Let’s consider that great theologian Frank Capra’s classic lesson about prayer. Yes, I’m talking about that incisive spiritual treatise we know as the movie, “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Believe it or not, Capra addresses the issue I mentioned at the close of the last blog post when I said, “Our surrounding culture values the projections of power and prestige we use to bolster our egos. We don’t get much encouragement to get past these charades.” It’ll take a couple more blogs, but let me begin to explain.
Every Christmas season for years now, my family and I relive “It’s A Wonderful Life.” In many instances, I’ll use my very best James Stewart impersonation saying my favorite lines as they play out on-screen – to the irritation of those watching with me, but I do it anyway.
One of those favorite scenes takes place in Martini’s bar. George Bailey (Stewart’s character, for the woefully uninitiated) has stumbled into the bar after his dire circumstances have piled up to the near breaking point. He orders his drink and then clasping his hands in front of his tearful face says, “God, oh God . . .” then he chews his knuckles before he goes on. “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a prayin’ man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I’m at the end of my rope. Show me the way.”
Nick, the bartender, notices the despair all over George’s face and asks him what the matter is. Mr. Martini, the tavern owner, comes walking over and seeing the tears welling in George’s eyes, puts his arm around his shoulder and says, “Go home, Mr. Bailey.”
At the sound of George’s name, the man sitting at the bar next to George raises his head and turns towards him. “Bailey,” he asks, “George Bailey?”
Mr. Martini affirms that it is, indeed, George Bailey.
The unidentified man happens to be the husband of a school teacher George yelled at over the phone about an hour earlier as his dire circumstances were beginning to pile up. The man yells at George that he had no right to upset his wife so extremely, and to emphasize the point, hauls off and socks George in the mouth, knocking him to the floor.
Nick, the bartender, and some other patrons throw the man from the bar with the epitaph, “And never come back!” Then they help George to his feet, brush him off and straighten his coat. George wipes his bloody lip and says, “That’s what I get for praying.”
I love the scene because it offers all kinds of lessons. Indeed, the popular image people have of God is of a remote being “up there,” above our frayed lives, unconsulted until we’re “at the end of [our] rope.” Then we realize that we don’t know how to pray. As George Bailey tearfully whispers over his shot glass, “I’m not a praying man.” Like George, in our desperation, out of our depths, out of our hurt and confusion, we dare a prayer, a plea for wisdom or deliverance.
And then, something really crappy happens.
This illustrates the problem with one very popular, yet very immature understanding of prayer. Asking for deliverance in the midst of crisis is only one aspect of prayer and yet it’s the understanding most people have. We consult the Almighty when our own methods prove inadequate to the challenge we’re facing. So, when we utter our plea and then almost immediately get a bloody lip, we conclude that prayer doesn’t work. “That’s what I get for praying.”
Ahhh, but there’s a whole lot more movie still to be played out after that scene in Martini’s bar, and as we the viewers already know, even before George uttered his prayer, the “angel” was on his way. In fact, George learns through the rest of the movie that his whole life has been an answer to his prayer, that the scene in the bar, even the bloody lip, WAS the answer to his prayer. He WAS being shown the way and wouldn’t have even uttered the prayer in the first place if God were not actively involved in his living. All of the dire circumstances that drove George to the bar conspire to give him a new perspective.
Then, the new perspective enabled George to see how wonderful his life really was, is, and would be. He begins to see everything in a new light, his attitude changes 180 degrees, and he goes back into the same location filled with gratitude and love. And THAT changes the circumstances.
The longer I live, the more I believe – prayer isn’t about manipulating divine power so that we can affect external circumstances. Prayer is about changing us internally so that our living itself becomes changed circumstances. When that happens, we know that even as our lip was bleeding, the angel was already on the way.