My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 28, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.
When we lose a loved one, the pain we experience can feel unbearable. Grief is complex, and at first, we wonder if the pain will ever end. We go through a variety of emotional experiences such as anger, confusion, and sadness. Grief comes in waves. At first, the waves are so strong you feel they will sweep you away. But in time, those waves lessen and let the good memories in. Along with the pain, there are memories of smiles and good times.
This past weekend we had a mini family reunion. Cousins from Kansas and Missouri came to Mena for a visit. We had a wonderful time talking and reminiscing. I enjoyed the day very much, but it was bittersweet. A little over three years ago, my Momma passed away. The bitterness, anger, and pain that I struggled with for months after her death has eased over time. But I missed her on the day of the reunion. As cousins recalled stories from Momma and Daddy’s many visits to Kansas, emotions wafted over me. But the sadness I felt was tempered by the special memories that people had of her.
I thought about the last time I was able to do something special for Momma. When my wife learned that the musical theatre production of Les Miserables was coming to The Robinson Center in Little Rock, we made plans to attend. My wife thought that Momma would like to go with us. When I asked her if she would like to go, she was excited. She told me that she had studied Les Miserables in French class when she was a girl.
The Robinson Center was a bustle of activity as we made our way to our seats. With its towering buildings on either side of the stage, the set made us feel like we were in France in the early 1800s. The audience of the sold-out show waited in eager anticipation for the performance to begin. When the first strains of music started, a hush fell over the theater. For over three hours, the performers held the audience in rapt attention.
The musical is based on the French historical novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It tells a story of broken dreams, sacrifice, and redemption. It is an examination of law and grace and a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Victor Hugo wrote in the preface; “So long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”
The story revolves around two men; Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and Inspector Javert, who is always looking for Valjean and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole. The most intriguing part of Les Miserables’ story is the different ways the main characters deal with law and mercy. The story starts with the release of Jean Valjean after 19 years in jail. Valjean finds rejection every place he seeks refuge until he finds a priest who gives him food and a place to sleep.
Jean Valjean steals all the finest silver from the priest. He is caught and brought back and made to admit his sin in front of the priest. The police are ready to put Jean Valjean in jail when the priest stops them. He explains that he gave all of the silver to the man, but he forgot to take the most precious silver. As the priest hands over his valuable candlesticks, it is clear that his grace is more remarkable than Jean Valjean could have ever imagined. Having experienced such forgiveness, Valjean spends the rest of his life trying to replicate the grace given to him.
Javert is the legalist, and he holds strictly to the letter of the law. There is only one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice. The story leads up to a climactic scene when Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert. But instead of retribution for the lifelong struggles and pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his enemy off as a free man.
The mercy shown to him by Valjean sends Javert, the legalist, into a tailspin from which he cannot recover. For him, mercy proves to be an unsolvable problem. He sings, “I am the law, and the law is not mocked! I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!” And then continues, “my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? Does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so?” After experiencing unmerited mercy, Javert, the legalist, jumps off a bridge and kills himself.
The power of Les Miserables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the ruthless. The merciful have faced their guilt, and it has broken them. The ruthless have faced their guilt and hardened themselves like steel.
Gentle Reader, Les Miserables is a story of the contrast in how sinners respond to the offer of mercy and grace. At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to grace: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies. Titus 3:5 (NIRV) tells us that “He saved us. It wasn’t because of the good things we had done. It was because of his mercy. He saved us by washing away our sins. We were born again. The Holy Spirit gave us new life.” Don’t be an Inspector Javert and refuse the mercy that God holds out to you, be a Jean Valjean and live a life showing mercy to others because of the mercy God has given you. Who do you need to show mercy to today?