Tag Archives: grace

Jean Valjean and the sparking of hope

here’s a little snippet of the writing i’ve been doing in the desert this week. this is the intro to the 8th chapter of the book (which is about hope). this chapter is tentatively called “Jesus, the Hope-Giver.”

My favorite Broadway musical is Cats.

That’s a lie, actually, and a glimpse into my strange sense of humor. Seriously, the percentage of normal, well-adjusted guys who love Cats has to be terribly small, right? Sorry if I’ve offended you. Sort of.

My favorite Broadway musical is Les Misérables. But to be honest, I prefer the film versions, because I can focus on the storyline more, not being distracted by the theatrics and staging. I was more upbeat about the 2012 version with Russell Crowe, Hugh Jackman, and Anne Hathaway than many people I know. And I was two-thumbs-up about the 2000 version with Gérard Depardieu and John Malkovich. But my favorite version of the story, by far, is the 1998 (non-musical) version starring Liam Neeson, Geoffrey Rush, Uma Thurman, and a pre-Homeland Claire Danes.

I think the reason the 1998 version of “Les Mis” is my favorite is because it contains one of my all-time favorite scenes in any film, ever. It’s a scene in all versions of Les Mis, but none capture it quite like the 1998 film version.

You can skip reading this paragraph if you’re a Les Mis groupie, but to make sure everyone is on the same page: Les Miserables is the story (written as a book, by Victor Hugo, in 1862, and widely considered one of the best novels of the 19th century) of Jean Valjean, a peasant who steals a loaf of bread for his starving sister’s child and spends 19 years in prison for the crime. After his release, he breaks parole, and his hunted down by a law-obsessed police inspector named Javert. There’s much more to the story, of course. It’s an exploration of law and grace, loyalty, transformation, and redemption.

jean valjeanMy favorite scene occurs fairly early in the film, when Jean Valjean is first on the run for breaking parole. Turned away from multiple inns because his yellow passport marks him as a convict, Valjean is taken in by the town’s priest, Bishop Myriel. During the night, Valjean steals the rectory’s silverware. But he is caught, and policemen return him to and the silverware to the rectory to refute Valjean’s claim that the silverware was given to him, enroute to what will clearly be a return to prison.

Here’s the breathtaking scene. When the police ask the Bishop if the silverware is his, he responds that it was the rectory’s, but that Valjean is correct in stating it was a gift. As the police release Valjean and turn to leave, the Bishop continues, saying that Valjean had forgotten to take the silver candlesticks. Valjean’s face reveals confusion, and the Bishop re-iterates that the valuable candlesticks were part of the gift.

Pulling Valjean aside, Bishop Myriel quietly says, “Jean Valjean, my brother, you no longer belong to evil. With this silver, I have bought your soul. I’ve ransomed you from fear and hatred, and now I give you back to God.”

The scene is powerful to me (and thousands of others) on multiple levels:
• I am Valjean (and so are you). I do not deserve mercy, but have been shown it countless times, by my God and by people in my life.
• The “measure” of mercy is over the top: not only forgiveness, but a double-portion gift.
• This is a clear picture of Jesus, particularly through the lens of the Bishop’s final comment.
• As a follower of Jesus, I am called to live like this, to be a dispenser of this style of mercy, which I find simultaneously life-giving and completely counter to my instincts.

And the scene is a powerful picture of hope’s arrival. Valjean heads into the rectory courtyard, held by the policemen, completely without hope. Full of fear and absolutely demoralized, days out of exile and about to be returned. He leaves with a kernel of possibility starting to crack open in his heart.

This is Jesus, who shows up in the midst of our confusion and pain and fear, and surprises us with hope. Other than the fact that Valjean would not be returning to prison, the immediate circumstances of Valjean’s life are still difficult. But his imagination is sparked, a dream of a new potential, hope and longing commencing the Tango.

four teenage moments that resulted in my lifetime of youth ministry (part 4)

at a recent speaking event, i met the granddaughter of a man–the former choir director of the church i grew up in–who had a huge impact on my life and vocation. it got me thinking about the small handful of significant moments that played out-sized roles in my calling to youth ministry.

i thought of four moments, more than any teaching i ever heard or discipleship program or retreat or any other aspect of youth ministry programming, that i can still clearly remember to this day.

in part 1, i wrote about the choir director who invited me to ride with him and his wife in his car, while on choir tour, and the impact that had on me.
in part 2, i wrote about being invited to lunch at my youth pastors’ apartment, and why that was such a big deal.
part 3 was the story of my older sister’s youth director telling me i’d be a great youth pastor someday, when i was in 7th grade. 9 little words that were potent stuff, apparently.

the first two moments were stories of being invited into the world of adults. the third moment was about word of encouragement.

i’m sure there were a hundred or a thousand other moments and words and teachings and appropriate touches and listening ears that had am impact on me. but from my almost-50 perch, i remember four.

weekend at bernieswhen i was in 9th grade, we had a sunday school teacher named fred. nothing about fred was cool. he looked strikingly like the dead guy in weekend a bernies (though that movie was more than a decade away from its release). he was a somewhat boring teacher, and he used a over-arching device to get compliance out of us that, even as a 9th grader, i could see as horribly manipulative: we got points for all sorts of things, and those with at least a modicum of points at some point in the winter got to go to fred’s cabin in northern michigan for a snowmobiling weekend. when i spot manipulation, particularly by a boring, uncool sunday school teacher, i’m prone to rebellion, apparently.

i took a couple friends with me and made an appointment with the Director of Christian Education (our church had a youth director by this point, but he wasn’t over the sunday school program. crazy, huh? welcome to the 70s in churchland). we sat down and told the DCE that fred was weird and boring, and that we demanded to start our own sunday school class, an alternative for 9th graders. amazingly: he said yes (i have no idea if he was giving us rope to fail, skeptical that we’d even follow through, or if he was a pushover, or some other reason).

we started our own alternative 9th grade sunday school class, and actively recruited all our peers to leave fred’s class and join ours. a handful did; but most were slaves to the manipulation of the promised snowmobile trip! (or maybe they knew we were being idiots.)

we lasted three weeks.

then we shuffled back into fred’s class with our tails between our legs, sure he was going to be mean to us by being more weird and more boring, or more likely, to shame us privately or in front of the entire class of peers. but he never once mentioned it. he was — we noticed! — as gracious and friendly and warm and inclusive as ever. in fact, it wasn’t until we came back that we noticed he’d been those things all along.

bracesdid i mention that fred was also my dentist? at my next appointment, he informed my parents that i really needed braces. but, because he knew that my missionary parents really couldn’t afford it, he offered to do my braces for a total out-of-pocket expense of fifty bucks. really.

fred was not a brilliant sunday school teacher. but he showed me grace and forgiveness when i least deserved it. that experience didn’t as directly point me to youth ministry as much as the other three moments i’ve shared in this blog series. but it left an indelible mark on me, one that altered the trajectory of my life just as much as the other three. that mark has, i hope, colored my practice of youth ministry for these 30 years.

youth workers: once again the “moral” is obvious, right? any adult — even those of us who are weird (and/or boring) can impact the lives of teenagers with grace and forgiveness.

the grace of palm sunday

this morning in church, hearing the teaching pastor talk about the events of palm sunday, it struck me how this story is such a clear expression of god’s grace to us. here’s jesus, riding the colt into jerusalem, with everyone all pumped up about “the prophet” coming. they laid down palm branches and shouted hosanna and all that. the buzz about jesus had reached a fever pitch after word of lazarus being raised from the dead in the nearby town of bethany. clearly, this was the prophet moses had promised would come.

and, of course, the whole time, jesus knew what was coming his way in the next week.

this is where the grace part struck me: jesus accepted their praise.

jesus accepted their praise knowing fully that they would turn on him within days.

i think i’ve always thought of this story in terms of “them” — those people who would so quickly turn on jesus. today, i was struck by how it’s my story also.

jesus shows me the same grace every time i acknowledge him, every time i choose to follow him, every time i give him praise. he knows that, just like those palm-waving peeps that day, i’ll quickly turn away, betray him (and what he stands for), choose my own way, discredit him, praise myself, or ignore him.

and yet he accepts my praise.

mmm, this is grace.

sin boldly

Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace, by Cathleen Falsani


let me shoot straight: this is one of the best books i have read this year.

falsani has writtten an absolutely stunning book about grace. i could not recommend this book more highly.

sin boldly is a gorgeous, wandering, adventure in looking for (and finding) grace. it’s not a theological treatise (though it has real-world theological implications dripping off every page). instead, falsani uses questions, searching, stories, and reflections to dig around and unearth a three-dimensional grace. there’s an almost “amazing race” vibe to the book, as she takes readers on a ’round-the-world grace-seeking adventure. but it’s not a heart-pounding amazing race — it’s an amazing grace race with space and slow and quiet and small noticing. it’s a spiritual quest, delivered with humility, frailty, imperfection, stumbling, insight, a-ha moments, and a cast of characters all-the-better in that they’re real.

i’ll be honest about this: i was regularly surprised, as i read, that my parent company, zondervan, published this book. and, as much as i love my parent company, i don’t really mean that as a compliment (except in the fact that i’m both astounded and pleasantly shocked that this brilliant and rough manuscript made it through the editorial process in a major christian publishing house). falsani is not your everyday christian bookstore writer. put it this way: the book is more anne lammot than it is beth moore.

i’ll be adding “sin boldly” to my list of most-often recommended books, along with my other “friends”, like:
messy spirituality and dangerous wonder, by mike yaconelli
traveling mercies and grace (eventually), by anne lammot
take this bread, by sara miles
the life you’ve always wanted, by john ortberg
and a few books by parker palmer and frederich buechner

this book moved me deeply, and gave me hope. i didn’t want it to end.