A CONVERSION OF THE HEART Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol & the Spirit of Liberal Religion

Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol & the Spirit of Liberal Religion

A Christmas Eve Meditation

24 December 2013

James Ishmael Ford

First Unitarian Church
Providence, Rhode Island

The other day my favorite pagan blogger Jason Pitzl-Waters observed on his Facebook page, “All I’m saying is that a lot of folks gonna get visited by three ghosts next week.” Three ghosts, four, you get the idea. But, I do think the one Jason didn’t count, or, the one I think he didn’t count, Marley’s ghost was absolutely as critical as those three spirits of Christmas’ past, present & yet to come. But that said, and pretty much as soon as my small nitpick popped up in my head, something else whispered from somewhere in my heart. Would that it were so. Would that it were so.

Charles Dickens was a child of poverty, and he never forgot it, his writings and actions in life show his abiding concern for the fate of those lacking privilege. And his thinking had a profoundly spiritual underpinning. While he was born Anglican and died within the warm embrace of that comprehensive faith, he also had more than a slight Unitarian connection. One of his closest friends was the Unitarian divine Edward Tagart, and during Reverend Tagart’s tenure at Little Portland Street Chapel, Dickens was a member, even purchasing a pew. It was only after Tagart’s death that he drifted slowly back to Canterbury, although always remaining, it is pretty obvious, a religious liberal.

What is most intriguing for me as, frankly, a Unitarian Universalist partisan is that Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol while attending the Little Portland Street’s Unitarian chapel. And I suggest Dickens’ Christmas Carol is run right through with the core sentiments of liberal faith. He wrote of his joining among people who do, who practice charity and toleration, and how important that was. I know we aren’t always as successful in the doing as we wish, but that doing is at the heart of our aspiration.

So, back to those ghostly visitors that Jason wished upon some of his friends. While we might have our own list of those who could profit from those ghostly visits, in fact, in sad fact, probably pretty much every one of us here this evening might be better off from that visit, from those visits. And, as we probably shouldn’t count on that “undigested bit of beef,…blot of mustard,…crumb of cheese,…(or) fragment of underdone potato” to prompt the whole enterprise, perhaps this isn’t a bad moment to conjure up our own ghosts, to recall what has been, what is, and what yet might come.

I find myself thinking of that lovely line Harvey Milk used to trot out, “I’m here to recruit you.” There is always the possibility of turning our human hearts. This possibility is indeed a universal human current, found in all religions and, thinking of Harvey Milk, without any specific tradition.

We can think of Dicken’s Christmas tale as a map, or a recipe.

First, we are invited into the caldron of our hearts. It can come from some ghost of the past. Who is Marley in your life? With whom have you conspired to sell your heart to something less than love and care for others? Who has fallen and in that fall has given you a warning?

What hurt, what loss might be your pointing to a turning of the heart, of your heart?

Then, we are invited to the lessons our ancestors gave us. As one friend of mine responded when asked how it was she could find time in her busy life to stop and work at our food pantry, she replied, simply, clearly from this place to which we are called this evening: Because, she said, my mother taught me to. What are the lessons we know are right, that we learned so long ago, but perhaps in the clouds of our lives have forgotten?

This evening we’re invited to recall, to recollect.

Then, what about today, that here and now thing? Similar to the opportunity here every third Monday, this coming Sunday, throughout the afternoon there’ll be an opportunity to write a letter asking some dictator to let some prisoner of conscience go free. Or? Or? Name it. The invitation is into the doing. And it is always with us, as Charles reminded us, as this evening reminds us, we’re invited into the doing.

From the wisdom of your heart, to what will you turn your hand?

And, finally, the world lies open before us like Mary pregnant with possibility. Which future are you going to let birth? You do get to choose, or, at least you get to choose your part. So, which one is it going to be?

There are many paths we can walk. Which is yours? Where does your heart guide you? Where do you wish to go?

My hope for all of us this Christmas Eve is that the ghosts of our hearts guide us to the true spirit of Christmas, that liberal religious spirit that informed the writing of a Christmas Carol – to a life of love and care and out of that, a life of doing.

It is a blessing for our own hearts, a turning from whatever we were unconsciously going, to a life of possibility and care.

I’m here to recruit you.

To a conversion of the heart.

To a life engaged with the great family.

Living into the Christmas spirit.

Born like a child in a manger. No one knows what will come of that small birth.

But the possibilities; oh, the possibilities.

Birthing with the real Christmas spirit.

Amen, dear ones, Amen.

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