Saturday, December 17, 2011

Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits, Chapter 11

        If you're addicted to the feel-good variety of Christianity, you'll want to skip this chapter.  What does the commandment "Love thy neighbor" really mean?  On the vital issues of the day, many pious people completely blow it, even as they pat themselves on the back for their faux Christian charity.  What about liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or others with political agenda?  Do they completely blow it?  Well, maybe not completely.  Read on.
     At this writing, Christmas is barely a week away. In 2001, a few weeks after Christmas, I wrote this novella as a reaction against the way Christmas has become a racket. Many of the worst offenders are professing Christians who have bought into the Christmas racket and are contributing to the world's problems by participating in that racket.
     We need to reconnect with the world, and we need to rethink Christmas.
     Over the coming days, I intend to finish posting each of the fourteen chapters and addendum to Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits. The following is Chapter Eleven.  For the Table of Contents to Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits, click HERE.

Chapter Eleven
The Second of Three Christmas Spirits
     "It’s you!” Ebenezer Christian blurted. “The member of that hate group!”
     “I don’t know what you mean,” the spirit responded. “I’m not mortal, so I can’t be a member of any human organization.”
     “What are you supposed to show me?”
     “An eager beaver, aren’t you? Oh, well. You won’t have to go far for your first revelation.”
     “Where are we going?”
     “Your living room, a few hours ago.”
     “You mean, while my wife and daughter and I were out looking at Christmas decorations?”
     “That’s right, and your son stayed home.”
     Several negative thoughts flashed through Ebenezer Christian’s mind all at once: pornographic or demonic web sites, R-rated videotapes or DVDs, violence-oriented music, and other thoughts came to mind.
     As if reading his thoughts, the spirit said, “No, it isn’t anything he brought into the house from the outside; it’s something you brought into the house.”
     “Me? I’m not interested in anything erotic or violent, and I’m certainly not interested in anything demonic. I’ve always fought against those sorts of things, not only in my home but also in the community. What could I have brought into the house that’s sinful?”
     “Yes, you’ve always fought against the glorification of violence, the debasement of sex, and demonic obsession; but you’ve made no serious effort to replace the void with a love of peace, a healthy respect for sex, or family devotions. As a result, all the evils you mention now enter your house with the full power of Satan. Look!”
     At that word, Ebenezer Christian’s living room appeared to him, and he saw his son watching network television. In that one cop show, Ebenezer Christian saw violence glorified, the human body wrongfully presented, and Christianity attacked as a burdensome relic of less enlightened eras. Further, the characters in the show peppered their speech with vulgarities. “And that,” said the spirit, “is just one of many shows that propagate the doctrines of demons.”
     “I don’t allow videogames or erotic literature in my house,” Ebenezer Christian fumbled. “To think that I actually bought and welcomed this purveyor of sinful behavior into the house myself. I should throw it out.”
     “There’s still the question of what you would use to fill the void. And you’re wrong when you say you don’t allow erotic literature into your house. Song of Solomon, in The Bible is the greatest work of erotic literature of antiquity and probably the greatest ever.”
     “But that’s okay because it’s in the Bible. Besides, it doesn’t really refer to sex. It’s an allegory for God’s love for us.”
     “That's beside the point. In order for an allegory to be useful, the illustration has to be as true as the thing it illustrates. Allegory or not, Song of Solomon clearly shows us that sexual passion has a place in God’s will, and it shows us what that place is: one man and one woman married to one another—passionately and sexually attracted exclusively to one another for life. That's the prime difference between eroticism and pornography; but since contemporary Christians equate one with the other, that message is lost.
     “The sad truth is,” the spirit continued, “contemporary Christians have abdicated their responsibility to present that message because contemporary Christians are too squeamish to discuss sensitive matters. Because only one side of the debate is heard—that of the Enemy, the Destroyer—Christians are losing.”
     “You mean, the culture war?”
     “The culture war has been going on for many centuries. The term has become popular only since Christians have chosen to become conscientious objectors in the culture war.”
     “That’s not fair. You seem not to know that only a few months ago Christians—and I’m one of them—succeeded in closing down a bar that was a strip joint just outside of town.”
     The spirit glared at Ebenezer Christian with thinly-disguised impatience. “When you use the power of government to force people to behave as if they were Christians,” the shade demanded, “do you really think you’re furthering God’s Kingdom on Earth? You can’t bullwhip people into the Kingdom of Heaven; they must be drawn into it. A lot of professing Christians used a great deal of their time and energy to close that place; and, in the end, no one’s spiritual life was improved the slightest bit. The patrons of that place have other outlets for their urges, and their souls are still bound for eternal damnation. Truly, you have lost sight of the Great Commission.”
     “Hey, wait a minute! A moment ago, you were condemning me for allowing anti-Christian television shows into my house. Now you’re condemning me for not allowing a strip joint into my community.”
     “Your house is your own property, and the products advertised on those television shows are intended to be bought with your money. The sponsors of television programs, like other advertisers, want to know why people do, or do not, buy their products. When you write to the corporate sponsors of a television program and tell why you don’t buy their product, you’re helping them to make wise business decisions. They realize this, even if some of them think you’re being unnecessarily intolerant. You also should write to offer your support to corporate sponsors of healthier programs.”
     The spirit paused for a moment and changed gears. “When you were growing up,” the shade began, “did you watch the old Dracula movies?”
     Ebenezer Christian was taken aback. “Yes, why?”
     “The old horror movies were morality plays. In several of the Dracula movies, someone would say that Dracula could not enter a person’s house unless someone inside the house invited him in. After being invited into someone's house the first time, Dracula could come and go at will. That’s true of any evil. It behooves one to be careful. It also should behoove you not to throw out the baby with the bath water."
     "What do you mean?"
     "Contemporary Christians have become estranged from their bodies, and they've become far too squeamish about bodily functions. They act as if bodily functions were nasty things that Satan slipped into the human condition when God wasn't looking. The Bible freely mentions bodily functions. The Bible mentions almost everything that can leave the body through emission, secretion, expression, excretion, or by other means. The only one it doesn't mention is mucus. The Bible writers didn't dwell on these things, but they weren't squeamish about them, either. Because they didn't fear bodily functions, they were able to speak and write freely about the sins against the body. If the Bible had been written by contemporary Christians, people would have no way of knowing that they were sins because they would be considered too disgusting to be included in the Holy Scriptures. As a consequence, people would know that these things were disgusting, but they wouldn't know they were sinful."
     "You make it sound as if I'm narrow-minded. I'm not."
     The spirit changed the focus of his remarks. "I see no reason to dwell upon things these things, which you obviously find revolting. Let's draw our attention to something completely foreign to your sensibilities."
     "And what's that?"
     "Christian art."
     "Oh, come now! You don't know a thing about my appreciation of art."
     "So, tell me."
     "I've saved Christian art as background on my computer, and I have several reproductions in my home. I have quite a fondness for Christian art."
     "Reproductions, you say?"
     "Well, what of it? I'm sure I couldn't afford to buy an original painting or sculpture of the quality of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci."
     "Renaissance artists. Don't you know of any great Christian art that was created during your lifetime?"
     "Well, no, not really."
     "Or in the last one hundred years?"
     "What are you suggesting?"
   "I'm suggesting that contemporary Christians lack the boldness that was characteristic of Christians prior to 1900. Prior to 1900, Christians were the impetus for great reform movements, such as animal protection, child labor laws, and the abolition of slavery, to mention only a few. Christian artists were equally bold. Many of the great Christian art works of the Renaissance and early modern times would be considered scandalous if they were painted today. On virtually all the important environmental and humanitarian issues of today, Christians either leave the field to the enemy or, worse, follow the enemy's lead."
     Ebenezer Christian bristled at that last suggestion. "I am certainly not following the enemy's lead!" he said sternly, carefully pronouncing each word through his teeth. "I defy you to tell me how."
     "I can give you dozens of examples," the spirit calmly responded.
     "Never mind the dozens; give me one."
     "Okay, environmentalism."
     "What of it?"
     "What does the Bible say about environmentalism?"
     "Not a thing, specifically, but we can figure that Christians are supposed to practice stewardship over the world, just as we're supposed to practice stewardship over everything else God has made and given to us."
     "The truth is," the spirit said, "the Bible contains enough verses on environmentalism to fill a hundred-page book. Between the very first verse of the Bible to the next-to-last chapter, the Bible tells you everything you need to know about environmental responsibility. It tells us that God made the earth, He has authority over it, and He has over a half dozen purposes for it. It clearly spells out what attitude we should have concerning it and gives us countless commandments—mainly in Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Sadly, instead of reading the Bible, Christians either have chosen to seek wisdom from New Age jeremiads, effectively worshiping creation instead of the Creator; or they've avoided their responsibility altogether. Do your research and compare the Bible to the most respected environmentalist book you know. Compared to the Bible, all else is drivel."
     The spirit paused a moment and said, "When Calvin Coolidge first became President of the United States, a Christian organization came to visit him and presented him with one of their Bibles. He remarked, `Gentlemen, this book contains the solutions to all the world's problems.' Sad to say, most Christians no longer believe this; and, like dumb sheep, they bleat the nostrum that you shouldn't `mix religion with politics.’ As a result, when Christians do get involved in the vital issues of the day, most of them leave their Bibles behind and follow the Judas goats. Even worse, many Christians today try to attach a Christian label to secular answers to the world's problems instead of allowing themselves to be led by the Holy Spirit, as Christians had done for eighteen centuries."
     "I don't know," Ebenezer Christian said reluctantly. "A lot of Christians who go into politics give me the creeps."
     "A lot of them give me the creeps, too. Most Americans wisely prefer elected officials who are Christians, or righteous within their own faith, but they also are reluctant to vote for candidates who are fronting for an organization that uses Christianity as a rationale for its political agenda."
     "Are you saying that they're not really Christians?"
     "Not at all. What I'm saying is, they have the same limitations as all other humans. Many ministers and leaders of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim service organizations have gone into state and local politics. They generally have carried their attitudes of service with them. They generally have been most effective at the levels of government that comes into closest contact with the people they serve.
     "Leaders of groups that pressure for reform regarding a narrow range of issues have been most effective in providing information and advice to officeholders. When one of them is elected to public office, though, two things go wrong. First, that person goes into office with the attitude of grasping for the power to make the changes he desires. The agenda of his organization is presented as `the Christian agenda,’ and it quickly becomes an authoritarian agenda. He also finds himself in a position that calls upon him to face a wide range of human needs, although he's interested (and informed) only regarding a narrow range of interests. No matter how well-intentioned he is, he's going to cause harm.
     "As a rule of thumb, the officeholder who is educated in morals but not in mind will unintentionally cause harm. The officeholder who is educated in mind but not in morals is a menace to society."
     The spirit returned to an earlier topic. “A moment ago, you were speaking of bringing evil things into your house. Didn't your wife say you were very thoughtful for buying her a chandelier?”
     “Yes,” Ebenezer Christian smiled. “She couldn’t stop saying how thoughtful I was.”
     “Actually, you weren’t being thoughtful at all. You were being thoughtless and insensitive.”
     Ebenezer Christian was visibly shaken and hurt by that remark. The spirit waved his arm, and the scene changed. Before them, they saw a factory in which dozens of Asians were grinding glass for chandeliers.
     One Asian in particular drew their attention. He was a young man, grinder in hand, working away at a crystal. Every couple of minutes the man would go into a fit of coughing. “The man you see before you,” the shade remarked, “is the one who made the chandelier you bought your wife.”
     “Shouldn’t these people be wearing face masks?” Ebenezer Christian asked.
     “Yes, they should, but this is a slave labor camp. The lives of these unhappy souls mean little to their masters. This man is a Christian minister. He was convicted of conducting a Bible study in his home.”
     “You must mean the underground church: those illegal house churches. I don't see why they don't just go ahead and register their church with the government as the law requires. Doesn't the Bible say we should render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's?"
     "Would you want to go to a church that forbids the book of Revelation, or that forbids the teaching that God is Lord of all, or that Jesus will come again? Would you want to attend a church whose minister is appointed by atheists and who must toe the government line? You said you weren’t interested in-what was the word? Oh: ‘politics.’ Well, he’s not interested in politics, either. He never was; but the politicians are interested in him.”
     The man was seized by another fit of coughing. "Tien-de ba," he muttered aloud, "Wo yi-shah yau jen-dau Ni. Ching Ni ban wo tai-tai, wo jya-ren, Ni-de jao-yo. Amen." ("Heavenly Father, I soon will meet you. Please help my wife, my family and the members of my church. Amen.") Ebenezer Christian couldn't understand the words the man had uttered, but from the "amen" at the end, he knew it was a prayer. Under the circumstances, it probably had to be concise.
     “Is it that cold in here?” Ebenezer Christian asked.
    “No,” the spirit replied. “He doesn’t have pneumonia or even the common cold. It’s much worse than that. He has silicosis. Tiny particles of glass he has been inhaling are shredding his lungs. He was given a three-year prison sentence. In this place, a three-year sentence amounts to a death sentence. When he dies, another miserable soul will take his place. What you see here is just the tip of the iceberg. This sort of thing takes place all over this man’s country and several other countries besides. As for the toys children receive at Christmas: Ebenezer Christian, those toys are not made by cheerful elves in a little workshop at the North Pole. An alarming percentage of them are made by slaves or by children doomed to sweatshops, often under dangerous conditions."
     “Can’t anything be done about this sort of thing?”
     “It’s already illegal to import things produced by slave labor, but the law isn’t enforced. Sweatshop labor is hard to define because expectations vary from one country to another. Until existing laws are enforced, you can stop buying products from countries that use slave labor or that abusively exploit children for commercial gain."
     The spirit waved his arm again.
     “Where are we now?” asked Ebenezer Christian.
     “We’re in the home of a family that goes to your church. This was the scene in his home after the man and his family came home from the yellow ribbon party your church held for him.”  Ebenezer Christian recognized them.
     The scene was subdued. The family tried to make the setting seem as joyful as they could, but the man appeared pensive and depressed. He spoke as if he felt that no one had really forgiven him, and that his many months in prison had taught a lesson to no one but himself. The family tried to console him, saying that people really didn’t know what to say to him and probably had chosen their words poorly.
     “What does he mean by this?” Ebenezer protested. “What member of the church didn’t forgive him?
     “None of them,” the spirit replied. “Least of all, you.”
     “Of course, I forgave him!”
     “No, you didn’t. Do you remember what you wrote on the yellow ribbon you had signed for him? You wrote that it was okay, and that it could have happened to anyone.”
     “How is it that you don’t see forgiveness in that?”
     “Because it wasn’t okay, and the man knew it. He had killed someone. He’s out of prison now, but the dead man is still dead, and the dead man’s children are still fatherless. Your brother in the faith was in need of forgiveness, but all you offered him was an excuse. It was a lame excuse at that. It’s not forgiveness unless you recognize the enormity of his sin.”
     “I wouldn’t use the word ‘enormity.’ All he did was double park. A lot of people do that every day.”
     “That’s one more reason he’s depressed. Even if you don’t realize it, he does. He selfishly placed his own convenience above the safety of his fellow human beings. He learned his lesson at a terrible price; but he had hoped, as well, that his friends and fellow church members would have learned it without having to pay a similar price. He feels as if he paid the penalty both for his own sin and so that others can learn from his experience. That’s why he feels that his sin remains unforgiven, and that anything good that can come of it is despised by his friends.”
     The spirit waved his arm again, and the scene changed.
     “We’re inside the Van Doren Stable.”
     The Van Doren Stable was a monument to an earlier time. During the first half of the twentieth century—and before—every small town in America had livery stables and yards for the convenience of farmers or for men who earned part of their living by plowing people’s home gardens.
     The Van Doren Stable was an impressive brick structure that had been built by Phillip van Doren (note the lower case “v” in the name van Doren) in the center of Bedford Falls in the year 1901. After the style of the day, it boasted a false front that caused people to think of the Alamo. It was roofed, although its roof was decayed and allowed patches of sunlight to enter the building. Its wide, double doors had been closed for about forty years.
     It may sound odd that a livery stable should be located in the very center of town, right next door to the small building that houses the police station and the town hall. At the time Van Doren Stables was built, however, that was considered the most reasonable location for a livery stable.  The sight of the Van Doren Stables towering over the one-storey municipal building and spreading across an area twice as wide and four times as deep as the town hall is even more incongruous.
     Its location made it some of the most valuable property in Bedford Falls. The owner, Donna van Doren was often given generous offers for it, but she refused to sell it. She also refused to develop it.
     Elderly people who have never married or had children usually find substitutes for children and grandchildren. Many fill their homes with cats or dogs and shower their affection upon them. Others—such as Donna van Doren—fill their scrapbooks with family histories and genealogies; allowing their ancestors to serve as surrogates for descendants.
     Van Doren Stables was her monument—or her shrine—to her grandfather, who had built it.  Anyone viewing the Van Doren Stables from the front would see the raised letters across the top, reading, “Van Doren Stables,” under which the date is given, “1901”. One would have to approach the double doors to see the rusted chains and padlock, or the official notice forbidding anyone to enter, “by order of the…County Health Department.”
     For forty years, virtually the only violators of this order were, ironically, the policemen on duty in the station next door. During the 1950s and early ‘60s, one occasionally heard whispered rumors of policemen spiriting suspects to the bullpen in order to impress upon them the seriousness of their intentions.
     After many years of lying unused, even as an interrogation room, the Van Doren Stables were visited once again: by Ebenezer Christian, the spirit, and by two other people.
     Through a decaying wooden door in the side of the building, two skulking figures entered. Ebenezer Christian’s blood froze.
     Momentarily, Ebenezer Christian was able to see them more clearly. They were a man and a woman. Right away, he knew that they must be the same man and woman who had hidden in the church earlier that day.
     “Yes,” the spirit said in response to Ebenezer Christian’s unspoken thoughts. “They are the same couple who were turned away from a shelter for homeless people. Then they were turned away from a church. The time for her baby to be born is near. They have come here, expecting the mother to give birth to her child in a stable.”
     “Like Jesus,” whispered Ebenezer Christian.
     “Yes, exactly like Jesus.”
     “Why do you emphasize the word, `exactly'?”
     “Didn’t Jesus say that, whatever you do for the least of His brethren, you’ve done also to Him? And that, whatever you’ve failed to do for the least of His brethren, you’ve failed to do unto Him?”
     Ebenezer Christian and the spirit watched the couple choose a stall that wasn’t filled with discarded or abandoned items. The man found the remains of an old broom and began sweeping the stall. The broom was nothing more than broomcorn that had been tightly bound with bailing wire—the sort of thing people used as brooms a half-century earlier—but it served its purpose.
     The man searched the stable for anything that could serve as bedding and blankets. The small amount of hay that remained crumbled to dust in his hands. He found enough burlap bags to provide for his wife’s needs, shook the dust from them as well as he could, and he laid them out for her. He elected to do without bedding for himself.
     The entire process took about a half hour.
     Then Ebenezer Christian’s attention was drawn to the sound of two more intruders entering the stable. As they entered, a flashlight pierced the darkness. “This is the police!” a man’s voice sternly said. “Step into the light slowly, where we can see you!”
     Though the couple did not understand the words the policeman had spoken, they knew the drill and instinctively obeyed. The husband pleaded their case as well as he could in his limited English. His wife was about to have a baby, and they had been turned away from everywhere they had tried. The policemen seemed not to understand them. Even if they did, they still were charged with enforcing the law. "It's not safe here," one of them said slowly and deliberately.
     The couple spoke to one another, making some attempt to understand what the policeman had said.
     The policeman tried again, "Perigrosa! Perigrosa!" he said carefully. He had seen that word, or something like it, written on a lot of dangerous places in the movies. He figured it must mean either "dangerous" or "keep out.”
     The man and his wife repeated the sound to each other; then a look of recognition crossed the woman's face. "Ahhh!" she said. "Peligrosa!"
     "Si," the policeman said. "Peligrosa."
     The man, in astonishment, said to his wife, "Esta mas seguro la calle?" (Is the street safer?)
     "Que tiene gracia!" (What a joke!) she replied.
     The couple made another plea. “Es Christmas,” the man said in a mixture of English and Spanish. It was to no avail.
     “We’ll give you a ride out of town,” one of the policemen said, as if they were doing the couple a favor.
     Ebenezer Christian said to the spirit, "This is a vacant building; it has been for many years. Even Jesus' parents were allowed this much. What could be the harm of letting them stay here?"
     "No harm at all,” the spirit replied. "None at all. In almost every town in America, and in every city, there are people who can't afford housing at available costs. Yet, in almost every town in America, and in every city, there exists affordable housing for them, but the buildings are vacant by order of local government. The Health Department has decided that it's better for people to live on the streets or in a dumpster than in buildings that are unacceptable to the sort of people who live on quiet, tree-lined streets or in posh suburbs. Donna van Doren, the owner of this building, was not consulted in the matter; and, as you saw, neither were Jose and Miriam Santos: the couple who stand before you."
     Ebenezer Christian was only a little surprised to hear that the woman had a Jewish-sounding given name. When there is an intermingling of cultures, one of the consequences is an intermingling of names. Ebenezer Christian's own niece had the Spanish name Carmen. From college, he remembered reading of a hero named Bernardo O'Higgins, who had championed Chilean independence from Spain in 1814.
     Ebenezer Christian managed an attempt at distancing himself from the behavior of the policemen. "I've always felt the government should do more for the poor," he said.
     Without rancor, the spirit responded, "You find it easy to say that because you don't think your own tax burden will be—or should be—affected. As such, you presume to give what is not yours to give. That's not generosity. The affectation of generosity at someone else's expense is, at best, hypocrisy. At worst, it's theft. Generosity is what you do with your own resources."
     The policemen ordered the couple into a police car, and they drove them to the outskirts of town. Then they ordered them from the car and left them on the side of a desolate, two-lane country road.
     As the police car drove away, Ebenezer Christian heard the woman ask, "Ay, Jose! Que haceremos? Moriremos!" (Oh, Jose! What will we do? We'll die!)
     The man responded, "No se, Miriam, pero debimos tenir fe. De dentro de todos los crisises, Dios es nuestro Escudo y Consuelo. El socorrerenos." (I don't know, Miriam, but we must have faith. Throughout all crises, God is our Shield and Comfort. He will help us.)
     With a voice trembling as much from fear as from the cold, she said, "Para sobrevivir la noche, necesitaremos un milagro. Ay, mi pobrecita!" ("To survive the night, we'll need a miracle. Oh, my poor little one!")
      The young couple kneeled by the roadside and prayed.
     As they prayed, a light snow began to fall. Ebenezer Christian remembered the weather report that was on everyone's lips: to the delight of almost everyone in town—especially Joe Fenner, the popular weather forecaster on local television—Bedford Falls would enjoy a white Christmas this year. It was expected to snow at least six inches that night.
     "How will they survive?" Ebenezer Christian asked the spirit.
     The shade pointed to a small bridge and replied, "They'll seek shelter under that bridge you see there. Jose Santos will spend the next couple of hours pulling rocks from the creek and building a windbreak between their entrance and his wife Miriam. He'll rub her arms and legs to keep her warm. The labor with the rocks will keep him warm for awhile. After he has done all he can to save them, they both will feel warm and comfortable inside their little nest beneath the bridge."
     "So they'll be all right?"
     "No. Their feelings of warmth and comfort will be the first signs of hypothermia. Tomorrow morning, when children all over Bedford Falls are sitting wide-eyed beneath brightly lighted Christmas trees, finding their presents, and opening them, Jose and Miriam Santo will be frozen to death under the bridge. Their bodies will be found after the snow thaws."
     "No! No! I can't accept that! What kind of God would allow it to happen?"
     "The kind of God Who loves men enough to allow them the free will to love Him or reject Him. He could force people to behave as if they were moral and care for one another, but that wouldn't make them moral or loving. Men can not be loving or moral creatures unless they have a choice. Remember the parable of the man who was beaten and robbed on the way to Jericho?"
     "The one about the Good Samaritan?"
     "That's the one. In their need, Jose and Miriam Santo and their baby were forsaken by a charitable organization, a minister, pious church members and police officers who are sworn to protect and serve. They will freeze to death in the snow because not even one person will obey God's commandment to `Love thy neighbor.'"
     The spirit angrily waved his arm, and the scene vanished.

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