It’s a Wonderful Life

My plan to watch It’s a Wonderful Life with my family this weekend was delayed as my daughters ran from one Christmas party to another. I hope we will be able to squeeze the movie in one evening in the next two weeks, because the uplifting story of kindness and generosity returned in a time of need suits the holiday spirit of Christmas.

I love this movie despite its errors. I am not talking about continuity errors or character errors. (You can read about those on IMDB if you are interested.) The movie contains some significant theological errors, some of which are even essential to the plot.

First, people do not become angels when they die. Human beings remain human, even when their spirits are separated from their bodies. Angels have always been angels. Just as cats never turn into dogs, so people never turn into angels. If Clarence is an angel, then he has always been an angel.

Second, the conversation between Clarence and Joseph, prompted by prayers to God on behalf of George Bailey, totally fails to mention God. True angels serve God and do his will. They do not answer prayers or step into the lives of God’s people without a direct command from God to do so. Perhaps the makers of the movie were afraid that a portrayal of God would offend some people. If so, they were probably right. Still, the omission of God from the heavenly counsel is also problematic.

Third, angels do not need to earn their wings. The wings of angels are rarely mentioned in the Bible, although the prophet Isaiah saw angels surrounding the throne of God–they each had six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two wings they covered their feet, and with two wings they flew. Also, the angels depicted on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant and in Solomon’s Temple had wings. Angels do not need wings to fly. They are spiritual beings, not physical beings. They do not take up space or reflect light. When angels become visible, they generally do so to deliver a message from God. (The word “angel” actually means “messenger.”) Instead of reflecting light, they emit light, which is probably why they often begin conversations with human beings by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”

Fourth, the Bible does not mention first-class angels and second-class angels. The angels Isaiah saw were called seraphim (“burning ones”); other angels are called cherubim (“near ones,” perhaps because they remain close to God). There is also an archangel (“head angel”) named Michael. Medieval theologians speculated that there are nine ranks of angels, including thrones, dominions, virtues, and powers. There is no evidence that angels can be promoted from one rank to another by doing good deeds.

Why do I love a movie that is so wrong about angels? The movie is really about people, not about angels. Its hero, George Bailey, cares about people, especially the poor and the working class. His nemesis, Mr. Potter, cares only about money and power. In a run on the town’s bank during the Great Depression, George Bailey uses his personal funds (saved to finance his honeymoon–the run occurs the day he is married) to help others, while Mr. Potter takes advantage of the run to take over the bank. Even though George Bailey is a hero, he is not unflawed. Under stress he verbally abuses his wife and children, then self-medicates with alcohol. His religious beliefs are never stated, but it appears that he prays only as a last resort, not faithfully. Christmas provides a reason to decorate the home and the office, but its significance for George Bailey seems less than the significance of an approaching party to be held for his younger brother, a war hero.

For the Christian, It’s a Wonderful Life might be experienced like the book of Esther. God is never mentioned by name in Esther, although he is clearly the moving force protecting the Jewish people. Like Queen Esther, George Bailey acts in a godly way to help others; like Esther, he receives help when he needs it most. In Esther’s case, she needs the approval and support of the emperor; George Bailey needs the support of his friends and neighbors. Both of them receive what they need because God is in charge of their lives.

In short, Clarence is not the answer to the prayers prayed by and for George Bailey. The answer to prayers comes by way of the hearts of the residents of Bedford Falls. The ironic use of the hymn “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”–meant in the movie only to underline Clarence’s role–can instead remind Christians of the true meaning of Christmas: “Glory to the newborn King, peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” J.

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On lying to children

Many Christian parents think nothing of it, but a few are deeply concerned: should we tell our children stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy? The worst-case scenario is that, when they learn they have been deceived, they might begin to doubt Jesus Christ and the accounts of the Bible. Even barring that risk, is it worth entertaining young children with falsehoods merely to perpetuate a cultural tradition?

As a father, I chose to participate in the stories without putting any more stress upon them than upon Hansel and Gretel or Jack and the Beanstalk. I read my children The Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve, not neglecting to read also Luke 2:1-20. We watched Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Miracle on 34th Street together, but we also watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with Linus’ famous rendition of the Christmas Gospel. A stocking with fruit and candy appeared in the house after the children were in bed on Christmas Eve, but not much was said about Santa bringing the stocking. A quarter was given overnight for a lost tooth–and some teeth were truly lost: one was evidently swallowed with a bite of breakfast cereal, and another fell out in a swimming pool and disappeared into the drain. The egg hunt on Easter happened after church and after the midday meal–the children went for a walk to look at flowers in the neighborhood while Daddy rested after a busy morning. Somehow colored eggs and baskets with candy were hidden in the house during Daddy’s nap.

Santa Claus had to work a lot harder when I was a little boy. Not only did he bring stockings overnight; he also brought a live tree into the house and decorated it while we slept. I knew that Santa would not come until everyone was asleep, and I was concerned that my mother was vacuuming the house late at night on Christmas Eve–didn’t she know that she was delaying his visit? Other stores had men dressed like Santa who reported to Santa what children told them, but the real Santa Claus had his throne in Marshall Fields’ store in downtown Chicago. On a Saturday in December we would take the train to Chicago, and I would wait in line a long time to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I wanted for Christmas. When the movie A Christmas Story was made in the 1980s, I discovered that I was not the only little boy who had been scared of Santa and would prefer not have bothered to visit him at Marshall Fields.

Santa Claus was big and loud and frightening. Worse than that, he was always watching (and he had an army of elves spying for him as well). He knew if I had been bad or good, and from Thanksgiving until Christmas I was frequently warned to be good so Santa would bring me presents. Likewise in the late winter and early spring I had to be on my best behavior to ensure the delivery of candy and colored eggs. In this case, every rabbit that left footprints in the snow was a spy for the Easter Bunny. I sometimes tried to track the rabbits to their lair, but I never had any success in that endeavor.

I think it is a mistake to use holiday treats to coerce good behavior, and I tried never to do that with my children. Christmas and Easter are not about being good to earn rewards; these holidays remind us of a God of grace who gives us blessings we do not deserve. Christmas and guilt should be separated as far as possible. On Christmas we celebrate the baby born in Bethlehem whose mission it was to remove our sins and guilt as far from us as the east is from the west. The planet has a north pole and a south pole, but there is no end to a journey traveling east or west. Our sins and guilt are taken from us and placed an infinite distance away from us.

My children were never confused by the fantasies we shared about Santa Claus and the others. They did not doubt the reality of Jesus and his love even if they were sometimes distracted by gifts under the tree or a basket of candy. One of their favorite books when they were little told about a little girl who lost a tooth and put it under her pillow so the Tooth Fairy would bring her money. In the morning, she accused her mother of coming into her room and replacing her tooth with money. Her mother replied that, in every house around the world, the Tooth Fairy took the appearance of the child’s mother or father so the child would not be frightened. This story may not be as dramatic as the “Yes, Virginia” newspaper essay. Still, I think it does assure parents that they can enjoy holiday traditions with their children without fear of losing the trust of their children later in life. J.

Microaggressions

This month I attended a workshop at work about microaggressions. I chose this workshop over others for two reasons: I knew that the presenters would lead a good workshop (they always do), and I wanted to learn more about what microaggressions are and how I can avoid doing them.

Microaggressions are the way we communicate—usually with spoken words, but also with gestures, facial expressions, and body language—our disdain or dismissal of other people because they are different from us. Deliberate insults and purposeful dismissals are not microaggressions—they are full aggression, easily recognized and easier to address. Microaggressions are usually unintended; they are the result of insensitivity rather than overt prejudice or bigotry. They are unplanned slights toward other people because of their race, language, gender and sexual preferences, age, economic status, religion, political beliefs, and the like.

Saying, “she’s pretty smart for a woman” is a microaggression. Assuming that the white middle-aged male is the head of his department is a microaggression. Choosing which customer to attend first based on skin color is a microaggression. I felt that the workshop gave too much attention to microaggression toward people of different sexual preferences or gender confusion—but my label “gender confusion” would probably be considered microaggression. On the other hand, we all hurt the feelings of other people without intending to be hurtful; sometimes we might even intend to be helpful.

One example was given by two people attending the workshop. A patron had approached the two of them gushing over a book about diets and weight loss. The patron had found the book very helpful, and she thought these two workers would also benefit from it. They were polite while she was near them; after she left, they turned to each other and asked, “Did she just say we are fat?”

I attended the workshop to learn how to avoid troubling other people. I also learned that I am sometimes the victim of microaggressions. An example that came to mind during the workshop was the wailing and gnashing of teeth in my department the day after the national election. Nobody went so far as  to claim that they were cheated or to organize a protest, but the conversations definitely reflected an assumption that everyone within earshot wanted Hillary Clinton to win, and that no one in the room considered her the greater of two evils on the ballot. A common expression was, “It was a terrible mistake, but we need to be calm and to live with it for the next four years.” I kept silent at work that day. I did not remind my coworkers that not everybody in the room supported Clinton. I did not even offer those words as an example of microaggression at the workshop, because I suspected that I represented a minority also within that group of people. Reticence to address a topic or a perceived insult is one of the signals that microaggression is in play.

An even clearer example of microaggression happened to me shortly after the workshop. One of my coworkers told me that a third coworker had needed to go home early that day because of a kidney stone. While he was telling me this, a fourth coworker approached us. The coworker speaking to me proceeded to share with the two of us an email from the coworker who was now at home. This coworker (who is an atheist) disparaged the poor design of the human body (making kidney stones possible) as evidence of the absence of a wise Creator. The fourth coworker responded, “I consider myself a spiritual person, but that’s pretty solid evidence,” or something to that effect. Both these coworkers know that I am a Christian, that my relationship with God is a very important part of my identity. Yet I saw no way to address their casual dismissal of faith—if I were to deliver a lecture on the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, it would not have been effective or well received at that time. Yet I had no short answer to show these two coworkers how disrespectful their conversation was toward me.

Sometimes you can’t win. Jews and atheists might feel dismissed by “Merry Christmas” greetings, while Christians feel slighted by “Happy Holidays” greetings. In the end, we do the best we can to respect one another’s identities and values. Meanwhile, we obviously need to find better ways of informing others of their insensitive microaggressions that trouble us. J.

The living room

When I was about eighteen months old my parents bought wall-to-wall carpeting for their dining room, living room, and hallway. One of my earliest memories–probably the earliest–is of that day. I was still being set on a table in my bedroom to be dressed. Having the furniture out of place throughout the house left an impression on my young mind.

When one stepped through the front door of my childhood house, one was practically in the dining room and living room. The two rooms were separated by a couch and by a china cabinet; there were no walls between them. A planter, about four feet high, was between the front door and the dining room; behind the open door was a coat closet, and the living room was to the right. The hallway was beyond the living room; from the hallway one could enter one large bedroom to the right, or either of two smaller bedrooms to the left. A closet was between the bedrooms. The bathroom was at the end of the hallway. Behind the dining room (as seen from the front door) was the kitchen. Next to the kitchen was a room we called the back entry: it had a small storage closet, a door to the back yard, a door to the basement across from the back door, and a sliding door that led into the nearer bedroom. The door between the kitchen and dining room was also a sliding door.

All three bedrooms had wooden floors, but the original floor in the rest of the house was brown tile with streaks of white and black. It looked something like a bowl of vanilla ice cream with chocolate syrup after someone had stirred the ice cream and syrup together with a spoon. The carpet that replaced the tile floor was dark blue. It consisted of loops of different sizes, creating a textured flooring that did not show footprints. I loved the fact that the carpet was blue. At times, it was the ocean, and two or three small throw rugs were islands on which my toys lived.

The living room had a large picture window which faced the front yard. Across the room from the window was a fireplace in which my family burned logs during the winter. Between the fireplace and the china cabinet was a bookshelf built into the wall. The books included two encyclopedia sets, a set of books from Time-Life about science, and assorted novels and works of nonfiction. The couch (which was mustard-yellow with flecks of brown) was in two sections. One was turned with its back to the dining room; the other had its back to the window. A pole lamp lit the room from the corner where the couch sections met. A television set on a metal stand was against the wall farthest from the front door, with easy chairs on either side of the TV. The living room had three wooden tables–a coffee table in front of the couch, an end table with a drawer next to the couch in front of the picture window, and a matching table next to the easy chair in the corner of the room.

When I was little, I was told that Santa Claus brought the Christmas tree, along with the stockings and other presents, after I went to bed on Christmas Eve. Those years we always had a real tree, and we always kept it up for the twelve days of Christmas, after which Santa came to take away the decorations until next year and to throw the tree outside. The tree was centered in the picture window; the couch was moved into a V shape with the angle pointing into the dining room. Stockings filled with gifts were left for each of us in front of the fireplace, and gifts were left under the tree. I remember the frustration of hearing my mother vacuuming the living room late in the night on Christmas Eve. I knew that she wanted the house nice for Santa, but I also knew he couldn’t arrive until she and my father had gone to bed. The first sight of the tree Christmas morning was always spectacular, as it towered high above my head all the way to the ceiling. Today’s Christmas trees seem much smaller in comparison.

When I was little, my family had a dog and a cat. The dog was mixed-breed, but largely beagle. She liked to sneak outside and run through the neighborhood for hours; she had no sense of property lines and was difficult to capture. The cat was allowed outside during the daytime but slept in the house at night. The dog liked to sleep behind the couch, under the picture window. The dog was not allowed into the bedrooms. The cat liked to entice the dog by running through the living room, encouraging the dog to chase her, and then ducking into a bedroom. The dog liked to chase a small ball across the living room and then return it so it could be thrown again.

Needless to say, the carpet and furniture were replaced a time or two over the years, and a color TV eventually replaced the black-and-white set of my childhood. These early memories of the house, though, are the ones likely to stay with me the longest. J.

Playing outdoors

When my parents had their house built, they asked the builders to be careful not to hurt the two old juniper trees in the front yard. When construction was finished, the trees beautifully framed the house as seen from the street. I hope that the crew that demolished the house this year was careful to leave the trees there. It’s odd, though, to think that those trees could outlive the entire history of the house.

Juniper trees drop clusters of short, sharp needles, so the front lawn was not a place to walk with bare feet. The grass in the back yard was soft and hazard free, perfect for bare feet, but when a family member forgot that the front lawn was different, he or she received a rude reminder. The needles didn’t shake out, either–one had to sit down and pull them out of one’s feet.

My parents raised an oak tree from an acorn in front of the house, closer to the street. Nearer the house, they planted a spruce tree. In December, my father would string Christmas lights on the spruce tree. Some years I would make ornaments for the tree from the Styrofoam trays that came under meat from the grocery store. I would trace around my mother’s cookie cutters, cut the ornaments from the Styrofoam, and color them with crayons. My mother helped me to string yarn through each ornament so I could hang it on the tree. I remember December afternoons when I sat at the dining room table to trace and cut and color while she made Christmas cookies or other holiday treats in the kitchen, accompanied by Christmas songs on the record player. I think the making of outdoor ornaments was a ruse to keep me quiet while she did her baking.

The two junipers, the oak, and the spruce made a perfect baseball diamond for my summers. I had a plastic ball and a plastic bat. I would toss the ball in the air, swing the bat, and run the bases. The trees represented not only bases, but also fielders. Later, when I was bigger and stronger, the storm drain became first base and the second juniper became third base, while the oak tree switched from first baseman to pitcher. Of course all of right field was now across the street, so I learned to pull the ball to left field. Any ball that landed on my grandparents’ property was a home run.

Mowing the grass and raking the leaves became my chore at my parents’ home and at my grandparents’ home. I liked mowing for my grandparents better because they let me use their mower, which had an electric starter instead of a rope to pull. My parents did not burn autumn leaves, nor did they bag them to be taken to the landfill. They used the leaves as mulch in their flowerbeds and strawberry patch. Raking, then, meant creating leaf piles, loading them into a wheelbarrow, taking them behind the house, and dumping them where they belonged for the winter.

Aside from baseball, I did not play much in the front yard. In addition to having softer grass, the back yard was more sheltered. My father built a sandbox for me, bringing in new sand every spring. He also erected a metal swing set. Some years he would install a wading pool for the summer. My family had a croquet set; some days I would set up a course and play all four colors on my own.

On laundry day, my mother liked to dry clothes and bedsheets in the back yard when the weather permitted. At first we had a standard clothes line strung between two poles. Later, my father bought a clothes line that attached to the side of the garage. It retracted into a case, and the pole for the opposite end could be pulled out of its hole and put in the garage. My mother often sent me outside on laundry day to set up the clothesline while she began the first load of washing.

A large church two blocks away provided a soundtrack for my summers outdoors. The church had a three-bell carillon which I can still hear in my imagination. Because they rang at different speeds, they created a tune which went something like this: ding, dang, dong, ding-dang, dong-ding, ding-dong (repeats).  The “dong” was the tonic (or “do”), the “dang” was the third (or “mi”), and the ding was the fifth (or “sol”).

I learned to love some summer insects, such as cicadas that sang in the trees, and fireflies that entertained during summer evenings. I did not, however, like wasps and bees. In my childhood, I was stung about once per summer. Although the reaction was mild–pain and swelling the day of the sting, itching for two or three days afterward–I had a fear of stinging insects that bordered on phobia. If I could see a wasp or a bee, or if I could hear an insect buzzing, I was very much afraid.

Aside from that, most of my childhood memories are pleasant. I loved to ride my bicycle around the neighborhood, or swing on the swing set, or create new worlds in the sandbox (often using twigs and pine cones to create forests, or using toy trucks to build roads and excavate hills). In the winters I built snowmen and snow forts. On very cold winter days, I put on all my winter clothing–knit stocking cap, hooded coat, scarf, knit mittens, and boots–and explored the yard as if I were an astronaut on the moon. Playing outdoors allowed me to exercise imagination and creativity, as well as benefiting from fresh air and sunshine. J.

Holidays

Labor Day weekend led me to thinking about the many different holidays we observe. My initial thoughts about holidays became too complex and entangled to post. Here, then, is a summary of my remarks about holidays.

Some holidays are truly holy days. Christmas and Easter stand at the head of this class, although over two thousand years the Church has marked many other days and seasons for celebrations and commemorations. For this reason, I don’t take part in the seasonal objection to “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The world’s recognition that a certain day is holy should be encouraged, not resisted.

Other holidays are national holidays. In the United States we mark Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, and Thanksgiving, among others. All of these are declared by the government to be holy, time for us to set aside work, to enjoy life, and also to consider the blessings we have s citizens of the United States of America.

In the United States, certain days have been set apart to reflect the various cultures of which the American experience has been built. Saint Patrick’s Day, el Cinco de Mayo, Juneteenth, and Octoberfest all have developed as holidays that call attention to one or another ethnic groups in the United States.

Some holidays reflect the seasons as they change. Most cultures have, in some way, observed the solstices and equinoxes. Many Yuletide customs reflect more the change in seasons than the Incarnation of the Savior. Celtic and Germanic groups in pre-Christian Europe also marked the half-way points between solstices and equinoxes, laying the foundation for Groundhog Day, May Day, and Halloween.

Not all holidays are widely celebrated. Some are personal, celebrated only with family and close friends. Birthdays and wedding anniversaries fall within this category, and some families have other special commemorations to recall past events in their shared lives.

Families and nations sometimes commemorate sad events. September 11 and December 7 are days that “live in infamy” for most Americans. Once again, families might commemorate the loss of their loved ones on the anniversary of their deaths, or they might remember other sad or frightening experiences they have shared.

On my personal calendar, I like to add a few celebrity birthdays to celebrate in my own private way. The four Beatles, the seven main cast members of the original Star Trek, and a few other entertainers are listed on my calendar. They neither know nor care that I remember them on their birthdays. No one else really cares either. I don’t make a major celebration to mark their days, but I do happen to remember them on their birthdays.

Do you have any holidays that are special to you or unique? J.

 

Twelve drummers drumming

With the setting of the sun and the observance of Twelfth Night, the season of Christmas comes to an end. During this time we have celebrated the birth of our Savior, we have started a new year, and we have considered some of the saints who the Lord has blessed and through whom he has blessed his Church. I hope that my tour with you of the twelve days of Christmas has been helpful and meaningful for you. If you have never observed these twelve days before, I urge you to consider doing so next winter. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night! J.

Eleven pipers piping

Elizabeth Seaton is described as the first saint native to the United States, although of course many thousands of saints were living in the United States when the new nation first declared its independence. Raised as an Episcopalian, Elizabeth married and had five children before being widowed at the age of twenty-eight. After joining the Roman Catholic Church, she founded the American Sisters of Charity, dedicated to helping the poor and to teaching children.

Saints do not become saints by living better lives than other people. God is not content with “better than average.” He demands perfection. Saints become saints by faith in Jesus Christ. Through his perfection, we saints are seen as perfect by God the Father, because he sees us through his Son and therefore calls us his children. Having been forgiven and made holy by Jesus, saints now strive to live as children of God. We try to match the perfection of Jesus. We still fall short, of course, but we are also still forgiven. We remain perfect in the eyes of God the Father.

Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can dedicate our energies to helping the poor who live in our midst. Like Elizabeth Seaton, we can use our energy to teach others what they need to know—especially the victory of Jesus Christ and his promises to rescue us and claim us for his kingdom. If we are saints, then we should act like saints, bringing glory to God’s name and drawing our neighbors to learn more about the hope that we have in Christ. J.

Ten lords a-leaping

Saint Genevieve lived in Paris during a time of great turmoil. She is said to have negotiated with both the Franks and the Huns for the preservation of her home city. This means that she spoke with Attila the Hun and with Clovis, first of the Merovingian kings of France. Truly she moved in important circles.
Today Saint Genevieve is best remembered as the patron saint of Guinevere, wife of King Arthur, according to the musical Camelot. Before she meets Arthur, Guinevere is heard praying to Saint Genevieve, begging her protection from this unwanted marriage that has been arranged. The future queen even threatens the saint, saying that Genevieve has failed in her duty, “and from now on I intend to pray to someone else instead.”
As for me, I have never prayed to a saint. I know that I can approach God the Father directly through Jesus Christ. When you are invited to express your concerns to the top authority, why rely on intermediaries? Even though I do not pray to the saints or expect miracles from their intervention, I still find them worthy of being remembered. Saints can and should be honored for their faithful service to the Lord. More than that, they are useful reminders of the way God cares for his people and keeps his promises to us. Best of all, we too are saints, already made holy by the saving work of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate the saints, we also celebrate our place among their number. J.

Nine ladies dancing

Basil and Gregory were two of the great theologians to rise in the Church after the time of Sylvester and Constantine. They defended the decisions of the Council of Nicaea, which described Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten (not made) Being of one Substance with the Father.” For several decades after the council, opponents of those teachings continued to insist that Jesus is not equal to the Father, that he was created by the Father, and that only God the Father is Almighty. Thanks to writers such as Basil and Gregory, the teachings of the Bible as summarized by the Nicene Creed were preserved in the Christian Church.
Both men were highly educated in philosophy as well as in Christian doctrine. They were able to serve the Lord and the Church through their writing, explaining the mysteries of the Christian faith so more could believe them and receive God’s blessings through them. Many other generations of the Church have also been blessed by such writers: Augustine, Martin Luther, and C. S. Lewis come to mind. God always blesses his Church at the times that his people most need his help.
May you revel in whichever writers have helped you to understand the Word of God and the teachings of his Church. J.