Friday, December 28, 2012

Les Miserables: The Struggle Between Legalism and Grace

You know those moments when you look at something you've seen your whole life, and suddenly, you see something you have never seen before, but as you look at it, you wonder how the heck you never saw it before, because it's just so obvious?! Yeah, me too. In fact, I just experienced one of those today.

My cousin Andrea and I have a Christmas Break tradition, wherein we go out to eat, and see a new movie. In the past, we have enjoyed such movies as Enchanted and both Sherlock Holmes movies. Today, we went to see Les Miserables. We both love musicals, and were dying to see it. We were not disappointed. The movie was spectacular. Aside from Russel Crowe's lack of vocal training, and the fact that his vocal coach failed to tell him that his vocal "scooping" served only to heighten the audience's awareness of his lack of training, the movie and music were absolutely breathtaking. Each actor chosen (yes, even Crowe) was perfect for his or her role. But the quality of the movie was not the only thing which took my breath away.

Before you go on, massive spoiler alert. I basically go through the *entire* story, as it is impossible to talk about my point without essentially retelling the whole thing beginning to end. If you don't know anything about the story, read at your own risk. If you're familiar with it, I doubt you'll find anything from the story surprising.

I have long loved the story of Jean Valjean's redemption. I grew up watching a little-known movie version of the story, and read the book when I was 12 or 13. The fact that Valjean served 19 years hard labor for stealing a single loaf of bread, became bitter and cynical, and then found redemption through the kindness of a priest, has always intrigued me. Of course, the historical setting of early 19th century France has always been fascinating to me as well. (As a side note, even though France is the butt of many military jokes- and rightly so- I never cease to be amazed that France didn't totally self-destruct in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that's another blog post for another time.) But this time, I saw something I had never seen before, in spite of my multiple viewings of the many movie versions, my reading of the book, my countless listenings to the musical soundtrack, and my previous stage viewing. About 10 minutes in, I realized something:

Les Mis is the story of two men, Jean Valjean, and Inspector Javert, and these two men embody the constant struggle between grace and legalism.

This realization shocked me, and I literally gasped. It was suddenly clear before me, and I was thrilled by my new discovery, and amazed I'd never caught onto it before. But there it was, before my eyes and ears, on the big screen.

I'll start with Valjean. He began as an ordinary man, who, like many during this time in France, was poor and starving. He stole a single loaf of bread to keep his sister's son from dying, was caught, and through a series of events, wound up serving 19 years of hard labor for the one loaf of bread. Valjean lived in less-than-human conditions, and was treated like a hardened criminal. When he finally got out on parole, he was given papers which branded him a dangerous man, meaning he couldn't find a job or make a living. (If my memory serves me correctly, he'd killed a prison guard who was unjustly beating a fellow prisoner, which is why his papers stated he was dangerous, but that wasn't in the movie.) Right before he left, Valjean had an exchange with Javert, where Javert tells him he will starve unless he learns the meaning of the law, to which Valjean replies that he had spent the last 19 years "a slave to the law."  At this point, Valjean did not understand grace, because he had yet to experience it.

Enter the priest. Valjean, upon discovering he could not get a job, and knowing he would be on parole his entire life because the courts had deemed him dangerous, decided to steal a living. One night, he was given dinner and a place to sleep by a priest in his rectory, and Valjean saw the vast amount of silver the priest had. While everyone else was sleeping, Valjean stole the silver, and ran off. The next morning, he was brought back to the priest by the police, who had accused him of stealing. Though Valjean had indeed stolen the silver, the priest said he had given the silver to Valjean, and even gave him two silver candlesticks he hadn't taken. The police left, and Valjean was speechless. The priest said Valjean's soul now belonged to God, and he should take the silver and use it to turn his life around, and be of service to others. Then Valjean has a moment in the chapel, where he sees that all that was left in his heart was hate, but he then sings,
              "And why did I allow that man
               To touch my soul and teach me love?
               He treated me like any other,
               He gave me his trust; he called me 'brother.'
               My life he claims for God above,
               Can such things be?
               Though I had come to hate the world,
               And this man who was hate to me.
               Take an eye for an eye!
               Turn your heart into stone!
               This is all I have lived for! |
               This is all I have known!
               One word from him and I'd be back,
               Beneath the lash upon the rack;
               Instead he offers me my freedom;
               I feel my shame inside me like a knife.

               He told me that I had a soul,
               How does he know?
               What spirit comes to move my life?
               Is there another way to go?"
After this, Valjean decides that the old him is dead, and determines to create a new identity and a new life, recognizing now that his life belongs to God. Of course, the priest could not actually claim Valjean's soul- Valjean had to give it to God himself. But this was Valjean's first real encounter with grace, and he decided to accept it, and dedicate his life to serving God, and extending grace to others.

Eight years later, Inspector Javert, who had been a guard at Valjean's prison for most of Valjean's time there, arrived in a smallish town, where he reported to the mayor, and proclaimed himself to be at the mayor's service. By this time, Valjean had disappeared, having failed to report for parole for the last eight years. Javert felt as though he recognized the mayor, but couldn't place him until he accompanied the mayor on an emergency call. A man from the town had been pinned under a very heavy cart, and no one could move it. When Javert saw the mayor manage to lift the cart high enough for the man to be saved (which no one else could do), he realized where he had met the mayor before. The mayor was Jean Valjean, who had demonstrated his incredible strength in prison. Now of course, Valjean had recognized Javert immediately, and had become alert to the danger. At this point, Javert had a choice. He could see that Valjean had built a successful business which was the lifeblood of his town, and was a much beloved, revered, and successful mayor, and he could have left it at that. Javert had even witnessed Valjean extend grace to a prostitute, Fantine, who was being charged with assault. Valjean took the time to listen to Fantine's story, and not only apologized when she told him she had been dismissed from his factory unjustly, but also took her in, cared for her as she died, and promised to get her daughter from the people who were keeping her, and look after her. Even so, as becomes clear later, Javert is a slave to the law. He lives only to see justice served, and the concept of grace is entirely foreign to him. Because of this, he chooses to bait Valjean. A few days later, Javert comes to Valjean and apologizes for making a false judgment; he had thought the mayor was a former criminal who skipped parole, but he was wrong, as the real Valjean had been apprehended.

Thus begins much turmoil for Valjean. He is torn between turning himself in, to save an innocent man, and allowing that man to be his insurance; if another man was imprisoned as Valjean, he'd never have to worry about being found out again. He knew the people of his town depended on him, and if he admittend his guilt and was arrested, many of them would likely be out of jobs. He also couldn't live with the guilt of knowing an innocent man was in prison in his place. He finally went and appeared at the sentencing of the "other" Valjean, and admitted to his true identity. The judge didn't believe him, but Javert saw, and finally knew for sure, this man was Jean Valjean, which of course does nothing but strengthen Javert's resolve to apprehend him. It is interesting that Javert counted on Valjean to appear and take responsibility, and yet he still thought Valjean was pure evil.

The scene cuts to the hospital, where Fantine lies dying, and this is where Valjean promises to get her daughter, Cosette, and raise her as his own daughter. This is where we again see Valjean extend Christ-like grace. He had no prior acquaintence with Fantine or Cosette, but he sees what is right, and does not hesitate to do it, regardless of Fantine's status as a prostitute. But before he can leave, Javert confronts him. Valjean begs Javert to allow him three days to find Cosette and take her to a safe place, but of course, Javert refuses. His reply to Valjean is telling:
              "You must think me mad-
                I've hunted you across the years.
               Men like you can never change;
               A man such as you.
               Men like you can never change,
               Men like me can never change,
               No, 24601.
               My duty's to the law, you have no rights,
               Come with me, 24601,
               Now the wheel has turned around,
               Jean Val Jean is nothing now.
               Dare you talk to me of crime,
               And the price you had to pay.
               Every man is born in sin,
               Every man must choose his way.
               You know nothing of Javert,
               I was born inside a jail;
               I was born with scum like you,
               I am from the gutter too!
               There is no place for you to hide,
               Wherever you may hide away,
               I swear to you, I will be there too!"
Javert's words are filled with loathing- both for Valjean and for himself, for being born inside a jail. Of course, he's not entirely wrong, in that every man is born in sin, and every man must choose his way. However, he misses what true grace is, and that men indeed can change, and in fact, Valjean had changed. He even begins to call Valjean by his prison number, rather than his name- further proof of his utter lack of regard for Valjean as a person. He also had some warped idea of righteousness (as we'll see again later), as he said men like himself couldn't change. It's as though, in Javert's head, once each person has chosen his or her path, they're locked in and can't change their minds. This of course then puts Javert in a position where he thinks he can't fall from righteousness. Less obvious here is also the idea that a person can earn righteousness, whereas Valjean clearly realizes this is pure gift. Because Javert feels he must earn his righteousness, he is relentless in bringing those he sees as criminals to "justice." How else could he earn favor with God, and erase the shame of his birth? Valjean manages to get away, and find Cosette, with whom he flees as Javert is again pursuing him. Valjean again manages to escape.

Because Javert was so bent on seeing justice served, he was disturbed by Valjean's successful escape. He then sang what is known as Javert's big song in the musical, "Stars." It is an absolutely gorgeous piece- majestic and determined. I still remember the very first time I heard it. I was struck by the words even then, but they did not hold the meaning they eventually grew to hold for me, as I traveled on in my own journey to understand grace, and break free of my nearly decade-long detour through the land of legalism. Today, they hit me again, this time in full force (I'm going to edit out some things here):
                              "There, out in the darkness,
                                A fugitive running,
                                Fallen from God,
                                Fallen from grace.
                                God be my witness,
                                I never shall yield,
                                Till we come face to face.
                                He knows his way in the dark,
                                Mine is the way of the Lord,
                                And those who follow the path of the righteous
                                Shall have their reward.
                               And if they fall as Lucifer fell,
                               The flame, the sword!"
Here, he has completely missed the true meaning of grace. He mentions it, for sure, but he clearly has zero understanding of what grace actually is. Not only that, he somehow has come to the conclusion that it is his job do dole out justice to those who fall. He has clearly stated that it is his path that is righteous. That it is he who is following God, not Valjean. He continues:
                               "And so it has been, and so it is written,
                                On the doorway to paradise,
                                That those who falter, and those who fall,
                                Must pay the price!
                                Lord let me find him, that I may see him,
                                Safe behind bars- I will never rest till then!
                                This I swear- this I swear by the stars!"
It amazes me here that Javert seems to see righteousness as something one chooses at the very beginning of one's life, and after making such a decision, one can never stray from the path, and once one does, one is damned forever. He has completely missed the entire point of the Gospels. It's as though Jesus's death was almost irrelevant. The odd thing is that he recognizes men are born sinful which, taking the logic a bit further, indicates that Jesus's death was necessary, but it only allowed for one chance, and that chance could be blown. True grace is nowhere to be found in this. I realize this was a creation of Victor Hugo's imagination, but nonetheless, I have known people whose thought processes are not so far off from Javert's. This lack of understanding on Javert's part ends up bringing him to the breaking point later on.

After Valjean's escape, he spent the next nine years raising Cosette as his daughter. By this time, trouble is brewing in France. Again. (Remember how I said earlier I'm amazed France somehow managed to avoid self-destructing in the 18th and 19th centuries? Yeah, this is just one small example of why.) The Paris Rebellion of 1832 is the backdrop for several of the last scenes of this story. I shall briefly put on my historian's hat to give some background for anyone who may be unfamiliar with this particular rebellion. It was an unsuccessful, two day, anti-monarchist rebellion, mostly by university students (as shown in Les Mis) and working class people who were unhappy with the current monarchy, which had been established two years before. The occasion for this rebellion was the death of General Jean Maximilian Lamarque, who was much revered by many Parisians for his open criticism of the current monarchy. Large numbers of Parisians crowded the streets as Lamarque's body made its final round of the city's streets. (This is the hearse that is shown in the movie.) It is from this crowd that the rebels emerge, but I'll stop my historical rabbit trail here.

The night before this rebellion breaks out, Cosette and Marius (the dashing young revolutionary/university student she eventually marries) see each other across a crowded room- er, city square- and fall instantly and hopelessly in love. (Cue string quartet.) Or so the story goes. Call me a bitter skeptic, but I don't believe in love at first sight.(Cancel string quartet.) But again I digress. While Cosette and Valjean are in the square, Javert discovers them. Valjean finds out about this later that night, and takes Cosette and is ready to flee to England. Cosette is distrauhgt that they are leaving France, because she and Marius had spoken that same evening through the garden gate, and pledged their deep and enduring love forever and always. She leaves a message for Marius at the gate, and through a series of events which are completely irrelevant to my purposes here, he gets the message, and sends one back to her, from behind the barricades.

This is where my story picks up. Valjean gets the message, and reads it. When he discovers how much Marius means to Cosette, he goes to the barricades himself (following the messenger), to find him. When he gets to the barricade, he does not tell Marius who he is, but offers his services. He helps fend off some rooftop enemies, and then discovers Javert, tied up in a room next to the barricade. (Javert had posed as a revolutionary, been discovered as a double agent, then restrained while shouting all traitors must die.) Valjean asks for permission to deal with Javert, and it is granted. He takes Javert out back, where he proceeds to let Javert go. Javert warns Valjean that if he is released, he will not give up his pursuit of seeing Valjean punished as he should be. Even though  he knows he is releasing his worst enemy, Valjean extends grace to Javert, releasing him. Valjean did not take Javert's life, though he was given a great opportunity to do so. I'm reading into this a little, but I would conjecture that Valjean not only knew Javert's life was not his to take, but also intentionally took advantage of an opportunity to turn the other cheek, and show love and grace to a man who hated him, and wanted to see him back in prison.

Javert leaves, and Valjean returns to the barricade. Marius is shot, and Valjean picks him up, takes him away from the shooting, and discovers his only way out is through the sewers. Marius is severely wounded, and a complete deadweight, and yet Marius travels a significant distance through sometimes chin-deep refuse, even fighting off robbers who were hiding in the sewer, determined to get Marius to safety for Cosette, which he does. Cosette and Valjean nurse Marius back to health. Shortly before Marius and Cosette are to be married (the exact timeline is vague in the movie, and I don't remember from the book), Valjean sits Marius down and tells him the truth of who he really is. He tells Marius he's going away so that if he is ever caught, Cosette's honor will not be tarnished. Valjean leaves without telling Cosette goodbye. While at their wedding reception, through an encounter with one of the men who tried to rob them in the sewer (long story), Marius finds out it was Valjean who had risked his life to save him. Marius grabs Cosette's hand, and they go together to the same abbey which had provided a refuge for her and Valjean years before. They find Valjean dying there. Cosette and Marius express their gratitude to and love for Valjean, and are with him when he dies.

They were all unaware of what had already happened with Javert. I don't remember the exact chronology, but between Valjean saving Marius's life, and Marius's recovery, Javert has one final scene. I don't think these lyrics will ever stop amazing me:
                  "Who is this man? What sort of devil is he,
                    To have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free?
                    It was his hour at last to put a seal on my fate;
                    Wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate!
                    All it would take was a flick of his knife.
                    Vengeance was his, he gave me back my life!"
This is astonishing to me. Valjean said something similar when the priest introduced him to grace, and he accepted it. Javert was extended the same kind of grace by Valjean, and yet he could not accept it. Not only could he not accept it, he couldn't understand it at all. He referred to Valjean as a "devil," indicating that he thought this grace was something twisted; not from God. Javert could not conceive of what true grace was, even though he had referred to it earlier. True grace had stared him straight in the eye, and he could not recognize it. He goes on:
                    "Damned if I'll live in the debt of a thief!
                      Damned if I'll yield at the end of the chase.
                      I am the Law, and the Law is not mocked,
                      I'll spit his pity back in his face.
                      There is nothing on earth that we share,
                      It is either Valjean or Javert!
                      How can I now allow this man to hold dominion over me?
                      This desperate man whom I have hunted,
                      He gave me my life. He gave me freedom.
                      I should have perished by his hand, it was his right.
                      It was my right to die as well, instead I live...and live in Hell."
I find it fascinating here that Javert is unable to see grace as anything but pity. And he is so convinced that Valjean and Javert are so diametrically opposed, one is good, the other is evil, and one or the other has to "win." They can't both be free. It's the old legalistic idea that someone has to pay, and that if A is good, then B is bad, and there's no other way to see it. This concept is so ingrained in Javert's mind, that to live in this world of grace, which he cannot recognize as such, is actually Hell to him. Again, he continues (and I'm posting this whole thing because it is all so significant):
                           "And my thoughts fly apart,
                            Can this man be believed?
                            Shall his sins be forgiven?
                            Shall his crimes be reprieved?
                            And must I now begin to doubt,
                            Who never doubted all these years?

                            My heart is stone and still it trembles,
                            The world I have known is lost in shadow.
                            Is he from Heaven, or from Hell?
                            And does he know that granting me my life today
                            This man has killed me even so?"
At this point, he realizes maybe he's been wrong. Maybe grace does exist. Maybe sins can be forgiven. He concludes:
                            "I am reaching, but I fall,
                             And the stars are black and cold
                             As I stare into the void
                             Of a world that cannot hold...
                             I'll escape now from the world,
                             From the world of Jean Valjean.
                            There is nowhere I can turn,
                            There is no way to go on."
Javert has lived his entire life thinking grace and justice were mutually exclusive. That grace meant the triumph of evil. That justice was the most important thing in life, and God can only be pleased if justice is served. He had used the word "grace" earlier, but his version was so far removed from true grace, he couldn't even recognize the real thing when he saw it. The idea that true grace could be greater than justice was a concept he simply could not handle. He was so entrenched in his legalism and the belief that he was absolutely right and absolutely on God's side, he literally could not handle this sudden paradigm shift, and he hurled his body off the bridge he had been standing on, into the rushing river.

As I hinted earlier, though I realize this is something Hugo made up, I know many people who live much like Javert: thinking they understand God and grace, but tied to the law, and essentially clueless. I used to be one of them. Thinking I had it right. That the more closely I followed the law, the more I loved God. That God wanted me to make sure others followed His law too, by "encouraging" and "exhorting." That I could only please God if I didn't ever screw up. That God's blessings in my life were directly proportional to the degree to which I followed His law. I used to be much like Javert. I thought that if others weren't following the law, they weren't pleasing God.

In reality, Valjean was the one who got it right. Both Valjean and Javert came face-to-face with true grace, multiple times. Both were given the chance to accept it, and thereby be set free from their slavery to the law (which makes me think over and over of Romans 6, which is ALL about slavery to sin and the law, and grace), but only Valjean accepted it. Javert clung to legalism until the day he killed himself. The theme of this war between grace and legalism is so vivid and obvious, now that I see it. I almost have to wonder if Hugo was intentionally trying to point out the difference between the two choices. Regardless, my mind has been blown  by the very accurate portrayal of the freedom that comes with grace, and the bondage that comes with legalism. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Excuses, Excuses

While I realize I actually should be working on my never-ending marathon of homework, grading, and Ph.D. applications, I have learned to recognize when I've been beaten and need to go do something else so I can later concentrate on my work better. This is one of those times.

It amazes me how many people go through life with no ambition. Or those who have ambitions, but a list of reasons (or sometimes, even just one) why they can't accomplish it, so they move through life somewhat sadly, saying, "Well, I really wanted to do _____ but I can't because _____ so I'll just do ______ because it pays the bills,"  or some variation of that. I hear a lot of excuses that are somewhat akin to "I wanted to be a painter, but I can't because I have asthma."

I sincerely feel sorry for these people. I have come to believe such statements are actually code for, "I'm terrified of putting myself out there, and because I don't want to fail, I won't even try." All I can say is, what an incredible waste.

It amazes me that an otherwise physically perfect young man can have a toe amputated due to frostbite, and then say, "Well, I guess I can't train to be in the military now, so I'll just get a job that'll pay the bills." Or a really smart young woman can say, "Well, I really wanted to major in piano performance, but I crushed one of my fingers in an accident, and now I can't play, so I guess I'll go back to retail.

Some of you know I spent a number of years in an IFB (independent fundamentalist Baptist) church and a larger fundamentalist organization, where legalism and patriarchy ruled supreme. As such, I know a lot of people who came out of that background as well, or are still there. One of my friends told me a number of months ago about someone she knows who is a mid-twenties stay-at-home-daughter, and the only of her siblings still at home. This is a trend among some of the more strict followers of fundamentalist patriarchy. This girl spends her days reading at the beach, making herself new outfits, going out to visit friends, and generally doing anything that strikes her as 'fun.' I remember hearing that story and being absolutely taken aback by her attitude. The idea that God made her a woman, and therefore her purpose in life is to live at home until she gets married and becomes a quiverfull homeschool mom, is one thing. But to then take it so far as to justify a life of  spending days doing as she pleases, so long as her father approves is quite another.

I was once a stay-at-home daughter myself, with no younger siblings. I hated it, but I was 22 before I found a way out. Even so, I found ways to be productive. I did chores around the house, taught a few piano students a week (in the home, of course), was involved in church (and other) ministry, spent 4 hours a day practicing the piano, etc. I know many other SAH daughters who took online college courses and got degrees, spent one or two days a week helping out an overwhelmed homeschooling mom, or built home businesses. Anything to remain busy and productive. I can't imagine doing whatever I please all day simply because I can. I would despise myself.

I look at all of these people, and then I look at myself. I'm doing things I shouldn't be able to do. Most people who know me, know my health history and personal history, freely say they really couldn't blame me if I didn't function as I do. They couldn't blame me if I still lived at home, or just kind of subsisted, in "survival" mode. I've lost track of how many doctors have looked at my level of illness, pain, etc., and said, "How do you even get out of bed in the morning?" Or how many friends have said, "How are you even still functioning as an emotionally healthy person?" I'll also never forget the woman who did my LD (learning disability) testing and said, "I've been doing this testing for almost 30 years, and you are only the second person I have ever met with your level of disability who has made it past the age of 10 without a diagnosis." I was 21, and her point was that most people with my level of disability can't function the way I do. She also said very few make it through a B.A.

And yet even with all of the issues I have to deal with, I still have ambitions, and better yet, I'm still working towards them. I got my B.A. In May, I'll graduate with my M.A. In August (assuming all goes well), I'll start my Ph.D. Has any of this been easy? Have I gotten through all of this with even the normal level of difficulty? No. I wake up every morning in pain, and I go to bed every night in pain. The people around me have just learned to ignore when I show up on crutches, or in various braces. I still do my work. I taught one day this semester with a dislocated rib. I often just work through my pain, sometimes close to excruciating. Do I want to? No! I can't tell you how many days I get up and want to cry just thinking about everything I have to do, and doing it through all of my pain and mental fog. And you know what? I'm managing to do these things at a better-than-average level.

"But Kathleen, you're obviously just more intelligent than most." No, really, I'm not. My IQ is fairly average.
"But obviously, you've always wanted to be a history professor, and there's nothing else you'd rather do." Again, not really. Don't get me wrong. I love history, and I know I'm good at it. I absolutely love discovering new things and finding out all history has to offer, and helping other people understand the relevance of history to the present day. But music was my first love. If I hadn't hurt my hand in an accident, and it hadn't been permanently damaged, I would be working on a doctorate in music. My second choice was medical school. But I can't do the math required for it. History was my third choice. It is true that there is nothing else I can be doing that I would rather do. But it is not true that there is nothing else I'd rather be doing. I did not let one crushed dream snuff out my ambition. I found a new dream, and I absolutely love working towards it. I look forward to spending the next several decades in the field of history.

I have been given a brain, and opportunities to use it to its fullest capacity abound. I can't imagine letting my health, or my unfortunate personal history, or my learning disabilities, or my injuries keep me from finding something I love, can do, and am good at. I have friends who were full of life and ideas and ambition, and died before they could fulfill their dreams. My friend Greg, pursued the woman he loved in spite of having cancer. He and Melody didn't get to get married, but he didn't let his cancer get in the way of finding love. My friend Aaron has a similar story to mine when it comes to health, but he still worked his way through an M.A. while working full-time. He couldn't find a teaching job, but he never stopped trying to apply, and figure out his options. Even after he got cancer. He applied for a new teaching job just a couple of months before he died.

I could go on, but I'm not going to. I'll simply close with this: Don't let one hiccup, or dashed dream, or set of convictions keep you from being a productive human being, and making significant contributions to those around you. Find a way to work through all of that.

Find a passion and pursue it, and in the process, find a way to help your fellow man. Otherwise, really, what's the point?

Friday, July 13, 2012


On the Facebook profile of one of my dear friends is a quote by an unknown wise person. It says, "Wish not to live long as to live well." The "quotes" section of her page is filled with similarly profound sayings. The irony of  this? She died in 2008, at the age of 20, after a very brief battle with an unusually cruel strain of Pneumonia. Her words were prophetic, and she followed the advice she had posted on her own page, having no reason to believe she wouldn't live to a ripe old age.

One of the greatest ironies of life is that death is an unavoidable part of it. We think that because someone is young, they have decades left to live, love, and experience the joys of being alive. But that's not always true. And sometimes, it's those we think are the least deserving of an early death- the ones who could do the most good in the world- who die young. 

I remember the first time I met Aaron. It was the second week of my first semester at SEMO, and we were both in Dr. Cameron's Readings in European History. For weeks, I thought of him as the quiet, baby-faced guy who had missed the first week of class because he'd gotten his days mixed up. I also noticed something about him right away: he had one of the most radiant smiles I'd ever seen. And those dimples? I remember thinking they must go all the way to China. 

The weekend before Easter, 2011, Aaron spent in the hospital because of what looked to be an infection in his groin. I still didn't know him well, but by that time I had seen him a number of times at Wal-Mart, sometimes running into him performing awkward tasks like restocking tampons and pads. We were Facebook friends by that time, so we spent a little time on FB chat while he was in the hospital. 

About a week after Easter, I started hanging out with Amber and Aaron. Amber was also in our class, and was Aaron's best friend. We'd make late-night runs to the Huddle House after class, or meet for dinner and then watch a movie. I grew to love both Amber and Aaron very quickly. Aaron loved to tease me (of course, he loved to tease everyone- the more he teased, the more he liked the person!), and we soon wound up in frequent verbal sparring matches, which usually left both of us laughing. Not soon after we started hanging out, Aaron had earned a special nickname from me: Jackass. He would absolutely beam with pride every  time I said that, and usually follow it with a cheeky, "Thank you!" 

Amber and Cayla and I would do our best to make Aaron blush (not terribly hard to do with a good Pentecostal boy!), and he'd do his best to get me as riled up as possible. Before long, I was deeply impressed by his kind heart, and genuine care for other people. We had fun comparing Gospel pianists, and Christian (as well as non-Christian) comedians, and sometimes would shake our heads together at the bad theology we would occasionally encounter in other people's conversations or preaching. 

By the time he was told that "infection" on his groin was actually cancer, we had only been hanging out for about a month, but I had already grown so close to Amber and Aaron that I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I still remember where I was sitting in Amber's apartment when Aaron sent her the text that he indeed had cancer. The next several months were filled with research about Ewing Sarcoma, encouraging Aaron through his first rounds of chemo, shaving his head, etc. 

My friendship with Aaron continued to grow over the next year. He'd come stop by my office in the history department, and I loved seeing him appear at the door and hearing his, "What's uuup?" I looked forward to seeing him at Wal-Mart, where he would always spot me, chuckle, shake his head, and then say, "What are you DOING here?" Then he'd tease me about needing more ibuprofen, Icy Hot, or even groceries. Sometimes his co-workers would be around for an insult, and then tell me I was free to hit him as hard as I wanted. He had it coming. 

The last week of classes this past Spring semester, Aaron, Amber, and I, along with some others met for dinner at McAlister's, as we often did. I remember walking out the door and saying to Aaron, "If I don't see you before then, I'll see you in August." He smiled and said, "Okay, have a good summer!" And we both went our separate ways. Not two weeks later, Aaron totaled his car in an accident caused by brain tumors from the cancer. 

It wasn't long before I realized it was the beginning of the end for him. I was in Cincinnati for the summer, and made the 7 hour drive back to Cape to say my goodbyes to him. It was heartbreaking, but I'll never regret going. And I'll never forget his goodbye to me. As I left his house, he reached for my hand from the recliner where he'd been sleeping on and off, squeezed it, looked me straight in the eye, and said, "It was really good to see you. Thanks for coming." It was the first time he'd said anything nice to me without a hint of sarcasm. And I knew he meant it, and I knew my friendship mattered to him. 

I went back to Cincinnati, and kept up with everything via Facebook. It broke my heart to watch him slipping away. When my friends told me they were sorry I was losing a friend like Aaron, I found myself saying, "Thanks. Death is a part of life." And so it is. For all of us. We're all dying. Some just faster than others. 

Finally, when his mother posted that he had taken his final breath the evening of Tuesday, July 10th, I cried. My whole body shook, feeling that a part of me had been torn open. We'd only been friends for a little over a year, but, as with my friendship with Amber, our relationship grew in a way that in a matter of weeks, it seemed like we'd always been friends. 

I also mourned the fact that he missed turning 29 by 3 days, and the fact that my own 29th birthday was a mere 3 weeks away. How could I celebrate turning 29 when Aaron so narrowly missed it himself, and only weeks before? Of course, I realize that I can honor Aaron by embracing each birthday I celebrate that he didn't get to. He'd tell me to make the most of the time I've been given, because life is a gift, and it can end at any time.

So, dear Aaron, two years ago, I had no idea who you were. But in the short time we knew each other, you made a bigger impact on my life than you will ever know. You have left me with so many memories: 
Huddle House. 
The times you'd turn as red as that red polo you sometimes wore, because we managed to embarrass you. 
That time you and Amber came for dinner, and you sat down and played "Amazing Grace" on my piano. 
The way you smiled when I called you a jackass. 
That time you looked me in the eye and said, "You're no moderate. You're a conservative in denial." 
The night the three of us were in the library and we found out about Osama bin Laden's death- I'll never forget the look on your face. 
Our three-hour round trip to Amber's wedding, and how when you dropped me off at home, you said, "This was fun, I'm glad we did it." Then when you saw the smirk on my face, you added, "And if you tell ANYONE I said that, I will KILL you."
Singing in the car on the way to and from the wedding.
Billy Joel's "She's Got a Way About Her."
"Unchained Melody."
Lex Luthor.
Blazing Saddles.
The Supremes.
Polos and khakis.
Your views on square toed shoes.
The night you came to Dr. Nickell's class, sat between Amber and me, and alternately wrote us notes on your yellow note pad.
That awful night at Denny's the night before you had your biopsy, which turned your world upside down.

You will always hold a special place in my heart. I will never forget you, the heart you had for high school kids, your sister, and God. Your smile will forever be etched in my mind. I will always remember the grace  with which you faced your illness, and eventual death at such a young age. I will forever be grateful for the time God allowed me to spend with you. You have embodied the quote with which I opened this eulogy: Wish not to live long as to live well. 

Aaron, I have had the lyrics to a song running through my head for the last week. I can't help but think about you, because they apply to you so well:
When my life on earth is o'er
And I stand on Heaven's shore,
And I'm called into the presence of the Savior I adore,
When at first I see His holiness I'll fall upon my face,
But when my Savior calls my name, I'll rise to hear Him say,

"Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Great has been your service, now great is your reward.
Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Come into the joy of your Lord.
No more death, no more pain, no more tears can remain,
Faithful servant, my dear child, welcome home."

Let us serve Him faithfully until like Him we shall be.
Let us run the race with patience 'til His glory we shall see.
For the memories of this present life will quickly fade away,
And we'll forget all of life's suffering when we hear Jesus say:

"Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Great has been your service, now great is your reward.
Welcome home, my child, welcome home.
Come into the joy of your Lord.
No more death, no more pain, no more tears can remain,
Faithful servant, my dear child, welcome home."
(Copyright John D. Cornish, 2000. Used by permission)

This is how I picture your entrance to Heaven. You have fought the good fight, you have kept the faith, you have finished the race. Well done, friend. Well done.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Don't Judge Me!

While it's incredibly late (early?) and I should be sleeping, I just came across and commented on a quote on Facebook, and decided to make it a blog post. I think it's very important and relevant to us, especially those of us who are Christians, today.

So. What was this quote? Here it is, in response to the statement, "Don't judge me!": First, let's get something straight...whatever opinion I may have about the morality of any action you do or thought you have is more or less irrelevant until I've earned the right for you to care. So stop telling me not to judge you, because what it tells me is that you have already judged yourself, didn't like what you found, and are now wanting everyone else to join you in your game of denial and rationalization. If you want to play games like that, fine, but don't demand I join you.

I looked at that, and had an immediate and very strong reaction. The first sentence, while I don't agree with it (well, in theory, it's great, but in practice, not so much), it wasn't so bad. It was that second part I reacted to so strongly. I don't know who wrote this, but I have to wonder if: A. the creator grew up in a bubble in which they were never unjustly judged for something that was either genuinely the right decision, or not at all their fault; or, B. I've lived in some unusual dystopia in which I and those I know have been repeatedly judged unfairly.

"So, Kathleen, what's your response?" Oh, I'm so glad you asked!

As human beings, we're hard-wired to care what other people think, whether for the better, or for the worse. There are many things people choose to do which they KNOW are right, but for which they are harshly judged anyway. Some examples with which I am familiar:
1.A young couple gives up a very financially rewarding career to scrimp by in a very UNfinancially rewarding life in ministry, and people keep telling them they're foolish and will regret it.
2.Another couple chooses not to abort a child they know will be born with spina bifida or Down Syndrome, and people tell them they're being cruel.
3.A man is the only person in his group of male co-workers who doesn't have lunch every Wednesday at the local strip club, and people keep telling him he needs to stop being afraid of his wife.
4.A couple takes their kids out of the public school system to homeschool their kids, even though they can't begin to afford it, because they're convinced it's what is best for THEIR kids, and people tell them they're being unwise and putting their children's financial security in jeopardy.
5.A 16 year old girl is raped, through no fault of her own, and becomes pregnant, yet refuses to abort the baby, and people condemn her for being a teen mother, or even for not aborting a child of rape.
6.And one very familiar to me, a teenager or young adult, looking to be the absolute picture of health, but in reality is very often in severe pain, always exhausted and feeling very sick, is judged for going home yet again with another unexplained headache, stomach upset, or backache, or has to take the elevator up a single flight of stairs because her knees can't handle steps, or yet again shows up with a splint on her wrist because somehow, while she was sleeping, she managed to sprain her wrist. Again. And people very harshly tell her she's a hyperchondriac, or has Munchausen's, or is just a wimp, or attention-seeker, or she should just "power through the pain."

All of these things are either the right thing to do, or unfortunate and unavoidable, and yet things for which people are judged very harshly, by many people whom they may or may not know. The first few times, it is often easy to dismiss, or even be amused, when some stranger judges harshly for something that is either clearly right to the person doing it, or unavoidable (such as health). At some point, whether or not they know the people doing the judging, it simply gets too much to deal with, and it's all a person can do to not scream, "DON'T JUDGE ME!" when something happens.

Some people would argue that you earned the right to care about something- and to express that "care"- the moment you became human. As human beings, whether for the better or for the worse, the vast majority of us, as I said earlier, are hard-wired to care what their fellow humans think, whether they know each other or not. It's part of being human. To expect someone to be able to simply switch that off is to expect them to be able to easily disconnect that part of their humanity.

I know that this quote is aimed towards those who say not to judge certain behaviors the Bible clearly condemns as being wrong. However, the argument is deeply flawed. It only works if it applies across the board. As I have experienced and witnessed, it does not. I could give a dozen other examples of times when people are clearly not in the wrong, but often very harshly judged by strangers. Somewhere around the 15th time (at least, it seemed like it) I was harshly reprimanded for taking the last seat while waiting for a table at a restaurant, and letting my 71 year old father stand for 20+ minutes, I just decided it would be easier to wait in the car. Because whether I know the person or not, yes, it is hard to deal with the ugliness that comes from other people's meddlesome judgment. Even though *I* know the truth, that's somehow not helpful when being assaulted in the same way over and over.

All that to say, sin or not, the person screaming "don't judge" may be (rightly or not, it really doesn't matter for this argument) convinced that what they are doing is not wrong, and is merely being a normal, emotionally healthy human being who is reacting to constant judgment. And most importantly- The Bible tells us not to judge. By saying what the above quote says, we are violating that very command by judging the other person's reaction to the prevalent judgment of others. When someone says "don't judge," we as Christians should set ourselves apart from others by smiling and saying, "I don't judge you. I am here to bring grace, truth, and love, with no judgment." If more of us did that, maybe more people would be receptive to what we have to say. We are to speak the truth in LOVE, and bring GRACE along with truth. Otherwise, the truth gets lost and does absolutely no good.

I daresay most- if not all- of us have been judged for something over which we had no control, or we absolutely knew to be right. Except for those few people who are gifted to genuinely not care what other people think, it never feels good to be judged. No one ever knows the whole story, and never will everyone agree that what we are doing is right, or what we are suffering is real. Maybe we know what we're doing is wrong, and are working to overcome it. Maybe we know our behavior is destructive, but has been brought on by deep wounding that we don't know how to deal with. Maybe we know that doesn't make it right. But one person's sin or poor decision does not give any of us the right to judge.

"But Kathleen, the quote wasn't about ME judging THEM, it was about THEM not WANTING me to judge them, and what it says about them and their obviously guilty consciences!" Oh, I beg to differ. Again, that quote is inherently judgmental. It makes a judgment about the conclusions of the person demanding not to be judged. There's really no way to get around that.

So why am I posting this at 5:30 in the morning? Well, we had a bad storm, and our power was out, so I went to sleep in the basement, because it was so freaking hot in my room. When the power came back on, so did the lights, and the printers (which made a horrid sound while rebooting), which then woke me up. I went upstairs to my bed, but it was too hot to sleep, so I checked Facebook while waiting for my window AC unit to cool off my room. That's when I came across this quote. I thought it was important to address, and knew if I put it off till a reasonable hour, it'd never get done. But why am I explaining this all to you? After all, you're not going to judge me, right? ;-)

Sunday, April 15, 2012

In Reflection: The Hunger Games

It has only been since Spring Break that I have read The Hunger Games Trilogy, and through it been introduced to an entirely new world. A world that makes me infinitely grateful for the one in which I live. This trilogy, and its first movie, have been the center of a controversy within the Evangelical community. While there has been far less argument about The Hunger Games Trilogy than the Twilight or Harry Potter series, there has nonetheless been a bit of discussion and debate over the merits of these stories. Since reading the books, I have certainly had a strong opinion on the virtues of this series, but after seeing the movie tonight, I feel I have to give my opinion.

While most of those I have heard object to The Hunger Games tend to be on the very conservative to even fundamentalist end of the Evangelical spectrum, because I have spent significant time in the fundamentalist world myself, I want to address some of the objections. One of the less significant accusations referred to Katniss as a "potty-mouthed" heroine, and I watched the movie expecting Jennifer Lawrence to be spewing profanities left and right. After watching the whole thing, I can only conclude this accusation was an attempt to find something else wrong with the movie, since the basis for censure was already so precarious. I counted three times in the entire movie that Katniss used anything approaching foul language, and both of the words she used would be considered by much of society today to not even be "foul" any longer. A person only has to spend a day out and about to hear much worse language used far more frequently.

There was also an accusation referring to Cinna as a homosexual. First of all, homosexuals exist, live and work among us. Regardless of your personal convictions about the validity of such a lifestyle, I don't really see how it would matter if Cinna had been portrayed as a homosexual. Which he wasn't. Cinna, Katniss's stylist for the Hunger Games (the event, not the book), is one of the trilogy's heroes. A shining example of conviction and moral courage. He worked from within the establishment to do what he knew was right. Played by Lenny Kravitz (who did a stellar job, by the way), Cinna was in no way portrayed as a homosexual. There was absolutely nothing more to suggest this than the fact that he was a stylist. Oh, and he had a few earrings and wore gold eyeliner. What I want to know is if this reviewer took any time to look at the other men shown walking around the Capitol. Some of them had flowers in their hair, much heavier makeup, walked in sparkly platform shoes, and wore lace and ruffles, all the while escorting a lady around on their arm. Using this as a means by which to disparage the movie is nothing more than grasping at straws. And quite desperately, I might add.

There was also the accusation that the story lacked any real redemption. To that I say, no kidding, genius. It's part of a TRILOGY! If the redemption came at the end of the first book, it'd be a lone novel! Follow it through to the end, and yes, you will see redemption. In addition was a criticism of the "gratuitous violence." Well, in order for violence to be "gratuitous," there has to be more violence than required to make whatever point the movie/book is trying to make. I was actually surprised at how little violence they managed to show in a movie that's about a futuristic gladiatorial kind of battle. It was also not glorified, another element in "gratuitous" violence.

The main criticism of this reviewer I really think is a moot point: the movie does not show the Christian remnant promised by the Bible. He also displays his rather abysmal grasp of history when he says that even amidst the Nazi and Communist mass killings, there was "at least one" nation that held Judeo-Christian morals still. If he's referring to America, he has to also include several other Western countries, and honestly, given what many Americans were doing to African-Americans in the name of Christianity during those same decades, and the government did nothing to stop, I would even question the sincerity of that. But I digress. Surely the author of this review does not expect blockbuster movies to reflect Biblical promises of a remnant. Not only that, but he did say one nation remained during the 1930s and 40s. He didn't even mention the individual Christians within Germany and Soviet Russia. As The Hunger Games takes place in ONE country, Panem, his argument doesn't even work. This review can be read here.

Here is my only criticism of the entire series: I do believe the series is wholly inappropriate for its target audience. I might allow a mature 14 or 15 year old to read the trilogy, but in general, I think the subject matter is too mature for anyone under 16. For older teens and adults, however, I think the story is very important. I didn't even fully grasp how important until I saw it up there on the screen. People living in abject poverty, not allowed to have some of what we would consider to be even the most minute of freedoms, whose sole responsibilities in life center around providing a life of ease and nauseating (downright immoral, even) excess in the Capitol. The message from the Capitol to the Districts is quite clear: You exist to serve us. That is all. Our children are raised in comfort and sheltered from harm. Twenty-three of your children will die every year as a reminder to you of who is in charge. Not only will they die, but they will be forced to kill each other while we sit at home and watch, cheering, on television, as your kids figure out new ways to kill each other. To see the Capitol crowd cheering as the tributes were interviewed and presented to them, all dressed in the finest possible attire, and treated as though they were about to compete in a beauty pageant, when in reality, 23 of them were expected to be dead in a matter of days was absolutely revolting. To see their ridiculous excesses, while seeing the way those in District 12 struggled just to survive was sickening. And it's not even the same kind of thing where today, we have people in America living lives of excess, while children starve to death in Sub-Saharan Africa. No, the people of District 12 struggle BECAUSE of the excesses of those in the Capitol. And most of those in the Capitol have been raised to believe this is all a part of the natural order of things.

I won't give away any spoilers, but I think Suzanne Collins deserves a lot of credit for her stories. This kind of thing COULD happen. It's not at all unlike a mega-scale re-creation of American slavery, only worse. It's not going to happen in my lifetime, but in two hundred years? Sure. Entirely plausible. We must always keep in mind that we are put here on this earth to serve OTHER people. Not ourselves. There is no "elite," inherently better and more worthy than the rest. We are ALL human beings, and life is sacred. In a sense, this kind of thing HAS happened. The country wasn't called "Panem," it was the Roman Empire (interestingly enough, the name "Panem" comes from a motto from Ancient Rome- no doubt Collins was consciously making this connection). This is simply a futuristic, high-tech version of Rome.

I could go so many other places with this, but it's late, and I have far too much else to do. I do want to say this: to those of you who criticize The Hunger Games but haven't read them, READ THEM. I understand your objections to Twilight and Harry Potter. This trilogy is far less cut-and-dried than those. It does not deal with the undead. It does not deal with witchcraft. It deals with a world that very much could come to pass.Its message is vital to remember and to understand. If, by the time you get all the way through, you still have objections, fine. You are certainly entitled to your opinion. But if you haven't read the books, please stop criticizing until you do. These books cannot be criticized on premise alone, like the others I mentioned can (note-I'm not saying I have a problem with the others, just that it's much more valid to make a judgement based on their themes without having read them). Yes, I'll say it again, I do believe the books are inappropriate for their target audience. But that in no way takes away from their value.

To those of you who haven't read or seen The Hunger Games, read. See. They just might change your entire worldview. They changed mine. And I don't believe my worldview was changed in a non-Biblical way. In fact, I believe my new worldview is much more in keeping with a Biblical worldview than my old one.