We begin with a poem by Jane Hirschfield, entitled “An Earthly Beauty”:
Others have described
the metal bull placed over fire,
it singing while the man inside it died.
Which emperor listened, in which country,
doesn’t matter, though surely
the thing itself was built by slaves.
An unearthly music, all reports agree.
We – the civilized – hearing this story,
recoil from it in horror: Not us. Not ours.
But why does my heart look back at me,
reproachful? Why does the bull?
That’s the poem, which reminds us of a real invention: the brazen bull, or bronze bull, or Sicilian bull, created by an ancient Greek as a way of executing condemned criminals, and used by Romans as well. The condemned were locked inside and slowly roasted, and their screams would be caught up in the complex and ingeniously crafted system of tubes and stops in the bull’s head and transformed into a sound like the bellowing of an infuriated bull. Thus the poem’s title, ironic and perverse: “An Earthly Beauty.”
Every war is like that bronze bull. Every war that ever was, in its capacity to inspire the creation of increasingly sophisticated weapons, to move people into deranged mentalities and behaviors, to maim bodies and shatter the structures of human civilization. The bronze bull symbolizes all of that and more. An “earthly beauty.” But as the poem suggests, we recoil from it in horror. “Not us, not ours.” We disown it. Yet the wars continue, and the bull never stops looking back at us, reproachfully.
Today we explore a particularly egregious example of the bronze bull: the conflict between Israel and Palestine, simmering ever since Great Britain captured, in 1917, part of the Middle East, including Palestine, from the Ottoman Empire, and sought to create a Jewish national home there. Simmering—and then boiling over with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 and the simultaneous creation of thousands of Palestinian refugees, moved off their historic lands to make room for incoming Jewish settlers; boiling over with the founding of the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 1964 which carried out terrorist attacks against Israel; boiling over with the Six Day War of 1967; boiling over with the first Intifada (“Intifada” literally means “shaking off,” a popular uprising of Palestinians against Israeli power); boiling over with a second Intifada; boiling over with suicide attacks and official strike backs; boiling and boiling and boiling over…. Between Sept. 29, 2000 and Oct. 31, 2011: 7,238 Palestinian casualties and 1,096 Israeli casualties. This is the bronze bull, and its unearthly music is devastating. It looks at us, reproachfully, and our job today is to refuse to look away. Our job is to seek to understand.
Let’s jump right in with a parable—it comes from scholar Jerry Adams Ph.D. The “Parable of the Family with an Orphan”:
A large family takes in an orphan. The house is already crowded so the orphan must share an attic room with a child too weak to protest the intrusion. The parents give each of the two children half of the room but ask each child to share a beautiful cabinet, treasured by both. The parents take a long trip, leaving their strongest son in charge.
When the parents leave, other children in the family attack the orphan and try to get him to leave. The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. The orphan wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room, including the beautiful cabinet.
As the orphan continues to take over more of the room, the weak child continues to take revenge. The strongest son tries to bring peace and sometimes succeeds for short periods. The basic problem, however, is that each child believes that he should have the entire attic room to himself.
That’s the parable. The “large family” represents the United Nations, sensitive to how Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people and very aware of their status of “orphan”—in the sense of having been, for so long, vulnerable around the world to one injustice after another, especially the Holocaust. But “the house is already crowded”: Palestinians have lived there since biblical times too. They see most Israeli Jews as foreign colonizers who began arriving within the last 100 years. Both count themselves as children of Abraham, even though they give God different names: either Yahweh, or Allah. But they are finding it impossible to share. Especially the “beautiful cabinet”: that’s Jerusalem. For Jews, it serves as a symbol of “the historic existence of a people hunted, humiliated, massacred, but never despairing of the promise of its ultimate restoration” (Zwi Werblowsky, PhD). For Muslims, Jerusalem is sacred because of its association with figures like Abraham, David, Solomon, and Jesus—all prophets revered in their tradition. Jerusalem also played a key role in the spiritual development of Mohammed.
The parable goes on to mention how the other children in the family attack the orphan, once the parents leave. This touches on the fact that the Arab nations surrounding Israel from the beginning refused to accept its right to exist. “Israel,” said Bashar Al-Asaad, the current President of Syria, “was built on aggression and the rejection of peace, and nothing changes.” He said that in 2006, but it could have been equally said back in 1948, when the state of Israel was founded—and it was definitely the kind of rhetoric that led to the events of the Six Day War in 1967, when Egypt formed a defense union with Syria, Jordan, and Iraq and massed a large number of troops along the Israeli border. Israel attacked in June 1967 and conquered the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Desert from Egypt, the Golan Heights from Syria, and the West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan—and initially Israel was willing to return most of these territories in exchange for peace, but the Arab countries refused to negotiate peace and repeated their goal, at the Khartoum Conference, of destroying Israel.
So Israel kept the conquered territories. Of course! And suddenly, one million Palestinians found themselves under Israeli rule. Accordingly, the Palestinian resistance effort shifted to liberating the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, through acts of horrible terrorism. It’s the parable again: The weakest child, in particular, fights unfairly. He waits for the orphan to sleep and then attacks him. But the orphan is far stronger—he wakes up each time and hurts the weak child; he also takes over more of the room. This last part brings to mind the settler movement: Israelis who build—from the perspective of the United Nations, illegally build—towns on Palestinian land inside the West Bank, Israelis whose settlements are well-served with roads, water, and security, in stark contrast to what life is like for Palestinians. Hanan Watson writes, “try to imagine life in these settlements and around them. When settlers need to go to another area for work, school or medical care, they travel on roads built specifically for them. When Palestinians need to travel, they’re not allowed to use these roads and have to go through checkpoints manned by the Israeli army. Stories abound of women in labor giving birth in cars, and emergency medical conditions not promptly treated as Palestinians wait for hours at these checkpoints.”
I could go on and on—there are so many factors causing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which is a family fight, a vicious fight within the family of Abraham. Israel and Palestine both being recognized as valid nations with a right to exist; agreeing on legitimate borders; equitable sharing of water and other resources; equitable sharing of Jerusalem; the legitimacy of the settler movement; Palestinian freedom of movement; what to do with all the Palestinian refugees, dispossessed of their land. Even the “strongest son” of the parable is a factor in the conflict. The strongest son is America. The strongest son tries to bring peace, but to the Arab world he is clearly biased in favor of Israel. Three billion dollars a year goes to Israel, as well as advanced weaponry; far far less money and no weaponry to Palestinians.
It’s the bronze bull of the poem. This is what it looks like. The Rev. Bill Breedon puts his finger on it when he says, “[Since the 1967 war and the occupation of the Golan Heights and the Gaza Strip, we’ve seen] a state of constant violence and the impoverishment of the Palestinian people, while at the same time [an increase in] the insecurity of the nation of Israel. Ironically, Israel, the self-proclaimed Jewish homeland, has become the most dangerous nation on earth for Jews.”
If this is not human screaming transformed into unearthly music, I don’t know what is.
But even as we’ve tried to enumerate the practical, nuts & bolts causes of the conflict, as many as possible, I still feel the bull’s reproachful look. I still feel the weight of it. Can you? As if we’ve not penetrated the issue deeply enough… As if mere clarity around practical causes stops short of true understanding and can’t take us all the way into healing and peace.
This is the belief of depth psychologist James Hillman, in his profound book entitled A Terrible Love of War. Listen to what he says about another family conflict—the Civil War—how it could apply equally to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We cannot understand the Civil War by pointing to its immediate cause—the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina in 1861—not by its proximate cause—the election of Lincoln in the autumn of 1860—nor by a list of underlying causes, i.e., the passions that riled the union: secession, abolition, the economics of cotton, the expansion westward, power contest in the Senate … ad infinitum. Nor will a compilation of the factors of that war’s complexity yield what we seek. Even the total sum of every explanation you can muster will not provide meaning to the horrific, drawn-out, repetitive butchery of battle after battle of that four-year-long war.” That’s James Hillman … and then he quotes Albert Einstein to make his point crystal clear: “Problems cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.”
I can’t help but agree, as I think of all the failed negotiations, resolutions, peace talks, and bridging proposals we’ve seen in the whole history of Israeli-Palestinian situation. It’s just as comedian Jon Stewart suggests: “Another day in the Middle East. Obviously the cease-fire fell through, talks fell apart, they lasted about two hours. Even the O.J. jury managed to meet longer than that.” (This is our comic relief moment in this sermon, folks—it’s hard to be funny with a topic like this…) it’s all because problems are trying to be solved by the same level of thinking that created them.
To truly understand, to truly move towards healing and peace, we’ve got to go deeper than practical factors…. we’ve got to go to a place that helps explain not just the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Civil War but all wars, all conflicts. A place that helps us understand the bronze bull, no matter where and when it manifests…. Perhaps that’s when it will stop looking at us reproachfully…
For James Hillman, this path of understanding truly begins when we set aside our “civilian disdain and pacifist horror” of war. It echoes precisely what Jane Hirschfield’s poem suggests:
We – the civilized – hearing [the story of the bull]
recoil from it in horror: Not us. Not ours.
But why does my heart look back at me,
reproachful? Why does the bull?
The bull does this because the bull is very aware of how war, side by side with its brutality, also immerses people into a sense of the utterly transcendent. After World War II a Frenchwoman said to philosopher J. Glenn Gray, “You know that I do not love war or want it to return. But at least it made me feel alive, as I have not felt alive before or since.” And then there is this quote from historian Jeremy Black’s thorough study, Why Wars Happen: “The techniques of diplomatic management can help in some crises, but others reflect a willingness, sometimes desire, to kill and be killed that cannot be ignored.”
From all this, James Hillman concludes: “Ares is ever present; he belongs in the scheme of things.” Now by that word “Ares,” Hillman is invoking the ancient Greek god of battle and slaughter and war and blood. He’s employing a figure in ancient mythology to make a point about how there is, in human nature, an entire style of potential existence, an archetype, that is primed and ready to go—and once it gets triggered, it’s on like Donkey Kong. It is. It’s why war can immerse us in feelings of aliveness and ultimate meaning—why war can reduce us quicker than anything to utter inhumanity and insanity. Two sides of the same coin.
Just listen to the echo of this in the words of a man names Hassan, who is a senior Hamas operative (Hamas is a Palestinian terrorist organization). Does Hassan feels any remorse about the lives of the young men that were lost when Hamas carried out suicide attacks against the Israelis? And he says, “The terrible things that have happened to the Palestinian people are far bigger and far stronger than feeling sorry or guilty. As a Palestinian, I feel that my people and I have been murdered in the soul by the Israel occupation. The feeling stays with me in every situation. There is a big difference between murder and killing to defend his country—attacks against Israelis … are the latter kind of killing, not murder. You must understand the difference between Hassan the person and Hassan the Palestinian” That’s what Hassan the Hamas operative says. Once the Ares potential is triggered in people, Hassan the person is transformed and becomes something else—a weapon. A bronze bull.
And it can happen to us all. Ares potential within us all is easily triggered. Hermann Goering at his trial in Nuremburg was chillingly plain about this. “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.” That’s Hermann Goering. Create an enemy, create an urgency, insist that patriotism means unconditional obedience to what the authorities say, and all of a sudden: the fog of war. Suddenly the Ares that was hidden in our hearts takes center stage and we start to think like Ares, we start to behave like Ares, and it is go time, it is war.
But now listen to a passage from the oldest text describing the specific characterizes of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses, the Homeric Hymns. This passage comes from the hymn to Ares:
helper of mankind,
dispenser of youth’s sweet courage,
beam down from up there
your gentle light
on our lives,
and your martial power,
so that I can shake off
from my head,
and diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle.
You, happy god,
give me courage,
let me linger
in the safe laws of peace
and thus escape
from battles with enemies
and the fate of a violent death.
What do you think about that? Isn’t it amazing, how the speaker here asks for Ares to bless him with courage so he might “linger in the safe laws of peace”?
That’s the hymn to Ares, and it is so clear about how “deceit, cowardice, and the headlong rush to war are all of a piece.” James Hillman goes on to say, rightly, that in this headlong rush “No one has the courage to retreat from the brink; everyone is afraid of appearing cowardly. The fog of war spreads through the mind, stupefying, desensitizing, long before the battles begin.”
So you, happy god
give me courage….
The solution is this courage which is restraint in the presence of shrill voices from people and from the press and from leaders who perceive an enemy and push for a fight by any means necessary. The solution is a willingness to be genuinely curious about the supposed enemy, willingness to walk in their shoes for a time, willingness to start over, begin again. The solution is refusal to label this kind of empathizing as anti-Israel or anti-Palestinian. The solution is resistance to the kind of thinking that would transform Hassan the person into Hassan the Palestinian, that would make any of us into a mere tool of abstract ideology.
Help me Ares, shake off
from my head,
and diminish that deceptive rush
of my spirit, and restrain
that shrill voice in my heart
that provokes me
to enter the chilling din of battle…
There is wonderful irony here. The solution to Ares the bloodthirsty warmonger is Ares’ courage and power of restraint. We have to look at the bronze bull square in the face, to gain the wisdom that enables us to step back from the one that’s already boiling over, with all its old unresolved resentments—or simply to cease in the creation of new ones. Israel and Palestine need to do that—and so do we, in whatever battle WE find ourselves.
This morning I want to talk about the uses of adversity, and in doing so, I am mindful of a piece of wisdom that comes from the brilliant rabbi and scholar Adin Steinsaltz. Adversity is good, he says, though “the good is hidden” and “often several levels of excavation are needed to get to it.” Yet he also reminds us of an important teaching that absolutely needs to accompany this insight: “the injunction that we can say this only about our own suffering, and that we are forbidden to say it to someone else who is suffering.” “If you fall and bang your knee,” he says, “my response to you must not be, ‘Well, it’s for the best.’ On the contrary, if I see someone suffering, my one obligation is to try to help relieve that suffering. Telling a suffering person that everything is for the best is called, in the Talmud, ‘the sins of the friends of Job.’ Job suffered greatly, and his friends said to him, ‘Don’t you have faith in God?’ This is not what the friends should have said. … It is not appropriate to speak this theology while a person is struggling with pain and grief.”
I wish more people knew this. Though I agree with Rabbi Steinsaltz that good can come out of adversity—that what is ultimate is neither tragedy nor failure—still, when I am in the midst of a particular loss or sorrow, and I am with someone else in a personal conversation, the last thing I want is for that person to try to clean things up for me, tell me it’s all for the best. Don’t do that. Don’t theologize. Just acknowledge my feelings about how it hurts, how it feels unfair, how it sucks. Do that for me and do it for everyone. Just give a hug, or hold a hand. Be present. If you don’t know what to say, say THAT. Help them know that they are not alone.
But Rabbi Steinsaltz is not done with us. What if the person in the midst of adversity is not someone else, but oneself? Here’s what he says: “If I fall and bang my own knee, I have a choice. I can wallow in my own pain, or I can use the experience to stimulate my faith and prompt me to examine my life more carefully and to grow, in empathy and understanding, from my experience.” That’s what Rabbi Steinsaltz says. Each of us is responsible for making some positive sense out of the reality of our suffering. Perhaps we need to wallow for a bit—we’re only human. But then comes the time to move beyond that and go deeper. Can adversity have positive uses? Is it really true, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt says in his book The Happiness Hypothesis, that “people need adversity, setbacks, and perhaps even trauma to reach the highest levels of strength, fulfillment, and personal development”? And, what does that look like? Rabbi Steinsaltz is saying to each of us today: choose to go deeper. Choose to find the good that is hidden beneath the pain. Seek it out courageously.
To this end, we’re going to explore the adversity story of a person named George Bailey. We know him better in December than in other months, perhaps, because he’s the main character in the Christmas movie classic It’s A Wonderful Life. Yet George Bailey is nothing less than a modern-day Job-figure, having something to say to us in every month. So much to learn from his story. Starting with an up-close look at his particular struggle. See if any of it resonates with you. I know it does with me.
When George Bailey was a teenager, a fantasy formed in his mind of being a world traveler, going to Tahiti, sailing the Emerald Sea—exploring all these exotic locations and more, far away from Bedford Falls, the boring town of his birth. As he grew older, the hopes only grew more ambitious. In the movie, when he’s 21, we see him buying luggage for his trip to Europe. He’s got his life all figured out. First he’ll go to Europe, and then he’ll go to college, and then he’s going to build things: skyscrapers hundreds of feet high, bridges a mile long. He’s going to be a millionaire.
It’s around this time that his father asks him if he’d be interested in returning home after college to run the family business, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan Company. Hearing this, George goes quiet. Right before, he was laughing and joking raucously with everyone in the house, but when his father asked him this question point blank, George got real quiet. Said, “I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a stuffy little office. I want to do something big, something important with my life!”
Just imagine how George’s father hears this—what this says about how his son misunderstands him. Parents and children miss each other like this all the time. George isn’t seeing his father’s life with eyes of compassion. He’s too caught up in his own success fantasy of skyscrapers and bridges and lots of money.
But you know what happens next. Even if you’ve never seen It’s A Wonderful Life, I’ll bet you know. George begins living into one of the mysteries of the human condition, which is the reality of limits. As a member of the middle class, naturally he’s been brought up believing that people are free to control their own destinies. No limits. Just do it. The only person stopping you from climbing the success ladder … is you. This is where George is coming from. This forms the core of his youth. But now one event after another is going to expose the lie.
His father dies, and George must give up his trip to Europe so he can settle his father’s business affairs. The long road of missed opportunities and regret begins. Then, just as he’s handing off important papers to the Building and Loan’s Board of Trustees, moments before he’s out the door on the way to college, his father’s arch-enemy, Scrooge-like Henry F. Potter, makes a motion that the Building and Loan dissolve. Potter, who is wealthy beyond measure and could easily afford to give, asks, “Are we running a business or a charity ward?” Hearing this, something snaps in George and he finds himself saying to Potter: “You’re right when you say my father was no business man. I know that. […] But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what’s wrong with that? […] Doesn’t it make them better citizens? Doesn’t it make them better customers? […] Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him, but to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well, in my book he died a much richer man than you’ll ever be.”
What a wonderful but ironic speech! This is the same person for whom success in life is equivalent to world travel and skyscrapers and bridges and lots of money. This is the same person who basically told his father that he and his stuffy office were small and unimportant. Yet already we are seeing some of the uses of adversity. One of the benefits is that it challenges us to get clearer about what it is we genuinely value, and we discover that true success and happiness in life can mean something very different from what we think they mean. Only in the moment of facing down Henry F. Potter does George realize in himself a genuine and deep appreciation for what it is his Dad did. Only in the heat of that challenging moment. It was a gift of adversity—although it is not necessarily a gift that makes things simpler. George now has two competing success visions warring away in his heart. One is focused on service to his community and being rooted in that community; the other is focused on an almost Peter Pan-like desire to travel and build things and make lots of money. More on this internal conflict in a bit. For now, it’s enough to acknowledge that George’s speech was a moment of great personal discovery, and inspiring for others as well. The next thing that happens is that Building and Loan Board rejects the motion to dissolve but only if George takes over his father’s job as leader. And he does, but with great ambivalence. Life keeps on throwing him curveballs. Once, he thought he had it all figured out. But now he’s more like the poet Dante, who once said about midlife, “I found myself within a dark woods / where the straight way was lost.” What else can he do, but keep moving? He gives his college funds to his younger brother, Harry, and goes to work.
Circumstances crowd out the fantasies of youth and supersede them. In the end, George finds himself where he thought he’d never be: working in his Dad’s stuffy little office, stuck in Bedford Falls. He gets to continue his father’s work of economic justice in the community, and while this is important to him, still, his heart is at war with itself. Regret upon regret pile up. He’s just a mess of contradictions. He marries a beautiful caring wife, he has wonderful children, he is loved and respected throughout Bedford Falls, but all the wild wonderful energy and humor of his youth gradually go away. He’s cranky. He’s cynical. “I want to do what I want to do,” he complains, but no one’s listening.
The bounce in his soul is gone. And it’s like this with so many people today. The adversity of conflicted selves, heavy with regret. Thinking and feeling they are failures even as they are doing great work in the world. Afraid because of the economy, even as they are surrounded by something far more reliable than money ever could be, which is family and friendship, the beloved community of a place light this, and within: the sustaining and transforming power of the Spirit of Life. As close-up to our individual lives as we are, who are we to judge them wrong, or a failure? Who are we to offer up a global judgment like this, as if we were able to transcend our myopia and see ourselves from a God’s-eye point-of-view?
The bounce is gone. And if it’s gone, how is a person going to bounce back in the face of sudden crisis and change? The problem just escalates.
Here’s what this looks like for George. What happens is that absent-minded Uncle Billy misplaces the $8000 which was supposed to have been deposited in the Building and Loan funds. George faces bankruptcy, scandal, prison…. In complete desperation, he sees no alternative but to turn to his enemy Henry F. Potter for help. Asks for a loan. And Potter, who sits in the cat bird’s seat now, says to George, “Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going out to conquer the world! You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man. What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk, crawling in here on your hands and knees, begging for help.”
It’s horrible. I mean, the movie may be called It’s a Wonderful Life, but when it gets down to this part, I’m watching it through my fingers, like I do with the The Exorcist or The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Especially the scene where George wanders onto the bridge near Bedford Falls. It’s night and snow falls in large sticky flakes. George’s face is screwed up in pain. Potter’s words ring in his mind—“you’re worth more dead than alive.” Below him—the raging torrent of a river. He’s thinking suicide. He’s thinking The End.
But is it? Despite all that has happened, can George bounce back? And we as well? For I know that George is not alone with his outrageous reversals of fortune. Some of us may be on that bridge with George right now, and the rest of us can relate. The past few years have brought reversals of fortune to us all, in some way or another. Bad things happening to good people. It can feel so unfair.
But what happens next in the story illustrates yet another use of adversity: we learn that we are stronger than we know…..
Picture the scene. There he is, George Bailey, a man who’s lost the bounce in his soul nd it’s so flat, it can’t cope with the loss of $8000. He just can’t take it any more. He finds himself alone, beaten, standing on a snowy bridge in the night, raging river below. Suicide seems the only way. And then—splash! Someone else has taken a dive! And suddenly, instinct takes over. Takes him two seconds to grasp the situation, and he jumps right in to save that person who’s drowning. He risks his life to save another.
Now this is incredible. Adversity has broken him down completely, and yet, in the midst of direst weakness, he discovers that strength still remains. And so can we. You know, often we can find ourselves saying, as we contemplate horrible possibilities, “If such-and-such happened, I could never survive it.” Or, “If such-and-so happened, I wouldn’t know what to do.” And yet when the worst happens, and we go numb with shock, we discover a persistence within us simply to take things one step at a time, one moment at a time. Events rush and swirl past us. The broken pieces of life overwhelm, but for a time we let things be. It is enough just to keep moving, and somehow we do. Somehow we just keep going. “More and more I have come to admire resilience,” writes poet Jane Hirschfield. “Not the simple resistance of a pillow, / whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, / but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: / finding the light newly blocked on one side, / it turns to another. / A blind intelligence, true. / But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs / all this resinous, unretractable earth.” Adversity helps us discover this same persistence in ourselves, when the worst happens, and we come to realize we are stronger than we ever thought possible. A confidence in ourselves starts to grow, and we learn that, whatever else the future may bring, we have stood in the fire before, and we can stand in the fire again. We can. We are stronger than we know.
This is what adversity teaches. In fact, there are times when it lifts us out of ourselves completely, and we find ourselves blessed with a better dream and a healing vision of life that we realize directly, first-hand—one we never could have known otherwise. Adversity can have this use as well.
Here’s how it happens for George. If you’ve seen the movie, you know that the person he saved from drowning is none other than Clarence Oddbody, Angel Second Class. He’s an angel, and he comes to earth to give George a great supernatural gift: direct experience of what Bedford Falls would have become had he never been born.
And it’s terrible. Horrible. Without George Bailey, Bedford Falls turned out to be a hellish place. And it blows his mind. It opens it up. He was living a wonderful life without knowing it. Everything he honestly and truly needed for happiness, he already had. Even with all the bad luck circumstances that seemed, time and again, to prevent him from pursuing his youthful hopes—even though he never became a world traveler, or went to college; even though he never built a skyscraper hundreds of feet high or a bridge a mile long—even so: the worth of his life was diminished not one whit. Worthy dreams can happen, even in a stuffy small office, in boring Bedford Falls. A hero journey, right there in the everyday. Being there for people in need, again and again, even when it put him at risk. Standing up for the little guy against bullies like Henry F. Potter.
Even in Bedford Falls, greatness can happen. And George finally gets it. The big picture pulls all the pieces of his life together, grasps him in his soul, heals his conflicted and regret-filled heart. The greatness he has always longed for—he realizes that he’s already been doing it. His father as well. And now he doesn’t want to give it up. The hero adventure is right here and right now! Who needs to travel to exotic locations like Tahiti, when you can have everything you want in Bedford Falls? Clarence!” he cries, “Clarence! Help me, Clarence. Get me back. Get me back. I don’t care what happens to me. Get me back to my wife and kids. Help me, Clarence, please. Please! I want to live again! I want to live again. I want to live again.”
Change your mind, and life changes. George Bailey wants to live again, and I would have you see clearly how badly he wants it. He wants it despite the fact that, as far as he knows, he’s still out $8000. Despite the fact that coming back to life will mean facing bankruptcy, scandal, prison…. But it no longer matters. How can he give up the life that he’s always wanted, which is the life he’s always been living but only now realizes it?
Wherever you are this morning—whatever adversity you might be facing—I invite you to consider its uses. It clarifies our values, it teaches us that we are stronger than we know, and it also makes us relentlessly hungry for a transformed vision of who we are. We do not need to be visited by an actual angel to learn how to see our lives through angel eyes. Eyes that see clearly the truth of the preciousness of friendship and community and life even if some version of bankruptcy or scandal awaits us. The preciousness of friendship and community and life… And also this: how the world needs us and doesn’t care that we might never have traveled to that exotic location, or gone to that school, or built that mile long bridge.
Tap into angel vision, and the bounce in our souls comes back.