A Modern Christmas Carol

This is my modern retelling of the unsurpassed classic by Charles Dickens. It was originally told as a sermon on 11-29-09.


21st century America.

The Scrooge of today is a Christian and, like many others, celebrates this season and holiday in December that we call Christmas. But these days, around Christmas time, Scrooge is in a bad mood. He’s in a bad mood for a couple of reasons. One, he’s got too much to do.  Kids’ Christmas pageants, shopping, traveling, parties (his calendar is filled up with them), decorating, door-buster deals, and of course, all the stuff his church is asking him to do. He’s in a bad mood. He also has a lot of letters to write and protests to attend. Why is that? Well, you see, the other reason Scrooge is in a bad mood at Christmas time is because he thinks there’s a secular, liberal assault on his holiday. He has joined causes like “Keep Christ in Christmas” and gives a piece of his mind to anyone who has the audacity to call it a “Holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree. You can almost see smoke come out of his ears when store clerks greet him by saying, “Happy Holidays.” He finds himself wanting to grab them by the neck and say, “It’s Christmas, you infidel! Say Merry Christmas!” His mood is fueled by news commentators and authors who talk about the “war on Christmas.”

One night, Scrooge came home exhausted. No time for his family. He went straight to bed. But before he fell asleep, he was visited by the ghost of his old business partner and close friend, Jacob, who had died seven years ago. They went to everything together. All the pageants, all the parties, and all the protests. They used to sit at the table in coffee shops trading barks about how the good old days are gone and godless people are taking over the world. But his friend was here for a very different reason tonight. Jacob spoke with painful tears about the things he has learned after passing into the next life. He tells Scrooge that they spent all those years entirely missing the point and ignoring the things and the people that would have brought them closer to the manger of Jesus around Christmas time. 

“Scrooge,” Jacob says, “the man we call our Lord and Savior told us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to love our neighbors as ourselves, and all that time, we missed it.” 

Scrooge wasn’t following. Perhaps we was too tired. He says to Jacob, “But it’s just that we were always about the Lord’s business.”

Jacob all but lunges at Scrooge and screams, "The Lord’s business?! Mankind is the Lord’s business. The common welfare is the Lord’s business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence are all His business. Our version of Christianity was but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of the Lord’s business!"

Before leaving, Jacob tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three spirits.

At night, Scrooge is awoken by a glowing spirit that looked like a child and an old man at the same time. He introduces himself as the Ghost of Christmas Past. He says to Scrooge, “Come with me. I’m going to take you back to the very first Christmas.” In all the hustle of what modern Christmas had become, Scrooge didn’t immediately know what the ghost meant. But then it hit him. Ah yes! He would get to see it! The birth of Jesus! Was he actually going to witness this remarkable event?

With the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge arrived in Bethlehem. And what struck him first was how unremarkable it was. It was a small town. It was dark and dusty. And it was the weirdest thing…it wasn’t all that cold, nor was it snowing. But Scrooge was still ecstatic about what he might witness. They walked by a larger building that looked like it had several families in it. They came around a corner, and suddenly the ghost stopped. 

“Where are we?” asked Scrooge.
“We’re here,” Christmas Past said.
Scrooge turned, and was shocked by what he saw. A slimy, new-born baby lying in a dirty, stinky feeding trough. Baby Jesus? It can’t be. His head’s not glowing! And he’s crying!

“Spirit, I thought baby Jesus didn’t cry!” Scrooge said.

The spirit rolled his eyes. “This is the real deal, Scrooge. You got that idea from the song ‘Away in a Manger’ that was written in 1885.”

He saw Joseph. He saw Mary…she’s just a teenager, she has no business having a baby! They all looked dirty and tired. They also looked middle-eastern; Scrooge wasn’t comfortable with that. He looked over…those must be the shepherds. They smell like sheep.

And that was it.

Scrooge turned to Christmas Past. “THIS is the birth of Christ? It can’t be! Where are the lights and music and the glory?! This can’t be the right place. This is just a bunch of dirty, poor, homeless people!” 
At this, Christmas Past immediately raised his finger and said to Scrooge, “Yes, it is. That’s the story of Christmas, Scrooge. When God came into our world, this is where He chose to come.” 

Scrooge turned again to look at Mary. “She doesn’t look peaceful and joyful,” he said.

“She just had a baby after a long journey and with no pain killers, Scrooge,” Christmas Past replied. “Oh, but Scrooge, she is thankful. Do you remember what she said when she found out that Elizabeth was also pregnant with a promised child? Her words are in your Bible in Luke 1:46-55."

As the spirit read this familiar passage to Scrooge, he was struck by the stark contrast of this attitude with his own. Gratitude and humility.

They moved on. The Ghost of Christmas Past took Scrooge so many places his head was starting to spin. He took Scrooge to the time of Emperor Constantine in the 4th century when the worship of sun gods and the winter solstice were commandeered by the now Christian empire and December 25th was declared a Christian holiday.

‘It wasn’t always celebrated on that day?’ Scrooge thought to himself.

Christmas Past took him to the time of King Richard II in the 14th century when large feasts were first starting to become associated with Christmas, and even then was only an indulgence of royalty. He took him to 16th century Germany where some place the origin of the Christmas tree. While Scrooge was coming to terms with the fact that Christmas trees were only several hundred years old...just for fun, Christmas Past read to Scrooge from Jeremiah 10:3-4: “For the practices of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a skilled worker shapes it with a chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter.”

Christmas Past took Scrooge to 19th century England during the reign of Queen Victoria and showed him how many of our modern day Christmas traditions began there. Decorations, manufactured ornaments, parties, and caroling…all unknown to Christmas until the Victorian era. By the time their trip was over, the spirit had shown Scrooge that Christmas, as it exists today in modern day America, did not take on its full, current form until well into the 20th century.

Suddenly, Scrooge found himself back in his bed, struggling to process all that had happened to him. He couldn’t get over the idea that all of the stuff he spent so much time on during Christmas really had nothing to do with the birth of Christ. He hadn’t been able to fall back asleep before the Ghost of Christmas Present paid him a visit. “Come with me,” the spirit said, “and I’m going to show you sides of modern day Christmas you never knew about.”

Scrooge finds himself in the back of a shopping center where restaurant servers and store employees are taking a break. They’re talking to each other and are clearly irritated and needing to blow off steam. Scrooge listens closer as they talk about how some of the rudest, pushiest, and foul customers they have are the people who come to lunch dressed up on Sunday afternoon or people who are wearing crosses and WWJD bracelets. One girl, close to tears, says, “A friend of mine invited me to church. Ha! There’s no way I’m going near that place.”

Christmas Present then took Scrooge to the home of one of the millions of families who don’t have the money to buy Christmas gifts. Each child opens one small thing and that’s it. But today, both parents have the day off. And their 3 children are so excited that both mommy and daddy get Christmas day off. The family is having fun and is happier than Scrooge can ever remember being with his church or family. 

Christmas Present takes Scrooge to a foreign country. “Christians make up 76% of the population in America,” he told Scrooge, “but in this country, they make up 5%. Christians are not free to worship here.” They come to a dark room where a group of Christians are huddled, celebrating Christmas together in hiding so that they can keep their jobs and their families. “Scrooge,” the spirit says, “you don’t know what persecution is, and it's sickening to hear you say that your holiday is somehow being taken from you.”

Finally, Christmas Present transports Scrooge to another country, a very poor one.  Everywhere, people are living in shacks with dirt floors.  Children are bare-footed and you can see all their bones.  One woman holds a dead toddler in her arms and wails.  Horrified, Scrooge turns to Christmas Present and says, "Take me away!  Why do you show me this?  What does this have to do with me?"  Raising his voice, Christmas Present says, "Are they not of the human race?"  Christmas Present points off to the side and shows Scrooge where women and children are drawing from and bathing in a muddy, dirty body of water.  "It would take approximately $10 billion dollars to provide everyone in the world with access to clean water," the spirit tells Scrooge, "but every year, Americans spend $450 billion on Christmas gifts and entertainment."

With that, the spirit disappears. 

Scrooge turns to find a dark figure standing near him – the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. This spirit doesn’t speak to Scrooge. Scrooge sees shadows that send a chill up his spine. It’s Christmas time sometime in the future, and what he sees represents everything he had feared for some time.  Everyone is melancholy and buried in debt.  No one goes to church. Scrooge sees several houses of worship that are empty or boarded up. He looks for happiness. He looks for hope. And he can’t find it. Scrooge turns to the spirit and begs, “Please, tell me that these shadows can be altered!” The spirit says nothing. As Scrooge looks again at the scenes before him, he becomes enraged. He turns to the spirit and yells, “I demand to see who is responsible for this! I always knew the enemies of Christ would win, I knew it!  Show me who is responsible for the Church being marginalized like this!  Show me who turned Christmas into this!” 

The spirit points behind Scoorge.  

And he turns…to see a mirror with his own reflection.

Scrooge breaks down in tears and pleads with the spirit, “Hear me, I’m not the man I was! From now on, I will sing a different song! When people hear the footsteps of Christians, I don’t want them to hear a marching army coming to domineer and coerce and strongarm. I want them to hear the footsteps of those who bring good news. I want them to hear the soft footsteps of those who come in peace and love. I will sing a new song. I choose the song of Mary (“My soul magnifies the Lord…”)!

This year, Scrooge has changed. This year, Scrooge is going to trade in his doomsday outlook for hope. This year, Scrooge is going to trade in his fighting for peacemaking. He’s going to trade in his disgust for love. He’s going to trade in his contentiousness for joy. 

This year, Scrooge is going to celebrate the birth of Christ.  I hope.


Two or Three (a parable)

A young and vocationally successful young man named Zete was relocated to a different state. As he worked to pick up, move, and settle in a new home, one of his first priorities was to find a "worshipful" church. He had grown up in church and had made the faith his own, and so he quickly began asking around for recommendations. He searched online and jotted down information about several churches, one in particular that he really wanted to visit. But several people he talked to told him he should seek the advice of a woman named Konia, thought by many to be the wisest and most faithful Christian they had met. So Zete sought her out.

Konia insisted that Zete come to her house. He arrived and knocked on her door. As soon as the door opened and Zete first saw Konia's warm smile and outstretched hand, he surprised himself by how he felt so immediately at home. Her welcome was not one of usual formalities and plastered smiles, but she instead had a demeanor such that Zete felt like he was walking into his own home. Konia offered him food and drink, sat down, and begin to ask him questions. Not the normal questions like "What do you do?" or "Where are you from?" but questions that invited Zete to reflect on his life, who he was, his hopes and his dreams. He couldn't remember the last conversation he had where the focus seemed to be totally on him, and he felt a strange combination of uneasiness and vulnerability along with peace and safety. After Konia asked Zete what his troubles are and how she can pray for him, the two even shared some time in prayer together and sang a few of Zete's favorite songs. As this time passed, Zete's eyes scanned her house from time to time, a house filled with pictures, memorabilia and many other trinkets that seemed like gifts. He found it odd that he couldn't find any picture that Konia herself was in. He also noticed that she hardly had anything else in the house - just the bare necessities, really.

As the conversation drew on, Zete told Konia of his desire to find a "worshipful" church here in his new home. With an enthusiastic smile, Konia put her cup down, leaned forward and said, "I would be delighted to take you around to see some of the most amazing places of worship I know."

"Wonderful!" Zete said excitedly. "By the way, I researched some churches, and there is one that I would really love to go to. It had an impressive website with many programs; it's the one on the far edge of town."

"Oh yes, I know the one," Konia said. "But I'm not sure it's what you're looking for. If you're sure you want to go there, we should probably go there last."

The next day, Zete and Konia drove up to a housing development on another side of town.

"I've participated in some amazing worship here," Konia said.

At first, Zete said, "Where is the church building?"

Konia looked as if she was expecting the question and asked, "Remember, Jesus said, 'Wherever two or three are gathered in my name..."

"'...there I am also.'" Zete, being a veteran church-goer and knowledgeable about the Bible, finished the verse for her and felt a little put to shame by not remembering it in the moment.

"Right!" Konia said. "So let's go and meet them."

Konia took Zete in to meet a very kind and enthusiastic Latino community. As they talked and as he saw the community worship together, Zete couldn't help but think of the passage about the early church from Acts 2:42-47. As a group they gathered for teaching, prayer, and the "breaking of bread." They were together with much in common, they met in their homes, and they shared with those in need. They seemed to know each other intimately. But joy quickly turned to tears when they spoke of their family. They spoke with longing about spouses, children, and cousins who had been separated from them, how they longed to see them again, and how they worried for their safety. As they all spent a few hours together, Zete felt very different from them but at the same time felt very at home.

As they left the community, Konia asked Zete, "What did you think?"

"Well," said Zete, "they are obviously very godly people, but it just doesn't seem quite right. It's not like the kind of 'church' I'm used to. I would still love to visit that one church in town."

"OK," said Konia, "but I'm not sure it's what you're looking for. Let me take you at least one other place first. We will have to go on Saturday."

So, on that Saturday, Konia took Zete to a building downtown that seemed fairly old and had no signage on the outside. Curious, Zete followed Konia inside to what he could only surmise was some kind of Christian gathering of troubled teens. Zete hadn't felt this uncomfortable in a while, but could also sense that his presence was welcome and even appreciated by some there. This group had it all: the alcohol-addicted boy who was still hungover for this meeting, the pregnant teenage girl whose mother still raged with anger, the abandoned twins living with a distant relative, and the boy who had been arrested several times for violent behavior. As they began to talk, share successes and failures, and encourage each other, it felt to Zete that the group was picking up where they left off in a conversation that had been going on a long time. They knew each other intimately. Their time together, led by a few volunteer adults, included intense moments of crying, praying, shouting, singing, and sometimes utter silence.

As they left, Konia asked Zete, "What did you think?"

"Well," said Zete, "as powerful as that experience was, it's not like the kind of 'church' I'm used to. I would still love to visit that one church in town."

Uncharacteristically, Konia's face fell somewhat as she said, "Yes. If you insist. There is a service this evening if you would like to go."

"Yes, please, " Zete said, "I'm very anxious to visit it based on what I've seen."

So that night, Konia took Zete to the church he had been wanting to visit. And what a place it was! Zete was not disappointed, and it was even better than he thought. This church truly brought him back to what he was used to growing up, and it felt so much more in his comfort zone. He was blown away by the music. Several groups performed as the people sat looking forward and listening, each one at top notch quality, and all were followed by applause. At other times, all the people raised their hands and voices in praise. The pastor was an incredibly dynamic speaker that captivated everyone's attention with his style, visuals, and illustrations. When the sermon was over, Zete found himself wishing he could listen to more. Zete and Konia joined the others as everyone walked back out to their cars.

"Wow," Zete said. "I'm so glad we visited this church! I had a great time! Too bad I didn't get to meet anyone..."

"Yes, that is too bad." Konia said.

Zete could tell that Konia did not seem to share his feelings about this church. "What's wrong?" he asked. "You know, I sought you out because I was told that you were the wisest and most faithful Christian around. You helped me remember what Jesus said about 2 or 3 gathering in His name. Here at this church, there seems to be plenty of people, and it was an amazing experience for everyone!"

Konia looked up at Zete. "Yes," she said. "But you see, that was not a gathering of two or three. It was a crowd of ones."