A Fireplace, a Baby, and a Restraining Embrace

At our house we have the joy of having a real wood burning fireplace. There is something about a fireplace that just sets a cozy atmosphere. Sitting on well-worn couch, drinking a strong cup of coffee, reading a good book while feeling the ambient warmth of the fire is the definition of relaxation. And no matter how fancy they may be, a gas fireplace just can't quite recreate the experience of a real wood burning fire-place. Since my wife and I enjoy using our fireplace so much we started early this year on a cool fall night. This was our first fire of the year and the first fire since we welcomed our little boy Jude into the world. Know at 8 months he is crawling and trying to get into everything. He is so inquisitive and wants to experience through his senses everything he can. He wants to touch and he wants to taste. As a result the roaring fireplace captivated his attention. He would fight and fight to get a closer look. To satisfy his curiosity I took him, held him in my lap, and we sat on the floor right in front of the fire.

As he felt the warmth radiating from that fireplace he became less than satisfied with just sitting in my lap. He fought with all his strength to leave my embrace to go and touch the fire. You see my little boy wanted to experience the fire in a way that would be harmful and dangerous to him. Rather than enjoying the fireplace in the way it was intended, he wanted to experience the fire in a way that would be harmful to him. Without my restraining arm, he would have very well gotten into that fire and would have been extremely burned. Yet Jude did not realize that my restraining embrace was not to keep him from joy but to keep him from harm. In love I did not allow him to go into the fire, despite all his squirming and groaning.

You know many of us think just like my son Jude when we begin to think about God and his law. God has given us good gifts to enjoy yet we often use those gifts in a harmful way that God never intended us to do. We take the gift of sex, and rather than using it the way God intended within the covenant of marriage, in the name of sexual liberation and autonomy we divorce our sexuality from marriage. We take the gift of food, and rather than enjoying a wonderful meal we gorge ourself and become gluttons, whose god is their stomachs.

Yet we see God's law and the morality he defines for us is not keeping us from joy but is actually protecting us from sin. Just as my grip around my son was protecting him from misusing the gift of fire, so God's law protects us from turning good gifts into idols. When it comes to the way the world operates, God has a plan and a purpose to the way the world works. When it comes to family, sexuality, money, honesty, and worship, God is not trying to keep us from pleasure, he is trying to keep us from getting burn. His commands are a gift to us and the word of a father who loves his children.

Although Jude did not understand why I wouldn't let him go into the fire, as his Dad I was protecting him. God does this for us by giving us his word to instruct us how to live. So look at the commands of God not as a opressive dictator but as a loving father. When we enjoy the gifts of this world the way God ended, then the warmth of a cozy fire is a great gift not a harmful burn.

Conversion in Les Miserables

Conversion in Les MIsLes Miserables is a work of art that has greatly moved my soul over the past month and a half. To be honest, the first time I was exposed to it was the movie/musical version that came out this past December. It has been a long time since a movie has struck such an emotional core in my soul. What moved me so much isn't the amazing acting or the captivating song writing, but the incredible story written by Victo Hugo. I started reading the book in January, but with all the school reading I doubt I will be able to get too much into the massive 2000 pages of Les Miserables.  However I hope to maybe read it through this year. The story is filled with Gospel and Christian themes. The story addresses hope in the midst of suffering, tension between Gospel and the Law, conversion as seen in the life change of Jean Valjean as a result of the bishops grace, fatherly love and sacrifice. and forgiveness and mercy to the worst of enemies. This whole work is filled with those amazing themes that draw me to the true story of the whole world, the story of God.

It is a work that continues to flood my mind as I think about the emotions of the story and listen to the sound track over and over again. It is a story that I have yet to wear out. The wonderful themes come back and resonate my heart time and time again.

The character that amazes me the most in Jean Valjean. Here is a man who was thrown into prison just for stealing a mouth full of bread. His young life was taken from him, just for trying to survive. As he “looked down” in the chains of his slavery he grew embittered and hatred in his heart spread to the depth of his soul until the man has a conversion experience. A kind and compassionate Bishop shows mercy to this ex convict and invites him in for dinner and rest. Jean Valjean is amazed that the bishop would do this, but his heart had become so dark and bitter that he stole the precious silver of the bishop and escaped in the middle of the night. He stole from the only man who showed him kindness.

Jean Valjean gets caught and brought back before the Bishop with the silver in his hand. Valjean came up with the excuse that the Bishop “gave it to him”. When the Bishop is told the story, the Bishop does the most astonishing thing. He shows Jean Valjean compassion and he goes along with his story saying that not only did he give him the silver, but forgot the most valuable pieces. Jean Valjean, by an act of the Bishops sacrificial generosity,  is spared from the return to the pit of imprisonment.

This incredible unimaginable act of mercy stands in stark contrast to the life Jean Valjean has come to know. The bishops generosity is out of place in the suffering of revolutionary France. This incredible grace shown to Valjean has a born-again experience in his life. He is converted in response to the grace given to him by the bishop.

This leads to my favorite song in the musical, Jean-Valjean's soliloquy. I've yet to read this in the book, but the song's lyrics and melody captures the emotional intensity of his conversion. He begins as a man hardened by the suffering and injustice of the cruel world. He hates the man that this world has turned him into. He is swimming in the whirl pool of his own sin, and it disgusts him. Jean Valjean gets up and declares “Jean Valjean is nothing now, another story must begin!” Jean Valjean has been “born-again”. He is a new man who has been given a new life/

This moment sets up the whole rest of the story and powerfully communicates the beauty of the Gospel. For the rest of the movie we see Jean Valjean who extends mercy to others because he first was extended mercy by the bishop. He shows compassion on the suffering Fantine, adopts the helpless and abused Cossette as his own daughter, has mercy on his archenemy Javiar, and saves Marius from the lonely barricade. The whole movie is one man who responds to mercy with extravagant mercy himself.

Valjean's transformation is foiled by the law keeping Javair. The themes are made complete at the end of the tale. When Jean Valjean shows Javair the same underserved mercy that the Bishop showed him, Javair experience despair rather than conversion. Javiar cannot accept mercy in his world of justice, rules, and legalism. Rather than accepting the mercy given to him, he hardens his heart and spits back Valjean's mercy by taking his own life.

Two men and two different responses to grace. Humanity has those same two same responses to God's grace. We either humble accept the forgiveness given to us in Christ or we reject it and harden our calloused hearts. Grace can melt our hearts our stiffen them with pride. When the Gospel is presented we have those same two options. We can respond like Jean Valjean or we can respond like Javair. Accepting God's mercy and forgiveness frees us from our past and empowers to live lives of extreme compassion. Rejecting God's mercy leads to hardness, intolerance, and hatred. Accepting God's mercy leads to life. Rejecting God's mercy leads to destruction.

What Gospel themes have you seen in the story of Les Miserables? Why do books and movies so often point us to the true story of the whole world? Love to hear your thoughts in the comments!