Giving Up Grief for Lent: A Lenten Blog Series that explores the things the Mainline church needs to grieve in order to embrace a new Easter reality …
I don’t think there are many life lessons that can’t be derived from the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
On the day of his wedding to the beautiful and loyal Mary Hatch (played by Donna Reed), George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) and his new bride, a fist-full of money in hand, are leaving Bedford Falls to catch the next train to New York City for their honeymoon. They see a mob of people running toward the Building and Loan, which George runs.
Well, most of you know what happens next: George returns to a run on the bank, spurred by the inconveniently timed stock market crash. George settles down the crowd by giving them the money they want from their accounts, funded entirely by their honeymoon coffers. At the end of the day, George, his Uncle Billy and the other bank employees count down jubiantly to their 6 p.m. closing time with only 2 dollars left to spare. “A toast to mama dollar and papa dollar,” George exclaims.
For those of you who have seen the movie as many times as I have probably know that this circumstance will repeat itself in George Bailey’s life. Over and over again, his toes stick out over the edge of the abyss only to have something (or some angel, in the case of Clarence) put him back on solid ground.
Like George Bailey, the institutional, mainline church has had its toes dangle over the abyss. Financial woes, dwindling membership and shrinking cultural influence typify the average congregation now. But, unlike George Bailey, many church members can remember a different time — a time of building additions, abundant budgets and rooms full of children and volunteers at the ready for Sunday school.
Now it seems like all the church has to do live in the present scarcity and yearn for that time past (brief as it may have been) when there was an abundance of time, money, people and other resources. The only thing we can do, it seems, is immerse ourselves in the paralyzing sadness and hopelessness, like George Bailey who convinces himself that his life is meaningless until he sees the world as if he didn’t exist.
But, the church and the life-altering, world transforming, radically hopeful message of the gospel occupies a critical place in a culture that sees no way to overcome global poverty, escalating violence, ecological disaster and racial oppression. The Apostle Paul in his letter to the Phillippians in the lectionary this Sunday, reminds us of this transformative Christian life. He writes about his heritage — about being born a Jew, then his early life as a persecutor of early Christians — and says that all of his former identity was lost. Paul realizes that who he was and what he had was made irrelevant by his life-altering conversion. Christ created a new life, a new sense of purpose, a new world for Paul and other followers. “Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phillippians 3: 13 & 14)
We must shed our former selves, our heritage and our comfortable lives in order to be remade, born anew. Can the church let go of its grief and that brief period of cultural and economic supremacy in order to be remade into different, perhaps even more faithful followers of the gospel? How can you and your congregation forget what lies behind and instead press on, like Paul beckons us?
For a Prayer of Invocation and discussion starters related to greiving the loss of abundance, see the worship resources section of this blog.