November 20, 2017

Three Christmas Stories for the Second Half of Life

1951-scrooge.jpgYou are invited to add your insights on the similarities of these three stories.

Three stories. Three men in the second half of life.

Story one. An almost perfect man loses everything. Unknown to him, God is in a contest with Satan, proving that the this man’s righteousness is no fluke. He loses family, wealth and health. He is exiled from his community, watches his reputation dissolve, despairs of life and demands that God give him an opportunity to argue his innocence. Instead, he hears three friends and a young theologian repeat the conventional wisdom that his losses are punishment for his hidden sins. After insisting he has done nothing to cause God to punish him, the sufferer witnesses God’s arrival in a whirlwind to present the sufferer with a series of enigmatic questions. Does the sufferer know his place in the world? Is he competent to put God on trial? Does he know God’s purposes and perspectives? The sufferer abandons his case and embraces humility. God pronounces him innocent, condemns his friends for their theology and restores the man to his place of prosperity and blessing.

Story two. A good man grows up in an ordinary community surrounded by family, friends and the opportunity for happiness. Like so many from small communities, he dreams of escaping to an exciting life of travel, accomplishment and wealth. Each time the door opens for another life, the opportunity is taken away from him. In a lifetime of being the good man willing to stand up for what is decent and good, he slowly lets his dreams go, one by one. Instead, he accepts the blessings of marriage, work, family and friendship in the small community he once sought to escape.

Then events conspire to take away from this man what matters most to him: his reputation for honesty. Unable to vindicate himself of what will surely be an accusation that will send him to prison, he despairs and plans to kill himself. At his moment of greatest desperation, our hero receives a gift from God: a view of what the world, his community and the lives of others would be like if he had never lived. This vision of an alternative reality is shocking in what it reveals of the depth of one man’s influence on the world. At the end of the vision his despair is transformed and he embraces his life, no matter what it may bring. His faith is rewarded.

Story three: An ordinary man lives an ordinary life, and is given the opportunity for love and modest success. Loss and hardship drive him to embrace the security of money, rejecting love and eschewing marriage and family for financial success. Soon he has lost all but the most shallow human relationships, all the while experiencing more and more financial success. Soon he is the epitome of a miser. Life passes him by as his money and power increase, but his joy and humanity disappear.

At the moment it appears no change is possible, God sends him a vision of his own life’s story; a vision that connects his various human experiences with the man he has become. In addition, he sees how he is perceived by other people (who loathe and pity him), and most disturbingly, how the world will be unaffected by his death. Awakening from this vision, he renounces the idolatry of money, plunges into a life of compassion and repents of his isolation and superiority. He reenters the community of human relationships grateful for the opportunity to use his success to help and bless others.

Story one is the story of Job. Story two is the story of George Bailey from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Story three is Ebenezer Scrooge from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol.

wonderful-indian-club.jpgAll three stories recall for me the words of Jesus in Matthew 10:39 Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

In each story, there is great loss and in each story there is a “finding” of life that resembles rebirth.

The Bible does not tell us how Job views his wealth, but I have always found it helpful to read chapters 29-30. In these chapters, particularly 29, Job remembers the goodness of his life before he lost everything. Job’s words of lament contain the unmistakable tone of one who loved his life of blessing and respect. Job is disoriented by what has happened to him, but he also grieves the loss of his place, relationships and possessions. Job misses what God’s material and community blessings allowed him to do in the lives of others.

In his protests, Job never says that he deserved this kind of life. But much like a typical western Christian, he views his prosperity as “the way things ought to be.” Perhaps this is what Satan is pointing out: not Job’s sinfulness, but the seeds of a kind of pride and expectation that Job’s prosperity is the way things “ought to be.”

Perhaps these chapters are important to understand part of why Job is angry. Yes, he was wealthy, blessed and respected, but he loved his life, and he loved the self that was in the center of that life. Why doesn’t God see Job’s life the way Job does? Why does Job have to endure not just the loss of his place and God’s blessing, but the false accusations of amateur theologians.

God never reveals his purposes beyond his “wager” with Satan, but was God helping Job to “shake off” a kind of complacency and expectation that all of us in the west are all too familiar with? Does Job’s affirmation of his redeemer in the midst of suffering and God’s approval of Job’s words at the end of the book indicate that Job has come to a different place in his own experience? Has Job’s suffering and vindication made him into a man who has a new, deeper humility; a man whose identity and self-concept are related to God in a different way than before?

George Bailey has a similar transformation. In his vision, George sees connections that he has not seen before. He comes back to the same life, but now enlightened regarding himself, his assumed “poverty,” and the true nature of his wealth. In seeing the world without himself and then returning to it, Bailey, like Job, comes back with a more truthful perspective on everything he is, has and does.

Ebenezer Scrooge sees the truth of the existence he has chosen, and realizes that he does not have community, esteem or love. The world is waiting for him to vacate the stage, and all he has accumulated for himself makes no difference in how he is perceived. He is still despised. He rediscovers his humanity, and more importantly, the true nature of joy.

All three stories should cause us all to pause in our lives and wonder about our similarity to these characters?

Are some of us like Scrooge? Idolators who become like what they worship, hoping that reality can be bought off and our fears and longings buried under our accumulated possessions? Has our worldview taken on the shape of our own walls and defenses against the possibility of feeling, loss and death?

Are some of us like George Bailey? A house of cards waiting to be brought down by an unseen turn in the road? Still carrying with us the nagging suspicion that our life should have been somewhere else doing something else? Susceptible to the sins of regret and despondency when our compromises with God are exposed? Blind to the true nature of God’s goodness to us?

41.jpgAre some of us like Job? Righteous, religious, moral and faithful, but utterly unprepared to face the possibility of standing naked before God? Beneath our public exterior is there a ranting, demanding lawsuit against God waiting to be brought if we experience the suffering we see and hear others experiencing every day? Have we become so identified with what we have (and are) that God must answer to us should we lose any of it?

We have no idea what Job did with his new beginning, but if Job 29 is a guide, we can expect he translated his experience into kindness and generosity to others. George Bailey receives the kindness of all those he has helped through the years, and I believe he returned to his community to be even better than before. Scrooge’s generosity is part of the story, and he leaves us with no doubt how he wants his legacy to be changed.

The most hopeful common thread of these stories is the mercy of God. And the knowledge that everyone from Job to George to Ebenezer needs such mercy. The Christmas season always seems a bit biased toward children, but these stories are the Gospel for those of us in the second half of life. God wants us to let go of what we are holding on to, to take his hand, to receive his gifts. Our joy and usefulness in the second half of life depends on finding some of the glorious freedom of the sons of God now, before it is to late.

Comments

  1. This is brilliant! Thanks.

  2. This is my first time on your site and it was the perfect inspiration I didn’t know I was looking for. Thanks for taking the time to write it. You never know whose reading and sometimes you don’t know what your giving either. Happy holidays.

  3. Thanks for the thought-provoking piece. I need more midlife encouragement. I have worked for the same company for 30 years. I’m 48 years old and retirement is at the doorstep. I do not want any part of the typical American retirement mentality, but where to go from here has so far eluded me. Keep the thoughts coming:-)

  4. All three guys are seeing things as they relate to their earthly lives.
    You can chase after material possesions all your life and in the end, someone swipes your camels.

    I worry about money all of the time. My wife and I both work full time and we have four kids. I fully rely on the hope of storing treasures in heaven. That’s probably the only retirement package I can count on.

  5. Thanks for posting this. I’ve found myself in a George Bailey kind of year this year (not that I’m in the second half of life, but I’ve lost my hometown–and all the friends and family that go with it; two babies to a miscarriage; and last week, I lost my job). It has been difficult to reconcile all of this with my faith, especially the miscarriage of twins after two years of patiently waiting out infertility, but the further down this road I go, the more I find that I’m susceptible to despondency *and* demanding an answer from God. I’ve finally started to come to terms with the idea that we’re not promised anything in this life, with a little help from my husband, some friends, and your post, I’m starting to see that there’s at least a lesson in all of this if not a light at the end of a tunnel. Unfortunately, it’s not nearly as pleasant as they make it out to be on the silver screen 😉 I’d happily take a night with Clarence for some perspective, but I suspect that doesn’t happen in real life!

  6. Have a blessed Christmas Michael – you and your family. Thank you for writing. Have you considered a book? Blogging is nice – most of the time. But its main weakness is how unnuanced it can appear, no matter how hard one tries. Easy to be misunderstood. Mild criticism or modest disagreement can easily appear harsh. You could spend more time on a book. Think about it for 2008.

    Grace,
    Mort

  7. As I approach the big 60 next month, God’s mercy becomes more wonderful and marvelous every day, as does my giving thanks to God.

    Merry Christmas to you and all readers!

  8. Ah, yes, God’s MERCY!!!And God’s Mercy is so full of GRACE!! But I had to get outside myself, just as in the three stories, to begin to see such wonders. And at 82, that is still the goal, getting outside and looking back, and bring the revelation into the present…and future… May your days continue to be full of God’s Presence…

  9. Excellent food for thought. What a great idea to juxtapose these stories. Yes, it is so easy and tempting to languish in regret and resentment. Thanks for the nudge. You definitely nailed it about the common thread; the mercy of God. And the realization of it is the precise moment where the stories change. Such a subtle and yet momentous shift, eh?

    This Christmas/end of year time generally presents us a time to pause, reflect and assess; consciously or not, I think most of us feel it. I feel Job’s humility. I hope it sticks.