Friday, December 16, 2011

Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits, Chapter 10

     At this writing, Christmas is less than two weeks away. In 2001, (not, as I'd incorrectly remembered, 2002) 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 post each of the fourteen chapters and addendum to Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits. The following is Chapter Ten.  For the Table of Contents to Ebenezer Christian and the Three Christmas Spirits, click HERE.

Chapter Ten
The First of Three Christmas Spirits
     We all need sleep because our bodies need rest, and because our brains need to sort out the experiences that we’d had during the day. Dreams are the results of that sorting-out process. This process works pretty much like a computer searching for the appropriate file for the data that is fed into it. When something really strange happens in a dream, it’s often because the mind temporarily has placed it into the wrong “file” and then has attempted once again to put it into the correct one.
     The reader may draw his on interpretations of the events taking place in the next few chapters of this small book. Though Ebenezer Christian may or may not have been dreaming, “dreaming” is probably as useful a term here as any.
     When the Christian family went to bed in their spacious home on Elm Street that Christmas Eve night, Ebenezer lay awake for more than an hour pondering the events of the day. There was no one thought that occupied his attention, nor even one thought at a time. The whole of his thoughts (if, indeed, they could have been called thoughts) was jumble of impressions and feelings that left him uneasy.
     Shortly after the grandfather's clock in the hallway chimed the half hour before midnight, Ebenezer Christian drifted off into a fitful sleep. Upon the first chimes of midnight, he awoke and sat up in bed.
     "Are you having trouble sleeping, Ebenezer Christian?" an otherworldly voice asked him.
     "Who are you? Where are you?"
     "My name does not matter, and I stand before you."
     Ebenezer Christian peered into the darkness and saw a wizened, diminutive form he was sure he recognized. "Cooper Grady! What are you doing in my house?"
     "I came to show you your future."
    "And I'm going to show you the door! Wait a minute! This can't be for real. Am I having a nightmare?"
     "There's one way to tell. Anytime you tell yourself that you're dreaming, that's when you start to wake up—that is, if it really is a dream." The spirit paused a moment. Neither it nor Ebenezer Christian spoke. Then the spirit broke the silence: "Have I gone away yet?"
     "No."
     "Neither have you. We must not be dreaming. Are you ready to take a look at your future?"
     "Not even the angels in heaven know the future. Only the Lord knows what the future holds."
     "What if I told you that this one's a no-brainer?"
     "What do you mean?"
     "I mean, what if I told you that I won't show you anything that you don't already know?"
     "Then, I'd say you were wasting your time and mine. Let me go back to sleep, and you can go back to where you came from."
     "Very well, if you don’t want to leave your comfortable bed, I can show you your future from here." With that, the spirit turned and waved its hand as though sweeping away a portion of the air in front of them. In the space where the spirit had waved, Ebenezer Christian saw himself as an elderly man lying in a hospital bed.
     “I suppose that’s me on my deathbed?”
     “Correct grammar would be: ‘I suppose that is I on my deathbed,’ but you are correct about what you’re watching.”
     “I don’t intend to sound cavalier about my own death, but isn’t all this obvious? I know I’m going to die someday, and I expect and hope that I’ll live to a ripe old age and die in a nice, clean hospital bed with my family around me. So, what is all this supposed to tell me?”
     “Nothing can be as deceptive as the obvious. Don’t overlook the obvious. Keep watching-and listen to what you say from your bed.”
     Ebenezer Christian listened for as long as his patience held out-perhaps fifteen minutes-and blurted, “Okay! I’m an ordinary guy with an ordinary family. I live to the age of 79 and die an ordinary death. What is all this supposed to show me?”
     “A moment ago, you told your wife and children that you wish that you’d spent more time with your family, especially while your children were in their teens and early college years. Your wife then expressed the same regret.”
     “But isn’t that what everybody says on his deathbed?”
     “Yes, it is. Nobody on his deathbed ever has said that he wished he’d spent more time at the office or even in church-related activities (except maybe worship services). Nobody on his deathbed ever has said he wished he’d spent more time away from his family.”
     That remark was not in any way comparable to the light that Saul saw on the road to Damascus. It was more of a morsel for thought. Ebenezer Christian had a small counter-argument: “Surely, you’re not saying that we should avoid church activities. Isn’t our highest duty to God?”
     “Yes, it is; and, under God, your service to the family is a more lofty responsibility than your service to the church.” Ebenezer Christian was stunned at such heretical-sounding a doctrine as this. The spirit continued, “Most church work is just busy work, designed to make church members feel as if they’re serving God, regardless of whether they really are. I would remind you that Saint Paul admonished Timothy, ‘If a person does not care for his own, especially his own household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.’”
     “Now, don’t tell me that I haven’t been caring for my own household!” Ebenezer Christian had become so excited in his response that he had to look at Mary Martha Christian to be sure he hadn’t awakened her. She was still asleep. He rattled off all the extra work he had done and enumerated money he had given to the church and things he’d bought his family that had been the fruits of his labor.
     “Yes, because of your extra work and overtime, you’ve been able to contribute about twice as much to the church than you ordinarily would have. You’ve gone above and beyond your tithe. I still accuse you of withholding from God what is his due.”
     “What!”
     “The cattle on a thousand hills are His. The precious metals and gemstones within a thousand hills also are His. Do you really think that God is so hard up for money that you must work extra jobs and overtime to support Him? If He did need money, why should he apply to you for it?
     “God’s commandment to tithe isn’t because He needs the money. We must tithe because it’s to our own spiritual benefit to do this. It’s one of the many ways we can follow the commandment to make of ourselves a living sacrifice, wholly acceptable to God.
     “That’s the sacrifice God wants from you. There’s only one thing you can give Him that isn’t already His: your love: yourself—and that’s the one thing you’ve denied Him. You’ve given your local church organization your service and your money, but you have withheld yourself from God as the one sacrifice He requires.”
     “That’s harsh!” Ebenezer Christian protested, refusing to accept the shade’s judgment.
     “It gets harsher,” the spirit replied. He waved his arm in such a sweeping gesture that it erased every image from the room. Upon his invitation, Ebenezer Christian stepped from the bed; then the bed itself vanished.
     “Where are we,” asked Ebenezer Christian, “and why is all this trash here?” Indeed, they stood on a mountain of tightly compacted refuse.
     “This is the graveyard of most of the Christmas presents you’ve bought your friends and family members. A moment ago, you saw yourself on your deathbed, regretting that you didn’t spend enough time with your family and friends. And why didn’t you? You were too busy making money to buy extra cars, a larger house, and expensive gifts with which to shower your family and friends.
     “Where did they all go: all those cars and all those other embellishments? Most of them are crushed, broken and compacted into cubes beneath our feet. Even your house was torn down, and the rubble was dumped onto a landfill.
     “You desire more than you should have. Because of your inordinate desire, you have inordinate ambition. To satisfy that ambition, you keep away from your family when you should be at home with them; and, by demanding more and more things, you ravage the environment the Lord has created and entrusted unto you for wise stewardship.
     “Just telling you to reduce your desires is not enough now. You’ve become so addicted to materialism that you don’t know how.”
     Ebenezer Christian still did not fully accept the shade’s lecture, but he didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. “How does a person do that?” he asked, as though the person in question were not himself.
    “You can value things by their nature and practical function rather than by their embellishments. Silk, for example, is nothing more than the unraveled cocoon of a worm that feeds on mulberry leaves; and cotton is the untangled fiber of a cotton plant that has gone to seed. Either may be made into a shirt, the function of which is to shade us from the sun or help to warm us on cool days. There is no practical reason for buying a silk shirt rather than a cotton shirt, or one with a famous logo on it rather than one without a logo. Only vain imaginings can lead people to be deceived by these needless embellishments.”
     “A shirt is only a small thing,” Ebenezer Christian excused.
     “Little things add up, but since you brought it up, does your family need one car for each family member?” Before Ebenezer Christian could answer, the shade asked, “Does your family need even one car for the whole family?”
     “Of course we do!” Ebenezer Christian exclaimed with the confidence of a man who is about to get the better of an accuser who thus far has been successfully badgering him. “It’s much faster and more convenient than taking a bus or walking. Or do you have something against saving time?”
     “Saving time for the purpose of filling your hours with more busy work?” the spirit asked rhetorically. “Well, I won’t go into that-not now, at any rate. Are you quite sure that driving saves time?”
     “Of course! How can I not be sure if I’m saving time?”
     “You’re counting your time in terms of how long it takes to get from point A to point B. If you counted your time the way a businessman counts his expenses, you may be surprised to learn that it takes less time to take a bus, or even to walk, than it takes to drive to work.”
     “How’s that?”
     “A businessman would count everything that goes into the enterprise he’s examining. It takes you a certain number of hours to earn the money to pay for the car, the insurance, gas, oil, other fluids, car wash, garage, and the property taxes on the car and garage. You probably have other car-related expenses, but we’ll stop there. Once you’ve estimated the hours you worked to buy and maintain the car, you divide that figure by the number of miles you’ve driven. Add to it the time you spend finding a parking space and the time you spend going from point A to point B. Only then will you know whether it saves you time to walk, take a bus or drive. For most people, a car is no more than an embellishment; it’s not even a luxury.
     While Ebenezer Christian was absorbing this thought, the spirit eyed him in silence. After a moment, the shade interrupted his thoughts to remark, “Oh, by the way: you’re standing on your BMW.”
     Ebenezer Christian looked beneath his feet and saw a block of compacted steel. He looked up again and found himself standing in the room of a college dormitory. Sitting at a desk, with her back to them, was a young woman weeping over her books.
     "Who is she?" Ebenezer Christian asked.
     "Her name is Teng Hui-mei," the shade replied. Her father is originally from the Henan Province of China, but her family now lives in Taiwan. She's a classmate of your daughter Buffy. In fact, this lady’s room is next to your daughter’s”
     "Why is she crying?"
     "She's under tremendous pressure. Due to a lack of resources, she began college several years later than most students. Now, almost ten years after her graduation from college in Taiwan, she’s a thirty-five year old graduate student. Most students from Taiwan first become undergraduates, partly to accustom themselves to the language. Her age and lack of resources led her to go directly into graduate school. Now she's suffering for it. Most weeknights, she gets barely five hours of sleep because she studies all the time."
     "What will become of her?"
     "I can tell you only what I'm allowed to know myself. If she succeeds and is graduated from this school, she'll become a teaching missionary in the Henan Province. Officially, she'll be no more than a teacher, since Christian missionaries aren't allowed. She is to establish a cell church in that province. After a few years, the officials will raid the church, arrest the members and scatter them throughout Henan Province and beyond. As a result, the seeds of the Gospel will be scattered all over the area."
     "My daughter Buffy—“
     "Your daughter Buffy will never become a missionary to China. She'll marry a minister and do fine work here in the United States."
     "But she always said she felt a burden to minister to the Chinese."
     "And that's the Lord's will for her life. The lady you see before you is the Chinese to whom she must minister. There's no feeling of nobility in helping a classmate with her homework, but the need is real nonetheless. Oh, your daughter isn't exactly wasting her free time. She is active in a Christian organization, and it gives her a feeling of satisfaction that she's doing `the Lord's work,' so to speak. But filling the needs of others is far more important than giving herself a feeling of satisfaction while she's having fun.
     "Your daughter is throwing away the only chance she'll ever have to minister to the Chinese and—however indirectly—spread the Gospel in China."
     "Is it possible that—what did you say her name is? Teng Hui-mei? "
     "Yes, that's her name."
     "Is it possible that she'll flunk out of graduate school?"
     "Yes, it is."
     "What will happen to her ministry then?"
     "If she flunks out of graduate school, the good work I've described will never happen. Each of us influences others in ways that we can never know."
     "Will she flunk?"
     "I'm not allowed to know that," the shade replied in the voice of a middle-aged man.
The shade no longer had the face and bearing of Cooper Grady. He now resembled the member of the group of fanatics called Patriot’s Dream.

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