James through the Eyes of George (Part 4)

Standard

Now let’s move to the first section of our passage:

13 Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” 

George had BIG plans, BIG dreams, BIG hopes…It’s a human tendency to make plans….to strategize our lives.  We seem to have an innate desire to avoid the unexpected…to protect ourselves from unexpected harm, or danger. We like to be in control and have things our way, don’t we?

We should also carefully consider whether the plans we make are based solely on what I want to do….or what God would have me do.  Do my plans have impact in the world…do they serve the Kingdom of God….or do they only serve my own ambitions.  Am I following in the footsteps of my Father….following the vision and plan of my Father in Heaven?  Or am I blazing my own trail? Going on my own adventure?

14 Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 

Our community has recently had its fair share of sudden changes in plans in the lives of some of those among us.  We have all been praying for at least two families that have recently left our community in completely unexpected ways.  We think immediately of the people in Lombok…and Palu…and the families of those connected to Lion Air flight 610. We can all think of personal examples in our own lives, too.

I remember vividly the day in 2009 when we got “the call” from our pastor in the States telling us that my father-in-law had died instantly from a massive heart attack while cutting wood in forests of Montana.

But not all change is bad.  There is a little girl somewhere up in the balcony who is testimony to an unexpected change that has brought much joy–not only to our family but to everyone in this community.  She brought with her change nonetheless–and turned our family upside-down in some very good ways.

Sudden, unforeseen changes are hard.  And in these times are reminded of the hard reality—so easy to forget in the midst of our own comfortable lives— that none of us can plan anything with certainty.

Life is precarious…and not even all the money in the world can change that.

Truth is, life doesn’t always obey the plans we have make for it. The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that “time and chance” happen to us all–life happens, and it’s not always in the form we envisioned it…

The Psalmist reminds us that humans “plan their course but the Lord determines their steps.” Yes, sometimes the Lord directs in ways contrary to our own plans….

  • …sometimes through, a still, small voice,
  • …sometimes through circumstances out of our control,
  • …sometimes through the voices of others, and
  • …sometimes by observing the people around us, seeing the situations they face, and realizing that we can do something to help

Either way, our time is short, so let us all learn to “number our days” that we might gain wisdom on how we should spend our time.

15 Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.”

In our movie, George is not particularly spiritual, except at his lowest hour when everything seems hopeless—he sits in a bar and begins to weep, and prays, “God…Dear Father in Heaven…if you’re up there and you can here me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope.  Show me the way.”  Not long after that Clarence shows up. George’s prayer us a pretty good paraphrase of Psalm 25:4-5 – “Show me your way, O Lord, and teach me your paths.  Guide me in your way, and teach me.”

16 As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. 

17 If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.    Just as Mr. Potter was evil…so, too, is living only for ourselves.

George, I believe, saw the evil that was Mr. Potter, and the good that needed to be done. And in that moment when the frame freezes and all of his dreams and plans go flashing through his brain…he chooses to do the good he knew he ought to do….

I can only speak for myself, but I can think of far more times that I’d like to admit, when I saw something good that could have been done and did not do it—

  • Because I was tired
  • Because I was scared
  • Because I didn’t want people to think I was weird
  • Because I didn’t care
  • Because I put myself first

The excuses could go on and on and on.  I’m assuming I’m not the only one.  This tends to be the way of the the human creature.  I think, perhaps, what James is trying to get at here is something like this—

Go ahead and make your plans, have dreams and goals, and think about what’s ahead.  But, don’t forget to read the disclaimer—everything is life is subject to change without prior warning or advance notice.  That’s just how things are.  Most importantly, don’t ever ignore the opportunity to do the good that is right in front of your nose here and now, because you are waiting to do something good in the future…you don’t know what will happen tomorrow…but you can do something good today.

I really like the sign posted on the window in front of my son’s classroom—“You can have excuses or results”….not both.”  Lord, help me…by your strength and power…to weed out the excuses in my life….that I might live more and more in the fruitfulness of the results that only you can bring.

Thank you for reading!

James through the Eyes of George (Part 3)

Standard

George was the richest man in town, not because of his money…but his heart.  “No man is a failure who has friends,” Clarence notes…..and from that perspective, Mr. Potter is the poorest, unhappiest, and biggest failure of them all.

Let’s look at the Scripture again through the eyes George….but as we do, put yourself in George’s shoes, and consider how the words of James in this passage, interact with your own experiences and your own situation.  I’m going to begin with the second section and then move back to the first.

5:1 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.

2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes.

3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days.

4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty.

5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter.

6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.

Yikes!

Potter is the picture of wealth, greed, and evil. He’s the kind of guy James is talking about here—those who love their wealth, rely on their wealth, trust in their wealth, and use their wealth and power and influence to the detriment of others….who hurt people and use people as they do what they want to do.

Most of here probably would not consider ourselves to be wealthy, especially compared to our friends and family back in our home countries.  In our contexts here, though, many of us are more wealthy than many of the people in this country we call home. Most people consider us to be wealthy…and indeed we are.  I don’t have to look any further than myself…

I live in a nice, modest home—but clean and safe and comfortable.

I have a well-maintained vehicle…more than one.

We spend money when needed on new furniture and new computers and such.  We occasionally go out to a nice restaurant and, when traveling, we hit up every Indian place we can find. And now that I mention that, our family has been able to travel to places like Singapore, Malaysia, and beyond….places many will never see. Sometimes people here ask me how much a plane ticket to US costs and I’m embarrassed to tell it would cost them several months income….just for one member of our family.

And, I’m almost ashamed to say it, but I tend to get happy when the exchange rate turns in our favor. It’s really good for my budget, after all.  Am I the only one who feels this way?

More embarrassingly, even though I already have more than many people and live fairly comfortable life….I am all too quick to complain about what I don’t have….and complain when my AC goes out and my office is warmer than I’d like it to be.

People say “time is money,” but that is only true for those of us that have enough money to buy the time, right?   Clearly, I am not the right person to be the prophetic voice on the dangers of wealth and comfort.

And if we expand our concept of wealth just a little bit beyond just financial wealth, we might also consider that some of us have been able to enjoy the riches of:

  • Being raised in Christian home and learning from an early age about God and Scripture and Christ.
  • Some of us have enjoyed the riches of a stable, healthy home environments with two loving parents, stable jobs, opportunity to retire, and more.
  • Some of us have enjoyed the riches of a healthy and strong body from childhood, free from sickness and disease.
  • Some of us have enjoyed the riches of quality, even world-class education from elementary school…to high school…through university and even post-graduate studies.
  • Some of us have grown up NOT having to deal with racism, sexism, abuse, neglect, and so much more.

More than that, in my work here, I have been given a certain level of decision-making power, authority, and influence on the ministry team on which I serve.

It is important, James is reminding us, to realize where we stand and all that we have been given…to understand that we have been given things that other don’t have.  We all have enjoyed certain advantages that others haven’t had, and have access to funds and resources, positions or power or influence, that allow us to live—for better or worse—a fairly comfortable life without constant worry about what’s going to happen tomorrow.

In the words of Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben, “with great power comes great responsibility.” James would say the same…..he is reminding the people in his context about the dangers of wealth and provision and power and influence and more, and as he does we are reminded that we must be careful about how we use these resources and to remember the responsibility that comes with whatever level of wealth, support, power, and position we might hold.

Mr. Potter spent his life fattening himself up for the day of slaughter, as James would say. A lesson for us, I suppose, is to not let ourselves not get metaphorically fat and lazy living for ourselves, because no person can serve two Masters, as Christ reminds us.  Money and God?  Self and God?

Let us use whatever we’ve been given—financial resources, power, position, authority–to glorify our Father in Heaven and to meet the needs of the people around us….to live Kingdom-focused lives.

Thank you for reading!

James through the Eyes of George (Part 2)

Standard

So, George stays in Bedford Falls and gives his travel and college money to his little brother Harry.

Harry, goes to university and becomes a football star.

George gets married to to a childhood sweetheart, and stays in Bedford Falls.

Harry meets a young woman from the big city whose father offers him a high-paying job in research and development—a job that will make him rich and give him opportunity to travel the world.

George and Mary have 4 children and struggle to make ends meet.

Harry goes to war as an Air Force pilot and wins a medal of honor for saving the lives of hundreds on a transport ship.

George can’t go to war due to a bad ear, from the time he saved Harry from drowning in a frozen lake as a child.

Harry and George’s friends all go on to do big and shiny things, make money, travel the world…all the things George dreamed of doing.

George stays in Bedford Falls, daily struggling against Mr. Potter. He builds small, modest homes for people who may or may not ever be able to fully pay him back.   George wonders why Mary ever married someone like him…the man who never did anything important or noteworthy.

All this time Mr. Potter is scheming for a way to destroy George Bailey.  A few days before Christmas Eve 1945, Mr. Potter offers George a job with a good salary and opportunity to travel.  It’s an ingenious plan—distract George from all the good he is doing by offering to him something he has always wanted.  George nearly jumps at the chance, but then sees the plan for what it is.

Furious, Mr. Potter has had enough.  He takes advantage of the carelessness of one of George’s employees and steals $8000 from the Building and Loan.  When George can’t make his payment to the bank, Mr. Potter issues a warrant for the arrest of George Bailey on grounds of embezzlement and fraud.

And here we find George on the bridge on Christmas Eve, ready to throw himself into the freezing waters.  And he does.  And just at that moment Clarence, a rather homely angel from heaven… jumps into the river to save him.

[I’m not going to discuss any theology of angels or guardian angels today…through I’m pretty sure there’s no Biblical basis for the idea that “every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings…sorry if I ruined that for you.  In the movie, however, Clarence is trying to earn his wings…he’s been waiting 293 years for the opportunity].

Clarence’s solution to help George is the allow George to see what the world would have been like had he not been born.  In this vision, or dream, or alternate reality the world is a very different place.  Because George was not there, when his father died Potter took over and owned nearly the entire town. Bedford Falls, becomes a sin-laden town filled with bars and prostitutes and violence…a real “sin city.”

George’s wife, Mary, never married.

None of George’s friends in town know who he is when he walks around town with Clarence.

The people who lived in the homes he had built are out of work and living on the street—unhappy living in the dark shadow of Mr. Potter.

The home George and his wife and children lived is an abandoned old home that hasn’t been lived in for decades, and Zuzu’s pedals are nowhere to be found.

The true moment of shock, however, is when George walks through the cemetery and sees his brother Harry’s tombstone, showing that he had died at age 9. When George refuses to believe that his brother is dead, Clarence responds:

CLARENCE:  “Your brother, Harry Bailey, broke through the ice and was drowned at the age of nine.” 

GEORGE:  “That’s a lie! Harry Bailey went to war! He got the Congressional Medal of Honor! He saved the lives of every man on that transport [ship]. “

CLARENCE:  “Every man on that transport [ship] died. Harry wasn’t there to save them because you weren’t there to save Harry. You see, George, you really had a wonderful life.  Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to throw it away?”

George begs Clarence for his life back, and when he returns home he finds his children and his wife.  Mary has told everyone she knows about that $8000 that is missing and everyone in town comes pouring into the Bailey house emptying their wallets, coin purses, and even the jukebox, to help George.  They know George, they like George, and they trust George.  They know the time and energy he has put into them, and into their homes,  and into their town.  They know he loves them by the way he has lived his life….and they love him for it.

Finally…and this is the part that brings a tear every year.  I sit through nearly three hours of this movie just to watch this final scene…just for these final five minutes.  In the closing minutes of the movie, we learn that Harry Bailey, George’s little brother, has cut short his dinner with the President of the United States, to fly in a blizzard back to Bedford Falls, to come and see his brother in his time of need.

He comes into the home covered in snow, grabs a glass and makes a toast.  Harry, who did big and shiny things with his life.  Harry, the war hero who eats with the President.  Harry, who benefitted from his big brothers decision to stay.  Harry, whose name everyone knows, who name is the headline of the local newspaper.  Harry lifts his glass to his brother and says…

“To my big brother, George, the richest man in town!”

Then the credits begin to roll…

Thanks for reading!

James through the Eyes of George (Part 1)

Standard

I love the book of James; lots of good stuff in there.  I was recently asked to speak on James 4:13 through 5:6, which is interesting passage of Scripture.  Before continuing you might want to go and give it a quick read.  Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you before I continue….

Ok, ready?

James through the Eyes of George (Part 1)

Spoiler alert!

I’m going to share with you the plot of movie, so if you haven’t seen it, I apologize. This movie, however, was first released in 1946, so if you haven’t seen it yet…well…I’m still sorry.

I have watched this movie nearly every Christmas since I was a child—all three hours of it—and still to this day the closing scene still causes a single solitary tear to roll down my cheek….every, single, time.

Although this movie is not a spiritual film, as such, when I read through the Scripture passage for today this movie—It’s a Wonderful Life, directed by Frank Capra and starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed—was one of the first things that came to my mind.  Actually, the first thing—I should really read the passage before agreeing to teach on it…any verse that approaches the topic of eating flesh ought to be handled carefully!

However, I’m not going to do an exegetical deep dive today.  Using the word “exegetical” might be as exegetical as I get today.  Rather, through the use of this movie as a parable and illustration, I hope to highlight a a few important points and give us all a little bit of food for thought to chew on together, with enough left over to allow us all to take home a doggie bag.

So, my friends, here we go.

On Christmas Eve 1945, in Bedford Falls, New York, George Bailey is contemplating suicide.  His business is on the verge of bankruptcy, and he is about to be swallowed up by the misery, hardened, and corrupt Mr. Potter—the man who owns nearly everything in town, except for George’s small Bailey Brothers Building-and-Loan business.

Mr. Potter—no relation to Harry Potter–is the very image of evil, oppression, corruption, and rotten wealth.  [He is what James was talking about when he mentioned “flesh being eaten like fire”]  People who work for Potter and those who live in his over-priced housing projects live difficult lives of being over-worked, suffer great financial burden, and enjoy little happiness.

By contrast, George’s small building and loan offers people the opportunity to work hard, save their money, and build a house they can afford, an affordable house in which they can raise their family.  And this makes Mr. Potter very, very angry…he would like nothing more than squash George Bailey under thumb.

We quickly learn that living in Bedford Falls and operating the Bailey Brothers Building and Load was NOT the plan that George Bailey has for his life.

He once said to Mary, the women he would eventually marry—

“I know what I’m going to do tomorrow and the next day and the next year and the year after that.  I’m shaking the dust of this crummy little town off my feet and I’m going to see the world! Italy, Greece, the Parthenon, the Colosseum.  Then I’m coming back here and go to college and see what they know…and then I’m going to build things.  I’m gonna build air fields.  I’m gonna build skyscrapers a hundred stories high.  I’m gonna build bridges a mile long…”

George Bailey had dreams….BIG dreams.  After high school he would work for four years to earn money for his big worldwide adventure.  When George leaves town, the plan is for his little brother Harry to take his place at the Building and Loan and work for four years before he goes on to college.

Then, tragically, on the night of Harry’s high school graduation, George’s father dies suddenly from a stroke.  George cancels his trip to help the family, but plans to leave as soon as everything is in order.  At the board meeting of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan, Mr. Potter selfishly offers to buy out the Building and Loan, for a good price—a price would have easily paid for George’s worldwide adventure and more.  Then, in a moment of frustration and inspiration, George addresses Mr. Potter—

“Neither you nor anybody else can say anything against [my father’s] character…he never once thought of himself…But he did help a few people get out of your slums, Mr. Potter.  

And what’s wrong with that?  

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.  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!”

In the end, the Building and Loan board agrees to refuse Potter’s offer, but only if George will agree to stay on as the manager and CEO.  In the movie the frame freezes for a moment as George realizes the weight of the moment and the decision he must make.

Have you ever had a moment like that—when the world seems to stand still and the weight of a decision almost seems to crush you? I have…and if you haven’t had an experience like this yet…you will.

Will George follow his dreams and plans…or will stay and follow in his fathers footsteps, continue to carry out his father’s vision, and continue to stand against the evil that is Mr. Potter.

In the end, George agrees to stay and continue his father’s business, the business that, as a young man, he despised…he wanted no part of it.  In fact, just a couple of hours before his father’s death, George had told his father that the Building and Loan was just too small of a thing for him to give his life to. He was destined for BIG things…GREAT things….yet, in the moment of decision, he makes the hard choice to stay.

Sometimes staying is a more difficult decision than going…

Thanks for reading!