Justifying Ourselves

Today I’ve been listening to the song of Valjean from the musical Les Miserables. I’ve felt incredibly challenged by the lyrics and how easily they challenge self-justification.

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You can listen to it here.

Here are the lyrics:

He thinks that man is me
He knew him at a glance!
That stranger he has found
This man could be my chance!
 
Why should I save his hide?
Why should I right this wrong
When I have come so far
And struggled for so long?
 
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
 
I am the master of hundreds of workers.
They all look to me.
Can I abandon them?
How would they live
If I am not free?
 
If I speak, I am condemned.
If I stay silent, I am damned!
 
Who am I?
Can I condemn this man to slavery
Pretend I do not see his agony
This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
Who am I?
Can I conceal myself forevermore?
Pretend I’m not the man I was before?
And must my name until I die
Be no more than an alibi?
Must I lie?
How can I ever face my fellow men?
How can I ever face myself again?
My soul belongs to God, I know
I made that bargain long ago
He gave me hope when hope was gone
He gave me strength to journey on
 
[He appears in front of the court]
 
Who am I? Who am I?
I am Jean Valjean!
 
[He unbuttons his shirt to reveal the number tattooed to his chest]
 
And so Javert, you see it’s true
That man bears no more guilt than you!
Who am I?
24601!
Valjean is suddenly presented with this wonderful opportunity to be truly free. A life no longer pursued by Javert. How easy it would be for him to think, ‘oh great. God has seen my hard work and he’s freeing me.’
But the one who knows God, who knows redemption and forgiveness must deeply know that our freedom is never at the expense of another.
Paul and Silas knew this in the dark of a prison cell, beaten and put in stocks – that earthquake that loosen their shackles seemed like a freedom gift from heaven.
But their freedom in this instance would have cost the jailer his life.
We want to think we are more important, the rules don’t really apply to us the way they apply to everyone else, our rights are worth defending at all costs. It is so easy to justify ourselves, to think about what we are doing and why it is so good/right/justified.
Slavery, racism, division, oppression…. these things cannot belong to the person who truly knows that every life is of equal value.
It’s easy for Valjean to justify this circumstance – he is a factory owner, the mayor, people rely on him – he has campaigned to be a light in his community. He is making a difference. This other person is probably poor and has no power or title.
Justice comes at a price.
We can live free but it will cost us – it might cost us financially missing out because we’re not prepared to compromise on things that come at the expense of others or dishonest business practice, it might cost us friendships, it might mean we are marginalised with the marginalised…
Yet in this story we also see the bright light of redemption. Because we have an

This innocent who bears my face
Who goes to judgement in my place
The truth is that we are condemned, we are broken, we have damaged others, we have been complicit in silence or in action and we deserve the sentence.
But Jesus.
The innocent who bears our face – whose full humanity allowed him to go to judgement in our place.
And so we are faced with the great irony
But the one who knows God, who knows redemption and forgiveness must deeply know that our freedom is never at the expense of another.
because
our redemption and forgiveness has come at the expense of another
May we all have courage to confront our own desires to justify the behaviours in us that come at the expense of others. Maybe it’s the way we purchase (ouch), the way we make friends with some people and leave others out (ouch) maybe it’s the protective boundaries we put around ourselves, our families, our communities to keep ourselves in and ‘others’ out (ouch).
As I say, these are things that challenge me deeply. As a dear friend puts it, ‘I am a hypocrite in transition.’
Do we have the courage to not allow our freedoms, our comfort to be at the expense of others?
May we know what it is to have been loved so deeply that an innocent went to judgement in our place, and may we see that value in every other.
May we be brave and may we be agents of justice and freedom.
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Truly Known

I arrived at the grounds before the boy. He and his friends were walking together from school and I stood on the far side of the grass breathing in the crisp air of autumn, soaking in its rich hues.

A gravel path lead them to the corner – boys in uniform of similar size and looks. With the sun and the distance I wasn’t sure I’d be confident when he emerged on this common pathway.

And then I saw him… smaller than my little finger in the distance and I knew it was him. Absolutely knew it, the kind of knowing that comes from 10 years of watching in the closest spaces to the furthest distance eyes can reach.

An eye trained from years of watching rather than looking.

The stride, gesture of arm, turn of body, incline of head – so deeply rooted in my knowing that I know them without realising I do.

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In that moment I heard that whisper, so clear it could have been a shout, this is the knowing I mean when I talk about the hairs of your head.

This is the knowing that says, before a word is on your tongue I know it completely.

Not a knowing of facts for shows of intelligence or power. A knowing that comes from watching a person you love so much that you drink them in, all of them. A knowing that goes beyond a general description to a knowledge of a person you carry in your bones, in your ears, eyes, taste, nose, touch.

Knowing that begins to demonstrate a measure of how much you love a person.

Not knowledge to prove your love, like favourite flowers or songs. Knowledge that is simply there because you couldn’t not have it. Because you have noticed, you have loved, you have seen – closer than skin and across the assembly hall into a squinted distance.

Let us be reminded today that we are known.

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Truly known – not as a show of omnipotence or omniscience but knowledge that comes from being so dearly loved that we are instantly and totally recognised – every part known, every part loved, precious up close and far away.

As Paul put it, ‘dearly loved.’

I watched this boy across the field as he grew large, he unaware of my presence, my joyful, heart-swell at the all familiar shape of him. I recognised him, loved him and delighted in the thought of him looking up and seeing me watching him. I held my breath for that moment when our eyes saw each other and he knew I was there.

I would be there before he realised it, and I would continue to watch after he turned to play again.

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I would be knowing him whether he was aware of it or not.

Do you remember dear heart that you are known? Not a flashy impressive I can tell you facts and surprise you knowing, a knowing that comes from Someone who has watched, noticed, seen you… always.

the sounds of Bethlehem

It happened when my first child was small. A bundle of beauty at about 7 months old – all the joy of my life. We sat Christmas morning in a family members church – a beautiful building, built in a time when parishioners were expected to sit quietly and mod-cons weren’t included.

My perfect bundle started to wiggle and make noises, and there wasn’t a modern nursing room to retreat to or even an easy retreat, that didn’t involve clanking sounds on wooden floorboards and pushing past people in the narrow row. I sat in that unfamiliar church on Christmas morning feeling uncomfortable, feeling a perceived disapproval from the mainly older congregation.

Then words from the front diverted from the liturgy and planned delivery.

‘Isn’t it nice to have the sounds of Bethlehem in the church this morning.’

and I can’t even write those words without tears filling my eyes 9 years later.

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To be so wholly welcomed, so valued, so included when we weren’t the expected demographic in that particular place.

The grace of those words.

The echo of those words speak so deeply into my own heart-beat for the church.

There is room for everyone.

I so want to be the balm of those words to other weary travellers… to people squirming in the seat, to people unsure if there is a space for them, to people who just feel like they don’t fit the demographic.

I think about that first Christmas – the smells, the sounds, the outcasts, the angels…. the sounds of Bethlehem aren’t perfect choirs with hours of practise, amazing stain glassed windows and perfectly vaulted ceiling arches. As much as I love those things, the sounds we are called to first are the mucking in despite the lack of harmony, sticking at it in discord, welcoming whatever odd sounds we might find ourselves surrounded by.

The sounds of Bethlehem are broken, wonder-filled, imperfect people gathering around an unexpected manger at a rescue mission delivered in a tiny little bundle.

It seems to me we could all of us be those grace words today.

Those words that say – I’m glad you’re here, you are welcome.

Let’s be grace words to weary souls today. Let’s be wildly abundant with our love. Let’s be kind and gracious and generous in our welcome even if it disrupts our plans.

 

 

 

On Love that Makes You Shrink

We bus a lot as a family. We don’t actually own a car and so the boys are pretty comfortable on public transport. Sometimes we catch a bus that has a single seat at the front with an armrest and a small sliver of space on the other side.

My boys like the front seat. When there is only the one space for a single backside they still hop on together. Because there isn’t room for 2 on the chair the little one half sits/crouches in the gap. He’s so keen to be near the brother that he loves and part of all of his life that he’s prepared to be small and uncomfortable.

His love for his brother makes him prepared to shrink, to lay aside his comfort, to be small in order to be present. And the big brother? He hardly notices the sacrifice this little one is making just to be near him.

I watched the other day, with all the love and joy of a mother seeing her favourites love each other and I was reminded of another.

One who laid aside power. Who made himself small, so small He fit into the skin of a young woman and grew there as a baby. One who fills the whole universe and holds it together – who became small for love.

Jesus, who loved us so much he slipped into the uncomfortable place, sidelined, marginalised, unnoticed. Jesus who took on discomfort, when he was owed all comfort. Jesus who laid aside glory when he was due it all.

The One who became human to take part in our experience. Who became small to be side by side, shoulder to shoulder, to be Present.

Michael Lloyd puts it this way:
The Incarnation does not happen despite God’s transcendent greatness, but because of His inherent humility. It is not a temporary exception to His greatness but a permanent demonstration of it. Humility is not something that God took on at the Incarnation, but part of who He eternally is.

and

If Jesus is God incarnate, then we do not have a remote unknown God – one who keeps us at arm’s length, who directs the campaign from a safe distance, like some First World War general. Rather, we have a God who enters into our world, our lives, our sufferings, our moral ugliness and our consequent mortality. We have a God who is not only committed to His world, but internally committed to it. *

And still – I don’t even notice.

We miss the amazing, scandalous, sacrificial love that is demonstrated in the act of the Word emptying himself and taking on flesh. This – all on its own – mind blowing. The greatest of Love that made himself so small he could be present with me.

Uncomfortable for my company.

This is the God who blows all the warped stories we conceive of who he is. This God whose love is so endless he shrinks himself to be with us.

Jesus, how can it be that you would choose to be empty, and small and uncomfortable to share humanity? How can I comprehend the endless sacrifice of your Great Love? Let that knowledge change and grow me. Let me know your Presence in the smallest and hardest of places. 

Philippians 2v6-7
Christ was truly God, but he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave when he became like one of us.

* Michael Lloyd’s book Cafe Theology is something I am reading at the moment and will review soon. It has proved hugely encouraging and I would say transformational for me. I highly, highly recommend it.



sometimes the old hymns say it best

were the whole realm of nature mine
that were an offering far too small
love so amazing, so divine
demands my soul, my life, my all


today I am looking to Lent as a chance to soak in the brilliance of the hugeness of the Love that sent Jesus up a hill, cross on his back, to claim victory for the whole realm of nature
and even if it were mine to give, the whole realm could never equal that love
love so amazing
love divine
freely given
that.much.love

The Hardest Friends to Have

there are ‘friend requests’

there are regular see often friends

and there are faces I know or have known and I hover above the request button wondering if I should press send

and the ones I see irregularly, you know in supermarket isles and other places

and there have been words left unsaid for so long that it seems hard to go back to the place and say them now, like searching for a scar from childhood chicken pox – it’s there somewhere but will finding it and revisiting it even change anything now?

The friends or lapsed friendships with people who’ve I’ve let down

and isn’t it so much easier just to keep moving and make the new friends who think you are funny, who have seen the ‘show reel’ of your life and are currently impressed, who like your style… the ones whose birthdays you haven’t forgotten, the ones whose phone calls you’ve managed to return, the ones who you haven’t had an all out disagreement with or said that awful thing that hurt them so personally….

those friends who you’ve let down, who’ve seen you at the worst of your worst, and weren’t married or related so didn’t have to stick around, those friends who’ve challenged you about your behaviour, who’ve told you that you hurt them….

those are the hardest friends to have but given grace and humility and forgiveness – on both sides of the fence

those can be the best of friends

the ones whose acceptance is complete but who will not be complicit to allowing you to be less than you can be

those with whom you cannot fake perfection because they have so clearly seen your imperfection

it’s humbling to stay relating to the ones you’ve hurt – harder I think than the ones who have hurt you – because you have no upper hand you are simply an imperfect person who is trying to love them the best you can and are sometimes too selfish to even try that hard.

but oh the sweetness of their encouragement when they can see the good despite the bad, and they can, in abundant grace, share that with you – not because you deserve it but because they are generous

may we all have those hardest friends and may we all find strength to extend radical grace to others remembering perhaps (in my case anyway) that that line is much shorter than the line up of those I’ve let down.

those friendships are the picture of the sweetest grace that says
even though you denied me, 
misunderstood me 100 times, 
fled, 
couldn’t stay awake with me when I was totally downcast, 
even though all of that and more, 
you I will call my friends, 
you I will give my peace, 
and you will be my people called to welcome in others, 
I will align myself with you and call you my own

and who can even begin to understand a friend, The Friend, who loves us like that?

***
And we are invited to this: You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you. Matt 5v48b

BTL – The Ends of The Earth

Apparently New Zealand is geographically as far from Jerusalem as you can get – it is ‘the ends of the earth‘. It is also where I was born and raised. It is my homeland.

This week I’ve been struck by the kind of love that compels someone to leave all that is familiar, safe, and easy and to travel to the ends of the earth for someone they do not know and who may not believe, appreciate or honour them for their sacrifice.

This is the kind of love I want to know and share.

and I’m not there, yet. I want to know that love so fiercely that I am compelled to love others, unknown others even. To live that love so completely that I would give it all so they can have a glimpse of that love. I want a faith that doesn’t feel the need to apologise for itself, one that doesn’t feel embarrassed in case it causes offence.

Because true love is not offensive, true love, humble love, generous love is addictive and speaks to the depths of who we are. True love is the love that lays itself down for another. Love that goes all the way to the end of world.

This week I have been humbled by thinking of the love and commitment those early disciples/missionaries had. That love that lead them to extremes of geography and experience – perhaps they didn’t get it all right, neither do we, but they went with such love it compelled them to courage, mercy and sacrificial generosity.

1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth

This is what I have stitched this week the earth, New Zealand and the tracks of light that made it (not without sacrifice and pain) to demonstrate transforming love – all the way to the ends.of.the.earth.


The complete reading:
Acts 1:1-11
1:1 In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

Many thanks to Rachel Held Evans for this invitation to reflect and journey with the lectionary.


If these encourage you and you want to share them please acknowledge them as my work via a link. Thanks

On The Invitation

Maybe you know what it’s like to be a social event and feel totally cut adrift.

Maybe you wore pantyhose and high heels and everyone else was bare-legged and sandalled. Maybe you couldn’t find your voice when everyone else wouldn’t stop theirs. Maybe you just feel terrified someone will ask you dance and worse than hanging on the edge, you’ll be front and centre and make a fool of yourself.

There you are cut off – in the midst of noise, action, laughter, conversation. Unnoticed and conspicuous both together – in some kind of cruel union of the worst of those things.

…. and he stretches out his hand to you…. looks into your eye with love and approval and maybe a hint of a smile…. and he invites you into the dance.

This dance isn’t one with special steps, where you can’t follow and you get all tangled up. This dance is both wild and graceful, serious and crazy. It’s a dance of everyone and only you. The eternal dance where you are embraced, and sung to and sung over. It’s a dance where you swept into the music like a small child is swept wildly round off the ground in the arms of a parent.

There you are – fully integrated, invigorated, breathless and all your carefully put together outfit and hair gets just as unruly.

…and right there in the centre of that dance you are invited to be never on the outer, never performing for anyone, not even for him. You are invited to participate and be integrated and be filled with the joy that comes from a crazy, whirling, responsive, spontaneous dance.

you are invited

He’d like you to say yes.