A Christmas Carol: Marleyed

What kinds of causes are really easy for you to be generous toward?  Seriously – think about this for a moment.  There are lots of good causes that ask for our financial support – what are the ones that move you to action?

It’s easy for me to give toward Furaha Community Center – the work we support in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya, where mostly orphaned kids attend school and get a couple of meals that truly make a life or death difference.  It’s easy for me to be generous toward victims of disaster – wildfires, tsunamis, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and the like.  Shelters for domestic violence victims that house women and children (both here and Tijuana) move me to action. And, of course, CrossWalk – a truly unique church that welcomes those who have been outcast from other churches due to their gender, sexual orientation, or incessant questioning of doctrine; a community that seeks to be generous toward Napa and beyond with a wide range of resources including food, legal help, space for recovery (and more).  That’s easy.

What is it that ties all of these together?  It could be a range of things.  They are all good causes.  For each need that I try to support, the management of the funds used is wise – there’s not a lot of administrative waste.  Each project gets results, too, which makes it easier to support.  But I think the bottom line difference is that I see what is before me, clearly, and cannot be idle.  There are, of course, different levels of seeing.  We can casually glance and see problems everywhere as well as problems with how the problems are being addressed, which are sometimes so problematic that it presents a real problem for us to do anything at all!  The kind of seeing I’m talking about is different.  It’s deeper.  It’s seeing with more than my physical eyes.

When people take a trip to see Furaha, they are forced to see.  Extreme poverty on that scale does not exist in the United States.  There is a scent in the air in the slums that says it all.  Once there, it is hard to unsee – only time and distance soften what once was a clear view of the horrors of humanity.  Perhaps because Furaha is not on our soil, and not familiar, and not tied to our own politics and culture and country, we can see things for what they are as less biased observers. 

Similar experiences happen at our own Food Pantry at CrossWalk.  When you walk people through our pop-up grocery store and look into the eyes of the recipient, a lot of assumptions about those who are resourced challenged melts away into a different glimpse:  One of shared humanity.

Seeing – really seeing – is what captures our attention, our hearts, and triggers our instincts to move with compassion.

In Charles Dickens’ Victorian classic, A Christmas Carol, readers are transported into new vistas as they join Ebenezer Scrooge through four sessions of vision correction.  In the first Stave, we get a view of Scrooge.  He is a stingy, mean-tempered older man who treats his poor clerk in ways that are dehumanizing – not caring for his physical needs while also creating a hostile work environment.  His disdain extends even to a family member, his jovial and generous nephew, Fred, who invites him yet again to Christmas dinner (in vain), met with harsh words and criticism.  Finally, we see Scrooge interact with two men making the rounds to collect donations for the poor and destitute in London.  Scrooge responded, “Are there no prisons?  And the Union workhouses – are they still in operation?  The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then? I was afraid… that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.”  The men, in response to Scrooge’s clear insistence that the taxes he paid were all he was interested in providing, and that the recipients had better use what is already available to them, the charitable hawkers stated a reality of the day – many among the poor would rather die than be subject to the awful conditions provided by “the system”.  “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population,” Scrooge shot back. “It’s not my business.  It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.  Mine occupies me constantly.  Good afternoon, gentleman!”

Surely Scrooge was not alone.  We know this to be quite true, in fact.  At that time in London, it was especially bad to be poor.  Should you run up your debt and fail to pay your creditors, you might find yourself in debtors prison where you would be forced to live and work (with your wife and kids) until your debt was repaid.  Your job?  The Treadmill – you would become a beast of burden to turn the milling wheel.  Dickens was intimately familiar with “the system”.  His father, a military veteran and father of eight (Charles was the second), found himself and his wife thrown into debtors prison.  At a very young age, Charles was forced to work putting labels on boot-black, at one point on display on a busy street.  Humiliating.  Unsafe.  And – by the way – this was a privatized system.  Part of Dickens’ agenda in writing this tale (among others) was to highlight the plight of the poor to rouse those with power to do something to make a change.  Those who held power were fine enough with the status quo because frankly, they were fine and didn’t have to see the system or their part in it if unless they were intentional about taking a look.  Scrooge was quite intent on not looking.

That very night – Christmas Eve – Scrooge was visited by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who came to inform Scrooge that he would be visited that night by three spirits – all with the purpose of opening Ebenezer’s eyes to reality past, present, and future.  Marley had his own message to share – a warning not to live the life Marley lived, which was the life Scrooge was living.  Such a misused life resulted in deep regret and untold damage to his fellow human beings:

     “Oh! captive, bound, and double-ironed,” cried the phantom, “not to know, that ages of incessant labour by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed. Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness. Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunity misused! Yet such was I! Oh! such was I!”

     “But you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” faltered Scrooge, who now began to apply this to himself. 

     “Business! cried the Ghost,” wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

     “At this time of the rolling year,” the spectre said, “I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode! Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!”

A Christmas Carol was written in 1843.  Unfortunately, the plight of the poor has been a human-created reality since we hit the planet.  In the first half of the first century C.E., Jesus lived in Roman-occupied Northern Israel near the Sea of Galilee.  In our time and place, we are familiar with income disparity communicated with the vernacular of the 1%, suggesting that one percent of our population owns and controls the purse strings that impact the remaining 99%.  If we shared such information with Jesus and his contemporaries, they might respond, “Oh, what would it be like to see such an improved state!  In our time, 99.9% of the population is controlled by just one tenth of one percent!”  Similar realities existed in Jesus’ day.  If you were poor and couldn’t pay your debt, you might be enslaved until your debt was paid. Mothers and daughters simply trying to put food on the table might find themselves resorting to prostitution, which carries a much higher price than that at the point of sale.

Jesus offered a parable to help people see themselves and their context more clearly:

     "There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man's table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.
     "Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, 'Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I'm in agony in this fire.'
     "But Abraham said, 'Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It's not like that here. Here he's consoled and you're tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.'
     “The rich man said, 'Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won't end up here in this place of torment.'
     "Abraham answered, 'They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.'
     "'I know, Father Abraham,' he said, 'but they're not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.'
     "Abraham replied, 'If they won't listen to Moses and the Prophets, they're not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.'" – Luke 16:19-31 (The Message)

Jesus made some bold statements with this parable.  First, the scene was shocking: the state of Lazarus was horrific, and the indifference of the Rich Man was unconscionable. What happened after they died was equally shocking: the one society revered due to his wealth ended up not being impressive at all to God, and the one everyone in life assumed was surely cursed by God was welcomed and honored in death.  A great reversal that surely prodded listeners then and now to wake up and smell the coffee.  The final point is not to focus our attention on our potential afterlife residence, but on what we are doing with our lives now to care for those who have serious needs we can help meet.

According to Gallup Research, the average American will spend more than $800 on Christmas gifts each year, with 30% of us spending more than $1,000, and six percent of us still paying off Christmas debt by next October.  Scrooge seems timely when he says, “What’s Christmas time to you but a time for paying bills without money; a time for finding yourself a year older, but not an hour richer… If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. He should!” Apparently, the more things change the more they stay the same. Scrooge could easily say the same of us today. And yet we know from Dickens’ story and Jesus’ parable that while overspending on ourselves is not good, not being generous to those in need around us is also bad.  We need to see things more clearly.  We need perspective.

Ebenezer didn’t just wake up one day and decide to be Scrooge.  He became the epitome of what his name has come to represent.  His response to the circumstances of his life slowly and surely shaped the lens through which he ended up seeing the world.  The visits of Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future all came to redeem Ebenezer’s vision of himself and the reality of the world in which he lived.  His hardened heart affected the way he saw everything.  The eventual Christmas morning which presents us with a born-again Scrooge required new ways of seeing his past, insight into his present day, and a vision for what his future could look like.

We see the world in large part because of how our eyes have been shaped by our responses to our experiences up to now.  We all have biases that move our hearts in certain directions more than others and also keep our hands and feet and wallets from helping more than we do.  This series has as its goal the redemption of our vision, the healing of our eyes, so that we might see more clearly the world in which we live and the people with whom we share the same breath.  That we will find redemption and healing of past wounds and present biases. That we will recognize our potential going forward to perpetuate great harm or propel humanity toward greater good.  The greatest hope is that we would all wake up renewed, refreshed, and reborn on Christmas Day to live fully and well not just for our own benefit and pleasure, but with generosity toward those who need help all around us.

We are generous toward certain causes because we have truly seen them.  When we truly see, we can genuinely care.  When we genuinely care, we are naturally generous.  Scrooge needed renewed eyes.  So do we.