Tag Archives: Hope

Les Misérables and the folly of grace


Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia

Victor Hugo-CosetteSepia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I guess we each have a picture of grace: what it looks like, how it operates and, of course, its limitations. Yes, I know, grace isn’t supposed to have limits, but we have to be practical, surely?

In God’s economy grace doesn’t wait for guarantees or require a deposit. But we’re not so sure about that, either. After all, we can’t just offer someone free pardon and hope they make amends. What if they ignore the responsibilities that go with our gift? What if we’re left with nothing because we’ve ‘invested’ in the wrong person?

Although he rejected the Christian faith, French writer Victor Hugo seems to have understood grace better than most. He may not have practiced it any better than we, but he captured it beautifully in his epic novel, Les Misérables. We were reminded of Hugo’s profound view of grace when we went to see the filmed version of the musical recently.

Victor Hugo had apparently seen grace in action in the Bishop of Digne, Bienvenu de Miollis, on whom he based his character Bishop Myriel. In Les Misérables, Bishop Myriel’s unconditional grace turned Jean Valjean’s life around, with extraordinary results.

Of Bishop Myriel Victor Hugo writes, ‘The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine.’ The Catholic writer Theresa Malcolm says, ‘Monseigneur Myriel. . . is the soul of the novel, he who sowed love where there was hatred, light where there was darkness.’

Bishop Myriel takes the vagrant Valjean into his home, feeds him and gives him a bed. Valjean repays him by stealing his silver and fleeing into the night. When the police catch Valjean and bring him back to the Bishop with the unlikely tale that the Bishop had given him the silver, the Bishop agrees. ‘That’s right,’ he sings.

But, my friend, you left so early,
something surely slipped your mind.
You forgot I gave these (candlesticks) also.
Would you leave the best behind?

After the police have gone, he says to Valjean:

The silver candlesticks‘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!’

The context of Hugo’s grace is a society fraying at the edges and stretching to breaking point. The film version portrays more starkly than the stage production can the vast number of people existing at the edges of society. We see the depth of their poverty, misery and, above all, despair. And despair is echoed in the songs.

In the opening song Jean Valjean sings,

‘I’ve done no wrong, Sweet Jesus hear my prayer,’
To which the other prisoners reply,
‘Sweet Jesus doesn’t care.’
And they end with the cry of despair:
‘You’ll always be a slave
Look down, look down,
You’re standing in your grave.’

Later the poor sing:

At the end of the day you’re another day older
And the shirt on your back doesn’t keep out the chill;
And the righteous hurry past,
They don’t hear the little ones crying
And the winter is coming on fast
Ready to kill,
One day nearer to dying.

Which brings us back to the limits of grace. Our expression of grace is usually limited by two things.

We are afraid of the size of the problem: it’s far too big for our meagre supply of grace, our few candlesticks.

And we are afraid of what people will do with grace if it’s given too freely. They may take our candlesticks and run, never looking back. We would have wasted the candlesticks, instead of using them for others more deserving.

We stall because we first measure out the cost of grace against its benefit. What will the return on our grace be? Perhaps chastised for his unseemly hoard of silver, the kindly Bishop was willing to put it to good use. But to chance it all on a single throw of the dice? To give it all to this one undeserving thief?

Perhaps the Bishop knew more about grace than we do. Perhaps he had experienced for himself what undeserved, extravagant grace can do. Perhaps he knew also that grace is not mass-produced for mass distribution to mass markets. Grace works best when delivered with care in personalised packages, under great risk.

The Bishop knew he could do very little for the masses of poor and desperate who live outside of hope, and who sing:

Nothing changes, nothing ever will .
Every year another brat, another mouth to fill.
Same old story. What’s the use of tears?
What’s the use of praying
If there’s nobody who hears?

But perhaps he also knew that God has always preferred to ‘invest’ in individuals rather than in the crowds. He delights in what an individual can do when she or he responds to grace with love and mercy.

‘Love one another,’ Jesus told his disciples.
‘Yes, Lord, we can do that.’
‘As I loved you.’
‘You mean, without limits?’
‘Without limits.’

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Filed under Books & Movies, Grace and Law

Grace: He knew you’d want to come back


Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Image via Wikipedia

My favourite line in the Harry Potter series comes in the last of the seven books, Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsThe three friends are on the run, confused by the seemingly inadequate clues left by the late Professor Dumbledore, and unsure of what to do next.  They fall to squabbling among themselves, and partly in anger and partly in fear for his family, Ron runs out on Harry and Hermione.  The problem was that, given the nature of their nomadic existence, once Ron had left them there was no way he could find them again.  A deluminator, a gift left to him in Dumbledore’s will, provided the way.  It picked up Hermione’s voice like a radio transmitter and allowed him to home in on where they were.  When he told Harry how he had found them (just in time to save Harry’s life) Ron said, “He – well, he must’ve known I’d run out on you.”

“No,” Harry corrected him.  “He must’ve known you’d always want to come back.”

I find myself deeply moved by Harry’s correction.  What a gift to give his friend.  It speaks volumes of grace and forgiveness, of welcome and belonging.  How easy it would have been, how natural, for Harry to have said, “Yeah.”  In the film version, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, Ron simply says, “Dumbledore must’ve known I would want to get back.” I think they missed it.

I wonder how often we have the opportunity to offer grace and forgiveness, welcome and a sense of belonging, but end up agreeing with another’s sense of failure and despair.  Sometimes we have grace in our hearts, which we fail to express.  Sometimes words get in the way and there is misunderstanding; sometimes our pride or sense of fairness, perhaps, gets in the way and we fail to bridge the gap or offer hope.  At work managers are just too busy, and we fail to recognise the significance of such moments in employee’s lives.  We confirm an employee’s failure without offering any understanding or any way forward; we focus on mistakes and ignore the positives and successes as unimportant or insignificant.  We leave others hanging with, “he must’ve known I’d run out on you”, when there is so much more we could offer. 

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WikiLeaks: Judgement and Hope


Logo used by Wikileaks

Image via Wikipedia

WikiLeaks and their public face, Julian Assange, are the news. I’m not qualified to debate the morality or otherwise of the leaks, but the theology of it all intrigues me no end.

While America is angry and embarrassed, the rest of the world is just too glad it isn’t their diplomatic communication hanging up on the washing lines of world media. And I’m very grateful that I’m far too unimportant to have my inmost thoughts, first impressions, and dubious actions, splashed around the world. Imagine having all one’s thoughts visible for everyone to see.

Hang on. What was that? What did Matthew say?

“You can be sure that on the Judgment Day you will have to give account of every useless word you have ever spoken.” (Matthew 12:36)

And Paul?

“Final judgment must wait until the Lord comes; he will bring to light the dark secrets and expose the hidden purposes of people’s minds. And then all will receive from God the praise they deserve.” (1 Corinthians 4:5),
and again,
“For all of us must appear before Christ, to be judged by him. We will each receive what we deserve, according to everything we have done, good or bad, in our bodily life.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)

 The Last Judgement. Every thought, every deed, every failure to act, every motive will be examined. I doubt that WikiLeaks is what the Bible has in mind but it does make one furiously to think.
Last Judgement by Stephan Lochner, panel paint...

Image via Wikipedia

Some think of the Last Judgement as an enormous court case, with every single person in the dock and actual books open, containing our every thought, word, and deed—a celestial WikiLeaks. Others think of it less literally. But, whether at the end of time or right now in the present, God is the silent watcher over all we do, the confidant of all our thoughts and motives.

But if fear of the Last Judgement is what keeps us honest, we are poor indeed. We will tend towards dishonest niceties instead of honest candour. We will do as the Pharisee’s did, polish the outside of the filthy cup and fail to deal with the horror within.

The Psalms suggest a way. Their candour is directed towards God. God is the only one who can take our fears and foolishness, our hatred and prejudice—all those things that destroy us and our relationships—and transform them and us into treasures of his kingdom.

Throughout the Psalms we find depths of despair (and even, at times, raw hatred) along with exquisite praise to God, a God who receives it all in love and understanding with a desire to heal, to strengthen, and to make whole. Psalm 130 is a good example. In eight verses the Psalmist takes us swiftly through what was probably a long and difficult struggle, from despair, through confession, to hope and trust, and on to proclamation. In verse three he makes reference to God’s WikiLeaks: “If you kept a record of our sins, who could escape being condemned.” (This is far more serious than a modern diplomat asking if Julian Assange has a record of his transgressions!) His openness bears fruit. God is able to deal with the failures, the sins, the weaknesses, because they are on the table; nothing is hidden. God ensures that our worst thoughts and motives are examined in his love and grace, and forgiven at the Cross. He gives us a new perspective on ourselves, our friends and our enemies, on our work, and on God’s purposes for our future. It is in that openness and honesty that the healing work of the Spirit of God is done. He brings the Psalmist out of his despair over his own wickedness, to where he can proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to his people.

Don’t wait for your WikiLeak—celestial or otherwise. You can start with God today.

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Life in Desert Places


A Desert Meditation

Written during a Life Revision Workshop with Jim & Heather Johnson at Beth Shalam, Pietermaritzburg, August 2010

Isaiah 38:4b-8 GNB

“Be strong and don’t be afraid!
God is coming to your rescue, coming to punish your enemies.
The blind will be able to see, and the deaf will hear.
The lame will leap and dance,
and those who cannot speak will shout for joy.

Streams of water will flow through the desert;
the burning sand will become a lake,
and dry land will be filled with springs.
Where jackals used to live, marsh grass and reeds will grow.
There will be a highway there, called the Road of Holiness.”

Only in the desert,
Not in our self sufficiency and self reliance;
Not in our comfort zones, or our frenzied worship of the latest trends.

Only in the desert,
In the empty, uncluttered spaces;
Only in the desert,
A place of dying to the false self, a letting go of all that I cling to,
all that defines me, that gives me a sense of worth.

Only in the desert, when I recognise my blindness,
my inability to see, to understand, to be wise,
when I recognise my inability to speak, to bring words of wisdom, hope, and love,
when I recognise my lameness, my weakness, my need to be carried.

Only in the desert, when all that is false has died,
There in the depths of the desert,
The earth will rejoice,
Water will gush out of the rocks,
and sight and strength and speech will be given.

And what delight and celebration there will be
as we walk the path of life together;

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