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© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
Victor Hugo, the famed writer of Les Miserables, once wrote that the great battles in history are often small and obscure. They are the mundane battlefields of life – that of fighting poverty, isolation, depression, and abandonment. The heroes of such battles are unknown folk who nevertheless achieve success by changing the circumstances of their lives. They change how they think and act in ways that transform their lives and their world.
What I have struggled with the last several Christmases is how to make sense of this holiday. How do I celebrate what is traditionally a day that honors the supernatural conception and birth of the son of God? – Events I am not sure really happened. Do I revert to a more secular observance or can I find some meaning and purpose in Christmas?
Most of us experience the warm and celebratory feelings of this holiday – feelings that involve friends, family, gifts, songs and parties. More importantly, though, I have come to see Christmas not for its religious significance but as a day to uphold and honor the essential reason for the season – as the saying goes. I have concluded that it is not a mythological Christ figure who gives the day meaning, it is the man himself. Jesus is the reason for the season. And it is from him, from this person of history and the ideals he taught, that I find meaning which resonates in me and in many others.
As we seek to look at the holidays through the perspective of Charles Dickens – a person who has influenced its celebration perhaps more than any other – we find a man who also saw it as a holiday that embodies the high ideals to which we aspire all year. Even more, Dickens saw it as a day that ought to encourage and motivate positive change. In his life, and in that of Jesus the man, personal change was a guiding principle. For Dickens, Christmas was about calling us to live as our better angels.
Much like honoring Martin Luther King’s birthday or that of Lincoln or even the holiday of Memorial day, on Christmas we commemorate not just a person, but the values, ethics and principles he espoused and called others to follow. Jesus was an actual man of history, one who promoted change – in outlook, in attitude, in compassion and in life. His breathtaking teachings were appeals to be true to the heart of the Divine – that of humility, peace and mercy. He implored his followers to discover their inner truth – whatever that might be – and thus be set free. No longer must one be caught in chains of past shame, guilt, depression or anger. By examining the truth of oneself, one is able to see the pain, hurt and bitterness that hinders the kind of contentment and compassion for others that only a few people ever completely find.
Despite the humble, impoverished and likely humiliating circumstances of his birth and youth, it is obvious Jesus experienced just such a personal epiphany. Because of his own experiences, he was able to discover the kind of mysterious grace that allowed him to see life and humanity in wondrous and revolutionary ways. We must be meek, kind, gentle, non-violent, caring, serving, and forgiving people in order to find genuine happiness. In doing so, we are set free to celebrate and happily embrace life. And that was a hallmark of Jesus – a man who never missed the opportunity to party and to dine with anyone and everyone – thieves, tax cheats, prostitutes, lepers and religious snobs all the same. He called them to the same kind of personal liberation and joy he experienced.
And the life and teachings of Jesus were just such a beacon to Charles Dickens – a man who was profoundly influenced by his ideals. Suffering the extremes of poverty, humiliation and abandonment in his youth, Dickens later experienced an awakening. Despite being forced, because of family debt, to work in a hellish factory pasting labels on shoe polish cans at the age of twelve, despite his own mother refusing to allow his release from such work after the debts were paid, and despite later being sent to a school for poor boys – where he was beaten, poorly fed and ignored – Dickens was able to transcend such horror and hurt and become a successful, happy man. He become a novelist who ranks as one of the all-time greats, a philanthropist who lavishly gave away money to family, friends and charities, and a man known for enjoying a good time – one who was called the “Master of Revelry.”
And Christmas played a primary role in Dickens transformation. As a young man, he saw the hypocrisy of traditional Christianity which was even more apparent to him around Christmas. In the midst of holiday festivities, when he saw the wealthy of Victorian England extravagantly spend on parties and gifts, he also saw working poor families, orphans and people in debt who were ignored and left to suffer like he had. Dickens thus quit the Episcopal Church of England and joined London’s Essex Chapel, a Unitarian congregation. There he found not a renunciation of Christmas but an embrace of humanist values. Unitarianism focused not on religious creeds and ways to find personal salvation, but on finding, proclaiming and practicing universal love. This was a religion, he believed, after the true heart of Jesus – that all people are capable of personal transformation to become more caring, generous and helpful to others, and in the process to be more joyful and happy. The essence of such spirituality is one that resonates strongly for me – that life is one long process of becoming a better person in order to go out and make the world a better place.
Christmas calls us to just such change and growth. Much like we remember values of justice, tolerance and equality when we honor, for example, Abraham Lincoln’s birth, so too must we remember the values of forgiveness, humility and service to others when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We may not know its exact date, but the historical fact that he lived and died is without question – and Christmas of all days is one we can and should use to honor what he taught and how he lived. In celebrating his ideals, we are reminded the call to confront our own demons that keep us chained to unforgiving, unloving, angry and selfish attitudes. Christmas, as a day to remember Jesus, called Dickens to just such inward change. He was a man who could have remained trapped in the hurt and anger of his own horrible youth. He did not. And Christmas calls us to similar transformation – whatever the chains that imprison us.
I know of my own feelings of being alone, unloved and hurt – sentiments which come from my past. And
they influence my actions today and how I approach life. I have empathy for those who hurt and those who are marginalized – because I have felt the same – but I also find a certain inability to fully love myself and thus fully love someone else. The power and mystery of Christmas, the ideals of Jesus, continue to call me to love openly and lavishly – and to do so I must let go of past hurts, shame and lack of love for myself.
Charles Dickens found the change inherent in Jesus’ life and teachings as instructive for his own life. And he used those ideals to write perhaps his most famous novel – that which we know so well as “A Christmas Carol.” The story has come to embody holiday feelings and celebrations but it is ultimately a story of personal transformation – just like that of Jesus, Dickens and others who confront inner ghosts.
Ebeneezer Scrooge does NOT have a religious experience where he meets and is changed by a supernatural Christ. There are no Christian symbols of eternal salvation or redemption in the story. Instead, Scrooge changes by himself – by remembering and confronting his past pain, his present angry attitudes and his potential future of a lonely and forgotten death. Through his journey of self-discovery, he comes to understand himself – how his lonely and painful youth turned him into a bitter and selfish man. He sees how people all around him, throughout his life, still reached out to him with love and forgiving hearts, but his anger turned them away. And he recognizes the hurt he thus causes others around him and most of all, the hurt he inflicts upon himself by remaining an unhappy and isolated man.
What Scrooge undergoes is a Unitarian form of salvation – a truly spiritual one in which I firmly believe. Change for the better and growth in oneself comes not from some outside god or goddess. It comes from within. It comes from our own hearts and minds pricked by the need to throw off chains of fear, sadness, selfishness, anger or loneliness. It comes by then cognitively altering the way we think about past hurts, ourselves, and life. Why should I continue to feel unloved when I am surrounded by a sea of loving and caring people? Why must I hold onto past hurts when, by forgiving others, I can free my mind to think of present blessings? Why should I be angry when life is so much more fulfilling by being kind and content? Might I then experience true happiness? Might I then be capable of being more giving, more loving and more caring – and thus better able to help build a better world?
Because of Jesus, the life he led and his appeals to change and grow, we celebrate his birth on Christmas – whenever that really occurred. And that holiday thus should represent for all of us the power and mystery of personal transformation. Like Jesus, like Dickens, like Ebeneezer Scrooge, we are each capable of continual self-discovery, healing and resulting happiness.
I read recently an interview of Lisa Beamer, the wife of Todd Beamer who was killed on 9 – 11 when he and others worked to thwart one of the hijacked planes. He is the one of “Let’s Roll” fame. In this interview, she was asked how she has managed over all these years to cope with being a single mother, especially at Christmas. How has she managed to stay positive, happy and content despite the brutal death of her husband?
Lisa responded by saying how she learned from her husband’s death to capture and cherish each and every moment in life. Out of her initial devastation and fears for the future of her family, she remembered how on the morning Todd left for his flight to California, they got up early and spent time talking and sharing over breakfast. It was a simple but happy marital time together. And then Todd got their kids up to say goodbye and proceeded to playfully wrestle and twirl them through the air as he often did – causing laughter and pleas for more. She remembered those moments frozen in time and she remembered the joy of them and the contentment they brought. She told herself how that is how she must live – to capture each day’s small moments of pleasure – time with a friend, seeing a wondrous sunset, eating a great meal – and then remember to give thanks for them. We never know when we might die, she said. But if we purposefully capture such moments of joy, embrace them, and live fully in them, we will never be sad. At the end of our lives, we do not regret what we have done, she says, we regret instead what we should have done. Her goal is to have no such regrets.
Such a story embodies what I hope to convey in this message. It embodies a personal decision to change how we think. It embodies a decision to live in the present, to live joyfully and to share that with others. None of us are without past or present pain and struggle in our lives. But Christmas tells us we can be free of that. We need not be chained to our past or present – like some modern day Scrooge.
There is an old native-American story about a chief who tells his grandson about the battle that goes on inside each person. It is like two wolves, the chief said, that fight inside us all. One wolf is evil. It represents anger, envy, arrogance, greed, sorrow, self-pity, lies, guilt, ego and resentment. The other wolf is good. It represents peace, joy, love, hope, serenity, compassion, empathy, generosity, truth and charity.
The grandson thought about all of this for a moment and then asked his grandfather, “Which one wins?”
The chief replied, simply, “The one you feed.”
The reason for this season is, indeed, Jesus. It is that poor child born in a sad and stinking barn. Jesus taught that we need not be held captive by the ghosts or demons or wolves of our past. Christmas can be the birth in you and in me of new ways of thinking and acting. In the coming holiday nights, when angels near and far sing aloud with joy, while friends and family lovingly stand watch, I pray we find that Jesus child in the cradle of our souls, the one who calls us to change and then embody peace on earth, and goodwill to all………..I wish you all a very happy, and trans-formative, Christmas.