sat with each other at that table, each having had experienced this naked and terrifying moment. And, for each of us, it was in this naked moment that the real healer showed up and recognized us. Every person had a story about the day Jesus Christ came into his or her life and brought healing of the long-term and transforming kind. By this I don’t mean someone said they once lied and after they confessed it, they were healed. I mean each of us had incredible darkness in our hearts, inexplicable pain, and inexorable trappings. You know, the same stuff that’s in your heart and your life if you dare to look closely. But each of us, in the very moment of deepest despair, was met with recognition from Christ, the one who created all things, “is before all things,” and in whom “all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:16-17) With his recognition, the deep burn began to be healed for the first time.
To be sure, each person at the table last week has a long journey to becoming fully transformed into the likeness of Christ. Darkness still rears its ugly head in us and we still fall for quick-fixes and temporary salves. Daily, we need to surrender the open spaces and burning places to Christ. His work has begun, though, and he will not stop until completion. (Phil. 1:6) This is something to celebrate.