Thursday, November 13, 2014

It's A Wonderful Life

A beautiful fall leaf from our front yard, on top
of others that had been charred by fire in May.
Hope amidst the darkness.
I’ve always loved the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. Jimmy Stewart plays George Bailey, the good-hearted man who has dreams of leaving his little town and making a name for himself somewhere out in the big world. Time and again his dreams are put on hold as he looks out for others, watches out for his family and eventually takes over his father’s business not because he wanted to, but because he was needed. Through a series of unfortunate events, life just piles up on him and eventually he finds himself saying “it would be better if I had never been born!” Clarence, the angel, then gives him a chance to find out what life would have been like for everyone else had George never been born, and he discovers that so many decisions he had made in his lifetime, so many small favors, so many ways that he had helped others, had ended up having a gigantic impact. He may have felt like a failure, but God had been using him and his life in profound ways. His life mattered, and he himself mattered to more people than he realized on a much deeper level than he ever could have fathomed.

On May 29, 2014, my family suffered a terrible loss as a fire started in our garage. By the time the fire department arrived, flames engulfed the entire garage and had begun to spread into the main dwelling area. My wife Karin and I could only watch helplessly as smoke billowed from the house. When it was finally put out, the heat had melted the vinyl siding off the side of our next door neighbor’s house, it had obliterated our garage including the minivan that had been parked inside, it had basically melted our kitchen, and the heat and soot had destroyed the vast majority of our belongings. It only took three crates to hold everything the restoration company classified as “salvageable.”

Karin and I had purchased that house when we got married, and were the first owners to live in it. We had brought two children home from the hospital to that house. We had laughed and cried, we had suffered tremendous loss and had shared incredible joy, we had grown from young kids barely out of college to adult parents with careers and responsibilities. That house, and the mementos of our lives we had collected there over the years, had been the setting for many, many memories. And in such an incredibly short time, so much of that was gone.

Now, I’m not one who believes “everything happens for a reason.” I am a lifelong Christian, and a current seminary student, but I don’t think God acts in that way. From what I have learned and experienced over the years, God isn't in the business of causing suffering. I don’t think God causes our pain just so that something good can result later on. I do, however, believe and trust with everything that I am that God is in the business of taking suffering and transforming it. God takes our pain and creates joy. God takes darkness and creates light. In the cross, we see God take on death itself, and in the empty tomb God creates the promise of new life. In what our family experienced that day in May, God took destruction and created hope. Just as a burning bush spoke to Moses and assured him that God would be by his side and lead him, just as a pillar of fire led Israel out of slavery and into the freedom of the promised land, so too did God work through what we experienced, creating new possibilities. We discovered (or re-discovered, or perhaps finally claimed for ourselves) a number of truths that make It’s a Wonderful Life such a beautiful movie for me.

First of all, we discovered the profound truth that when the things we rely on and put our trust in other than God are stripped away, be they our possessions, our money, our self-reliance, or a multitude of other things, we discover what really matters. We discover that our faith, which is so easily professed when things are going our way, really and truly is our rock when the storms come. We discover that as long as we have each other and as long as we have God’s love, the rest of it really is superfluous. It doesn't mean that things are easy—goodness knows I don’t want to romanticize our situation and make it sound as though what we've experienced has been sunshine and rainbows. It certainly hasn't. But in the midst of adversity, when everything else we tend to rely on as a false idol is stripped away, that's when we most fully experience God’s presence in our lives.

As a theologian of the cross, I firmly believe that God dwells in the dark places. When we look for God, we shouldn't be looking to the high and the mighty and the powerful and the successful…we should be looking to the burnt out remains of a house with a husband and wife clinging to each other, trying to shield two frightened children, wondering how they’re going to get by and just live day to day while the insurance companies and the powers that be drag their feet. That’s where God’s presence is most profoundly felt and experienced.

Second, we discovered the same truth that the angel Clarence left in a note for George at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. He wrote, “No man is a failure who has friends.” Now, we knew that we had friends. We knew that people cared about us and our kids, and there have always been a ton of people we've felt the same way about. What we didn't realize, however, was the extreme depth nor the extreme breadth of those friendships. In the movie, George gets into financial trouble trying to help out the savings and loan he’s responsible for. When the town gets wind of it, without even being asked they give whatever they can to help him out. All it takes is the word “George is in trouble,” and the town begins trying to find ways to meet his family’s needs. That is precisely what we experienced as well after our fire.

Our family, our friends, our coworkers, our church community, an online Husker football forum, friends from long ago who we had almost completely lost touch with, even our son’s orthodontist’s office…there were SO many people who came from everywhere, giving what they could simply because they heard we needed help. Whether it was monetary or material donations, or babysitting or conversation or prayer or notes of encouragement or “let’s go out for dinner and drinks so we can do something that feels normal, and I’ll pick up the tab this time,” we were surrounded by so much support and love, it was almost overwhelming at times. A group of neighbors coordinated giving drives and a huge fundraiser at our church. A family offered us their home for 6 months as they left for a professorial sabbatical elsewhere. There have just been so many incredible responses, overwhelming in the best possible way—that humbling feeling of being enveloped in life-changing, transformative love. What we've experienced in a very tangible way has been the body of Christ we read about so often in the New Testament. It has been a very real taste of what the Reign of God that Jesus refers to so often in his parables actually looks and feels like. We are living a parable, and it’s a beautiful thing.

The biggest lesson, the biggest truth that I have been thankful for throughout this entire experience is the same realization that George Bailey came to: our lives have far more significance than we will ever fully know. Early in the movie, George’s younger brother Harry falls through the ice on a pond where they were sledding, and George saves him by pulling him out. Later, Harry becomes a World War II hero when he saves a number of other men. The angel Clarence points out to George when he’s experiencing what the world would have been like without him that because of his absence, not only would Harry die, but so would all the people on the transport that Harry had saved in the war. That’s only one example of the far-reaching effects of George’s life.

Since our house fire, Karin and I have both been told stories of how our lives have impacted others—so many times, these stories have been things that we had no idea about. I had a member of the online Husker sports forum I frequent tell me that because of my words and encouragement, they found their way back to church and rediscovered their faith. I had no idea of any of that until this person told me. Others have told us stories of how our family has impacted their lives, and how they’re more than happy to help us because we have been such a help to them or to others—most of what we've been told, we would have had no idea about otherwise.

The lesson here for all of us is a huge one. Don't discount your impact. The scripture reference about the body having many members and everyone having a part to play is so amazingly true—you DO make a difference, often in ways you will never realize or see the fruits of. No matter who you are or what you do or what you have done or what’s been done to you, God has created you in God’s image as a beloved child, and God has created you for relationship and community. In our individualistic Western society, where rugged independence is held up as the greater good, it is easy to lose sight of that. For those of us professing the Christian faith in a triune God, a God who is both three and yet still one, what that means is we were created in the image of a God whose primary identity is community which overflows beyond itself and into love for all of creation. That’s our primary God-created identity as well: many, yet one, united through the Holy Spirit in a community of love that can’t help but overflow to the rest of the world.

As I wrote before, I’m a seminarian. I think theologically. But if theology cannot be applied practically, then what use is it, other than a fun little academic exercise? My goodness, what an experience my family has had through all of the hard times these last months, through all of the wondering and fear and sadness. We really have experienced God’s presence. We've experienced God through the faces of those around us and we've experienced God through the stripping away of everything else we've tried to put our faith in. We've experienced God through very real adversity, adversity where we are still facing a number of huge question marks even today. Yet in it we all have found reassurance of a God who walks alongside us, reassurance of that same God’s presence through so many who surround us with their love and prayer, reassurance that our lives do make an impact and a difference, that God does work through us, and reassurance that no matter what, we trust in a God who has the final word, who in the cross and the empty tomb has already won the ultimate victory on our behalf.

For all of those things, how could we not be thankful? Thanks be to God.


1 comment:

Geraldine L. Katz said...

Matt, I believe my favorite verse of Scripture applies to you. Romans 8:28. I pray that 2015 will be a wonderful year for you and your family. God bless - Great Aunt Geri