The image of Jimmy Stewart, as George Bailey, running through the streets of Bedford Falls shouting to everyone he sees, even the Bank Examiner, “Merry Christmas!” is a picture of the joy this season offers, for real. That part always gets me.
It was November 9th. I had arrived at the church for a movie night which I question the value of but was supportive of the others wanting to make it happen. However, that night I arrived, put out my dish for the potluck, and no one else was there and 6 pm came and went and no one arrived. I texted the woman who was going to lead on this one, and she texted back. She and her husband had accidentally double-booked. Their son was in the opening night of the high school play It’s A Wonderful Life, and so they would be going to that. She wrote:
“I am so sorry! Do you want to come with us?”
Well, I was in a quandary. Was anyone else coming to the church that night? Should I hang around for whomever else came? I texted back,
“Hey, it’s ok. I’ll just hang here to see if others show up.”
But she texted again, “Are you sure? We have to head back home and could come to pick you up.”
Again I said not to worry about it. But, then, not long later, she and her husband came to the church and walked into the building. I’d started the movie, by myself. I was feeling stupid, in a shame storm because I somehow felt that this was evidence that I was not making a difference in my leadership. How I made that leap from no one coming to movie night to my life potential, I’m unclear on, but tears were just on the surface.
These two angels of mercy said, “Hey, let’s just help you close things up here and come with us to the play. If anyone were coming, they are late anyway.”
That convinced me.
So, within the hour I was seated with them in the second row, front, and center, as the story began and we were transported into a heavenly conversation between an angel, Clarence, and his superior angels.
I did not expect it, but I began to tear up at the very start of this excellent production. By the end tears were freely flowing as life’s meaning was tied to all the little events along the way in which we are used to make a difference, to change the flow of the world, to impact lives, to know it truly had been a Wonderful Life.
I was so caught in the power of the message that I turned to the stranger to my right, whom I had briefly met and exchanged names with at the intermission, and said, “Scott! Your life matters! You have made a difference in many lives.” He looked stunned, saying, “Well, thank you. Brian. You too,” then turned to make a hasty exit! I think I was seeking to convince myself.
It’s a true message. Every life matters. Some at times for reasons beyond their control, or like Mr. Potter, because of a weasely character, do make an impact, albeit a negative one!
And for the rest of us, it is often hard to see in the flow of life at times when events unfold differently than planned, when people no-show, when we cannot see what impact has taken place through us, to remember, to see that our lives have made a difference.
That night was so impactful to me. It was bonding time with this couple and their son, acting in the play. And it was an encouragement to me in my own life, washing the earlier part of the evening from shame and replacing it with just facts — “no one came, and that does not mean anything beyond that.” It was a great thing also to be reminded that our lives have an impact we will perhaps see.
Later in the month of December, I took one of my daughters, Grace, with me to see another rendition of It’s A Wonderful Life, this time performed by a community theater group in Portland. In that experience, I encountered how iconic the old movie has become so the actors playing George Bailey sounds like Jimmy Stewart, and those playing Mr. Potter sounds like Lionel Barrymore. For that movie has become a window through which we glimpse both our tendency to doubt our value, and our need to be reminded that every life, every single life has immense meaning, and impacts many, many others came shining through.
This is a season that needs to have this reminder. Christmas is not the easiest time of year for many. From my own perspective, this has been a season filled with a higher level of interior expectation upon myself which has caused shame and stress. I have celebrated 31 Christmas Eve services and can recount so many of them that left me filled with shame for some perceived failure.
Beyond those stressful times, moments really, that got interpreted into longterm meaning, there are the losses others have encountered through the year, or near to this season, that become more keenly felt in this season. Some get locked in then to counting down not the days until Christmas but the days until the anniversary of this loved one’s departure.
There are the unreachable lists of expectations that encroach upon gift giving and gift receiving. There are the many other stress points too numerous to name. And we can look in upon the story of the season, the Christmas Story surrounding the birth of this One, Jesus, who was born to save and view it as some mythical tale, not one involving real people, living with real faith at a real time. Even when, that is exactly what it was.
When we slow down with those characters, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Joseph, Mary, the Shepherds, Simeon, Anna, the Magi, Herod, we find people with real feelings, real desires, real dreams, real feelings of shame in the sight of their surrounding community. They all entered into a larger story and all responded differently to this new drama. Their lives were not idyllic, but real ones; they were hard and challenging, filled with threats and dangers. There was no hallmark Christmas, but what looked like an out of wedlock pregnancy, a 90-mile journey by foot and donkey, 9 months pregnant. There was a late answer to a prayer that had perhaps stopped being prayed. Death threats, angelic visitations that left those on the receiving end gasping for breath so that the angel’s first words often were: “Do not Be Afraid!”
These real people represented every social stratum, and so like us, we can be reminded that Christmas is not easy, but a challenge. As a challenge, it becomes a good time to seek out Jesus, not expect life to be simple. It is a good time to expect emotions and feel them. It is a good time to recall that life is not made of an easy road, but it is made of difficult paths that are walked with others — human companions and divine. It is a path that leaves a mark on all who travel with us.
Just yesterday I was reminded of all this in an encounter.
A woman visited worship on Sunday and then returned to Christmas Eve service again with these three beautiful daughters. I had not seen her for 16 years, and lots changes in that passing of time, so I did not recall her. She had attended the previous church I had pastored in another community then. I had had a significant role in her life, then, she told me as we met again on Sunday. My life had changed her and when her world was falling apart, she decided to get back to church so found out where I was and in essence came home.
The encounter left me stunned. The depth of meaning she experienced in the community was immense. Everything that happened in worship on Sunday and then again last night, she wrote me connected into experiences in her life, answered questions, and reminded her of the power and presence of a real Jesus, who never left her, and who walked with her in her current circumstances.
In essence, she was my reminder that I had lived a wonderful life, already. I was taken back 16 years to events I do not recall, actions I don’t remember taking, which are still bringing a positive impact into this person’s life.
I don’t think I am unique in this. I believe, although I at times forget, we all have an impact in all kinds of ways, moment by moment, day by day. Thankfully this woman got sent back into my ministry to be a living reminder of how we live wonderful lives.
A friend was at a grocery store, and walked up to a checker who was not busy and asked if she could tell her a Bible story. The woman accepted the invitation, so this friend told a story, and involved this woman in a brief five-minute conversation about the story she had just told. The woman began to cry as the Holy Spirit moved in her heart, impacting her in ways she never thought possible. She told this friend, that day she had come to work, planning to go home and end her life after she finished her shift. But because of this encounter, she had hope.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas. And I hope you too remember your life has immense value and has a lasting impact. May you realize anew this is a wonderful life.