It’s a Wonderful Life

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What constitutes a wonderful life? I find myself contemplating this question today as I think of my friend who was put into hospice care yesterday. The wonder of life takes on new dimensions when considered against the sharp edge of life’s end. Of course, hospice is not the end, but it is acknowledgement of the end. At least the end as we see it.

How fitting, then, that today begins the Season of Advent, a time of anticipation and hope. Hope that I pray will find my friend and his family in the season in which they find themselves. A season that awaits for us all.

Sally and I opened the Season last night by watching the 1946 classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed. Much has been written about this wonderful movie, its nuggets of wisdom, and ultimate message of finding gratitude for the life we’re given. Timing the movie in the movement from Thanksgiving toward Christmas is an excellent way to get into the spirit of the Season.

There are many dramatically profound moments throughout the movie but two stood out to me in this viewing. In one scene, I noticed a plaque on the wall of the Bailey Building & Loan which read:

“All that you take with you is that which you’ve given away.”

All that you take with you is that which you’ve given away. What a shockingly stark statement. So often, we live our lives as if we believed the complete opposite. Watching the flood of Black Friday deals and the mad rush kicking off the Christmas buying season, one might believe our society is built upon a clear understanding that all of the stuff in our houses and rented storage units will in fact be coming with us into the afterlife.

Of course, stuff by itself is not “wrong” and no one goes about the accumulation of stuff with the notion that they are going to enjoy it after they’ve left this life. The many things of our world enable us to eat, to communicate, to travel, to ply our trade, etc. Much good comes of these things and the Christmas Season is built upon giving and receiving. We buy, keep, and give things for the enjoyment of them in our day-to-day existence. So what is the point of that quotation on that plaque in Peter Bailey’s office?

My mind returns to my friend and the end. The end of life that will come to each of us in its time. We are called to be prepared for the thief in the night, whose hour we know not. In the final moments of our life, where will our thoughts go? What is it to be prepared for the hour of our passing? What will we take with us?

The Christian undertone of the plaque points to an afterlife and the hope of Paradiso – eternal life in a form beyond this one. A place where we will not take the things of this world but only the way we lived within it. A place determined by the virtue with which we existed, reflected in all that we gave away: the love, the generosity, the forgiveness, the caring, the honesty, the example, the hope.

Beyond consideration for an afterlife, the plaque points to an ordering of this life such that our time, energies, and goods are used rightly. The legacy of our existence is not defined by the stuff we leave behind but by the person we were. Did we worship the idols of commercial existence in where we placed our priorities or did we order our lives rightly for the benefit of those we loved? Were we simply a consumer or were we a creator, a giver, an enabler?

The other scene that stuck out to me last night, was the dedication of a new home in Bailey Park for one of George Bailey’s clients, an immigrant restaurant owner named Martini. Donna Reed owned the scene with the following dedication:

“Bread, that this house may never know hunger. Salt, that life may always have flavor. Wine, that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”

Her toast offers a secret and it points back to Peter Bailey’s plaque. It’s not the stuff. Ultimately, it’s not the climbing, the getting, or the achieving that matter. The good life is built upon the basics and the goods of this life can, rightly ordered, add to its flavor.

There are those waking up today wondering what it holds for them. Some may be wondering where their next meal will come from. Some may be worrying about shelter. Some may be facing the prospect of their own end. Many may be unprepared for the thief in the night.

Where are we? Where are we needed? What are we doing? Someone in our world needs us and is likely close at hand. Can we see the needs and our blessings? Or, are they hiding in plain sight?

It is truly a wonderful life. Magical. Majestic. Miraculous. All marked by the struggles necessary in our short turn in an imperfect world. Ours is the gift to see it, to experience it, and to leave it better. Ours is the opportunity to order the amazing goods of this world toward a better end, and in the process, make our end better.

May we all find a way to live in our own Bailey Park. May we all find ways to bring some Bailey Park to the world.

Showing 2 comments
  • Mom & Dad
    Reply

    For your Mother & I, “A Wonderful Life” our wonderful life has been and continues to be made up of the many MOMENTS (such dinner with you and your family a couple nights ago), the music (especially Christmas music this time each year) the little adventures of road trips, taking and sharing of pictures with family & friends, BB breakfasts, putting up our Christmas Decorations, and the moments of happiness we give ourselves and others throughout the year(s). Mom & I are packing as many happy moments into our lives as possible. Our Gratitude is so easy because our life is full of our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren and blessings are many. We choose to have and make it a wonderful life. Your blog is one of those “moments” each week, thank you very much.

    Nice piece Phillip.

  • Fred McClaine
    Reply

    Phil,
    The perfect writing for the season, I was inspired and will share with others. We lost Jamie’s father a few months ago with his last days at a Hospice. It brought back to us how you go to God without anything but your soul and how you use your time here. Thanks for the continued inspiration!

    Fred

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