Tuesday, December 9, 2008

It IS A Wonderful Life!

If you have been near me during the Christmas season, you will no doubt be aware that I love watching It's A Wondeful life. I don't watch it in March, and I don't watch it 17 times during December. I just need to watch it once a year. My children have grown weary of watching it with me, or even listening to me talk about it. This is because they are not like the good children on television who tell their daddy that bells have something to do with angels.

I like the story. Most of you know it, but for the sake of those who might be like my girs, I’ll retell it. Jimmy Stewart plays the part of a middle age man named George Bailey who owns a small time Savings and Loans company. He didn’t really want to be the owner of the loan company. In fact, he had always wanted to travel the world and do exotic things. But his father died and left him the business, and then responsibilities of various kinds kept piling up. He had a wife and kids. People depended on him. He was trapped in Bedford Falls.

As the movie unfolds, we discover that George is in financial trouble. His uncle has lost a bag of the loan company’s money. In fact, he looses it in the bank before he makes the deposit. What he does not know is that the town banker, the evil Mr. Potter, has the money. Neither George or his uncle know this. They only know that $40,000 is missing and that the government auditor is in town looking over their books.

It is this crisis which pushes George to the bridge at the edge of town. He is about to jump into the icy water below when he hears the voice of an old man yelling for help down in the water. So George jumps in the water not to end his life but to save the life of someone else. Inside the guard house he finds out that the old man's name is Clarence. To George’s great amusement, Clarence reveals that he is not an earthly man at all. He is an angel, second class. All that stands between Clarence and first class status is to finish an assignment from Heaven. Namely, Clarence must convince George of the usefulness of his life.

We know that will be difficult, because George has already said that it would have been better if he had never been born. We also know that George has been grumbling that he had great plans in life, that he had planned to make a big splash. But here he was in Bedford Falls, a boring wide place in the road. He was stuck. And now he was middle age. It was over for him. He had that certain sick feeling that some of us have known -- deep down in the pit of the soul -- that he had squandered life. He had not reached for those great dreams after all.

It is those words “it would have been better if I had never been born which gives Clarence his idea. Suddenly with a wave of his hand, the world becomes what it would have been had George Bailey never been born. As he walks into town the differences he begins to see a town that is filled not with family dwellings which he had helped provide for low income families, but rather slummy run down streets with dives and juke joints, and a sign announcing that this town’s name is Pottersville.

As George begins to comprehend this strange world in which he does not exist, he understands that Pottersville is a nasty village filled with depressed and angry people. Clarence explains to him at each bend in the road how that since Mr. Smith could not get a loan because George’s Savings and Loan doesn’t exist, he had to pay the exorbitant rent demanded by Mr. Potter and that is why he has nothing, and why he is so lacking in self respect and why he is drinking all the time. Home after home is different from what George remembered from Bedford Falls.

It is only after seeing the miseries of Potterstown that George Bailey is ready to return to his life -- to the life that God had chosen for him -- to that life which after having the opportunity to see the alternatives, George is now ready to embrace and delight in. Surrounded by his family and friends, in the middle of a town where one man really has made a great difference, George Bailey sees that it is a wonderful life.

The calling of God is first to be found in our surrounding circumstances. The Holy Scripture is not nearly as focused on individual calling as we would like to think. The Bible presents the story of God calling a people into being. Individuals found their place within that community and did what birth and training prepared them to do. Relatively few individuals were called out from that people to some dramatic, extra-ordinary ministry. And in every case, that special, earth shattering call for extra-ordinary service was for a limited task and a limited time. The main thing of life was just being responsible for the every day, do your best, things-at-hand sort of stuff.

A few years ago, Naomi Judd called me to her home. Her husband met me at the door and took me into her bedroom. She was propped up on enormous pillows and had been crying for a long time. She asked me to sit on a chair by her bed. She informed me that the doctors had said she had an incurable liver disease and that because of this she would be giving a press release later in the month announcing that she would be leaving her career. Then she wept. So did I.

Larry held her hand. I prayed. Then I picked up a guitar and sang. Then we cried again. Sometime in that evening before left, Naomi said something to me that rattled my cage. It was so simple and so true that I could not escape its force. She said, “Dan, our time on the stage is always brief.”

I thought about that sentence the next time I walked to the pulpit . I looked out over the crowd, over the faces of the people. And I knew that the pulpit was not mine. I knew that I was merely a place holder for another, and yet another. I knew that even if I stayed there until I was very old the day would come where I would die. Another pastor would come. All the people who met me week after week at the door and made kind remarks about my message, or helped me to know that it was not what they had in mind, would allow memory to fade little by little, and then they too would be gone. Twenty years later, barely a handful would recall the name of that preacher whose name used to be on all the literature.

Our time on the stage is brief.

Not only is it brief, but our time on the stage is rarely the most important thing in our lives. So I urge you to consider with George Bailey at Bedford Falls, what is the real reason for your life? What difference are you making for good or ill in the world in which birth and circumstances have placed you?

God’s words to Jeremiah are very helpful here. We can all listen to what he told Jeremiah and find strength and instruction in his words. First Jeremiah heard God say that he had been chosen before his birth to do what God wished him to do. So Jeremiah had a purpose. So do you. So do I. Nobody is an accident. God had and has purpose for every human being. Happiness in life consists in allowing that purpose to unfold, in not fighting God’s ordained plan for our lives.

God told Jeremiah not to worry about his youth. He could have said “your old age” or your lack of money, or your ugly face, or whatever else makes you excuse yourself from God’s plan. You have within you all the stuff you need to do the task God has called you to do. You may have to train. You may have to wait for experience. But you are fully capable to do all that God wants you to do. If there is some supernatural element needed, you can’t do it anyway, and God will show up in time to do his part.

God told Jeremiah not to be afraid of Man. That’s important. We all want the favor of others. But sometimes doing what God wants us to do doesn’t set well with everyone. Once you are willing to go your own way if you must, you are free from the agony of not pleasing those you would like to please.

Jesus said that we are the salt of the earth. Salt is common. You are never far from salt. Lick your palm and you will find salt. Taste a tear and you will taste salt. It doesn’t take great genius or massive talent to be the salt of the earth. Many a brilliant and talented person on this earth is adding to the decay of men’s souls. And many a dull and average nobody is giving himself to doing what is right. He is salt, and he is doing his duty.

Being George Bailey, being salt, might not feel as spectacular as impressing the world. But if you live out your calling you will impress Heaven. I urge you to live life that way. If you seek fulfillment you will never find it. Fulfillment is a byproduct felt by those who abandon themselves to the task of just doing what is right.

IF you do what is right, day after day, somewhere along the way you will no doubt find along with George Bailey that your life really does matter and that it is, after all, a wonderful life.

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