(c) Doug Slagle, Minister to the Gathering at Northern Hills, All Rights Reserved
Audio to the message is in two parts. Please click here to listen or see below to read the message.
Most of us have heard about the Pakistani girl Malala Yousafzai. She became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner ever three years ago. But many of us do not know her life story.
Malala was born in 1997 to a professor and his wife in the Swat region of Pakistan – a mountainous area that borders Afghanistan. While the birth of girls is not as widely celebrated in many Pakistani families as is that of boys, Malala’s parents were overjoyed. Her father determined his daughter would have all the opportunities available to boys. Malala was enrolled in a local girl’s school and encouraged to learn and achieve.
When she was ten, a Muslim fundamentalist group named the Taliban took control of the Swat area. They promptly imposed religious laws that outlawed TV’s, music, movies, books and education for women and girls. Malala’s school was closed.
Using a fictitious name, Malala began to blog for the BBC about life under the Taliban. Her description of the days before her school was closed were particularly moving.
Eventually, the Pakistani Army regained control over the Swat region but the Taliban remained a threat. Even though schools for girls were reopened, the Taliban continued to oppose them with terror and intimidation.
Malala’s fame….and notoriety grew. The New York Times wrote about her advocacy for equal education of girls and soon her identity became an open secret. One day in 2012, gunmen boarded her school bus and demanded she be identified. She raised her hand. The gunmen shot her in the head, neck and shoulder. She was critically wounded and nearly died.
Malala survived long enough to be transferred to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in London where she fully recovered. She renewed her work with even greater intensity – to insure girls are treated with dignity and that they have full equality with boys. She founded the Malala Fund that builds schools and advocates for girls and young women around the world. Schools in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin American were started because of her activism. Thousands of girls owe their educations to her. And thousands of future children of those now educated girls will also owe their well-being to her.
It might seem incongruous that I’ve opened my message entitled “It’s a Wonderful Life Holiday: L’Chaim!” with a description of Malala Yousafzai – a young Muslim girl. My opening is perhaps equally incongruous with today’s service – one to honor the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah that begins this Tuesday.
In truth, celebrating Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Pagan or Christian ideals in a Unitarian Universalist church is nothing new. Each stream of spirituality offers truths from which we can learn, but all world religions teach the same Golden Rule ethic. We are to love and respect others at least equal to how we ourselves wish to be loved and respected.
The Hebrew phrase ‘l’chaim’ in my title, is a celebratory one meaning “to life!” Jews exclaim these words on many joyous occasions. It reminds speakers and listeners of blessings both big and small. Most importantly, “l’chaim” reminds people of the gift of life. We each have one chance to exist and, no matter the challenges we face, our mere being – the fact that we breathe, think, love and procreate – is a miracle. That’s something to never take for granted or waste. And with the miracle of “being”, comes a responsibility to have purpose. We don’t exist just to exist.
That idea is wonderfully represented in Malala Yousafzai’s life. One teenage girl, facing obstacles of hate and violence, has by herself impacted millions of lives – directly and indirectly.
That idea is also inherent in the history of Hanukkah. The ancient Seleucid empire, which ruled Israel beginning in 444 BCE, was led by a maniacal and arrogant dictator named Antiochus Epiphanes who took power in 175 BCE. Like fundamentalist Muslims of today, he imposed radical laws on the areas he controlled – including Israel. His laws were a direct assault on Jewish religious and cultural beliefs. Jews were forced to worship Antiochus – instead of their own Yahweh. Worship was sexualized and the Jewish Temple was used for that. Pigs were incorporated into worship – all to further offend pious Jews. An alien and provocative culture was imposed.
In 166 BCE, a young man named Judas Maccabaeus decided he’d had enough. He led a small army in guerrilla type warfare against the dictator. After many small skirmishes, Maccabaeus’ army wore down Antiochus’ larger army and forced it to flee. Israel became an independent nation once again.
After restoring their nation, Jewish priests began to clean and restore the Temple in Jerusalem. After finding the Temple’s large ornamental menorah, that by tradition was always lit, they realized there was only enough sacred oil to keep it lit for a day or less. It took at least eight days, however, to make more holy oil. The priests lit the lamp anyway and, to their day by day surprise, found it stayed lit until enough new holy oil was made. Celebrating this miracle of Hanukkah began.
Judas Maccabaeus’ zeal and courage changed the course of history and impacted, for good, the lives of millions. Indeed, his actions and courage indirectly influenced Jesus who was also a Jewish militant – one who, a century and a half later, challenged Roman and elitist control over Israel.
My connection of young Malala Yousafzai to Judas Maccabaeus is not stretched. Their deeds are great and their influence therefore is very large. But such greatness, and that of other famous figures of history, is not limited to only a few people. Nobody aspires to fame when they begin their life’s work. Mostly, people simply begin to act in ways that help others. And it is in doing so, that a few become famous.
I believe, however, in everyday greatness – the kind that is not found in history books but which every living person can and should achieve. This is the kind of greatness that also influences the world for the better – but in less noticed ways. We all have this potential greatness in us, but first we must identify it and then go out and use it. As I said earlier, we must find our reason for living and then pursue it.
That notion brings me to the holiday film classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The hero of the film, George Bailey, realizes his reason for living later in life. He eventually understands his purpose is equal in goodness to that of his younger brother and others who become famous because of good deeds. That is a primary theme of the film. Every life has a great purpose. Whether or not we become famous for exercising it is not important. When we change the world for the better – even in small ways – we touch the future in exponential ways.
George owns and runs a small bank that his father began – one that safeguards people’s money and invests it in the community – for local businesses and homeowners. He stayed behind in Bedford Falls, at his father’s request, to run the bank. He married his high school sweetheart and they raise three children – all while George’s younger brother goes off to war, becomes a celebrated hero, and with his Hollywood good looks, returns to fame and fortune.
In the middle of his relatively ordinary life, however, George faces a crisis. His genial but incompetent uncle loses over $8,000.00 of bank funds – a large sum in post-depression America. The bank does not have enough funds to cover customer withdrawals. George is accused of fraud and theft. He faces not only financial ruin, but the likelihood of prison. Its at this low point that George prepares to kill himself by jumping off a bridge – so his wife can collect modest life insurance. The film scene you’ll see now immediately follows George’s near suicide…
(Click on the link to watch a YouTub clip from the film)
One of George’s statements in the clip you saw is a sad one. “My family and friends would be better off without me. I wish I was never born.” It’s a phrase repeated by many people who have been knocked down by the vagaries of life – prejudice, poverty, bad luck, illness, depression. Too many people believe their life is not worth living. “What good,” some ask themselves, “do I bring to the world?”
Before my mom suffered from Alzheimer’s, she and I would regularly talk for hours about many subjects. We confided to one another our hopes and our fears. It saddened me when my mom told me on several occasions that her life had little meaning. “What have I done,” she asked, “to improve the world? I’m just a housewife and I’ve not saved or helped people like your father – or others who are successful.”
Her lament was not that different from George Bailey’s. I tried to help her see that her life, indeed, had great value. I won’t recount all she’s done, but my mom was a twenty-five year almost daily volunteer at Hospice of Cincinnati, loyal wife to a successful surgeon, mother to three, grandmother to four, and a close friend to many. Directly or indirectly she helped change the world. I would not be who I am – whatever modest positive influence I have – were it not for her. And my daughters would not be caring nurses – helping hundreds – were it not due the influence my mom had on me – and thus on them.
After the scene you saw, Clarence the angel takes George Bailey on a journey into a world where he never existed – granting his wish to not have been born. What George finds on this journey is a town named not Bedford Falls, but Pottersville – after a greedy businessman who runs this other-worldly town’s only bank that invests not in local mortgages or small businesses, but in run down tenements, pawnshops and brothels. Pottersville is a dreary, crime ridden place. Citizens are joyless, poor and beaten down. George’s wife is a frightened and lonely spinster. Even more ominous, news from the war is bad. Since George had never been born, he had not saved his drowning younger brother in a boating accident of their youth. With a dead younger brother, there is no hero to save the lives of hundreds of soldiers who would, in turn, save other lives.
An obvious lesson from the film and from the lives of Malala Yousafzai and Judas Maccabaeus is that one life does, indeed, profoundly matter. My mom’s life matters. So does yours and so does mine. Our lives matter when we find and practice the purpose for why we exist. That purpose is not to become great or rich and powerful. It’s to add our share of service, love, and comfort to the world – one family member, one child, one hurting soul at a time. When we create even small change for the better in an often dark and hate filled world, our existence is transformed into greatness. We fulfill the ancient Jewish proverb – “He or she who saves one life, saves the world entire.”
As Jews everywhere light their Hanukkah menorahs this coming Tuesday, and for the following seven nights, they implicitly celebrate that ideal. One small, seemingly insignificant light can become a beacon of brilliance.
In the coming holiday weeks, may we nightly light a symbolic Hanukkah candle in our minds and hearts – and make a joyful toast to spouses, partners, families, friends and ourselves…. “L’Chaim!” To life!
And as we drift off to sleep each night, may we then dream of our greatness – our past and future work, no matter how seemingly small, to serve and save the lives of others – and thereby save the world entire.
I wish you each a Happy Hanukkah – one that is enriched with much peace and joy.