(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
My message series theme this month is one I’ve entitled “A Very Dickens Holiday”. Last Sunday, today and then again next Saturday at our Candlelight Christmas Eve / Hanukah service, I examine relevant holiday ideas from Charles Dickens’ novels – and particularly his most famous one, A Christmas Carol.
As you know, most of that novel describes its main character’s night-long journey, led by three ghosts, to view his past, present and future. Near the end of the novel, this character Scrooge encounters the ghost of the future which Dickens describes this way:
The Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached. When it came near him, Scrooge bent down upon his knee; for in the very air through which this Spirit moved it seemed to scatter gloom and mystery. It was shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed its head, its face, its form, and left nothing of it visible save one outstretched hand…It thrilled Scrooge with a vague uncertain horror, to know that behind the mask there were eyes staring at him.
And thus began Scrooge’s final journey into his bitter and hateful soul. This ghost first shows him a vision of three businessmen who make light of the death of a colleague – someone few people liked. They joke that it will be a very cheap funeral since nobody will attend.
Scrooge is then taken to an apartment where he watches as three people wantonly pillage the material items of a deceased man they knew.
Next the ghost shows Scrooge a shrouded corpse and tries to reveal the body. Scrooge begs the ghost to stop. He asks the ghost to instead show him someone who feels any emotion over the man’s death. He’s then shown a husband and wife as they happily talk about a man’s death. They owed the man money and now that debt will be forgotten.
Scrooge begs to be shown some tenderness associated with death and the ghost brings him to the home of Bob Cratchit and his family as they tearfully lament the passing of their physically challenged son Tiny Tim. Scrooge is deeply moved but the ghost is not finished. The ghost, as its last act, takes Scrooge to a rundown graveyard and moves to a distant corner where a moldy gravestone sits with the name Ebenezer Scrooge upon it.
Scrooge realizes he is the one the previous people spoke. He begs the ghost to erase his name from the tombstone and says to it, “Good Spirit…Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”
The very next moment Scrooge is back in his bedroom. He hurries across his dark room to throw open the window shutters and exults as streams of sunlight pour upon him. Scrooge celebrates his change of heart.
I briefly described in my message last Sunday the unhappy childhood of Charles Dickens. He was born to a large family and his father was a low paid clerk. Young Charles attended a school for poor youth until the age of twelve when he was forced to quit and work ten hours a day in a factory to help pay family debt. His father was irresponsible with money. He and his family were thus locked up in debtor’s prison.
When Dickens’ father was released after a year, his mother demanded Charles remain at work and continue supporting the family. Her insensitivity wounded Dickens but he was eventually able to persuade his parents to allow him to attend a charity boarding school. That experience, however, was equally unhappy. At school, Charles was beaten and ignored. He felt the sting of being unloved and unwanted by his parents. At the age of fifteen, he went to work as an office boy where he advanced, became a journalist, and began a career as a writer.
The pain of feeling abused and unloved as a child had a strong impact on Dickens. At the age of 27 he published one of his most successful novels – Oliver Twist – about the life of an orphan forced to live on the streets of London slums. Dickens focused many of his novels on the challenges of poverty and particularly on how it affects children. Many of his characters, like Oliver Twist, David Copperfield or young Pip in the book Great Expectations, overcome childhood poverty through hard work and the kindness of strangers. The sad trajectory of their lives is changed – by their own doing – and by the charity of others.
Such stories of change interested Dickens. He not only condemned society for its cruel treatment of children, he championed persons like himself who transform themselves into happy and caring citizens. As he once said about his childhood, “I know I do not exaggerate, unconsciously and unintentionally, the scantiness of my resources and the difficulty of my life… I know that… I might easily have been, for any care that was taken of me, a little robber or a vagabond.”
As I discussed last week, Dickens became a Unitarian. He joined London’s Essex Chapel after touring the U.S. – where he was as popular as in England. While in the US, he heard sermons by William Ellery Channing, the founder of Unitarianism. He was intrigued with the idea that God and Christ are not agents of change in the world. To rely on faith in unproven miracles, he believed, is a misplaced hope. He was instead drawn to Unitarian beliefs that people must be the world’s real change agents.
Dickens admired the teachings of Jesus and they formed his spirituality. The only worthy religion for him is one that teaches its members to always do good for others. In order to accomplish that, one must first change oneself. The essence of Jesus’ teaching, and that of Unitarianism, is that people undertake journeys of personal change in order to then transform the world. Dickens implied that such transformation in himself – from an unhappy youth to contented adulthood – is what helped him succeed.
We read in A Christmas Carol the same kind of transformation in Ebenezer Scrooge. Much like Dickens, Scrooge is described as being neglected as a boy. During a visit to his past, we see a young Scrooge who is disliked by other children. That continues at his boarding school where, one Christmas, he is all alone. The other boys had gone home, or had been invited to join others. The adult Scrooge, seeing this vision of his past, weeps for a lonely and sad child – himself.
Next we see Scrooge as a young man who is working for a benevolent boss named Fezziwig. Scrooge thrives in this employment and finds, for the first time, fulfillment. That is enlarged when he meets Belle, a woman with whom he falls in love. Belle, however, eventually rejects Scrooge and chooses to marry another man. Why? She tells Scrooge that he had replaced his affections for her with love for work and money.
A somewhat similar story of unhappy youth is found with Jesus. Dickens appreciated that fact and was inspired by it. Jesus was born poor. It’s likely he was conceived out of wedlock – a scandalous rumor that persisted after his death. Many scholars believe the Christmas story of Jesus’ virgin birth was invented by later writers who not only wanted to make him the son of God, but who also wanted to erase the stigma of his illegitimacy. Scholars surmise that his mother Mary, as a young 15 year old, was raped and impregnated by a Roman soldier – a common occurrence of the time.
Jesus was an ordinary laborer as an adult. He lived in the backward village of Nazareth – a fact his opponents used to scorn him. Jesus was so poor that he did not own a home and lived entirely off the support of his followers.
The circumstances of his life and the compassion of his teachings affected Charles Dickens just as they have affected millions of others. Jesus the man, NOT the religious and mythological Christ figure, is one of history’s most influential persons.
To be good, Dickens realized, is not to piously pray, attend church and obey obscure religious rules. To be good is to be peaceful, humble and compassionate. To be good is to treat and love other people as much as one wants to be treated and loved oneself – by following the so-called Golden Rule.
But in order to achieve such goodness, Dickens believed individuals and society must change their self focused impulses. That does not mean one rejects having basic needs met – or that one should deny pleasure. Indeed, Jesus is described as a man who loved wine, parties and the company of unmarried women. Likewise Charles Dickens, as an adult Unitarian, was known by the nickname “Master of Revelry.” His novels, including A Christmas Carol, are full of people enjoying friends, food, drink and love.
The key to goodness is to make obtaining such joys a secondary focus. My world must not primarily revolve around my desires and a search for their indulgence. Instead, my life must find its meaning and purpose through service, compassion and making a difference for good. To do that, I must change.
This process is one we undertake until the day we die. We must continually grow, self-actualize, learn and be better. And there is only one purpose for such ongoing transformation. By understanding that life is an opportunity, and a responsibility, to make things better for others, we thereby build legacies of good on top of past legacies of good.
When we find this true purpose for living, as Scrooge does during his Christmas Eve visions, we see all the ways we fall short and can yet grow. We perceive the emotional scars we carry from our past, how they hold us back, and then work to heal them. Anger and bitterness shut off my capacity to love. A lack of self esteem prevents my talents from being useful to the world. Arrogance and narcissism leads me to serve only my needs. A lack of empathy for those who suffer leads me to indifference and cruelty.
I often quote Mahatma Gandhi that WE must BE the change we want to SEE. Sadly, the reverse of that is also true. Failing to heal our inner wounds causes us to be a source of the world’s pain. We think our personal failures don’t have an impact, but our individual anger, arrogance, inability to forgive, love or show empathy all add to the violence and oppression we see. It is a sobering truth, but my flaws can be destructive to others far beyond myself.
What Dickens keenly understood is that our world is only as good, or as bad, as what is in each of our hearts. When we change ourselves for the better, we change the world. When we save just one life, we save ALL humanity.
After waking from his nighttime ghostly visits, Scrooge is a different man. He immediately orders a Christmas goose be sent to the Cratchit home. Then he attends Christmas dinner at his nephew Fred’s home where he surprises everyone with festive humor and generous gifts. Finally, he brings gifts to those he’s hurt and ignored. He triples the salary of Bob Cratchit and resolves to become a second father to Tiny Tim – thus insuring he will get the healthcare he needs. At the novel’s conclusion, Scrooge is said to be faithful to his word. He transforms his miserable life into one of happiness – not because he hoards more wealth, but because he gives it, and himself, away. The central message of A Christmas Carol becomes clear: it is never too late to change for the better.
In three weeks, we’ll begin our congregation wide reading and discussion of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me. I hope you will get the book and read it. In his bleak assessment of our nation, Coates sees little hope for ending racism unless those of us who think we are white fundamentally change our thinking. Implicitly, he speaks of the kind of change needed in Whites that Scrooge underwent. Those who think they are white, he says, must confront our nation’s brutal past to see that the very idea of different races is a construct built to oppress one group, while allowing another to prosper.
The inner journey that Scrooge takes is one I hope we will take by reading the Coates’ book. The Holidays call me, just as I hope they call you, to build peace in our nation. If we ever hope to achieve that, we must extinguish racism along with all other forms of intolerance and hate. The power of change, if we listen to it, will enable us to throw open the shutters to our hearts and souls. Every time we do that, every time we extend ourselves beyond what we’ve mistakenly done in the past, we improve life for everyone.
The prompts of holiday cheer DO lead to softer hearts, but Dickens reminds us that change, in order to be true, must permanently turn a person 180 degrees from where they once were. As enlightened as I pray I might be, I am nowhere near complete. On matters of race, a mind at peace, or a fully generous attitude – these are areas in which I must grow. I trust each of you have ways to change as well. For us, let’s remember holiday values of peace, goodwill to all, and giving to others – .and use them to examine our own hearts and minds. Where lurks the inner Scrooge in us? Like him, may we become, may we change to be, the kind of people we were all meant to be.
To you and yours, I wish you peace and joy for the holidays, and new year ahead.