Those of you who know me or if you have heard me preach around Christmas time, you may be aware that one of my favorite Christmas Stories (sans Jesus Birth) is Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol. Not only do I read the book, but over the next 24 days I will watch two or three different versions including the Muppets. I think it is because I am one who has a hard time believing someone is so completely gone they should be written off as hopeless or irredeemable.
If you know the story, especially if you have read the book, you know that this is precisely how Dickens describes Mr. Scrooge. He seems to be well beyond hope, whether it is the way he treats his nephew and Bob Cratchit in the opening scenes or his incredibly evil line in reference to the poor: “Let them, and decrease the surplus population.” Or even just in Dickens description of Scrooge and the whispers of those who he encounters during his encounter with the third Ghost. We are meant to believe that Mr. Scrooge is well beyond hope, totally damned, chains that were even thicker than Jacob Marley’s. His children, as the second Ghost reveals, are greed and ignorance, he is beyond hope.
But if you know the story, you know that this is not how it ends, indeed, it would be a very short story if Scrooge remained in his mournful state. It would also be like Dickens as he is not known to cheer his readers. Each of the three Ghosts show him parts of himself, things he left behind, things he was missing in the present and things that would be if he did not change his course. The change that comes over him is so complete that Dickens closes the book with the line: “It was said of him that he knew how to keep Christmas well and keep it all year round.”
So far this Christmas season I have to admit that I am struggling with people. Not with everyone, but with a good amount. I recently went through my Facebook newsfeed and unfollowed a number of people and unliked a number of pages. So many people sharing negativity and hatred and spewing vitriol at their perceived “enemy” and then turn around and share a meme about being kind to retail workers or loving their neighbor. People from across the political spectrum, centrists included. Now, I know that Social Media is not real life, but I have seen it in real life or I have seen people speak disdainfully towards their neighbor and then write a status about remember those who are less fortunate and vice versa. I know the church has never had a broad conversation about how we should interact on Social Media, but I have come over the last year to believe that our real-life persona and our social media persona should operate under the same ethics and morals. We should be the same person online and offline.
The other thing on my mind is that we tend to be like the whisperers and the traders, all who had written off Scrooge. We have placed people in convenient boxes, declared them to be without hope, and then written them off. Writing people off gives us an excuse to no longer engage them and when we have done that we can deny them, even if only in our minds, the ability to change at all. We act surprised when a former white-supremacists repents and embraces ethnic diversity when that should be the norm. As we shout people down, we force them further and further into their echo chambers and then they about miss the Catalytic Event that is meant to bring change.
This is what we see with Scrooge’s nephew: He comes into the money lending house merry and cheerful, wishing Scrooge “A Merry Christmas” and giving him a hard time for thinking Christmas a “humbug.” By the end of the visit he is even more incensed against Christmas and his mood is made even worse by Cratchit wanting the following day off. When the Ghost of Jacob Marley shows up later, he tries to dismiss him twice as “A bit of undigested food.” When the clocks strikes one and the first Ghost doe not appear right away he mocks Marley’s warning again before the room fills with light. Even after the spectacular events witnessed with the first ghost, in anger he grabs the cone and forces it back on the Ghosts head, trying to snuff out the light. In the novel, it is not until the catalytic event of seeing Tiny Tim and learning of his fate: “An empty chair with a lonely cane” that the change begins to come upon him.
Today, we seem to have catalytic event after catalytic event, these are events that should shake us awake, make us think about the people around us, people who are often hurting and who are wondering if anyone cares. Do not believe me? Turn on the news, how do you not describe all the events, not the way they are spun, but the events themselves, school shootings, Standing Rock, Hate Crimes, The Migrant Caravan, Earthquakes, Tsunamis. How do we not describe these disaster’s as anything other than events meant to wake us up, turn us to God and treat our neighbors, even those we disagree with, as God would lead us, in His Word, to treat them.
Yet, like those who whispered about Scrooge, we tend to have written the “other side” off as without hope, irredeemable and worthy of contempt.
I had an interesting cross-ethnic encounter on a plane ride to Iowa last month. Rachel and I boarded in the B Group, something we do not usually do, so the chances of finding seats together were slim. However, right near the front of the plane we found two seats next to an older African American woman. We sat down and I asked her name and she asked mine. Upon hearing the name “Faulkner” she stopped and said: “Faulkner, there’s a lot going on with that name, isn’t there?” This wasn’t a statement made in anger, it seemed more in surprise at the last name than out of fear.
She was not talking about the author William Faulkner. She had grown up in the south during the Civil Rights Era and so the name was probably familiar to her. The story goes, as far as my father and I can piece it together, that there were two migrations of the Faulkner family to the Americas. The first went from Ireland to the south where they became plantation owners in Mississippi, the norther migration (which happened sometime later) sailed down the St. Lawrence River and eventually settled in modern day Port Huron Michigan. The southern part of the family became prominent plantation owners and slave holders eventually producing a secessionist senator and fighting for the Confederacy. During the Jim Crow era Faulkner’s stood in the doors of Mississippi Churches and churches across the south to block freedom writers and keep churches from integrating.
This woman knew the name and knew its history in the south. I learned all this last year as I read the book “Mississippi Praying” in which Faulkner’s kept popping up in favor of Jim Crow which prompted me to ask my father the rest of the story. This moment became a moment of reconciliation, I had the chance to acknowledge what people I am related to had participated in and though I can not repent for those who are unrepentant, I can do my best to make sure the that, even though I am descended from the Northern line unstained by the sin of slavery, that those who do know the name and family history, like this woman, see that God can redeem people and families and that we can be reconciled. I may never see that woman again, but God gave us a chance for reconciliation.
The point is this, the like Scrooge, no one is irredeemable, God has the ability to transform anyone and we, as Christians, need to be open to that reality. Instead of writing everyone off, we can see people in light of the Imago Dei, even those who are net yet believers. To see them in the light of that which was put within all of us from creation and which Christ can and will restore. That requires us to stop “otherizing” to quote a mentor and friend of mind, to stop viewing everyone who disagrees with us as an “Enemy.” To not say of the poor: “Let them then, and decrease the surplus population.”
See, the impression Dickens leaves us with in regard to Scrooge is that his encounter with the ghosts, his catalytic event, was so transformative, the change so complete, it was evidenced not just at Christmas time, not just in the immediate, but year around, in the infinite; “The rest of his days.” The spirits lessons of loving oneself and loving others in light of the love of God moved Scrooge to charity and love. The Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, the man in line behind the boy with the shoes learns the meaning of Christmas.
There is not just a season of love, there is not just a season of hope, there is not just a season of light and there is not just a season of Joy. Dickens point is that these qualities should become part of our disposition year-round. That Christmas is not just a time to love your neighbor, but we should be loving our neighbor every day, no matter who they are.
As we enter this Advent Season, a time when we remember the birth of Christ and look forward to His return let us remember that we are not just living in liminal space. That we are meant to live everyday as if the ideas we talk about at Christmas, given by the Holy Spirit, are part of our lives year-round. That we should work for reconciliation, for the building up of one another, to the ending of oppression, to seeking restorative and biblical justice stemming from the Righteousness of God. Since we are reconciled to God, we should be reconciled to one another, not just at Christmas, but at all times throughout the year.
That is how we keep Christmas well and keep it all year long.
Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary working on Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife Rachel in the North Shore of Boston and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church.