I have no memory of Christmas until I was in the 10th Grade. That's not because my memory is failing me-but because I grew up with no celebration of the holiday. Perhaps that's why I am a fan of Charles Dickens' Christmas Carol and, in particular, why I watch the 1970 Albert Finney version, Scrooge, more than any other film. Millions know this story: As a little boy, Ebenezer Scrooge's family was so tragically broken apart that he never experienced Christmas until he was a youth apprenticed at Mr. Fezziwig's shop.
From this, I have learned that it is difficult to grieve what we do not remember. It is difficult to find Grace winding its way toward us, ready to burst into our lives, if we do not spend at least a few moments among the ghosts. Charles Dickens had a profound faith that God's Providence wants to throw open even the most locked-away corners of our lives-and to transform even the most tragic corners of our world. Re-read his classic novella and you will discover Dickens' theology of Grace. The keys are everywhere in his novella, even in his damning six-word description of Scrooge's home: "Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it."
So, I invite you to try my little exercise. Join me as the ghost of Jacob Marley invites us all: Come and let our spirits "rove beyond the narrow limits." This year, I've already taken my journey. Here it is and perhaps it will give you courage to take your own.
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Scrooge asks if this is a journey into the world's "Long past."
"No," says the ghost. "Your past."
One of My First Memories: In what became the formative story of my life, as a very young child I heard that-because I was born-my mother became an invalid. I was reared with a coating of guilt that glazed my soul as I watched her continue to decline. This story was told in my family not in cruelty-just as a fact of life.
A Dark Secret: At age 11 another formative event. I had an inexpensive stamp collection, one that came in a plastic bag with a booklet for identifying stamps. In the back of a drawer I found an old stamp my grandmother had given me. This stamp with a standing bear was, to my surprise and delight, pictured in the small booklet. It was worth $10,000. My spirits soared! I could buy my parents a house! I carefully wrapped the stamp, included a note requesting the money, and sent it off with anticipation. Days passed along with my growing awareness that I had been a fool. Now, I was a doubly guilty fool. It took many years for me to transform that guilt into an admiration for that little boy who was such a trusting, innocent soul.
Dumb and Maybe Dumber: When I was a boy, schools administered IQ tests and I was haunted by a teacher who, one day, knelt near my desk to whisper: "We have a problem." I had scored extremely low on my IQ test, she told me. I knew instantly what it meant: I was dumb! My mind already was buzzing even as she continued: "It is impossible for you to have scored as low as you did on the IQ test and do as well as you do in school. We need you to repeat the test." I never heard most of it-only the news of the extremely low score. I was worse than a guilty little boy. I was a guilty, stupid fool.
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT
This time, Scrooge welcomes the Spirit and says, "Conduct me where you will. I went forth with the first Spirit on compulsion-and I learnt a lesson, which is working now. If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it." But Scrooge still has no idea what is looming. The patterns he has been sketching in the world remain unchanged.
In My Ministry, I Preach an Elusive Grace: My years of parish ministry opened up into endless hard work. That pattern became my way of life. Like so many other clergy persons, I preached about Grace but my life wrote a completely different theology. In my work, I showed how deeply I believed that only more and more good works could hope to justify my existence. The guilty, stupid little boy still was somewhere back there-watching me.
GHOSTS OF CHRISTMASES YET TO COME
Then, "the third Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached ... the very air through which this Spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery." Can Grace be in such ghosts? But-this Spirit is the only one who completes the Gospel leap toward Grace for Scrooge. Of course we all know from the movies that this Spirit takes Scrooge to his gravestone. Actually, Dickens' original story points us in a different direction: The key begins to unlock Grace during Scrooge's final visit to the "future" of the poor Cratchit family. Standing in their tiny home, Scrooge is startled by hearing a line from the Gospels: "And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them." As these words from Mark echo in Scrooge's head, the Spirit is stirring. Dickens writes: "Where had Scrooge heard those words?"
What Happened in My Own Christmas Yet to Come: I could tell you time and place-but that is minor compared to the rush of Joy that filled my being when I finally surrendered my endless efforts of justifying work and heard the words in my soul that I am loved and accepted as I am. The Grace notes came from the outrageous love of the mysterious One who sent a child to be among us. It did not stop my hard work. But work came now from Grace, which leads to Gratitude, then to Compassion, and finally to Actions of Caring.
And so, as the turbulent 2012 draws to a close, this is my own Christmas Carol to our many readers who follow my columns, I believe, in search of light. Are we like Scrooge? Oh, yes, we are. But if you have read this far, then I suspect that you do not like the darkness too much. You are willing perhaps to say with me: "Conduct me where You will."
Think of me, slipping Albert Finney and Scrooge into my DVD player once again. I shall tell myself that-this year-I shall not cry. But, again, I know I shall. How can I help it, when I witness the Grace that abounds in Scrooge as he awakens on Christmas morn? Or as Dickens concludes his tale, he says of Scrooge "that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
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