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

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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