Of Christ and Christmas Spirit

I find Charles Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol character, Ebenezer Scrooge, usually overly maligned. In the end his only significant fault was that he little appreciated, or enjoyed, what he had. He was a miser, a rich man who lived like a pauper.

Was he so different from you and me, we who possess untold riches, eternal riches, and enjoy so little of them? Oh that we could be visited by angels to stir us from our false poverty! How we would enrich ourselves and the lives of those around us!

It was Scrooge’s admirable nephew, Fred, who first tried to explain to his uncle the joy of Christmas. Do you recall Fred’s words?

There are many things from which I might have derived good by which I have not profited, I dare say. Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come round—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not some other race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!

Such were the words of nephew Fred, early in the eve before his uncle was to receive the visits of the Christmas spirits. Many await the visitation of Christmas spirits. It seems that each season we hear someone say, “I just can’t seem to get the Christmas spirit this year.”

I have long thought about the Christmas spirit. I may even say that I have given it some study. I have concluded that there is not one Christmas spirit today. I believe that there are at least five Christmas spirits abroad in the world. Although there is only one Christmas spirit that will bring lasting happiness, lasting joy, fortunately it is one that we can have always, anytime we wish, every Christmas, every day.

The first of these Christmas spirits is the HEDONISTIC spirit, the eat, drink, and be merry spirit, the indulging of physical pleasures, an excuse to cast aside restraint, to indulge the appetites and give them a loose reign. Under the influence of this spirit we invoke Christmas to justify things we might not usually do. But if the food is not right or not enough, the music poor, the entertainment inadequate, the money too short, then we might not feel that we have the Christmas spirit, this Christmas spirit. And there is always a price to pay for entertaining this Christmas spirit, a morning after, a bill that comes due, and a satisfaction that fades.

The second Christmas spirit is NOSTALGIA, some longing for the past. In its best form it is the use of tradition to focus our hearts and minds, to gather and strengthen family, to reinforce our worship. Too often, though, it is a sad, often heart rending, sometimes destructive effort to recapture a pleasant experience from the past, whether the pleasant experience really happened or not. From a benign, pleasant musing by the glowing fireside, this spirit uncontrolled can become a brutal dictator. There is almost no limit to the sacrifices it will demand of you and those around you to try to recreate a phantom memory. But the memory is never quite recreated, things are never quite the way we had remembered, and all too soon the favorite ornament is broken, the Christmas tree not quite right, the choir not as good as it was, the dress faded. The sacrifices made and the efforts to recreate the memory are lost but create darker memories of their own.

From nostalgia we come to the third spirit of Christmas, CELEBRATION. We have holidays in order to celebrate, and Christmas has become chief of them all. What would Christmas be without celebration? The Christmas celebrations can range from merriment and frolicking to enjoying the company of others, and on to momentous pageantry and festivity. Times of celebration can be times of great joy, great fun, and bring exhilaration to the soul. But this Christmas spirit can be hard to capture. Celebrations can be hit or miss. The event might not come off as planned. An important person might be missing, a part forgotten, the weather might not cooperate, or things might get out of hand, people carried away. After the celebration, there is often a let down and the question, now what?

I believe that the fourth Christmas spirit is GIVING. Christmas giving can range from the mere exchange of gifts—an economic transaction more or less forced—all the way to the generous sharing of the soul in our love for others, rewarded by the joy of being in the service of God, expressing and experiencing the pure love of Christ. Gift giving has been a part of Christmas as long as I can remember or discover. The key here is the intent, the why the gift is being given. The gift is only as good as the why. But as good as the Spirit of Giving is, I believe that we still remain as Ebenezer Scrooge, living far below the enjoyment of the riches available to us if our Christmas rises no further. The spirit of gift giving is available to, and thankfully practiced by, people the world over, Christians or not. Genuine disciples of Christ can live a deeper experience.

Which brings me to the fifth spirit of Christmas, the one I believe to be greatest of all, that incorporates any and all the good of the other spirits, a spirit that “neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (3 Nephi 12:20). This Christmas spirit you may always have each and every year—and every day—of your life. It is the spirit of WORSHIP.

By worship I have in mind the full rededication of our souls to the One perfect being who created the earth, who has guided His children throughout its history, who was humbly born into that world, who lived, died, and rose again so that we might have every good thing. Through this worship of Christ we become like Him, we do His works, and we receive His gifts: as the Savior prayed the night before He was crucified, that we “all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.” (John 17:21) In that way we have it all, all that matters, and that is very much.

(First published November 28, 2008)

Of Christmas and Celebrating Hope

The story of Pandora and her box (or jar) has been retold for thousands of years, with minor variations. The key elements of the tale from Greek mythology are consistent. Pandora was endowed with many wonderful gifts and talents, among them beauty, music, persuasion, and others. She was also given a box, which she was told never to open. Try that out on anybody: “Here is an interesting box. It is yours. DO NOT EVER OPEN IT!” I expect that the result would ever be the same, the box will eventually be opened. As the story goes, it was, introducing into the world evil in all of its forms. Last of all, however, from the bottom of the box, came hope.

I believe hope to be an underappreciated and little understood gift from God. Hope is essential to happiness, salvation, and life. I know of no happiness without it, I cannot imagine any achievement not preceded by hope. In all salvation, temporal or eternal, hope draws us forward. It is foundational to life and living. Hope is ever at war with despair (for example, the Spanish word for “despair” is desesperanza, or the absence of esperanza, “hope”): despair is life-draining, while hope feeds life.

In this understanding of hope, I do not refer to the weak sentiment most common in everyday parlance, the wistful wishing for something better, a wish that seldom acts as a motivator for effective action. I have in mind the hope spoken of by God and His prophets, against which the forlorn reach from despair—as valuable and comforting as that may be—pales in comparison.

Consider how the power of hope is described in this account of the preaching of the ancient American prophet, Ether:

Wherefore, whoso believeth in God might with surety hope for a better world, yea, even a place at the right hand of God, which hope cometh of faith, maketh an anchor to the souls of men, which would make them sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, being led to glorify God. (Ether 12:4)

Notice the power of this hope, an anchor to the soul, making those who possess it sure and steadfast, the person who has gained it always abounding in good works. Nothing weak or wistful here. Such hope is a mighty, heavenly gift, with mighty results. Also notice the connection between hope and faith, the former being a powerful fruit of faith.

I have thought that a fair definition of “hope” is the personal recognition that something desirable is attainable. By faith we learn of the desirable object as well as gain the recognition that it is within our reach. When that happens, hope is born in our hearts, and we are stirred to action to attain it. That is life itself. Dead things, inanimate objects, reach for nothing, always acted upon, never doing the acting.

There are many things that each of us values and would very much desire to attain, to gain, to build: love, knowledge, wealth, improvement, new abilities, bridges (real and figurative), but we do not act to realize our desires until we first gain the idea that we can be successful. Without hope of success we may go through the motions in a lame sort of way, guided by routine that can become drudgery. We are energized—even beyond what we thought were our limitations—as soon as we gain a vision, as soon as we believe the prized fruit to be within our reach, when we have hope. Then there is little stopping us. Obstacles are overcome, means are found, tools are made, skills developed.

In my reflections I have named my three daughters Faith, Hope, and Charity, as each one seems especially to personify one of these three great gifts of God. My oldest daughter would be named Hope. Throughout her life, once she has gotten it into her head that something worthwhile is within her reach she has done whatever it takes to realize it. Because of that, through great and consistent effort, overcoming many obstacles, she has become rich in all of the eternal things, in everything that matters. Her mother and I admire her for it. Her achievement need not be unique. It is within reach of all of us. Each may have such hope and become so rich.

There are many reasons for the perennial popularity of Christmas. Surely one of these is that it is a celebration of hope offered to everyone. Salvation did not come to earth with Christmas. The sacrifice and atonement that Jesus Christ would work out to bring about all salvation would await another three decades after His miraculous birth. With Christmas, the birth of the Savior, there arrived in Person the assured hope that salvation would come. The angel who appeared to the shepherds at Bethlehem the night of the nativity was filled with that hope, with that assurance, that caused him to rejoice and share with the shepherds his message “of great joy” so that they, too, might have this great and assured hope: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10, 11)

The hope of Christ, in all of its power to action and motivation for every good thought and deed, is worthy of general celebration, every year. The salvation of Christ has been placed within reach of everyone. Having that hope can become a personal anchor as we realize its promise, becoming sure and steadfast, always abounding in good works, that each of us personally, here on earth, can be filled with “peace, good will toward men.” At least in part, that is what Christmas is all about.

Of Washington and the Life of the Nation

Washington, D.C., is a strange place. I speak from experience. My whole working career has been in Washington. In many meetings with people visiting Washington I have explained to them that Washington is not America. Few have been surprised by the remark. In many visits away from Washington (and in connection with my work I accept nearly every invitation to leave town and be among those whose lives too many in Washington try to run) I am ever and powerfully reminded how different the rest of America is from Washington. I have not been surprised. Kansas City is much closer to America than Washington ever was or will be.

In support of the point I offer a few painful examples. I see one each day that I drive into the city. Looking at the cars around me I note that very few are more than a few years old. At the same time I am impressed by how many of the cars are foreign luxury models. It is typical, when paused at a stop light, to notice that many of the surrounding cars are BMWs, Mercedes, Lexus, Acuras, Audis, and not an insignificant number of Jaguars, high end Range Rovers, and Porsches. I also see a lot more Prius cars and other hybrids. This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with driving any of these or any other late model high-priced cars. I merely note it as very different from what I see when paused at a typical traffic light in other cities and towns in America.

As an aside, I am grateful to the people who buy and drive a Prius or other model of hybrid, because they subsidize my purchase of gasoline. Their cars do use less gasoline (though not enough less to compensate their owners for paying so much more for their cars), leaving more for people like me who drive regular gasoline-consuming vehicles. That reduction in gasoline demand helps reduce the price.

The Prius drivers might be offended were I to tell them, however, that I am entirely unimpressed by their conspicuous token of environmental sensitivity. Their purchase and operation of a Prius, after all, is very likely more harmful to the environment than is my more conventional automobile. First of all, they pay $10,000 or more extra to buy their hybrid, and if the price system works at all efficiently that means that making a Prius or other hybrid consumes far more in resources than making a conventional car. Second, the hybrid car fans and their coteries in the D.C. area have convinced the masters of the highway networks to create special less-traveled commuter lanes that the hybrid drivers are permitted to use, meaning that they reduce the efficiency of the highway infrastructure. So, to the Prius drivers of the world I say, thanks for the subsidy, but save your enviro lectures for when you are looking in the mirror.

The automobiles of the nation’s capital region are a sign of an even more painful reality of how Washington is different from the rest of America. It is also the wealthiest part of the nation, by far. On April 25, 2013, Forbes magazine published an article about the richest counties in the United States in terms of average income (Tom Van Riper, “America’s Richest Counties”). Six of the ten richest counties are in the Washington, D.C. region, including the top two and one more out of the top five. While recession lingers in the rest of the nation, Washington and its suburbs are doing rather well, with unemployment down to 5.5%, well below the national average.

I will also say that I am not opposed to wealth and wealthy people. I wish all of the world to be wealthier and rejoice that it is far wealthier today than people of just a few generations ago could have dreamed. But we could all live so much better still. I ache that the policies of governments around the world stifle economic growth and development and hold so many of their people down in poverty. The poor nations of the world are not poor because their people are less talented and intelligent than others, but because their governments are so oppressive and have been for generations.

Therein lies my beef with the wealth of Washington and its environs and the key to its estrangement from America. That wealth is hard to explain from the perspective of value added to the rest of the nation. Washington is basically a one-company town. Unlike other one-company towns, however, it produces little that adds enough value to the lives of others that would allow it to prosper in open competition in free markets. The product of Washington instead is forced upon the rest of the nation, whose productive income is confiscated to keep the Washington wealth-eating machine going.

Try to name an economic product or activity that is not somehow subject to special handling by or permission from someone in Washington or controlled from Washington. After the Dodd-Frank Act, for example, all financial activities have become more subject to direction by Washington bureaucrats than ever before. Today, a bank has to pay more attention to its regulators than it does to its customers. Who gets the best attention out of that arrangement? The same is true for energy producers, communications firms, health care providers, and you can continue the list. All that special handling comes with a toll, payable in taxes, or borrowed from the financial markets, or layered upon private incentive and individual initiative. Today in Washington the most convincing argument for new rules and laws is to announce that something is “unregulated.” When you regulate liberty, how much liberty survives? How much of America survives?

Next year, 2014, will mark the 200th anniversary of the burning of Washington by the British in the War of 1812. The curious thing about the burning of Washington was that it did not make a lick of difference. The rest of the nation went on about its business, little harmed or even affected. The same was true during the Revolutionary War when the British occupied Philadelphia. Rather than end the war it did nothing to bring the British victory. In America the nation was not run by its government, and in fact government was mostly irrelevant to the daily life of the people. That was very different from European experience, where nations were so dominated by their rulers that capturing the capital was tantamount to beheading the country.

Washington is strange to America. That can be tolerable, but only if it is smaller and less significant. Let the real nation draw its life from the people and live where they live their lives without direction from their rulers. Let us have a Washington whose disappearance would not mean much to the rest of the nation.

(First published May 18, 2013)

Of Hope and Just Getting By

Working in Washington, D.C., and living in the D.C. suburbs as I do, I am fond of saying that I eagerly accept opportunities to get away from the Capital region and spend time in real America. That has always been a bit of an overgeneralization, expressing a usually correct but not unerring description. Washington is not real America, but there are parts of this nation that have already gotten ahead of where the smart people of Washington have been able to take the nation. Those places are not what I mean when I refer to real America.

Our large, industrial states are examples of misrule by those who assume that their ability and right to rule, and the inexhaustibility of the wealth of their cities and states, are given and immutable. Wrong on all assumptions. These states, once beacons of progress, growth, and development, are wastelands of decline: economic, social, moral, and even demographic. Millions of people—those who could—have been leaving these states for decades.

The recent bankruptcy of Detroit is a prominent symbol of where this misrule leads. At its prime a bustling metropolitan center approaching two million in population, Detroit has been steadily falling from its prime to a dilapidated city of barely 700,000 who remain to wonder where have the productive people gone, and what is to be the future?

I recently returned from spending several days in such a place, mixing with, talking with, associating in the daily lives of the ordinary people living there, people with whom I had lived as a wide-eyed teenager a generation before. I am not referring to the urban center of the state. The region I visited has been for 150 years a mixture of industrial and rural economies, and as I recalled, a happy mix. Now the villages and towns are actually smaller than in my youth and shrinking. The number of productive enterprises is fewer and those that remain, smaller. The schools have remarkably fewer students and struggle with how to keep their programs going with declining enrollments. The largest employers are the instruments of government welfare services—as well as a couple of new state prisons—and the local hospital network.

The people were friendly and pleasant, yet something did not feel right. I understand the wisdom that “you can never go home” if you expect to find all the same. I expected change. New technologies were present, hand-held electronic devices ubiquitous, a fair number of new cars, if not the foreign luxury models so common in Washington. It was not, though, a happy place of happy people. Why?

It was only near the end of my stay that I recognized the ailment. The region has become a land of small hope, particularly small hope of progress. People there were not living their lives to get ahead, to advance, to build a better future (I cannot recall seeing a single new house in the several days of my visit, though the dump north of town is working on its third mound). Most of the people in these formerly vibrant communities, with what I remember as bright expectations for the future, were now living their lives to get by, just to get by, to get on from day to day, holding on to what they have.

Taxes are high, so it is not easy to keep what you earn. Regulation makes it hard to do anything new. For those reasons, businesses have been leaving, and so have the talented youth. Talk with the people about their daily lives, and not long into the conversation the problems of wrestling with this or that regulation or working with some officious government apparatchik will come up. And yet so many of the people expect the solution to their problems to come from some new government program or service rather than from their own effort.

I say “most” of the people are so ailing. There are a few exceptions, and interesting ones. Two religious groups seem to be growing—and not the establishment churches, whose places of worship, grand and beautiful buildings, eloquently testify to bygone days of prosperity but now show signs of neglect. The two groups are the Latter-day Saints, whose Church was founded in the area nearly two hundred years ago and whose membership is growing steadily, and the Amish/Mennonites, who in recent years have moved in strong numbers to take advantage of neglected farm land. There are also some very prosperous farm businessmen, also gathering up land and putting it into obvious productivity. Finally, I would mention the growth of mini-wineries, although this latter movement seems after about 25 years to be approaching maturity.

Hope is an essential ingredient in happiness. Hope comes from the belief that a desirable future is attainable, so much so that it draws out extra effort to realize its promise. Genuine hope in your own effort can be contagious, and those who have it can help revive communities. You cannot do much to give hope without that personal effort, but hope comes naturally with that effort and the opportunity to keep the fruits of one’s efforts. Our nation’s founders were filled with hope and with it created the greatest nation on earth.

There is no hope, though, in just getting by. In the end, you cannot get by if getting by is all there is to your hope. No future there, only decline. For hundreds of years people have been leaving their lands where they struggled to get by and have been coming to America, to them a land of hope and the freedom that feeds hope. When I leave Washington to look for America, that is what I am looking for. I hope to find it ever.

(First published July 20, 2013)

Of Liberty and Breaking the Rules

Sometime in the 1990s, before the days of YouTube, I received a homemade video from a man who owned and operated a small business near Dallas, Texas. He ran a landscaping company, had a handful of employees, and, according to the video, was in violation of some rule or regulation of the federal government every day. He did not intend to be in violation. He did not want to be in violation. As he explained, it was just impossible to comply with all of the requirements.

The video began with the owner sitting behind his desk, explaining the problem. He stood up and took the camera with him as he walked through different parts of his operations, pointing out what was required of him, his business, and his colleagues.

In the main office he described the employment rules, the tax laws, the related mandates and regulations that applied because he had hired other people. He walked over to the equipment and described the numberless “safety hazard” regulations, from warning notices that had to be glued beneath the seats of garden tractors, to how he and his workers used, carried, and stored their tools, gear, and machines, and what they were supposed to wear while using them. He discussed the multitude of formal requirements for managing and applying the fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemicals that are commonly used in his business, including their handling, storage, clean up, and their transportation. Speaking of transportation, because his company used trucks and other vehicles, there was another long list of rules and regulations that applied to that part of the firm.

Added to all of this, there were numerous reports, applications, notices, and other papers to be filed with a variety of agencies on a regular basis. When he was through, he sat down again behind his desk and said, “I break the law every day. I don’t intend to, but I cannot avoid it. I can’t keep up with it all as long as I stay in business.”

How did we get here? Is this America? Is this the land of the free and the home of the brave? Is this a land of freedom sustained by law? It is an unknown America, too unknown to most but too familiar to people who run a business, especially the people who own a small company. The rest of us see little of it, though perhaps we suspect it is there. Some of us catch glimpses.

In a large business it takes longer for the regulatory burden to become overwhelming. For a while the boss can hire more people to help carry the load. In the large firms of America there is a host of employees who produce no goods or offer any services to any customers. They spend their careers complying with their slices of these federal rules, laws, and mandates so that some of the other employees can be involved in what the business is all about, providing something to a customer for which the customer is willing to pay.

The customer may not realize that a large share of what he pays for he never receives; it goes to pay those people who work to keep the business in compliance with the government rules. More than businessmen would be wealthier without this heavy, dead hand clamped on firms, factories, and farms. The necessities and luxuries of life would all be a lot cheaper. Or, another way to say it, we would get more of the goods and services we pay for, less of our money sunk into these hidden costs for unproductive activity.

America’s Founders sought to create a land of freedom, not dominated by government and the officiousness of government functionaries. To them “unregulated” was a goal, not a criticism. They also knew the danger of what could happen, even in America. James Madison wrote, “It will be of little avail to the people that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws be so voluminous that they cannot be read, or so incoherent that they cannot be understood. . .” (James Madison, Federalist no. 62)

And yet here we are. What the Texas businessman faced in the 1990s has not become any lighter since. When was the last time that you read the full text of a law? Who has read the Obamacare statute, the Dodd-Frank Act, or any of the other voluminous, incoherent laws recently enacted, each written on more than a thousand pages? For each page of law enacted by Congress today government bureaucrats write ten pages of rules and regulations, all of which are enforced as law though never voted on by anyone who himself has been voted into office by the people.

In the land of the free, whose founding document begins with “We the People”, why do we tolerate it? One of the complaints against the king of England in the Declaration of Independence reads, “He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” And yet we have done the same to ourselves. The Dodd-Frank Act alone created several New Offices and has already stimulated the hiring of more than a thousand new officers.

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Scrooge trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago. You have laboured on it, since. It is a ponderous chain!”
(Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

There was a time when the chains had to be broken to restore the rule of law.

(First published August 8, 2013)