But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
-2 Peter 3:18
I've long been impacted by the famous musical Les Miserables, set in French society during the June Rebellion, a few decades after the French Revolution. The fictional story follows both the larger community and the transformed life of a singular character named Jean Valjean, a hardened man who serves 19 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread and trying to escape.
I was listening to the music a few weeks ago, and the song and role of "the Bishop" moved me once again. A holy man named Bishop Myriel takes in Jean Valjean when he's living on the street and unable to find work. In the middle of the night, Valjean wakes up, steals the Bishop's valuable silver candlesticks, and sneaks out. When he is caught nearby by the police and brought back to the Bishop, the Bishop explains that the candlesticks were a gift, and that Valjean has committed no crime. Perplexed, the police release Valjean. But Valjean himself is even more perplexed by this radical act of grace. He wonders...
Yet 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...
The subversive act of care and love from the Bishop changes the trajectory of Valjean's life from that point on. Forgiveness leads him to a life of goodness, love and care in the name of God. It's powerful.
And all of us Jesus followers raise our hands and say, "Yeah! I want to be like that Bishop! What an amazing moment. His single action changed that guys life!"
I hear you. The idea that an act of love could have an impact like that is amazing. I want to do that kind of stuff too.
But we should know something about that story. In the musical, that one brief song is the only time we encounter the Bishop. But the musical was written as an adaptation of Victor Hugo's 1400 page novel of the same name.
And in Les Miserables, the novel, we don't even meet Jean Valjean until page 50. And that's because the first 50 pages are written about Bishop Myriel.
Hugo spends page after page in the novel to giving the background information of this man's life of learning to care for the poor and broken-hearted. The reader comes to understand that his dramatic act did not simply emerge out of nowhere, but from a lifelong practice of compassion. The bishop simply did what “had become second nature” to him. Mark Baker speaks of discipleship as “a long succession of choices that become habit forming.”
I will never forget that when I was a young youth pastor in Lancaster County in 2006, a man with a gun entered an Amish schoolhouse and killed 6 girls before turning the gun on himself. It shook the entire region, well beyond simply the Amish Community. Yet within hours, grieving Amish elders had gathered at the gunman's home to meet with his wife and child, speaking forgiveness and telling them that they didn't want them to move away. Some accused the Amish of offering forgiveness too quickly. Nobody could be truly sincere with such a response. When asked about it, an Amishman spoke for the community when he said, "we've been training for a moment like this for our entire lives."
A follower of Jesus is a heart that is re-formed over and over again through the love of God. It's not about our big moments as much as the thousands of little moments where we learn the Jesus way over and over again, trusting him. And as we do, we will eventually find that our own hearts start to look like the Bishop's, even as we long to offer love to others.
It will be a heart that sees first a hurting human rather than a hardened criminal.
A heart that longs for goodness even when it means personal sacrifice.
A heart that sees life in all its complexities and still chooses God's grace and kindness.
A heart that remains uncorrupted by hatred and disdain, though the forces around us rage.
So today may we again let Jesus shape us. It adds another page to the backstory of a life formed by compassion. Let's keep practicing, friends, for we never know when the moment will come when God's love through us will change another's destiny.
Jesus, shape me moment-by-moment, until the way of your kingdom becomes second nature.