(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Click here to listen to the message or see below to read.
Last Sunday I began my December message series entitled “‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Holiday” with a look at one primary theme of the classic film: each person has greatness within them. We don’t exist just to exist. Instead, we live for a purpose and our task is to discover it and then live it out. Ultimately, our reason for living is to leave this world better off than before we were born. No matter how big or small we change things for the better, doing so is our greatness. I quoted an old Jewish proverb, “He or she who saves even one life, saves the world entire.” That’s our purpose and it is in fulfilling it that we find our meaning.
It takes George Bailey, the central character in the film, thirty plus years to understand his purpose. He’d been living it and practicing it, but he never understood, until a crisis comes, that he was already doing great things.
The reason he takes so long to realize his purpose is due to an inner conflict – a fight between his dreams, and the reality of his life. George does not get what he wants. In his youth, George dreamed of being an architect who would build great structures – and thereby win fame and fortune. On a date during high school, he tells his future wife this:
“I’m shakin’ the dust OF this crummy little town off my feet and I’m gonna see the world. Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum. Then, I’m comin’ back here to go to college and see what they know. And then I’m gonna build things. I’m gonna build airfields, I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high, I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”
Soon after he confides these dreams to Mary, his father suddenly dies. George foregoes college and allows his younger brother to go instead. He takes over the small Building & Loan bank his father had started.
George continues to put aside his dreams to meet what he considered his obligations. The greedy competing banker in town, Mr. Potter, tries to close the bank George runs by convincing its Board that the town no longer needs a Building and Loan.
But George gives an impassioned speech to his Board describing the values his father believed in and the reason why he started the bank – not to make huge profits but to help average people buy homes and start businesses. The world still needs such community spirited banks, he argued. The Board agrees not to dissolve the bank only IF George remains its President. George agrees.
George had also made a pact with his younger brother. He could go to college first – but when he finished, he’d return to run the bank while George takes his turn to go to college. But Harry the brother returns after graduating with a wife and a career. With the kind of grace that only some show their siblings, George does not complain. He stays on as President of a small, barely profitable bank.
George then marries Mary and they make plans for a long honeymoon to travel the world – to fulfill at least one of George’s dreams. But the stock market crash of 1929 happens and there is a run on banks across the US. People panic and they want their savings.
As a near riot forms in George’s bank, it faces collapse – much like thousands of other small banks during the Great Depression. George could let his bank fail, take his honeymoon, go to college and become an architect. Instead, he uses the $2000 he’d saved for his around the world honeymoon to pay the withdrawals his frightened customers want. He saves the bank.
Just before he decides to hand out his savings, he looks at a portrait of his father and reads underneath it his dad’s life motto: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.”
Years later George faces his greatest crisis. His kind but incompetent uncle, whom George employed in the bank, loses $8000.00 – a huge sum for the time. The bank does not have enough cash to operate and it faces bankruptcy. George faces personal ruin and even the prospect of prison. Mr. Potter is overjoyed. He can finally be rid of the bank that competes with him by making low interest loans. He derisively tells George that he’s worth more dead than alive.
Suddenly, the inner battle George had fought all his life is clear. He’d honored his obligations at the cost of what he wanted. He’d fought against the ethics of Mr. Potter who symbolizes all that was wrong – and still is wrong – with America. That’s the idea that our purpose in life is to get all that we can. Use and abuse others for profit. Lie and steal to get ahead. Demean others while bragging about yourself.
In the middle of this crisis, George doubts all that his father stood for, his small town values, and his seemingly naive efforts to help others. Mr. Potter is right, George concludes. I should have done what I wanted and ignored serving and giving. George returns to his dilapidated house a deeply embittered man. Watch with me that movie scene:
Like many of you, I was inspired by Michael Tacy’s message here two weeks ago. As I listened to its recording, which is posted on our website, I realized that Michael’s message on “Honesty” revealed someone who can speak to anyone – but particularly to young millennials. Using humor and a down to earth style, Michael – you can reach people in ways this old Minister cannot. You spoke of emotional honesty – the kind we each need to develop. We must be true to ourselves.
It’s in that light that I confess to you the same kind of struggle George Bailey battles in the film. I sometimes fight the siren song of what I want – against what I believe is right. That does not happen often – and usually when it does happen, I find my way back by listening to my better self.
This inner conflict happened to me last month. Due to a number of circumstances, I felt a lot of stress. Ministers face stressful situations from time to time – extra work, longer hours, a few people who are critical. Usually I deal with it, but last month I hit a low point and it happened again just this past Friday. This is the kind of low that leads George, me, and others to feel as if our work is useless. We despair that our lives are not what we want. I confess this as a matter of honesty – and to share my inner struggles.
Several friends and family members, after I shared my feelings last month with them, encouraged me to get what I sometimes think I want – to end my work stress and take an early retirement. Life is too short to be stressed and upset they told me. Use the modest inheritance you received from your dad to support yourself – until Medicare and your retirement savings become available. Retire now and enjoy life, they said.
As tempting as that idea sounds, and as much as the pleasure seeking side of me wants that, I know it is not what my better self wants. My better self wants to continue to serve, work and feel fulfilled. I’m abundantly blessed by what you allow me to do – and that you pay me to do it! Most of the time I love my work and I remind myself I’m a lucky guy. It’s a privilege to have this job.
By not getting what I want – what the self-focused part of me wants – I’m paradoxically getting instead what I truly want and need. I truly want the kinds of things that last.
This battle, what some call the desires of the flesh versus the wisdom of the soul, that’s something many of us face. We want expensive new things, but our hearts remind us the money can be better spent – or given – elsewhere. We become unsatisfied with our houses, our spouses, our jobs, or what we’ve saved, and we want new, bigger, sexier or more enjoyable improvements. But it’s our better selves that tell us there are true and good things to want instead – things that are consistent with what we believe.
All of this is true of George Bailey. The lure of the wider world, going to college and becoming famous are very strong. During much of his early life, he struggles with forsaking his dreams, even though the core of who he is, and what he believes, remind him to live a life of purpose and service. George deeply believes the quote from his father. We depart this world only with the things we’ve given away – love, humility, kindness and caring. Material things, money and pleasure won’t last, nor are they meaningful. What have we done to help or save other people – and thereby improve the world? It’s our good answer to that question that is our eternity, and our ticket to lasting greatness.
The Dalai Lama once said, “Remember that sometimes not getting what you want is a wonderful stroke of luck.” He expressed a foundational idea of Buddhism. By letting go of physical desires and wants, we ironically get what we really desire. And what most of us really desire is a sense of contentment that is not affected by pleasure or pain. We desperately want inner peace.
To find that kind of joy, what the Dalai Lama speaks of in his book with Desmond Tutu, The Book of Joy, we must let go of wanting more: more things, more money, more power, more prestige. Wanting more of those things does not mean we’ll get them – and not getting what we want leads to disappointment and anger. That’s what George feels when his world falls apart.
Real joy comes in letting go of the “me, me, me” prompts of ego. It comes, instead, by serving, working, and caring. It comes in quiet humility, gentleness of spirit and a sense of humor in the midst of challenge. It comes in pouring out ourselves for the sake of others.
For me, not getting what I want is, as I’ve said, precisely what I DO want. I know the side of me that can be selfish. But that’s not who I want to be nor what I believe is good. I want instead meaning, purpose and a sense of fulfillment. I want to make a difference – no matter how small.
That idea from the film “It’s Wonderful Life” is a perfect one for the holidays. It captures their essence. This is a time to celebrate life, love and sharing. We struggle to remember every holiday season the need to forego a desire for great parties, lavish meals and expensive gifts – to instead seek genuine peace and joy.
What I hunger for at this time of year are moments to connect with others, to do something helpful for someone in need, and to measure my year’s achievements not by what I got, but by what I gave.
The world seems a particularly dark place this season. A type of Mr. Potter seems to rule our culture and world. Too many people are enthralled by his ways – the lying, cheating, insulting and grasping for power, prestige and wealth – all in order to glorify himself. That’s not a role model we want our children to follow. And that’s not how we ourselves want to act. We each have the capacity to be much better.
I pray that you and I defy what the darker side of humanity tells us we want. Let us – this Hanukkah, Christmas, Solstice and holiday season – not want what we think we want. Let’s hold true to our values and beliefs and practice goodness, humility and kindness. In doing so, we will get what we need and what we truly want – a life that means something and a life legacy that lasts into eternity…
I wish us each THAT kind of peace and joy… (introduce Cheryl and Spark) – One way this congregation serves and makes a difference, not just to address poverty and homelessness but also racism. We advocate and speak to issues we care about with our hands on work. Cheryl Leksan will now talk about Upspring.