Invictus at Christmas

A Christian look at William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, Invictus.

A Christian look at William Ernest Henley’s famous poem, Invictus.

Julie fumbled with the lock of her dorm room. Laying her purse, nursing notebook, deli croissant sandwich, and coffee on the floor in the hall, she finally opened the door. My biology quiz didn’t go well this morning, and my anatomy project is late. At least I’ll get English right. I’ve got 30 minutes before I have to leave for work.

Sitting at her desk a few moments later, Julie began reading the poem her English professor was expecting an analysis of on Monday morning.

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

William Ernest Henley, Britain, 1875

I have always liked Invictus, Julie thought to herself. My mother read it to me when my father left us. I read it to Michelle when she and her boyfriend broke up and she wanted to drive her car off a cliff. It makes me feel strong and independent. Best of all, Invictus is short. Julie read it again and again. Then she opened her notebook computer to type a few lines.

“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King” sang a choir outside Julie’s window. She watched the little group, a motley mix of young and old, talented and not so talented. “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…” Once the tune ended, she chuckled to herself. Why would anyone want a king? How could he bring peace on earth? Kings make war, not peace. And who decides what is sin, and who is a sinner? She thought about the carolers for a few minutes, and about her few forays into church as a child. Misguided bunch, but their singing wasn’t bad.

Julie finished her croissant sandwich and returned to work on her assignment. Her phone buzzed, announcing that a text had arrived. “Ramona is in the hospital. She took a bunch of pills and drank a bunch of whiskey.”

Julie’s face turned white. Not Ramona! She was the most glamorous, gorgeous, toughest, smartest girl in high school. Every teacher loved her, every coach recruited her, and every boy in school would have killed to date her. Every girl wanted to be like her. Ramona had it all, and she knew it.

“I liked her, I envied her, and I followed her” Julie remembered aloud.

There was a knock on Julie’s door. Julie answered it. Her friend Michelle stood outside, her eyes red and puffy with tears. “Michelle, I got your text about Ramona. Are you OK?”

“I just had to walk over. The three of us were best friends in high school. Now, just two years later…” Her words trailed off.

“Do you have any more information?” Julie asked, but Michelle was in no shape to talk. “Give me your phone” she ordered, and took it when there was no reply. Julie scrolled through the messages. She found a voicemail from Ramona’s mother.

“Michelle, this is April. Ramona is in the county hospital. She took a handful of Tylenol and drank a bottle of whiskey early this morning. She has been struggling in college – engineering just isn’t her thing. Two days ago, she found out that she is pregnant. When she told her boyfriend Brandon, you remember him from high school, he broke off their relationship. Ramona’s stepfather and I are at the hospital. Call her soon on her cell phone. She needs a friend.”

Julie dialed April’s number, but noticed the clock on her wall. “1243!” she exclaimed. “I got to be at the nursing home at one to start work.” She hung up, rushed Michelle out of her room, choked down her coffee, changed into her scrubs, grabbed her nursing bag, and ran out the door. I’ll call later.

***

Julie raced down the highway. If I’m late one more time, I might get fired. Then, how could I stay in school?  She thought about Ramona. She certainly is in a black pit now, but her soul doesn’t seem very unconquerable.

Hoping to distract herself, Julie turned on the car radio. “God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay…”

“Let nothing me dismay!” she blurted as the song continued. “One of my best friends is in the hospital, I am late to work, and I have to listen to stupid music on the radio.” Despite her irritation, Julie continued listening. She sat silently until the song ended. I feel bludgeoned and bloody by circumstances, but I am not wincing or crying. Still, there is something soothing, and even encouraging, in that song. She turned off her radio.

Flashing blue lights appeared in Julie’s rear view mirror. She pulled over, furious for getting caught speeding and furious for being late to work. The policeman approached from the driver’s side.

“Do you know what the speed limit is here?”

“45?”

“35” the officer answered. “And you were going 51.”

“Sorry, I just found out that my friend is in the hospital, and I am late for work.” Julie started to cry, hoping for a quick warning and speedy departure. The policeman looked skeptical.

“I’m going to have to give you a ticket. Please hand me your driver’s license, insurance, and registration.”

Julie erupted. “I can’t believe that you are doing this to me! Give a man a little power and he abuses others.”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you were 51 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone.”

“My head is bloody but unbowed” Julie snapped at the officer.

“That’s great, ma’am, but you still have to pay the ticket.”

“Cretin” she whispered to herself.

The two fell into silence – Julie’s sullen and the officer’s confused. Several minutes passed as the officer walked back to his car and checked her plates and her documents. He wrote the ticket, returned to her car, and handed it to her. She snatched it out of his hand. The officer walked back to his patrol car as she sped away. It was 1308.

***

Julie walked into the Happy Horizons nursing home at 1315. Mrs. Applegate, the head nurse, greeted her at the door.

“Glad you could make it, Julie,” she said with an edge. “Cindy has already started getting the medications ready for your patients. Here is the list.” Julie’s heart sank. This has to be the worst day ever. Why couldn’t I have been sick? How am I going to make it until five? Julie forced a smile on to her pretty face, put her long brown hair into a ponytail, and walked into room 103 to see her first patient.

“Hi, Mr. Gebhart. How are you today?” Cindy snuck his pain medicine into some applesauce while Julie distracted him with stories of her day. Then Cindy slipped a bite into his mouth, and Julie rushed another spoonful of applesauce into his mouth to hide the bitter taste. They were a good pair.

Julie helped patients to the bathroom, walked with them, fed them, moved them, and talked to them. The work, the help to others, and the light that came to their aged faces helped Julie to forget her own cares. Her smile became real, her steps grew light, and her eyes regained their sparkle.

Mrs. Applegate watched from the nurses’ station. “Julie is often late, and can be immature, but she is becoming a terrific nurse” the older woman whispered to herself. Nurse Applegate continued typing her notes in the medical record. Writing nursing evaluations wasn’t nearly as rewarding as taking care of patients.

“O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining…” sounded from the activity room at Happy Horizons. Julie’s shift was almost over and her work was done, so she walked slowly towards the music. She sat down next to a wizened woman in a wheelchair. “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth…” The music continued, filling the room, and lifting the spirits of everyone around. A smile broke onto Mrs. Applegate’s face.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…” Julie listened silently, drinking in the music. “Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” The choir finished with What Child is This?

What child was this, really? Why do billions of people on earth believe in Him? Why do I feel that I need to know more about Him?

“The choir at Redemption Baptist Church thanks you for inviting us to Happy Horizons, and wishes you a very Merry Christmas” the music minister concluded. “Come by the church for a caroler pot luck tonight at 6” the choir director said to Julie as he walked past.

The woman in the wheelchair next to her looked at Julie. Her face was gray and wrinkled, her back bent, and her skin thin as tissue paper.

Julie didn’t notice. She said quietly:

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

I want to be found unafraid, but I dread becoming like this woman. The menace of the years has taken its toll on her. How much longer can she live? How much longer can Ramona live? How much longer can any of us live? How long do we want to?

Julie sat back and took a deep breath. The last four choir members sang as they walked away, “Long lay the world, in sin and error pining, till He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”

But perhaps the world really has laid long in sin, pining for restoration. My patients here sure want to be restored. And what child is this, really? Is He the one who will help each person’s soul feel its worth?

“Miss, excuse me, miss?” A feeble voice awakened Julie from her thoughts. It was the crooked old woman in the wheelchair, the one that Julie could barely look at. “Would you please wheel me back to my room?”

Julie snapped back into her professional mode. “Of course, ma’am. My name is Julie. What is yours?”

“Harriet Shaker. You know, I was a nurse too.”

“Wow, where did you work?”

“I worked on the med-surg ward at St. Joseph’s hospital here in town for 35 years” Mrs. Shaker replied. “In 1977 I was voted Nurse of the Year by the whole staff.”

“What an honor! I hope that I can do as well myself” Julie answered. “Was that the highlight of your career?”

“Yes, but the highlight of my life was my family. I was married for 57 years and had seven children. Careers are wonderful, but they end. Family never does.”

Julie smiled a little awkwardly. Noticing, Mrs. Shaker shifted her conversational gears and inquired, “How old are your parents?”

“My mom’s name is Pam, and she’s 43. My dad is 45.” Julie was blunt, “He left mom and me when I was ten.”

“I am so sorry,” Harriet returned. “Family breakups heal, but scars remain forever. Do you have brothers and sisters?”

“No. My parents didn’t want kids, and I was an accident. But they didn’t abort me, which was good, I think. But they made sure that I was alone.”

“You poor dear,” Harriet said as she reached out her withered hands to hug Julie. The young nursing student instinctively leaned back, but stopped herself and leaned forward into the hug. Julie had no idea why she was sharing her life troubles with this stranger, but somehow it seemed like the right thing to do. Julie asked “Tell me more.”

Mrs. Shaker continued, “We needed my job to make ends meet, but my husband and my children were my life. My husband Jerry has passed, but my children and grandchildren still are my life.”

“Didn’t you get tired of living for others?” Julie asked.

“First, you live for God. Second, you live for others. Third, maybe, you live for yourself. What else would you live for?” Harriet puzzled.

“Yourself. Your career. Your happiness. Your fame and fortune.” Julie replied. Her mother had always told her to stand on her own two feet, trust no one, and get what she wanted out of the world. “Your father left us” she said, “and I don’t care. We will get along without him…without anyone.”

Invictus flashed in Julie’s mind. “Aren’t you the master of your fate and the captain of your soul?”

Harriet paused for a moment. “In January 1973, I was in my early 30s, and was sick of my life. Jerry sold tools in a hardware store but didn’t make much. I took care of my five children and worked at a local hospital on Saturdays. Jerry was boring, the kids were boring, my job was boring, and I was bored. I wanted the independent, liberated life of a modern woman. I wanted money and travel, dancing and wine, and romance. I was sick of diapers, dishes, dinner, and even sex.

One Saturday I met a handsome doctor on the ward, not much older than me. His sparkling eyes and toothy smile took my breath away. One day I was holding the chart of one of his patients and he touched my hand. I almost melted. No one else was around, and he put his arm around my waist. I trembled as he glanced about, and kissed me.

Soon we were leaving work together. We were both married and had kids, but who cared? I was in love. I rationalized my actions with the philosophy of the day. Personal fulfillment, whatever the cost, was the goal, and free love was the means. I left my family and moved in with my handsome doctor. It was everything I had ever dreamed of. We danced, sang, and drank. He took me to Mexico, Hawaii, and France. Then after three months, he left. I guess he just got bored with me. I never saw or heard from him again.”

“What did your family do?” Julie implored.

“They couldn’t believe that I left, and especially right after Christmas, although Christmas didn’t matter to us much at the time. Our Christmas was all about presents and parties – all I really wanted was to be done with it. Anyway, Jerry was morose. He spent days at home in despair and almost lost his job. Our children were heartbroken. The older ones started failing school and tried never to come home. Everything was wrong for all of us. My work suffered, and I lost my job, so I moved back in with my parents. Jerry tried for months to get me back, but I refused. My 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old son rejected me, and only my youngest three – 2, 4 and 6 – wanted me home.”

“How did it end?”

“I yearned for my family, but was too ashamed to tell them. On Easter Sunday, 1973, I went to church. Jerry and the kids were there, sitting on the other side of the sanctuary. The pastor read 1 Corinthians 15, about the sacrifice of Jesus and His resurrection from the dead. Something happened that day which I will never fully understand. I went back to my room at my parents’ house, closed the door, and cried for six hours. Mother brought my old Bible, the one with the dedication from my grandparents. Through my tears I found Christ. On the same day, Jerry did too.

Three weeks later, Jerry asked me to go to lunch. It was really awkward at first, but he just started talking about the kids. One lunch led to another and we began reminiscing about our life together. We all started going to church and sitting together. By Thanksgiving, I had moved back in. We were together again as a family. He had forgiven me…so had the kids. We had the greatest Christmas ever.”

Abandoning my family for a fling was the worst thing I have ever done, but Jesus washed that sin away.

“You asked if I was the captain of my fate, the master of my soul. I tried to be, and you can see how well that went.” Harriet sat back into her wheelchair. “I didn’t need a handsome, rich, young doctor. And I only partially needed a slightly older hardware salesman. I needed someone else, a Savior and Lord, and I found Him…or He found me.”

Julie had heard the gospel before and had rejected it. But this was different. Ramona, her day, her friends, her past, and her worldview, summed up by Invictus, didn’t seem enough anymore. She felt confused.

Julie got up, unlocked the wheels, and pushed Mrs. Harriet Shaker to her room. They hugged as they parted.

***

Michelle read Alice’s text. “Ramona is in the intensive care unit. Her liver has been damaged by the overdose, and her lab tests are rising. We’ll know tomorrow if she will recover or if she will need a liver transplant…if she can get one.”

Michelle, a sociology major, had no clue about medicine and relied on Julie for answers. “What do you think?”

“It doesn’t sound good” Julie suggested.

“Should we visit her?”

“No”, Julie replied. “Ramona went to school in Arizona. Driving would take over 20 hours, and neither of us can pay for a plane ticket.”

The girls sat silently at the table in Julie’s dorm room – desperate for their friend and powerless to help her.

“Shall we pray?” Michelle asked.

“To whom, and why?” answered Julie bitterly. “To whatever gods may be?”

Why did I answer so harshly? Julie thought to herself. Will Jesus be angry? Oh, its no use. I can’t be good enough to be religious.

Julie’s tone softened. “Besides, I don’t know how to pray.” The girls heard a song outside their window.

“Angels we have heard on high, sweetly singing over the plains…” the choir sang. Julie recognized them – the group from Redemption Baptist Church.

Julie and Michelle listened until the music ended. “That’s what we need right now…angels,” opined Michelle.

“That’s what Ramona needs” corrected Julie.

The music stopped, and Michelle suggested “Let’s go to church…Redemption Baptist is right down the street.”

“Good idea,” agreed Julie. ““That’s the church whose choir sang at work today! Maybe they can help. Even if they can’t, we can at least get a free dinner.”

The girls put on heavy coats and scarves, locked the door, and walked into the night.

***

Julie and Michelle stepped from the cold dark street into the warm light of the church. They slipped into the back row, hoping to escape notice. Julie was surprised to see the police officer who had pulled her over earlier in the day sitting next to her. He smiled.

“Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright…” the choir sang.

The pastor stood and welcomed the group. Our church choir had a busy afternoon, and we hope this potluck conveys our thanks, both to choir members and guests. Before we eat, we need to remember what Christmas is really about. The pastor opened the Bible sitting on the pulpit and began to read.

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.

And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.

And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.

And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.

And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.

And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

“Now let us continue the Christmas story.”

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,

Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.

Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.

And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.

When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.

When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.

“And now let us complete the Christmas story. The baby who was born on Christmas grew to adulthood and lived a perfect life. His name was Jesus, and He was called Christ, the Messiah, because He was God’s chosen one. Jesus taught the unlearned, fed the hungry, and healed the sick. He performed many mighty miracles to prove His identify. Wicked and jealous men, religious leaders, had Him executed on trumped up charges in a quick political killing. He died as a sacrifice for the sins of all men and women who had ever lived, or ever would live. But that was not the end. The Apostle Paul writes…”

Christian brothers, I want to tell the Good News to you again. It is the same as I preached to you before. You received it and your faith has been made strong by it. This is what I preached to you. You are saved from the punishment of sin by the Good News if you keep hold of it, unless your faith was worth nothing.

First of all, I taught you what I had received. It was this: Christ died for our sins as the Holy Writings said He would. Christ was buried. He was raised from the dead three days later as the Holy Writings said He would.

Julie concentrated intensely on every word. Something was different about this place, and something was stirring in her soul. The police officer smiled at her again, and Julie felt no anger. Instead, she felt a spirit that she had never known before. What does this mean, and what about Invictus?

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.

“Miss, would you and your friend like to join my family and I for dinner?”

Roused from her thoughts, Julie recognized the smiling face of the policeman who had pulled her over earlier.

“We brought lasagna with Italian bread and a Caesar salad” the man continued, “and my wife is a fantastic cook.”

Julie hesitated but Michelle answered for them both. “Sure.”

The group found a table, and Julie and the policeman began to talk while the others stood in line for dinner.

“What did the pastor mean when he said that ‘Jesus died for the sins of men, and rose again?’” For the next hour, Julie and the policeman had one of the most intense conversations of their lives, while the others had a delightful chat. Finally, it was time to go.

Michelle and Julie stepped out of the church, back into the cold December evening to walk the half-mile back to school. Michelle jabbered on, but Julie’s mind was full of thoughts.

My scroll of punishments, my sin, is charged with many, many, punishments. But Jesus took them. He paid the price. Jesus’ paid the price for Ramona’s pride, and later her despair. He paid the price for Harriet’s adultery, and for Alice, Pam’s, and Michelle’s iniquities. Jesus took the wickedness of the whole world on Himself. His blood washed away forever the blackness of their sins.

Maybe Invictus should end like this:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
Jesus Christ is the master of my fate:
Jesus Christ is the captain of my soul.

Why We Buy

We often buy not to enjoy our purchase or meet a physical need, but to fill a hole in our hearts, a lack in who we are. 

The Christmas season has just ended, and people worldwide have been evaluating the effects of the holiday. Some people do not celebrate Christmas, and so whatever effect the holiday has on them is indirect. A Buddhist in China, for example, may not believe in Jesus Christ, but may be employed manufacturing toys or clothes given as gifts by those who do believe. A Muslim in the Islamic State may hate the very idea of Jesus Christ, but realize that his American and Western foes are less likely to attack him on December 25th. A Western secularist may scoff at Christianity, but still take advantage of Black Friday shopping bargains and deal with holiday traffic. For many in the West, and in other parts of the world, Christmas is a social rather than a religious holiday.

What happens to Christmas gifts? Some presents go back to the store, food gifts are eaten, and a few offerings end up in the trash. Most presents, however, are used, stored, cleaned, and perhaps used again. Years of Christmases, birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, and other occasions result in a continually growing pile of presents, but gift-giving events are relatively rare and so the pile is modest.

Much more than buying for others, we buy for ourselves. Rarely associated with a specific event, self-shopping empties our pocket books and fills our homes with items of greater or lesser usefulness. Shopping becomes a major form of recreation. We spend our free time in malls rather than in parks. Our closets, shelves, and garages fill up with clothes, computers, and cars, and so we rent storage units. Eventually we buy bigger houses, and still our possessions proliferate. We spend our time buying stuff, sorting stuff, storing stuff, maintaining stuff, moving stuff, and finally disposing of stuff. We own our stuff, but our stuff also owns us.

Ultimately, we buy things to fill a need. In 1943, Abraham Maslow proposed a hierarchy of needs in the form of a five-level pyramid. Physiological needs such as air, food, water, and shelter formed the base of the pyramid. The next level up is safety; personal, financial, health, and a safety net against adversity. Love and belonging comprise the middle level, which includes friendship, intimacy, and family. Esteem, both from oneself and from others, is the second highest level. Finally, self-actualization and self-transcendence, the desire to fully accomplish your purpose in life and in relation to the rest of the cosmos, are the highest need.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (http://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html)

  1. Self-Actualization/Transcendence
  2. Esteem
  3. Love and Belonging
  4. Safety
  5. Physiological

Though Maslow’s work has been criticized throughout the decades, it still provides a useful paradigm to address the question “Why do we buy?”

Physiological

The most fundamental reason for buying is to acquire the basic things that keep our bodies alive. Food, water, and shelter are required, but these purchases do not only serve the bottom of the pyramid. Food nourishes us, but it also ties us to a certain culture and social group. European Americans may favor beef and potatoes while Asian Americans prefer fish and rice. Such food-based ties contribute to our sense of love and belonging, as well as our esteem.

Shelter meets a physiologic need but our choice of shelter helps meet other needs as well. A well-built and locked house in a good neighborhood provides a sense of safety. A large, beautiful home reflects and confers a higher social status than a small, plain one. A dwelling in an area of clean air, safe water, good sanitation, and a beautiful landscape will help its occupants be healthier than one without these advantages. When a man with a beautiful home takes care of his family and entertains others, he adds to his sense of love and belonging, and ultimately his self-actualization.

Clothing is another physiological need, but most people use clothes to do far more than just protect their bodies. Humans as animals could do fine covered with burlap sacks, with more or fewer layers as needed for the climate, but even the poorest people dress themselves better than that.  Soldiers and law enforcers wear body armor to keep them safe. People wear clothes similar to their social group to identify with that group. Men dress to communicate wealth and virility. Women wear clothing to attract a mate, highlight their best features, and excite envy in others. Long hair, jewelry, and high heels are entirely unnecessary and may even be detrimental from a physiologic standpoint, but they are important to esteem, love/belonging, and self-actualization.

In summary, humans buy to meet physiological needs, but do so in such a way as to meet higher needs as well.

Safety

Some purchases are specifically to enhance safety. Insurance policies are not necessary to live, and most people don’t boast about their coverage, but we buy them nonetheless. A few boorish sorts might brag about the size of their savings accounts, but most citizens, at least in the developed world have one. When disaster strikes, however, failure to have either damages people at every level in the pyramid. Men and women who have failed to take such safety measures and then lose their job, suffer a disease, or lose their home face withering censure.

Love/Belonging

Much of what we buy is to enhance our sense of love and belonging. As relational creatures, we are largely defined not by who we are but by whose we are. This is true even in the hyperindividualistic West. My friends and I used to joke in high school that all of the people who considered themselves nonconformists looked alike. Millions of teenagers follow celebrities on social media so that they can be like them.

Certain items like wedding rings, family photos, art work, and presents for special occasions are purchased specifically for love and belonging. People buy sports team jerseys, music artist T-shirts, and organizational polo shirts for the same reason. However, the need to be loved and to belong is so powerful that it permeates everything we buy, and everything we do.

Esteem

Why do we buy a car for $50,000 when we could buy one for $20,000? They are probably equally safe and get the same gas mileage. Why do we buy intentionally ripped blue jeans with a famous tag for $100 when we could buy intact blue jeans with an ordinary tag for $20? The former will fall apart sooner. In hundreds of similar circumstances, from handbags to glasses, we spend far more than we need to, from a purely functional standpoint. We part with much of this money to raise our self-esteem, and others’ esteem for us.

Self-Actualization and Transcendence

In the Christmas movie, The Bishop’s Wife, Agnes Hamilton (Gladys Cooper), a wealthy widow, is donating money for a grand cathedral to the memory of her departed husband, and in penance for never really loving him. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) desperately wants the cathedral to be built, but the task of agreeing on plans is threatening both his ministry and his marriage. Both were striving for self-actualization and transcendence, and using everything they had, money and influence, to attain them. Only the intervention of the angel Dudley (Cary Grant) allows them to find real self-actualization and transcendence.

We all yearn, consciously or subconsciously, for the same thing. We spend our money and our lives to achieve what we believe will give us self-actualization and transcendence. Buying is a major part of both.

Why do we buy so much?

Having discussed why we buy, we need to ask why we buy so much. Our physiological needs are quickly met; the human body can only consume a relatively small amount of food and water, can only wear a limited number of clothes, and only needs one shelter at a time. Safety needs are also limited – except for those with mental illness, most people don’t stock up on house locks or insurance policies.

Love and belonging needs may be limited, or may not. Humans can only have a certain number of parents, children, or friends. Time and space limit the scope and depth of our relationships. Once a person has a loving family, a solid circle of friends, and a strong association with their favored group, they will often be satisfied. This need cannot be met with possessions or accomplishments.

Needs for esteem and self-actualization are the hardest to define, and the hardest to meet. John D. Rockefeller was once asked “how much money is enough?” His reply was “just a little bit more.” This answer applies to everything else that we seek in our drive for esteem and self-actualization. Hollywood superstars want more fame, and Napoleon Bonaparte wanted more power. In most cultures in the world throughout history, the sheer number of one’s possessions is a key indicator of wealth, power, and fame.

The preceding discussion, however, implies that purchasing is mostly a cognitive activity, in which your brain makes the decision to buy or not based on rational, or at least semi-rational, criteria. In truth, buyers spend a lot of money on impulse. A product or service makes them feel a certain way, the shopper likes the feeling, and so he or she buys the product or service. The emotions decide, and the reason rationalizes the decision. Merchandizers collaborate with our inner hopes, dreams, and insecurities to part us from our money.

  1. Mannequins look away from customers at display windows; their eye position enticing passersby to make eye contact and walk into the store.
  2. Scents are powerful. Floral or citrus scents make us linger, talcum scents evoke nostalgia, and lavender or vanilla scents relax us.
  3. Companies decide who their target customers are for each product and in different locations and times, and play music that was popular when those target customers were 18 years old. Middle agers may hear classic rock, while millennials may hear modern pop.
  4. Clothing departments have warm and soft lighting, and clothing tags are printed so that larger women wear smaller sizes.
  5. Cheaper products seem like a better deal when placed alongside more expensive products, and red ink on sales signs make the markdowns seem bigger.

The overwhelming message from the media is that everything, or almost everything, is bad. The overwhelming message from advertising is the you are bad, or at least not as good as you could be if you had the advertised product or service. When we immerse ourselves in media, whether television, internet, print media, radio, social media, or something else, we eventually become convinced of these messages. Then we go to stores, or order online, to make ourselves feel better.

The Christian Perspective

Many have criticized Maslow’s hierarchy and even understanding of needs, but few will object to the general ideas of needs and that they can be categorized. Most understand the pivotal role that our unconscious plays in our spending, and the array of forces constantly trying to separate us from our money.

First, the Bible recognizes the needs of man on all levels, but provides only one solution to these needs.

  • Psalm 23 – The Lord is my shepherd; I shall have no want (unmet needs)
  • Lamentations 3:24 – The Lord is my portion, says my soul. Therefore, I have hope in Him.
  • Philippians 3:7-8 – Count all things as loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Christ
  • Philippians 4:19 – My God shall provide all of my needs according to His riches and glory in Christ Jesus

God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, meets all of our needs. Jesus promised to meet our physiological needs (food and clothing – Matthew 6:31-34). He protects us (Psalm 91), loves us (John 3:16), and invites us into His community (1 Corinthians 12:27).  The Holy Spirit does not delude us with foolish self-esteem but tells us that we are precious in Christ. He helps us want good character before God more than a good reputation before man (Proverbs 29:25, Matthew 10:28). Jesus Christ doesn’t offer self-actualization or self-transcendence. He offers perfect forgiveness, unquenchable love, eternal life, and a role in God’s redeeming work in the world. God is less concerned with “self” than He is with “Other”.

Second, the Bible teaches that our resources are not our own. God gives us everything that we have, and we are not at liberty to use these resources any way we wish. Our money, our homes, and even our lives belong ultimately to Him, and are to be used in His service and for His glory. In shopping as in every other activity, our focus is not on ourselves. Christians are not to think “what can make me safe, what can make me belong, what can make me loved, what can give me esteem, or what can make me actualized.” Instead we are to think “how can this please God, how can this serve others, and how can this make me more effective in His service.”

What does this mean in day to day life? Each person must search the Scriptures and answer this question for themselves, but here are a few ideas.

  1. Immerse your mind in Scripture, in prayer, and in intimate fellowship with other Christians. In so doing, you will develop the mind and heart of Christ.
  2. Think, speak, and act outside yourself, dwelling not on your own needs but on the work of God in and through you.
  3. Spend more time outdoors – in parks, forests, beaches, rivers, and mountains.
  4. Spend less time indoors – time inside four walls is likely to be time sitting (sedentary, bad for health) and time consuming media.
  5. Give away more time and money.
  6. Shop less – don’t go to stores, malls, or internet sites just to hang out. Make a list of what you actually need, and add a few wants occasionally. Buy only what is on your plan.
  7. Spend more time with others doing non-shopping activities – picnics in the park, dinners at home, church activities, sports (live viewing and participating).

Think, ask family and trusted friends, and pray about how you can become more like Christ in relation to buying. Your pastor may be a good source of guidance as well.

Conclusion

Most people in the United States and throughout the developed world buy too much. Rather than us controlling our stuff, it begins to control us. We buy for cognitive (thinking) and for emotional (feeling) reasons, but the latter are often dominant. We buy to meet needs within ourselves, and sometimes to bless others. Possessions can never meet our deepest needs, but still we buy more.

Christians cannot live this kind of life. God through His Holy Spirit due to the work of Jesus Christ meets all of our needs. He feeds us, clothes us, protects us, loves us, gives us a community, gives us value, and makes our lives matter. Since He fully meets every need, to live as though He does not is unbelief. The resources that He uses to meet our needs are not our own. God does not meet our needs for our benefit, but rather so that we will come to know Him and His glory.

Why Don’t Wise Men Seek Him?

During the Christmas season, Christians across the world think of the Nativity, with its Holy Family, angels, shepherds, manger, and Wise Men. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the shepherds were Jews; unimportant and even unnoticed in their society. The Wise Men were probably Gentiles from the land of Parthia, formerly Persia, in the East. Most likely they were sent on an official diplomatic mission by the Parthian government to find this long promised ruler. Their caravan was probably large, rich, and well-guarded. The Wise Men were among the wealthiest, most educated and most respected men in their society, and they sought Jesus.

Christians understand that Jesus was a Man. He is also God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Jesus Christ gave everything to His followers, and He demands everything from them in return. Christianity has long been a religion of the poor and the outcast. Paul wrote that not many believers in Corinth were considered the wise, mighty or noble of their society (1 Corinthians 1:25-27). Jesus taught that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:23-25). Nonetheless, these wise, rich and noble men from Persia sought Jesus. Why?

There is a plethora of cards, bumper stickers and mugs in the modern world that say “Wise men still seek Him”. While it is true that those with genuine wisdom, as revealed in Proverbs 4, still seek Him, many people considered wise, noble or rich in modern society do not seek Him. Why not?

We cannot conclusively know why the ancient Wise Men sought Jesus because we know so little about them. They may have been Jews from Sheba, modern Yemen. We don’t even know how many there were. However, Matthew’s account provides some useful hints about why these ancient Magi sought Jesus, and modern wise men do not.

Seeking a Man

First, the Wise Men sought a Man. The Parthian leadership was weak, and these magi were on an important mission. Thus they spared neither expense nor hardship in their quest. Parthia needed a mighty king to inspire her people, to structure the nation, and to protect them from enemies. They knew that no man would be perfect, yet only a man could do what needed to be done.

However, leaders can be problematic in modern democratic society. The great man makes us wonder why we are not great. He expects people to be their better selves, something that most of us don’t seriously want to do. His very existence calls into question our belief that all men are essentially equal. Our pride makes it hateful to us to submit to any man. Like the Christian recording artist Randy Stonehill sings in The Dying Breed, we “cheer while we hope that he will fall.” Leaders are demanding. The greater they are, the more they give to and require from their followers. As the greatest man in history, Jesus is the most demanding of all.

Developing men is difficult. Education often fails to make people change their behavior, even when such behavior change is in their long term best interest. Virtuous character is even harder to build. It takes mentoring, self-sacrifice and years of life to raise a few children to maturity, and even then a few may depart from their upbringing. The only real way to develop a person is one on one, as families do and as apprenticeships did long ago. Twenty-first century man has little patience for such a process.

In the modern world, we seek methods more than men. We develop machines, processes and procedures to handle every possible contingency and expect people to use and follow them. We design jobs and pick people to fill them. Workers are pieces in a puzzle rather than team members creatively accomplishing a shared mission. Since people sometimes crash cars, we develop cars that drive themselves. As machines did in the Industrial Revolution and Frederick Taylor did with Scientific Management, we handle organizations as machines and men as parts.

Governments try to engineer risk and hardship out of the lives of citizens with layer upon layer of restrictions and regulations. They attempt to guarantee not only equal opportunity but equal outcomes for people, irrespective of individual desire, capability, effort, or character. Personal freedom, which is harder to measure, is sacrificed on the altar of equality and efficiency, which is easier to measure. Making sugary drinks illegal, regardless of individual preference or use, is a classic example. Having given up trying to make individuals better, we use the law to limit their freedom.

Though there are advantages to such “process thinking”, it often results in a “process focus”. The process, the efficiency of the system, or the eventual profits become the focus, instead of the people affected by the process. Thus factories are judged by the number of items produced and profit gained rather than by the well-being of workers, customers, and society. Hospitals rate themselves on how many patients they treat rather than how well their patients live.

Clinical practice guidelines (CPGs) are a good example of how process thinking can devolve into process focus. CPGs provide steps and algorithms to guide clinicians on how to care for a patient with a certain complaint, such a chronic low back pain. They are written by experts in their field who have systematically examined the latest medical evidence. As such CPGs can reliably guide how a busy primary care provider handles an uncomplicated patient.

However, CPGs are geared to the “average” person with a given complaint and therefore cannot take into account variations and needs in individual patients. As long as these guidelines remain guidelines, allowing each physician to modify the care he or she gives to suit the person, CPGs are good. When insurers refuse to pay for services outside those recommended by the CPG, when lawyers sue clinicians because they departed from the CPG, and when the government refuses to permit deviation from the CPG, these “guidelines” become rules. Health care providers lose the freedom to tailor treatment to their patients and families. People suffer.

Christians cannot make this mistake. No matter how hard it is to develop men and women, we must do it. Processes and machines can and should get better, but not at the expense of people. Men, not nations, live forever. It is in men, not things, that we must put our resources. The Savior made no inventions and wrote no procedures. Instead He spent three years with twelve men and about 100 other followers.

The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they needed a man, not a policy or a procedure, to solve their problems. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they seek a machine or a process to solve their problems.

Seeking the Creator behind the creation

Second, the Wise Men looked to nature to find evidence of Him. They did not ignore the natural world and were not anti-intellectual. Rather they were experts in the arts of astronomy, history and prophecy. In their time, they were second to none in admiration of the world around them. As much as they learned from and enjoyed nature, however, they did not end their inquiries with the natural world. The Magi scoured creation for evidence of the Creator. As is the case today, there were as many world views as people in the ancient world. Nevertheless most people included some idea of God in how they understood reality. Even into the 18th century, great men of science like Isaac Newton sought to know the Creator through His creation.

How differently do we do things in the 21st century? Not only do we ignore God in our inquiries, but we define science so as to intentionally exclude God. The natural world thus becomes an end in itself. Only the material world exists; there is no spiritual world. Nature does not reflect the glory of “something beyond” because in this mindset there is nothing beyond. The idea that the universe is entirely material is an assumption made on philosophical grounds. There is no scientific proof, nor can there ever be, because science is limited to the material.

Believers in the Lord must reject this assumption. The fact that the universe is bound by time (it had a beginning and will have an end) is proof that something exists outside the universe. That something is God. No matter how many Nobel Laureates and university philosophy chairs say that there is no God, they cannot prove that statement. Though skeptics refuse to see it, the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1).

Paul Brand (1914-2003) was a Christian missionary, orthopedic surgeon, and pioneer in leprosy research in India. Having retired to Seattle, in 1996 he spoke to family medicine residents at the Madigan Army Medical Center. Though 82 at the time, Dr. Brand described his work with a lilt in his voice, a spring in his step and a twinkle in his eye. A few months earlier he had been walking along an uneven sidewalk, caught his foot on a crack and toppled over. As he fell he felt his opposite leg stiffen and his body rotate in the normal reflexive attempt to stay standing. Dr. Brand hit the ground, but could not help marveling at the beauty and complexity of the human body. Though in some pain, this elderly servant of Christ saw his Lord through the glory of what He had made. He loved the creation, and even more loved the Creator that he saw behind it.

The Wise Men of the Bible sought Jesus because they wanted to find the Creator behind His creation. Modern wise men do not seek Jesus because they refuse to believe that there is anything behind nature,

Seeking for the good of others and the glory of God

Third, the Wise Men sought Jesus to save their nation. Parthia was in turmoil, with a weak and aging king. Civil war was a real possibility. The Magi wanted to find the Child, worship Him, and possibly bring Him to their people. Meanwhile Herod wanted to find the child in order to murder Him. They had the interests of their nation at heart while he pursued his own interests. The Wise Men hoped to ensure the well-being of their countrymen, while Herod hoped to ensure the rule of his dynasty. The Magi sought peace while Herod wanted bloodshed.

Moderns, perhaps even more than our forebears, want peace, but we want it on our own terms. Peace that allows me to do my own thing in my own way is good, while peace that requires hardship is not. E-contributing money to a cause is as much as many will do. Most of us would not travel hundreds of miles over several months in a dusty and dangerous caravan, as the Wise Men did, to find peace. Many of us don’t trouble ourselves for others’ peace at all, even when people across the world or in our neighborhoods are sick, hungry, or being persecuted. Few of us are in a position to initiate slaughter as Herod was, and few of us would admit to being willing to do it if we had the chance. The good of others, much less the glory of God, barely appears on our radar screen.

Followers of Christ live for Him and for others; not for ourselves. Instead we consider others more important than ourselves and put their needs first (Philippians 2:3-5). We have been crucified with Christ, have His mind, and live in Him (Galatians 2:20).

Truly wise men and women have always sought Jesus for the glory of God and the good of their people. Wise men and women today do not seek Jesus because they are interested in their own glory and perceived good.

Conclusion

While men who are truly wise will seek Jesus, most men and women who are considered wise in modern society will not. Part of this is human nature; if you can “make it” on your own, why rely on someone else (Proverbs 30:7-9)? Yet another part of this is our modern culture. Despite the oft-heard lamentation of a lack of leadership in the world, moderns fear and despise strong leaders such as Jesus. We want machines and methods, not men, and certainly not a God-man, to make our lives better. We reject the Creator behind the creation for fear that He will judge our actions and make us do something that we don’t like. Finally, we do not seek Jesus because we want our own perceived good and glory, not the good of others and the glory of God. That is why “wise men” today don’t seek Him.

In fairness, “wise men” of the past did many of the same things, which makes the Magi of Matthew that much more remarkable. Enabled by the Holy Spirit, Christians can and must do better.