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Supermarket Spiritual Exercises

Adrienne Thompson

Exercise One - Focus on Essentials

“You are worried and upset about many things but only one is needed.” Luke 10:41

When we first got back from Bangladesh I wallowed in choices. So many new things to try. Things we’d missed like real fruit juice and different kinds of cheeses and all the intriguing flavour packets: Mexican, Thai, Italian . . . .

But when the reality of budgeting for a largish family on a smallish income kicked in I was brought back to essentials. My shopping list now doesn’t look so very different from the one I made in Bangladesh. Not muffin mix and pancake mix, but flour. Not a dozen flavour sachets, but the herbs and spices I’ll use in a dozen recipes.

So shopping gives me practice in focusing on essentials. Just as the supermarket dazzles me with things to buy, I’m dazzled daily by things to be done. Useful jobs, boring jobs; television to watch, telephone calls to make, kids to talk to, muesli to mix, meetings to go to . . . .

Like worried Martha (who would have loved supermarkets I’m sure!) I need the tender reminder of Jesus. Time with him is the one essential, and Mary got it right.

Exercise Two - Guilt versus Gratitude

“Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks and shared them out.” John 6:11

I’ll be walking along the frozen food aisle deciding between brands of peas when I’m joined by a ghost. Hollow eyed, gappy-toothed Fenura in her faded blue sari coughing suggestively outside our home in Bangladesh. When I answer the cough she always asks “can you give me a little food?” Prostitution hasn’t brought in much today and she has four mouths to feed.

Remembering hungry people, surrounded by the supermarket’s opulence, I feel swamped with guilt because I’m so rich and they’re so poor.

I hate to feel guilty so I push away the memories. Guilt paralyses me. Conscience grows a callus. I choose indifference.

But these days I’m practising a different reaction. Not guilt, but gratitude. Thank you God for food and money to buy it. Thank you for flavour and colour and good cooking smells. Thank you for variety and convenience and a family to share with.

Saying thank you liberates me. I’m reminded to add extra items to my basket to drop in the food bank at the supermarket door. I can explore other ways to give and serve. I don’t have to forget the poor. I can choose to be generous with what God has so generously given to me.

Exercise Three - Saying ‘No’

“Lead us not into temptation” Matthew 6:13

Watching the child tugging at her mother whining for a packet of chippies I feel the same inner tugging at my will. Buy it. Buy it now. Just buy it.

If there’s one spiritual discipline that really gets a workout in the supermarket it’s the discipline of resisting temptation. Shelves full of enticement lie at my elbow. So easy to reach out and pop something into my trolley.

Henri Nouwen says somewhere that it’s impossible to say ‘no’ unless at the same time you are saying ‘yes’ to something better. So in resisting the seductions of the supermarket I try to remember what I’m choosing instead. ‘Yes’ to a healthy diet. ‘Yes’ to living within our means. ‘Yes’ to simplicity. ‘Yes’ to keeping some things special instead of making them ‘everyday’.

Jesus did say we were to deny ourselves — that’s the ‘no’. But far outweighing the struggle of self-denial is the warmth of his invitation: “follow me”. Companionship, adventure and the promise that however long the road we will come safely home — to that I can say ‘Yes’.

Exercise Four - Conquering Envy

“You shall not covet . . . anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Exodus 20:17

Envy attacks anywhere, not just in the supermarket. If greed simply wants in excess, envy specifically wants what another has.

Shopping opens an entrance for it: I wish I had the clothes and figure to look like she does. So does reading my e-mail: I wish I had the opportunities for my children that they have. So does visiting a friend: I wish I had the money to spend on making my house as attractive as yours is.

More subtle than the envy of possessions is the envy that grows out of dissatisfaction. I wish I had your talent, your intelligence, your spiritual gift, your serene spirit.

The German pastor Helmut Thielicke gave me a remedy against envy. Would you, he asks, change places with the person you envy? Would you have not only her attractive home but her difficult relationship with her teenage daughter? Would you have the spiritual gift of leadership along with the strain it would put on your family?

The opposite of envy is contentment. By the gift of God I have what I have, by the grace of God I am what I am. In place of envy’s rampant weed let contentment flower.

Exercise Five - Calculating the Cost

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it?” Luke 14:28

I’ve never liked maths but I’m getting a little practice in arithmetic at the supermarket. Is 425 g at $3.25 cheaper or more expensive than 600 g at $4.10? Or on a larger scale: does the money we’d save shopping at Pak N’ Save outweigh the extra cost in petrol we’d use to get there compared to the cost of getting to New World, which is closer?

The old adage says you can save time or money but not both. I pay in time for what I save in dollars and cents by careful shopping. In different circumstances I may choose to place the higher value on time. Either way I have to work out what it costs me.

Jesus told would-be followers to calculate costs. You could almost say he discouraged impulse buying. He wasn’t peddling teaching “like lollypops and jellybeans . . . tasty tibits of wisdom and delicious nuggets of Scripture”1 but asking people to shoulder a splintery, angular, heavy cross.

Following Jesus demands an investment of spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical energy. The cost would be beyond my means, except for one thing: he promises to replenish my account.