My wife and I watched the Clive Donner "Christmas Carol" the other night, starring George C. Scott in a role, I believe, he was born to play. I love this particular production of the classic, but what struck me as so powerful this time was the moment at the Cratchet's, when Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come arrive and it is revealed that Tiny Tim has died. Bob comes in late, having stopped by the cemetery, and after a few moments, tears in his eyes, he tells his broken-circle of a family that he is indeed a "truly happy man."
Sentimentality? Only a scrooge would think it so.
Instead, it is a powerful spiritual truth Bob Cratchet voices, one that is evident in scripture and Church History...and not least in the story of Martin Rinkart hymn "Now Thank We All Our God," or "It Is Well With My Soul" by Horatio G. Spafford. In the latter, famously, Spafford wrote the lyric in the face of terrible personal sadness, his family having been lost at sea. During his own subsequent transatlantic voyage, when his ship crossed the same general location where his family's ship had gone down, he enacted with that poem a kind of "in spite of" thanksgiving and experienced, if the lyric indeed by true, a kind of assurance, the peace that passes understanding.
In the case of Rinkart, the Thirty-Year's War had brought Black Death to Bavaria where he worked as a parish pastor. He was performing, by some accounts, as many as fifty funeral a day. In that ethos of sickness and death he wrote, "Now Thank We All Our God, with heart and hand and voices, who wondrous things hath done, in Whom this world rejoices!"
Praise is a choice in the face of grief. No one knows it better than the Psalmists. Thanks is an act of hope in the face of contrary data. No one speaks it better than Rinkart and Spafford. The people of God, and individual believers, have the blessed opportunity and even the sacred obligation to embrace and enact joy irrespective of circumstance. Doxology in the darkest moments of tragedy and fear and grief is neither sentimental hogwash or idiocy--but faith.
This Advent season, like others in years past, I am keenly aware of my many losses. I am quite in touch with my grief and dysthemia--and yet I proclaim, for this Gaudete Sunday and beyond, that I am a truly happy man.
I have work. I have children who talk to me (just today my son called to tell me nothing other than that he had seen a huge hawk, brown and beautiful, on a trashcan beside the road as he made his way to his biology final at his nearby college). I have a wife engaged in ministry and enough writing assignments (and a book deal besides) to keep me busy till July. I have a congregation that vexes me at times, but I know what it is like to be without a place to serve and consequently am so very thankful even for the aggravations (if it lets me stand with God's people at the most important moments of their lives). Besides, I have the prospect of another place of service come July.
Like Bob Cratchet, if I am "a little down"--dysthemics stay in mostly shallow valleys--there are yet those, as Fred Hollywell said to Bob, who have told me they are "heartily sorry." They hear my lament and try their best to understand. They embrace my sense of loss with their own. They do doubt or disdain, and for the most part do not grow impatient with the blues I am given to sing. That, too, is a huge blessing.
And so, this Advent--and not like other years--I look at all my broken circles, the pieces of my life and work, and find myself able to say, indeed choose to say, "I am a happy man. I am a truly happy man."