Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Agony in Bedford Falls

" strengthen him, an angel from heaven appeared." Lk. 22:43

Some days, we feel like George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart) from It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

Like him, we've grown up with dreams that would take us far - yet still remain grounded in reality, hoping for a big break sometime soon. And like him, we're now enduring our own great depression in the early 21st century, trying to make ends meet and not knowing when relief is coming. We go to work, do our part, help where needed - with what little we have.

Yet living in such circumstances means that we might also be on the precipice, like George Bailey, worried we could fall at any moment and snap under pressure.

Whether it's one more thing piled on us at work or whether it's yet another thing going haywire at home, we might know what it's like to be there. Whether we're struggling with a relationship or the lack thereof, whether we're overwhelmed by anxieties about our health or someone else's, or whether we're lost somewhere in life, we may very well be at the end of our rope.

It's at those low points in life, when we feel almost alone, we wonder where we go next. George Bailey found himself stumbling to a snow-covered bridge in Bedford Falls, looking at the freezing water below, hoping for all the pressures to just go away.

In that moment of desperation, he quietly calls upon God.

It recalls the story of another man, Jesus of Nazareth, overwhelmed by pressure from the authorities, betrayed by his own inner circle, and frightened for himself and what might come next, who felt so alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. "My soul is sorrowful, even unto death," he confessed to his closest friends (Mt. 26:38).

Looking into the night sky that night in Jerusalem two thousand years ago, in his moment of desperation, he called out to God: "Abba, Father, since all things are possible to you, take this cup away from me..." (Mk. 14:36). He, too, wanted all the pressures to just go away.

Jesus, and George Bailey, remind us that, in our darkest hours and when all the anxieties of the world (or at least all the anxieties of our life right now) seem to weigh us down on us, the best thing we can do is be still for a few moments and call upon our God. Internalizing all the fear and frustration will only destroy us from within. Passing our anger and aggression onto others will only destroy our relationships. Instead, we are called to turn to the heavens.

Yell at God if we must. Complain, scream, and curse to the Almighty, if it helps. God can take it.

So what will happen when we look to the Lord in prayer? Will a miracle wipe away all that pains us? Will a flash of light reveal the answers we seek? Probably not. But that's not the way God responds to our prayers.

In the Scriptures, we are told that " strengthen him (Jesus), an angel from heaven appeared." (Lk. 22:43). We're not sure how that happened, no matter what artistic interpretations have shown us over the centuries... but I like to think of it like the angel Clarence (Henry Travers) in Wonderful Life.

In the film, George's angel isn't swooping in with wings unfurled or majestic light beaming from the skies. This angel seems like any other guy on the street, albeit a bit stranger than most. In fact, had Clarence not told George he was from on high, no one would have ever guessed it.

Perhaps the answer to our prayers is more akin to this popular holiday movie. Perhaps after taking a quiet moment to lay our concerns at the Almighty, we just need to open our eyes and go back into that harsh world we're trying to escape. Perhaps there we will meet our "angel."

But yet again, we also need to be cautious not to rely on an "angel" suddenly appearing in the course of our lives to take away our pains. (and remember that Clarence didn't take away George's problems either; he simply reminded him of his own worth). We simply need to be open to others, to humility, and to moment of discernment. Sometimes taking time to look back on our horrible day or frustrated life is a worthwhile exercise in prayer.

We all have had and will continue to have Agony in the Garden moments. We might all find ourselves on that snowy bridge in Bedford Falls, at the precipice of indecision. It's okay to be there. God will listen. And we believe that somehow, someway, God will also respond.

The question for us will be: are we ready to receive the response God has in store for us?

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