Monday December 22, 2008
When the children were young, I would read some of the (what I considered to be) classics out loud on a rare open evening, sometimes by a crackling fire. There were all the predictable complaints. Television shows seemed, at first, to be preferable to dad’s voice. Or so they all said.
But Carolyn agreed. Stories from a good book trumped the flickering images on the screen. Unity in parenting is paramount at a time like this. We worked together to get our three settled into the living room to listen to dad read a book. One of the standards at Christmas-time was Dicken’s A Christmas Carol. Three or four years in a row, we read the story in its entirety over a series of chilly pre-Christmas nights, the fireplace aglow. I don’t know that the kids enjoyed the text as much as I did (sometimes one or two dropped off to sleep as I read on), but now all these years later they all three love to read good books and they are teaching their kids to do the same, so I guess it was worth the effort.
Another one of the residual benefits is that I’ve got those stories planted firmly in my otherwise overloaded memory bank. Phrases like “dead as a door-nail” and “Have we no prisons?” and “surplus population” and “Oh! But he was a tight-fisted man at the grindstone…” stay with you once you’ve read them out loud. It’s an amazing thing, really, that a book first published in 1843 (under the title “A Little Christmas Book”) could be as relevant now as it was then – one hundred and sixty five years later. As Mr. Scrooge is guided by clever spirits, spirits summoned by his departed business partner Jacob Marley, through Christmases past, present and future, he is forced to look into his own reflection and contemplate the things he’s covered over with obsessive record-keeping and endless lists of transactions and other self-absorptions and see his own life as it really was.
He saw that his boyhood laughter and rich friendships and wild imaginations somehow got lost in the pursuit of money. And ever more of it. When it cost him the only pretty young girl he ever loved, he shrugged and moved on as though it didn’t matter. He danced and laughed with the unforgettable Fezziwigs on Christmas Eve, but those days faded into oblivion long ago. Lost love. Lost laughter. Well, they gave way to a petty, desolate miser. His partner, Jacob, apparently shared his views – all that mattered was profit. Profit for profit’s sake. Joy became the frivolous occupation of the lazy and the irresponsible.
So Marley returns as a ghost late one snowy night to the frigid, sparse apartment where Scrooge sits alone with his tepid bowl of gruel. He delivers a message from the other side. Marley knows now that an eternity of regret, in a world where reconciliation is no longer possible, is his portion. It’s a hell that falls short of Dante’s inferno, but it is hell nonetheless. It’s the torment not of flames, but eternal regret. The apparition of his life-long business partner warns Scrooge that a similar fate waits for him. But unlike Marley, Scrooge still has time.
Dickens’ classic appears every year in a constellation of venues. The great actors all want to give it a shot – a demanding role that takes a man from rank cynicism to open hearted generosity. We’ve seen it performed on stage and on screen; and every time the message rings true. Frank Capra made a classic with the Dickensian theme – good man gets lost and almost gives in to the dark side; then finds redemption on Christmas Eve: It’s a Wonderful Life.
Maybe it’s time for a contemporary re-make for our own generation.
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Dr. John Coe (Talbot Seminary – professor of spiritual formation) tells the story of coming to faith in Christ as a college student in the mid-seventies. It was an overnight transformation. The devil-may-care party-animal caught up in a sea of narcissism found a way out. He came alive to God. He exchanged self-destruct indulgence for a wholesome, drug-free natural high. He told everyone he met. He read books like a starving street kid attacks an all-you-can-eat buffet court. One of the things he would say over and over again is “Yes. I’ve found new life. But it’s not religion. It’s a relationship.”
As Dr. Coe tells the story, the journey led to a focus on education. He completed his undergraduate courses with honors and then went on to seminary and a doctorate (Ph.D.). He made his way up the academic ranks in religious institutions, wrote books and hit the lecture circuit. But one morning, he says, he woke up to the realization that the relationship that meant so much in those early days had grown stale and cold.
The relationship was gone. All that he had left was religion.
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It’s Monday morning. You are a leader. Christmas is only days away. Like most of America, you’ve let people know that this year will be leaner than last. You’ve cut back on the extravagance. You’ll be less likely to rack up the charges on the credit cards. You’ll get creative this year; do things that cost less but mean more.
Dickens and Capra and Coe are on to something. Us old guys, guys who once knew the truth and laughed easily and danced to the music with abandon, well, we call it reality. We think of it as obligation. We swim in the deep end. We shoulder the responsibility.
And we are reticent to admit how it has crushed us.
Like Scrooge and (George) Bailey and Coe, we need to be reborn. What will it take? A visitation of ghosts? An angel named Clarence?
This year, let it go. Just long enough to hear the angels sing. To hear the laughter of the children.
And the wonder of the manger.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2008