Over the holidays, I’ve been reflecting on another time, years ago, when God intervened in my life to bring me hope through an old movie. Hope doesn’t always mean something is easier – it often means the eyes of our heart get opened and we are given new perspective. Here’s the story.
We had our son back in 1990. It was certainly a new beginning for us, as for all parents, but in our lives, there was also a painful ending happening. Our church (Cornerstone Christian Fellowship) was folding. A small remnant of under 20 people stayed together from the defunct church. This group has been together ever since and is the house church we are now a part of.
But at the time, this ending was a difficult time for many of us. Many were suspicious of our new group and we had to hold on to the fact that we felt called to be together and stand fast amid the controversy. Not only that, we were together without the structure of the Mennonite Brethren church around us. Were we even a church?
In the midst of these difficult years, Lyle and I couldn’t ignore the marriage troubles we had had since the beginning of our marriage in ’84. We ended up separating in October of 1993. Joel was just a little guy and it broke my heart to hear his tears when for instance he was visiting Lyle in his apartment and phoned me. We weren’t the only ones disoriented and confused.
Christmas of that year rolled around. One evening, I had taken Joel for a drive to see Christmas lights and I had just put him to bed. When there’s trouble in the air, Christmas can make people feel separation more keenly. I was feeling empty and despondent and unsure of the future and feeling of course like a huge failure. I had no idea how to fix my marriage.
It was into that context that I saw the face of God and received a glimmer of hope. I flicked on the TV and decided to watch the old movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Here was the story of another man who was brought to despair by the circumstances of his life. Contrary to the title of the movie, George Bailey saw everything in his life as miserable after a theft of money left him with bankruptcy and the death of his dreams. “It would have been better if I’d never been born,” he tells Clarence, the angel sent to rescue George. The pressure and despair finally gets to George and he decides to kill himself by jumping into the raging river.
I picked up my unhappy head and watched the movie. How would this tension be resolved I wondered? One moment of the movie stood out for me. As he is storming out of the house before heading to the river, he goes down the stairs and grabs the newel on the top of the stairs, something that has never been screwed on properly. As he grabs it, it comes off again and it’s like the straw that breaks the camel’s back. George sees no hope in his circumstances.
His lack of hope continue even as Clarence the angel shows him what life would have been like had he never been born – his brother would have been dead, his wife alone, and the town would have fallen into the clutches of Potter, a money-grabbing banker who did not have the interests of the community at heart like George Bailey did. At first, George obstinately holds on to his despair with each scene that Clarence shows him, but eventually (like Scrooge in that other great Christmas classic A Christmas Carol), George’s cynicism breaks down and he begs the angel to tell him that this alternate reality is not true.
George’s conversion happens as his perspective is restored. He is given his old life back, but a miracle has
happened. Customer after customer comes to George Bailey’s house and pours money to help cover the debts left after the robbery. The mercy and love that George had always shown to down and outers came back to George himself as his true friends helped him in his own hour of need. But even before George realizes this miracle, he knows his life is wonderful even in its brokenness. His perspective has been restored.
I’ll never forget the scene where George rushes into the house after realizing that he has his old life back. He runs into the house and grabs the newel, still unattached, but now he is so grateful that he kisses it.
Lyle and I watched the movie again this Christmas, and the tears flowed just as they had in ’93 when a glimmer of hope for my own dire circumstances began to form in my heart. The fact that love won over despair in George’s life was a huge gift to me that Christmas. It was like the tight bands around my heart popped open as I saw a situation of bounty and love form instead of a black hole. Hope stirred once again. I wasn’t alone.
George thought that money and his failure was the most important thing, but he was given eyes to see (and how he resisted!) that it was a tiny dot when seen in the light of the beauty of his life. At the end, Clarence the angel writes him a note that says, “Remember that no man is a failure who has friends.”
Friends and the hope of God are who came through for Lyle and I in the following weeks. We had three healing circles where our closest friends sat us down (first with Lyle and I separately and then together), and talked to us of where they’d seen us go wrong. It was like a wise and skilled doctor carefully cutting out a bad tumor. There’s an old saying that says, “The truth can set you free, but at first it will make you miserable.” It was painful to take an honest look at our lives, but as we opened ourselves up to the process, we saw a future with hope. We agreed to forgive each other and with God’s and community’s help, set our sights on healing and not division.
This movie and the healing of our marriage remains one of the greatest miracles of my life. I could not see a way through the situation, but God provided one. The almost 20 years since then have not always been easy. Lyle and I have had a lot of growing up to do, but God has not left us alone. The bounty that George Bailey found has been our experience too.
Frank Capra’s immortal Christmas film reminded me in ’93 and still reminds me that despite appearances that sometimes make it seem otherwise, it’s indeed a “wonderful life”. The message from my angel tells me, “Remember Lydie, no one is a failure who has friends who hold Christ’s candle of hope for you in the darkness.”