Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘Les Miserables’

Progress and Purpose

Mark 1:14-20

Free-yourselfSometimes we see ourselves as only what others tell us, or what the world tells us. Are we just our jobs? Are we just defined by appearance? Are we meant to fit into other people’s boxes?

Or, are we invited to be ourselves in a free-flowing, surprising way? Are we invited to follow the movement of a freeing, creative Spirit that moves us to love and to be loved?

At times, we can feel like we are stumbling around in the dark, and discovering ourselves is difficult. We can feel like Jean Valjean in the story of Les Miserables, asking Who am I and starting out by defining self as the numbers [24601] that society gives us, or the names we are called.

Image result for who am i jean valjean
And so, life can seem monotonous and also heavy, particularly if we feel bombarded/overwhelmed by society’s expectations for us. I think most of us want to believe that we are on a journey, but it can be hard sometimes to sense progress or even know where that journey starts. As kids, adults often tell us to “chase our dreams” and “use our imaginations” but that quickly changes in adolescence and in adulthood, sadly we are told to “stop dreaming” and to “be realistic” or to “settle down.” Fantine, another character in Les Mis, expresses this in the song “I Dreamed a Dream.”

So the idea of waking up to a new reality and way of being, at any age or season of life—can often be looked upon as silly or impossible.

But I don’t think we’re wired that way—to stay the same or to fit into categories.

I think we’re made to be in a state of constant change or evolution or transformation or whatever word you wish to use. Yes, we are made to keep changing, discovering ourselves, and even changing paths, just as the characters in Les Miserables change perspective about their identities, because eventually, Jean Valjean leaves the prisoner number behind and embraces his new identity, and in doing so, discovers light and realizes that to love another person is in fact to see the face of God.

It is this pursuit of identity and light within that identity that dominates the Gospels. In the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth calling people to follow him, it isn’t as we often paint it in Western culture. It’s not like Jesus was going around converting people to a new religion or recruiting people for some type of church. Instead, Jesus was calling people to be alive, and that meant something different for each person. For those fishing in lakes and rivers and oceans for a living, controlled by a Roman tax system and seeing no other options, Jesus offered them a new perspective about life. Perhaps fishing was not all they were capable of doing. Perhaps there was more to their personal narrative and if they were willing to try a new path, rediscover themselves, well, that new existence could be filled with adventure, gratitude, and love.

See, Jesus said that the time was now, that God’s presence was near, and so people could turn their lives around, and experience good news. So what IS good news?

It’s the news that you’re not done.

Image result for im a work in progress
It’s the news that your life is a creative, changing, beautiful chaos of connections, mistakes, joys, sorrows, friendships, epiphanies, and wonder. Many, many people keep looking for their purpose in life. They look in their careers or in their families or in a religion or in other places. None of those pursuits are good or bad as long as “purpose” isn’t limited to those things. The journey and the seasons of life are meant to be fluid, creative, and unpredictable. I know some of us need some control and get anxious when things are not set. But I invite you to be open to the possibility of your life not being set in stone, that your identity can change and so can your perspectives.

You are not just what you do in a job or career. You are not just a mom or dad or a student or a grandparent or a single person. Neither are you limited to just one gender expression or identification, or type of love. You are not boxed in by religion or a church or what some weird pastor says. You’re not the mistakes you’ve made, nor any of the things that caused you pain; not the pieces of the dream left behind; you are light. You are not the color of your eyes nor your skin on the outside, not your age or your bank account. Inside you are all light.

Image result for you are light india arie

You are purposefully on a journey of self-discovery. And along the way you will be invited to turn around and experience new perspectives and new people. This is the breath of the Great Spirit, in each and every one of us, moving us and calling us to keep on beginning and failing, to keep on just doing you, going with the flow, gravitating towards love wherever we encounter it. Whatever season of life you are experiencing now, whatever people or society have told you, You are inherently gifted with uniqueness and ability to change, to evolve, to grow. It will look different for each and every one of us. Embrace that. Embrace that change in others.

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Law Bends to Love

Luke 13:10-17 

Les Miserables 10th Anniversary Clip to Watch…

Les Miserables, the 10th Anniversary performance of the musical adapted from the novel of the same name by Victor Hugo. Jean Valjean, a person from a poor family who gets arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. He spends the next 19 years in prison doing hard labor and becoming a bitter and hardened man. Finally, he is given parole, but is reminded by his arch nemesis [and representation of the law] Inspector Javert, that he will never be free. Valjean will always be a convict, and never free.

So Valjean wanders the country of France with no family or friends. He stumbles across a rectory where the Bishop Charles-François-Bienvenu Myriel lives. In the book, this bishop is referred to as Bishop Myriel or Monseigneur Bienvenu. Bishop Myriel offers Valjean a bed and a hearty meal. For the first time in 19 years, Valjean falls asleep content. But in the middle of the night, Valjean’s horrific past takes hold of him. He gets up from his bed and steals the good silver plates from the bishop’s cabinet. He runs.

The next morning, the French authorities find Valjean and bring him back to bishop Myriel’s house. They are prepared to arrest Valjean for stealing. But when they ask the bishop what they should do with Valjean, something strange happens. Bishop Myriel says to Valjean, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks also, which are silver like the rest. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” Valjean, befuddled and frozen, takes the plates from the bishop. Then, as the authorities release their grip of Valjean’s arms, the bishop says one last thing:

Forget not; never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God![1]

Valjean’s life changes radically after the bishop shows him this mercy. Valjean becomes mayor of a city in France. He is a well-respected individual in the community. He runs a factory that provides jobs for poor women. He raises a girl, Cosette, to adulthood, one who has lost her mother Fantine to disease. It seems that Valjean is indeed free of this spirit of perdition [punishment]. And yet, even after the passing of so many years, Valjean’s arch nemesis, Inspector Javert, still hunts him all over France. Javert is convinced that Valjean did not deserve to be mayor or to even live as a free man. The law was everything and the law said that Valjean must be punished for violating his parole. All the greater good that Valjean was bringing about with his new life and all the people he was blessing—this did not matter to Javert.

Law over mercy.  

It is a great story, Les Miserables. Timeless. Why? Because even though we like to identify with such heroic characters like Jean Valjean—even though we like to think that mercy will triumph over judgment and law—often it does not. And even you and I struggle with showing mercy to certain people. We can act like Javert.

We can be Javert.

We are capable of holding on to law and forgetting mercy.

And that is just what this Luke Gospel story is all about:
Law vs. mercy; judgment vs. love.

It was a Sabbath day—Saturday as we know it.

A woman appears “with a spirit” that “bent her over” for 18 years.

What did she have? Perhaps some kind of spinal disorder? The story does not tell us specifically, but that isn’t really the point, is it? The point is that on the Sabbath day, there are certain procedures to follow, traditions and rules to observe, and so this woman entering the synagogue all “bent over” doesn’t fit into the way things have always been.

The woman doesn’t cause trouble or even ask for help. After 18 years it seems that she has accepted that this is going to be her life. But Jesus sees her. And he calls her over.

You are set free.

He touches her with his own hands. She stands straight up and begins thanking God.

Of course, this kind of incident cannot go unnoticed. It is the Sabbath, remember.

So a leader of the synagogue is ticked off, says Luke’s author. Jesus [or anyone else, for that matter] was not supposed to touch an unclean person and heal on the Sabbath. Six days are reserved for work. Why couldn’t this woman wait one more day and then come to the temple to be cured? Seemingly not a bad question, if we are just thinking about the letter of the law. After 18 years, what difference would one more day make?

Couldn’t she be straightened out tomorrow?

No, says Jesus. You Hypocrites is how he refers to the religious elites of the temple. And then he uses simple examples to remind everyone that try as they might, everybody still does some kind of work on the Sabbath. It is unavoidable. No Sabbath can be completely work-free. So why in the world would they not choose to heal this woman who happened to wander into the temple on the Sabbath?

Now before we criticize the leaders in the temple just as we would criticize Javere from Les Miserables, we must remember to put ourselves in their shoes. The concept of Sabbath was not at all a bad thing. In fact, Sabbath was a time of renewal. Sabbath was a peaceful rest from the grind of life. My colleague who is an Orthodox Jew observes her Sabbath faithfully each week. She will not answer her phone; she will not do any type of work, use the computer, watch television, etc. But Sabbath is not a restriction for her. It is FREEDOM. For the ancient Israelites, they were moving from a time of being slaves in Egypt. They were forced to work constantly; no time off. This idea of Sabbath was a blessing. And for those who still practice Sabbath [Jews, Christians, Muslims—anyone], this day of rest is refreshing and wonderful.

Maybe that’s what we need to keep in mind about the leaders of the temple. They were protecting Sabbath because of its great worth. I honestly think, though, that like any religious tradition, law or practice—something really wonderful and refreshing can become awfully rigid and harmful. Why? Because we can become obsessed with the “rule” of the law and forget about the “spirit” of the law.

This word spirit appears in this story. The bent-over woman had a spirit in her that was causing this ailment. I think we all can have this type of “spirit” when we obsess over rules and forget mercy. We can all become bent over, limited, trapped, and judgmental. It is indeed a sickness.

But the woman was freed of this spirit of ailment when Jesus chose to “break” Sabbath rules and touch her with his own two hands.

So can we be freed of our obsession over laws and rules.

We can all be freed if we remember and live by the mercy rule.

You see, I would argue that the spirit of the law of Sabbath is indeed rest, but rest for everyone.

So if someone cannot rest because she is bent over, ignored, forgotten, shunned, untouchable—then you and I have a responsibility to pay attention, recognize his/her humanity, and to reach out with our own two hands–to heal. The spirit of the law is based on God’s love and mercy.

The moment any of our religious practice becomes more rule and less love, we have lost our entire purpose for being.

Friends, in all religious traditions, we find wonderful and refreshing ways of living that can benefit our body, mind, and soul. But like with any religious tradition, we must be very careful so as to not forget the spirit of these traditions. Any time our religious practices are more about rules and law and less about mercy and love, we have completely lost our way. For the way of Jesus is this:

Law always bends to love.

The spirit of the law is always more important than the ritual.

Mercy sets ALL people free!

In your own spiritual practice, keep this in mind always. Don’t be obsessed with law. Instead, let love bend the rules. Focus on the spirit of your religious practice more than the rituals themselves. And in your interactions with other people, no matter which day it is or who they are, be merciful.

This will set you and all who you touch…free.

Amen.


[1] Les Misérables, Victor Hugo, 1862.1992 Modern Library Edition copyright Random House Inc.

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