Fasting From Communion with God

“Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me shall not hunger,
and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”
(John 6:35)

I’ve been reading through the biography of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister in the 1830’s.  The biographical sketch of his life is filled with excerpts from his daily journals and insights into his heart and mind for ministry.  It is fascinating (and somewhat comforting) to read of another pastor from an entirely different time and place, who also struggled with a sense of never making the most of his time, who felt terribly unqualified for the high calling of ministry were it not for the Sovereign Grace of God, and whose greatest joy was to bring glory to God in sharing the Gospel.

Something struck me, though, as I was reading, that made me stop and think about my life in comparison with M’Cheyne’s.  Early on there was this summary of the young pastor’s ministry:

From the first he fed others by what he himself was feeding upon. His preaching was in a manner the development of his soul’s experience. It was a giving out of the inward life. He loved to come up from the pastures wherein the Chief Shepherd had met him—to lead the flock entrusted to his care to the spots where he found nourishment.

(Bonar, Andrew A. Memoirs and Remains of R.M.M’Cheyne. (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978)pg. 36.)

I have shared before my daily Scripture reading practice.  I encourage everyone to read daily from the Word of God, and to read in a way that lets the Word really sink in, soaking the mind and soul with God’s revelation.  There are a variety of reading programs out there, but the one I prefer, actually, was developed by M’Cheyne.  In this program, you read the Old Testament once and the New Testament and Psalms twice per year, reading about four chapters a day, taken from different parts of the Bible.

I share this, not necessarily as an advertisement for the reading plan (though you can go here to find out more).  No, I share this to warn you of a hazard of such a plan.  Reading God’s Word ought to draw you deeper into the presence of God, knowing His will, revealing His love, and strengthening your faith.  There is deep, nourishing, life-giving power in His Word.  Still, sometimes having a reading plan before you makes you want to read to “get it done” so you can move on to the next thing.

How often do we read our Bibles, check the reading off the “To-Do List” for the day, close the book and move on?  Are we just grazing in the grass, never really getting down to the roots?  I have to admit, there are a lot of days when that’s all my Bible reading really is – just something to do.  I skim the surface of the page, my eyes see the words, but the words never really touch my heart.

How can I expect to feed the flock unless I am first fed by the Word?  If I am not sharing from the deep experience of my soul, if I am not “giving out of the inward life,” then the best I can give is but an anemic, watered-down, half-life of the Gospel.  If I am not fed in the pasture where my Chief Shepherd as met me, how can I ever hope to lead others.

I read that M’Cheyne would rise well before the break of day to worship and fellowship in the communion with God, singing Psalms and hymns and reading God’s word.  That time in devotion would so prepare him for the day that all of his studies, all of his conversations, all of his leisure, was permeated with the fragrance of the Gospel.  He had been to the feast, and he was sharing the portion of the table of the Lord.

Why do we, why do I, fast from such a blessed fellowship today?  Why do we starve ourselves spiritually, content to live of the scraps and droppings that fall before us, when we have been invited to the feast?  God sets before us in His Word a smorgasbord of all the most soul-satisfying, life-giving truth that our hearts hunger for, and we ask for the “weight-watchers” menu.   When we deprive ourselves of all that God offers us, we are essentially telling God we don’t need Him nor what He gives, and we’d rather do this life on our own and in our own way.  (“How’s that working for you?” – Dr. Phil)

The simple truth of the matter is, God is God, and we are not.  He provides our daily bread.  He spins the planets and keeps them going.  Without Him, we can do nothing.  We cannot survive without every good gift that comes from His hand.  And yet, at His right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11), and God would not have us famished spiritually.  Rather, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…” (Eph 1:3).

Pull up to the table, to the feast of the Lord, and drink deep the blessing of His Word.  Let His Word teach you, correct you, fill you, strengthen you; until His Word gives light to all of yours.  Let your reading time, may my reading time, be a time of sweet communion in the Lord’s presence that give grace and substance to every endeavor through the day.

SDG

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Victory in Jesus

“Take heart; I have overcome the world.”
(John 16:33)

Last Sunday, the elder leading worship began the service with a quote from David Wells’ book, God in the Whirlwind.  Here is a portion of that quote:

Worship, then, is all about refocusing our lives. It is about confessing our sin together, for God is holy, and once again hearing the words of assurance that Christ has borne sin’s penalty. It is about remembering the resurrection of Christ, his grace, his holy-love, and his reign that will one day sweep away all that has broken life and defied God. There is no other reason to be in worship than to remember and celebrate these truths. They will endure for all eternity because they all correspond to what happened in the cross and to what is there in God’s character. They will be celebrated in eternity. They will be our eternal song.

I had read this passage in Wells’ book, highlighted it, and flagged it for use as an introductory statement as our worship begins.  Still, when the Elder read that quote this week – it got me thinking, and I quickly had to write down some notes while the congregation started singing the opening hymn.

We need worship to refocus our lives.  While I may not be very consistent at vehicle maintenance (how’s that for a leap in thought – trust me, I will come back around), I know that having your alignment checked and the tires balanced regularly is a good thing.  When your wheels are out of alignment, and the tires are out of balance, your tires will wear unevenly, deteriorating faster than they ought, and the general handling and performance of your vehicle diminishes.  If you’ve driven through the streets of Cherokee, IA for a couple of years, crossing the train tracks on Willow, Cedar, or Bluff streets on a regular basis, chances are your alignment is out of whack, and it’s time to have it checked.

Each week, as we gather for worship, we come to get our life back in alignment.  Each day is filled with bumps and pot-holes that make a wreck of our faith.  We face obstacles that seem overwhelming: the bills are more than the paycheck; a friend turns her back on you; the doctor said it’s cancer; your marriage is falling apart.  We struggle daily with sin: we do the things we know we shouldn’t (and often we enjoy it), and we neglect the good that we ought to do; the careless word that cuts someone down, the bitter attitude that can’t let go of old wounds; the arrogance and selfishness that disregard God’s word for what we think is right and best in our own eyes.  We wrestle with doubt: can God really love me; could one man on a cross truly pay for all my sins; if God makes all things work for good, why am I facing this?

This is just one reason why we desperately need to worship.  We may put on a good front when we come in and find our pew on a Sunday morning, but if we could see with the eyes of Christ, what a different picture that would be.  Each one of us comes into the house of prayer beaten, weary, worn, tired, frustrated, confused, broken, wounded.  Our lives are so out of alignment, so out of whack, it’s only by the grace of God that we made it back to worship.  We come, not to show off how right and good we are, but because each of us is sick and we need healing.

There is a balm in Gilead, that makes the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead, that saves the sin sick soul.

We come to worship confessing our sins, not so that we can wallow in the mire, but so that, having confessed them, we may find healing in the assurance of pardon.  That’s why, at least in our serve, there is no “Amen” after the Prayer of Confession – that prayer is not done until you hear the assurance of you salvation.  “In Christ, your sins have been forgiven.”  That is the proclamation of the Gospel!  That’s what we need to hear, before anything else.  You are at peace with God, you are forgiven your of your sins, the wrath has been born by the Lamb, you are a new creation!

What obstacles do you face this week?  What hardship do you bear?  What sin has beset your soul?  What grief is too much to carry?  What doubts and fears overwhelm you?  Does it seem like God has let go and things are beyond His reach?

Do not lose heart.  Christ has overcome all things.  He has overcome all sin.  He has overcome all doubts.  He has overcome the grief, the fear, the shame.  When we come back to Christ as our foundation, He brings our lives back into alignment.  We find assurance when assailed by temptation, peace in the eye of the storm, hope in the midst of despair.  We will still face suffering and loss, but we know that even these things draw us closer to Christ, in whom we have ultimate victory.

Return to this foundation in the worship and praise of God through Jesus our Savior.  Know that “everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world.  And this is the victory that has overcome the world – our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” (1 John 5:4-5).  Come back to the message of the Gospel, the truth that will endure for all eternity, the truth that will be our eternal song.

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.
Isaiah 40:28–31 (ESV)

SDG

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Summer Reading List

“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.”
(Proverbs 4:7)

With the summer almost halfway completed, I wanted to share my Summer Reading List before it was too late.  I pass these titles along to you for your consideration and edification.  Enjoy!

True Community, Jerry Bridges – While I have already read this book, I am re-reading as I prepare the summer sermons series based on this theme of building authentic community as the Church in Jesus Christ.  Bridges presents some very deep theological foundations and explanations of what it means to be the Church and what our fellowship ought to be, but in such a way as to not bog the reader down or shoot over our heads.  I highly recommend this book, and there are six copies left in the Church Narthex.

God in the Whirlwind, David Wells – This is decidedly a more substantive theological work than True Community, but it is still very approachable and has much to say for today’s Church.  Wells argues that the church has lost sight of the character of God, his Holy-Love.  We hear a lot about God’s love but not much about his Holiness. Well’s writes,  “We have become inclined to think of God as our Therapist. It is comfort, healing, and inspiration that we want most deeply, so that is what we seek from Him. That too, is what we want from our church experience. We want it to be comforting, uplifting, inspiring, and easy on the mind. We do not want it to be something that requires effort or concentration. We want God to be accepting and nonjudgmental.”  In a masterful, yet compassionate and encouraging tone, Wells calls the church to engage our culture with the Holy-Love of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ; the gospel which should shape and influence our view of the world, ourselves, our worship, and our service.

Every Good Endeavor, Tim Keller – I have always enjoyed Keller’s writing, and this book doesn’t let me down.  I read this book as sort of a modern-day Christian response to the soul searching of Ecclesiastes.  Before Christ, and apart from Him, the author of Ecclesiastes, and those who pursue their treasures in the world today, all work, all success can seem empty and meaningless – there’s always more to do, always someone better to come along.  With great pastoral care, Keller shows readers that biblical wisdom is immensely relevant to our questions about our work. In fact, the Christian view of work – that we work to serve others, not ourselves – can provide the foundation of a thriving professional and balanced personal life. Keller shows how excellence, integrity, discipline, creativity, and passion in the workplace can help others and even be considered acts of worship—not just of self-interest.

Crazy Busy, Kevin DeYoung – This book jumped into my hands and screamed, “I was written for YOU!”  Now, if I could just find the time to read it.  If your life is anything like mine, you have a packed calendar, there are often things that done get done, or don’t get done well, and the most important things (like your family), often get the least amount of attention.  I’ve only just started  with this book, but already I’ve begun to see how my “busyness” is often a cover for my insecurity, and a way to feed my sinful pride.  Since I’m still early in the book, I’ll share this review from Publishers Weekly:

DeYoung offers a refreshing (and refreshingly short) take on the plague of modern American life: the too-long to-do list and the overscheduled calendar that produce the frazzled response ‘busy’ to the innocent question ‘How are you?’ DeYoung doesn’t offer time management but rather theology. God wants you to use your talents, but God is not nearly as big on the idolatry of self-importance that often motivates over-commitment.  DeYoung is clever (‘If Jesus were alive today, he’d get more emails than any of us.’), his analysis is well-organized, and he brings theological thinking without moralizing. If you are someone who checks your email before going to bed and as soon as you wake up, DeYoung has your number, and this is your book.”

One With Christ, Marcus Peter Johnson – Wanting to go deep with a Theology book this summer, I’ve selected this treatise from Dr. Johnson, assistant professor of theology at Moody Bible Institute.  From the cover of the book there is this summary, “Despite our love for the Bible, emphasis on the cross, and passion for evangelism, many evangelicals ironically neglect that which is central to the gospel.  In our preaching, teaching, and witnessing, we often separate salvation from the Savior.  Looking to the Scriptures and to church history, Marcus Johnson reveals the true riches of our salvation by reintroducing us to the foundation of our redemption – our mysterious union with the living Christ.”

Memoir and Remains of R.M. M’Cheyne, Andrew A. Bonar –Having read Metaxas’ biography on Bonhoeffer and Marsden’s on Edwards, I thought I’d turn this summer to the story of Robert Murray M’Cheyne.  M’Cheyne was a Scottish Presbyterian minister and missionary in the early 19th century who died at the young age of 29.  A preacher, pastor, poet, he was also a man of deep piety and prayer. His biography tells the story of his brief life, and includes all of his collected writings, letters, and poems.

SDG

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I am Thenardier

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…”
(Rom 3:23)

This is my last installment on the Les Miserables theme, and my last shameless promotion for the Cherokee Community Theater’s Production.  Our opening week was met with tremendous success, and we hope to have a second weekend that’s even better.  The review have been great, the energy is high, and the tickets are going quickly.  If you haven’t already made your reservations, hurry – if you think there’ll be “One Day More”, you just might miss it.

Today, I wanted to take a moment to consider a couple in the show who just might be everyone’ favorite characters, the Thenardiers.  Not quite the antagonists of the story that Javert is, the Thenardiers are like a catalyst for the show, they come in at critical moments and create a volatility that propels the story onward.  They are despicable, opportunistic, criminal, and raunchy, but they also bring much needed comic relief to an already heavy show.

When we first meet Mssr. Thenardier in Hugo’s novel, he is profiteering off the dead and wounded at the Battle of Waterloo.  Moving quickly before the carrion birds arrive, or more troops come his way, he picks the pockets and mouths for gold and silver – and makes himself quite a fortune in doing so.

The Thenardiers operate an inn, which is merely another opportunity for him to “rook the guests and cook the books.”  Madame Thenardier is no better than her husband.  Hugo describes her as a monstrosity of a woman:

tall, blond, red, fat, angular, square, enormous, and agile; she belonged, as we have said, to the race of those colossal wild women, who contort themselves a
t fairs with paving-stones hanging from their hair… Everything trembled at the sound of her voice, window panes, furniture, and people. She had a beard. She swore splendidly; she boasted of being able to crack a nut with one blow of her fist. This Thenardier female was like the product of a wench engrafted on a fishwife. When one heard her speak, one said, “That is a gendarme”; when one saw her drink, one said, “That is a carter”; when one saw her handle Cosette, one said, “That is the hangman.” One of her teeth projected when her face was in repose.

In the story, they have five children: two girls, Azelma and Eponine, whom they spoil to no end, and three boys, Gavroch, who as soon as he is able is sent out to live on the streets, and two other boys, who are unnamed, and rented out to another woman whose children died.  The Thenardiers are also the custodians of Cosette, Fantine’s daughter, who essentially serves as slave labor for these horrid people.

Throughout the story, Thenardier’s world keeps crashing into the life of Valjean; attempted robbery, extortion, and murder. There are not admirable qualities in the Thenardier’s.  At the end of the book, we find Thenardier and his daughter Azelma heading to America, where they become slave-traders.  Truly a reprehensible character.

And yet, there is something revealing about the Thenardiers.  Lost people do lost things, and the Thenardiers are a vivid, graphic demonstration of that truth.  They believe God is dead.  They look to the heavens and only the moon looks down.  For them it is a dog eat dog world, you take anything that’s not nailed down.  Only the strongest, the fittest, the most cunning will survive.  Rarely do you see such an honest portrayal of the logical conclusion to a worldview that does not begin and end with a sovereign and loving God.  If you believe that we have emerged from a primordial ooze, there’s nothing to keep you from acting like it.

Rather than point my finger at the Thenardiers and cry out “sinner,” however, I think it is more important to let the Thenardiers point their finger at me and show me the state of my soul.  I am no better than they.  When left to my own devices, I am a greedy, grabby, self-indulgent, naval-gazing opportunist who thinks my way is the best way and just wishes that God would see the brilliance in my own plans and get in line.  I am a rebel from God’s way, living of the remains of the wasteland of my own making, rather than enjoying the abundant treasures that are at His right hand.  I am a wretch.

I want to be a Valjean, noble, sacrificing, the unsung hero.  I’d settle for Javert, the legalistic, militant conservative.  Heck, I’d take an ABC Student who dies on the barricade for the cause of freedom.  But no, I am Thenardier.  Who will deliver me from this body of death?

I guess I should correct myself.  That’s who I was.  But thanks be to God through Jesus Christ my Lord!  I have found grace.  I have been saved, redeemed, transformed.  I have died, and continue to die to sin, that I may live for Christ.  I have laid down the crown I stole for myself, and claimed Christ as my Lord and Savior.  I was the Thenardier, dead in my trespasses and sins, but I have been made alive together with Christ.  I was once captive to sin and death, but I have been delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of his beloved Son.  This is the grace of God at work in my life.  This is the good news that I must share.

I love theater because it compels us to think.  It holds a mirror before us, and shows us the nature of our hearts.  And hopefully, in stories like this, it will show us our need for grace, for mercy, and for the saving love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

SDG

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I Dreamed a Dream

“Encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all…”
(1 Thess. 5:14)

If you haven’t already reserved your tickets yet for the Cherokee Commfantineunity Theater’s production of Les Miserables, let me give you one more reason why you should: Amy Sarchet as “Fantine”.  Amy is a member of Memorial Presbyterian, and a good friend and sister in Christ.  On top of all that, she has a beautiful voice, and portrays the role of Fantine with a depth and power that I have not seen in any previous production of this show.

For those of you who are unaware of the particulars of Les Miserables, Fantine’s story is one of broken dreams and broken hearts.  When she was young, she was swept up in a summer romance with a “university” man – he was handsome, eloquent, charming, and passionate – more than anything Fantine could have ever hoped for.  She spent the summer by his side, they dreamed of a new world of peace and equality; but when the summer was over, and the young man’s allowance spent, he left, and Fantine was pregnant.

As the show begins, we meet Fantine ten year later.  She has given her daughter, Cosette, to an inn-keeper and his wife (the Thenardiers) to raise, while Fantine works in a factory and sends money for her care.  Fantine loses her job in the factory, and in desperation sells her hair, her teeth, and eventually her body in prostitution, all to earn enough to provide for her daughter.

Certainly this is not the life she would have chosen for herself, who would.  As Fantine sings in the iconic song, “I dreamed a dream,”

I had a dream my life would be
So different from this hell I’m living
So different now from what it seemed!
Now life has killed the dream I dream.

Jesus encountered many women with similar stories in the gospels.  One woman was caught in adultery and brought before Jesus to see if he would condemn her.  Another was the Samaritan woman who had five husbands as was currently living with a man she was not married to.  Now I realize that our culture’s view on marriage has changed somewhat since Jesus’ day, but I would doubt that any young girl’s dream for her future would include an adulteress affair or a string of broken marriages and non-committal.

Everyone Jesus encountered in the gospels had somehow had their dreams shattered and their lives broken.  The hungry, the poor, wretched, the outcast, the sick, the lame, the mourning – this was not their dream for their lives.  But their hopes were torn apart, their dreams turned to shame.

And this is why Jesus came, to seek and to save the lost.  In Les Miserables, Valjean finds Fantine just as she is about to be arrested, intercedes for her, takes her to the hospital, and as she dies he promises that he will raise her daughter, Cosette, and provide for her every need.  Valjean, whose own life has been transformed by radical grace, offers that same grace to one in need.

This is the grace of Christ that the world needs today: a radical grace that brings comfort and hope to those who despair for want of both.  To the woman caught in adultery, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”  To the Samaritan woman at the well, he addressed her brokenness, but then showed her that He was the Messiah, the savior she had been looking for.  Jesus fed the hungry, comforted the mourning, healed the sick, but more importantly, be brought the grace and forgiveness we all so desperately need.

Imagine if we were to look at the world the way Jesus did.  Jesus saw the world as broken and lost, not so that He would condemn the world, but so that He might show compassion.  He treated each person with grace, compassion, and love.  Sometimes that grace meant a word of correction or rebuke, sometime that grace meant a healing touch; in all, Jesus was revealing the grace of God through His transforming and life-giving love.

If we could live with that same grace, treating one another as if, deep inside, they were wounded, their dreams were broken and their hopes shattered, not so that we could feel superior but so that we could show compassion, how powerful would the message of God’s grace be.  This is the kind of grace that shapes the community of faith, what Paul was describing when he wrote in 1Thess. 5:13ff. “Be at peace among yourselves.  And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.  See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone.  Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

SDG

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Law and Grace in Les Miserables

“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus
from the law of sin and death.”
(Romans 8:2)

One of the things I have always loved about Les Miserables is the rich characters who make up the story.  It is a three hour musical – but those three hours dig deeply into some incredible lives; lives of tragedy, villainy, despair, redemption.  We see this most clearly in the stark contrast between Valjean and Javert, two characters whose stories share the same root (Valjean spent 19 years in prison, Javert was born in a prison), but whose lives eventually take dramatically different paths.

We first meet Javert as he is releasing Jean Valjean from the galleys.  Immediately we see the nature of his character.  He is quick to remind Valjean that while he may be free from prison, he will always be a criminal and a scourge to society.  We find in Javert an embodiment of unrelenting, unmoving, merciless law.

When we next encounter Javert, he is an inspector who has achieved his status by virtue of his diligence and perfect adherence to the law.  Meanwhile, Valjean has become the owner of a factory who business has saved the town and is appointed as Mayor.  Valjean success, however, comes not through his own merits, but by the mercy of a Bishop who shows him grace and changes Valjean forever.

As a man of the law, Javert is cannot show compassion: mercy corrupts divine order, the law is as fixed as the stars, it will not be mocked, he will not be moved.  Justice trumps all.  Valjean, on the other hand because of the extravagant grace shown to him, recognizes the Divine hand of grace that saves the wretch and sets him free.  Touched by grace, Valjean gives that grace to others, caring for Fantine and her daughter Cosette, and even sparing Javert’s life multiple times.

Ultimately, we see in Valjean and Javert two lives that are forever changed by grace.  One receives grace and mercy and is re-born to live a life of compassion and love for those around him.  The other rejects that grace, sees it as an affront to his own self-righteousness, and in rejecting grace, is doomed to destruction.

Sadly, there are many today who love Valjean, but live like Javert.  Grace and mercy, as concepts are fine, but in practice tend to make a mess of things.  We want what’s coming to us, we demand our fair share.  Mercy has a way of upsetting the apple cart, of negating our best-efforts.  We put a pretty shine on “respectable peccadillos ” and avoid the more heinous sins, so shouldn’t God recognize our good efforts and reward us based on that?  I have actually had someone tell me, “Why does that Amazing Grace song call us wretches – we’re not that bad.”

It is as if Javert has read Romans 1-7, and when confronted with Valjean’s grace, cries out with Paul, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”  Unfortunately for Javert, he stops reading there, and ends his life in despair.

Valjean, however, turned the page and continued to Romans 8:1-2, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”

Friends we were all “from the gutter,” we are all under sin.  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands, no one seeks God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless, no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:10-12).  Will you take the course of Javert, only to learn that “by works of the law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight, since through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  Or will you stand in the need of grace with Valjean and find that “there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:22-24).

Don’t miss your chance to see this show.  If you’re in NW Iowa, get your tickets now.

More importantly, don’t miss out on the gift of grace that God has given in Christ.

SDG

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Living By Grace: A Study of Jean Valjean

“Therefore, my beloved… work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,
for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
(Philippians 2:12–13)

With every role I’ve had in community theater, I have tried to write up a brief character study.  I find this helps me develop my character and to understand his actions and his significance in the larger story.  As I step into an iconic role like Jean Valjean in the Cherokee Community Theater production of Les Miserables, a part that has been played by some phenomenal actors, a character whose story is known and loved by so many, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on this character and the powerful message that he presents.

Les Miserables, as a novel, is Victor Hugo’s reproachful commentary on society and its treatment of the poor, the uneducated, and the suffering of women in his time.  Within this critique unfolds a story of the redeeming and transforming power of love and grace, set in stark contrast with the inability of the law and revolution to affect any real change on the human condition.  The musical focuses primarily on the story of the redemption of Valjean, and his effort to live worthy of the grace he has been given.

Here’s what we know of Valjean:

(All of the quotes are taken from Victory Hugo’s Les Miserables, http://www.classicreader.com/book/268/).

Jean Valjean was orphaned at an early age and raised by his older sister.  When Valjean was 25, his sister’s husband died, leaving her with seven children under the age of 8, and him taking the father’s place in the family, “simply as a duty and even a little churlishly” on his part.  A hard winter came, and without work, they had no food.

In desperation, Valjean robbed a baker’s house, breaking a window and stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family.  He was captured, and sentenced to 5 years of hard labor, serving as a slave in the galleys.  He never again saw his sister or her children for, as Hugo says, “what becomes of the handful of leaves from the young tree which is sawed off at the root?”

While in the galleys, Valjean tried to escape three times, only to be recaptured and sentenced to more prison time.  In total, he spends 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread.  He entered “the galleys sobbing and shuddering; he emerged impassive. He had entered in despair; he emerged gloomy.”

When finally released, Valjean blamed himself for his wasted life.  He knows he would have been given the bread had he asked for it; that his act of violence benefited no one.  At the same time, Valjean also blamed society for punishing a man unjustly, and he blamed God, for having created such a society.  He condemned himself, society, and God; he had nowhere to turn.

Valjean ivaljean awakeneds paroled, but everywhere he goes he is treated less than human.  He cannot work, he cannot
find lodging; he is a dog on the streets.  There is no compassion, no mercy, just law and condemnation at every step.  Until, that is, he meets Bishop Myriel.  The Bishop takes Valjean into his home, feeds him, offers him a place to rest, and when Valjean is arrested for stealing the silver from the church, the Bishop offers him the candlesticks he had left – giving him forgiveness, giving him a second chance, giving him grace.

When faced with such grace Valjean had two options: “if he were not henceforth the best of men, he would be the worst; that it behooved him now, so to speak, to mount higher than the Bishop, or fall lower than the convict; that if he wished to become good be must become an angel; that if he wished to remain evil, he must become a monster… That which was certain, that which he did not doubt, was that he was no longer the same man, that everything about him was changed, that it was no longer in his power to make it as though the Bishop had not spoken to him and had not touched him.”

The rest of the story comes down to how Valjean responds to this grace.  I won’t go into all the details (read the book, or come see our show), but from his encounter with grace, Valjean is a changed man, and with every day he seeks to live a life worthy of such a gift.  Alive because of grace, grace flows freely to others, bringing help and hope to those in greatest need.

What I love about the character of Valjean is that he is truly an “everyman.”  He stands as a symbol for  the human condition, our need for transforming grace and love, and our struggle to live according to that love once we find it.

In a way we are all like Valjean, cut off from the blessings of God because of our sin.  We fall under the penalty of the law and are crushed under the weight of sins consequences.  Each sin compounds our guilt and our burden.  We think ourselves free, but our freedom is an illusion, for in sin we are bound to sin and to the law.

Then we encounter grace.  As Paul writes in Eph. 2:4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”  This grace liberates us from the law.  This grace transforms the wretched soul.  This grace brings peace and joy to the burdened heart.  This grace gives life to the dead.

And this grace calls us to walk in a new and different way.  Valjean knew he could not act as if the Bishop had not touched his life.  When God touches your life, you cannot be the same.  This is why Paul writes to the Philippians, “Therefore my beloved… work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:12-13).

When you have known the grace of God in Jesus, the rest of your life is lived trusting in that grace, living according to that grace, and sharing that grace with others.  Grace runs through every part of life.  Grace is that which saves.  Grace is that which restores.  Grace is that which gives us strength to go forward.  If we live at all, we live by grace alone.

I hope that my performance in the role of Jean Valjean in some way communicates this transformation in grace, and that through this show God may be glorified and known and the God of grace and love.

SDG

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