I had a lofty goal for the Lenten season. I gave up shopping for anything besides groceries.
No seasonal home decor. No new clothes for myself or the girls. No sewing supplies. No plants for the garden. The one exception was buying my daughters new Easter shoes, because last year's won't fit on their feet and as holy as I was planning to be, I was not willing that my daughters should wear sneakers on Easter Sunday.
People's reactions were interesting.
"What about paper towels and toilet paper?" my women's pastor asked. Yes on toilet paper, no on paper towels.
"What about my baby shower?" my friend who is pregnant with twins asked. Don't worry, dear, I already bought everything for your invitations.
"Can you still meet me at the mall, because I want to shop for shoes?" my best friend asked.
"You'll never make it," said my mother.
And my mother, as usual, was right. I didn't make it.
Five days into my extreme sacrifice, my husband put paper towels in our Target shopping cart. I bought the girls Easter shoes, but also bathing suits, because we
had a warm spell and last season's were literally transparent when wet. And I ran out of envelopes for my friend's baby shower. I did not, however, buy any shoes with my BFF at Macy's that night. But I did buy shoes eventually.
While shopping for Easter shoes for the kids, I "popped in" to TJ Maxx/Home Goods (my dark, discounted master), where it turns out they don't even carry children's shoes. While there, I bought a dress to wear to my husband's 20th high school reunion this summer ("It's so cheap and if I wait til summer, they won't have summer dresses left!") And I bought a pair of shoes with my husband's permission (same excuse as the above) and he said I could just wait until after Easter to wear them.
And then, while I was in TJ Maxx returning the wrong size of said shoes, I bought my mother an entire new spring wardrobe for the tune of about $300. She came to my house and tried on all of it, kept most of it, and wrote me a check.
And then after all these rationalizations and compromises, I just went to Joann's and bought all the supplies I "needed" and then felt really guilty.
I may have a shopping problem.
The reason I gave up shopping for Lent, was (1) because I like the idea of sacrifice as a means to focus myself spiritually in preparation for the most important holiday as a Christian, and to remember Jesus supreme sacrifice on the cross. And (2) because I want the sacrifice to be a meaningful spiritual discipline that will change me in the long term. I spend of lot of time running errands and returning things, and I desired a sense of freedom from that circular habit. What would it mean for my life to live with less, and to rely on God for the emotional lift that buying stuff (our national pass time!) gives me?
But I blew it. It was way too hard. However, it taught me a valuable lesson about the way I relate to God.
This weekend, our pastor Kenton Beshore gave a wonderful sermon on practicing religion versus having a relationship with God. He said that the human default in relating to God is religion: a system of rules and rituals that tells us what to do, how to be a "good" person, and how to get closer to God through our own effort. The problem with religion, he said, is two fold.
Problem one: If you succeed at following all the rules, you get prideful, make the whole thing about you instead of God, and start judging other people who can't work as hard or be as "holy" as you are. This was Jesus main problem with the religious leaders of his day, whom he reprimanded more than any one else he spoke to (he called them "a brood of vipers" among other nasty things). They were externally holy about following religious rites, but they lacked mercy, compassion, humility and love.
Problem two: If you fail at following the rules, you end up rationalizing and compromise the rules until they no longer have any real value ("The law isn't 'don't lie', it's 'Only lie if you really have to, and then feel badly about it.'"). Then, you spiral into guilt and shame, and either shrink away from God because you feel unworthy, or drop religion altogether because guilt turns to anger and resentment toward God and the church. This was the problem for the "sinners" in Jesus' day; they were outside the holy community of religious people, but God's message to them was to repent and simply follow him. He called them friends.
Boy, do I see Kenton's point. If I had succeeded at the "no shopping" season, I would have felt really proud of myself, and probably would have told people about it. Like, "I'm not wearing a new dress on Easter today because I gave up shopping for Lent." There's no way I would have kept that quiet.
But since I blew it so completely, I did not achieve spiritual and mental freedom, as I hoped, but got tangled up in a lot of rationalization. "See I bought that dress for the reunion, but I won't wear it for Easter, even though it would be perfect for Easter; so that's actually the greater sacrifice. To have it, to know it's right there in the closet, but to not be able to wear it."
My relationship with God really suffered when I was in this kind of accounting mentality; I would pray and ask forgiveness for breaking my Lent vow, but then I would still want to make myself right with Jesus by earning my way back into His good graces. How ludicrous, that I, by some effort or negotiation, could mirror the sacrifice of Jesus' life.
And there, right there, is the great gift that my "failed" Lent ritual gave me. I don't have to earn my way into God's good graces because God's grace is good. Religion is an accounting system (and y'all know how I hate accounting), and we default to it because we know we are in God's debt. In some translations, sin = debt. "Forgive us our debts, Lord, as we forgive our debtors," we pray as Jesus taught us. But the great transaction has been made. Jesus paid the whole debt. All of it, so I could be His friend. So I could walk with him in freedom. He has balanced the spiritual checkbook for me. How grateful I am!
During the last 30-some days, I got lost and tangled in religion. But in other ways, I walked with Jesus. Jeff and I have had some wonderful times in relationships with people we love and care about in the last month. I've heard God's voice about what He wants me to do with my life when my current ministry position is over, and I have a profound sense of purpose and peace. I brought my daughter to a prayer service and witnessed her ask for prayer to be a better big sister (the tears come again just remembering it). We've brought some new friends to church with us (how we love them!), and we've seen other new friends in our small group get baptized. None of these beautiful experiences have come from trying hard to be religious, but simply following the tug in our hearts to do what Jesus would.
So I'm celebrating Easter with a full heart this weekend. And I'm wearing my new outfit rather than being holy and sacrificial by leaving it in my closet. I wear it in celebration: I didn't measure up this month, but my debt has been paid.