The ghosts of Christmas: A reflection on hauntings and hope

Adapted from a sermon preached at Holy Cross Church, Timperley, for the First Communion of Christmas 2016.


You’re probably familiar with the story of Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol. Written and set in Victorian London, Dickens tells the story of miserly businessman Ebenezer Scrooge. Over a series of evenings, Scrooge is visited first by the ghost of his former business partner, Jacob Marley, and then by ghosts of his past, present and future.

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The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge back to his childhood and youth, showing how he was once a warmer and gentler soul, but that as he became increasingly miserly, so he began to forfeit everything good in his life. The Ghost of Christmas Present opens Scrooge’s eyes to the plight of others who live around him, especially his employee Bob Cratchit and Bob’s son, Tiny Tim. Finally, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to the moment of his own death: the end of a life that, while full of wealth, was empty, futile and despised by all. Scrooge wakes from this final dream a changed man, and you will know, or can guess, how the story ends.

What better time than Christmas Eve to revisit this story, evocative as it is of Victorian Christmases and the virtues it extols of generosity, goodwill and friendship? At Christmas, more than other times, we come face to face with our past, present and future. This may stir within us both great joy, and deep sadness.

I wonder what our own ghosts of the past, present and future might say to us? I’m sure that none of us are quite as miserly as Scrooge, but I do wonder whether each of us is haunted by our own regret, anxiety and fear. Equally, we will each hold onto treasured memories from past Christmases, and hopes for what future Christmases might have in store.

If you are like me, you are most likely haunted by these ghosts in the middle hours of the night. The moments when sleep evades you, and past memories or future worries seem overwhelming. It can be very difficult to let go of past mistakes: the hurts we have caused, the wrong choices we have made, the relationships we have damaged. And worries about the present or the future can seem endless at 3am. A nagging sense that life isn’t quite as we hoped it would be. As we planned it to be.

Perhaps, like Scrooge, we become tormented by all that has happened, or the fear of what will happen. Perhaps we even wake up with a fresh resolve to live a different way, or atone for a past mistake. Does our anxiety push us so fast into the future, that we forget to cherish the present, which soon becomes the longed-for past?

Every time we walk into church, we are met by our past and our future. For all of us who are baptised, our Christian journey is rooted here in church with the presence of the font, or baptistery. Every time we come, we see the font and we are reminded of our own beginning – our baptism into Christ’s light – and everything that has happened since through which he has walked alongside us.

And every time we come, we see the table, and we are reminded of our future hope. As we gather around that table to share the bread and wine, we receive a foretaste of the feast that awaits us in God’s eternal Kingdom. As we gather around the table, we don’t do so alone. We meet in the company of all those who have gone before us, and all those who will come after us. Holy Communion unites us with all God’s saints, as we look forward to a day when we will feast with them at the table in Heaven.

We live in a strange time. The liminal, transitional, suspended space of the “then” and the “not yet”. Something happened, in that manger in Bethlehem 2000 years ago. Something life-changing, world-changing – as choirs of angels lit up the sky and shepherds and kings were drawn and invited to worship the first born child of a humble Jewish carpenter family. It happened.

Tonight, we place God – the baby in whom all our hope is founded – into the manger.

But he doesn’t stay there.

God’s plan is still unfolding. His kingdom is still growing. You and I, simply by being here in this church tonight, are part of that expanding, life-changing, unstoppable plan. 

In all our regret and anxiety and fear, God uses us and God changes us. We are a people who are always on the move. The Christmas that you and I celebrate this year will not be the Christmas we celebrated last year, nor the Christmas we celebrate next year. We have changed, and we will change. We are not the people we were last year. And this moving is the faithful work of God’s Spirit within each of us, whether we know it or not, as we change to become more and more people of the Light.

Never mind the ghosts of past, present and future that haunt us. On this most holy of nights, God holds the darkness of their taunts: the regret and anxiety and fear, and fills that darkness with his marvellous light. And so I wonder what Christ – not a baby now – but risen, ascended and enthroned in Heaven, might say to us about our past, present and future? I don’t know, and perhaps the answer is different for each of us. But to me, I think God might say:

About the past: “Let it go. I forgive you. Forgive yourself”.
About the present: “Trust me and don’t rush”.
About the future: “All shall be well”.

Perhaps in a few moments of silence, you might like to invite God to speak to you the words of encouragement, affirmation and love that you need to hear tonight.

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Buffers and safety nets: managing busyness

The bigger your empire grows, the more you have to look after your hinterland.
Ed Balls, quoting advice from Denis Healey.

Advent is a busy time in this house. We are two clergy with two churches and two children. Every year it challenges our discipline of remaining unbusy and resisting a culture of overwork. Every year we become busy and we overwork. We reach Christmas Day feeling grumpy, tired and ill. And every year we look back and feel like perhaps we missed out on the prayerful preparation that the four weeks of Advent are set aside for.

But this is never failure.

As I look back, I can see that each year, we have developed a little bit more awareness. We have learned more about managing our time better. We have become slicker at preparation and invested more time in people – and ourselves. We have realised that perfection is out and “good enough” is in. We have scaled down our expectations, and taken pressure off ourselves. We are learning.

In his memoirs, Ex-politician Ed Balls writes insightfully about balancing leadership and life. Those who watched his recent performances on Strictly Come Dancing will have seen a man full of energy and vitality: someone whose world is bigger than his work.

For Ed, his growing “empire” was his career, as he became a political adviser, then an MP, then a cabinet minister, and then shadow chancellor. His “hinterland” was the hobbies he nurtured to keep him sane: sport, music, family and friends. He speaks powerfully of Denis Healey’s influence on his own work/life balance, and the importance of being a multi-dimensional leader with a life beyond politics.

It’s not so different for anyone else.

For clergy in local churches, the empire grows each Advent as we take on extra work, meet extra people, hold extra services and keep friends and family (of all shapes and sizes) entertained. In these moments, perhaps our hinterland gets neglected. Perhaps we don’t have a hinterland to start with.

And this isn’t just a problem for clergy. I suspect most of us feel the pressure of Christmas mounting through Advent. I suspect we all know the rising guilt of failing – yet again – to create the perfect Christmas, as we reach the day itself feeling tired, ill, grumpy.

The lesson in our house this Advent has been simple, but profound. I hope it will transform the way we work well into next year, so that by Advent 2017 it has become habit. Our lesson is this: buffers and safety nets.

Buffers are stoppers. They make us pause, reflect and turn 20161218_172747around if necessary.
Safety nets are there to catch us when we fall.

In a usual week, by accident rather than design, we have breathing space. Time to catch up with each other, and other colleagues and friends. We have time to tinker with a sermon, read a chapter of a book, respond to a pastoral crisis, make a decent cup of coffee, and take the kids to the park for an hour.

This availability is our hinterland, our buffer, our safety net. And in busy times, as the diary fills up and every waking minute is used, we lose them. Busyness becomes dangerous as the buffer is no longer there to make us pause, and the safety net is no longer there to break a fall.

We don’t notice until we have a small problem. A poorly parishioner, a family argument or a broken printer. And then we need the buffer of time, and the buffer has gone. A small problem becomes stressful, drawn out and more difficult to resolve. We tire, we fall, we crash.

So, I say this to myself, and to anyone else who has felt the pressures of life lately. It’s become a mantra in our house this month: Get to know your buffers. Rig up your safety nets. Don’t neglect your hinterland. And when things get busy as your empire grows, defend them fiercely and cling to them at all costs. Without them, we become one-dimensional and wrung out. With them, we become people who have time, energy and joy that flows beyond ourselves and transforms those around us.

Safety nets and buffers: the best gifts you can give yourself this Christmastime.

Broken Biscuits

Disappointment: we’ve all met it.

A failed job interview.
A friend who lets us down.
A diagnosis.

A test we didn’t pass.
A holiday that didn’t meet expectations.
A financial hit.

A God who doesn’t sort it.

I think of it as broken biscuit syndrome

My four year old loves his mid-morning biscuit.
He looks forward to it, plans it, asks for it.
At the right time, I relent, and we go to the cupboard.
This is the moment he’s savoured; the moment he can choose the biscuit he’s dreamed of all morning.
We open the box.
Disaster and disappointment: all the biscuits are broken.
Not one is whole, round and perfect.
His dream is shattered.
Two halves will not do.
The shadow of disappointment crosses his face, and he wrestles with the reality that his hopes will not be realised exactly as he had thought.

20161205_153823Broken biscuits.
A silly thing to get upset about, but not when you’re four years old.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Matthew 11:3

I wonder if John the Baptist was suffering from broken biscuit syndrome?
He gave everything for this cause.
He held nothing back: the vitriol, the frustration, the passionate anger of light clashing with darkness.
It landed him in prison: this wild lover of the outdoors confined to a cell.

In his question is lament, sadness, disappointment.
Are you really the Messiah?
Why aren’t you more like me?

For John, maybe Jesus was a broken biscuit.
Not what he had hoped for, nor what he expected.

When we feel disappointed with God we are in good company.
In fact, it’s inevitable for all of us who imagine God in our own image.
(And how else are we to imagine God?)
As we project our own hopes, personality, agenda and expectations onto God, God will always disappoint.

Encouragement for John comes as his disciples are walking away:

 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he’. Matthew 11:7-11

Did they hear Jesus affirm John?
Did they hear the overwhelming kindness of that white lie?
(And did you spot it?)
Did they hear?
Did they hear?
Did John?

When we feel that God is a broken biscuit, how can we hear this affirmation?
Perhaps it is just out of earshot.
Or perhaps our ears are closed to it.
Perhaps we might need to let go of what we cling to for security, turn and look disappointment in the face, and journey through it to find God reaching out to us from within and beyond.
Or perhaps the message never reaches us.

There will always be broken biscuits.
There will always be disappointments.
But one day we will see our most punishing failures and setbacks for what they are: crumbs on the floor of Heaven’s banqueting house.