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Rails Against the System

A Dickensian Christmas

Mr. Fezziwig’s Ball Hand colored etching by Jo...

 

Charles Dickens is sometimes credited as the man who invented Christmas — not, of course, the celebration of the birth of Christ, but the modern phenomenon of Christmas as we know it. Before A Christmas CarolDecember 25 was just another reason to get drunk. (For a detailed exploration of this topic, check out this pastor’s blog who has written far more extensively on the subject:  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/markdroberts/series/christmas-according-to-dickens/.)

 

I’m a deep admirer of Dickens.When I think of A Christmas Carol, I feel “Christmasy” inside. Somehow, Christmas is as it should be: food, fellowship, dancing, singing, and rest from labor… but all of this with Death as a visitor. Scrooge‘s vision of his own grave is the climax of Scrooge’s conversion. And the grave is the constant companion throughout the whole little book. Visits from ghosts, both known and unknown. Even bits of conversation allude to it. Fred says:

 

the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.

 

 

Scrooge, from Charles Dickens: A Christmas Car...

 

It is the grave that gives A Christmas Carol its spiritual depth.

 

When I think of our modern-day American Christmas, the grave is nowhere near. The commercial craze to buy, buy, buy is a symptom of our manic, emphatic denial of death. Black Friday proves it every year. Manic. Denial. Of Death. Up to our ears in debt, we add to it with gifts from China. There is very little of Scrooge’s conversion in it at all. (I’m speaking personally here.) I do not feel the great relief to be alive. I do not feel the deep thankfulness to give or receive. I feel very little but the guilt of not cutting it and resentfulness that having a quiet meal is not enough. I can hear voices argue with me, Oh, but a simple meal is enough. Just being with your family is enough. Don’t lie. You know it’s not enough. You would never celebrate Christmas with just a meal. There must be gifts involved. Newly bought gifts. Gifts bought from stores with wrapping bought from stores. And the weeks preceding it must be spent shopping in stores.

 

If you’re flush with cash, or you have room on your credit cards, or young and just don’t care yet, the grave seems far away.

 

If you’re working long hours and worried about getting food on the table, and 40 is looming near or long gone, and there is no money for retirement, and the bills piling higher are just papers to stack in a corner that will translate into angry phone calls without resolutions, and an armed North Korea makes you want to stock-pile food but you’ve used your last bag of beans, and the Christmas tree was a gift rather than a big ordeal with the kids choosing the perfect one, and there aren’t any gifts under it and you can’t see any way to put them there in the near future, then, my friend … you may feel the wallowing sadness of fellow-passengers to the grave.

 

That’s more like it. That’s a Dickensian Christmas. For whether you are poor in pocket or poor in spirit, we need each other.

 

If you feel like that, I’d like to invite you to Christmas dinner. We’re having ham because that’s what we have in the freezer. We’ll make it delicious because we have more time than money — and we love good food. No gifts. It just makes us feel bad. We’ll be thankful for the few things we have: each other, a roof over our head, and Christ within us.

 

So, have a Dickensian Christmas, fellow-passenger to the grave.

 

 

 

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Cultural Disobedience

And now the forces marshaled around the concept of the group have declared a war of extermination on that preciousness, the mind of man. By disparagement, by starvation, by repressions, forced direction, and the stunning hammerblows of conditioning, the free, roving mind is being pursued, roped, blunted, drugged. It is a sad suicidal course our species seems to have taken. Steinbeck, East of Eden.

Nineteen years ago, Paul and I met at the Virginia Cafe in the heart of downtown Portland, the halfway point between our colleges. Leaning against his Land Cruiser, we lingered, hunger gnawing. Eventually, we had to go inside. We bought tea because that was all we could afford. Then, we spoke our lives into existence, eyes locked, soul-to-soul, sharing the glory within us, all through the night. The waitress smiled, poured more tea, and accepted our meager tips.

Toyota Land Cruiser (BJ40LV)
young love

Glory and more glory. We knew each other. Thoughts blended and swirled. Paul finished my thoughts and I prompted his. We couldn’t tell who said which. Ideas sprang from a common heart that beat one rhythm.

We promised to live differently. To live a life without hurry. Our worship blossomed, unforced. Yet, we’d work too. We’d work our garden. Till, weed, and rest in season. Soil and goodness. God and man working together. We’d grow a garden of wildflowers and rare plants. We’d turn the sand and clay into loam. Between us, under us, existed promises backed by discipline, willingness and goodwill.

Promises are cheap and the real work swept up like a white squall. What does it mean to grow up? What is “real life”? Must we seek the American Dream? Is it our dream? Who are we? Why are we here?

We defined it in the negative. We didn’t want to live like everyone else.

Television set for Wikipedia userbox icons, or...
The never-seeing eye

As we drove through the night, we watched the blue-light of that never-seeing eye flickering inside houses. Voyeurs! Philistines. You’ve sold your birthright for a bowl of stew. Paul said:

Life is like the freezing river touching your ribs. It’s clear and painful and sharp. Some people recoil and never want to feel it again. Some people give into it and it gets in their blood. They seek it forever after.

I remembered the ecstasy of bathing in an early morning river. The sharp intake of breath, needles of pain, washing up, dressing, shivering, tingling skin returning to its warm state. Joy. I said:

We insulate ourselves with food and warmth. We create a bubble without pain, devoid of joy. It hangs heavy in our skin. It protects us from intimacy. From knowing. From being.

Birding. Paul and I sprang from the earth as second Adams naming the creatures we saw. Paul expanded it to flowers and trees and plants. It was spiritual work, an act of worship, an effort at knowing our creator. From these ancient rituals our souls soared. A glory lit up within us.

I’d hear or read words that tumbled over me like a tsunami. While being washed away the beauty of the words quelled the fear. I loved.

Paul saw a painting and traced his finger over the lines. Sometimes, in a masterpiece the blood sweat of martyrdom sings to you. The forearms tingle with electricity. The skin bursts into swords. The earth moves.

From this love comes the reason of life, the gushing of why.

Our girls arrived. Consecrated to God, a pearl of great price, a hero’s daughter, and the fire of day. Crinkled little eyes in sleep. Naughty eyes peeked from under a chair. We kissed dimpled knuckles and warm feet. We cared and caressed and spoke and lifted and loved, oh! how we loved. We were not diminished. We grew in stature. We partnered in creation and saw that it was good.

Though prophets spoke against the coming age we had not read them. But we felt their words and knew their thoughts and listened to the warnings. A war on the individual had long raged in efficient patterns and economic factories and bland products for masses. Patterns of nothings, bric-à-brac, garbage, rubbish, knickknacks, collecting in corners of houses, things of no account. Designed for glory, people insulated lifeless shells and lived a farce. We swam in an ocean of flotsam and jetsam.

Children leaving the school. Montgomery County...

Since it is not natural for us to live this way, we must be educated into it. We must be taught to need what we do not need, to want what brings no joy, to buy what destroys pleasure. We buy discontent. We must not know too much. Like cows, we eat the hay dumped from the end of the truck, chewing placidly until the slaughter truck comes.

We hid from the destruction. Commercials reached other eyes, but not ours. The factory bells rang in other children’s ears, but not ours. Our daughters did not stand in line. Nor did they obey without love. They did not think without ideas. Probing questions were left unasked. Not until the undulations of thousands of years and billions of lives passed over them would they have to answer. We hid them. Placed them in the basket of home. We washed them in words and stories and poignant flowers and the study of a beetle painfully making its way across the sidewalk. We watered them with moonlit walks and snow angels and the whispers of a mountain creek.

This is our supreme act of cultural disobedience.

We did it while poverty howled at the door. Mold, rust, and beetles threatened. Blight. Too much rain. Not enough. Transplanting.

But we’ve still hung on. We have a beautiful garden.

For us, this is the only way to live.

How do you fight the extermination of the individual? How do you keep the glory alive? What is your supreme act of cultural disobedience? Share it. From one battle-weary soldier to another.

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