Monday, December 17, 2007

the meaning of his brief life

"that was the meaning of her brief life" - from the short story "Gimpel the Fool" by Isaac Bashevis Singer

we watched "It's A Wonderful Life" saturday night at journey movie night, and the 20 or so of us there talked afterward about the movie, about george as a christ-figure, about how mr. potter never gets punished, about the deep question in the darkness of the film, which is, do our lives matter? do they have meaning?
IAWL's writer-director Frank Capra seems to suggest, in the last message of the film, that "no man is a failure who has friends." the angel Clarence also says, "strange, isn't it? each man's life touches so many other lives.when he isn't around, he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
george, the hero of the film, wants desperately for his life to matter. he wants to get out of the little town he has always lived in, and do something important. see the world. explore. build. i would say that he's completely infected with Young Man's Disease, but there's a difference in george: he helps people. he's not selfish. he is willing to sacrifice his own desires for the greater good. so, he's caught.
stay and help others in small ways in the crummy little town? or go out into the world, and do things that feel important, and escape? george wants to "build things" - so, build a family, and a small business that builds houses for common people, or go out and build skyscrapers and bridges and fame and fortune?
it has occurred to me lately that what jesus was doing was really, really small. i know, it spread all over the place, but at first he had a couple dozen people whom he influenced and knew, and then a few hundred more who were around him, and that's it. and it was the hard work of being in relationship with other human beings. sometimes he stood up to evil powers that be - like george saying No to mr. potter - but mostly with jesus, as with george, it's just about showing up every day, and loving people, and serving, and raising kids, and running errands, and hoping that what he's doing with his life matters.
i think jesus hoped the same thing about his own life. i think he hoped that what he was choosing was the right thing. he had distilled some ideas about what the jewish messiah was predicted to be, but he'd left out some other ones - not a military leader, not a political leader, not a revolutionary, not a heavenly warrior with hosts of angels flanking his fiery chariot. he chose, instead, love, and patience, and healing - with a few people, here and there. it was a big gamble.
he knew something george bailey doesn't realize until the end of "iawl": that the way the world defines a man or woman has nothing to do with whether that man or woman is of value. jesus is willing literally to give his life for his belief that god is love and that god's love is in meaningful sacrifice.
it's nice that at the end of "iawl" the people all come and affirm george, and thank him, for his decades of service to them. i always wonder whether in the days and years to come, the citizens of bedford falls secretly keep score, and passive-aggressively remind him of that night, and ask each other questions about what happened to that $8,000. but then that's me, after eleven years of working in the often toxic world of organized religion. (it's almost out of my system after three and a half years of working in the much healthier world of following jesus with a group of friends.) i've accepted that that's part of the bargain. people are just people. george has already gotten pretty tough; he'll just have to continue to swallow his pride and know that he has done and is doing the right thing, not just for himself, but for his community, his wife, his children, his family.
there will be crucifixions along the way. loss, sadness, pain. despair. a dark bridge at night. tears. how could there not? nothing good comes without pain. but when the gift is given with a pure heart, or even because it's just the right thing to do and it's chosen freely, the gift and the suffering that comes with it it become transformative. redemptive. resurrected. holy.
and, when that gift is given, as with george, and jesus, and you, and me, it is (as dave madden sang yesterday)
holy, holy, holy, holy,
everything and everybody.


julie ann said...

rick. i LOVE this movie! i totally agree with what you've said here. i love how george is so beautifully human -- in his delightful awkwardness walking mary home, in his monstrous outbursts at his kids & at uncle billy... and in his doubts that any of his kindness matters at all.

journeyingrick said...

yep - he is BEAUTIFULLY human. and i love what he struggles with and how he's just who he is ... and cares deeply ...