I hate shopping at chain stores, I really do. The amount of merchandise and the lack of natural lighting overload my senses. So does the idea I could be doing something infinitely better with my time. But sometimes, I just can’t avoid shopping. Our boys needed new sneakers and Easter slacks and shirts so yesterday we had to head down a traffic-clogged state highway to buy them. But Christ finds a way of making Himself seen—even at Kohl’s.
My husband and I are raising our boys in New Jersey, the most densely populated state and the state with the greatest square footage of retail real estate per resident. I can think of no national retail chain that is not within a 10-minute drive of our home. We live in an oasis of calm amid strip malls and shopping centers; ours is a small town with sycamore-lined streets and a tidy commercial district we walk to for groceries, for church, and for after-dinner ice cream cones. Whenever one of us returns from an errand in town, the others ask: “Who did you see?” because inevitably, we run into friends and neighbors on our travels.
Yesterday, I left this idyll for Kohl’s. I have nothing in particular against the chain. I don’t like shopping at Macy’s or WalMart or Marshalls, either. The older I become, the stronger my faith and the emptier materialism,
a philosophical system which regards matter as the only reality in the world, which undertakes to explain every event in the universe as resulting from the conditions and activity of matter, and which thus denies the existence of God and the soul.
I was especially grumpy yesterday because before we left for shopping our 10-year-old had an unpleasant encounter with a neighborhood boy. The other fifth grader said some unkind things to our son about his older brother. Our 10-year-old returned home, most uncharacteristically, filled with angry tears. Someone had dissed his beloved older brother. Though I tried not to show it, I felt angry too. We don’t allow our sons to say unkind things about other people and we have trained them to pray—or at least try to pray—for their “enemies.” They would face real consequences if we were to find out they had mouthed off to another kid about their brother or anything else. As we drove to Kohl’s, we were talking about this incident, my 13-year-old saying he truly felt confused by the criticism and why a kid he never has met would need to tear him down to feel good about himself. “It just doesn’t make sense,” he said. “This is really baffling.”
At Kohl’s, after we spent time in the men’s section looking for pants for my teen and the boys’ section to find slacks for the 10-year-old, I felt done. Our cart was flowing with socks and slacks and shirts. We went over to the shoe department. I sat on a bench and let the boys find their own shoes. I silently stewed, my mind filled with angry thoughts. I was thinking about how so many parents I know find excuses for their children’s obnoxious behavior instead of correcting their children. I don’t know the offending boy’s parents, but even if I did and spoke with them, would they even care? What am I supposed to tell my boys? To talk back to someone who is rude? To let it go and recognize some people are just mean? To tell people about their hurt and try to reconcile with them?
I was feeling kind of hopeless about the whole thing. I sat on a bench, my arms dangling on the loaded-up shopping cart under florescent lights while my sons shopped. Do you ever have that feeling of being a stranger to the world, the sense of: what am I doing here?
All of a sudden, above the noise of my thoughts, I became aware that our teen was helping his little brother find the Converse sneakers he wanted. He had left the shoe department to find a clerk and ask for help and he was returning with suggestions on where to find the sneakers. Then, right in front of me, the most beautiful tableau appeared: a little boy, no older than three, was sitting on a bench pretending to try on shoes. His mother came over to him, knelt in front of him, and kissed him tenderly. I pulled out my cell phone to take a picture, but I was too late. The tableau vanished. Then, I looked to my right and and saw my sons, standing by a shoe kiosk, the older one guiding the little one to find his sneakers. So I took the photo above.
And then I thought: I’ve been getting this all wrong. Christ is not just in the comfortable, familiar places, like my hometown and among my neighbors. He is here, too, amid the roads clogged with traffic, the miles of strip shopping malls and clearance racks. God knows we have to live in a material world. He knows we need to clothe and care for our children. Christ has found a way to show Himself to me, in this present moment, in the shoe department of the East Brunswick Kohl’s.