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A Dickens Christmas Pt 2: REGRET and Christmas Past

Scott on December 24, 2008 at 1:11 am

(PREFACE:  This is the second in a series of 4 messages that I wrote in 2007  for the pastor of my old church.  When he presented this series, he unfortunately chose to gut lot of the content , so I decided this Christmas to put them up in their original form.  These messages were conceptualized to be  multimedia-oriented including artwork, still images, video, etc.  That, too, was gutted by my former pastor.  I have done my best here to present the messages with at least a semblance of what I saw in my head as I was writing this series.)

Part I of this series was basically an overview of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and an introduction to how/why this story resonates with people so deeply.  At some level or another, we are all familiar with the story of Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who begins as “a tight-fisted, covetous old sinner, hard and sharp as flint” – BUT – who ends the story “as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city of London ever knew.”  We took a quick look at the key theme underlying the story, the theme that keeps people coming back to Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim and the rest time and time again, year after year.  That is the theme of TRANFORMATION, of metamorphosis on the most foundational level of one’s being.

So how is this amazing transformation complished?

To begin with, for change to take place – change of the kind that Ebenezer Scrooge goes through – we must be willing to see ourselves for what we REALLY are and not what we like to THINK we are.  Self-perception is notoriously misleading and drastically different than reality.  In fact, there is a name for this phenomenon.  Social psychologists call it flawed self-assessment. Researchers have documented again and again that people systematically misjudge themselves – their competence, virtues, and relevance to situations. We generally consider ourselves as being smarter, luckier, better looking and more important than we really are.  In one study of intelligence in the field of education, 94% of college professors participating in the study ranked themselves as above average in terms of intelligence, even though by definition only 50% of them cold be in the top half.

While this tendency toward flawed self-assessment inflates our own self-image, it also leads us to denigrate others, devaluing their worth and positive contributions while laying responsibility for negative events and situations squarely on the shoulders of anyone but us.  A motorist in Canada captured this tendency on an insurance form that was filled out after an accident.  When asked to describe what happened, the driver wrote, “A pedestrian hit me and went under my car.”

So in order for us to be ready for sincere, complete change at the most foundational level of our being, all pretense and illusion must be stripped away from our eyes so that we can actually see the stark, blemished, unvarnished truth of things.  Not an easy task and one that is never pleasant.  In short, we must face what we have SAID and DONE in the past and what we ARE in the present.  Only then can we hope to be changed in our future.

In “A Christmas Carol,” before he is able to change Scrooge must face unpleasant and even ugly realities about himself and his life.  He does this by interacting with three ghosts during the course of one night.

In this post we will look a little closer at the coming of the Ghost of Christmas Past and the first step that Scrooge takes on the path to a Christmas Transformation – that is the step of REGRET.  The word REGRET literally means to feel sorrow or remorse for something in the past or to feel a sense of dissatisfaction or distaste for decisions made in one’s life, of looking at one’s life and decisions and recognizing that there are choices that have been made, actions that have been taken and attitudes that have been adopted that are just plain wrong.

That is where we begin

If you’ve read the story or seen on the countless movie or television versions, the odyssey of “A Christmas Carol” begins with a late night visit to Ebenezer Scrooge by his old partner, Jacob Marley.  And as Dickens tells us in the opening lines of the story

Marley was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.

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So with the appearance of Marley’s ghost, Scrooge’s life takes an unexpected turn for the weird.  There is no doubt that Marley is there – chains and all – and he won’t be ignored.  He has come to point out to Scrooge that his priorities are out of whack.  Scrooge has structured his life in such a way that it reflects his #1 value-MONEY!  Making it, saving it, loaning it, collecting interest on it.  In his life there is room for only one person – himself and room for only one activity – the pursuit of wealth.  His conscience has become seared and callused over years by avarice and want, leaving him insensitive and blind to the needs of those around him.

Of course, at first Scrooge doesn’t understand what the problem is.  In his opinion, Jacob doesn’t deserve to be condemned to wander the world as a ghost because he was always a good man but a good man of business.  That is Scrooge’s method of judging things – Is it good business?  Does it make money?  Is there profit in it in some way?  Jacob Marley was always able to make a profit, to turn events in life to his advantage, which in Scrooge’s mind made him a good man.

And yet Marley floats into Scrooge’s room to disabuse him of this notion. When Marley was alive he had been just like Scrooge is now pursuing profit and nothing else.  But now that he is dead he has learned the truth of it.  As Marley says:

“It is required of every man that the spirit within him should walk abroad among his fellow men, and travel far and wide; and if that spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death.  It is doomed to wander through the world – oh, woe is me! – and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness “

He then goes on to declare:

I wear the chain I forged in life.  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 Would you know 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 labored on it since.  It is a ponderous chain!”

Marley has come to tell Scrooge that the life of selfishness and greed that he has lived has created a spiritual burden – a long, heavy, ponderous chain – the links of which have been made from the pain and misery that he has caused or that he ignored in the lives of others as he has gone about the business of doing business. There has been no thought to the needs of those around him, no consideration to lessening the suffering of the poor, the sick, and the destitute.  The only thought that has guided Scrooge’s life is the thought of gaining more and more and more.

And according to Marley, if Scrooge doesn’t change his heart and life – if he doesn’t go out into the world and actually LIVE among humanity, loving and giving in the way that people are supposed to, associating with and helping those in need – then he will be doomed to wander the earth in death and he will be forced to watch those in need, an eternal witness to their sorrows and pains but never able to do anything to help them. In fact, Marley describes his own existence as a ghost this way:

No rest, no peace.  Incessant torture of remorse.

Eternal regret.  Being haunted by knowing what should have been said and done and believed in life, but in death being unable to do anything about it.  What an interesting metaphor for Hell.  That is where Scrooge is heading unless he makes a change, turns away from his greed, softens his heart and begins to live his life in a different way.

We all carry our own chains in life.  If we were suddenly able to see the chain that surround us, what would the links of our ponderous coils look like?  What would they be made of?  The holiday season seems to increase the weight of the chains that we carry around with us, making them more cumbersome as they add their weight to those other burdens that we carry around with us throughout our days.  Maybe there are links of anger.  This time of year can certainly provide a lot of reasons for frustration and anger as we interact with family and co-workers and strangers at the mall.  Maybe there are links of selfishness and greed.  Our culture’s emphasis on the idea of GETTING gifts can certainly tend to enable that kind of MEness.  And what about those links created out of apathy and indifference towards the needs of others.  Or lust.  Or bitterness.  Or gossip.  Or envy.  A thousand possible links in the chains we make for ourselves, and like Scrooge we need help in seeing those links for what they are.  Furthermore, we need someone who can come into our lives with a jumbo-sized set of bolt cutters and a blow torch and free us from those chains.

Jacob Marley takes his leave of Scrooge having put him on notice that he is in dire need.  His chain is long and heavy and it weighs down his soul.  Marley leaves Ebenezer with the knowledge that there are more ghosts coming and that, like it or not, he will have to deal with them and the truths that they bring if he wants to change.

As I explained in Part I, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge on perhaps the most uncomfortable journey in the story, into the shades and shadows of his past.  Together they travel into Scrooge’s youth where he is forced to witness some of the worst and most tragic moments of his life.  With each shadow from the past that he is forced to watch, Scrooge feels an unfamiliar sensation.  He begins to feel remorse for his past decisions, tinges of sorrow at having done regrettable things, things that he wishes he could take back or redo in some way.

The first stop Scrooge makes on the journey into Christmases past is to a time when he is a boy and has been left at his boarding school during the holidays, alone and rejected by his father.  He sits alone in a dark corner of a cavernous room with only a few books to relieve his loneliness. Seeing the shadow of his young, rejected self, Scrooge is near to tears as he remembers the pain of the rejection he felt those many years before.

And this leads to his first pang of REGRET, this sense that he had done something wrong that he wishes he could undo.  As he watches his young self, Scrooge is suddenly reminded of a poor, young boy who had been singing carols outside of his office that afternoon, the young boy hoping to be given a few pennies for his songs.  Scrooge terrified this young boy and chased him down the street.  Now, quite suddenly, the bitter old man begins to see things differently.  He tells the Ghost of Christmas Past how he wishes that he could go back and apologize and give the boy some money.  He REGRETS his actions and attitudes and wishes he had behaved differently.

Next Ebenezer relives a Christmas party from his early working days when his employer, Mr. Fezziwig, spent a few dollars on a party, a party that brought a priceless amount of joy to all of those working under him.  The young Scrooge and the rest of the employees enjoy the Christmas party to its fullest, and while you might expect that the old, miserly Scrooge would view that kind of expenditure as wasteful and ridiculous, this isn’t the case.  Watching this scene unfold as it had so many years before, Ebenezer is caught up in the shadow of this past event and realizes the happiness and enjoyment that comes from blessing others.

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Confronted with this memory, REGRET once again begins to echo somewhere deep inside his heart and soul.  This second stab of REGRET occurs as he is forced to recognize the mistreatment he has been heaping on his clerk Bob Cratchit all these years, pushing him to work long hours with very little pay and in horrible conditions.  Scrooge finds himself wishing that he could go back and undo the way he has been treating poor Bob.

Lastly, Scrooge is forced to confront the most painful shadow from his past.  He is forced to watch himself on the day that he turned his back on Belle, his fiancée and the one true love of his life, all in the name of profit and gain.  When asked to choose between love and money, Ebenezer chose money and turned his back on the woman in his life.  In fact, this past shadow has two parts, for the ghost also gives Scrooge a glimpse into the life of his former fiancée.  He sees that she went on to live a wonderful life as the happy mother of glorious children and as the wife of a man who loved her as the wonderful woman that she was.

And once again REGRET appears, this time stabbing his heart like a knife.  The old, bitter Scrooge wants to cry out to the young man that he once was, to stop him from making such a stupid mistake.  But he can only stand by as Belle turns and walks away from him, never to be seen again.  And his REGRET is then compounded as he sees another man living a happy, loving, fulfilling life with Belle, a life that Ebenezer could have had but didn’t because he chose a solitary, empty path.

Three memories and three Regrets, each more powerful than the last.  These REGRETS pound on the door to Scrooge’s heart, forcing him to look into his past and recognize that time and again he has made choices that hurt those around him while damaging his own heart and soul.  He is forced to recognize that the events from his past and the choices he made sent him traveling down a dark, lonely road.

Scrooge is beginning to see, beginning to understand.  He isn’t completely there yet.  He isn’t at the point where he is able to recognize his need for the miracle of Christmas and for the promise that it brings to each of us.  But it is a start.

REGRET – those things that come find us in the quiet and remind us of things we have said and done, or not said and done, that we wish we could change.  Looking back through our lives, what are those things that stay with us, that come back in the silence of our homes and offices, or as we lay in bed at night, or as we sit in the privacy of cars?  I know that many of my regrets focus on my relationships with the people I love.  Even now I can look back and identify times when I lost my temper and said things that I wish with all my being I could take back, or done things that I wish with all my heart I could undo.

In a Biblical sense, REGRET is representative of the truth of SIN.  In fact, in a very real sense REGRET is one of the mechanisms that God created in our lives that helps us to recognize our own sinfulness.  Being confronted by the sins of our lives is to come face to face with wrong attitudes, wrong decisions and wrong actions with which we have burdened others and ourselves.  It is no accident that Charles Dickens chose the image of a long, heavy chain binding Jacob Marley.  We are all bound to our sinfulness and our sinfulness is bound to us, and we cannot break these bindings, these chains, on our own.  But as we begin to recognize our own sinfulness, to regret what we have said and done in our lives, we open ourselves to the hope that God offers us, the possibility of being freed from that long, heavy, ponderous chain.

The book of Matthew provides a look at how the coming of Jesus in the Christmas story is the beginning of the intervention that God intended to use to break the chains of our sin.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21

This Jesus is the Son of God with the power to save us from our past decisions, to free us from the chains of our REGRETS.  The past may be frozen in time to us, but to God nothing is unreachable.

The book of Titus puts it this way:

“For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.” Titus 3:3-6 (ESV)

We live our lives chained to those things we think are important, slaves to our upside-down priorities and selfish perspectives.  And yet God reaches into each of our lives and offers to free us from these chains and to give us lives that have been changed, TRANSFORMED by the love and power of God.  We may not be able to undo those things we have said and done in the past; but this Jesus has the power to save us from our past, to release us from the regrets and failures that we can’t escape on our own.

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