When God Sends Clarence

I’m a huge fan of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” It tells the story of George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who considers committing suicide on Christmas Eve. His uncle and business partner has lost $8,000– enough to ruin their business. His rival has called for him to arrested, after George has begged him for help. He had nowhere left to turn. In desperation, he leaves his family, goes to a bar, has a drink, and finally, broken and crying, he prays a simple prayer. Almost immediately, an angry man slugs him in the jaw, and both men are thrown out into the cold. George runs his car into a tree, and proceeds on foot to a bridge, where he plans to jump to his death before he can be arrested and sent to prison. Not a feel-good holiday movie, right?

However, that simple prayer has been heard in Heaven. George thinks that the “answer” to his prayer was being punched, but God has other plans, which include sending a “guardian angel” to help George change his mind. But God doesn’t send a mighty angel to prevent George from jumping off the bridge. He doesn’t send a glorious angel of light to amaze and instruct George. He doesn’t send a warrior angel to protect him from his rival or the consequences of his uncle’s mistake. Instead, He sends Clarence.

Now, I have to pause a moment to say that I disagree with the film in its depiction of angels. I believe angels are spiritual beings who serve the Lord of Heaven, but I don’t believe that humans “become” angels after they die, nor do I believe that they must “earn their wings.” In fact, this flies in the face of the Gospel, that we are justified by faith in the saving work of Christ on the Cross.

But I mention Clarence, because, in the film, he is precisely the sort of “help” we do not expect of God– someone who is earnest, but inept and uninformed. Clarence has almost no clue how to keep George from throwing away his life. He tries to reason with George, but to no avail. He tries to cheer him up, encourage him, and befriend him, even explaining that if George would just let him help, Clarence would earn his wings. George is still determined that his life has been in vain. Finally, he tells Clarence to go away, and claims it would have just been better if he (George) had never been born.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for anyone who has never seen it, but the story reaffirms the value and the joy of life, even as it faces the very real darkness of depression and despair. George finally realizes that his life is really far more wonderful than his circumstances– and very much worth living!

We live in a desperate and dark world– many people are discouraged and facing dark days. Debt, sickness, grief, homelessness, betrayal, alcoholism and addiction, prison, abuse–they are all very real and overwhelmingly oppressive. Sometimes those who face such circumstances cry out in desperation, only to have an experience similar to George Bailey’s– they end up getting punched in the jaw! But this is NOT the answer from God– this is the world’s “solution.” Anger, despair, chaos, violence and abuse come when we try to run away from problems or solve them in our own powerlessness. God’s answers often come in unexpected packages. An unexpected encounter with a stranger; an overheard conversation on a bus or train; even an ad on TV or a song on the radio. God doesn’t usually send an angel– He often “sends” ordinary people in ordinary ways to do His extraordinary work.

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But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty;

1 Corinthians 1:27 (KJV)

God delights in using the “simple” things and ordinary people. (See a much fuller exposition here:) https://biblehub.com/commentaries/1_corinthians/1-27.htm#:~:text=To%20confound%20the%20wise%20%E2%80%94%20To%20shame%20those,he%20does%20it%20in%20irony%2C%20he%20aggrandizes%20them. George Bailey is a simple man who stays true (often in spite of himself) to what he knows is right. Even as he despises his life, it has produced dozens of small miracles. But it requires a change of perspective to see them. “Clever” people; “powerful” people, and “successful” people have surrounded, and even “surpassed” George, but it takes a “Clarence” to make him see the eternal value of a life well-lived. George’s life is worth far more than money; far more than worldly success; far more than power and greed. George is truly “the richest man in town” in all the things that most matter.

It’s a Wonderful Life– George with his family

If God has blessed you by sending a “Clarence,” take a moment to thank Him. If God is calling you to be a “Clarence” in someone’s life today, take a moment to thank Him for that, too! You may not earn a pair of wings, but I guarantee you will be blessed.

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Do Not Ask…

*Warning– The following poem is a work of fiction. The first part of this post is meant to reflect emotions that may be associated with depression and suicide. The represent things I have heard, and some things I have said…

Do not ask me, “How are things going?”
Things go on around me. Things happen at me.
Things are not going– of if they are, I am not going with them…

Do not ask me, “Are you ok?”
I will say, “Sure, everything’s fine.”
Not because it is; not because I am, and
Not because I care whether you believe me.
It is what I will say because it gives you permission
To feel good about asking, without actually having to
Share the pain and fog and futility of my honest answer.

Do not ask me, “How are you doing?”
I am not doing– not much of anything.
I live surrounded by unfinished tasks–
Stacks of unwashed dishes and piles of dirty laundry;
Unpaid bills and unopened mail.
I forget to eat or brush my teeth;
I have trouble finding the energy to remember how to
Smile, use polite words, look up, function…

Do not ask, “How are you?”
For I am not…

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How do I pray for someone like this? How do I pray AS someone like this?

Depression is devious and deadly. It impacts thousands of lives, and takes thousands of lives each day.
It is easy enough for me to say, “Snap out of it!”, or to blame the person who chooses to think and act negatively. After all, attitude is a choice. We choose to look at the positive or negative in life, and no one else can choose for us what to think or how to feel.

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What we can choose– all of us– is to turn our focus on God and away from the negative. I cannot rescue someone else from their own emotional demons; I cannot save myself with “positive” thoughts. I CAN cry out to the one who loves me more than I love myself– even on my best days–that HE would transform my thinking, and bring light into the darkness of those who cannot see past the fog and mire of their own gloom.

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And I can stop asking the surface questions– “How are you?”– prying and digging without being prepared for the raw ooze and festering pus that comes with honesty. Those questions may be well-meant, but they often come without context or conviction. They can become a polite way of skirting the obvious– we EXPECT the reassurance that everything is fine; and when it isn’t, we feel obligated to come up with a quick cure for a problem we haven’t fully diagnosed.

Depression is scary– both for those who experience it and those who encounter it in someone else. Ignoring it, covering it up, or trying to force it into the background doesn’t help. Nor does it help to wallow in it, trying to micro-manage it or hyper-spiritualize it.

The same God who listened to Elijah begging to die just after his momentous victory over 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19: 1-14); the same God who listened to David in exile, Jonah from the belly of the whale, Moses in the midst of rebellion and exhaustion, and Job from the ash heap– He listens to us in our weariness, our grief, our confusion, and our depression. This is the same God who Himself experienced the agony of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42), and expressed a soul “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”

If you are struggling with depression, even if you question whether God is listening, you can still pray. God will never ask, “Are you ok?”– He already knows. Moreover, He already knows the best that He has for you.

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If someone you know is struggling with depression, PRAY! But don’t stop there. When Elijah was depressed, God sent food and water. When Moses was struggling with the entire nation of Israel in the wilderness, God sent food and water– and wisdom from Moses’ father-in-law. Practical help, positive reminders, and consistent care DOES make a difference. I cannot begin to tell how many times a random smile or compliment has helped stem the tide for me. Someone I haven’t seen in awhile who doesn’t just jump in asking how I’m doing, or how I’m feeling, but instead comments that it is good to see me–someone who admits that they have struggled, and found grace and healing– someone whose primary goal is not to “check up on me,” or “fix me,” but rather to interact and connect and to be “present” with me.

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Losing someone to suicide is horribly painful, and it is tempting to carry a load of guilt and unanswered/unanswerable questions. PRAY! And then PRAY some more! God won’t send easy answers; He won’t take away the pain of loss; though He will provide healing and grace. But God will do as He has promised– to BE with us, no matter what, and to give us a peace that passes all understanding. God never punished the people in the Bible for feeling depressed, or for crying out in despair. God didn’t tell them to “Snap out of it,” or to “Get over it.” But neither did He coddle it. He did not rescue those, like King Saul, who fell on their own swords rather than falling on their knees.

For more Biblical information on depression: see https://www.beliefnet.com/wellness/health/emotional-health/depression/5-bible-figures-who-struggled-with-depression.aspx#:~:text=Even%20kings%20get%20depressed.%20King%20David%20was%20%E2%80%9Ca,Psalms%2C%20stem%20from%20any%20of%20several%20probable%20causes.

Please pray– but don’t ignore practical help. Even simple steps, like taking a shower, paying attention to sleeping, eating, and drinking habits, making sure you move/exercise/stretch throughout the day, can help. Ask for and accept help– true help–and beware of asking for “substitute” help that will enable you to continue with unhealthy thinking and behavior.

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Because I want you to “do well.” I want you to “be ok.” I want you to be!

What Might Have Been…

One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.”  No matter how many times I watch it, it never gets old for me.

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Oh, I know it’s in black and white, and it’s out-of-date.  It’s politically incorrect on numerous levels, and it’s theologically incorrect, as well.  But for all that, I think it has a deep wisdom we are sorely lacking, and I think what it says about the power of prayer cannot be dismissed.

Much of the movie is spent tracing the less-than-wonderful things that happen to George Bailey.  George Bailey is the quintessential “nice-guy” who always seems to miss out–as a boy, he leaps into an icy river to save his brother’s life.  His brother is saved, but George ends up losing the hearing in one ear.  While his friends go off to college, George has to stay behind; when he finally saves enough money to enroll, he ends up having to give up his college plans to save the family business after the sudden death of his father.  He loses out on business opportunities, and keeps losing skirmishes with his nemesis, the  “scurvy spider” local magnate, Mr. Potter.  Finally, on Christmas Eve, George has had enough.  The weight of always doing “the right thing,” and watching others get ahead while he falls further behind, has taken its toll.  When his absent-minded uncle loses $8000, George faces scandal and prison after all his years of frustrating hard work in a job he hates.  After uncharacteristic angry outbursts and a short drinking binge, George is in utter meltdown.  In desperation, he prays.  It’s not an eloquent prayer, or an angry outburst.  It’s a wimpy, doubtful, squeak of a prayer, “Dear Father in Heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way…show me the way.”

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What the viewer knows, but George doesn’t, is that dozens of people he knows have all been praying for him.  We get to hear the voices of his wife, his children, his friends and neighbors, all praying simple and heartfelt prayers.  And we also know that God is at work– preparing to send an angel to help George.  But in the bar, at the end of George’s tearful and tremulous prayer, God is silent.

Not only is God silent, but George’s downward spiral continues after his prayer.  He gets punched in the jaw by a man he was arguing with earlier in the evening, and he doesn’t even have enough money to pay his bar tab.  Driving away, drunk, he runs into a tree and gets yelled at.  Reeling down the road and onto the bridge, where he intends to jump to his death, he almost gets hit by a truck.

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While I like the sappy, happy ending of the movie, the incredible darkness and despair leading up to George’s encounter with Clarence, and the even darker “alternate universe” that George experiences are what keep me coming back to this movie– not because I’m a glutton for emotional wringers, but because George’s story is only wonderful when he gets to see it from God’s point of view.  Mr. Potter tells George that he is worth more dead than alive.  But Clarence shows George the true worth of his life, not as it might have been, but as it might NOT have been.

 

And so it is with our lives–all the “might have been”s and broken dreams and failures that weigh us down– God is NOT (as we so often picture Him) shaking His head and grumbling about our wasted potential and weakness.  And often, the people we most fear to disappoint, our family and friends, are rooting for us to stay the course– to finish the race. God wants to wipe away all the seeming failures; all the “what-if”s and the “what might have been”s and replace them with the bigger picture of “what is happening around you”, “what really IS”, and “what can be.”

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There was never anything wrong with George’s dreams of traveling the world and becoming a successful builder of skyscrapers “a hundred stories tall.”  George’s desire to have nice things for himself and his family was not evil, and, in fact, his ambition to do great things was not that different than Mr. Potter’s.  But George’s choices, while “right” were not  in his own immediate best interest.  What Clarence showed George was not “what might have been” had George made other choices in his life.  What he showed George was indeed far more wonderful– the ultimate IMPACT of George’s choices!  God didn’t “take away” George’s dreams or ruin his life.  But neither did He prevent him from making selfish choices or getting what he wanted in the moment.  George’s life wasn’t wonderful because of what happened to him– though the ending is miraculous, and George gets toasted by his hero brother as “the richest man in town.”  But what really made George’s life wonderful was that he was THERE– there to save his brother; there to fall in love with Mary; there to help and influence so many people; there to tuck his daughter into bed and “paste” the petals of her flower; even there to stand up to Mr. Potter when no one else did.*

God answered George’s prayer.  And He answered the prayers of his friends and family.  But He didn’t answer in the way we would expect.  In fact, George jokes with Clarence that the answer to his prayer was getting slugged in the jaw.  But God’s answer came in the form of a childlike “angel” who struggles and questions his ability to make a difference– much like George himself.  God didn’t answer the superficial aspect of George’s prayer– He didn’t show him the way to get $8,000.  He didn’t show him the way to defeat Mr. Potter, or suddenly become more successful.  But He did show George the way to look for “what is” and “what can be”, instead of the “what might have been.”

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  • For anyone who has lost a friend or family member to suicide–my prayer is that we too, would find comfort  and hope in the lives our loved ones lived, and not in the manner of their death.  God is gracious and loving above all that we can imagine.  Part of the hope and message of this movie for me is that, even if George had jumped at the end, his life was still wonderful in God’s eyes, just as it was to all who knew and loved him..

 

When “Mother’s Day” Hurts

Mother’s Day can be a wonderful day of celebration.  But it can also be one of the most painful days of the year.  Millions of women each year face acute heartbreak on this day– instead of celebration, they face the haunting memories of abandonment or separation, infertility, miscarriage, infant deaths, broken relationships, missed opportunities, regrets, suicide, and the loss of their own mothers.  There are no cheery greeting cards or perky flower baskets that can erase that kind of gut-wrenching pain– no pithy words or consolation gift that makes this day easy or comfortable.

I have an amazing mom, an awesome mother-in-law, the world’s best sister, world-class sisters-in-law, a remarkable step-daughter, daughter-in-law, granddaughters, and a host of other wonderful women in my life (as well as a step-son, grandsons, nieces, nephews, etc.).  I love that I am still in touch with former students and story hour kids, Sunday School and Bible School attendees, and others I have had the honor to mentor.  So I celebrate Mother’s Day and honor those people and all the ways their lives have impacted mine, and (hopefully) my life has connected with theirs.

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But none of that chases away the ache of never having a child of my own– never knowing the joy of tucking my own child into bed; never being able to kiss away a boo-boo or a bad dream and say the words, “Mommy loves you.”

Maybe because of my own experience, I’m more attuned to it, but I see and hear a lot of pain around this time each year.  My heart goes out to all of the women with empty arms– the women who had to bury a huge chunk of their heart along with a child they can never hold; the women who had to say goodbye to the only one who could ever reassure them that, “Mommy loves you.”

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My prayer today is that you would know that even in those moments when your heart is crushed, and your arms ache to hold or be held, that you are not alone; you are not forgotten.  God knows the aching loss of seeing his only son on the cross as he took his last gasping breath before he died.  Jesus experienced the sting of rejection from the people who should have called him brother, and “Father.”  Throughout the Bible, God gave us examples of women (Eve, Sarah, Hagar, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, Mary and others) who knew the ache of barrenness, rejection, strife, and loss of children.  God saw their pain; he heard their cries of distress and their prayers.  He sees you too.  He hears you.  He loves you beyond anything you can imagine, and beyond where any grief, guilt, or despair can take you.

More than this, he has promised to be close to the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the broken-hearted, and to those who need rest and comfort.  He promises his presence, and he promises to turn our mourning into joy and bring us peace.  He is eager to restore us, to renew our strength, and to reassure us that we are loved with an everlasting love.  God created us in his image– and that includes the image of a mother hen gathering chicks, It includes the image of Mary who wrapped the God of the Universe in swaddling cloths and tucked him into a manger of hay, and who watched as that same God of the Universe died for her.

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God knows the passion, the pain, and the pure love of a woman’s heart– even when “Mother’s Day” hurts.

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