Sunday, December 07, 2014

Advent 2B Series: "From Humbug to Hallelujah!"

I read a lot of business books. They help me understand my job much better. They give me practical tips on how I can improve my professional life. But sometimes they slide from giving concrete professional advice into gooey self-help, feel good pseudo-psychology. 

One author said that the best way to live is to live with no regrets. On the surface that sounds great. Who wants to look back at the end of one’s life and see regret?

Of course the writer was talking about the importance of not taking life lightly. Of seizing opportunities, not letting the moments go by unappreciated and un-acted upon; to start that business, to take that trip, to learn that instrument, to talk to that beautiful woman, to apply for that job, to tell that special person how you feel. This person said that you didn’t want to be 102 lying on your deathbed and look back at a life of “What ifs”? or “Why didn’t I’s?”

And there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, that’s great advice. An important message. Life is to be lived, engaged, loved, grabbed with two hands, run until you’re sore.

But life does come with regret. That’s just the way life is. The question is what are you going to do with it? To have no regrets means to live a life without risk, to have no regrets means you have played it too safe, it means to not have failed. And failure teaches us about life, much more than success does.

My experience as a pastor in Tokyo, Japan was the worst professional experience of my life, and scarred me emotionally and drained me financially. (One of these days I’ll tell you that story). But the lessons I learned from that time prepared me to better serve you here today.

The breakdown of my marriage and consequent divorce nearly killed me. The worst day of my life was when I moved out of our home and saw my daughters’ noses pressed against the window watching their daddy drive away, feeling like my life just crashed in all around me, and was desperately alone. 

But in the subsequent months and years, as I began to heal from that loss, I’ve learned to appreciate the people and relationships in my life more than I ever had before. I’ve learned to love more deeply. I’ve learned what real gratitude feels like.

Our scars can keep us from experiencing true joy. They can keep us bitter. Resentful that life hasn’t turned out as planned. Memories can turn us into who we don’t want to be.

Dickens doesn’t fully say what happened to Scrooge to turn him into who he became. He hints at an abusive father, but we don’t fully see the roots of Scrooge’s bitterness. We don’t know for sure why he turned inward and pushed everyone away.

But we do get a glimpse into his past, which makes his present so much more of a mystery. Scrooge, as a younger man, danced with abandon, and loved with joyful recklessness. There’s no evidence of the man he is now. 

But somewhere, somehow, and by someone, Scrooge became embittered, his priorities shifted from love and friendship to self-centred business success, success for its own sake.

He lost the woman in his life because she grieved what he had become. His only friend was Marley, with whom he could wallow in his new found craving for cash.

When the ghost of Christmas present reminds him of who he was, Scrooge impulsively smiles with child-like innocence when sees the happy faces of his boyhood friends as memories of a free and joyful time of his life pour over him. 

But then retreats back into himself, the person he has become, when confronted by the pain of his past, estrangement from his father, and especially, of losing his beloved sister.

Let’s watch...


What I most appreciate about Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge is that he doesn’t play it as a cartoon character, he looks deep into why Scrooge became who he was. When I see Patrick Stewart’s Scrooge, I don’t see just some cynical, embittered old man, who views the world only through dollars signs. 

When I look into this Scrooge’s eyes, I see a man who loved deeply, and lost even more deeply. In his eyes I don’t see mere bitterness or crankiness, I see suffering. I see darkness subdue a bright light.

I see a man who didn’t just lose those whom he loved, I see a man who lost himself. The memories of a joyful youth only compounded his anger as the spirit showed him descending into bitter loneliness with each mistake, and was left helpless to change it, because the past was just a memory - but a living memory that haunted him worse than any ghost ever could.

That’s why I was surprised to be rooting for this Scrooge. I think there’s something in him in all of us. He’s not evil. He’s wounded. He didn’t give away his joy. It was taken from him. His “humbug” wasn’t the grumblings of a cranky old man. But a defense against the memories that left him exiled from those around him, and blinded him to the love and care that was his to receive, if only he could recognize it.

In this Scrooge, I see tyranny born from tragedy.

That’s why I felt so sad for him. Because it didn’t have to be that way. There was love all around him. He just didn’t recognize it. Or he was too overwhelmed by the bitter losses of his past that he didn’t know how to receive it when love presented itself to him.

It’s not the spirits of Christmas past, present, or future, that turn us from living out our painful memories into a deeper understanding of love and life, but the Spirit of God who transforms our pain into passion for others. It’s the Spirit of God who opens our eyes to pain of those reflected back to us, and demands that we do something about it. It’s the Spirit of God who brings us back from exile, and leads us home, into a life of care for others and the world God made.

I have a friend back home in Ontario, who by all accounts should be like Scrooge. Burned through three marriages. Spent time in prison. His business flopped. Lost his house. Went bankrupt. And struggled to maintain a relationship with his children with whom he became estranged because of the years of drinking and self-abuse.

His poor choices were the result of a terrible upbringing. He simply didn’t know how to live properly. He wasn’t taught how to move through the world as a fully functioning member of society. So his life became a series of mistakes and losses, which in turn added up a life poorly lived.

And he could have stayed in that world of failure and loss. But the salvation story began to work on him, and his eyes opened to new possibilities, he learned that God doesn’t give up on anyone, and that the message of new life in Jesus can take the heartbreak of yesterday and use for tomorrow that is abundant with love, and now his life is just beginning as others at his age are winding things down.

Because instead of retreating into his senior years seething with resentment over a life badly lived, instead of brooding over his losses, instead seeing his life as a series of mistakes, he’s become extraordinarily kind and generous. His losses gave him insight. His scars gave him wisdom. His mistakes have given him greater understanding of others. His estrangements have given him compassion. His brokenness has given him a spirit of healing.

He has found joy in helping others. His is a life transformed by a community of faith who saw more in him than he saw in himself. His life is the kind of Christmas miracle that we don’t often read about, but a miracle nonetheless. He spends his free time serving people who need his help. Cutting veggies at the soup kitchen. Visiting fellow church members in the hospital. Serving as a Stephen Minister at his church.

When I talk with him I’m reminded that it’s the Spirit of God that declares that joy - TRUE joy - comes from connecting with others, sharing our deepest selves with those around us, as they share themselves with us. And with that sharing we become more fully alive, awake to the love and care that inspires us to be our best selves, to go into the world knowing that we can meet out challenges, that the blisters on our feet only make us run faster.

When I hear stories like his I remember that true peace comes from looking beyond yourselves, to a world that needs what you have to offer.

I remember that true hope means trusting that something good can rise out of the worst circumstances, that our hurt can mean healing for others, that the wisdom born from our losses can be offered as a gift to someone who has lost their way in the world. That the past does not have to dictate your next steps. That memories - even the memories that keep us mired in earlier defeats - are mere shadows, and that we can always start over with a flesh and blood today.

That’s what John proclaimed in the desert. That’s Jesus’ message for us.

That is the Word made flesh and living among us, the Word spoken in us and through us, the fleshly Word that speaks new life into our world and our lives, the Word that tells us that we are forgiven, the Word that proclaims our freedom, the Word that announces that God’s abundant future can be received today, the Word that speaks healing when we are wounded, the Word that declares life when we are dying.

And, by the Spirit of Christ, the Word Made Flesh, born among us, living beside us, dying with us, and rising for us, we can trust that our humbugs will explode into triumphant hallelujahs!

May this be so among us! Amen!

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