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52 LITTLE LESSONS FROM It's a Wonderful Life
By BOB WELCH
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Bob Welch
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGod Honors Our "Childlike Faith"
Yes, but he's got the faith of a child—simple. —Franklin the Angel
It's a Wonderful Life's opening scene offers one of those blink-and-you-miss-it life lessons whose profundity might easily get lost. High in the heavens, the angels Joseph and Franklin, represented by two pulsing stars, are discussing who might be sent down to earth to deal with a suicidal man named George Bailey. Joseph suggests it's an angel named Clarence's turn, although, he laments, "He's got the I.Q. of a rabbit."
"Yes," says Franklin, "but he's got the faith of a child—simple."
This is high praise. Not only is it coming from an angel but apparently from a high-ranking angel, given that Franklin has the ultimate authority to make the call on who will be sent to earth in an attempt to save a man's life. Presumably, the angel pool stretches far beyond Joseph and Clarence. And yet Clarence is Franklin's "chosen one" in this case.
Why? It's certainly not because of his track record. Clarence is, after all, only an Angel Second Class. He hasn't earned his wings yet, and Franklin's comment that "We've passed him up right along" suggests it's not because he hasn't been given the chance to prove himself. Clarence himself suggests he has something of a sketchy record, telling Franklin he's been waiting for more than two hundred years to earn his wings, and "people are beginning to talk." Clearly, this is an angel with problems, not the least of which is an inferiority complex.
The idea that Clarence may not be the sharpest knife in the angel drawer is only underscored by his last name—Odbody—which not only suggests he is a tad quirky but may, in fact, come from a long line of quirky folks. Physically, he's underwhelming, sort of a Caspar Milquetoast in a seventeenth-century, embroidered nightshirt. And his ineptness is only bold-faced by Joseph's "I.Q.-of-a-rabbit" comment, assuming, of course, that Joseph's views aren't skewed by some sort of bias. And apparently they're not, given that Franklin doesn't disagree with Joseph on the matter. He seems to suggest that, yes, that may be true, but more important things are at work here.
Chief among those other things, Franklin suggests, is the angel's faith. And this is something so important that it trumps everything else.
So, exactly what is this "childlike faith" that Franklin holds in such high esteem? For starters, it's something not to be taken lightly. In Matthew 19:14, when the disciples rebuke those who have brought little children to Jesus, what does Jesus say? "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."
Clearly, Jesus is big on children. He sees something special in them. He defends them in much the same way Franklin sees something in Clarence and defends him. But what is it about children's approach to faith that's so engaging? Though Jesus doesn't get specific about that, the answer is in their approach to life. As children, we are not jaded by the sophistication of the world. We're real. We're humble. We're willing to admit our needs and trust that others can help us. We're unpretentious and adventurous. We're lighthearted and imaginative. And we're fearless, willing to take a risk—a juvenile version of what the early twentieth-century Bible teacher Oswald Chambers calls "reckless joy."
And then, of course, we grow up. And what happens? In many cases, we get jaded by the world. Instead of being real, we rationalize behaviors. We learn to put our personal spin on our shortcomings rather than deal with them. We become pretentious. We throw ourselves into all sorts of physical adventure but are cowardly regarding relationships, flitting from one person to the next, lacking the courage to commit.
We hide our needs from others. From God. From ourselves. We play it safe, settling for too little in life. Rather than live by faith, we embrace one of many forms of legalism, be it a secular or religious version. Rather than try to please God with simple faith, we complicate things by trying to prove to Him how worthy we are by our works. We're full of fear, but we mask it with everything from busyness to addictions to rationalization, as we desperately seek to convince ourselves that we're content. In reality, we know little of Chambers's "reckless joy."
Not Clarence. No, sir. He's the real deal, living for some deeper ideals instead of simply going with the flow, ideals that stem from his childlike approach to life. Nick's Bar may be serving "hard drinks" for "men who want to get drunk fast," but Clarence orders the "mulled wine, heavy on the cinnamon and light on the cloves." He's unpretentious and honest. ("I didn't have time to get some stylish underwear. My wife gave me this on my last birthday. I passed away in it.") He's imaginative; remember, the point of insight on which the entire movie turns—George seeing what life would have been like without him—was Clarence's idea. And finally, he's a simple man—er—angel, full of childlike faith.
Clarence believes in George Bailey. He believes in his plan to help save him. But, above all, he believes in the One who sent him, and he exudes a certain sense of privilege that he's been chosen to be part of His plan.
Yes, he's a silly angel named Clarence. But director Frank Capra's use of him in this sense affirms deeper truths regarding a God who has often chosen the kind of people whom the larger world would not have: David, a lowly shepherd; Moses, a stutterer with low self-esteem; and Rahab, a prostitute. In choosing Clarence, Capra knowingly or unknowingly furthered a truth about childlike faith as suggested in 1 Corinthians 1:27: "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong."
Given as much, might He also use imperfect people like you and me?
Chapter TwoUnderdogs Matter
Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about ... they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.
It's 1928. Peter Bailey has died, board member Henry F. Potter wants to dissolve the Building and Loan, and Peter's son George, who is leaving for college, finds himself flying to the defense of his father's name.
Never mind that the taxi is waiting downstairs, presumably to take George to the train station where he's leaving for some engineering school to learn how to "build things." (And, please, dear reader, don't spend a nanosecond trying to figure out how Potter, in pre–Americans with Disabilities Act days, gets up to what appears to be the Building and Loan's second floor in that wheelchair of his.) The fact is, Peter Bailey's body isn't even cold yet, and grumpy old Potter is already smearing his rival's name.
Enter George, his black mourning band wrapped around the arm of his coat and his anger rising like Mount Saint Helens ash, circa 1980. Remember, this Potter-versus-Peter battle has been going on for at least a decade, since the day when a young George goes to his father for advice during the Mr. Gower-and-the-poison incident and hears Potter call his father a "miserable failure" who's not running a business but a "charity ward."
George stuck up for his father then—"He's not a failure!"—and sticks up for his father now. After Potter pooh-poohs Peter Bailey as a "starry-eyed dreamer" who squandered the business while trying to take care of the "lazy rabble" in town, George erupts.
"He didn't save enough money to send Harry to school, let alone me," he says. "But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter. And what's wrong with that?" Potter rolls his eyes and yawns. But George isn't finished. "Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you're talking about ... they do most of the working and paying and 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."
The Baileys have long been—and, thanks to George, still are—champions of the underdogs, doers of Matthew 5:42: "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." The Building and Loan is clearly a people place that gives down-and-outers the benefit of the doubt. The attitude isn't Prove to me you deserve our help. The attitude is How can we help you help yourself?
Potter turns down a loan application for Ernie Bishop, the cab driver who he says "sits around all day on his brains in his taxi." The Building and Loan gives him a five-thousand-dollar loan to help him and his family build a house.
Potter indirectly refers to Mr. Martini, owner of the Italian restaurant with a bar, as a "garlic-eater." Not only does the Building and Loan help Martini buy his own house but George and Mary spearhead the onsite celebration the day the family takes possession of it.
Admittedly, the movie depicts Violet Bick as a flirt who probably didn't do postgraduate work at MIT. (In the dance scene, you'll note she's the only girl dressed in black, a suggestion that she's a touch shady.) But if Potter sees her as a hussy and, when George comes to him on Christmas Eve, even suggests George and Violet are seeing each other on the sly, George treats her with great respect. At the dance, even when the sight of Mary causes George to pass up a dance with Vi, he has the decency to say, "Well, excuse me, Violet." More important, on that pivotal Christmas Eve, amid all the excitement of brother Harry having won the "Congressional Medal of Honor" and all the dread of the bank examiner wanting a look at the Building and Loan's books—and with George admitting to the bank examiner that the company is "broke"—he takes the time to see Violet when she stops by the office. Not only that, but we can presume the paper in the envelope he gives her is a written character reference for her move to New York. Then he hands her some of his own money to help her get started, implying, when she protests, that "It's a loan. That's my business. Building and Loan."
It's a subtly powerful scene: basically, one broke person giving another broke person a loan that we all know isn't a loan at all. It's an out-and-out gift. In Potter's world, he who dies with the most money and power wins; his commodity is power, and power equals virtue. But in the Baileys' world, he who has something—anything—should share with those who don't.
In the world's eyes—or at least old man Potter's—what matters is what you can get. In the Baileys', what matters is what you can give away. (Note that sign in Peter Bailey's office: "All you can take with you is that which you've given away.")
Who lives the richer life? Ask Mr. Potter on Christmas Eve when he sits alone in his office while the town raises a toast to George Bailey.
Chapter ThreeSometimes You Just Gotta Dance
You remember my kid sister, Mary? Dance with her, will you?
It's spring, and Mary Hatch and Harry Bailey are part of the 1928 graduating class that's holding its dance in the Bedford High gym—you know, the one with the retractable floor that unveils a swimming pool. (Filmed, by the way, at Beverly Hills High, where the gym-swim setup still exists.)
George, reluctantly, has shown up. Why? First, because Harry invited him during that high-energy dinner scene at the Bailey home earlier in the evening. "What do you mean," replies George, "and be bored to death?" And second, because his discussion with his father about possibly taking over the Bailey Building and Loan has cast the slightest ripple on his glass-smooth dream of going off to college and later, as he told his dad, to "build things ... design new buildings ... plan modern cities."
So even a high school dance—George is twenty-two in this scene—might take his mind off having perhaps disappointed his father or, heaven forbid, winding up "cooped up for the rest of [his] life in a shabby little office."
Never mind that Jimmy Stewart was thirty-eight when the movie was filmed; George is stuck in an awkward place: not really a man and not really a boy. He's not comfortable talking careers with Pops and not comfortable hanging with his brother's friends at the dance, a bunch of kids four years his junior.
To quote a sixties song, "then along comes Mary."
Her older brother, Marty—he was in that opening sledding scene, riding his snow shovel down the icy hill just after George—asks for a favor. "You remember my kid sister, Mary? Dance with her, will you?"
George is the responsible type; "born older," his father says. Why would he want to dance with Marty's kid sister, that little girl at the soda fountain whom he first addresses as "brainless," that girl who—
Whoa! Suddenly, he sees her. That's why, he realizes as her soft-focus face looks his way. She's gorgeous. A flower now fully blossomed. (By the way, at that time Donna Reed was, at twenty-five, only seven years older than the Mary Hatch she played.) And yet, though George talks a good game—college, building modern cities, et cetera—you get the idea he's no risk-taker. After all, presumably, he's spent the last four years working for his dad at the Building and Loan. And he probably can't dance any better than old man Potter can smile.
But what does he do? He dances with Mary Hatch. And not some go-through-the-motions dance, but a spirited rendition of the Charleston, with broad-smile abandon, crisscrossing the knees with his hands and everything. He keeps dancing even after brother Harry announces this is a contest, which, of course, would have given him a nice excuse of "I'm not good enough." He keeps dancing even after the floor begins to part like the Red Sea. He even keeps dancing once he and Mary have fallen into the swimming pool.
And guess what?
It changes his life. Really. Had George not taken this small risk, he might never have wound up with Mary, who brings out the best in him, in their children, in Bedford Falls. Oh, and incidentally, there's a wisp of evidence later in the movie suggesting that George and Mary made a splash with the judges, too, and won that Charleston contest. In the bank run scene, while George stands at the window just prior to talking to old man Potter on the phone, you can see a trophy on a cabinet. It looks suspiciously like the one his brother, Harry, head of the dance contest, was holding up when announcing the event.
The safe route—comfort—is alluring, but it doesn't develop character. Or lead to possibilities. Or to winning dance contests. Or to falling in love and having one's life changed.
So, given the chance, dance. As George says, right after he tells Mary he's no dancer, "What can we lose?"
Excerpted from 52 LITTLE LESSONS FROM It's a Wonderful Life by BOB WELCH Copyright © 2012 by Bob Welch. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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