The Holy Experience of Watching Les Miserables

Ocean

Last week we watched the Tom Hooper production of Les Misérables. We have all seen it live (in London, no less!) but I believe that the next best thing to a live performance is this movie.

I cannot see Les Misérables without crying. The story,full of redemption and grace, is timeless.

For those who don’t know the story, Les Misérables takes place in 19th century France. While it is commonly thought to be about the French Revolution, it is actually a different insurrection in 1832 that was quickly and violently stopped.

A prisoner by the name of Jean Valjean, better known by his number 24601, is granted parole after 19 years of imprisonment. He was initially given 5 years in prison for stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child but because of many attempts to escape ended up being there for 19. Seen as a pariah because of his prison past, he struggles to find work or food.  He is ultimately taken in by a man of the cloth, the Bishop of Digne, and given food and lodging. He returns this kindness by stealing the silverware in the middle of the night, is caught by police and taken to be accused by the clergy. Instead of accusations, he is vindicated as  the Bishop claims they were given to Valjean as a gift and wonders aloud to Jean Valjean’s captors why he left the silver candlesticks in ‘his haste’ .  This act of grace is given with a challenge by the clergyman to ‘Become an honest man.’ He journeys through his life doing just that, though continuously haunted by his past in the form of a police inspector named Javert.

The contrast between Javert and Jean Valjean is profound as one is consumed with the need for justice and retribution and the other attempts to live out his life in grace, but secrecy. Like all good stories there is the protagonist, a conflict, and a critical climax that I will not spoil for those who have not yet seen the show.

Les Misérables is great theology wrapped up in an excellent story and beautiful music. Watching either the movie or the live production is nothing if not a holy experience. In Les Misérables, love and kindness are woven together and so grace and mercy triumph.

The Bishop plays a small role in this musical, but it is the Bishop that I have been thinking about since last week. From the beginning, the Bishop takes a risk on this prisoner, Jean Valjean. He doesn’t know why he’s been in prison. Just that he is a man, troubled and in need of food and shelter. In the movie rendition, two older women who obviously care for the Bishop’s residence, look aghast as the Bishop extends hospitality and kindness to this dangerous stranger.

In the theologically rich book of Romans, there is an ending of a verse that is never far from my mind. It’s the end of verse 4 in the 2nd chapter and it reads like this: “not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”* 

We can’t say no to something, unless there is something better to say yes to. The Bishop gives Jean Valjean a picture of something better, of a life lived well, of grace, and of God’s kindess. Jean Valjean cannot say no to this offering and his entire life is changed.

God is infinitely creative in his design of holy moments and experiences; but there are times when I need my vision checked and restored in order to see and participate. Last week, sitting on a couch and watching Les Misérables was one of those holy moments, and I am grateful.

***

Come with me
Where chains will never bind you
All your grief at last at last behind you
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy!
Forgive me all my trespasses
and take me to your glory
Take my hand, and lead me to salvation
Take my love, for love is everlasting
And remember the truth that once was spoken
To love another person is to see the face of God!”

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the ploughshare;
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

*The end of the verse is part of a longer conversation as the whole passage is about passing judgment on others, but for the purposes of my reflections I have chosen to focus just on this verse ending.

Note: For an interesting and informative read take a look at the article “Enjoy Les Miserables. But please get the history straight!”

Liesl Lives On

liesl

The first movie I ever saw was The Sound of Music. I was young – not more than seven years old, and our boarding school had obtained the movie from the Canadian Embassy to show to students. 

From the first notes of “The Hills are Alive” I was enthralled; at “Do Re Mi” I was smitten; and at “Sixteen going on Seventeen” I was in love. The Sound of Music would forever be one of the sounds of my childhood. 

While all of the Von Trapp children felt like friends, Liesl was the beloved darling of the film. Beautiful Liesl who gracefully jumped on and off the benches of a gazebo with her love, Rolf. Liesl – with a dress that twirled and whirled as she danced and sang. 

Then there was Rolf — stupid, stupid Rolf who would betray young love and leave the embrace of one such as Liesl to join the Nazi youth. In doing so he betrayed all of us who loved Liesl. Liesl Von Trapp was a little girl’s idol. 

Yesterday, Charmian Carr – the real Liesl – died of a rare form of dementia in a facility in California. I didn’t know her real name until yesterday. In a short radio segment followed by a news article, I learned that she never had much of an acting role beyond Liesl. She grew to accept that, writing a book called Forever Liesl and hosting Sound of Music singalongs. I also learned that during the filming of the famous dance scene in “Sixteen going on Seventeen” she slid through the glass window in the gazebo and sprained her ankle. Evidently she continued dancing and singing, and the scene shows none of the pain she must have felt.   

Film is an amazing medium. We cling to stories and characters because they reflect something of who we want to be, something that we long for. Their characters first dominate the screen, larger than life, and some of them continue to affect our lives far beyond the screen. 

While raising our family, we never shied away from showing our children films. There were times overseas where we would rent pirated videos of newly released films to indulge our passion. The films were often distorted and poor quality but our kids didn’t know any better, and we were not about to tell them. Moving on to the United States, we began to hold Oscar Parties on Oscar night, putting up a life-size Oscar made of cardboard and laying down a red plastic tablecloth, a cheap simulation of ‘the red carpet’. We would dress up according to the films of the year and memories of my husband dressed as Caesar from The Gladiator, my daughter Annie dressed as Virginia Woolf from The Hours, and one of my boys a young and handsome Zorro are captured in faded color photos.

Maybe it was a need to occasionally escape reality that led us to a love of films, but I like to think it was more than that. I imagine it was our love of stories and storytelling where themes from movie plots could challenge, humor, delight and inspire. Perhaps it was also our desire to live life in living color complete with our own characters and plot. For some time I tried to defend this part of us, and then realized that I didn’t have to.  It was who we were and not something to be ashamed of. I have no doubt that each of my children have their own “Liesl” – a character that they will always remember with fond nostalgia.

So Charmian Carr has died, but she has forever left us with Liesl; a Liesl who will continue to enamour and inspire little girls and capture the imagination of teenage boys for generations to come. 

“This is Real”

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The movie A Beautiful Mind is based on the story of a brilliant mathematician, John Nash. Nash is as arrogant as he is brilliant, but that changes as he goes through an excruciating process of being diagnosed as a schizophrenic. The mind that served him so well betrays him and he is left wondering what is real and what is delusional.

The viewer of the film walks the journey with the character (played by Russel Crowe) and we enter a world of frenetic paranoia and misbelief. We experience the disease and throughout the process we too are left wondering what is real.

There are many moments in the film, but for me one particularly poignant moment sums up the entire story. John Nash is in their bedroom sitting on the bed. He is in deep distress. He is questioning everything. He doesn’t know what is real and what is a hallucination, the result of a disease taking over his mind. In an unforgettable moment, his wife takes her hands and puts them on his face. “You want to know what is real?” she says “This is real.”  She then takes his hands and places them on her face and then her heart.

“This is real.” 

What is real? The question resonates through the ages. Perhaps someone with mental illness has to face it more directly then others, but we all have to ask this question – what is real?

From the time we are young our world is divided into the secular and the sacred; the real and the ‘not real.’ We go away on a weekend of prayer or retreat, and we are told at the end “Tomorrow you will go back to reality. You will leave this mountaintop experience. You can’t live in it forever.” We are told to “remember the mountain top when we get back to reality.” We soberly nod, we will try and remember all this when we are back to real life. After all, we reason, the disciples didn’t live on the Mount of Transfiguration forever.

But what if we have ‘real’ wrong?

I am taken back to the scene in A Beautiful Mind. What is real?

“You want to know what is real? I’ll tell you what is real.”

Real is the Holy Trinity, mystery and awe surrounding the three in one.

Real is the body and the blood, Christ and his church.

Real is forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

What is real? Let me take your hands and show you what is real. 

Real is communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Real is communion with others in this journey. Real is knowing that the eternal is forever and the now is just now. Real is knowing there is a greater reality in this thing called life.

We are tricked and trapped into believing that everything is reality, except the holy.

But perhaps it is in the holy that we find our truest reality. 

*****

I wrote this yesterday, but as I read my mom’s comment, I thought “Yes!” So here are the wise words of Puddleglum, the Marshwiggle from The Silver Chair by C.S.Lewis.

Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things-trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.

Donald Trump, Walt Kowalski and Hope for Transformation

What happens when a bitter racist is transformed?

In the movie Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski (played by Clint Eastwood) is a bitter old man living out his years in a neighborhood that has changed from working-class white to Hmong and Chinese.  He does not like it and makes no pretense of civility and no apology for being an open racist. No one is safe from this behavior, particularly the Hmong mother who lives next door and who is victim to Kowalski’s growling and racial slurs every time they happen to be on the porch at the same time.

In the course of the movie, his character changes and he gradually makes peace with the neighborhood, getting to know the teenagers who live next door and becoming both friend and protector. A scene showing him at a Hmong feast eating food he has never seen before (and still makes no pretense of liking) is a beautiful image of the grudging respect he is gaining for these neighbors.

As I have watched areas throughout the United States change, I have seen a lot of Walt Kowalskis and a lot of ‘Wanda’ Kowalskis; men and women at odds with neighborhoods in which they have deep ties.  They grieve for a neighborhood that was and struggle with the neighborhood that is.  The words ‘us and them‘ are present in their speech and they are angry and fearful. The world is a scary place to them. Some of them move through a slow process of change; for others it’s too difficult.  The movie initially portrays the tension and hatred of a man at odds with his changing neighborhood, moves on to the slow process of change and ultimately brings the audience to an act of deep love and ultimate sacrifice as Walt serves as a human shield to protect his neighbors.  Walt gives up his life in the process of protecting people that he used to hate. He gradually accepts and, dare I say, loves the community that surrounds him.

Communities in the United States have changed and they will continue to change.  A community health center that I work with saw three thousand patients from 40 different countries and 60 different language groups in  a 6-month time period. That is just one of many examples of our changing world. As the world continues to move closer, the transformation process that Walt Kowalski undergoes in the two-hour film is worth watching and modeling. He changes because he gets to know the people who surround him, he begins to see beyond visual differences to what is underneath. He begins to see the “other” as human. 

Although the movie is eight years old, I have thought about it a lot in past months and I want to watch it again. Just below the surface in America is a deep fear and dislike, often hatred, for the one who is other. The campaign of a presidential hopeful is built on promoting these fears across the country. Over and over, we hear people say that they like Donald Trump because he “tells it like it is.” But what he “tells” is deeply troubling. His rhetoric is about walls and isolation, about spewing racism and bigotry, about hating anything that is not like him. 

Consider this from a NY Times op-ed piece by Timothy Egan: With media complicity, Trump has unleashed the beast that has long resided not far from the American hearth, from those who started a Civil War to preserve the right to enslave a fellow human to the Know-Nothing mobs who burned Irish-Catholic churches out of fear of immigrants.When high school kids waved a picture of Trump while shouting “Build a wall” at students from a heavily Hispanic school during a basketball game in Indiana last week, they were exhaling Trump’s sulfurous vapors. They know exactly what he stands for.

Donald Trump is Walt Kowalski and he has found favor with many. Would that he would sit down and watch the movie so he can learn what transformation looks like, what it is to learn to love people and ultimately give your life for them.

I have little hope that Trump will do that. Nothing so far has touched his conscience and moved him to apologize for anything he has said. But what about those thousands who have the same thoughts but are not as high profile?  In the character of Walt Kowalski we see hope for transformation and change. Is it just Hollywood, or can we hope for the same redemptive stories in our own neighborhoods? I hope with all my heart we can.

Note: Some of this content comes from one of my earliest blog posts. I revisited it as I was thinking about much of what I have heard in past weeks.  

Sharmeen Obaid and the Power of Story

Sharmeen_Obaid_Chinoy_World_Economic_Forum_2013

Watching the Oscars has long been a tradition in our family. When our kids were younger, an Oscar party was a yearly event. We would literally roll out a red carpet, serve fancy food, and dress up as characters from the year’s films. The kids invited their friends and we had ballots where we would attempt to guess the winners. Though always on a Sunday and thereby a school night, we always watched until the end when the year’s best film was announced.

Engaging with film and story is something everyone in our family loves to do. Perhaps it is no surprise that one of my children lives with his wife in Los Angeles and works in the industry.

Though we didn’t have a party last night, we did watch the Oscars and eat gorgeous, fancy food.

I’ll confess that I have not seen a lot of the films that were nominated so I felt a bit out of touch. But for me, the best part of the evening was when Pakistani-Canadian filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid won her second Oscar for the film “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness.” The film in the “documentary short” category is about “honor killings,” a practice that still goes on in the world today where a woman is killed so she will not dishonor her family. Tragically, many women die every year from this practice.

Her particular film was about a Pakistani woman, Saba Qaiser, who survived an attempted honor killing by her father and brother.

It was Sharmeen Obaid’s speech that had me cheering her on from my spectator spot on the couch. She used her 45 seconds in the best way possible by saying this:

This is what happens when determined women get together. From Saba, the woman in my film who remarkably survived an honor killing and shared her story, to Sheila Nevins and Lisa Heller from HBO, to Tina Brown, who supported me from day one. To the men who champion women, like Geof Bartz in my film, who’s edited the film, to Asad Faruqi, to my friend Ziad, who brought this film to the government.

To all the brave men out there, like my father and my husband, who push women to go to school and work, and who want a more just society for women.

She ended her speech by saying this:

This week the Pakistani Prime Minister has said that he will change the law on honor killing after watching this film. That is the power of film.

There are so many things about this that I love. I love her emphasis on determined women, her recognition and honor of the woman in her story. I love that she praised the men who are a part of this, recognizing that men standing up for the rights of women is also an important part of changing a society. Most of all, I love that this film has the highest office in the country of Pakistan realizing the need for a law to change.

The well-told story of one woman changing the lives of millions. That is the power of story folks! 

I join the thousands around the globe who are cheering on Sharmeen Obaid and story tellers like her – story tellers who use their craft to create change.

[Photo source: Copyright by World Economic Forum.swiss-image.ch/Photo Sebastian Derungs, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 ]

“I am Glad to be Alive in You!”

Anne of Green Gables

“The “Anne” series let us dream about adolescence while holding on to childhood. The world of Avonlea—Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, the apple blossoms and the knickers and caps, dance cards, hay rides, Gilbert’s patient and steadfast heart—was gentler than what we might have imagined about adolescence……a last moment of being able to enjoy gentler childhood ideals.” from Why We Loved Gilbert Blythe” by Sarah Larson in The New Yorker

A couple of years ago, my daughter Stefanie wrote something on social media about “waiting for Gilbert Blythe.” I’m not sure the exact wording, but I remember laughing when a young woman who was six years older than Stefanie responded “Get in line.” This was the phenomenon that was Gilbert Blythe. 

My daughters grew up on Anne of Green Gables. Megan Follows was a household word. We loved the books, we loved the movies. Like the quote above, this series let girls “dream about adolescence while holding on to childhood.” And that is a gift my friends.

In honor of the untimely passing of Gilbert Blythe on April 19, a man who woman, separated by generations, all loved, I offer you these quotes from the “Anne” series.

Quotes from Anne of Green Gables

“Well, that is another hope gone. My life is a perfect graveyard of buried hopes. That’s a sentence I read once and I say it over to comfort myself in these times that try the soul.”

“Dear old world,” she murmured, “you are very lovely, and I am glad to be alive in you.”

I don’t want any of it to change. I wish I could just hold on to those days forever. I have a feeling things will never be the same again, will they?

“It makes me very sad at times to think about her. But really, Marilla, one can’t stay sad very long in such an interesting world, can one?”

“There’s a lot of different Annes in me. I sometimes think that is why I’m such a troublesome person. If I was just the one Anne it would be ever so much more comfortable, but then it wouldn’t be half so interesting.”

“Would you please call me Cordelia?”

Anne Shirley: Don’t you ever imagine things differently from what they are?

Marilla Cuthbert: No.

Anne Shirley: Oh Marilla, how much you miss.

Quotes from Anne of Avonlea

“Gilbert stretched himself out on the ferns beside the Bubble and looked
approvingly at Anne. If Gilbert had been asked to describe his ideal
woman the description would have answered point for point to Anne, even
to those seven tiny freckles whose obnoxious presence still continued to
vex her soul. Gilbert was as yet little more than a boy; but a boy has
his dreams as have others, and in Gilbert’s future there was always a
girl with big, limpid gray eyes, and a face as fine and delicate as a
flower. He had made up his mind, also, that his future must be worthy of its goddess.”

“In Gilbert’s eyes Anne’s greatest charm was the fact that she never stooped to the petty practices of so many of the Avonlea girls — the small jealousies, the little deceits and rivalries, the palpable bids for favor. Anne held herself apart from all this, not consciously or of design, but simply because anything of the sort was utterly foreign to her transparent, impulsive nature, crystal clear in its motives and aspirations.”

“For a moment Anne’s heart fluttered queerly and for the first time her eyes faltered under Gilbert’s gaze and a rosy flush stained the paleness of her face. It was as if a veil that had hung before her inner consciousness had been lifted, giving to her view a revelation of unsuspected feelings and realities. Perhaps, after all, romance did not come into one’s life with pomp and blare, like a gay knight riding down; perhaps it crept to one’s side like an old friend through quiet ways; perhaps it revealed itself in seeming prose, until some sudden shaft of illumination flung athwart its pages betrayed the rhythm and the music, perhaps. . . perhaps. . .love unfolded naturally out of a beautiful friendship, as a golden-hearted rose slipping from its green sheath. ”

*********

“I think for legions of young women around the world who fell in love with the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ films, Jonathan literally represented the quintessential boy next door, and there were literally thousands of women who wrote to him over the years who saw him as a perfect mate,” Kevin Sullivan, Producer of “Anne of Green Gables” as quoted in NY Times.

Remembering “The Square”

On Friday night we watched the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Square (Al Midan). This movie captures what happened in Egypt from a few weeks before the momentous ousting of Hosni Mubarak on January 25, 2011 through this past summer.

“Let me tell you how this story began….It began with a group of brave, young Egyptians battling injustice, corruption, poverty.” Ahmed Hassan

Tahrir Square, in the center of Cairo is the place that became the epicenter for all the events leading up to Mubarak’s downfall. It represents to the world the fight for freedom and democracy as hoped and fought for by the Egyptian people. The title of the movie is fitting as nothing captures the spirit of this time more than Tahrir Square.

The movie follows Ahmed – the 20 year old who has known the streets of Cairo since he sold lemons as a little boy and realistically represents the youth of Egypt; Magdy – a family man who identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and goes to Tahrir Square day after day to watch change happen; and Khalid – a movie star who has been living in England but comes back to Cairo to participate in the change he knows is coming. Initially the movie shows a people united at the ousting of Mubarak, ready for a new day in Egypt. But the story moves forward and divisions arise, an army the people trusted turns on them, hope turns to despair. But Ahmed, Magdy, and Khalid continue coming to Tahrir Square – their differences obvious, their desire to see change united.

The documentary vividly captures the crowds, the masses of people — men, women, and children shouting “Al-Horreya!’ (Freedom!), the tension between the people and the army, talking heads on state-sponsored television. Throughout the film we were immersed in crowds and chaos, anger and joy, hope and despair.

But for us, watching the movie was personal.

Tahrir is a familiar place for all of us from the seven years we lived in Egypt, but it is even more familiar for our daughter. For three years, from September 2009 through September 2012 she lived in Cairo. She was in graduate school at the American University in Cairo and lived just two blocks from Tahrir Square. She has friends and acquaintances featured in the movie and this was her world. It was this I couldn’t get out of my mind on Friday night. These were her friends, this was her neighborhood, whatever was happening on any given day affected her going out, affected where she ate, who she was with. She lived, breathed, slept what I only briefly experienced while visiting her and then watched in a movie. It was a powerful and difficult film to watch.

It has now been three years, and Egypt still faces massive challenges. As we remember this day, 3 years ago, I ask you to read these words of an Egyptian friend from a news email written on January 9:

As we begin 2014 the biggest concern of most Egyptians is whether or not they, individually and as a nation, can afford the price of the new “democracy” which was achieved by our “Revolution”!

In January 2011, when Egyptians in large numbers toppled the government by protesting against the autocratic rule of the Mubarak regime, there was hope that the country would become truly democratic. We dreamed of a nation where everyone could freely express his or her perspectives and opinions and yet also work together in harmonious tolerance.

This dream was quickly crushed when the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) took over the government and imposed what increasingly resembled religious theocracy. When that regime was ousted by popular demand last summer, there was new hope that the dreams we’d had during the Revolution would finally be realized.

Unfortunately, since the dispersal of the MB’s 48 day sit-ins on August 14, 2013, disruption of daily life and violence on the streets has become a normal part of Egyptian life.  We often hear of people wounded or killed in clashes between MB supporters and the police, the army or angry civilians who want to live a normal life. In an attempt to restore peace on the street, the government’s aggressive response to continued MB disruptions sadly seems to create more violence rather than less.

As we prepare for a national referendum on a new Constitution, the violence continues in an attempt to intimidate the general population and scare them from going to the polls on January 14 and 15.

Having just celebrated the birth of the Prince of Peace, Christians in Egypt yearn for that elusive peace in their hearts and in the country as a whole.” from Ramez Atallah 

Tomorrow marks the 3 year anniversary of events that happened on January 25th when the people of Egypt came together to demand more. I’ll end the post with more words from Ramez: “Pray with us to know creative ways to better reflect what the Prince of Peace would say to Egypt.”

I highly recommend the documentary. To watch a preview click on this link: The Square

All photos were taken on our trip to Egypt in December 2011. Gas MaskCairo, Egypt, Islam, MinaretTahrir SquareMore graffitisunset from the roofFriday Tahrir 2Boys with peace signWe three kingsGas mask graffiti 3eyepatch graffiti 2January 25th Revolution

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