This photo was taken by a security camera just moments before an employee was trampled to death at Wal-Mart on Black Friday of 2008.
The assignment this week for my Youth Confirmation class is to write a 400-500 word essay, partially due to the season, on thankfulness. The first part is to list the many things that you have to be thankful for (broken down into categories of physical blessings, talents, relationships, and spiritual blessings). The second part of the assignment is to say how you intend to express thankfulness for such blessings in your life. So, for instance, if I”m blessed with financial gifts, I can be generous with others. If I’m blessed with unique talents, I can serve others with them. If I have great relationships, I treat these people with love and respect. And if I have spiritual blessings (and every one of the students, for instance, was born into a Christian home, has salvation promised to them by their Savior, and has a country in which they can worship freely), I can show thankfulness by spending regular time in God’s Word, applying it daily to my life, and spreading it.
Sounds like a pretty worthwhile assignment, right? I thought so. Opportunity for reflection and growth? I thought so. Unfortunately, the assignment was met with a chorus of groans accompanied by a lovely “I don’t get it” descant. But before I’m too tough on the students, I have to say that I guess I do remember what it was like to be a 14-year-old, feeling that it was enough to BE thankful or maybe even SAY “thank you,” but not ever thinking much about DOING thankfulness.
I guess what I’m saying is that I think part of their struggle was just a maturity thing (and a “not wanting to write an essay” in general thing). But the bigger underlying concern that I have is a consumer-minded culture’s inability to demonstrate any kind of true thankfulness. In the same way that a generation growing up with same-sex marriages is going to naturally be confused about what God intended a marriage unit to be, a generation growing up with consumer insanity is going to naturally be confused about what God intended thankfulness to look like.
Enter Black Friday. Now let me preface this by saying that there is nothing inherently wrong with doing some shopping the day after Thanksgiving. If you get pumped by standing in line before sunrise to get 50% off of a George Foreman grill, more power to you. I might even give you some cash to pick me something up that I’d like. I also understand that a lot of people do it simply as a fun activity for the family on a day that many people have off from work. Nothing wrong with that. Again, it’s the bigger underlying message that’s a little scary to me.
It’s no secret that our society, perhaps more than any other in history struggles with materialism and consumerism (although “struggle” is perhaps a misleading word because we don’t put up much of a fight). It affects everyone. I see it in churches even. When someone comes through the front doors, one of the first things they want to know is what programs your church has to offer them. If your church doesn’t happen to meet the wants of that American consumer, almost regardless of doctrine, they’re often likely to head down the road to the next church to find a better deal. Now I have no problem promoting programs that address the ministerial needs of the entire family. Churches should be aiming for that. I have no problem with people selecting a church that best suits them. That only makes sense. But as a ministry leader, when it feels a little like the motivation to start or expand programs is merely to keep up with the Wal-Marts of American Christendom, you realize you’ve been hit by American consumerism.
The story is two years old, but nonetheless still shocking. On Black Friday 2 years ago, a Wal-Mart worker in Long Island was trampled to death after an “out-of-control” mob of frenzied shoppers smashed through the store’s front doors. The man who was stepped on and bypassed by over 200 bargain shoppers was 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour, a temporary maintenance worker from Queens. Even officers who arrived to perform CPR on the trampled worker were stepped on by wild-eyed shoppers fighting to get inside. And one of the employees said, “When they (the shoppers) were told they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling, ‘I’ve been on line since Friday morning!’ They kept shopping.” Human life for $20 off of a TV is a worthwhile deal to a culture obsessed with consumption.
This year, stores are opening earlier, as has been the pattern in recent years. Many stores are opening late Thursday night to extend Black Friday. I hope everyone sees the irony in all of this. We’re actually willing to cut hours off of the day on which we supposedly celebrate thankfulness (Thanksgiving Day) so that we can extend the day on which we get more things that we’re not thankful for. However, if I stand in front of a major department store next Thursday evening and try to point out that irony, I will get the same looks as I did in a classroom full of 14-year-olds who don’t really want to write an essay. You can’t really tell people to “be thankful” or “do thankfulness.” But you can tell people that you are indeed thankful and the peace that this brings you and then demonstrate in your life what a thankful heart leads you to do.
The overreaction to holiday shopping madness would be to condemn Black Friday, condemn malls, and condemn shopping in general. That’s not a solution though, nor is it proper to label such things as sins. 1000 years ago it was fairly common for Christian leaders in Europe to go and seclude themselves in the hills as monks because society was just so evil that they didn’t dare dirty their hands with it and they wanted people to know that. Very few good things came from this. Society didn’t benefit from the presence of a supposed moral people and the monks just lived fairly miserable, self-righteous lives. God’s people are to be “salt of the earth” examples for the world, not high and mighty finger waivers.
So don’t feel bad if you have shopping plans for Black Friday. You might even run into my wife, who is going out with a friend at midnight just for “something fun to do.” And if she has something in her cart that looks like it requires a husband’s assembly, tell her to remind herself who she’s married to.
Having stated the overreaction, I think there’s an under reaction to seeing American consumerism at the holidays too, especially when young and impressionable minds are still figuring out how to be thankful, say “thanks,” and demonstrate thankful hearts through their actions.
I would try to avoid the “boys will be boys” attitude about American discontentment and remind myself and my family about what “need” really means, as well as remind everyone of the ridiculous amount of things that we have to be thankful for. Eternal paradise through Jesus’ complete forgiveness is first on the checklist. Family and friends, skills and talents, food, clothes, homes, cars, health, rest, peace, freedom, entertainment, the fact that if we were truly “in need” both our church and our government would gladly help so that we never really have any true fear of being without necessities. You could go on and on and on…….this list doesn’t really end.
One of the hardest things for me to do as someone who is supposed to have a role as a “spiritual leader,” is to take the time to slow down and pray and reflect on all that there is to be thankful about. Sometimes, if I’m really struggling to make time for this, I literally schedule time in my Microsoft Outlook calendar for it. It’s just too important to miss. And I become miserable if I’m not regularly reflecting on all of the countless things I have to be thankful for. And if I truly have a thankful heart, I trust that God will present all sorts of opportunities in my life to demonstrate thankfulness.
Although it’s not technically a Christian holiday, Thanksgiving is a great holiday for Christians to celebrate. May God bless your holiday just as he blesses your every day.
“Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15)
“Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.” (Hebrews 12:28)