Some Pre-Holiday Thoughts, For What It’s Worth

As the holiday season approaches, it is a time of joy and happiness, togetherness and thanksgiving for all of the great things we have been so fortunate to experience in our lives.  I am so thankful for the good family into which I was born, the good family into which I married, and the good family that Linda and I share with our children.  I have seen more bounty than want throughout my life, and I feel that I am truly blessed with more than I could ever deserve.

But as we each reflect on what we enjoy in our lives, we must also remember those who are far less fortunate.  There are children aching from hunger and want, abused women, people who have lost hope as a result of economic downturns, the elderly and disabled forgotten by society.

I am reminded of the words of Martin Luther King, that great champion of not only civil rights for an oppressed minority, but a champion of human rights, for all mankind.  King said, “…in the final analysis all life is interrelated. No nation or individual is independent; we are interdependent. We are caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality.

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I possess a billion dollars. As long as millions of people are inflicted with debilitating diseases and cannot expect to live more than thirty-five years, I can never be totally healthy even if I receive a perfect bill of health from Mayo Clinic. Strangely enough, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. John Donne placed this truth in graphic terms when he affirmed, “No man is an island entire of itself.  Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Then he goes on to say, “Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.””

The wisdom literature of the Bible also tells us that when we give to see to the needs of others, that generosity will one day return to us.  I believe that is the message to us in Ecclesiastes 11.1-4.

“11 Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.
2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
3 If the clouds are full of rain,
they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
4 He who observes the wind will not sow,
and he who regards the clouds will not reap.”

Especially verses 1,2 and 4 are significant here: to give is not to lose, but to invest.  And anyone who questions conditions will not benefit in any way from any work, whether benevolent or any other.

Now it is not my goal — and certainly not my place — to try and serve as anyone’s social conscience outside my own life, and perhaps that of my children.  But I would challenge each of us, myself included, to try and find more ways, not only in this holiday season but always, to brighten the world for people in need, or pain, or despair.  Many good organizations make these things easy to accomplish:  The Marine Corps’ Toys for Tots Foundation, Feeding America, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and hosts of other national and local groups are good places to start.  And that does not include simple expressions of kind words or good deeds that make life better for everyone, especially those facing challenges in their lives.   

To become more engaged with all of humanity is not to be pulled down to a status we may think beneath us, but rather to lift each other up, acknowledging the dignity and value of each life.      

(revised and expanded from a  Facebook note, 11/6/2012)

Thanksgiving Proclamations from A King, Two Presidents and Congress

That national leaders recognize the necessity of giving thanks to God for the bounty we all enjoy is not new, nor restricted to biblical sources.  As our nation prepares to continue the tradition of Thanksgiving, consider the words of a king, two presidents, and  Congress regarding how right and fitting it is to give thanks. First, the words of David, Second King of Israel.  

“Oh give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples!

Sing to him, sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works!

Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!

Seek the LORD and his strength; seek his presence continually!

Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles and the judgments he uttered,

O offspring of Israel his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!

He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth.

Remember his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,

the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac,

which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant,

saying, “To you I will give the land of Canaan, as your portion for an inheritance.”

When you were few in number, of little account, and sojourners in it,

wandering from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another people,

he allowed no one to oppress them; he rebuked kings on their account,

saying, “Touch not my anointed ones, do my prophets no harm!”

Sing to the LORD, all the earth! Tell of his salvation from day to day.

Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised, and he is to be feared above all gods.

For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens.

Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy are in his place.

Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness;

tremble before him, all the earth; yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”

Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it!

Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

Say also: “Save us, O God of our salvation, and gather and deliver us from among the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name and glory in your praise.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!” Then all the people said, “Amen!” and praised the LORD.”  (I Chronicles 16.8-36) 

Next, the proclamation of a national day of Thanksgiving, made by George Washington, on October 3rd, 1789.

“Thanksgiving Proclamation

Issued by President George Washington, at the request of Congress, on October 3, 1789

By the President of the United States of America, a Proclamation.

Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and—Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me “to recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:”

Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favor, able interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted; for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations, and beseech Him to pardon our national and other trangressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally, to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.

Given under my hand at the City of New York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.

Go. Washington”

Next, the proclamation of a national day of Thanksgiving, made by Abraham Lincoln, on October 3rd, 1863.  This would become the resolution on which the official national holiday was enacted by Congress in 1941.

“By the President of the United States of America.

 A Proclamation.

 The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.

 In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

 Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

 By the President: Abraham Lincoln

 William H. Seward,

 Secretary of State”

So how did we arrive at Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November?  Unfortunately, it was owing to money.  According the The National Archives,

“In 1939, however, the last Thursday in November fell on the last day of the month. Concerned that the shortened Christmas shopping season might dampen the economic recovery, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a Presidential Proclamation moving Thanksgiving to the second to last Thursday of November. As a result of the proclamation, 32 states issued similar proclamations while 16 states refused to accept the change and proclaimed Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday in November. For two years two days were celebrated as Thanksgiving – the President and part of the nation celebrated it on the second to last Thursday in November, while the rest of the country celebrated it the following week.

To end the confusion, Congress decided to set a fixed-date for the holiday. On October 6, 1941, the House passed a joint resolution declaring the last Thursday in November to be the legal Thanksgiving Day. The Senate, however, amended the resolution establishing the holiday as the fourth Thursday, which would take into account those years when November has five Thursdays. The House agreed to the amendment, and President Roosevelt signed the resolution on December 26, 1941, thus establishing the fourth Thursday in November as the Federal Thanksgiving Day holiday.”

House Joint resolution 41 of the 77th Congress, 1st Session, read as follows:

“Joint Resolution

Making the last Thursday in November a legal holiday.

Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the last Thursday of November in each year after the year 1941 be known as Thanksgiving Day, and is hereby made a legal public holiday to all intents and purposes and in the same manner as the 1st day of January, the 22nd day of February, the 30th day of May, the 4th day of July, the first Monday of September, the 11th day of November, and Christmas Day are now made by law public holidays.

Passed the House of representative October 6, 1941.”

The Senate then offered an amendment to the bill, which was then passed and signed into law on December 26, 1941.  That Amendment read,

” In the Senate of the United States, December 9, 1941.

Resolved, That the joint resolution from the House of Representatives (H.J. Res 41) entitled “Joint Resolution making the last Thursday in November a legal holiday”, do pass with the following

Amendments:

Line 3, strike out [last] and insert fourth 

Amend the title so as to read: “Joint Resolution making the fourth Thursday in November a legal holiday.””

And that was it.  No great display of genuine Thanksgiving.  No justification that this is right and good to offer thanks to God, or reflect on the need for collective repentance for the sins of the nation.  Just business.

While the nation may set aside only one day to give thanks, may those who are truly thankful live their thanks, each and every day.   

The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part IV

            “Oh, no.  You said yourself that doesn’t work.”

            “I said we can’t know with certainty.  But we can look at the possibilities.”

            “Nothing doing.”

            “Clarence!  I could use a little help.”

            Immediately, Clarence materialized, wearing his wool overcoat and fedora.   He wore a pin that was shaped like a pair of golden wings on his left lapel.  The pin sparkled, new and shiny, like the smile that seemed to perpetually grace his friendly, round, caring face.

            “Clarence, I want to show Henry here how the future could be depending on what he does with the $8000 he snatched –“

            “I did no such thing!”

            “You are in possession of money that you did not earn and received under questionable circumstances.  You know it’s wrong, Henry.  You planned to keep the money to force George Bailey out of business.  You should be ashamed,” Woodrow scolded sternly.

            “That sounds like a reasonable request.  Joseph, what do you think?” Clarence asked, looking upward.

            “I’ll tell him.”  Clarence turned to Woodrow.  “This is twice in one night that we have requested unusual support.  Joseph gave us the go ahead, but we must be careful in what we reveal.”

            “All right.  Let’s take a look then.”  Woodrow nodded at Clarence, then looked from Henry to Kobold.  Luther was not happy.

            “Henry, let’s say you keep the $8000 dollars.  Let’s say you keep on with your sorry way of dealing with your fellow man.  Here’s how things might look in one year.  Look carefully.  It’s Christmas Eve, 1946.”

            Henry Potter reluctantly looked into one possible future and saw Main Street, Bedford Falls.  There was snow on the ground, and a light snow was falling.  People were wrapped up in their winter coats, carrying packages down the sidewalks, hurrying home to be with family for this warmest of holidays.  Music was playing on street corners.  Radios played carols in shops and restaurants.  Green boughs were hung merrily from every post and red bows graced the boughs.  People were smiling, filled with cheer.  The world was returning to some semblance of normalcy after the recent war, the horror abroad, the pain of worry at home. 

            The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan office.

            “I knew it!  I knew that they would be out of business!” Potter crowed.  “George Bailey was too soft to be a financial giant.”

            “Look at the sign, Henry,” Woodrow directed.  The sign said in large red letters, “Bailey Brothers Building and Loan has moved to our new location in the Peter Bailey Building.  Please visit soon.  We appreciate your business!”

            Potter was stunned.

            The odd quartet moved quickly to another location.  The Bailey House at 320 Sycamore.  The piano music was better than he heard earlier in the evening.  The crowd was smaller, but no less noisy.  George and Mary were entertaining the whole Bailey clan, Mom, Harry and his wife, Ruth, and their new twins, and of course Peter, Janie, Tommy and Zuzu.  Even Annie was there, with her latest prospective husband.  Uncle Billy was dressed in his summer seersucker suit.  A little cool for Christmas Eve, but Billy was still Billy.  He petted the squirrel that sat contentedly on his shoulder awaiting the nut that inevitably would come.

            “Last year’s fiasco brought the people of Bedford Falls together as a community.  They aren’t just customers and clients.  They’re family, friends, working together to make their lives better, their town better,” Woodrow observed.

            “A strong savings ethic and the willingness to forego a few luxuries will get them farther,” Potter protested.

            “Life is more than saving a penny, Henry,” Woodrow reminded him.  “George believes in hard work, too.  But he also trusts his borrowers.  A man given the opportunity to provide for his family will have more dignity and take more care of his property.  He takes pride, and he takes care.”

            “All right, Mr. Jefferson, I’ve heard it all before,” Potter said, frustrated.   Woodrow shook his head.  Maybe this was a losing battle.  Maybe he wasn’t ready to earn his wings.

            “Where am I in this big picture?”

            “You aren’t.”

            “What?” Potter was startled.  He was an old man.  He felt the years every morning.  But no one is really fond of being bluntly reminded of his mortality.

            “You’re dead, Henry.  Dead as a post, dead as a doornail, dead as four o’clock.”

            “There must be some mistake.”

            Woodrow pulled out a paper, dated August 12, 1946.  He turned to the obituaries.  A small notice was posted there, bearing Henry’s name.  Date of birth, date of decease.  Parents’ names.  No wife, no children, no relatives, no friends.  He left nothing to no one.  The courts would take his money and all his possessions.  There would be nothing more for him, or of him beyond the ornate and dignified casket.  No one would attend his funeral on that late summer day.  A minister would pray for his soul.  A grave digger would toss dirt over his remains.  His valet would pay the minister and the undertaker, collect more of Henry’s amassed funds than he was entitled to, shrug as he closed the door, and leave Bedford Falls a comfortable, if not rich man. 

            “There will be no one there, Henry, in your final hour.  As the Bailey’s prosper, you become more and more reclusive, vengeful, spiteful, angry.  All of that hate is bad for a body.  Your old heart won’t be able to take it.  It will stop.  Your life will be over, and there will be nothing to show for it. 

“People will care that you’re gone, but they will only feel relief to be out from under your control.  Your house will become a home for homeless children.  Your money will build a wing onto the hospital and help injured war veterans recover.   Ironic, isn’t it?  That you would have to die to help someone?”

            “I helped people!  They just didn’t appreciate it!”

            “You helped yourself, Henry.  Take a look. Without you, life will go on.  And for most of the people your life has touched, it will even be better.”

            “Look, we could keep this up, or we could just cut to the chase,” interrupted Luther, taking Potter’s elbow.  “Henry, why wait for August?  Come with me now, and we’ll make you feel right at home.”  Henry squirmed in his chair.

            “Clarence, show us another possibility.”

            Clarence pointed the way, and the foursome found themselves outside the Bank.

            “My office.  Good, let’s go in,” said Potter.

             “Look at the name on the door, Mr. Potter,” Woodrow directed, dropping his view to the floor.

            “GEORGE BAILEY!?” spat Potter, beginning to push himself out of the chair.

            “Easy, Henry,” Woodrow soothed.  “After you give back the $8000 you stole—“

            “I never stole that money!”

            “—you actually sit down with George and make peace.  He takes the money and covers the deposit.  He takes the funds that the townspeople raise and buys a couple of old houses to fix up for an orphan’s home.   With the people’s consent, of course.  You bring him in to the bank, turn over day to day operations to him so that you can enjoy life a little.  It’s allowed.”

            “Why do I want to make peace with Bailey?  What can he do for me?”

            “Amazingly, he can be your friend.  Even after all you’ve tried to do to him and his family, he’s that kind of man.”

            “Hmmph.”

 

            “Let’s take a look at one more Christmas, Clarence.”  Clarence nodded.  They moved through time like dandelion down in a hurricane. 

            Downtown Bedford Falls.  Christmas Eve.  The street was alive with holiday bustle, like in the previous version of the future.  It was all very similar, yet somehow more vibrant, more grandly, joyously, chaotically merry.  People were laughing, carolers were caroling. Music poured from every door.  There was warmth and genuine good will.  The world was regaining its hard fought peace, and prosperity was returning, even to a small town like Bedford Falls.

            “It looks pretty much the same.  Why show me, Woodrow?  I presume I’ll still be dead.”

            “Nothing is certain about the future, Henry.  Remember this one is a possibility, too.  Every decision we make shapes our futures.  We choose from day to day, from moment to moment what we will be, how we will act, what we will serve.   Choose selfishly, and that is all there ever will be.  Satisfaction for a moment, an instant of gratified greed. 

“Choose unselfishly, and the world opens to you.  All your friends will share your joys, and your truest friends will even share your sorrows.  John Donne was right.  ‘No man is an island,’ Henry.”

            The night was wearing on.  Henry Potter was bone weary.  The stress and disappointment of the day, the strange visitation by agents of powers he had until now refused to acknowledge, the dread of facing another day of lonely existence with only cold, impersonal money and wealth to keep him warm, the horrible emptiness of knowing that he may soon die, alone, unmourned, unloved.

            Unloved. 

            He had indeed been loved, hadn’t he?  His parents loved him more than anything.  Certainly more than possessions.  Where had he gone wrong?  Why had he turned his attentions away from the values his parents had tried to teach him?  When had money become too important?  When had wealth become too seductive?   

            He thought he could have loved Madeline, all those years ago.  She left him alone.  Then she grew up, she changed, so thoroughly that she gave up her chance at rescue from a doomed, sinking ship.  How?  Could he ever do such a thing?

            He thought about his old enemy, Peter Bailey.  For all his hard headed, poor business sense, he always seemed to be calm, peaceful.  He had little money.  But he had a wife, and sons, and friends who would stand by him. 

            He thought about his new enemy, George Bailey.  George always did what was right in the end.  Life just seemed to work out for him.

            What was this hole in his — what was it, his soul? — that ached like a bad tooth or maybe a phantom limb?  Was it that all these years he had missed the rich deep comfort of love?  Money bought things, wealth bought influence.  Love doesn’t buy anything.  It brings, attracts, gives more love, freely, openly.

            In the midst of his confusion, a fresh scene faded into view.  Bedford Falls, Christmas Day.  Henry saw his horse drawn carriage rolling down Main Street.  There was laughter on the sidewalks, people were pointing.  More were lined up to take a carriage ride through the gaily decorated Potter Park.  He looked closer.  Two little girls, Bailey’s Janie and Zuzu, were sitting beside….Henry F. Potter!  Zuzu pulled herself up by Henry’s lapels and gave him a big kiss on his right cheek.  Janie hugged him from the other side. 

He was…laughing. 

He was…happy. 

He was…loved.

            “When is that, angel?” Potter asked, tired, unsure of the angel’s last stop.

            “Doesn’t matter, Henry,” Woodrow replied. “It’s another possibility for some time in the future.”

            “So I don’t die next August.”

            “That depends on a lot of things.  Not the least of which is you.”

            Luther Kobold was angry.  He started this mission with his usual cool aplomb.  But this rookie angel was good.  The best he had ever been up against.  He had forgone the lust of the flesh and lust of the eye and had gone straight to the pride of life, but Potter was more complex than most.  He would have to study this case over, try to do better next time out.  If there was a next time.  He wondered if the Boss would demote him to furnace stoker.  Or worse.   Without so much as a curse, he disappeared, with only a faint hint of brimstone.

            “Woodrow, I think we should go now.  Henry has some thinking to do,” Clarence urged.

            “I’m right behind you, Clarence.”  He turned to Potter. “Think it over, Henry.  I know there’s still some good in that heart of yours.  You just have to find it.”

            Henry Potter awoke the next morning, the ashes in the fireplace almost cold.  He had sat upright in his wheelchair all night, it appeared, head tilted to the right.  His neck was stiff and sore from being stuck in such an awkward position.  He started to rub it, then he felt… something.

 Faintly, lightly on his cheek, like the whisper of a silent breeze.  He knew he felt it.  From out of what could only have been a dream, he felt the memory– or was it a precognition?– of Zuzu’s kiss. 

And then he realized:  it was real!  The dream of a back and forth conversation with a first-time angel and a sardonic demon had been real after all!  He patted his chest.  Billy’s newspaper…was still there!  He opened it, peeked one eye downward.  The money…was still there!  He released the breath he had collected like the last one he would ever take.   What if it were his last?  He gasped again.  Still breathing.  There was still time!  Time to change, time to make a difference!

He grabbed the candlestick phone on the table and pumped the receiver.  The operator came on, he requested to be connected to his manservant, wherever he may be.  Did he know the number?  How should he know?  He knew so little about the man that cared for him most of the time.  He had given him Christmas off.  Why had he done that?  He needed him right now!  He needed him to get to George Bailey’s house.  Immediately!

The sheriff.  Of course!  He pumped the phone again.  The operator came on.  He requested the sheriff’s office.  She said that it was unlikely he would be available since it was Christmas, after all.  He told her to ring his house, and fast, it was a matter of life and…better life!

Yes, that was it.  A simple act, a letting go, a letting go of the past, of greed and anger and revenge…he could breathe!  His heart pounded, not like it did when he was cursing the luck, the setbacks, the defeats, but in a different way! It was more like he had something to…something to live for.  What was it?  Hope?  He breathed, his heart was pounding!  There was still time!

“Bill, get over here.  I need you to do something!” Potter barked, the hint of smile in his excited voice.

From the other end of the line, Sheriff Bill Warren blearily came alive.  It had been a long night, searching for George Bailey, first to arrest him, then to celebrate.  It had been a Christmas Eve to remember.  “Now see here, Mr. Potter…”

“Bill, I want you over here right away.  I’ve got to get over to George Bailey’s.  You know the place.  I have to do something.”

“I don’t run a taxi service, Henry.  Call Ernie Bishop.”

“No, no, Bill.  This is about that missing $8000.00.  I have it…I found it.  I’ll tell you later.  Just get over here.”  It was all true.  He just didn’t want to go into why he still had it.  Not then.  Not until he had made things right for once in his life.

The sheriff’s car slid to a stop in front of the modest Bailey house.  The Sheriff and a deputy he had picked up on the way to Potter’s carried the old man up the steps, where Bill Warren rang the bell and pounded on the door with a gloved fist.

George Bailey peered through the curtained side light, tying his robe about him, then opened the door, squinting in even the dim light reflecting off the snow from the street light and the gathering blues and purples of the eastern sky.  It was still just before dawn. 

“Sheriff, I don’t understand…” George began.

“There’s nothing to understand,” Potter said.  “Here, George.  Here’s the $8000.00 your Uncle Billy lost yesterday.  I…found it and had to…think about what to do with it.”

“You had to think about it,” George bristled.

“That’s all,” Potter was suddenly at a loss for words.  “Bill, take me back home.”  Something caught in his chest.

“Mr. Potter,” George called as Henry and his carriers turned to leave.  “Thank you.  I don’t know how you came to get this.  I don’t even care at this point.  But thank you.  From the bottom of my heart.”

“George, I…I’m…”  The words stuck in Potter’s throat.  He breathed deeply.  “I’m…sorry.”  Suddenly, a weight was lifted, even as the first tentative ray of glorious sunshine came bursting over the horizon, shooting through the icicles, creating a dazzling kaleidoscope of prismatic colors on the porch.  Henry Potter laughed.  He breathed and laughed some more. 

George stepped onto the frosty porch.  The snow had stopped over night, and the world looked strangely new, fresh, pure.  Potter noticed it, too.  For the first time since he was a little boy, he noticed it.

“Merry Christmas, Mr. Potter,” said a little voice, emanating from a curly-haired little boy, peeking from around his father’s right leg.

“And Happy New Year to you, young man.”  A breath of a cold breeze gusted past them, to the Christmas tree in the parlor. The little silver bell on the tree tinkled like it had only a few hours before. 

            Tommy tugged his father’s pajama leg.  “Zuzu says another angel just got his wings.”

            “Yes, Tommy,” George chuckled. “It’s been a busy night for angels in Bedford Falls.”

            “Angels, you say?” Potter looked quizzical.  How did Bailey know about Woodrow Jefferson?

            “It’s a long story, Mr. Potter.”

            “I’ll say it is,” Potter answered, a smile twinkling in his eyes, playing across the softening lines of his wrinkled face.  “I’ll say it is, indeed.”

The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part III

            Right about then, a spark leaped up out of the crackling fire.  An angry spark, that refused to die like sparks usually do.  This one began to grow, take shape…

            Woodrow leaned back.  He had not expected this development.  But he refused to look worried.  Before him, a tall, pale-faced, lean muscular figure appeared, dressed impeccably in the finest black suit Woodrow had ever seen. His tie was the color of dried blood, dark red with flecks of coagulated gore black.  The rose in his lapel was so deep a red that it was almost velvety black.  The stranger’s hair was slicked back, the jet blackness of it sparkled and glinted as the flames reflected off of it, the black pupils of his eyes, and the gold tooth that shone in the corner of his lop-sided smile.  He gripped the handle of a walking stick, the head of which was shaped like a vicious, menacing snake, fangs dripping gold and silver gobbets of poison. 

            Woodrow had seen the man before, but where? He thought for a moment, mind racing over Henry Potter’s biography that had so recently played before him.  The Mercantile.  The riot.  He was there.  In the crowd. 

This could not be good. 

            “So.  Henry.  It appears that we have a problem,” said the newcomer.

            “Who are you?  I never let you into my house!”

            “Ah, Henry.  We’ll have an eternity to get to know each other,” the pale stranger said, oozing a confidence that suggested he had done this before. 

            “I wondered if we would have company,” said Woodrow.  “I don’t think we’ve met…” He thought about extending his hand, but thought better of it.  Better not give the devil a hand.

            “Woodrow Jefferson.  I know all about you.  We keep tabs on our esteemed opponents.”  The dapper demon sneered.  “I can see that your firm doesn’t see fit to return the courtesy.  Name’s Luther Kobold.  I’m very pleased to meet you.  I’ll be even more pleased to defeat you.”

            “I’m sure.”  Woodrow looked like he was concentrating hard.  “Clarence, I could use a little advice.”  No answer.

            “Oh, I’m sorry.  You’re playing in the big leagues, now, Woodrow.  No coaching from the stands.”

            Woodrow furrowed his brow.  He could have been worried, or he could have been just annoyed.  It may have been a little of both. 

            “I take it we’re here for the same thing.  You’ve been working on Henry Potter for a very long time, Luther.  Looks like you’ve done a good job, too.  But I have a job to do, too.  Surely you’ll understand if I try to earn my wings?”

            “I wouldn’t have it any other way, Woodrow.  You’ll have a devil of a time getting past me, though.  I’m the best in the Imp Corps.  I never lose.  One hundred percent success record.”

            “There’s always a first time.”

             “I’m not worried.  I have your room all picked out.  You’ll bunk with Henry, here.”

            “Thanks.  I’ll pass.”

            “Enough small talk.  Henry, I’m here to collect.”

            “Collect what?”

            “Why, you’re soul, of course.  You don’t think you got so far in life all on your own?”  Kobold snorted.  “They always forget the ones who give them a leg up.”

            “I must be coming down with something.  I seem to be having hallucinations.  Delusions. Something.”

            Woodrow moved between the two, the tall pale devil towering over the frail shell of a man.  “Henry’s time may be short, that’s true.  But he still has some time.  He can fix what he’s broken.  He can make amends.”

            “Amends for what!” Potter called out.  “What do you mean my time is short?  Are you here to murder me?”

            “Suit yourself,” Luther grinned.  He pulled off his gloves and cracked his knuckles.

            “No, no, no,” Woodrow chided. “I think we need to sit down and sort all this out.  Let Henry decide what side he’s on.”

            “He decided that a long time ago.  Those idle wishes that he made when he was 15.  He got his wish.  The price of success was…” Luther pulled out a scroll of dirty parchment, “…one soul.  We own him, free and clear.”

            “Nonsense.  Let me see that.”  Woodrow looked at the paper.  To mortal eyes, it would have looked like a nothing more than a piece of dirty rubbish.  But to his immortal eyes, it came alive as an ornately calligraphed contract.  The signature, if it could be called that, was glowing.  But only faintly.  Henry Potter had not actually signed his name.  In fact, it looked like it was nothing more than an angry smudge of dried blood on the page.  “Well, I dispute this contract.”

            “What?  You can’t dispute a contract signed in blood.  It just isn’t done.”

            “It looks like a no win contract for Mr. Potter.  If he gives you his soul, he gets some gold and trinkets here on earth for a little while, then he spends eternity in Hell.  But if he breaks the contract, you still get his soul.  Either way, there’s Hell to pay.”

            “Ironic, isn’t it?”

            “I signed no contract!”  Potter yelled, angry at being left out of the discussion.

            “Please, Henry, let me handle this,” Woodrow said over his shoulder.

            “I’m sorry, but it’s time to pay up.  Now if you’ll get up out of that chair, we’ll be going.”

            “I can’t get out of this chair. I haven’t walked in over 43 years,” Potter shot back.  “If you know so much about me, you’d know that, too.”

            “I can help you walk, Henry.  All you have to do is trust me,” soothed Kobold, stroking the old man, now increasingly confused, on the arm.

            Woodrow moved the demon’s hand off of Potter’s sleeve.  “Why don’t you and I take this outside?”  Woodrow asked.

            “Why don’t we?” Kobold responded.

            “Why don’t you…and don’t come back!” Potter snarled.  His head was beginning to hurt.  Where was that nice bottle of expensive Port?  Forget Port.  He needed a stiff brandy.

           

            Outside, the forces of good and evil continued their discussion. 

            “Henry Potter did not sign the document.  He made no conscious decision to sell his soul.  You took advantage of a confused, misfortunate boy.  The contract is invalid.”

            “The contract is good.  I had my lawyers check it over.”

            “I’m sure Hell is full of them.  But they’re the ones that can’t be trusted.”  Woodrow bowed his head a moment.  A thought came to him.  Of course.  That would solve the problem. 

            “Mr. Kobold, since you are so fond of legal proceedings, may I propose a trial of sorts?  We’ll lay out the facts for Mr. Potter and let him judge for himself which fate he may choose.”

            “A trial.  All right, Jefferson.  You’re on.  But no funny business.  I’ve seen how you angels operate.”

           

            They returned inside to find Potter sipping from a snifter of amber liquor.  He blinked and spluttered when he saw them return, then coughing and wiping the stinging liquid from his face, he finished the bracer with a gulp.

            “I thought I told you two to hit the road!  I will call the constables!  I’ll get that Bert What’s-His-Name to run you in.”

            “Bert’s directing traffic on Sycamore Street,” said Woodrow.

            “Yes, yes, the Baileys’ festival of penury,” grumbled Potter.

            “Henry, we want to talk to you.  Show you some things from your past and your present.”

            “What, spirit, no Christmas yet to come?” Potter mocked.

            “Good one, Henry!” laughed Kobold.

            “The future can’t really be known.  It’s based on the choices you make here and now.  We can see the effects of our actions, but we can’t predict with absolute certainty what tomorrow may bring.  That’s one of the things that make life interesting,” Woodrow explained.

            “All right.  If it will get you out of my drawing room sooner, tell me your little fairy tales.  Spin me your yarn.  But it better be entertaining.”

            “I imagine you’ll enjoy parts of it.”  Woodrow looked at the gloating demon across the room from him.  “Luther, if you would be so kind as to show Mr. Potter his life story?”

            “Can’t you?  Oh that’s right.  You haven’t earned your wings.”  Luther waved his long fingers in front of Potter’s face.  He laughed.  “I always do that for mysterious effect.  It impresses the Hell out of my clients.”

            “Too bad they can’t get rid of all the Hell in them.  Maybe your neighborhood wouldn’t be so crowded.”

            “Good one, Jefferson.  One life story of Henry Potter coming up…”

            “And just the facts, if you please,” Woodrow interrupted.

            “Just the facts.  That’s all I really need anyway.  This case is open and shut.”

            The demon showed the same story Clarence had recounted earlier in the evening.  But this time, Woodrow opened a leather bound notebook and read from it, filling in some details.  The early scenes were ones that could have been in any of millions of homes.  A happy family.  Mother, father, child playing and laughing.  The hardness in Potter’s eyes softened a little as he watched. 

            “Henry, did you ever wonder what happened to your parents?”

            “I was orphaned in the fire at the mercantile.”

            “Now see, that’s just proof that if you tell yourself a lie long enough you start to believe it as the truth.  No, my friend, your parents survived.  You mother died soon after, though.  Some say it was a broken heart, mostly because she lost you.  Your father lived another 27 years, and was miserable each and every day.  He never got over losing the love of his life.  Or his only son.”

            “He was a fool.”

            “He was your father, Henry.  If you didn’t respect your father, you should show at least a little respect for the dead.”

            “He was weak.  He let people use him.”  Potter said, his voice not as strong, not as much conviction as earlier.  What was it?  A note of remorse?

            “I agree with Henry.  He was a patsy,” Kobold interjected.

            “Now see here,” warned Potter, recovering his balance.

            Woodrow focused his attention on the image of a young woman.  “Madeline Seward.  She could have been the love of your life.  Not a very nice person early on.  But she did at least one kind and noble thing in her life.  She was a passenger on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.”

            Henry’s eyes shot open wider.  He cocked his better ear toward the angel.

            “As the ship was going down, she gave her seat on the lifeboat to a young woman carrying an infant.  Saved both their lives.”

            “Madeline…” Henry’s voice sounded distant.

            Kobold clapped.  “Brava,” he smirked.  “Does saving a stranger make up for deserting you in your hour of need?”  This Jefferson was good, Luther had to give him that.  He had seen Potter waver now more than once in only a few minutes.

            “People do change, Henry.”

            “And old habits are hard to break, too,” continued Luther.  “Get on with it.  I need to get back home before I freeze to…well…before I freeze.”

            Woodrow closed the book.  “Luther, can we see the last 39 Christmases?”  One after one, the holidays peeled past like pages from a calendar.  “Look at yourself, Henry.  In your younger days, you actually wore a red cravat for the holidays.  You were almost…merry.  You actually had some people that you might have even called friends.” 

            “More like acquaintances.  Idiots, the lot of them,” muttered Potter.  “They were just co-workers.  I left the trappings of merriment behind when I moved back here to Bedford Falls to work for me and me alone.  Serious business demands serious demeanor.”

            “And you have been nothing if not serious.”

            “I’ve been nothing if not successful!”

            “Time’s a wasting, oh wingless one,” chided Kobold.

            “What will one more moment make against an eternity, Luther?” Woodrow asked.

            “Enough, Jefferson.  Give me a crack at him.”

            “All right, fair is fair,” Woodrow sighed.

            Luther thumbed the air like pages in a book, and showed Henry scenes of how people rejected him, scoffed at him, hated him.  Potter’s spine stiffened.  ‘”Yes, Henry.  First they hated you for being poor, then they hated you for being successful, powerful, rich….” Luther was grinning.  He moved to Henry’s side and placed an arm around Potter’s shoulder.  “Just look at them….”  A panoramic montage of sad and angry people played across his vision, starting with the cruel boys that hurt and mistreated him all those years ago, then Mrs. Nordstrom, the first person he had strong-armed to pay her accounts, then a parade of people he had taken advantage of.

            The scene turned to one of dozens of meetings of the board of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.  Peter Bailey sat quietly at one end of the table.  A younger but no less angry looking Henry Potter sat the other end, and between them, a collection of Bedford Falls’ finest businessmen. 

            “Bailey, you can’t expect to continue without making money.  Business means making money.  If you can’t see that, get out.  Start a charity if you want,” said Potter, slamming his folder of reports on the table in front of him.  ‘But I’ll not be investing in a losing enterprise.”

            “Mr. Potter, times have been hard since the factory shut down.  People can’t borrow like they used to and some are having trouble meeting their payments.  If we foreclose, there’s no one to buy the property.  There’s no more money to go around,” said a tired and sad Peter Bailey.  He had fought the good fight for many years.  He wanted nothing more than to retire quietly to a nice cabin in the woods near the top of Mount Bedford and spend his days gardening and fishing, and anything but keeping count of how few dollars his business was bringing in.  But he had no great horde of wealth to buy his cabin, and he had a wife and two sons to support.

            Peter thought about his sons.  He had hoped that they would want to follow in his footsteps, join him in the family business.  They would never be rich in worldly goods, but they would be rich in so many other ways.

            He thought about the life he could have had had he left Bedford Falls all those years ago to pursue his dreams.  When the opportunity came to build this business, he hesitated at first.  But after he saw the good he could do for his fellow citizens, he didn’t mind so much.  He enjoyed helping others.  And the more he did it, the more it just felt right, and good, and like something that he was born to do.

            That was, until Potter arrived and set the business landscape of Bedford Falls on its ear.  He opened competing businesses with many of the men sitting in the room.  He purposely undercut them to force them to surrender.  Some had.  Some came to him for a job after he shut them down.  After he drove the competition out of business, he raised prices and raked in profits at the expense of his customers, his neighbors.  It was like the town’s own little version of the Roman Empire: conquest followed by occupation.  Like Rome, the occupied citizens never quite appreciated the beneficence of their newly installed keepers.  And like the emperors of old, he demanded adoration, respect, and quite nearly, worship.

            At the end of the meeting, enough board members had sided with Peter Bailey to ward off Potter for another quarter.  It was their last ditch effort to retain some dignity, some sense of independence.  Defiance may bring Potter’s wrath some day, but not that day.  For that day, they held their heads high, they were still their own men.  For at least another day.

            In the scene before him, Henry saw himself being wheeled out.  But the scene remained in the conference room.

            “Well, Peter, you gave that old goat what for!” one freshly smiling man exclaimed.

            “We may have won the day, but Potter has better position for the future.  I wish I knew why he feels the need to control his world.  Money can’t buy happiness.”  He shook his head.

            “Well, I hate him,” said another.

            “It’s easy to hate someone so disagreeable.  I might, if I didn’t pity him more,” said Peter.

            “Pity me?!” Potter exclaimed in the present.

            “Yes, Henry, the king of paupers pitied you,” Luther soothed.  ‘How does that make you feel?  You’re still here, still rich, powerful, respected, and where is he?  Dead, that’s where.  Worrying about his rabble killed him.”

             Woodrow straightened to his full height.  “Let’s finish this.  Luther, let’s take a look into the future.”

 

The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part II

Henry made his way to New York and took odd jobs for a while to feed himself.  But subsistence was not the way he wanted to spend his life.  He apprenticed himself to a shrewd banker.  He learned the ways of investing and money-lending.  He particularly excelled in making high interest, high risk loans, and claiming any and all collateral when his clients defaulted.  He sold the items for premium prices, keeping a nice commission for himself.  If there was no collateral, he delighted in sending the miscreants to prison for their thievery.

Everything went well for a number of years.  He began to amass a small fortune, but small was never what he wanted.  He never had time for friends:  they were just parasites that wanted to drain him of his wealth.  He was self-sufficient.  He was self-made.  He needed no one.

That didn’t mean that the ladies did not take notice.  Henry was a fine looking young man.  He turned heads.  And sometimes, the heads turned so far, they young ladies attached to them got completely turned around.  One such lovely young girl was Madeline Seward, the daughter of a successful partner in the bank where Henry worked.  Madeline made no pretense of her interests.  She knew precisely what she wanted.  She saw ambition in him, and she wanted to make it to the top of the social ladder as much as he did.  In those days, women had to depend on men to open such doors.  Truth was, she was as ruthless and hard bitten as he was.  They would have been a match made in…well heaven doesn’t make such matches.  But Henry didn’t realize that.  He actually began to fall for her. 

Henry was wealthy enough to take a wife and support her in style.   He didn’t have to work up courage to ask for her hand, all he had to do was tap on her door and she would agree to become Mrs. Henry Potter.  They would be fabulously wealthy and powerful and live in ostentatious opulence, as befitting one who had risen from poverty to the pinnacle of success.        

But fate was not kind.

One day, a fever kept him home from work.  He would wrap up, sleep, drink some soup and brandy, and be ready to return to work in the morning.  But the recuperation day turned into a month.  The fever had been polio, and by the time he was well enough to think about work again, he was also paralyzed from the waist down, confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. 

Madeline, whose whole life was focused on the material world and physical perfection, cast him off like yesterday’s kitchen slop.  She moved on, choosing to cut her ties by writing a tersely worded note of separation.  She never even visited him while he was practically at death’s door.

He cursed his lot.  He blamed his God, and swore off ever showing reverence again to any being that could be so cruel.  How dare He cut him down in his prime!  And he swore he would never again show weakness when it came to women.  There was more money to be made, more property to be accumulated. 

 “More chains to be forged,” said Woodrow almost to himself.

“How’s that?” asked Clarence.

“Dickens,” said Woodrow.

“Ah, yes,” said Clarence.  “I’m quite fond of Twain.  Now where did I put that new book?” he asked, patting his waistcoat and robe pockets.

“A-hem,” Joseph interrupted.

Clarence looked a bit sheepish.  “Of course, sir.”

The scene shifted to a more recent time.  After his illness, Henry had returned to Bedford Falls where he started investing with an eye toward buying the bank.  If he could ever control the money supply, he would own the town.  He continued exploiting the poor and making more money for his own considerable accounts, which he kept judiciously spread over many other institutions.  He converted much cash to gold and silver and he bought as much real estate as he dared, while keeping a comfortable liquid cash flow.  He needed to both have money and to show he had money.  For what, he really didn’t know.  He wanted respect.  Especially after he was confined to the wheelchair, he wanted people know that he was still better than they were.  He made sure to shorten the legs on the guest chair in his office so that the grovellers that made supplication to him had to physically look up to him.  It was a small thing, but it made him feel better about himself to make others feel inadequate.

When the market crashed in October of ‘29, Potter hardly flinched.  He saw the national misfortune as an opportunity.  He stepped in and finally took over the bank.  He bought as many properties in Bedford Falls and the surrounding area as were for sale, and he held onto control of as many businesses as he could.  By securing their loans he bought into them and refused to be only a silent partner.

Through it all, there had been one business that had been a thorn in his side.  The Bailey Brothers Building and Loan.  Peter and William Bailey were pathetic.  They reminded him of his father.  They preferred to see what they called the good in people, which all too often turned into a bad case of being taken advantage of.  

Of course, Peter was the brains of the operation.  Billy was, well, he was Billy.  Some said he was too often found in his cups.  Others thought he was just a little addled.  He was harmless, and people liked him. 

When Peter died, Henry had to think fast.  His first inclination was to crush the dying business like the dry husk it was.  But he needed time to think.  As a member of the board of directors, Henry needed Bailey Brothers to remain solvent, at least until he could manipulate a proper takeover.  He went along with the simple-minded suggestion of putting George in charge.  Another idiot Bailey.  He could bide his time and wait for George to make a mistake.  They always made mistakes, these Baileys and their kind.

But George was smart.  There was more business sense in him than there ever had been in his old man.  He was shrewd.  He reminded him of himself in some ways, but for some asinine reason, George never quite wanted to get ahead it seemed.  He had the brains, but he lacked the drive.  Henry knew George Bailey would never get very far.

Henry planned to use George’s untapped ambition against him.  Thus, he hatched his masterpiece plan of offering George a job, starting at the unheard of sum of $20,000 a year.  A few months, no more than a year, and Bailey would be fired for some trumped-up charge.  Negligence, incompetence, malfeasance, anything would work.  In the mean time, with only Billy at the helm, the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan would quietly disintegrate, torn to pieces between the Scylla of ignorance and the Charybdis of sentimentality.

George nibbled at the bait.  He had spent his life with one big dream after another being crushed by a misguided sense of responsibility.  Henry was ready to set the hook.  Then, like a freak storm blowing up on a sunny afternoon, George shattered Henry’s strategy for ultimate conquest.  He walked out, streaming insults and spewing self-righteous bilge water.

Henry, angered, but undeterred, retreated to his counting house office to plot and regroup.  He needed another plan. 

And then, just when it looked like the war was lost, what could only have been a divine intervention (maybe Heaven did care, after all) brought George to his knees, crawling to him, Henry Potter, for help in covering the Building and Loan’s deposit that had mysteriously disappeared.  Five hundred dollars equity in a life insurance policy.  He was worth more dead than alive, Henry had told George.  The fact of the matter was, he was worthless either way.  Even if he ended his pitiable existence, the insurance company wouldn’t pay out on a suicide. 

The money remained folded in the newspaper that old dim-witted Billy Bailey had so stupidly handed him that morning.  He kept it in his lap.  He would not let it out of his sight for fear that the Baileys would recover it and continue to operate outside his control.  It was his money, now.  Possession was nine points of the law.  He had found the money.  He was under no legal obligation to return it.

 “That depends on whose law he’s reading,” said Clarence. 

“Men like Potter don’t often care about morality,” Joseph offered.

“So true,” Woodrow agreed.  “The letter of the law and not the spirit.  That’s got a lot of folks into a lot of hot water.”

“If it were only water,” said Clarence, his words trailing wistfully.

And then Henry heard about the ignorant sheep that pulled George Bailey’s fat out of the fire.  How stupid could they be?  Would George Bailey ever be able to repay them at the pittance he charged in interest?  Maybe this would be the death knell for the Bailey Brothers, after all….

But Bailey’s riffraff would not want repayment.  Not even principle without interest.  Doubly stupid.  How could they hope to get ahead without even a hint of usury?

 

            “Oh my, it’s time to go.  We’ve caught you up on Henry Potter, such as he is.  I’m sorry you have such a case to contend with on your first assignment,” Clarence apologized, although the case was not of his making. 

            “Don’t you worry, Clarence.  I’ll think of something,” Woodrow smiled, and patted Clarence on the shoulder.

            Clarence smiled and looked at Joseph.  “I’ve got a good feeling about Woodrow, sir, but I’m worried about Henry.”

            “Yes, Woodrow will make a fine addition to our ranks.  I have faith in him.  That’s why I called him up for this assignment.  He’s smart, and he has a keen sense about people.”

            “But Potter’s the worst I have encountered in over 279 years, sir.”

            “He has rough edges.  But somewhere, deep down, there may still be a kernel of goodness.”

 

            Woodrow Jefferson faded into earthly existence in a very different way from his first entrance as a wailing baby all those years ago in Virginia.  This time, he was fully grown, fully clothed, and had a distinct mission.  Before, he was property.  This time, he was freer than free.  He checked his tool kit, a prop he would use to gain admission to Potter’s house.  After that, he would need to use his wits to gain admission to Potter’s heart.

            Woodrow raised the antique door knocker and let it fall.  It resounded on the thick wooden door and he waited for a response.  A moment later and the nameless, almost faceless servant opened the door.

            “The service entrance is to the rear,” he said, almost automatically.

            “Well, since I’m here, and you’re here, what say we just let me in the front door?”

            “Very well…sir.”  The valet was not sure why he called the scruffy man in spotless overalls ‘sir.”  It just seemed to fit.

            “Please tell Mr. Potter I’m here to fix his furnace.”

            “Very well, sir.”

            Henry Potter rolled into the room, this time under his own power.  The folded newspaper was no longer in his lap, but now stashed safely in his smoking jacket.

            “What’s this about a furnace?  My heat is working fine,” he grumbled.

            Woodrow looked up and nodded.  The furnace gave a cough, then died.

            “See here!  I don’t know what racket you’re running, but that furnace was running like new.”

            “All things need a tune-up every now and then, Mr. Potter,” replied Woodrow, calmly.  The room had chilled in an unnaturally short time.  It was a nice touch.  Clarence was pleased.

            “Well, get on with it,” Potter mumbled.  ‘And don’t dawdle!  I’m not paying you overtime for a Christmas Eve service call.”

            “I’ve nothing better to do this evening, Mr. Potter.”

            Potter rolled away, still grumbling.

            A few minutes later, after the servant had been dismissed for the night, Woodrow came into the sitting room where Potter held court. 

            “The furnace may need some parts from the shop.  But right now, the snow’s awfully heavy.  I’m not sure I can make it there and back safely until it slacks up.”

            “Well, build the fire and take some of the chill out of the air before I catch pneumonia.”

            “Yes, sir.   You mind if I warm myself a bit, too?”

             “Suit yourself.  But you’re not on the clock while you do it.”

            Woodrow smiled inwardly.  So far, so good.

            “How long you lived here, Mr. Potter,” asked Woodrow.

            “Long enough.  Ever since I came back from the city.  I was born here, you know.  Went off to seek my fortune.”  He harrumphed.  “Made it, too, and then some.”

            “More to life than money, Mr. Potter.”

            “If there is, I haven’t found it.  If it doesn’t bring you happiness by earning it, it can buy whatever you’re lacking.”

            “I’m not sure I follow.”

            “I don’t expect you would.  Your type seems to do fine living day to day.”

            “That’s about all any of us can do, Mr. Potter.”

            “You don’t take charge of your life.  That’s what makes us different.”

            “I still don’t follow.”

            “Dim-witted….”Henry muttered.  “I know what I want, and I go after it.  I get what I want, because I don’t let silly sentimentality get in my way.”

            “What some folks want is what’s best for others.”

            “Best for others.  What have they ever done for me?!”

            “They’re how you make a living, one way or another.  They can make your life better.”

            “Better than what?  I own more of Bedford Falls than any other living person.  I have the finest house, I wear the finest clothes.  I do as I please, because people respect me.”

            “People fear you, Henry.”

            “Now see here, whatever your name is…” Potter stammered.  He had never been spoken to by a working class scalawag like this before!  The only other person ever to speak to him like that was that infernal George Bailey!

            “Truth hurts, doesn’t it Henry.”

            “How dare you!  How dare you insult me that way!  Who is your employer?  I’m going to give him a call right now…” he grunted as he reached for the candlestick phone on the end table.

             “You don’t need a phone to call my boss, Henry.”

            “Oh, so you’re the boss.”

            “No, just let’s say I answer to a higher power.”

            “A higher power, you say.  You work for the government?”

            “I’m an angel, Henry.  I was sent here to talk to you.  That’s what angels do.  Get sent to do things.”

            “I’ve heard it all, now.  I’m calling the police.”

            “Sheriff Warren’s still over at the Baileys’.  He’s having a good time with half the town.  The other half will probably be there before the party breaks up.”

            “Party?  What party?”

            “You know, Henry.”

            “Know what?”

            “Folks are coming in droves to help George out of a jam.  He means a lot to this town.”

            “Hogwash!  George Bailey is a fool.  A fool and a poor businessman.  You know what they say about a fool and his money!”

            “Harry Bailey said he’s the richest man in town.  I believe it, too.”

            “If that’s so, why did he come begging for $8,000 dollars this very afternoon?”

            “I think you know.”

            “I have no idea what you mean,” Potter lied, shifting his glance just slightly downward, to the right.  His right hand moved to the paper peeking out of his robe.

            “I’m talking about the money you have folded in that paper, right there.”

            “Get out!”

            “I think I’ll stay a little while.”

 

 

…continued in Part III

 

The Trial of Henry F. Potter, Part I

Over the past year, I have enjoyed sharing various sorts of musings, largely of a theological nature on this blog.  As I saw an article today about the classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life is in the process of getting a sequel, I couldn’t help but think back to a little writing project I took on a couple of years ago.  I shared this with a few friends and relatives in much the same spirit as Philip Van Doren Stern did with his original story.

As the holidays of 2013 approach, I offer my own “apocryphal” addition to the “Wonderful Life” canon.  I tried to capture the language of the era, the mannerisms of the characters as presented in the movie, and wonderful sentimentality of the best tradition of what came to be known as “Capra-corn.”  As I re-read the story this afternoon, even I got a little choked up at the end, in much the same way I do at the end of the movie, even after I have seen it dozens of times.

If you choose to read the story, please read it in order, and remember to be kind:  I am not a professional writer.  This was purely a labor of love from a man who wants to see the best in everyone, even the Henry F. Potters of the world.

And now, I present Part I of “The Trial of Henry F. Potter.”

By now, most people know the story of Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring James Stewart, Donna Reed, and Lionel Barrymore, based on Philip Van Doren Stern’s “The Greatest Gift.” But George Bailey’s story was only part of what was happening in Bedford Falls that cold Christmas Eve…. 

             The old man rolled determinedly down the slush covered sidewalk, his servant leaning into the back of the wheelchair as the old man grumbled, “Faster, faster, confound it!”  The tall balding man rolled his eyes slightly as he complied with his master’s commands.  Silent service was difficult.  But the rewards were almost worth it.  Almost.

            “Where is that blasted sheriff?  I paid good money to get him elected.  I want George Bailey arrested.  Now!”  He clenched the cigar so tightly in his teeth that he bit through it, the lit end falling into his blanket covered lap.  He didn’t even realize that the blanket was beginning to smolder, since he was too busy coughing up the rolled tobacco stump that he had inadvertently swallowed.  A few swats with the rolled up paper containing old, addled Billy Bailey’s $8,000.00 and the lap fire was out.

            “Say, you there!  Yes you, you pathetic nincompoop!  Where is Sherriff Warren?  I distinctly sent word to him to serve an arrest warrant for George Bailey.”

            “Haven’t you heard, Mr. Potter?  George was in trouble, see.  He misplaced his deposit today, but folks came out to help him!  He’s got the eight grand covered, and then some!”

            “What?” the old man exclaimed.  “How could Bailey’s riff-raff have that much cash?  I must have underestimated them.”

            “Have you seen the sheriff?” he groused.

            “Sheriff tore up the warrant!”

            “He what?  Humbug!” the old man exclaimed. He wasn’t sure why he said ‘humbug’, but it fit this night like a legal seal on a foreclosure order.

            Turning down the tree lined avenue that led past George and Mary Bailey’s house, Henry Potter called for the chair to stop.  There, before him, was a sight that he did not want to see.  A steady stream of townspeople entering and exiting the front door, every light in the house burning.  Tentative piano music playing, like someone who was just learning music.  Singing.  Auld Lang Syne, it sounded like.  Cheers.

            “Confound it!  How does he always come out smelling like a rose?  Who’s looking out for him?”

 

            A long way away, in what could have been another time, another dimension altogether, an angel trainer called a halt to the action in the small town of Bedford Falls.  The meek, freshly winged former clock maker, Clarence Oddbody, entered the office where the angel known only as Joseph sat staring at the recently moving picture before him.

            “Come in, Clarence.  Congratulations on your promotion.  You deserve it.”

            “Thank you, sir.  George deserves the credit, though.  He really is a good man.  He’ll make a good angel some day.”

            “Maybe someday,” Joseph said, finger scrolling down a ledger, stopping, tapping twice. “But not for a long time.

            “I’ve called you in Clarence, because tonight is crucial for another person in Bedford Falls.  One Henry Potter,” continued Joseph.

            “Oh, my sir.  He’s a bad one.  A bad one, indeed.  I’m pretty sure he’s not even on our side.”

            “Nonsense, Clarence.  Each person’s life is largely the product of his choices.  Potter’s made bad ones in the past, but he has a big decision to make tonight.”

            “Do you mean…”  Clarence’s question was cut short.

            “Yes, I’m afraid so.  On his present course, Potter’s number is going to be up soon.  But we always give cases like this a chance to make amends before they go.”

            “Yes, sir.  Where do I come in?  I’m not his case worker, sir.”

            “Correct, Clarence.  I want you to brief Potter’s guardian angel, like I did for you.”

            “Brief Potter’s guardian, sir?  Whatever will I tell him?”

            “Tell him that he has to review Potter’s case, visit him, present him with his options, and await his decision.  His final disposition will rest on how he makes his choice.”

            “I see.  Sir, if I may be so bold as to ask, what are his chances?”

            “Not good, I’m afraid.  He’s been heavily recruited by other powers, powers that promise more than they can deliver.  They’ve given him all the wealth and power he could ever want on Earth in exchange for his service.  But through it all, he never really experienced the one thing that makes life worth living.”

            “A really good meal, sir?”

            “No, Clarence.  Love.”

            “Oh, my, that is sad,” Clarence replied, his voice trailing.  It was something he couldn’t quite understand.  In his life and after-life, he had known nothing but love.  It was, as they say, a way to live and die.  The warmth of family, the romance of a true love, the good will of good friends, the joy and mirth of grandchildren:  all of these give zest and spice and greater meaning to life.  While Clarence had never been rich in material goods, he never cared, because he was filled with greater riches. 

He reflected on the night’s events (so long ago or just moment?  It was hard to say in Heaven).  George Bailey had never been a rich man, but his life had been spent making deposits of good deeds that had matured and paid off when they were needed.  No business hours or bank holidays that restricted access to your funds.  There was ‘round the clock access.

Clocks.  They had been such a part of Clarence’s life, but now they had little place or meaning outside a fond memory.  Had it not been for Joseph calling him in on the Bailey case, he may have spent eternity not worrying about them ever again.  But he pulled the fob on the watch he wore in his robe pocket, and checked Earth time.

“Oh dear, I forgot how quickly time passes.  Where is my next assignment?”

“Woodrow, would you step in please?” Joseph’s voice carried through the door into the outer office.  A dark-skinned, wingless angel with peaceful eyes and graying temples rose and moved his lanky frame into the inner office.

“Yes, sir.  AS2 Woodrow Jefferson, reporting for duty.”

“Be seated, Woodrow.  This is Clarence Oddbody, your control officer.  He will fill you in on what you need to know.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Jefferson.  Have you had a pleasant stay?” Clarence asked politely.

“Clarence, we can only hold time on Earth for an hour.  I suggest you get on with it,” Joseph directed.

“Yes, sir.  Woodrow, –may I call you Woodrow?—you have a very difficult assignment, a real hard case.  Henry F. Potter has to decide tonight whether he will change his ways and be a friend to mankind or be forever lost.”

Woodrow straightened a bit, looking at the faded patrician Potter, comparing him to his own appearance.   Woodrow had been a field servant on Earth during the days of human slavery.  He had been mistreated by masters in his youth, but before his last master died– a kindly old planter who did not believe in whips and beating, but paradoxically considered slavery an acceptable institution– he had been given his freedom.  Old Master Jefferson talked of liberty for all men, but it had taken a long time for it to sink in.  He looked at the stooped old cripple in the caned, high back wheelchair.  Something akin to pity but curiously mixed with loathing rushed into his mind.  He shook his head.  Better not to judge before he knew the facts.

“Let’s get to it, then,” said Woodrow.

“Let me see if I can show you the Potter file.  Since you haven’t any wings, yet,” Clarence held out his hand, “I’ll have to help you.”  The mist in the picture frame on the wall swirled and disappeared, and a shop in downtown Bedford Falls came into sharp focus.  The street was laid out almost like Clarence remembered from his recent visit, but the buildings were smaller, less permanent looking.  Above the dry goods store was a cozy little apartment, where John and Emma Potter lived with their newborn son, Henry.  Henry looked like a fine boy, plump and happy.  His parents were hard working people.  They loved their little family, they loved their town.  They were not rich, but what they had, they shared with others.

As a young boy, Henry played like any other child.  He fought great battles in open fields, he swam in ponds in the summer, he skated on the same ponds when winter came.  One summer day, as he was swimming with friends his own age, a group of boys a few years older came by.  They taunted the little boys, they threw rocks at them.  When they finally let them out of the water, let them dry and dress, they laughed at Henry’s clothes.  Although his family owned a store, Henry wore old clothes with patches for everyday play.  Why hasten the ruin of new clothes, his mother asked.  The older boys grabbed him, began tearing the patches from the worn knickers, leaving him in tatters.  He was left alone, sobbing.    

As young Henry grew, he took an interest in the store.  He liked the clink of money in the till, and he watched to be sure no one cheated or stole.  Money was money, after all.  If some neighborhood hoodlum pilfered an apple, that was a penny that wouldn’t be counted in the bank.  Honesty had a price, and Henry Potter was there to exact it.

“No real warning signs yet,” commented Woodrow.  “When does he start to go bad?”

Let’s see….right about here,” Clarence noted as he flashed forward in the story of Henry Potter.

Potter looked to be about 15 years old.  He was of medium build, peach fuzz on his cheeks.  Late one night, as his parents were sleeping, he decided to go downstairs and look over the books.  He always liked to study the accounts.  He was frequently annoyed that his father let so many people have credit.  He never hounded them to pay.  He had enough paying business to carry a few of the needy in the neighborhood.  But every cent that became a defaulted account was cash that wouldn’t be there for him.  Didn’t these people know that he was going without some of the things that he wanted in life, all because they were too indigent to pay?  If only they had paid their bills when he was younger, he would not have been humiliated by his poor appearance, by insults hurled at his parents for their bad business ability.  He started to believe the insults.  If they were a little harder, tougher, sharper, then they would have more business, bigger business, more money, more power.

Henry read the ledger book like it was the most fascinating adventure story he had ever encountered.  He wished the money flowing like rivers through the columns were his and his alone.  He would buy what he wanted.  He would hold people accountable for their debts to him.  He would never be disrespected again.  He gripped the pen in his hand tightly, and bore down on the paper so hard that he bent the nib.  As he grasped the tip and pulled hard to remove it, he sliced a finger on its knife sharp edge, gasped, muttered an oath under his breath (forbidden in his mother’s house), and dripped a single drop of blood onto an old piece of dirty, ratty looking paper that happened to be on the counter.  He smeared the blood with his uninjured hand.  It would not be cleaned, so he tossed it toward the wastebasket.  The paper hit the floor, bounced under the cabinet.  No matter, he’d get it later.     

As he continued to read the accounts, he made notes of the ones most delinquent.  He might have to pay a visit to these people, remind them of their responsibilities.  He folded the list and tucked it tightly into his fist and returned to bed.

The next day, he made his first round of collection calls.  A tap on the door, and a polite old lady answered.  “Young Master Potter, do come in.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Nordstrom, but I haven’t time for pleasantries.  I have come to remind you of your obligation to the Potter Mercantile and Dry Goods Store.  Your account is long in arrears.  Do you intend to pay?”

“Why, young man, I’ve never been spoken to in so unkind a manner, especially by a pup, like you.”

“Madam, you have not paid for your recent purchases:  a bolt of cloth, three spools of thread, and a selection of buttons.  I trust you are a seamstress.”  She nodded. “Perhaps you should collect for your work, so that you may meet your debts.”

“Young man, one does not charge one’s daughter for her wedding dress.”

“Maybe one should,” he replied.

“I will not be spoken to in this manner, young man.  I will speak with your father.  Now good day.”  The older lady forcibly turned him by the shoulder and pushed him out the door.  Henry Potter seethed.  How dare she disrespect him in such a way.

 

In the distant room where Clarence and Woodrow had convened, Woodrow clucked his tongue.  “Such arrogance in one so young.  I can see how he ends up bitter as a man.”

“Oh, no, Woodrow.  There’s more and it gets much worse.”

 

A few more visits, and the doors of the mercantile were virtually beaten down by angry customers.

“Potter!  Come out here and take your money!  I hope you choke on it!”

“Potter!  I’m through with you and your whelp of a son!  I’ll never shop here again!”

“Potter!  You better hope God has more mercy!”

John Potter looked out the window of the upstairs apartment.  He was confused.  He had done nothing to these people.  He needed them, he respected them.  How could they turn on him?  Henry ran into the room, pulling on his robe.  “What’s happening?” he hissed.

“The people from the neighborhood seem to be angry with me,” John said, almost in a daze, eyes darting from person to person, customer to customer, friend to friend. 

“Big man to send your boy to do your dirty work, Potter!”

“Henry, what do you know about this?” Emma asked.

“I checked the books.  I made some visits.  I told people to pay up.  Or I would call the law.”

“That wasn’t your place, son.  You should let your father take care of his own business.”

“Take care of business?  By driving us into the poor house?  You call that business?” Henry spat.

“Henry, you will ‘honor thy father and mother,’” his mother said, grabbing him by the shoulder.

“Do something to earn my respect, and I will,” Henry shot back.  Emma let go.

Just then, a window crashed in the storefront below.  Roaring.  Cheering.  More glass breaking.

“Do you see what you’ve done, Henry?” John asked.  “These were good people, living on the edge.  Patience would have been rewarded.  But you pushed them over.  Took their dignity.  Desperate people do desperate things.”

“Thugs and thieves pillage and steal,” Henry yelled.  “Look at your precious neighbors, now!”

A few once law-abiding citizens were carrying items from the store.  One grabbed a wadded up piece of paper, shoved it into his pocket and ran into the storeroom.  Most of the others looked on in horror.  It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

From the back of the store there came a final crash and a blinding flash as a kerosene lamp tossed onto the floor exploded into flames.

“It is finished,” murmured John Potter, as Emma pulled him toward the stairs.  They fought their way through the smoke.  Henry was nowhere to be found.

With only the nightshirt and robe on his back, Henry left home not even looking back on his parents–stunned, broken, shattered, weeping–in the dying glow of their livelihood, their good names.

 

….Continued in Part II      

 

A Radical Monk, a Breakaway Pastor, and What Really Matters Most

On October 31, 1517, a “radical” monk strolled up to the entrance of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, and laid down a challenge of debate to any defender of the practice of the sale of indulgences.  Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in the contemporary tradition of such debate challenges.  (Andreas Carlstadt, arguably the theological ancestor of Puritanism, had nailed 151 theses to the door of the Church of All Saints—the same Castle Church— on April 26, 1517.)

In the 95 Theses, Luther outlined 95 resolutions that he was willing to debate, obviously some from the affirmative and some from the negative.  Of these theses, numbers 62 through 66 are quite interesting. 

“62.  The true treasure of the church is the Holy gospel of the glory and the grace of God.

63.  It is right to regard this treasure as most odious, for it makes the first to be the last.

64.  On the other hand, the treasure of indulgences is most acceptable, for it makes the last to be the first.

65.  Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets which, in former times, they used to fish for men of wealth.

66.  The treasures of the indulgences are the nets which to-day they use to fish for the wealth of men.”

Luther was masterful at the turn of a phrase, such as the treasure of the gospel being used as a net for fishing “for men of wealth”, vs. the corrupt practice of selling indulgences to buy a shortened stay in purgatory for one’s self or a loved one, which he said was used as a net to fish “for the wealth of men.”  As I read number 62, it appears that this was one that Luther would debate from the affirmative, since numbers 63 and 64 appear to be an interpretation of the Church’s position in favor of indulgences.

Within two months, the 95 Theses, originally inscribed in Latin had spread like wildfire throughout Europe.  Within three, they had been translated into German and disseminated en masse to the public via the printing press.  By 1522, Lutheran services began to be held instead of Catholic masses.  Although not the only reformer, Luther’s work against the Catholic hierarchy’s corruption had sparked a spiritual revolution, and the Protestant Reformation had begun.

I awoke today thinking about the 95 Theses, and the courage that any reformer must have had to stand up against the orthodoxy of his faith tradition and point out its flaws.  Surely even those men in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who called for a turning away from the sectarianism that had so permeated the realm of Christendom in its broadest sense faced ridicule and ostracism.  Of the five men who signed “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” one of the documents heralding the beginning of a new reformation movement (later called a restoration), only Barton W. Stone remained true to its tenets and principles. 

In that document, dated June 28, 1804, Stone and his collaborators opened with the founding premise: “We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.”  That call to action in this radical declaration would be echoed five years later in Thomas Campbell’s “Declaration and Address.”  I marvel at the clarity of thought and the purpose with which these men approached the task of attempting to set aright many centuries of complacency, punctuated with moments of reform and restored vigor, yet cycling back toward the entropy of dogmatic, creedal disunity.

Dogmatism rears its ugly head in many ways.  But in all my association with it, I have never seen dogma defended in humility.  I recently endured a sermon (I cannot say it was “enjoyed,” since it most certainly was not) in which the topic of obedience was thrashed to within an inch of its life by a steadfast recitation of the instructions to the Israelites found repeatedly in Deuteronomy.  Of particular interest to the speaker, it seemed, was the practice of stoning for unruly children, for false prophets, and for anyone who would entice another to follow after false gods.

Now, as a historical presentation, this is a fine discussion.  But where things got strange was where the speaker essentially said it would be great if we could go back to stoning and eliminate a lot of this “false teaching” that goes on today.  If we could only see people like Nadab and Abihu as they writhed in burning agony for “presuming” to “go beyond” their charge, we would take seriously the necessity to obey every fine detail.  (Nadab and Abihu didn’t really presume anything: they completely violated a direct command.)    

That was something of a shocker, and yet it should not be unexpected.  For those who take the extreme legal approach to religion, it is very natural and normal.

As I reflect on that incident, I have come to some interesting observations regarding the legalist’s approach: 

1)  You may use any example of swift judgment from the Old Testament to instill fear in modern day worshippers.  Nadab and Abihu and the later example of Uzzah are all very useful for pointing out the terror of God.  Forget all of the passages from the prophets where God begs Israel and Judah to return to him so he could heal them and restore them to their rightful place as his chosen people. 

2) You may use the Old Testament to support any position that you wish to support today, but you are obligated to deny its value when it violates your position.  Look at what happens when you go against God.  Never mind that God calls for “social justice” and caring for the poor and powerless throughout the Old Testament.  We aren’t under that Old Law today.

3) Depending on your preference and the historical position of your splinter of a wing of a larger movement, you may accept one example as binding and deny the validity of any other example.  The Jerusalem church’s sharing of all possessions must not be addressed, since it was a special case, and did not meet the requirements of real apostolically approved example, even though Peter and company were directing the activities at that very early time.  The approved examples come from Paul, especially regarding the Lord’s Supper and weekly collections.

4)  It is perfectly acceptable to take verses from their rightful context if they can be and have been historically used as proof-texts by your faith heritage.  For example, all issues of acts of worship, church polity, and benevolence are covered by texts like II John 9, even though the context specifically addresses the heresy that denied the incarnation.  While Revelation 22.18,19 must surely, unequivocally apply to all scripture, forcing a topic to fit into a specific proof-text is acceptable, and does not constitute adding to or taking away from the words of scripture.  Textual fidelity and an awareness of the intent of the message are secondary to supporting our traditions.

5) Our traditional understanding of passages like being “unequally yoked” in II Cor 6.14 applies specifically to marriage, even though marriage is not the subject of the discussion.  Attempts to broaden them to generally “avoid being led by an unbeliever” are in error, and must not be proposed.  This is a case in point, demonstrating that God sprinkled his law throughout the divine writings, which we must diligently and carefully hunt for, like Easter eggs. 

6) All other groups, whether variations of our own brand or those very different from us, are all wrong in every way and consigned to hell.  Let there be no questioning of our conclusions, nor actual study of any other group’s teaching, even though what we teach as being their doctrines may be from sources outdated by half a century or more.  We have found all truth, and only error exists outside of our group.  Never mind that Paul anticipated that there may be misunderstandings and disagreements in passages such as Phil 3.15,16: “15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. 16 Only let us hold true to what we have attained.” 

7) All acts of benevolence must only be individual acts, as directed by James 1.27.  Gal 6.10 has nothing to do with a group responsibility, even though Paul used plural pronouns in that discussion.  If we are ever asked to use the church treasury to help a brother or sister in need, we must carefully weigh whether or not this fits the “pattern.”  Never mind that the Old Testament was very direct in saying that “there will be no poor among you” (Deuteronomy 15), since we aren’t under that Old Law.  (Incidentally, all examples of punishment for disobedience are fair game, and should be rehearsed at every opportunity.)  Also, never mind the example of the Jerusalem church in Acts 4.34, where “There was not a needy person among them…” because those who were able sold their possessions and distributed to each as he had need.  And never mind the fact that individual and collective acts are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

8) Errors in the translation of the King James Version are forgivable, since Jacobean English is the language of God.  Also, words like “fear” and “terror” are especially helpful in keeping people in line.  Never mind that “fear” in many places probably connotes “respect” more than trembling and cowering.  All other translations, especially the modern ones, are marred by the hand and ideology of the “denominational” translators.  Never mind that the King James Version was translated by a council of 47 Anglican clergy and scholars, who were ordered to produce a version that maintained the Church of England’s fundamental doctrines regarding the church, the hierarchy of the church, and the practice of an ordained clergy.

I could go on for pages about the inconsistencies of the legalistic approach to faith.  But over the years, I have come to realize that there is virtually nothing to be gained by arguing with them.  As the old saying observes, “There is none so blind as he who will not see.”  It’s not that they can’t.  It’s that they refuse to consider anything but what they have been taught by other practitioners of the same dogmatic narrowness.  And ironically, they say the same thing about anyone who cannot see every issue exactly as they do.

The most dangerous force opposing legalism is a group of people who can and do think for themselves.  If their hearts are honest, then conclusions will be carefully weighed and accepted or rejected based on their merits.  To seek to break something down that is correct is every bit as as wrong as seeking to prop up something that is in error.  This is where honest inquiry must come into play.

Real study is more than rehashing the group’s positions and subjecting one’s self to the group-think mentality.  More and more, I hear of people from many denominations who are questioning the status quo in their groups.  I hear similar conclusions arising from different quarters, so boldly and with such similarity that I cannot accept that it is merely statistical background noise.  I believe there are people from across the map of Christianity who are examining their beliefs and seeking something that is more about Jesus and less about any particular “church.”  The gentle breezes may continue, or they may gather and create a tempest that will rock the orthodoxy of many established groups. 

If we are seeing the next wave of “reformation” or “restoration,” we can only hope it will indeed lead to something closer to the liberty envisioned in the restoration ideal of Barton Stone, who wrote, “We will, the Synod of Kentucky examine every member who may be suspected of having departed from the Confession of Faith, and suspend every such suspected heretic immediately, in order that the oppressed may go free, and taste the sweets of Gospel liberty.” (emphasis mine)

As Paul told the Galatians (5.1), “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Legalism’s binding of law where there is none is the most encumbering yoke in the life of faith.  Later, in the same letter, he wrote, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (Gal 5.13)  There it is: the recurring theme of love, as demonstrated in service to one another.  That is the second great commandment.  That is a law to which I willingly submit, because it was endorsed by Jesus, and it makes me more like him. 

It is ironic that the most often stressed “command” –the command to love one another–is one that cannot be forced.  You cannot make someone truly love another.  It must come from within, and it must arise because of a transformation.  Legalists may yell all they want about following commands that only they can seem to find, but love is the pinnacle of Christian existence.  Romans 13.10 says, “…therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” Real obedience flows from it, and John says there is no fear in it.  If we really get that right—love for God, and love for our fellow man—everything else should fall into place.  Not that it always does. 

Romans 6.14 tells us, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”  Law-keeping, whether the written, codified law of the Old Testament or the interpolated, reconstituted constructs of the New, cannot save us.  I return again and again to Ephesians 2, where Paul unequivocally lays out the foundation for any consideration of salvation.  “4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, 9 not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”  That just about says it all.