It was a rainy, dull day and I was stuck in the city of Exeter for the whole of it. I know, there are worst places to be stuck. My car needed some warranty repairs and apparently according to the Google it was my nearest dealer. So it was that I found myself Exeter for the day and I travelled into the centre to do some shopping.
Just writing that last sentence makes me shudder! You see, I hate shopping. It’s not that I don’t like getting new things but the whole process of finding something to buy, walking around shops, trying to find the best prices fills me full of dread. Normally, I am happy enough to use my finger on my phone and receive something via a nice courier person - but I was in the City for a whole day and I needed a new coat and coats are not something you can hastily buy on the internet. They demand a greater attention to detail, its a crucial purchase. You are going to be wearing it for the large part of winter, it needs to fit, have the correct amount of pockets, be waterproof and feel ‘nice’. You can’t judge that online. So I steeled myself, and started to visit the department stores in a self conscious kind of way.
I was mid way through my shopping marathon and things were not going well. I wasn’t even close to finding a coat, but had managed to buy a pair of gloves that you can use the touch screen of your phone whilst wearing (it seemed magical, so I just had to buy them!). I sat down at a well known coffee establishment that inhabited a corner of an equally well known department store and ‘people watched’ (whilst wearing my gloves). I quickly came to the conclusion that everybody else hated shopping as much as I did, judging by their faces. People just looked so sad and stressed, rushing about their business in complete isolation of each other. Even the person sitting next to me looked perturbed as I took up my seat next to them! Mums and dads struggling with their children, elderly people attempting the escalator, people waiting with grimaced faces in short queues.
It’s not meant to be like this is it? I wondered as I sat there, also wondering how much time we spend doing shopping during our lifetime but I didn’t have any wifi to google it and to be honest, the gloves weren't living up to the hype. Probably for the best as If I had of received wifi, or even spent twenty minutes trying to find some, I would have been on my phone and not noticed those around me.
A couple of thousand years ago (give or take a few years) a guy called Paul (great name) was trying to get a new type of community going. One in which it’s members didn’t live in isolation of each other, a community that practiced loving each other as God loved them. It was a tricky business, not least because he had got arrested for thinking such things and he had to get a lot of this started from prison, writing letters to organise things. In one of those letters, to a group in a small village called Colossae, he talks a lot about how they should live together. I remembered the way he describes it as I sat there next to the perturbed woman in that enormous chain store, watching people hating being there.
Paul talks about being compassionate and kind, recognising that each of us are going though things we cannot possibly know about. He asks them to act with patience, like not just putting up with waiting in line to purchase something in a place you don’t want to be, but actively looking for ways to make people’s life better and being prepared to wait yourself as a consequence. He talks of forgiveness, both of the obvious things when people have wronged us and the things we think in our heads that other people must be thinking, but probably aren’t anyway. Its a way of life that turns us away from looking within ourselves towards others, seeing a little of our own insecurities and loneliness reflected back and showing the compassion and kindness of God. It is, Paul ventures, the most fulfilling, joy filled, peaceful way to live.
I think those people in that department store that day could have used some of that. I think our communities could use more of it, as we becoming increasingly isolated and introverted in our own preoccupation to be ‘busy’. One of the biggest ironies of the modern world I think, is that we are obsessed with doing things for ourselves to make us happy, when true happiness comes from looking outside and reflecting that God given love we have inside us, back to other people. What would a community like that look like in todays society? What would that department store of looked like? What would our churches look like?
I found my coat! It was the one! Of course, it was the first coat I looked at and had rejected four hours previously, but having been through the options it was the best one and I actually broke my own protocol and tried it on. I have pretty much worn it every day since then because it is one of those coats you just ‘sink’ into, you know what I mean? I feel good when I wear this coat - it feels like I am walking around with my duvet wrapped around me and it puts me in a good mood! I even keep it on during some meetings, smiling away at people as I sit in my ‘duvet’ talking about finances or buildings!! Seriously, I was very happy to see the snow!
Paul ends his letter to that fledging church in the little village of Colossae by asking them to ‘clothe yourselves in love which binds everything together in perfect harmony’. Just like my coat, the more we look outwards and seek to show the love of God to each other, the more it starts to inhabit our inner selves. It’s like a coat that we put on everyday, taking comfort and pleasure in it and projecting that out to others at the same time. I think that if I did that a bit more, some of my friends would find coats like that themselves and we perhaps I might stop googling less, and talking more about the kind of challenges that we face together in our own time.
I will probably still hate shopping though.