It’s a Wonderful Life

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To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the season of Advent – which this year encompasses the four weeks leading up to December 25 – we’re looking at classic Christmas movies and how they might connect us to the miracle of God choosing to become a human being.
The most urgent question facing every human being lies at the heart of what is arguably the most beloved Christmas movie of all time – Frank Capra’s masterpiece It’s a Wonderful Life:
Is life itself worth living?
The movie’s central character, George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, is a decent man who is overcome by disillusionment.  Crushed by memories of “roads not taken” and weighed down by a soul-wearying suspicion that the world would have been a better place without him, he decides to commit suicide on Christmas Eve.  With the help of Clarence, his guardian angel, George receives a rare gift – the opportunity to see how his hometown of Bedford Falls would actually have fared without him. 
He gradually awakens to the fact that his life matters, and matters immensely.  

For years following the movie’s 1946 release, Capra received letters of gratitude.  Hundreds of people thanked him for crafting a film that helped them face their depression – and in many cases encouraged them not to take their own lives. 
The director later reflected that he wanted It’s a Wonderful Life “to tell the weary, the disheartened, the disillusioned, the wino, the junkie, the prostitute, those behind prison walls, that no man is a failure, to show those born slow of foot or slow of mind, those oldest sisters condemned to spinsterhood and those oldest sons condemned to unschooled toils, that each man’s life touches so many other lives.  And that if he isn’t around it would leave an awful hole.  A film that said to the downtrodden, the pushed-around, the pauper, ‘Heads up, fellas:  No man is poor who has one friend.  Three friends, and you’re filthy rich.”
The movie, surprisingly, was a box office disappointment.  Although nominated for five Academy Awards, it didn’t win a single one.  It’s a Wonderful Life seemed destined for obscurity.
Then came the miracle of cable TV (those are words that may never have been written before).  Because the movie had landed in the public domain, it was granted a generous amount of playtime and quickly won the hearts of a new generation.
The apostle Paul likewise addresses, again and again, the question of life’s meaning.  If God’s story is leading us toward a new heaven and new earth, do our activities in this world really matter all that much?  
He writes: “Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm.  Let nothing move you.  Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (I Corinthians 15:58).
In other words, nothing that is ever done for the Lord – whatever things that truly resonate with God’s purposes – will be wasted. 
In his book Surprised by Hope, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright observes, “What you do in the present – by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself – will last into God’s future.”
Even though this world is broken, we are not “oiling the wheels of a machine that is about to roll over a cliff.”  By caring for the earth, we are not “restoring a great painting that is about to be thrown on the fire.” Instead we are accomplishing things that will somehow become part of God’s new world. 
The time that we invest in teaching a physically or mentally challenged child to walk or to read; the hours that we sit with a family member who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s; every seedling we plant; every act of kindness and expression of gratitude that reflects God’s love is not in vain.   
The smallest choices we make about the ways that we treat other people and the ways that we steward what God has entrusted to us are going to find their way, through the power of the God who raises the dead, into the new creation that God is making. 
Nothing that matters will ever be lost.  Nothing will ever be wasted
That message – without the Christian specifics – is what breaks like a wave over George Bailey.  He begins to grasp that his life has not been in vain.  All his little acts of kindness and compassion, which seemed so unimpressive at the time, have been woven together by Clarence the angel’s Boss to bless everyone in Bedford Falls. 
Here are the last eight and a half minutes of George’s story – quite possibly the most joyful ending of any major feature film:  It’s A Wonderful Life – Ending – YouTube
This is what it feels like to realize your life isn’t over. 
Your life hasn’t been wasted, because God isn’t finished with you yet.
It’s a realization that can break over us, too, even before this day is over.