Sunday, August 30, 2015

Who Am I?

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:4-8)

The Phantom of the Opera, Wicked, Miss Saigon, Oklahoma!, Evita, Ragtime, Once On This Island, Sweeney Todd...these are some of the musicals whose soundtracks and sheet music grace my shelves. I enjoy these shows and so many more, but I always come back to Les Misérables as my most favorite. I have seen it on Broadway, in Atlanta, and in London. I own the soundtrack and can sing all the parts. It’s not the familiarity or the music that gets me, though. The thing I love most about “Les Mis” is its message of grace.

The main plot centers around two men, Jean Valjean, who finds that life as a parolee is not much better than prison, and Inspector Javert, who makes it his life’s mission to capture Valjean when he manages to escape from the eyes of the law. Both men experience grace and mercy in the course of the story; what fascinates me is how differently they respond upon receiving these gifts.

When Valjean is caught stealing the Bishop of Digne’s silver, the cleric insists to the police that it was a gift and gives the ex-con more valuables with which to start a new life. Valjean feels guilty when he is given this reprieve, this moment of grace. He takes what is on offer, however, determined to make good on the priest’s instruction to use it to better his life. He becomes a respected and wealthy businessman, and for a long time he is able to hide his true identity from Inspector Javert, who doggedly searches for the escaped convict. He stays out of trouble and helps the destitute Fantine by adopting and raising her daughter, Cosette. Just when Javert thinks he has found his man, Valjean steps forward and reveals himself rather than letting another man take his punishment.

Of course, he escapes again after this, and Javert continues to hunt for him. This chase becomes his singular purpose and drives every move he makes. When he finally catches up with Valjean, there is a revolt in the offing. He disguises himself as a participant in the fight at the barricade where Valjean has gone to keep an eye on Marius, the would-be lover of now-grown-up Cosette, but eventually the fighters figure out who he is. They offer Valjean the chance to kill Javert, but he refuses, offering instead the same mercy and grace that the bishop had shown him years before - he gives the detective his freedom rather than the death he probably deserves.

Where Valjean accepted the priest’s compassion and turned his life around, Javert cannot accept that not only did his quarry escape yet again, but that the hunted did not kill the hunter when the opportunity was presented to him. Instead of accepting the gift Valjean gives him and finding a new, more positive focus for his life, he sees only his failure to accomplish his goal. Ultimately, he chooses to commit suicide as an alternative to having to live with his failure, rather than seeing Valjean’s actions for what they were--a precious gift and a chance to change.

We were all given precious gifts on a cross two thousand years ago, the gifts of God’s mercy and grace, and we have the choice to accept them or not. We can be like Valjean and repent, seeking to better ourselves and others, or we can take the death that we deserve for our sins as Javert did. Which one will you be? Given the options, I have to say (or rather, sing), “Who am I? I’m Jean Valjean!”

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Big Picture

This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I am doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for. (Jeremiah 29:10-11, The Message)

Thirteen dwarves and one hobbit have been wandering around in Mirkwood forest, seemingly in circles. At their wits’ end, the hobbit, one Bilbo Baggins, being the smallest and lightest of the company (as well as the burglar under whose contract such tasks might fall), climbs a tree to try to get a handle on their location and the direction they should go. His head bursts through the leaves at the top of the tree into blessed sunlight and a flock of black butterflies, and as he looks around he sees…

Well, what he sees depends on whether you are watching the movie or reading the book, and out of all the changes and additions that Peter Jackson made when adapting The Hobbit for the big screen, this minor difference in the second film, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, is one of the things that bothered me the most. In the movie, Bilbo becomes excited because he can see the Lonely Mountain in the distance. He can then tell the dwarves the correct direction to go and that they are not far from the edge of the forest. It is a moment of hope after the despair of Mirkwood.

In the book, there is no such hope for Bilbo. It turns out that the tree he climbs happens to be in a low spot and all he can see is more trees on every side, even though they are actually quite close to the edge of the forest and all is not nearly as hopeless as it seems. What Bilbo lacks is the ability to see the big picture at that moment.

While a hopeful scene of seeing the goal and the way out makes you feel better in the midst of the movie drama, I think I like the book version better because it is much closer to how things work in real life. The truth is, we don’t see the big picture when we are suffering or making our way through a difficult situation. In fact, when I wrote about the book scene several years ago during my “blog through The Hobbit,” I too was near the edge of the forest but could not see it from my vantage point. I had spent two years looking for another teaching job with another summer of searching ahead of me but few prospects in sight. The only sign of hope was the sale of my house a few months prior, allowing me to expand my job search parameters, but even with new job listings to watch I didn’t know how much longer it would be. I did not know then that later that summer, I would have an interview with a principal via Skype. I did not know that, having chalked it up as one more interview without a job offer, I would be travelling five hours for a face-to-face interview the next month. I didn’t know that less than a week after that I’d be moving to another state and starting work (barely two days before the students started themselves) and living in a hotel while I tried to get a classroom set up and find an apartment!

So I hope you’ll excuse me if I’m not impressed with the touchy-feely, “oh look, there’s hope!” scene in the movie. I have been in the same position as book-Bilbo, looking around and seeing nothing but trees rising all around me, hoping that maybe the edge of the forest was somewhere just beyond, even though I couldn’t see it. And it turns out, in hindsight, that I was exactly in book-Bilbo’s position, and the edge of the forest was quite close, but the tree I looked from was still down in the valley and not up on the ridge. It turns out that it’s never as hopeless as it seems, for Bilbo or for me. I have learned through my experience that sometimes you can’t see the end, but it doesn’t mean there’s no hope, it just means that you cannot see the whole picture. It means that you have to trust. I pray I may never have to be in the same situation again, but at least now I know that there’s always hope, even in the most hopeless-seeming situations, and I won’t give up just because I can’t see what’s out there.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God. (Psalm 42:11)

In addition to being a SF geek, I am also a musical theater nerd. I love to see live shows, but since that doesn’t happen very often, I do just fine with soundtracks; I can sing all the parts along with the best Broadway or West End cast, especially when I am in the car or doing some cleaning. Musical theater is traditionally seen as a happy genre - people would not be singing and dancing so much otherwise - so this article listing a number of “Surprisingly Depressing” musicals drew my attention when I came across in my Facebook news feed the other day.

First on the list, not surprisingly at all, is Rent, which is about people dying of AIDS and overdosing on heroin and living in squalid lofts. It is followed closely by Les Miserables, which, just as it says on the tin, depicts the struggles of some miserable people in 19th century Paris. Miss Saigon and its doomed love story in the middle of the Vietnam War, check. Chicago’s cast of homicidal women prisoners, yep, they’re in there too, just as you’d expect.

What I didn’t expect was to see shows like The Sound of Music or Fiddler on the Roof or Annie, all three of which appear on the list as well. While it is true, as the article reminds us, that they involve Nazis, antisemitism, and poor mistreated orphans, respectively, these are never prominent enough themes to label the musicals as blatantly depressing, unless, of course, you’re an internet writer who needs to fill in the gaps in your latest click-bait top 10 list.

It’s the music that makes it better, isn’t it? When the latest in a long line of governesses makes dresses from the drapes, covers for you instead of turning you in when you sneak in after spending time with your boyfriend in the gazebo, and teaches you and your siblings to sing while roaming around Salzburg, you know that everything will be alright even if you do have to sneak away from the Nazis in the middle of the night. When being a poor milkman in a poor Russian village is all you’ve ever known, you may sing about your wish to be a rich man but you also quite contentedly celebrate the ordinary milestones of life with your family and friends. And when you are living a hard knock life, at least you are able to sing about it as you scrub the orphanage floors with the hope that hard knocks aren’t all there is and life will get better one day.

This also holds true in the most depressing shows on the list.  The truly horrid conditions you’re living in don’t seem nearly so bad when you give your lifestyle a French name and sing about the best parts of it while dancing on a restaurant table surrounded by your friends. Likewise, the fact that you most likely won’t survive the night defending the barricade is insignificant next to the strong feelings of camaraderie and friendship between you and your compatriots as you sing with such conviction about the cause you all believe in so deeply.

It’s not a new idea, this desire to sing in order to lessen the effects of an otherwise depressing situation. In the Bible, Psalm after Psalm repeat a theme that goes something along the lines of, “I have enemies on every side and the outlook is really bad right now, but despite that I sing praises to God because I trust him and have hope that he will take care of everything.” It is a good lesson to heed, whether we take it from the Psalmist or our favorite stage actor: even when my soul is downcast and disturbed, I will yet sing, in praise my savior and God and to remind myself that life is never all bad.