Our hearts long for God, even when we don’t know what we really want.
Dial up to the internet and order some Starbucks: it’s You’ve Got Mail Week at All Things New. The classic rom-com starring Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan turns 20 on December 18. To celebrate, we’ll be reflecting on what the late 90s can teach us about love, community (both the online and offline varieties), identity, and trusting God’s plan for our lives.
Maybe you love the movie and this week has been like an unexpected reunion with an old friend. Or maybe you were motivated to watch the movie for the first time, and you’ve made a new friend. Or maybe you’re sick to death of You’ve Got Mail, and can we PLEASE have another topic on All Things New already? If that’s you, would you deign to read just one more post about this ridiculous movie? Because I’d like to try and convince you that this story (yes, this one you’ve read about ad nauseum all week) is the epitome of the Advent story.
When I was first assigned the task of tying You’ve Got Mail in to Advent, I thought, “Oh dear, how am I going to make that work?” I mean, what does a cheesy 90’s rom com have in common with the coming of the Savior of the world? Add to that the fact that I barely remembered the movie, and what I did remember was that it hadn’t been a favorite when I’d seen it 20 years ago. But, I’m the sort of person every teacher wants in their class: I follow the rules and do the assignment. So I dutifully rewatched the movie (which I liked much better the second time through, so not sure what that says about me) with an eye for how I could tie in Advent.
As the movie opens, we see Kathleen Kelly living her life—a small life, she calls it, but valuable. She’s connecting the past with the present. She is shaping young minds and feeding people’s souls and fighting the onslaught of rampant commercialism. And yet…something is missing. She wonders, “Do I do it because I like it, or because I haven’t been brave?”
If I’m honest, I wonder that sometimes, too. I would love to step out into some things I’ve been dreaming about and talking about for years. But I don’t really know how to go about it. And that dream costs money I don’t have…and…maybe I don’t really believe God will carry me if I step out in faith. (Is that a little of Advent creeping in? Doesn’t one of the Christmas carols go,“The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”?)
Joe Fox, too, feels the angst of this life. He knows he’s in the business of making people go out of business. He tells himself (and Kathleen, unknowingly), “It’s not personal, it’s business.” But he still in a small way hates the part of him that is needling and mean. “Do you ever feel you’ve become the worst version of yourself?” he asks. “That a Pandora’s Box of all the secret hateful parts—your arrogance, your spite, your condescension—has sprung open?”
I feel that way sometimes. It’s like there’s this nasty little beast inside me that lives behind a shiny veneer. I can, for example, be having a perfectly lovely time with relatives, and then one little thing will dredge up old memories, and before I realize it, I’ve uttered snarky words that would have been better left unsaid. And all I’m left with is regret.
The movie strings us and Kathleen along until it all finally falls apart, as it always does. Eventually we all find the ground going out from under us on seemingly every front. The life we’ve worked so hard to build doesn’t work after all. Even the person who was perfectly suited for Kathleen (her boyfriend, Frank) doesn’t love her. But in that moment of confrontation, Kathleen realizes she doesn’t really love him either. What she thought she wanted isn’t really what she wants at all. How true this is of all humanity. We think we want (fill in the blank), but when we get it, it rings hollow. Deep down we know these things are empty, that the pursuit of them is futile. The reality is, we don’t really know what our souls are longing for. But there’s an inkling.
Kathleen has an inkling, too. Someone has spoken to her heart. He has seen her where she wants to be, not where she is. The crazy thing is, she doesn’t yet know that he is what she’s looking for. “Is there someone else?” Frank asks her. “No,” she answers. “No, but there’s the dream of someone else.” And it’s that dream that is the essence of Advent. Before the birth of Christ, all humanity was dreaming and waiting. And we are waiting still. Every mangled mess of a life dreams of the One who can right the wrongs and fill the void. All the world has to offer is shallow, empty, impersonal. And as Kathleen Kelly says, “Whatever else anything is, it ought to be personal.” We know it instinctively. And we yearn for it, barely daring to breathe lest we be wrong.
But the tension of the movie isn’t over. When it finally begins to dawn on Kathleen who her dream really is, she doesn’t want to confront the truth. It would mean changing her long-held opinions, her bad habits. I can identify. If God is the answer, then I’m faced with believing in him. And if I believe, my life will have to change.
But God is gentle. He woos us until our hearts, like Kathleen’s, eventually say, “I wanted it to be you.”
Maybe finding Advent in You’ve Got Mail is a stretch, but I can easily see frustration, disappointment, failure. I can see worthlessness, shame, fear and a yearning for something better. And these are themes common to us all. In the movie it all works out. Both Joe and Kathleen get not what they were looking for, nor what they expected, but what they truly wanted and definitely what they needed.
And God in his infinite wisdom and mercy gave us exactly what we needed with his Advent. But unlike Joe and Kathleen, our story isn’t done. We still feel the angst of this world. It is hard, there’s no denying that. But we have a second Advent to look forward to, and that is the source of our hope.
Take heart, dear friends. Someday we’ll have our happily ever after, too. Until then, we have Emmanuel, God with us.