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28 February 2013

Valjean and Javert: Redemption vs Despair


Since seeing the film, I have spent a lot of time listening to the soundtrack and going deeper into the lyrics.  Inevitably, the music student in me has started to go deeper into the music as well.  Back in University, as a music major, I spent hours in the music library listening to pieces over and over, so that I could write papers analyzing the meanings in the music.  

One of the things that occurred to me immediately after watching the film was the vast difference in the way Valjean and Javert respond to the possibility of redemption.  I found it incredibly sad to watch Javert’s last scene and his suicide by throwing himself into the Seine.   It made me think of an Easter sermon I heard once.  It was a bit strange for an Easter sermon, but the message stuck with me.  The basic gyst was that Peter had denied Jesus 3 times before his cruicifixion.  He was guilt stricken, but when Jesus  rose from the dead, Peter was one of the first witnesses, running into the empty tomb and excitedly telling the others.  On the other hand, Judas Ischariot betrayed Jesus to death.  Jesus’ death and resurrection were sufficient to redeem even the likes of a traitor but instead, Judas, in his guilt, could not go on and so committed suicide.  And, as we all know, St. Peter became known for his role in establishing the church of the follows of Jesus Christ, while Judas Ischariot is only known for his betrayal of Jesus. 

I’ve been mulling over that connection, in regards to Valjean and Javert while listening to the soundtrack repeatedly over the past week or so.  Gradually it started to come to me that Valjean and Javert both have a “redemption soliloquy” which are not only identical musically, but have lyrics which mirror each other.  

I decided to transcribe the lyrics here, as well as attach audio clips of each piece. However, I don't believe either the lyrics or the music require much explanation.  Listen carefully to the music to hear the elements that are the same and different between the two.  I'll let them speak for themselves and invite you to reflect upon them as I have.

First, Valjean's soliloquy:

What have I done, sweet Jesus, what have I done
Become a thief in the night, become a dog on the run
Have I fallen so far and is the hour so late that nothing remains but the cry of my hate?
The cries in the dark that nobody hears
Here where I stand at the turning of the years.

If there’s another way to go, I missed it 20 long years ago.
My life was a war that could never by won
They gave me a number and murdered Valjean
They chained me and left me for dead just for stealing a mouthful of bread.

Yet why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother.

My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me.

Take an eye for an eye
Turn your heart into stone
This is all I have lived for
This is all I have known.

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul
How does he know
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching but I fall and the night is closing in
And I stare into the void to the whirlpool of my sin.
I’ll escape now from the world,
From the world of Jean Valjean.
Jean Valjean is nothing now,
Another story must begin!

And Javert's soliloquy:

Who is this man what sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last to  put a seal on my fate
Wipe up the past and watch me clean up the slate.
All it would take was a flick of his knife
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life.

Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief,
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the law and the law is not mocked.
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face.
There is nothing on earth that we share.
It is either Valjean or Javert.

How I can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?
This desparate man that I have hunted;
He gave me my life, he gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand,
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well.
Instead I live but live in Hell.

And my thoughts fly apart.
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all those years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from Heaven or from Hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void of a world that cannot hold.
I’ll escape now from that world
From the world of Jean Valjean!
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on!

And thus Javert dies.  Ultimately, of course, so does Valjean. But it's a very different sort of death.  Although Valjean is always haunted by his past, he is never bound by it.  He never forgets his gratitude for being given salvation and new chance at life, at freedom.
This is our choice.  We can stay bound up in the past, in our sins, in our regrets and fears.  Or we can accept the hand of Salvation and Redemption.  Allow ourselves to be forgiven and washed clean of our past.  And this can be an ongoing process as well, which is why Lent and Easter come back around year after year. 

17 February 2013

The power of grace, according to Jean Valjean

First, a disclaimer.  Although this post discusses details of the movie/musical Les Misérables, there really is nothing about the plot that cannot be found by reading any newspaper or internet review and only the very beginning of the movie is really discussed.  However, if you want to see nothing about the film until you have seen it, don’t read this!

Today I went to see the movie Les Misérables.  Oddly, although I’ve listened to the Broadway Soundtrack many times, and know the basic premise of the story, I really didn’t know or remember much about the details.  And so it was that, in the first few minutes of the film, I was amazed by one of the most powerful exhibitions of grace that I have ever seen in film.  After Jean Valjean has been paroled after serving a 19-year sentence for stealing a loaf of bread for his sister’s dying child, he is understandably bitter and angry, vowing never to forgive the injustice that has been done to him.  After stealing the silver from a convent, he is caught and the Bishop, instead of accusing him and sending him back to prison, tells the authorities to that he has given Valjean the silver and, in fact gives him more.  In a moment that I imagine to be much like Jesus talking to the woman caught in the act of adultery, he says, “Use this silver to make yourself an honest man.”  In the next scene, Valjean is sobbing in front of the altar, completely broken down and overwhelmed by this act of grace, which has given him an opportunity at a new start.  He dedicates his life to the service of God and others, vowing never to forget what has been done on his behalf.

There is so much to say just about that one little bit.  It is key to the rest of the film, another 2+ hours’ worth.  However, it is also key to my life, to my Lenten journey and to my relationship with God.  

In reading reviews and comments about the film, it seems this moment is glossed over as “heartwarming” or an “act of kindness” and somehow, to me, the fullness of its meaning is lost.  The deeper meaning, to me, is that this is exactly how it looks when God redeems us.  This is why the life and death and resurrection of Jesus have such power.  Jean Valjean could be considered a “small time” criminal, a “minor” sinner.  He was treated unjustly, wasn’t he?  He “only” stole a loaf of bread. And surely, because of his sorry circumstances, he could be justified for stealing the silver from the Bishop.  However, the law sees it differently.  He is no different from any other criminal.  He has committed a crime and he must pay the penalty.  But the penalty he has to pay, far beyond the hard labour of prison, is also a life of bitterness and hatred. 

Many of us have found ourselves in this same boat.  We don’t consider ourselves really “that bad” of sinners.  We’re generally honest, hard working and just trying to get along in life.  Meanwhile, we’ve been hurt, often by the Church and by those we love, perhaps our parents or our friends.  We feel justified in living lives underpinned by bitterness and perhaps even revenge.  We seek out churches and therapists who help us to see how we’re not to blame and that we don’t need to be caught up in all that negativity and guilt and shame. 

However, we’re missing out on a big piece of the puzzle if we stay there.  Jean Valjean almost missed it.  But, of course, if he had, Victor Hugo would not have had a story.  The story is that ALL of us, no matter how big or small our offenses, live in a world embittered by sin, by fear, by guilt, despair and revenge.  A literal reading of the Bible attributes this state of sin to Adam and Eve eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden.  Whether that story is literally true or whether it is a metaphor (or a parable or an allegory, I’m never sure which), it is clear that SOMEHOW, the wonderful and perfect Creation that God intended has gone horribly wrong.  It is still beautiful, to be sure, but horrible things happen, often to really good, nice people.  And, despite our best intentions, we often do horrible things to those we love. 

So, what happens when, in our bitterness and guilt, someone says, “I love you, wholly and completely.  You are beautiful just the way you are, because I MADE YOU THAT WAY.  And I forgive you for all of the wrong you have done, even the wrong that you’ve kept hidden way deep inside.  I see all that. I KNOW you. And you are mine. “  How do I respond to that? How do you respond to that? 

If I really, truly take that all in, the only way I can see to respond to that is the way Jean Valjean responded.  It is so overwhelming to realize that I have been saved from a life of bitterness and fear and regret that really, all I can do is cry and pray and throw myself at the mercy of God and commit my life to following that example of grace and forgiveness.

Of course, the rest of the story, as I’ve repeated over and over on this blog, is that God became one of us and is intimately familiar with every kind of suffering we’ve experienced.  Jesus took it all on and he overcame it.  And that’s why we can trust him when he invites us to lay it all down and follow him. 

There is more to say about this.  The notion of “Cheap Grace” comes to mind.  A discussion of the rest of Jean Valjean’s story and his struggle to stay true to his promise to God to act with integrity and kindness is well worth further exploration.  Those will have to wait for another night.  For now, I’m contemplating this powerful scene in the context of today’s churches.  It’s either “believe in Jesus or you’ll go to Hell because you’re a miserable worm” or “forget all that shame and guilt stuff, God made you good and so you’re good. Period.”  I think it’s neither and it’s both.  I am a miserable worm and destined for Hell.  Whether that is a Hell of my own making, in this life, or a place of eternal suffering in the hereafter is not really as relevant as that fact that without the kind of grace embedded in the life, death and resurrection of Christ I am doomed to hopelessness and despair.  On the other hand, I AM a precious Creation of God and I no longer have to feel guilt and shame for what I’ve done BECAUSE of that grace.  At one extreme, the Gospel is not really “Good News” and at the other, it is pretty much meaningless.

As I contemplate this awesome, powerful grace, I want to leave you with a line from one of the final songs in the film:  “To love another person is to see the face of God.”  May I love others in a way that shows my gratitude to God for this most amazing grace.


14 February 2013

Frozen by perfection

It's Day 2 of Lent.  Yesterday was Ash Wednesday and I was involved in meetings at the Med School all day so I had no opportunity to go to an Ash Wednesday service.  I did spend a fair bit of time THINKING about the liturgy of Ash Wednesday.  "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return." "Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love."  These phrases have been passing through my mind over and over the last couple of days.

Meanwhile, I haven't for the life of me been able to figure out what to write about.  I can't work out a "perfect" blog post to start off my Lenten journey.   And so I have been frozen into inaction, a sort of "writer's block."  But in my readings and prayers these last few days I have come across this concept of perfection more than once.  Lent isn't about being perfect.  It's about being REAL.  Being naked before God.  Letting God heal us from our imperfection.  Knowing that God has already redeemed us and healed us and accepts us as we are.

Lent isn't about empty piety either.  One of the listed readings for Ash Wednesday is Isaiah 58.  The prophet is talking about fasting as a self-serving exercise so that others and God might take notice.  But, the prophet, notes, these same people are oppressing their workers and stirring up trouble.  Instead, he says,
"Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? 
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am."

All of my Lenten discipline and striving for perfection is a big waste of time if I'm only doing it to for the sake of perfection or to look good.  If all I'm doing is trying to write a clever blog post to show you all how pious I am then it's all about me.  But Isaiah is saying that the fast that God wants is to break the bonds of oppression and injustice.  What am I doing today for the sake of justice?

That's not to say that I should give up this blog-writing discipline as meaningless. I'm not letting myself off that easily.  But in so many areas of my life I have allowed my own perfectionism (a very egocentric attitude) to get in the way of working for the cause of justice, of simple acts of sharing my bread with the hungry, clothing the naked, sharing what I have with the poor and homeless.  I make the same excuses that we all make.  "My little bit won't make a difference." "They're probably taking me for a ride, how do I know that person is really needy." "I can't afford it." "I don't want to pry into someone else's affairs." The list goes on.  Because I can't do it MY way, because I'm not rich enough or clever enough to come up with the PERFECT solution, I am frozen into inaction.

The opportunites are often subtle and small.  They usually do not involve making a big splash and getting our names out there for all to see.  And that's good.  Once my ego gets involved then I stand in God's way.  If I get in God's way then I frustrate all possibility of perfection as only God CAN make things right and perfect.  Likewise, if I turn my back on the opportunities God puts before me, it's quite possible that God will simply start giving the opportunities to someone else.  These opportunities to serve are opportunities to see Jesus, "God with skin on."  If I miss them, I miss God.  I miss the point of the journey to the cross.

What opportunities might I have today or tomorrow to meet and serve Jesus, to break the bonds of injustice, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked? How might I have to step outside of my comfort zone to do so? And how might my obsession with perfection get in the way of these small acts of service that might present themselves before me?

Almighty God, the Redeemer of all who trust in you; give heed to the cry of your people, deliver us from the bondage of sin that we may serve you in perfect freedom and rejoice in your unfailing love; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. (NZBB p 572)

11 February 2013

This year, as every year, I try to be intentional about the journey of Lent.  Last year, it seems, my Lenten journey brought me to New Zealand.  Nonetheless, I start off each Lenten season with great intentions to do some extra prayer, meditation, study, reflection and to fast from things that seem to get in my way of these things.  Things such as the internet, Facebook, coffee, sugar, anger, politics...the list is almost endless.

One of the things I've noticed this year is that I spend an awful lot of my spare time sitting with my laptop in the lounge, while my partner sits on the opposite couch with hers and we're just there, not really talking to each other and doing what?  I don't know.  Facebook is really boring, and yet I spend a lot of time there.  I spend time on GCN and sometimes I look at some news item or blog post from someone I follow.  But most of the time is really a waste.  During the spring (that would be fall for my Northern Hemisphere readers) I decided that I could spend that time doing something else and so I signed up for an online course on "The Diaconate" through the Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  I wasn't really that engaged in it for some reason.  Partly, it was because my book arrived several weeks into it (because I only got the reading list a week before, way too late to get a book to NZ).  Partly, it was because everyone else in the class was in North America and were in some way already engaged in the discernment process while I am still exploring and not in a parish where it is even possible for me to be ordained to the Diaconate.

The point is that I have determined that there are way better things for me to do with my time than sit with my laptop in the lounge of an evening and fiddle around with Facebook and other mindless websites.  So one of the things I'd like to do (and in writing it here, am stating my intention to do) is to blog through Lent.  I'd like to work through the Lectionary readings for the days of Lent and write some reflections.  One year I committed to getting up early to do some Centering Prayer.  Another year I committed to getting up early to walk the dog for 20-30 minutes in the morning while doing a walking meditation (unplugging from the iPod for the walk was a real challenge).  Both of those years, I stated the intention and I stuck with it.  I got back to it when I missed a day or two, rather than scrapping the whole plan.  I intend to do that this year too.  I hope that my readers, few as they are, will hold me to it. If you don't see a post for a few days or a week, please push me!

If anyone has ideas about topics or readings for me to reflect on, I'm open to hearing about them.  If anyone has suggestions for how one creates and sticks to a discipline such as this, please share them.

Lent is about repentance, turning our hearts and lives around to follow Jesus to the cross.  It's about reflecting on the suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ as he walked the way of persecution and torture all for my sake.  I know there are readers out there who take issue with this characterisation of both Lent and of the meaning of the sacrifice of Christ and what atonement means.  Post-modern liberal theology says that we're all "ok" just as we are.  Yes, to an extent that is true...we are all accepted and unconditionally loved by God.  But "ok?"  No, I am most definitely NOT "OK" as I am.  I am imperfect, undisciplined and repeatedly fail to do the things that I "intend" to do and that I know are right and I persist in doing self-serving things which serve no useful purpose.  The purpose of this is not to beat myself up but to own up to my weaknesses so that I can surrender them to the care of a loving God who wants so much to be in relationship with me that God became Human and took on ALL of the suffering that we brought upon ourselves so that we can be set free from the power of the sin.

So, in my first post about Lent (which only starts in 2 days), I am becoming an apologist for my faith which is something that I think is vitally important for all people of faith.  I need to understand and explain why I am passionate about my faith.  Blogging about it will not only help me to become clear on that but in the process, maybe someone will read it and get something out of it.

The first of the Collects for Ash Wednesday list in the NZ Prayerbook is:
Jesus, holy and strong,
by your fasting and temptation teach us self-denial;
control and discipline us, 
that we may learn to obey.

May it be so.