a Christmas thought

This year, I thought a lot about people who had to spend Christmas alone, or far from home, or working, and that made me think about a scene from A Christmas Carol that hardly ever gets dramatized or remembered. The Ghost of Christmas Present, after having taken Scrooge to some of the bleakest places inside London, takes him to some of the loneliest places outside of it:

And now, without a word of warning from the Ghost, they stood upon a bleak and desert moor, where monstrous masses of rude stone were cast about, as though it were the burial-place of giants; and water spread itself wheresoever it listed, or would have done so, but for the frost that held it prisoner; and nothing grew but moss and furze, and coarse rank grass. Down in the west the setting sun had left a streak of fiery red, which glared upon the desolation for an instant, like a sullen eye, and frowning lower, lower, lower yet, was lost in the thick gloom of darkest night.

“What place is this?” asked Scrooge.

“A place where Miners live, who labour in the bowels of the earth,” returned the Spirit. “But they know me. See!”

A light shone from the window of a hut, and swiftly they advanced towards it. Passing through the wall of mud and stone, they found a cheerful company assembled round a glowing fire. An old, old man and woman, with their children and their children’s children, and another generation beyond that, all decked out gaily in their holiday attire. The old man, in a voice that seldom rose above the howling of the wind upon the barren waste, was singing them a Christmas song—it had been a very old song when he was a boy—and from time to time they all joined in the chorus. So surely as they raised their voices, the old man got quite blithe and loud; and so surely as they stopped, his vigour sank again.

The Spirit did not tarry here, but bade Scrooge hold his robe, and passing on above the moor, sped—whither? Not to sea? To sea. To Scrooge’s horror, looking back, he saw the last of the land, a frightful range of rocks, behind them; and his ears were deafened by the thundering of water, as it rolled and roared, and raged among the dreadful caverns it had worn, and fiercely tried to undermine the earth.

Built upon a dismal reef of sunken rocks, some league or so from shore, on which the waters chafed and dashed, the wild year through, there stood a solitary lighthouse. Great heaps of sea-weed clung to its base, and storm-birds—born of the wind one might suppose, as sea-weed of the water—rose and fell about it, like the waves they skimmed.

But even here, two men who watched the light had made a fire, that through the loophole in the thick stone wall shed out a ray of brightness on the awful sea. Joining their horny hands over the rough table at which they sat, they wished each other Merry Christmas in their can of grog; and one of them: the elder, too, with his face all damaged and scarred with hard weather, as the figure-head of an old ship might be: struck up a sturdy song that was like a Gale in itself.

Again the Ghost sped on, above the black and heaving sea—on, on—until, being far away, as he told Scrooge, from any shore, they lighted on a ship. They stood beside the helmsman at the wheel, the look-out in the bow, the officers who had the watch; dark, ghostly figures in their several stations; but every man among them hummed a Christmas tune, or had a Christmas thought, or spoke below his breath to his companion of some bygone Christmas Day, with homeward hopes belonging to it. And every man on board, waking or sleeping, good or bad, had had a kinder word for another on that day than on any day in the year; and had shared to some extent in its festivities; and had remembered those he cared for at a distance, and had known that they delighted to remember him.

–Charles Dickens, 1843

my leadership role model

Today’s post is about a person who appears in the Old Testament books of 1 and 2 Samuel, so to start us off I thought I’d share something fun I discovered this morning. I am reading the Bible chronologically, and this morning my reading was 1 Samuel 4-8. Did you know that the names of two famous characters from 19th-century fiction appear in these chapters? They are Ichabod (as in Ichabod Crane, from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) and Ebenezer (as in Ebenezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol). I think these characters’ creators chose the names because they sound funny and quaint to modern English-speakers and may invoke a harsh brand of Protestantism, not, or not primarily, because of their Hebrew meanings: Ichabod means “inglorious” and was the name of a baby (poor little guy!) born just after the Ark of the Covenant was stolen by the Philistines, and Ebenezer means “thus far has the LORD helped us” and was the name of a memorial stone set up to commemorate a victory against the Philistines.  (I have written a post about Ebenezer Scrooge’s association with memorial stones–I’m not sure if this was deliberate or unconscious on Dickens’s part.) Anyway, there’s your fun fact for the day.

Later in 1 Samuel, we meet the young man who will become Israel’s greatest king, David. Many of the people who appear in the pages of the Old Testament are roughly sketched and hard to relate to, but David is what we would call in literature a well-developed character. Not only from the historical accounts but also from the many psalms he wrote, we learn about David’s bold frankness, his concern for those under his care (first his father’s sheep, then the rebels who fought under him during his outlaw years, then finally his subjects and his many children), and his ardent love for God. David’s emotions are always near the surface in these accounts–he has a warm heart and, often, a hot head. As an F (feeling) on the Myers-Briggs scale, I can relate to David.

David made many mistakes, some ugly and inexcusable (murder by proxy, adultery, bad parenting). But the reason he’s my leadership role model is that, throughout his life, David remained teachable and open to correction. A prophet named Nathan keeps showing up in the accounts of David’s kingship, and nearly every time we see him, he’s calling out David for some sin. The fact that David not only tolerates but welcomes Nathan’s correction is amazing considering what David’s descendants, the increasingly bad kings, will do to prophets who tell them the truth (e.g. throw them in a pit, kill them). David could say, “I’m the king; I can do whatever I want!” Instead, he responds to Nathan’s truth-telling, not with a political “Hmm, I’ll consider that,” but with repentance, confessing his sin against God and immediately doing what he can to restore fellowship with God and the people he has wronged.

One of my greatest leadership fears is becoming the person who is too imperious or even just too sensitive to be corrected–the person everyone else is reluctant to confront. I don’t enjoy confrontation, but I’m thankful that I work with people who kindly tell me about things I need to do better, and I hope I will always have people like this.

Another thing I love about David is that once he’s confessed his sin, he doesn’t wallow in it. Once fellowship has been restored with God (see Psalm 51, a painful and beautiful expression of this process), David is able to move on with joy and confidence that he’s been forgiven. Of course, his actions have consequences, and he recognizes this and grieves the harm he’s done to others. But this is another necessary leadership quality: the ability to walk forward.

I’d love to hear about your leadership role models!

Here I raise my Ebenezer

What most people think of when they hear the proper noun in my title–if they think of anything at all–is the protagonist of A Christmas Carol.  And since I can’t let a reference to Charles Dickens pass without pausing on it, let me digress before I even begin.  My guess is that Dickens chose the name “Ebenezer Scrooge” for its sound.  Dickens tended to choose names for that reason, and this particular name is odd and old-fashioned like its owner, but also harsh like its owner, with all those long vowels and hard consonants.  “Ebenezer” is the type of obscure Old Testament name that might be given to the child of people who subscribed to the type of bleak, joyless religion that Dickens so hated.  (Dickens fan fiction writers–I know there are a few of you out there–here’s a topic for you.)  Whether Dickens intended it or not, the name may also have a deeper significance in a story about a person reaching a milestone in his life.  And it gets even more interesting: his pivotal moment takes place at a literal stone–a memorial stone.

That’s significant because the name “Ebenezer” was originally given to a stone set up by Samuel the prophet.  The word literally means “stone of help,” and when Samuel dedicated it, he said, “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Samuel 7:12).  This statement is quoted almost verbatim in my favorite hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing,” which I in turn quoted in my title for today.  Here’s the full line, addressed to God: “Here I raise my Ebenezer; hither by Thy help I’m come / And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, safely to arrive at home.”  A similar idea occurs in another beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace”: “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come / ‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

For the past few days, I’ve been thinking about this concept of stopping and looking back on the road by which God has led me to this point and looking forward in hope–the theological kind of hope, which has a sure basis.  (By the way, it’s almost impossible to talk about this concept without using road metaphors; even the word “milestone” comes from road travel.)  One reason it’s been on my mind is that last week I had to write my salvation testimony and reflect on my spiritual growth over the years since then.  I closed my response by referring to Jesus as the Good Shepherd.  I don’t know where he will lead me next, I said, but I trust that he will lead me into green pastures and beside still waters (and sometimes through the valley of the shadow of death, but never to stay there).

I’m also thinking about the Ebenezer stone because it seems that change is in the air–for an unusual number of people around me, and maybe even for me.  I used to be afraid of change.  I was scared of not being able to control how things changed.  The so-called butterfly effect–the idea that if I go a different route to work this morning, I could change the whole trajectory of my day and even my life and maybe even THE WHOLE OF HUMAN HISTORY–didn’t make me feel powerful; it terrified me.  But I’m coming to understand and trust that God’s guiding hand–what old historians and theologians called Providence–is working to shape those events.  I’m not in control, and that is a very good thing.  I probably wouldn’t have chosen the job I’m in, the friends I have, or–dare I say–the family I belong to, and yet these are the greatest blessings of my life.  God has brought me to a good place, and he will continue to guide me.  Ebenezer!

This is my brain on the first day of classes.

Although I warmed up by teaching an intensive class last week, nothing ever really prepares me for the first day of a semester.  Today, after teaching a maxed-out children’s lit class (there’s a waiting list–not because of my popularity, but because it’s a required course for education majors), conducting a meeting while hungry (I hate that), and answering the emails that kept pouring in–plus the ones I neglected over the weekend–I barely have enough brain function left to make a cup of tea, let alone craft a memorable blog post.  But I think it’ll be easy enough to list some of the things that made me happy over the weekend and today.  So here we go.

  1. Saturday-Sunday, I went camping, backpacking (though I barely carried the pack a quarter of a mile, since our campsite was so close to the car), and scrambling up a popular local rock face known ominously as Devil’s Marbleyard.  Although I love hiking and being outdoors, I’ve rarely camped and never backpacked. Fortunately, I was with a friend who is a certified wilderness EMT and adventure guide and I don’t know what else, so she showed me how to set up a tent, boil water for hot chocolate (very important) in a Kelly Kettle, and wash dishes with hippie soap (it seriously had hemp in it) in a freezing cold creek by the light of a headlamp.  The part I was most worried about was staying warm at night, but with a zero-degree sleeping bag and a lot of those Hot Hands packs that are popular with hunters at this time of year, I was downright cozy.  As for scrambling up the rock face, I just pretended like I was Frodo or Sam traversing the Emyn Muil–just without the elven rope.
  2. Last night I went to see Hacksaw Ridge (side note: I went out last night wearing leggings as pants, and I was regretting that style choice all the way to the theater and thinking, “Wow, I’ve really let myself go.”  Immediately after getting there, I saw at least three women wearing leggings as pants.).  If all you’ve heard about Hacksaw Ridge is that Andrew Garfield has a bad accent in it (he really doesn’t, though, and he is adorable), you should give it a chance.  It’s about Desmond Doss, a WW2 medic who refuses to carry a gun due to his religious convictions and past traumas, but ends up saving dozens of lives in one night, under relentless attack, through his (figuratively) insane work ethic and (literally–almost) insane fearlessness.  It was especially poignant to watch the film in Lynchburg, VA, where Doss grew up.  (We actually drove on the PFC Desmond T. Doss Memorial Expressway while coming back from the mountains yesterday.)  If you think you’ve seen enough WW2 movies, see this one anyway; you’ve probably never seen one about a conscientious objector.  They tend not to make movies about conscientious objectors.
  3. After the movie, I rushed home to watch the second half of the Steelers-Chiefs game.  I rarely write about football on this blog, and I won’t take the time to start now, but since I’m listing things that have made me happy, I’ll just say that I’m happy that the Steelers won–and, like all good Western Pennsylvanians, sick with apprehension about next week.
  4. Finally, my students, as they so often do, have made me happy today.  My children’s lit students seem to think I’m a comedienne (I try), and most of them appear to be totally on board with the Walt Disney World-style character breakfast I’m planning for the last day of class.  Meanwhile, a student from last week’s class sent me a Harry Potter article and a recording of Neil Gaiman reading A Christmas Caroland he told me that I’m currently his go-to person to discuss Harry Potter with.  Just what I’ve always wanted to hear.

Time to go outside and try to clear my head with fresh air.

some random questions for Christmas

In which I interview myself.

If you could design a Christmas t-shirt, what would it say?  Bob Cratchit: Straight Outta Camden.

If you could spend Christmas with any fictional family, what family would you choose?  I borrowed this question from another blog I looked at over the weekend, but it’s something I’ve thought about before–not that I had to think very hard.  The only correct answer to this question (and a total no-brainer if you’ve been reading my blog over the years) is “the Weasleys.”  However, I did see Fantastic Beasts again today, and I have to say that if for some reason I couldn’t Apparate across the Atlantic for Christmas, it would also be fun to spend Christmas with Tina and Queenie Goldstein–if Newt and Jacob could also be there, and if we could have pie and strudel.

What holiday season song bothers you the most?  Please indulge me in a rant on this one.  I am deeply troubled by the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  It used to bother me because although it gets classified as a Christmas song, it’s merely a cold weather song.  People in Australia could sing it in August.  But then someone pointed out to me that this song appears to describe a man keeping a woman in his home against her will.  You can call it an attempt at date rape or a hostage situation–either way, there’s nothing cute or clever about it, and it really annoys me that singers who think they are cute and clever are still covering it.  You can try to explain the lyrics away as the product of a simpler time, but what are you going to do with the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”?  Slipping drugs into a person’s beverage was never okay.

Let me contrast this song with another one that presents a similar scenario: “Let It Snow.”  In this song, the two characters appear to be mutually consenting adults who actually like each other, unlike in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and they face a far more challenging weather prognosis (cold is only dangerous if you have to spend the whole night outside, whereas snow can cause decreased visibility and hazardous road conditions).  Yet, after a nice evening enjoying popcorn in front of the fire, one of them is mature enough to say, “I’ve had a lovely time, but I am now going to get in my four-wheel drive vehicle and safely drive home before this snow gets worse.  How about you give me a big kiss and a hug to keep me warm on my way?”  Yes, the line “The fire is slowly dying, and my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing” may indicate a reluctance to part, but again, this reluctance seems to be mutual.  There is no coercion here, nor any guilt-tripping.  (Contrast this with the part in “Cold” when the man says, “Think of my lifelong sorrow.”  Gag me.)

(takes a deep breath) Okay, we can move on to the next question.

What charming Christmas comedy have you discovered in recent years?

How did you know I’d recently discovered a charming Christmas comedy?  Well, last year I came across Nativity! in which Martin Freeman plays a put-upon grade-school teacher directing a nativity play that gets way out of hand.  Martin Freeman is delightful as always (I think I’ve used that exact same adjective to describe him at least once before on this blog), and the kids, who seem to be “real” people rather than actors, are hilarious.  So is Mr. Poppy, the teacher’s aide who is basically a child himself.  Check this one out.

 

Advent week 2: Scrooge’s worst sin

I wrote down the following thoughts almost a year ago during my devotional reading of Ecclesiastes 4:4-8, focusing specifically on verse 8: “There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother.  There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. ‘For whom am I toiling,’ he asked, ‘and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?’  This too is meaningless–a miserable business!” (New International Version).

Since it’s nearly Christmas, and I love Charles Dickens, verse 8 made me think of Ebenezer Scrooge, toiling alone for no purpose other than acquisition itself, with nobody to inherit his accumulation because he has no significant relationships, having driven everybody away in his single-minded pursuit.  We make Scrooge seem preposterous when we exaggerate his hatred of Christmas and quote his most hyperbolic lines, but there are actually many people in our society who are just like him, and I have to admit that I tend in that direction.  Our motives may be mixed: we are striving for money, yes, but maybe also for promotion and to gain respect, and maybe just because we’re addicted to work.  The lonely toiler in verse 8 actually stops to ask why he’s doing all this, but so many of us don’t.  Solomon diagnoses this behavior perfectly: “This also is vanity and a grave misfortune” (New King James Version).  Scrooge’s main lesson was not about loving Christmas but about loving people and putting them above money and work.  This Christmas season, I could stand to learn this lesson too.

As I revisit these thoughts this year, I would like to remind myself and all of us that there are people who are lonely at Christmas not because they’ve run all their relationships into the ground in an obsession with work, but maybe because they don’t have close family members and friends with whom they feel comfortable celebrating.  Maybe they’ve been rejected by the people who should be most accepting of them, or maybe it just seems like everyone they’ve loved over the long years of their lives has died.  Or maybe it’s just that one significant other who passed away earlier this year and left an unfillable hole in the Christmas celebration, regardless of however many other loved ones are still around.  There are people who are lonely at Christmas because they’ve chosen to devote their lives to overseas missions work or to study in another country.

I know it’s a common trope of Christmas songs and movies to gesture toward the existence of loneliness at Christmas, but these stories too often have neat, easy endings–Santa Claus or Little Cindy Lou Who arrives and solves the problem, cathartically absolving us (the audience) of any need to make a real-life response to what we’ve seen.  This year, I’m taking the simple step of praying for people who I know or suspect are feeling lonely during this season.  I’m also trying to do little things like connecting two people in my department at work who are going to be in the office during the week leading up to Christmas, when most of us won’t be around–maybe they can have lunch together one day.  Perhaps one day I’ll have the opportunity to include someone in my family’s Christmas festivities who has nobody else to celebrate with.  We’re talking about hospitality here, really, and hospitality isn’t just one type of action–it’s a posture of openness toward other people and a sensitivity to God’s leading.

Of course, at the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge’s own isolation is driven away by his choice to show hospitality to others.  In the end, it doesn’t matter why someone is lonely–whether it be poverty, death of a loved one, or an unhealthy focus on money and work.  The important thing is that one person chooses to reach out of his or her loneliness into someone else’s.  Will you try doing that this Christmas?

Advent week 1: a Christmas post roundup

Considering my interest this year in finding practical ways to observe the rhythms of a healthy Christian life (e.g., giving up checking email on Sundays, taking a quarterly three-hour meditation “retreat”), you might think that I have a great plan to celebrate Advent.  I don’t.  I’m just going to do what I always do, which is to break out my Christmas decorations and music on December 1.  (I actually jumped the gun a little this year–I got my Christmas tea towels out yesterday.  And now for the big confession: I’ve been listening to the Celtic Holidays station on Pandora for weeks.)  But I have decided to write a Christmas post every Monday of the four weeks of Advent.  I have no idea what I’m going to write in most of these posts, but I’ll figure it out as I go.  Some of the posts may be better than others, but won’t that be more exciting than those chocolate Advent calendars that reveal the exact same square of bland chocolate every day?  I think so.

I feel a heavy, but probably totally imaginary, weight of expectation on my proverbial shoulders as I prepare to write these posts because I’ve always made a point of writing excellent Christmas posts ever since I began my blog in 2011, a tradition I’ve kept up even during periods when I’ve largely neglected to post  My first Christmas post , written just days after I started the blog, was short but profound.  Since then, I’ve written about topics as widely varying as A Christmas Carol adaptations, the school shooting that occurred in Newtown, CT, near Christmas in 2012 (a post I didn’t want to write but felt compelled to), Danny Kaye’s socks, a Charles Dickens Christmas story that’s NOT A Christmas Carol, and my bird ornaments.

In college, when I couldn’t figure out how to start a paper, I used to take up a page or more on introducing the topic, telling tangentially related anecdotes, and apologizing for what was to come.  By then, I was already well into my required page count!  I guess I haven’t changed much since then; I basically just did the blog version of that exact thing.  This post won’t be an entire waste of your time, however, if you click on the links in the preceding paragraph.  And I promise not to waste your time in my remaining three Advent posts (and my Boxing Day post!  It’s on a Monday this year).  When I next write to you, I’ll have all my bird ornaments up and will have listened to Harry Connick, Jr.’s When My Heart Finds Christmas (another vintage Penelope post topic) at least once.  See you then.

 

 

my continuing Dickens obsession

I have an ongoing love for Charles Dickens, but my devotion sometimes hits these especially high peaks, and I’ve been on one of them for the past couple of weeks.  I finished reading A Tale of Two Cities last weekend (see my last post for an earlier observation), and I read A Christmas Carol yesterday and today.  (Of course, this wasn’t my first time through either book.)  I can’t wait to lead a discussion of Carol at the Liberty University Bookstore on December 2.  In the meantime, I’ve engaged in two particularly nerdy expressions of my love for Charles.  Please enjoy.

1. The story of Jerricho Cotchery.  I’ll try to make the frame narrative short: I’m eating out with two of my work colleagues, and there’s a Thursday night football game on TV.  One of us mentions McSweeney’s delightful piece called “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian.”  Later I look up at the game and notice Jerricho Cotchery, who catches my eye because he’s a former Steeler (current Panther).  I realize that if Jerricho Cotchery were in a Dickens novel, he would definitely be a Methodist minister.  He would have a lean and starved appearance, and his ears would stick out from his head at exaggerated angles.  When he preached, his voice would take on a ranting cadence.  Then my co-worker/friend Kristen and I rapidly concoct a plot in which Dickens attempts, unusually for him, to sympathize with a Methodist minister.  I wish I’d written down some notes from this impromptu creative session, but I do remember that Jerricho Cotchery is in love with a happy, useful, and modest young parishioner named Evangeline, and that in the past he did some undefined injustice to Oliver Twist, for which he now feels horribly remorseful.  I hope to return to this story at some point, so if you have any good ideas for Jerricho, let me know in the comments.

2. The Sydney Carton playlist.  I’m really obsessed with A Tale of Two Cities right now.  I went so far as to make a Spotify playlist for Sydney Carton, and it’s a far, far better playlist than I have ever made.  (Actually, it’s my first Spotify playlist.)  You should be able to find it by searching “Sydney Carton.”  If you find a 10-song playlist by Tess Stockslager, you’ve got it.  Here’s your guide to the songs: The first four are anthems for a wasted/purposeless life, with a particular emphasis on songs about drinking, because–let’s face it, friends–Sydney is an alcoholic.  The next three songs are about unrequited love and/or heartbreak; I think it’s pretty clear why those are on there.  (As Lucie says at one point, “He has a heart he very, very seldom reveals, and . . . there are deep wounds in it. . . . I have seen it bleeding.”)  The next two are about people deciding they don’t want to waste their lives anymore; this corresponds to that point in ATOTC when Sydney starts hanging out with the Darnays in the evening instead of with his stupid boss/”friend”/enabler Stryver.  And the last song is about what Sydney wants to do, and finally succeeds in doing, for Lucie and her family.

So, put on the playlist, and get ready to dance, then cry, then dance again, then cry again.  Or, put on the playlist and read A Tale of Two Cities.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget about Jerricho Cotchery.