Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Books of Wisdom

This morning we journey into the heart of some of the most remarkable books in the Hebrew Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Books of wisdom, books in which the focus is, as Joseph Campbell so eloquently puts it, the “monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory”—how to live practically in the midst of this realm as well as to understand the Big Picture meaning of it all.

Let’s jump right in, and I want to do this with a story that actually comes from outside the Bible, from the tradition of Zen Buddhism…

A Zen Master, goes the story, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening, while he was away, a thief sneaked into the hut only to find there was nothing in it to steal. The Zen Master returned and found him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. The Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s the story, and I begin with it for two reasons. One is simply to emphasize the fact that to truly understand wisdom in the Bible, you have to go outside the Bible, you have to see that wisdom is and has always been the endeavor of all nations and all ages. In cultures that, geographically speaking, were too far away from Israel to influence it (like that of China and India) … and also in cultures nearby, like Egypt and Mesopotamia and Asia Minor. These nearby cultures—what their wisdom traditions said and how they said it—have amazing echoes in the Bible books we read today. Wisdom outside the Bible influenced the wisdom we find within it.

For example, consider these proverbs from Sumer, from around 2000BCE:

Whoever has walked with truth generates life

Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand

The poor are the silent ones of the land

Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes describes proverbs like these as “short sentences founded on long experience”—and that’s exactly what they are. Some of them are just observations about the way life is, but others are of a more “how-to” nature: how to live well. Like these—and as you listen to them, keep two things in mind: these proverbs are more than 3000 years old, and today is Superbowl Sunday–:

He who drinks too much beer must drink water

He who eats too much will not be able to sleep

(and my favorite)

Since my wife is at the outdoor shrine, and furthermore since my mother is at the river, I shall die of hunger

Proverbs outside the Bible influenced proverbs in the Bible. A particularly fascinating example of this comes from comparing an Egyptian wisdom text entitled The Instruction of Amenemope, which parallels sections of the book of Proverbs like you would not believe. Image for image, word for word. Israel’s wisdom did not emerge in a vacuum. It echoes the themes and preoccupations of the nations that went before it and surrounded it.

This is also true of the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. Scholars tell us that Job was written around 500 BCE, and Ecclesiastes was written several hundred years later, around 300 BCE. Both of them are quite different from the book of Proverbs. Whereas Proverbs compiles short wisdom statement after short wisdom statement, Job tells a remarkable story about one man’s suffering and eventual meeting with God, and Ecclesiastes is the record of one man’s dialogue with himself about the nature of life and how to be happy. In ways very different from Proverbs, Job and Ecclesiastes face down the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory—each of them gives voice to despair as well as to making peace with life—but hidden in their voices are older voices from other lands and other times…. One of these voices comes from around 1700BCE, from an early king of Sumer, Zugagib:

I advanced in life, I attained to the allotted span
Wherever I turned there was evil, evil—
Oppression is increased, uprightness I see not.
I cried unto god, but he showed not his face.

What in one’s heart is contemptible, to one’s god is good!
Who can understand the thoughts of the gods in heaven?
The counsel of god is full of destruction; who can understand?
Where may human beings learn the ways of God?
He who lives at evening is dead in the morning.

My limbs are destroyed, loathing covers me;
on my couch I welter like an ox
I am covered, like a sheep, with my excrement.
My sickness baffles the conjurers
And the seer left dark my omens.

It’s raw, isn’t it? His pain and confusion and despair. 3700 years ago, Zugagib gave voice to it; and you can find his voice deep within the voice of Job, written 2500 years ago; you can find his voice deep within the voice of Ecclesiastes, written 2300 years ago. And what about us today? If we are feeling pain and confusion and despair today, for whatever reason—and the reasons can be so many—what’s hidden deep within our voice?

The thirst for wisdom—the discontent and dis-ease that motivates it—transcends time.

I want to return to the story I began this sermon with. The one about the Zen Master and the thief. We’ve already seen the first reason why I began with it, and now here’s the other. Just this: to help us connect our lives with the wisdom in Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Help us bring it all together…

So we remember that, in the story, we meet the Zen Master there in his little hut at the foot of a mountain. He’s living the simplest kind of life, a happy and healthy kind of life. It’s a great symbol of what the book of Proverbs wants for its readers. Life is a way, life is a path, and we can walk smoothly or we can stumble, we can run or we can fall. Proverbs seeks to prevent stumbling and falling by presenting us with the accumulated wisdom of generations. Follow the advice, and our way will be well:

Righteousness delivers from death.

The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve.

No harm happens to the righteous, but the wicked are filled with trouble.

The faithful will abound with blessings.

As you hear these words from Proverbs, keep in mind an important piece of historical information. At the time these words were written, there was absolutely no idea of an afterlife in which souls might experience connection with God, or justice, or continued learning and growth. The belief at the time was in Sheol, a place of darkness where the dead go, where they persist as entities without personality or strength, cut off from God. So, when the book of Proverbs says, “The faithful will abound with blessings,” it’s talking about THIS-world blessings. If there’s gonna be any justice, it’s THIS-world justice.

That’s the worldview that the book of Proverbs puts out there. Reality is ordered in such a way that the human sense of justice and fairness is fully satisfied. The perverse get what their ways deserve, and the good, what their deeds deserve. Which also implies that if something bad happens to you, well, you must have done something wrong to deserve it. You got trouble? What did you do!?

Call this worldview conventional wisdom. And conventional wisdom might make sense in the abstract. It might…. Until some kind of thief breaks into your hut, like he breaks into the Zen Master’s hut there at the foot of the mountain. What possibly could the Zen Master have done to merit that? Living as he is the simplest kind of life, an embodiment of blessing, bothering absolutely no one… and yet the thief comes. Conventional wisdom says that you always get what you deserve, but .. really?

That’s the question Ecclesiastes and Job ask, over and over again. Really? On this point, they are absolutely opposed to Proverbs. In other words, you got a crazy wrestling match right in the middle of the Holy Bible! People who say that the Bible speaks with one voice don’t know what they are talking about! For Proverbs, the world is straight; for Ecclesiastes and Job, the world is crooked.

“In my vain life,” says the writer of Ecclesiastes, “I have seen everything: there are righteous people who perish in their righteousness, and there are wicked people who prolong their life in their evildoing. There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous. Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.”

That’s the writer of Ecclesiastes, and he’s just telling it like he sees it. That’s what we find in THIS world. Reality is NOT ordered in a way that satisfies the human sense of justice and fairness. Not at all. Death comes to all, he says. Death comes randomly, and we die just as the animals die. Live righteously all your life, but, still, the manner of your aging and death may be excruciatingly painful for yourself and for all concerned. THIS world is a crooked, crooked world…

Job is the poster boy for this. His flocks stolen or destroyed, most of his servants murdered, his children killed as a house collapses on them. His body broken, with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Reduced to sitting among the ashes, scraping his sores with a broken piece of pottery. Why me? he asks… But we know: God allowed Satan to make Job suffer as part of a test of character. Does Job fear God for nothing? But what does this have to do with conventional wisdom, the idea that suffering can only be punishment for evil deeds? Job is the good guy, and the only reason why he attracted the attention of God and Satan to begin with was because .. he was good!

It’s a crooked world…. And in both Ecclesiastes and Job, we discover a response to this reality that sounds like this:

Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, “A man-child is conceived.”
Let that day be darkness!
That night—let thick darkness seize it!
Let it not rejoice among the days of the year….
Yes, let that night be barren: let no joyful cry be heard in it….
Why did I not die at birth, come forth from the womb and expire?
Why was I not buried like a stillborn child?
For my sighing comes like my bread, and my groanings are poured out like water.

I am blameless: I do not know myself.
I loathe my life.

This is Job speaking. Note how this language is exactly opposite what you read in the book of Genesis, where God creates the universe, where God says “Let there be light!” and it is all good…. In his despair, Job would go the exact opposite direction. “Let there be darkness.” Not creation, but destruction. “I loathe my life.”

We find the same sentiment in Ecclesiastes:

I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will happen also to me. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said to myself that this is also vanity. For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life….”

People, this is the Bible talking. We are witnessing some of the most honest wrestling with the Big Picture meaning of life there can be. The Bible has many moods to it, and existential despair is certainly one of them….

And the Bible wants us to take it seriously. You see, Job isn’t any old shmoe. He was one who was, says the Bible, “blameless and upright, who feared God and turned away from evil.” As for the writer of Ecclesiastes: the Bible says he was one who had everything that conventional wisdom says is good. He knew what it is like to win a Superbowl. He knew what it is like to get the fantasy girl. He knew what is like to win the lottery. He had it all—wealth, health, intelligence, power, wisdom, everything—and yet he still found himself hating life. The Bible won’t allow us to rationalize this away, to say, Oh, they’re just being immature, or Oh, all would be well if they just took some Prozac. No. Life is crooked. The human realm is as much monstrous as glorious, and the monstrous aspects can at times feel so monstrous that it swallows everything up, you find you can no longer feel the glorious parts of the world, you can no longer receive any of that into your heart. Just darkness just darkness just darkness….

But is this where the story ends?

Well, we know in the story of the Zen master and the thief, that the Zen master responds in a way that is simply breathtaking: “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered, but he took the clothes and ran away. Later, the Master sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

That’s how the story ends, and in a perfectly beautiful way it suggests where Ecclesiastes and Job end up. It’s true: they each go through a phase of hating life. But then they move beyond it. Here’s how.

For the writer of Ecclesiastes, the key realization is tied up with a peculiar word: “vanity.” “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” he says, over and over again, but he’s not talking about excessive pride in one’s looks…. The original word that gets interpreted as “vanity,” “havel,” really means “mist” or “vapor” or “breath.” “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.” The implications of this are powerful. If everything in life is like breath—if it’s impermanent like this, changing like this, hard to grab a hold of, hard to get a clear picture of—then, unless we unconditionally acknowledge and accept this fact about life, we will find ourselves miserable. Life is a series of breaths, and the only sane response to this reality is to breathe and breathe and keep on breathing. Don’t ask Why me? Ask What’s next? Stay in flow of life, stay in the moment, move with it and trust that there, in the moment, is everything we will ever need to be happy. It’s the Zen master in the story, whose safety in his little hut in the foot of the mountain is vanity, is breath. The thief comes, and instantly, safety has become danger, but the Zen master, because he does not continue trying to grasp for safety, is capable of poise, is able to stay in the moment, is able to convey the compassion and hospitality that is the essence of his inherent worth and dignity as a person. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he tells the astounded thief, “and you should not return empty handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” “Poor fellow,” he mused later on, ” I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

The Zen master’s only safety and ours is in this present moment.

The writer of Ecclesiastes puts it this way:

Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart for God has long ago approved of what do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.

Carpe diem, in other words. This side of Sheol, don’t hesitate: seize the day. Get in the zone of each moment given to you, and that will save you from hating life. Don’t grab at the breath that life is; instead, breathe and breathe and breathe…. “Havel havaleem, ha-kol havel”: “breath of breath, everything is breath.”

As for Job. His way of going beyond hatred towards life… It’s very different. Hugely ironic, given a popular stereotype about Job, that he was patient, as in “the patience of Job.” Whoever came up with that one must never have read the Bible either. Because when you read the book of Job, what you see is a man who is impatient like crazy. Obnoxious in all his complaining about the injustice and unfairness of life. He just goes on and on and doesn’t give up. Broken record.

You know I am not guilty (he says to God)
and there is no one to deliver me out of your hand.
Your hands fashioned and made me
and now you turn and destroy me.

On and on and on. Job also takes an oath affirming his integrity and righteousness, invoking God to curse him if his oath is false. Biblical scholars tells us that all of this is laid out in such a way that lawyers would recognize as a formal lawsuit. Yes, Job is actually challenging God to appear in court, and if God doesn’t, then Job’s oath of innocence stands. He is cleared of all charges. Talk about chutzpah!

So no wonder God appears, and he’s not happy. Out of the whirlwind, God appears:


Nothing that God goes on to say or show Job speaks to his particular predicament. God at no time confesses, says, OK, I’m sorry, it was a stupid little bet, Satan was getting too big for his britches once again and I couldn’t resist taking him down a notch… No. All God does is overwhelm Job with an abundance vision of the grandeur and majesty of creation. The foundations of the earth, the sea, the dwelling place of light, the storehouses of snow and hail, the constellations, clouds and rain and lightning, and on and on….

God doesn’t give an answer like the writer of Ecclesiastes does. Ecclesiastes gives words, but God goes beyond words, gives experience. And it is more than enough. Job comes away transformed. The book ends with his restoration, with his wealth and health and family restored—and every Bible scholar I’ve ever read sees this as a cheap ending, completely unsatisfying, a shame. But I see it as a culmination of the entire book. For think about it. Job knows first hand how breath-like life is—how pleasure can turn to suffering on a dime. When that happens, you don’t want any more pleasure. You don’t want to invest yourself in something that is so unreliable. You don’t want any more riches, you don’t want any more children, you don’t want any more health. More children, more wealth, more health are just invitations to more pain. Yet Job comes away from his encounter with God able to invest in life anew. He can begin again. He is able to receive the joy of restoration even though he knows all too well that life is crooked and he serves a God who is crooked who might test him again at any moment, take away all that he has yet again. But he accepts his new life unconditionally. He can live in the moment like a Zen Master.

The path there is chutzpah, to begin with. If you are feeling the injustice and unfairness of life so deeply that you hate your world, good. But don’t stop there. Flow with the intensity of your feeling until it corners you into an encounter with the glory of the Sacred, the glory of the abundant Spirit of Life. Ride your discontent all the way to God. God will come to you. Because the God of the Bible understands. The God of the Bible knows what it is like to hate life. This is the same God, remember, who destroyed the entire world with a flood, and ever since has been tempted again and again to destroy. But the God of the Bible grows over time. The God of the Bible changes over time. And perhaps this God will share with you what He shared with Job. That despite all, despite its crookedness, a crookedess the runs through God’s own heart, life is still worth loving, still worth caring for. The majesty of creation. The crooked God. The precious fragile lives that are yours and mine.

In sacred mystery, all are lifted up.


Story before the reading:

The Story of Job

Job and his wife Lived in Uz. 
Job had seven sons and 3 daughter all grown with families of their own. 
Job had much land and livestock and men to help him work. 
Job loved God and worshipped God everyday.

One day, the devil said to God, “You have blessed Job and given him everything is the only reason Job worships you. If you would take away your blessings, Job would no longer praise you.” 
God said to the devil, ” Do what you want to all that Job has but do not touch him.” 
The devil left God and began his evil work.

Suddenly a messenger came to Job saying, “All your oxen and donkeys are gone. All of the men that helped you are gone.” 
While the messenger was still speaking, a second messenger came and said, ” A huge fire has killed all the sheep.” 
And still a third messenger arrived saying, “Some thieves came and stole all your camels.” 
And still a fourth messenger arrived saying, “All of your sons and daughter were eating together when suddenly there came a huge wind and the house fell on them.”

Job was so sad. 
In a single day, he had lost everything. 
He lost his land, 
He lost his livestock. He lost his sons and daughters. 
Job fell to his knees and began worshipping God saying, “..the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away, blessed be the name of the LORD.” 
After all those bad things happened to Job, He still praised God.

The devil was upset because Job was still praising God. 
So he went to God and said, “If Job were hurting in his body, he would not praise you. 
God answered the devil saying, “Do what you want but do not kill him.” 

The devil delighted in giving Job very painful sores all over his body from the soles of his feet to the top of his head. 
Job had nothing 
He lost his land, 
He lost his livestock. 
He lost his sons and daughters. 
Now he was in more pain with the sores all over his body. 

Job suffered greatly. 
Job’s wife said to him, “Let it go. Curse God and die” 
Job answered her, “You talk like a foolish woman. Do we only take the good and not the bad?” 
Still he praised God.

Jobs friends had heard about what had happened to Job. 
They decided they would go and be with him. 
His friends sat with Job for one week. 
His friends told Job that he had sinned and that is why all these horrible things had happened. Job insisted that he loved God and he never sinned against him. 
They would not believe him. 
All of them told Job he had sinned and he must confess his sin to make things right. 
Job still insisted that he had not sinned against God. 
Finally his friends were quiet. They had nothing to say to him because they felt that Job was wrong. They thought Job felt was better than everyone else. They knew Job had sinned and wouldn’t admit it. 

When Job and his friends had finished arguing, God came to Job in a whirlwind. “What will you learn from your friends? “Come, stand up like a man, for now I shall question you, and you shall answer,” said the Lord.

“Where were you when I created the earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all God’s children shouted with joy?

“Have you shut the sea in with doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?

“Do you know where the light gathers, and where the darkness makes its home?

“Do you teach the lion to hunt its prey, and does the hawk fly by your wisdom?

“Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like mine?

“Will you find fault with the Almighty? First answer my questions, if you would have me answer yours.”

Then Job bowed his head, and was ashamed. “Lord,” he said, “I am nothing. How can I answer you? I have spoken about things I do not understand. I will put my hand on my mouth, and say nothing more.”

God then said to Job’s friends, “You have not spoken the truth of me as Job has. Take seven bulls and seven rams and go to Job and offer them up for yourselves. Job will pray for you and I will accept his prayer for you. ” 
Fearing the wrath of God, the men did as God had told them. 
God accepted Job’s prayer and was very pleased with Job.

As Job prayed for his friends, God returned his fortune that had been taken away by the devil. 
God gave Job twice as much as he had in the beginning. 
God gave him twice as many sheep. 
God gave him twice as many donkeys. 
God gave him twice as many camels. 
God gave him twice as many yoke of oxen. 
God gave him 7 sons and 3 daughters. 
His daughters were the most beautiful in the land. After all of this, Job lived 140 years and he loved God and praised him every day.

The Uses of Adversity

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.