I had to work last Sunday. Working in retail, I don’t get many weekends off, but I do split the misery with my senior manager - I work Saturdays and she works Sundays. But the staffing chart is currently threadbare. I knew the college students would be returning to their distant dormitories and labor laws would limit how much I could use the high school students when school started. I did not anticipate the simultaneous purging of underachievers from my staff. We have been reduced to a skeleton crew, a boney bunch stretched to fill the necessary shifts.
Lately as I write the schedule, I stare at the computer screen, puzzling out how to fill in the gaps in my staffing. Last Sunday’s there was no other option. I would have to work on my day off. It’s not my preference, but I’ll do it when I have to.
“Won’t you get in trouble for skipping church?”
I stared back in silent bewilderment. Head cocked and eyes slightly squinted. The thought had never crossed my mind.
My cashier repeated the question with an underlying note of assertion “Won’t you get in trouble for skipping church?”
She is not a churchgoer. But she knows of my faithful attendance. This was a window into the perspective of an outsider trying to make sense of why those who attend church faithfully would bother. With a weekend reduced to one day, why would I waste a chunk of it in church?
Her assumption was that church attendance must be mandatory for the religious. We go because we must. It is an obligation, like a debt. Missing a Sunday is like skipping a payment. Too lax and the repo man will be pounding on my door. Already, God must be scratching out a first draft of my eviction even as I post the schedule. Foreclosure is imminent. Won’t I get in trouble for skipping church?
To her, Christianity is built on obligation. This was so self evident that it didn’t require any explanation. The only uncertainty was how I found a loophole to dodge the sure disapproval and the probable retribution from a divine enforcer?
Recently, I have been listening to an audio drama of Les Miserables by Focus on the Family Radio Theatre. A free copy was provided for me by the Tyndale Bloggers network. It is the familiar story of Jean Valjean first told in Victor Hugo’s epic novel, then adapted for Broadway in the Tony award winning musical. Most recently, the musical made its way from Broadway to Hollywood, with a critically acclaimed film adaptation starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, and Anne Hathaway.
This particular three hour audio production is solid. The scoring is fitting, musical interludes carrying the action from scene to scene and setting the tone within the scene. Sound effects add to the drama. The voice acting is strong with the tone matching the character, from the stone-cold Javert, to the devious Thenardier, to the tender Marius. The limitations of audio drama are on display, everything having to be explained verbally causing the dialogue to feel stilted and unnatural at times. In some cases, too much is explained. But the action progresses at a steady pace and the drama is delightful to listen to. Most importantly, the story of redemption shines through as law and grace are set in tension.
Valjean is the model of grace. The embittered ex con, having been turned away for lodging again and again because his passport identifies him as a convict, is welcomed by a priest. He warns the priest that his paperwork identifies him as a dangerous man. The priest replies that we are all dangerous men. The convict and the priest alike, in need of grace.
When Valjean is caught stealing the silverware, the priest covers for him, contending that these were a gift, refusing to press charges, and insisting that he take the silver candlesticks as well. This undeserved act of kindness is a turning point for Valjean, a motivation to lead an upright life. Valjean is transformed into a generous man, risking his life to rescue others, spending his fortune to help the poor, exposing his identity to spare a falsely accused man, and charting his life to honor a promise in caring for the daughter of a dying woman.
Inspector Javert, on the other hand, is rigidly devoted to the letter of the law. For Javert, Valjean’s broken parole must be prosecuted, even if this man has become a model citizen. The law is equivalent to justice. Repeat offenders, like Valjean, should be put away for life. He doggedly pursues Valjean, refusing to believe that a criminal can ever truly change.
Javert is no hypocrite. When he begins to suspect a wealthy factory owner and town mayor could be Valjean, he denouncing him without proof. When he is sure he was mistaken he insists on being fired. He is unworthy of the post and must pay the price for his own unsavory behavior. Justice is justice, whether your hand is on the trigger or your frame is in the scope. When he is captured be the rebels, he fully expects to be executed, the rightful punishment for a spy. He is dumbstruck when Valjean, his executioner, helps him escape.
Which brings me back to the question. Won’t I get in trouble for not going to church? The question rises out of a view of Christianity that is Javertian (if I may invent a word). But this is not the gospel. In the gospel, grace triumphs over law, salvation is a gift given and not a wage earned. The “ought” of obligation is overtaken by the “bought” of redemption. This is Valjean, a man fueled by gratitude, transformed at his core.
In the end Javert commits suicide. The edifice of his worldview cannot bear the weight of Valjean’s transformation. He dies a tormented man. Valjean, on the other hand, dies in peace, declaring God’s goodness and saying that “to die is nothing, but it is terrible not to live.”
So won’t I get in trouble for skipping church. Of course not. God isn’t busy keeping score, marking attendance on vast spreadsheets. His focus is on transformation. He is molding my character. His goal is not to make me a church goer. His intent is to transform me into the image of Christ. “And we all…are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18, NIV).