Most of you know that in the great movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s Uncle Billy, his erratic, absent-minded, often tipsy assistant, misplaces $8,000 in the lap of their family nemesis, Henry Potter, as cruel, mean, avaricious and hard-hearted a villain as was ever created. George Bailey faces the prospect of bankruptcy, jail, dishonor, the loss of his family, the loss of his reputation, the loss of the miserable building and loan to which he has given his life and talents. Having turned even unto his arch-enemy Potter for help and found no deliverance from any source, George hits rock bottom. He retreats to a bar and in desperation prays:
“Dear God. . . oh God . . . dear Father in heaven . . . I am not a praying man . . .
But if you are up there . . . and if you hear me . . . show me the way . . .
I‘m at the end of my rope . . . show me the way, oh God.”
Almost immediately thereafter, he is slugged in the mouth. But that prayer touches off a series of events that grants him an entirely new perspective on his life. In utter helplessness and hopelessness he casts himself upon God’s mercy in prayer and receives an answer that brings him a liberating sense of joy and peace.
Schmaltz, you say. Sentimental hooey. Perhaps. Yet I tell you, the prayer of George Bailey discloses something profound about the universe, a bedrock truth about our lives, and about the nature of God.
I think of a young American pilot in a cockpit on Christmas Eve, 1944, in the Battle of the Bulge. He knows the Germans have broken through the lines of the Allied troops and have surrounded the forces of liberation. This young pilot sits on the runway, having been told that he and another pilot have been selected to intercept a German parachute attack on the beleaguered Allied troops. He sits for four hours in silence, hoping the gathering darkness will prevent the attack. He knows he is on a suicide mission for the benefit of others. He knows he will not survive. Mentally, he starts saying goodbye to everyone he loves. Sitting on that runway, he ponders the irony of nations waging war on Christmas Eve, and of how he is poised to die violently. In the face of his imminent death he feels so lost, so empty, so overwhelmed, that he utters a George Bailey prayer: “My Lord . . . my God, help me, help me. Be with me in this dark hour.” On that runway, in the gathering darkness, before he hardly utters the Amen, this young pilot feels the peace and power of God in the depths of his soul. He knows, whatever happens, he is not alone. God is with him. That young pilot, named Bob Benton, went on to live a long life and become one of the most nurturing spiritual presences I have ever known. Not long after he prayed that prayer, he received word that his mission had been scrapped.
A world away, a young Marine named Tom Chinn was ensconced in a foxhole, helping secure a beachhead on Solomon Island. He was dug in next to an active volcano, and had endured a long night of bombing and strafing. Just about dawn, he heard a tremendous roar and felt his world tremble. He thought, it could be another bombing; it could be the volcano. But he rose out of his foxhole to realize that he has just weathered an earthquake! Soon thereafter, he was evacuated from the front lines to Guadalcanal, where he enjoyed a change of clothes and a good meal, by the relative standards of the Marines – and a shower. As he emerged from the shower he realized that it was his third year away from his home, his third year away from his wife, his third year away from the baby daughter he had never seen. Tom felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, a crushing loneliness, and he uttered a George Bailey prayer, “Lord, give me the strength to handle my loneliness and sense of despair.” Suddenly, as he emerged from the shower . . . he heard Christmas carols, the rough voices of Marines cutting through the darkness. Just as suddenly, this tough, battle-hardened Marine started weeping, and as tears marked his face he felt the peace and power of God strengthening the very core of his being. And though he could not anticipate what tomorrow might bring, he knew for sure that whatever he faced, he was not alone. God was with him. On that Christmas Eve, a world away from all that was familiar to him, he had a keen sense that the God who sent his Son to earth would always be with him.
For those who deem the Bible a book of fairy tales, I submit to you that people like Bob Benton and Tom Chinn could attest to the real power of George Bailey’s prayer and could easily have prayed these words uttered by the Psalmist:
Thou, O God my Lord, deal on my behalf for thy name’s sake;
because thy steadfast love is good, deliver me!
For I am poor and needy, and my heart is stricken within me.
I am gone, like a shadow in the evening; I am shaken off like a locust
My knees are weak through fasting; my body has become gaunt.
I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they wag their heads.
Help me, O Lord, my God! Save me according to thy steadfast love!
The prayer of George Bailey – I am at the end of my rope; show me the way! — touches on the bedrock theological truth that when we feel helpless and overwhelmed, when we feel confused as to how to move forward, when we feel forsaken, direct entreaty unto God is always open to us. We can implore God as did the Psalmist, “Save me, O Lord, according to Thy hesed, Thy steadfast love.” We can pray like George Bailey, “Lord, show me the way!” In such moments of humility, hopelessness and helplessness the testimony of Scripture and that of a thousand thousand lives bears witness that the peace of God will come to us, the Presence of God will come to us in our emptiness . . . and we will discover that we are not alone.
I have been thinking about writing a modern version of the story of Job. In my modern version, Job will be a college football coach whose team loses every single game that season. In the midst of losing every single game, Job will lose his mother to death. In the midst of losing every game, Job will suffer his son’s illness through a mysterious disease. In the midst of losing every game that year, Job’s wife will be stricken with a deadly cancer that seems close to taking her life.
If I write that story, I’ll have to admit that it’s based on real life: It is the story of Lou Holtz, then the coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks. I heard an interviewer ask Coach Holtz some years ago, “Coach, how did you take losing all those games? How did you withstand the death of your mom? The illness of your son? Nearly losing your wife to cancer? How did you weather all that adversity?” It was a secular program, a secular journalist, a secular question. But Coach Lou Holtz could not give a secular answer. He said, “Young man, I have a firm faith in God. And the peace of God sustained me throughout that terrible year.” Here was a man who in the midst of helplessness and hopelessness, struggling with losses he could do nothing about, cast himself upon God like George Bailey, saying, ‘Lord, I am at the end of my rope. Show me the way!” Thus he experienced the peace of God sustaining him, bubbling up from the very center of his being. At the core of his being he found a presence that sustained him, a power that sustained him, a reality that was none other than the living God! At the end of his rope, Lou Holz experienced God’s showing him the way.
Of course, there is nothing magical about this peace of God. The peace of God may not change your life’s circumstances in any material way. God’s presence and peace in your life may have no impact on your external surroundings; they may only change your internal disposition. Yet, experiencing the peace and power of God has a way of making all the difference. Yes, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, features a happy, some might say, sappy ending. But long before George Bailey knows how his story will end, he runs through Bedford Falls in exuberant joy. He runs through the town shouting “Merry Christmas.” He remains in debt, still faces a subpoena, may soon lose all that he cherishes, but he runs through town rejoicing because something has happened inside his soul to make him understand that he’s been granted a wonderful life. Even after sensing God’s peace and power on that runway, young Bob Benton knows he might be shot down tomorrow night. But he knows that he will never be alone. He will never again experience that kind of fear. He knows that God is with him. Tom Chinn knows that he might be on tomorrow’s casualty list. But he also knows that he is not alone. The Lord is with him. The inner peace these men experienced didn’t change their external circumstances one iota. Yet the peace of God’s assurance made all the difference in their internal attitude. The prayer of George Bailey made all the difference in how they faced those external circumstances.
Even when the peace of God doesn’t change our external circumstances, God’s peace has a way of changing the way we deal with those circumstances. I think of the founders of the seminary where I was trained, Southern Seminary. At the end of the Civil War, the four founding faculty members had gathered in Greenville, South Carolina, to ponder their future. Their endowment was worthless. They had no money, no students, no prospects. Everyone seemed to agree that the circumstances pointed irrefutably to the seminary’s closing. But one of those professors, John Broadus, said something to his colleagues that made all the difference: “Suppose we quietly agree that the Seminary may die. But let us resolve that we will die first.” The seminary may die! But let us resolve that we will die first! The professor’s declaration gave those four men a mission. Externally, nothing had changed: their endowment was still worthless, they had no operating capital, they still had no students. Yet the peace that came to them from fashioning their resolve let them cope with every adverse circumstance. They moved Southern Seminary to Louisville, Kentucky, and they opened their doors to seven students and laid the foundation for an institution that survives to this day. External circumstances do not define us. Rather we are ultimately defined by a spiritual foundation and central divine assurance out of which we live and act.
My friends, everyone of us will experience times when we find ourselves in the valley of the shadow. Every one of us will make mistakes that will roil our lives. Every one of us will hit a wall of circumstance that stymies our ambitions and utterly frustrates us. Every one of us will at times fear that all of our aspirations will come to naught. But always available to us is the prayer of George Bailey: “My Lord, my God, I am at the end of my rope. Show me the way!” The God of hesed . . . the God of steadfast love will answer.
The most powerful promise our Lord ever made to us is this: “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age.” Our Christ offers us the gift of hesed, of steadfast love. The truth is, George Bailey may have prayed prayers all his life, but the truest prayer he ever prayed is the one he uttered when half-buzzed at a bar: “My God . . . I am at the end of my rope. Show me the way.” There are times, even in the darkest circumstances of our lives, when we need to remember that we are not alone. The God who gifted us with the gift of Christ, will also come to us in our neediness, and will give us the strength and guidance to go forward. George Bailey learned that lesson. May we learn it as well.