I have always been drawn to the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the story of George Bailey. I think like with most anyone, there are certain things that take place around Christmas time that stir my heart and cause pangs of nostalgia. The songs, the classic TV specials, the change in seasons – well, maybe if I lived anywhere else besides Florida, that is. The moment that Santa shows up at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, it’s like a switch is flipped inside of me and I am ready for the Christmas season.
The movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” does that for me, too… but it also goes further than that because I could watch that movie at any time during the year. Now, it’s not just this classic film that I love – my favorite channel on TV is the Turner Classic Movies channel, and pretty much any night of the week you’ll find the soft glow of a small TV in our bedroom turned to this channel as I fall asleep – but “It’s a Wonderful Life” has been my favorite movie since I was a boy.
As I’ve grown older, I have discovered that the reason why this movie appeals so much to me, is that I understand and can appreciate the character of George Bailey. He is everyman… he has hopes and dreams, things he wants to do, so many places he’d love to visit. But beneath it all is a sense of duty… George knows that he must do whatever is needed to keep things afloat in the world around him – even if it means putting his plans on hold, or giving them up all together. He continually chooses the needs of his family and community over his own, and we see how much he goes through for his sacrifices.
On the eve of George’s departure on a trip around the world before the start of college, his father – not only the cornerstone of the family, but of the community as well for his generosity through the Bailey Building & Loan – has a heart attack and dies… and George is left to oversee the family business. His younger brother Harry goes off to college instead, and when he graduates and comes home at what should be George’s turn to leave Bedford Falls for bigger things, it’s discovered that Harry is now married and has been offered an amazing job opportunity – but not in Bedford Falls. Once again, George stays behind – but this time it’s not all bad… George falls in love and marries Mary, the sister of a childhood friend who has now grown up and caught his eye. With the thousands they’d saved up for their honeymoon, George was going to get another shot at getting away from his home town as they were going to take a trip around the world and then start a new life together somewhere. And again, trouble hits… on the way out of town they notice a “run on the bank”, and stopping in at the Building & Loan they find a lobby full of people who have all come to take their money out. Mary hands George the money that was to be used for the trip, and little by little the money disappears as they do what they can to satisfy the crowd and keep the Building & Loan from going under. George and Mary’s sacrifice saves the day… and once again, George is stuck in Bedford Falls.
There have been a few specific times in my life when I’ve had one of these “Building & Loan” moments. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt this way when it’s come to my wife or boys, but having served in ministry for more than twenty years I’ve had more than a few moments during that time when I’ve felt the weight of what someone else would want for me come pressing down to squash what I’ve wanted to do for myself or my family. In the movie, director Frank Capra captures the weight of those moments with close up shots of George’s face. As the movie goes on, that look goes from simple disappointment to full-blown despair as we are brought to the climax or turning point of the story where George has to take on a huge burden that could mean jail for him. While actually in the bank, his loveable but absent-minded uncle Billy loses a large cash deposit he was making for the Building & Loan. George scours the town looking for the missing envelope and even goes to his nemesis, Mr. Potter, to ask for a loan against his personal life insurance policy. The policy is not worth much, the loan isn’t given, and George ends up on a bridge over a dark and turbulent river as he contemplates throwing himself in and letting his family collect on the policy anyway. The words of the evil Mr. Potter ring in his head, “George, you’re worth more dead than alive!” It is in this moment that George turns to the One who always hears, and he prays. The answer to that prayer comes in the form of an angel named Clarence who shows George the impact that he would never have had on the town and the people around him if he’d never been born.
This reminds me of the climax in another man’s story – one that most of us are familiar with. It comes at the end of His time here on earth, after having lived a life just like George’s – full of sacrifice and focusing on the needs of others instead of Himself. The Gospels tell us that the night before He was crucified, Jesus found Himself alone and praying in a garden. Luke 22:42 records that prayer, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” And the answer to Jesus’ prayer? Verse 43: “An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him.”
In all of my “Building & Loan” moments in life, I have found myself doing the same simple thing… praying. And almost without fault, I can tell you each time that I know that God had dispatched heaven to comfort me. I can tell you that the story for George ended up good as the town rallies around him with gifts of cash to cover the lost deposit. But when he woke up that next day on Christmas morning, George was still living in Bedford Falls. His old house wasn’t miraculously renovated overnight by a crew from Extreme Makeover, he still had the same job to go back to after the holidays, the missing deposit was never recovered from the one who’d stolen it… still the same worries and burdens to weigh him down. The thing that HAD changed for him? His perspective. He came to take on the outlook that Jesus had… and now for George it wasn’t so much about what he wanted, but about what God was asking of him. In surrendering to this, George came to understand that his was indeed a wonderful life.
That really is the hard lesson for each of us to learn. For me, I’ve still got some learning to do. In those moments where I feel like my dreams are slipping away, I have to ask myself if they are MY dreams, or are they really the things that God has placed inside of me. I don’t think that He would let me burn for something and never see it come to pass, would He? My goal is that His heart for me – and His dreams and desires of what I can be – would become MY dreams and desires.
I just pray it doesn’t take desperation, a bridge, and an angel named Clarence to help me learn those deeper lessons. For now I have to trust that God really does know what He is doing… and that He’ll show and lead me when it’s His time.
After all, who doesn’t want to live a wonderful life?