“Cause we are living
In a material world
And I am [not] a material girl”
Growing up, singing this song alongside Madonna on the radio always felt like a great irony. Material girl? Not me. I wore basketball shorts to school many days (Girls athletics was first period and there was a dress code for knee-length shorts. You would have made the same decision!) I grew up in a world where my two shirts from American Eagle were Christmas presents from friends and anything branded with Abercrombie & Fitch or Limited Too was more likely to have come from a hand-me-down box than a store.
Now, I’d like to add some qualifiers. I had vastly more than what I needed growing up. My mother was more than willing to splurge a little on an outfit I loved or wanted for a special event. I got a new pair of shoes each year for my various sports teams, and I never felt ashamed of what I wore or compared what I had to others. Except for that time when my best friends both got Louis Vuitton purses in third grade. But I digress…
As a result of being raised with the perspective that you buy only what you need when you need it (irrespective of branding) and my overall disinterest in fashion and technology trends, materialism felt far from something I would be tempted by. There were plenty of sins I would lay claim to, but surely, I had some level of intrinsic immunity to this one.
As I grew older, I continued my habit of spending as little as possible and avoiding shopping unless necessary. I was proud of rocking an iPhone 5S until June 2019 and was healthily detached from material things.
Or so I thought.
At the beginning of July (only a few weeks after my upgrade to an iPhone 7), I took a trip with my mom and older sister. It was my first time going to Europe, and our itinerary included stops in Barcelona, Venice, Cinque Terre, and Florence.
Upon our arrival, my sister’s checked bag joined us at El Prat airport, but neither my mother’s nor my bag ever made it out of Amsterdam. What started as an inconvenience soon morphed into something bigger.
We proceeded to spend the next nine days of our trip without any luggage. It was me and my trusty turquoise Jansport, in which I’d packed an extra set of clothes but no toothbrush. I’ll go ahead ruin the end for you: We were eventually reunited with our bags the day before we flew back to Texas.
Those nine days in between held a lot more substance than just good wine, tasty pasta, and time spent wandering around art galleries. Those nine days brought me face-to-face with my dependence on comfort, control, and, dare I say it, material things.
The hardest part for me to contend with was not the frustration of missing our stuff for the trip, but the idea that it might all be gone even after we returned. I made mental lists in my head of the things in my suitcase and the time, effort, and cost associated with each item. Over and over again I thought about my new dresses, my make-up bag, my new copy of a book I’d packed for the trip, and all of my other possessions sitting on the tarmac at Schiphol Airport. Hours spent on the phone with customer service and WhatsApp messages exchanged with the airline did not add to my joy. However, there was something else bothering me.
Below all of these surface struggles, a deeper question tugged at my mind. Why was this so hard for me? It’s just stuff. I am not the type of person who cares about things. Why am I anxious and troubled at this level?
One of the glorious things about Italy is that you can’t throw a rock without hitting a beautifully ornate, quiet, and mostly empty church in the middle of the afternoon. Every time I wandered into one of these spaces and entered into an exchange with God, I was struck with a different piece of scripture.
You are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing.(Luke 10:41-41)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? . . . Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wildflowers grow. They do not work or spin. But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will He not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?(Matthew 6:25-30)
I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.(Philippians 4:12)
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. He said to them, “The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few; so ask the master of the harvest to send out laborers for his harvest. Go on your way; behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves. Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals, and greet no one along the way.(Luke 10:1-4)
Right before leaving on the trip, I had finished reading “Hinds Feet on High Places.” It is a book I recommend to all. There is a key line where the main character, a girl named Much Afraid, tells the Good Shepherd, “I am your little flower, Acceptance with Joy.”
This, along with the above scriptures, became my mantra over the course of our trip. Every time I sensed thoughts of fear, control, and frustration entering my brain I repeated the phrase “I am your little flower, Acceptance with Joy.” I eventually came around to the acceptance part, but the joy? That one was harder.
As the Holy Spirit sent all of these words and scriptures to me, they were not harsh, accusatory or shaming, but they were deeply convicting. I had to face the bitter reality that I have not learned how to be content in all things as Paul discusses in Philippians 4:11-13. If I am really honest, I do not trust that God will provide for my every need.
This was a rude awakening for a girl who thought she was not tempted by materialism because she shops at TJ Maxx more often than Madewell.
I am reminded of the rich, young ruler as described in the Gospel of Mark 10:17-31. After Jesus tells him to sell his belongings and give his money to the poor, the Gospel tells us “he went away sad, for he had many possessions.”
I, too, have many possessions. And I, too, was sad at the prospect of losing them.
So how does this material girl living in a material world respond to the message of Jesus in the Gospels? In truth, this is a question I am wrestling with in the current moment, as I write this all down. Do I go on a shopping fast for a certain window of time? Do I purge my closet and drawers and get rid of anything I do not deem necessary? Or, do I simply recognize my own spiritual poverty in this area, offer it to Jesus, and ask for His mercy and grace to give me the courage to surrender this attachment at the foot of the cross?
As mentioned above, I do not feel as though I have an answer to these questions quite yet, but I do know this:
Materialism is the deception that things of this world can satisfy my needs more fully than God.
I am through buying into this lie. In spite of the lost luggage, even on this trip, I had more than I needed. We washed clothes in the sink each night, shared toiletries from my sister’s bag, and overall it worked just fine. Jesus provided with more than enough.
As a result of this experience, I want to ask Jesus to continue to open me up to see ways I can surrender my comfort and control. Maybe some of these changes will be more radical than others, but I know I want to be changed as a result of this experience.
While we are all material girls (and boys) living in a material world, we are called to be in the world and not of it. Jesus, grant us the courage to trust you with our every need, as we become your children, Acceptance with Joy!