It’s been two months since we last had our time together–which is much, much too long for a writer to refrain from…well, writing. I throw around excuses such as the need for “inspiration” a good bit, as it seems to come in and out my door like a teenager with car keys lately. Nonetheless, it is something I must continually pay attention to and cultivate if I am to share blatantly honest and candid musings like some lone voice calling in the wilderness perhaps. I decided a while ago this is what I am to do regardless of any “pomp and circumstance”. Hopefully 2018 will have me doing “mo better”, and less bitching about inspiration and such. Yet part of my “inspiration” dilemma however is because I tire of reading with so much frequent repetition of what has already been said, and oftentimes not said quite so well. So my goal of course is to get one thinking and reflecting on perhaps things that are oftentimes not reflected on often enough, or not said with such unconcealed honesty that it causes one to breathe a sigh of agonizing relief! In light of that, shall we continue?
You know I don’t always explain my titles, but often either “assume” (you know what they say about that) people know of what I speak, or I simply let them figure it out along the way. Having said that, I don’t even pretend to believe that everyone is as crazy of a Les Miserables fan as I, nor as to why in fact I am, so let me explain.
The book Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is a story set in early 19th Century France that has been put into both play and movie production throughout it’s long history. It is the story of Jean Valjean, a French peasant, and this man’s quest for redemption after serving almost twenty years in prison for having stolen a loaf of bread for his sister’s starving child. Valjean decides to break his parole by escaping from prison and attempts to start a new life after a saintly bishop inspires him by a tremendous act of grace of which he has never before experienced. After forging ahead with a new name and an enlightened life in the Spirit with some marked success, as fate would have it, the devil in the disguise known as Inspector Javert is simultaneously on a mission to not only prove he is the escapee once known as Jean Valjean, but also out to substantiate on center stage that he is a hardened criminal incapable of the good now bestowed upon him. There are of course varying interpretations or applications of this magnificent story for many; but for me, as one who has watched the greatest movie version of this story numerous times (Starring Liam Neeson, Uma Thurman and Geoffrey Rush), what has stuck with me is what I want to share briefly today.
First of all, Jean Valjean is the beneficiary and resultantly also the exemplar of grace in practice that should be far more characteristic of a Christian arrested by grace. He has no stones to throw, he is grateful and thankful, and he lives openhandedly to the less fortunate all around him. As he walks down the street, he has an “Andy DuFrane” strut in his steps, but not the one of self-importance, but one of a beggar who has found needed bread at His loving heavenly father’s table and keeps crumbs in his pocket to share with anyone who will but receive. In fact, he has been so affected by grace, that he can do nothing more than bear witness to it, and to live it out in his daily life as the only fitting response to the grace once bestowed him, and he’s not looking back either.
His nemesis (Inspector Javert) however is the antithesis of Jean Valjean. He is the classic legalist hard-ass! His philosophy is “You get what you earn and nothing more”. Life is about “deserving” the good that comes your way and “working your way to the top”. He is also a classical Karma lover, who believes to a fault that you “reap what you sow”, and that this is “in the breeding” down through the generations. “Once a bad apple, always a bad apple”, is his only mantra, or in the case of Jean Valjean and Cozette, “Once a whore or a criminal, always a whore and a criminal”.
Javert is also the epitome of “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”, and dull he is. He couldn’t have a good time if it came up and slapped him in his legalist face! He is also so eaten up with the “bare knuckles” of life’s darker sides of the street that he has no rosy picture in his periphery. And as a result, he will stop at nothing to ensure that Jean Valjean the escapee gets his “due”, assured that his success and fortune are a smokescreen hiding something that he must expose to everyone so he can finally say, “Aha, I told you so, people cannot change for the good”! And yet, in the most beautiful of ways as our story unfolds, grace will teach Javert a lesson that he hadn’t expected, nor could he ever have believed for himself. In a tale of various twists and turns Javert is eventually confronted with the fact that Jean Valjean is the “real deal Holyfield” and he can no longer argue or reason it away. Yet rather than allowing the grace of God to arrest his own life, Javert instead becomes even more bitter, and decides that rather than enacting that final bitterness and retribution on His adversary, he will take his own life as fitting payment, unable to forgive himself for his treatment of a man, that regardless of how many times he was slapped on one side of his cheek, he simply turned and offered the other–irony of ironies.
We Have Found the Javert, and He is Us
You see die-hard legalists can’t handle this grace that is well…truly graceful. It a language that quite frankly “does not compute”. Salvation by grace is one thing, but after that, it’s all about the law baby till death to us part! We go a step further and bequeath this sentiment to our children, by offering grace as a free gift in their impressionable years, and then make them earn our love, support and everything in between from there on out. We’ve got to prepare them for the hard knocks of life, give them “tough love”, and make sure they too work their fingers to the bone so that they get the white-picket fence, hot dog, apple pie and Chevrolet just like us by the “sweat of their brow”. We start with grace, but after that it’s all about pulling oneself up by the proverbial bootstraps for the kiddos by golly! Is it any wonder most of them “fly the coop” and leave this anathema gospel that Paul once called it on our doorstep, shaking the dust off of their feet as they go.
I was reminded also of just how this enigma plays out in our own lives this Christmas season. As Christians, we talk an awful lot about peace, love, grace, forgiveness, etc., as we sing our repertoire of endless songs and go through the motions of solemn assemblies and services to bless the Lord for that gracious gift of himself that He gave, yet the sardonicism is that the very things that should be characteristic of us if we are to “become Jean Valjean” as Christ compels us to, is the “as plain as the nose on our face” habit of it that we miss more often than not I’m afraid. Someone rubs us wrong, or doesn’t validate us, or make much of us as we have supposed is our due, and in seconds flat their deleted from Facebook, or given the “stink-eye” as if somehow they were ever our true friends to begin with. Nonetheless, we are offended, and rather than the willingness to suffer wrong as Paul compels us to in the love chapter, we are “butt hurt”; and then if confronted again with the Javert in our lives who we are sure is judging us, we give him or her runway when we affirm their judgmental arrows, rather than resting in the love of our heavenly Father for us, and for them as well. We’re ready to tear anybody a new page that refuses to bestow the dignity and grace upon us that only Jesus imperfectly gives, and yet are unwilling to chart a new course of forgiveness in advance to those who have wronged us, and who will do so again by this time tomorrow.
And though the baby in the manager is a great place to reflect on this gift come to us in swaddling clothes, it is none other than the grown up man on the cross with an invitation to take it up along with him that has any remedy to cure the Javert in us that all too often raises it’s ugly legalistic head! A remedy that also extends to Javerts in our lives that secretly wish for our failure, and who are relentless in chewing on that hopeful and marinated cud until they get the front row seats to our destructive sideshow they’ve been waiting for. I for one hate it when the rubber meets this road. And it occurred to me this Christmas season that “Becoming Jean Valjean” becomes even more difficult as the grays protrude through the “Grecian formula”, and the wolf-like Javert in all of us is always at the door–there to remind us that forgiveness is a novel idea and nothing more…until of course it isn’t!