Every year, we read Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
That is to say, every year we start reading the Christmas Carol. Some years we even finish it. Other years, like this one, we end up choosing to do other things with our limited time. We, frankly have a number of Christmas traditions and don’t always make it through the entire book. I’m content with this. (We always watch the Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve, which keeps a surprising amount of the actual text from Dickens’ own work, even if one acknowledges that Bob Crotchet was not in fact a giant talking frog married to a talking pig.)
Perhaps though, this might explain why one of my favorite and most remembered lines is early in the book, since we almost always get at least this far.
There are many things from which I might have derived good, by which I have not profited, I dare say, Christmas among the rest. But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round – apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that – as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!
At this point in the story, Bob Cratchitt actually applauds and I find myself wanting to applaud along with him. I feel this way every year, but this year in particular I was struck by it for a related but somewhat unique reason.
It’s been a rough year for us and as we approached Christmas this year, It was unclear if we’d be able to purchase even the smallest gifts for our children and I half expected that my usual enthusiasm about Christmas, (I’m a big fan, see “A Pastor’s confession“) might wane as a result. It didn’t. I was glad of this. It’s good to confirm empirically– to paraphrase another Christmas luminary–Christmas really doesn’t come from a store, perhaps it really is just a little bit more.
But, it revealed a different question, a more significant one with which I’ve been wrestling. The basic point of the question is whether my relentless optimism is naïve, possibly even foolish, or faith-driven hope. I don’t mean this as a set up to a slam dunk answer. I mean I’ve legitimately been trying to figure out the line between spiritual hope, and ignorant optimism. I keep believing better things are coming, when it could be argued neither history, nor logic guarantees any such improvement. I’ve counseled enough to know that sometimes this is just wishful thinking and not always noble faith. In fact, when those around you are discouraged it could even appear to be stubborn lack of empathy, an unwillingness to face facts at the expense of those impacted by your naïve optimistic dreams.
On the other hand, Noah kept building an ark, Joseph kept believing in dreams, Abraham kept expecting Sarah would be expecting and we are encouraged to keep expecting the Lord’s return. Paul tells us that faith, love and hope are the great trinity of eternal values; that at the final analysis these are some of the only three things left when all else is burned up by time and entropy. So hope is something, something important and good.
When I read this quote from Fred, Scrooge’s Nephew, I was given another example of the noble possibility, a recognition that profit is not always seen in terms of gold and silver. Here was a man who saw great profit in Christmas, looked to it with hope and enjoyment, when those around him could see no reason for his joy and hope from the state of his life itself. There was a little hint here, I think.
What makes the difference between foolish wishful thinking, stubbornly clinging to unrealistic dreams while ignoring the warning signs of disaster, and genuine faith filled hope?
I think it’s this.
I cannot make any guarantees of what tomorrow will bring.
Jesus chastises the fictional protagonist of his parable in Luke 12, who is counting on life continuing just as it is with more and more profit and gain. He builds more barns to hold all the profit he is sure he is going to make, not knowing that he only has one day left to live. I have lots of ministry plans and ideas. While I believe in them, I am not counting on them to be the answer for my struggles. In fact, this is why I remain optimistic when my plans and expectations don’t always come through. When the church I planted didn’t immediately grow as I expected, or the promotion I anticipated from the fruit stand didn’t come through, when friends I thought would be there forever were taken away by leukemia and so forth. I realize the reason I continue to believe in success and better things is not because I am uncaring or don’t feel loss at these things (I feel it greatly), or because I am constantly believing the next formula, plan or idea of mine will bear fruit. It’s not because I believe God guarantees or promises certain outcomes. These are things I can’t know with certainty. I can and do desire them. I can even expect them. But these are not the reason for my enduring optimism.
I have only one guarantee.
God is the same yesterday, today and forever. The God who cared enough about me to come to earth and inhabit a limiting human form, to die on a cross, to send me the Holy Spirit, is the same God today. I believe God is more loving then I can understand, more wise and powerful than I grasp. I believe that these are the traits of a God who is also present and active in my life. In all our lives. This is what I count on tomorrow and the next day. Certainly I expect such goodness and power to exhibit itself in certain ways, and I am confused and surprised by circumstances which don’t appear to reflect that, but I am no less sure that this is my confusion and not a change in God’s nature.
Christmas turned out to be a true blessing with all the family home and God even provided some simple gifts for each of us. I found my response to Christmas to be a deep gratitude to God for what He provided and that’s when I realized at least part of the case for hope.
Hope is gratitude for the future.
There is faith in gratitude. It means looking at our lives and seeing that God is loving, and active, recognizing that He’s given us blessings we don’t deserve. It means seeing God’s hand even when not everything is perfect, as it never will be living in a cursed and corrupted world. It means recognizing God’s glory in the good, and His wisdom even in the difficult. Hope is, in many ways, faith for the future, and this includes gratitude. It is this gratitude aspect of hope which makes me optimistic and joyful. I am grateful that God is already there tomorrow to meet whatever is coming, whether good or bad. And yes, because I believe God is good, present and active, I believe circumstances are likely to reflect that, whether or not it’s immediately apparent to me.
I sill have a lot of questions. I still don’t understand why some things seem to elude us or why the God who calls us to make the way easier for each other, sometimes seems to make it harder, but I do know it is not foolish to hope that the God of love, wisdom and strength will continue to be the same God. It is not foolish to hope in Him.
Well, those of you enduring enough to make it all the way through this, I’m very interested in your thoughts. What do you think about all this? How do you press on when life seems to be denying your movements forward? How do you deal with adversity? How important is gratitude in your life? What kind of God do you believe in?
Please comment below (or on the Facebook page) and perhaps we can discover some new things about hope and about life together.