With a delay brought about by snow and ice, my morning with the Capitol Fellows began late yesterday, but we found our way into a warm classroom and worked away one more week at understanding our place in the world.
Imagine a strand of “A Christmas Carol” twined together with strands from “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Bono, Lesslie Newbigin, and John Stott. Taken together they were a tapestry telling the story of taking responsibility for the way the world turns out.
We began with Bono’s summary of his own sense of vocation, “I write songs. I’m a musician. I hope that when the day’s all done, I’ve been able to tear a little corner off of the darkness.” But then moved into most of an hour reflecting on the complementary character of two the best Christmas stories ever, Dickens’ classic tale of Scrooge and Tiny Tim, and Capra’s of Mr. Potter and George Bailey. Have you ever thought about them together?
Though wonderfully different, they both focus on human responsibility in history. What is life all about anyway? What in fact is success? When all is said and done, what is a good life? And perhaps most probingly of all, what difference have our lives made? All are questions about vocation, about who we are and how we live.
Scrooge and Bailey both have visitors from a heavenly realm who offer them windows into the meaning of life, and of their lives. One of the best moments in “A Christmas Carol,” which I showed in class yesterday, is the Cratchit family Christmas dinner. The Ghost of Christmas Present brings Scrooge to observe– hearing everything, seeing everything –though the Cratchits are unaware of their presence. It is an awakening-of-the-heart moment for Scrooge, because for the first time he begins to see that things are different than he has imagined for his employee’s family. The most tender moment comes with Scrooge’s question about Tiny Tim’s health and future. The Ghost responds, with the thunder of heaven, “If these shadows remain unaltered by the future, this child will die.” Surprisingly, Scrooge cries out against that.
And with that protest against what might be, his hard heart begins to soften. For the first time he sees himself as implicated in the way the world is and ought to be.
Newbigin helped us see this more fully, and then Stott became the final hour of conversation. I had asked each of them to respond with an essay to a book he wrote on the nature of leadership in society, which was in reality his own understanding of our responsibility for the world. One of the Fellows almost cried as she said of his last paragraph, “I loved Stott’s words. They make sense of this semester, but also of what happens next.” Uncle John was a good gift to all of us, and as I can I will still make sure the next generation knows him, and why he still matters.
For many reasons I love this time of year. The songs are very rich, the food is surprisingly good, and the stories are wonderfully true. Tearing corners off the darkness of life, from the most personal relationships to the most public responsibilities, is what we learn from Ebenezer Scrooge and George Bailey– if we have eyes to see.
It wasn’t easy for them, and it isn’t easy for us. Sometimes it is very hard. But the best of it is that they were ordinary people in ordinary places, which is the way it is for most of us—and that is why need to hear Tiny Tim one more year, plaintively yet profoundly say, “God bless us every one!” May it be so.