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James A. Mann: From loss to joy — the Ghost of Christmas Past

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James A. Mann, Commentary

"Tradition," said Elbert Hubbard, "is a clock that tells you what time it was." The holidays are about tradition, handed down to us from generations past. These traditions connect us to our ancestors, our faith and our childhoods.

<p><span style="font-size: 1em; background-color: transparent;">Jim Mann</span></p>Courtesy photo

Jim Mann

Courtesy photo

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. I'm sure you are familiar this yuletide ghost story. Ebenezer Scrooge, eponymous with refusing to "keep Christmas," must deal head-on with the holiday he would rather ignore.

Scrooge's deceased co-worker, Jacob Marley, haunts him on Christmas Eve, seeking to lead Scrooge to change his ways. "At this time of the rolling year," the specter said, "I suffer most. Why did I walk through crowds of fellow-beings with my eyes turned down and never raise them to the blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!" He wanted something different for Scrooge, so at his procuring, three ghosts would haunt Ebenezer in hopes that he would change his own course of life.

Often, this time of the rolling year — the holidays — is the most difficult time of the year for many of us experiencing grief or loss. The loss of a loved one, the loss of a dream, losing a job, the grief that comes with a broken marriage, sickness, even a move to a new town or the loss of a beloved pet can turn what might otherwise be a festive season into one of sorrow.

Like Scrooge, we're confronted with the awful specter of the Ghost of Christmas Past. Everything — I mean everything — reminds us of how life used to be. And those seasonal connectors to the past — those beloved traditions which once brought great joy — now serve as constant reminders that everything has changed and life is no longer normal.

I discovered this the hard way years ago at the sudden and unexpected death of my mother. As our family worked through the grieving process, we found the holidays particularly difficult. So my family and I made some important decisions that may be helpful to pass along.

Life would never be normal again. The family was present for Christmas festivities, but not all of us. So we determined to find a "new normal." It was in our power to determine how that new normal would look.

Like Scrooge, we realized that the past was important and helped make us who we are, but it also informs our future. So our first important decision was this: We will treasure the past, but we will move forward in life. We will not let our despair or disappointments keep us from a wonderful today or tomorrow.

Our second important decision — especially significant at the holidays — was to embrace the connections the season offers. We decided not to pretend we weren't sad. We decided not to skip holiday functions we'd always attended. We decided, instead, to keep Christmas traditions alive. And we decided to talk about our loss. We would discuss how this or that custom reminded us of Mom (Oma) and Christmases past. Admittedly, this was a bit difficult and even uncomfortable at first. But now it comes quite naturally and usually with hearty laughter.

But the most important decision we made was to invite God into the grieving process. After all, He is the "God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles." Jesus, himself, was a "man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" who "took up our infirmities and carried our sorrow."

In fact, there is an undercurrent of grief in the Nativity story itself. I can imagine young Mary's disappointment in being forced to make a long trip to Bethlehem, finding no room in the inn and giving birth to her son in a lowly manger. But God showed up in a magnificent way and turned it into a memory she would hold in her heart and cherish forever.

If you're experiencing grief this holiday season, ask for God's help. He can turn things around. He will meet you at your point of need. He will comfort. He will carry your sorrows.

At the end of the tale it is said of old Ebenezer, "that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge." But his journey started by facing the Ghost of Christmas Past, who prepared him for future spirits. We'll meet the Ghosts of Christmas Present and Future in the weeks to come. Happy holidays and God bless you on your journey.

Jim Mann, Ph.D. is the Lead Pastor of New Life Church in Denton (www.newlifedenton.org) and is the author, with his wife Christine, of A New Normal: A Journey from Loss to Joy. It is available at info@newlifedenton.org.