This past Saturday, in the throes of preparing for Easter Sunday, the girls and I met up with some school friends for front row seats of Les Miserables, put on by the Pinewood Performing Arts program. It was a phenomenal production and if you live in the Bay Area and are looking for a great evening, I encourage you to get tickets. This is one talented and passionate group of students!
I have been a Les Mis lover since my senior year at Monta Vista High School, when Mr. Keep played the debut recording of the London musical during our AP Humanities class while we read along to Victor Hugo’s unabridged masterpiece. The written story is mind-blowing, a brilliant study of the nuances of law and grace and the gray spaces between our self-serving definitions of right and wrong. The musical adds a breathtaking and layered interpretation, and despite knowing every word of the entire performance, I still get chills up my spine whenever I hear its iconic opening measures. A few summers ago I sat in my living room with tears quite literally pouring out of my eyes as Alfie Boe sang Bring Him Home in honor of the 25th anniversary of the production. In fact, just wait a minute … I’m going to YouTube right now to watch it and then there’s this one, where all four of the Valjean’s sing the song together and Alfie makes what might be the most stirring key change in the history of key changes. Chills, I tell you. Chills.
Saturday evening, squeezed along with a few dozen other people into the tiny Pinewood theatre, as this familiar and beloved story unfolded for me once again on stage, God arrived.
I know I just lost some of you, and that’s OK.
But you see, if you recall from my post last week, Easter came out of nowhere for me this year. I ran headlong into Good Friday with barely a thought about the crucifixion. The weeks leading up to this most sacred of liturgical events had, for me, been thoroughly secular and I was struggling to carve out time and space for intentional reflection. I felt like a failure — as a parent who couldn’t seem to incorporate meaningful spiritual discipline into my daughter’s lives, and as a follower of Jesus, who couldn’t seem to carve out even the most rudimentary time and emotional space for journeying from cross to grave with the One I call Lord, Savior and Friend.
Then two young men step in and out of the light — one Valjean and the other Javert. One sings of grace, the other of Law. One sings of mercy, the other duty. Their voices flow seamlessly from solo to duet to antiphony, at times harmonious and then discordant. I listen to each word, knowing full well the end of the story. I know the last words on Valjean’s lips will be a humble prayer to God for salvation. I know Javert will take his final breath in searing, confused pain as he throws himself from a great height into a watery grave.
This movement from law to grace, this is what captivates me in the theatre that night. How hard it is, especially for those of us who have a religious heritage. We want the rules to matter. We want to be righteous in our own eyes. “Those who follow the paths of the righteous shall have their reward,” Javert sings, and we believe it deep in our bones. We want life to work this way, because we, like Javert, are sure God is on our side, and in that deluded state we heap judgment upon ourselves because we heap it upon others. God have mercy on us all.
Awash in the music, God lifted my head to see myself there in that antiphony. The entire guilt trip I had been living under for the weeks leading to this sacred Easter weekend, every moment of condemnation I felt, every self-chastisement to do more and do better was law. I was Javert, clinging to my bedrock beliefs about what God wanted from me and why.
The thing is, there are only two ways out of a life saturated in law — grace or death. Javert chooses death, because choosing grace would require him to willingly dismantle his entire understanding of God and the way the world worked. I know people, Jesus followers and Jesus haters both, who would rather die than hold in their own two hands the idea that they are wrong and always have been wrong — about God, about themselves, about what matters, about what it means to follow Jesus.
This journey from law to grace — it is perhaps the hardest one any of us take. To learn to open our hands to receive. To discover we have nothing to offer God, not because we are worthless sinners but because there is simply nothing we can put in our hands that matters more to God than our very human selves– not our talents or gifts, not our effort or grit, not our theology or our highfalutin convictions, not our money or time or intentions. Nothing.
You know what was wrong with me this Easter? I kept thinking I had to do the right religious things in order to receive from God. Intellectually, I know better, but deep in my core still the law lurks. “Do more. Be better. Work harder. Figure it out.”
To get through to me, God used what was readily available — in this instance, a 19th century story about the French Revolution, re-imagined for 20th century musical theater and then further revised for high school students, to remind me to live in the grace by which I have been saved.
As grace abounds, the law recedes, and faith takes flight.
It was a blessed Easter after all.