An elaborate proposal. I said yes.

May 22, our anniversary is around the corner, so of course, our engagement, wedding day, and beautiful marriage have been much on my mind. I’ll admit, it’s been a really tough couple weeks. But of course God keeps meeting with me grace.  I’m beginning to see God’s grace in the smallest things.  So, as I “prepare” my heart for Wednesday, today’s grace reminded me that I can be confident God will give astonishing grace on what would have been our 3rd anniversary, specific grace right when it’s needed. Grace moment by moment. That’s what He offers.

So, since I’m thinking these things, I thought I’d share our engagement story with you. I think I promised I would. It’s not polished or finely crafted, but I’ll leave it in its original form written the day after he proposedthe ramblings of a girl on cloud nine. Well, with a few parenthetical notes perhaps.

Here are the details surrounding Jon’s wonderfully planned out, thoroughly romantic proposal. And I promise I won’t be offended if you don’t make it to the end.—Just warning you now, this is the “long version” that the ladies love to hear (and to tell).

Well, Jon knew I love surprises, but also love trying to figure them out. So he started planning his proposal about a month before the actual event. It all started with a series of, shall we say “self-justified falsehoods.” One of his close friends (Chris Lynch, I think) told him that this was the only time in life that it was ok to lie, and I guess he ran with it. First, he told me that he hadn’t talked to my parents yet and wanted to talk to them in person. He furthermore informed me that he wasn’t able to meet with the “ring guy” until February (which, coincidentally was true, but the February appointment was for wedding bands. We got our rings from an independent gemologist who lives in New Hampshire-Doesn’t that sound fancy? And though Jon thoroughly researched his purchase, he never saw the engagement ring in person till it came in the mail. Crazy huh?).

At first, being the over analyst I typically am, I just thought he was being sneaky. However, as he maintained his ruse, he finally had me convinced that the ring wasn’t coming until February at the earliest. At one point I asked my mom if Jon had called recently. When she said no, I officially believed that Jon was just being compassionate and helping me not to get my hopes up. She didn’t sound sneaky at all.

Also, he actually said “Babe, I just don’t want you to get your hopes up that you’ll have a ring to show off when you go home to Virginia at the end of the month. I really wish it was possible, but it just isn’t.” I admit that I was worried because we had already set our May 22nd wedding date. I was nervous that we’d be giving folks such short notice. Actually, I had to spend much time in prayer asking God to help me be content and patient. Jon had me right where he wanted me.

Fast-forward to January 16th. We both had had busy, stressful weeks, and he told me that we were going to have a stress-free, no talking about work,, date on Saturday night. And we were also going to celebrate him paying off college debt. Hooray!  When Jon picked me up, he gave me three small gifts in the car. The first was a book of “Kiss Me” coupons (to be redeemed after 5-22-10 written on the front). I just laughed. Next, was a children’s book called Guess How Much I Love You, which is quite possibly my absolute favorite picture book. A high honor, of course. (My current students would tell you, ‘She says they’re all her favorites’) Anyone who knows me well also knows that I’m kind of a children’s literature fanatic).

But there’s another significant aspect about this book. When Jon and I first started dating we were in Barnes and Noble in my favorite section. When I saw Guess How Much I Love You, I made him sit in the little chairs while I read it to him. I know, super silly, but it was sort of a test at the time. By the way, he wasn’t embarrassed at all to be sitting in the tiny chairs reading a picture book with me. He passed the test. (This would become one of our favorite things, and a necessity every time we went in B&N)  Anyway, I digress. Back to the gifts. The third gift was a coffee mug with scenes from Guess How Much I Love You. I adore it! In the mug were red and blue m&ms. “Why?” you ask. Because I always tell him “I love you 1000 red m&ms” and he’ll tell me “I love you 1000 blue m&ms. (Ok all the men can stop gagging now) Sappy, I know. But very special to us. At this point I still didn’t suspect he was up to something because he had given me little gifts before for no reason.

jon & ami-26

On the way to the restaurant, we stopped at Walmart to buy an umbrella because it was raining and, of course, neither of us owned one. As we walked in he told me that he must have eaten something bad because his stomach was bothering him. He immediately went to the restroom while I was looking at umbrellas. Later, I found out that the bathroom ploy was all part of the ruse. Yep, I’m sure he’s losing some romance points right about now, but don’t worry. So, I got the umbrella and waited for his “stomach issues” to subside.

Once we were back in the car he told me we were going to play a little game. “It’s the guess how much I love you game,” he said. “Guess how much I love you?” “How much?” was my coy response. “I love you like a 355 lb man loves a chili cheese dog.” And after I stopped laughing, he said “I’ve been thinking about these all day.” And he proceeded to entertain me with other silly statements of his extravagant love for me (which by the way is truly extravagant). So, here I was thoroughly relaxed and enjoying myself, with no thought of engagement. Again, right where he wanted me.

Finally, we made it to the restaurant. As we pulled into the lot, I exclaimed totally shocked, “We’re going here!! I’m so excited!” And if you’d like to know, the restaurant was Devereaux’s a very very very (did I say very) nice fine-dining restaurant in downtown Greenville. Naturally, it’s a place I’ve always wanted to go, but don’t think I ever mentioned. I was also kind of giddy that we received complimentary valet parking. I had never experienced valet parking before! Right about now I was feeling a little like a “tourist.” Anyway, Devereaux’s is in a historic building, and the atmosphere is incredible. I was so enamored.

After telling the hostess that we had reservations, he immediately asked for the restroom. “Poor guy, his stomach really is bothering him.” The hostess seated me, however, and as we walked toward the table, I noticed that the centerpiece was a dozen red roses. My honest first thought was “Wow, this IS a really nice restaurant to put a dozen red roses on everyone’s table.” Then I sat down. As I looked out across the building, I realized that no one else had roses! They were mine! Ok, I’ll admit that I was getting suspicious at this point, but I determined just to enjoy the evening.

When Jon came back, my first comment was “Are those for me?” And he went on to tell me that he had just wanted to be creative in how he gave me flowers this time. We had a wonderful dinner. The food was so pretty that I wanted to take pictures of it! I didn’t, but I wanted to be such a tourist. (Funny to note is that we later took pictures of our food on our honeymoon, special dates, birthdays, anniversaries… very quirky I think) It was all so wonderfully elegant, and the wait staff attentive.  After dessert was served Jon went again to the restroom. “My poor man.”

jon & ami-19edit

 

While I waited for him, I just sat there enjoying my roses thinking “Ok, I think he’ll propose tonight, but it’s definitely not going to be in the restaurant. He wouldn’t do that to me. Hmm…. I wonder if there really are 12 roses in that vase…” So I started counting them. And right about then I heard Jon say my name. When I turned to the side, there he was with another single red rose, and nervous was written all over his face. Then with a rush of emotions, I realized that this was it! I was in shock. In a happy way. He knelt down and said “There are actually only 11 roses in the vase, and you need the 12th one to make it complete. Ami, guess how much I love you?” “How much?” “I love you forever and want you to always be mine.” Everything at this point went hazy, and he had to tell me again later what he said. He also told me later that he had had a big speech prepared, but couldn’t get it out in the moment

And just like that he was down on one knee, opening a box, taking out a ring (which I didn’t even see because I just kept looking at him) “Ami Beth Walker, will you marry me?” And holding back the tears, I responded with a quiet “yes,” and then an overwhelmed, excited YES!” He put the ring on, and then stood up to kiss me. Then, immediately he announced in a loud voice “Attention everyone, I just wanted to tell you that I just asked this beautiful girl to marry me and she said yes! And I wanted you to share in our excitement.” The entire restaurant broke into applause and cheering!

Right on cue, the hostess brought over two fruity drinks. Everything was just perfect. If you would have asked me if I wanted an entire restaurant to watch us get engaged I would have said a big fat no, but in the end it was so delightful to know that my man was willing to “shout from the roof top” how much he loves me.  I was conscious that “I’m in a nice restaurant. I can’t scream” so I did these little silent screams. But when we got outside, it all came out. And Jon said, “Now that was the reaction I was expecting!”

Jon told me later that when he went back to the restroom another man came in and said “Dude you got to lay off the roses. My wife is getting jealous.” Too funny. When Jon told him that he was going to propose, the man gave Jon a $25 gift card in congratulations! He also told me that announcing to the entire restaurant was spontaneous. Also, the surprises didn’t end in the restaurant. After we got outside, he couldn’t stop hugging me and looking at my hand. And neither of us could stop smiling. We started calling our families, and I said earlier, it was raining, so Jon suggested that we just go back to his house and make calls there. Well, you might have guessed it.– There was a surprise party of about 20 of our friends waiting to congratulate us! Every detail of the evening was planned, down to having our friends park in a different location so I wouldn’t see their cars. He knew that I love trying to figure out surprises, and that I love it even more when I can’t.

So that’s our romantic engagement story. I praise God for all that He has done to bring Jon and I together. We are recipients of His extravagant love and grace. He is amazing. I am so thankful to have been given the best. We desire that our future marriage bring Him honor and glory, and that it would be a reflection of Christ and His bride. Thank you all so much for sharing our joy with us!! Our wedding date is 5.22.10.

And even now as I recall that beautiful night, I know I am still blessed, in the true sense of the word.. And these memories make me smile. I know I was given a man far better than I could have hoped. I know I am still a recipient of God’s extravagant love and grace. And the gospel in this story? Well, that’s easy! Jon pursued me and didn’t quit. Jesus pursued me and still doesn’t quit. Jon sacrificed and gave me a gorgeous ring as the symbol of his love, and another ring later as a symbol of his marriage covenant with me. Jesus gave me His life.

It’s a crazy thing to think about celebrating an anniversary with your husband in Heaven. But God is faithful. And He keeps bringing to mind this verse “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases…” (Lamentations 3)

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The Ultimate Resolution…

Resolutions

by Jon Atkins

Ah…January 1, that magical time of year when we look back at the previous year that was and then set our sights on what we want to accomplish in the year to come. I’ve never been good at “New Year’s Resolutions.” Sure I have made some in the past and even done well at keeping some of them for a week or two. But my track record speaks for itself. I start off well but then very quickly fall off the wagon. What is it about the new year than prompts us to set goals? Why is it we always have to wait for that magical 1-1-XX date to start new? Many of us will make similar choices about diet, exercise, Bible study, and finances to name a few.

So here is my question for all of us “goal-setters.” What is your motivation? I mean what is the driving force behind what you are setting out to accomplish? Motivation and desire are powerful things. We can have good reason to want to change. For example, I have had to make some pretty drastic decisions in the area of diet due to my history of heart issues. Is wanting to be healthy a bad desire? Is it ok to want to change so that I can be around longer for my wife? Certainly these things are good reasons to be motivated, but are they what is best?

An Issue of the Heart

“From this we may gather that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” – John Calvin, “Institutes of the Christian Religion”

“What is an idol? It is anything more important to you than God, anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God, anything you seek to give you what only God can give.” – Tim Keller, “Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promise of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope That Matters”

Honestly for most of us our resolutions are very pragmatic. I want to be _____. Therefore, if I do _____ and _____ , then I will achieve _____. Our motivation and desire for change becomes boiled down to a math formula. The key to success and change is to just be a better you. Do better. Try harder. Work at it. Join the gym. Do a soda fast. Be in bed by 9pm. Read the Bible at least 30 minutes a day. Do. Do. Do. No wonder after two weeks and a lot of good effort we feel so burned out. We have tried to accomplish all these things only to fail. Now what? What happens when the resolutions don’t work out? Depression, failure, anxiety, hopelessness and despair often accompany our failed efforts. Paul addresses this is Philippians 3.

The Problem: Effort Isn’t Enough

Philippians 3:1-6

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh. For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

Paul was a man among boys. By any society’s standards, he had it together. As he testifies of his upbringing you cannot help but notice all that he had done. He was at the pinnacle of life. Who among us is blameless under the law? Who among us knew the Pentateuch from memory? I mean can you picture the modern day equivalent? Graduated high school at 16. Got into Harvard and graduated top of the class at 20. Got married at 21. Nailed a six figure income at 22. Retired millionaire at 40. I mean there you have it. Hard work, discipline, and a whole lot of effort earned Paul his success. And sadly for many of us in this generation we fall into the same pit thinking that somehow hard work, discipline, and a whole lot of effort will bring about change and success this year. Effort alone will always leave you wanting more.

The Solution: The Gospel

Philippians 3:7-11

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”

As we continue in Philippians 3 we see that there was something underneath Paul’s idea of success. There was a driving force that was motivating Paul to continually pursue change and it was not his upbringing. Notice the gospel words that Paul uses in this passage. He speaks of wanting to know of the sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. These are gospel words. These are words Paul uses to get our attention back on the cross of Christ where Jesus suffered and died in our place for our sins. Where Jesus rose victoriously bringing life and victory to all those who God promised to save (Ephesians 1). Our motivation must be that we desire to pursue Jesus and glorify God. In fact Paul states that all of his accomplishments are “rubbish” or “crap” without an understanding of the Person and work of Jesus. The point Paul is making is that all of his previous accomplishment and success is worthless compared to knowing Jesus. Every effort is in vain if the gospel of Jesus and the glory of God are not the ultimate pursuits. This is what drives Paul not just to know the gospel but to constantly pursue it.

The Ultimate Resolution: Pursue Jesus & Glorify God

Philippians 3:12-14

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The prize that Paul was pursuing wasn’t physical change, financial stability, or more popularity. In fact the prize Paul speaks of isn’t even heaven, golden streets, and a mansion in the sky. Paul’s prize was Christ. That was what he longed for. More of Jesus. More of the gospel. More of the glory of God. This was his all-consuming treasure.

 “If you could have heaven, with no sickness, and with all the friends you ever had on earth, and all the food you ever liked, and all the leisure activities you ever enjoyed, and all the natural beauties you ever saw, all the physical pleasures you ever tasted, and no human conflict or any natural disasters, could you be satisfied with heaven, if Christ was not there?” – John Piper, “God is the Gospel” pp.15

“The saving events and all the saving blessings of the gospel are means of getting obstacles [like our sin and God’s wrath] out of the way so that we might know and enjoy God most fully. Propitiation, redemption, forgiveness, imputation, sanctification, liberation, healing, heaven – none of these is good news except for one reason: they bring us to God for our everlasting enjoyment of him. If we believe all these things have happened to us, but do not embrace them for the sake of getting to God, they have not happened to us. Christ did not die to forgive sinners who go on treasuring anything above seeing and savoring God. And people who would be happy in heaven if Christ were not there, will not be there. The gospel is not a way to get people to heaven; it is a way to get people to God. It’s a way of overcoming every obstacle to everlasting joy in God. If we don’t want God above all things, we have not been converted by the gospel.” – John Piper, “God is the Gospel” pp.47

Getting Personal

I want to be healthy and in shape so people will notice. I want to live a long life and enjoy my wife. I long to be financially secure and not have to worry about money so I have more “play” money. What if that was the desire for change stopped? The only real motivation for change MUST be rooted in:

1. The gospel of Jesus

2. The glory of God

So let me tackle these resolutions through those two filters.

I want to healthy and get in shape because in my current state my unhealthy lifestyle is not glorifying to God. I have not taken care of my physical body in such a way that pleases God. My temple (1 Corinthians 6) is worn down, much due to my own effort. God has entrusted this physical body to me in order that I may serve Him with it.

I want to live a long life and enjoy my wife. Marriage is a picture of the gospel. I want my marriage to communicate the truth of the cross because in doing so it brings God glory and is a testimony of the transforming work of the gospel.

I long for financial freedom not so I can spend money on whatever I want but because it would allow me to give more to the cause of the gospel. God has provided for my needs and therefore anything in excess can be best used for the Kingdom by serving others. Providing for the body of Christ is something that we do as a response to what God has given us. We are blessed beyond comprehension. And we have been given much so that we may serve well.

So let’s do our pilates, give up the smoking, and drop the pounds, all while remembering that Jesus is the ultimate pursuit. And when we fall off the wagon remember that our identity is not found in our accomplishments but in the accomplishments of Jesus. In fact, all of Ephesians 1 is dedicated to what our real identity is as a Christian. I can’t think of a better way to start 2013 then pursuing the gospel and the glory of God above all else. And in doing so I can be confident in this. Though my own efforts are futile and often lead to frustration, the power of the Gospel enables me and empowers me for change. Through the gospel at work in me today, by God’s grace, I can pursue Him and His glory. That truth is available to you as well. Now that is what I call good  news!

(Written by Jonathan Atkins)

The Gospel According to “Les Miserables” – Part 2

Les-Miserables-Movie-Poster

3. CONNECTING THE DOTS

Fantine: Brokenness & Hopelessness

You don’t have to look very far to see that something in our world is broken. Wars, disease, death, tragedy, sorrow, despair, pain, and suffering mark each and every one of us. Even creation recognizes that something is not right and longs for redemption.

Romans 8:19-23 “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.”

Let’s be honest, we all have been like Fantine at times. We thought that things would be different and grand. We pursued careers, money, fame, popularity, relationships, and every other thing under the sun.  She represents the prodigals who have wasted life chasing a vanishing dream. Those who have tried everything and still end up empty handed. Our lives are broken just like the life of Fantine. We all long for hope…for redemption. (Spoiler alert) Fantine never finds it. She ends up cold, sick, heartbroken, and sadly dies alone inside of a dark hospital.

Yet, there was one long before Fantine who sheds light on this same thing. Solomon had everything under the sun. Wealth, wisdom, and women were all at his feet. To this day he is regarded as the richest person to ever live. And yet he pens these words in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Vanity is just another word for worthless or empty. Crazy isn’t it? That the most wealthy man with the most beautiful women and the most brilliant wisdom would say that everything is worthless. The reality is that all of us know this to be true. We are never satisfied. We are all like Fantine thinking that just having more of __________ will satisfy. Just think about how often we have to have “the next big thing.” Video games, new cars, new homes, new furniture, new spouse, new cell phone. We all long for satisfaction and meaning. We all want purpose in life. Could it be that the problem is that we often search for identity, meaning, and purpose in in all the wrong places?

Javert: Law & Morality

But Fantine is not the only character in this story with a lesson to teach us. Javert is a man who pursues morality and upholds the law. His life is not characterized by reckless living, but rather he is disciplined, motivated, and driven to success. Javert represents the Pharisee in all of us. His entire life is void of mercy and grace. He lives only for justice. He lives to make things better. He believes that he is the solution to the current problem of Valjean.

Again going to Scripture we see his character in a story that Christ unfolds in Luke 18.

Luke 18:9-12 “He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.”

In Luke 18 we’re introduced to the first of two characters…a Pharisee. The Pharisees prided themselves in obeying all the rules and regulations. They foolishly thought that in keeping rules and checking off their boxes they would earn favor, love, and merit with God. This is the Javert inside us all. We all long for justice. We pride ourselves in our abilities and personal righteousness. Jesus thinks otherwise.

Matthew 23:27-28 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

There is nothing wrong with rules and regulations. In fact I agree that we need rules and regulations. But when keeping those things becomes the primary pursuit of life we run into trouble. Even as Christians we can fall into the trap of living this way. We would confess that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone but at times we live completely opposite of that.

I can so easily regulate my relationship with Christ to my weekly check box  Have I read my Bible this week? Did I go to church to worship? Was I in community group? The problem with this is that you never find freedom in these things. Because the reality is that there will come a day when I don’t read my Bible, I miss church, and I stay home from community group. This kind of lifestyle only leads to frustration and even destruction because no one can perfectly keep the rules. So when we try with all of our might and fail, then what?

In the life of Javert this kind of pursuit for keeping the rules led to his destruction. Javert’s confidence in the law leads him to be convinced of both his own personal righteousness and also Valjean’s utter sinfulness. (Spoiler alert) Towards the end of his life he ends up not knowing the meaning of grace and mercy. Confused and frustrated by the continual acts of kindness that he is shown from Valjean he destroys himself by committing suicide. Obedience without a foundation of grace and mercy will always lead to frustration and destruction.

Tim Keller has appropriately said on this topic “The Bible’s purpose is not so much to show you how to live a good life. The Bible’s purpose is to show you how God’s grace breaks into your life against your will and saves you from the sin and brokenness otherwise you would never be able to overcome… religion is ‘if you obey, then you will be accepted’. But the Gospel is, ‘if you are absolutely accepted, and sure you’re accepted, only then will you ever begin to obey’. Those are two utterly different things. Every page of the Bible shows the difference.”

Valjean: Mercy & Grace

A life of freedom. The gift of a second chance. This is what Valjean experiences not because of his obedience to a set of rules but because he receives the gift of mercy and grace.

Luke 18:13-14 “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner! I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Valjean is pardoned not because of his pride and self-righteousness, but because he realizes that is not a righteous person. In the story he finds redemption and meaning by turning to God.

A Transformed Life

There are three examples throughout the story where we see this amazing transformation on display.

1. Valjean hears of an innocent man who will be tried and sentenced as him (Valjean). Unwilling to let an innocent man take the punishment for his crimes, Valjean goes before the court and reveals his identity to everyone including Javert. Valjean goes before the court to substitute himself for the innocent man.

2. Valjean unknowingly approved of Fantine’s dismissal from work, and therefore felt responsible for her tragic death. So he promises Fantine that he will adopt her daughter Cosette and that she will not lack for anything. He raises her, provides for her, cares for her, and loves her as his own. This is seen as he goes into the inn where she was being kept and literally buys her back. Valjean redeems Cosette and adopts her as his own.

3. Valjean allows Javert to go free when he had the opportunity to reap vengence. During one scene Valjean approaches the tied-up Javert. Holding a pistol and now face to face with his enemy Valjean lets Javert go free. Instead of wrath and judgment, Javert is shown mercy and grace.

4. THE GREATER VALJEAN

For theatrical purposes, most of the characters including Valjean, Fantine, and the young revolutionaries experience redemption as they all reunite at the barricade (Hugo’s picture of heaven). However, Javert destroys himself and is the only character we know who never sees paradise.

All of us are guilty of sin. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a test using the basic tenants of morality. Ever told a lie? Ever stolen anything regardless of value? Ever used God’s name in vain? Ever lusted? And on and on we could go. You see all of us are sinners by nature and choice. That is the argument Paul makes in Romans 1-3. We have all placed more value and worth into something other than God. In our arrogance and pride we have depended on something other than God. We have worshiped the wrong thing. We have committed idolatry. That is the  universal sin that damns all of us. So the bad news is this, because we are guilty before a holy, perfect God justice must be served. And the current situation for us means that we will pay for the sins that we have committed. That is you, that is me, condemned, unclean, guilty. But thank God for the cross!  On the cross, the Son of God hung in our place, for our sins, as our Substitute. But unlike the story of Valjean, the roles were reversed. We were the guilty deserving of wrath and He was the innocent. The cross is the point at which grace, mercy, forgiveness, love, justice, and wrath all collide in an explosion which has rocked the world and changed history. Jesus took my place paying the penalty for my sins. Stunning!

2 Corinthians 5:21 “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”

One one side of the coin, Jesus took all of my sinfulness upon himself. God now looks at me as though I have never sinned. I am forgiven and pardoned. But on the other, Jesus gives me all of His righteousness. God now looks at me as thought I have always perfectly obeyed.This is what Martin Luther has often called the “Divine Exchange.”

As the sin-bearer, Christ took all the wrath, punishment, and suffering that was due me. He extinguished the wrath of God and satisfied the demands of the Father. Therefore, all those who repent and believe the gospel are now shown grace and mercy rather than wrath and punishment. We are adopted into the family of God has His sons and daughters and given all the blessings and benefits that He was won (Ephesians 1). To prove this Jesus rose three days later proclaiming victory over sin, death, and hell. The resurrection is proof that the check cleared and that wrath has been removed.

5. WHICH CHARACTER ARE YOU?

The reality is that all of us can identify with these characters. Maybe you are feeling overwhelmed. The pains of life are too much to bear and you feel hopeless. Or perhaps you are the person who has everything together. Perfect job, perfect home, and perfect family. Yet somehow you find that your pursuit of perfection has left you empty as well. The solution to every case whether you are Christian or not is to look at the cross of Christ. The cross provides hope, purpose, and meaning to all those who desire it. Repent of sin, trust in the Person and work of Jesus and find freedom from your sin and bondage. The cross also reminds  those of us who are believers that we daily need to go back there. It is not the end point, but rather the spring from which all of life flows.

What does it mean to be “gospel-centered?” C.J. Mahaney sums it up well. “We make time for what we truly value. We build habits and routines around the things that really matter to us. This is an important principle to understand as we seek to build our lives around the gospel. Do you want a cross centered life? A cross centered life is made up of cross centered days.”

“Les Miserables” very clearly portrays the themes of love, forgiveness, hope, redemption, grace, and mercy. True freedom and redemption do not come from joining a cause, living as an upstanding citizen, or caring for those in need. True redemption comes from the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. As good of a story as “Les Miserables” was, there is another story going on right now that all of creation, including you and I are a part of. It is the story of redemption. It is the story of how God is making all things new. And we get to be a part of that story. What part will you play?

(written by Jonathan Atkins)

The Gospel According to “Les Miserables” – Part 1

Les-Miserables-Movie-Poster

I’m not normally a fan of musicals. I prefer the epics (Braveheart, Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, etc). Until recently the only musicals I ever actually enjoyed have been “Newsies” and “Phantom of the Opera.” However, I have to say that I absolutely loved the new version of the Victor Hugo classic. I know that I might hear flak for it, but I mean who knew that Wolverine, Catwoman, and Maximus could sing like that?!?! The 2+ hour journey is filled with drama, action, love, and occasional comedy. If you haven’t yet, you NEED to go and watch this movie/musical.

1. THE STORY

The story takes place in the 19th century around the time of the French Revolution. Jean Valjean is released on parole from a 19 year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Upon receiving shelter from a local Bishop, Valjean steals silver from the parish in the middle of the night. He’s caught by authorities and returned to the parish for questioning. When asked about the silver the Bishop says that he gave it to him as a gift, and secures Valjean’s freedom. Moved by generosity, and the Bishop’s challenge, Valjean commits himself to God and vows to live a life of integrity and honesty under a new identity, however breaking his parole. Javert, who was the inspector that originally brought Valjean to justice, swears that he will do so again.

The story branches out to include a variety of characters. Corrupt innkeepers, young revolutionaries, and a single mother with a young daughter are just a few of the other characters we meet along the way. All of these people play a direct part in the lives of Valjean and Javert.

2. THE CHARACTERS

Fantine: Brokenness & Hopelessness

One of the sub-characters we meet is Fantine. She is a factory worker who sends her earnings away to support her illegitimate daughter Cosette. After causing a stir at the factory she is fired and sent away. Her life begins to spiral out of control. She sells her hair to make money and then with nowhere else to turn, she goes to streets and unwillingly becomes a prostitute. The pain of heartbreak and tragedy is overwhelmingly evident. Cold, sick, and seemingly hopeless, she sings:

 There was a time when men were kind
When their voices were soft
And their words inviting
There was a time when love was blind
And the world was a song
And the song was exciting
There was a time
Then it all went wrong

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living
I dreamed that love would never die
I dreamed that God would be forgiving
Then I was young and unafraid
And dreams were made and used and wasted
There was no ransom to be paid
No song unsung, no wine untasted

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
As they turn your dream to shame

He slept a summer by my side
He filled my days with endless wonder
He took my childhood in his stride
But he was gone when autumn came

And still I dream he’ll come to me
That we will live the years together
But there are dreams that cannot be
And there are storms we cannot weather

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 dreamed.

Javert: Law & Morality

We are not given much of his back story, but at first glance Inspector Javert seems like a model citizen. He has devoted his life to the study and practice of the law. He takes pride in his work. He is faithful and persevering in his search for justice. This is most clearly seen in his pursuit of Valjean, who broke parole, and is therefore guilty. He dedicates himself to bringing this criminal to justice. His passion for his work comes out one night as he sings from the rooftops.

There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from God
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!

Stars
In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest
Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!

Valjean: Mercy & Grace

The themes of grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness emanate from the life of Valjean. His life is a demonstration of how powerful grace and mercy can be. Valjean is deserving of punishment for theft and yet receives pardon. Hope instead of misery. Freedom instead of judgment.  From condemned criminal to forgiving citizen.

The Bishop extends grace:

You forgot I gave these also
Would you leave the best behind?
So Messieurs you may release him
For this man has spoken true
I commend you for your duty
May God’s blessing go with you.
But remember this, my brother
See in this some higher plan
You must use this precious silver
To become an honest man
By the witness of the martyrs
By the Passion and the Blood
God has raised you out of darkness
I have bought your soul for God!

Valjean responds:

What have I done sweet Jesus? What have I done?
Become a thief in the night? Become a dog on the run?
Have I fallen so far and is the hour so late?
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate?
The cries in the dark that nobody hears?
Here where I stand at the turning of the years

If there’s another way to go, I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number, murdered Valjean
When the chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

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”
My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me
Take an eye for an eye, turn your heart into stone
This is all I have lived for, this is all I have known

One word from him and I’d be back, beneath the lash upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I had a soul. How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life? Is there another way to go?

I am reaching but I fall, and the night is closing in
As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world, from the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now! Another story must begin!

3. CONNECTING THE DOTS? – COMING SOON!

(written by Jonathan Atkins)

When Mercy Found Me

The reason Jon started this blog. i love how he described himself…

My name is Jonathan Atkins. This is my story. I have experienced both sides of the coin of life. One side consisted of not being interested in spiritual things at all but instead just enjoying all that life had for me. The other side consisted of being dedicated to the church and to spiritual things. Yet both sides left me broken and empty longing for deeper purpose. That is when God intervened in my life and transformed me. It was in October of 2007 that God opened my eyes to see His majestic holiness and at the same time see the darkness and ugliness of my sin. I was without hope. Condemned. Guilty. But God showed me mercy. I also saw a cross bridging the infinite gap between me and God. I saw the innocent One hanging in my place for my sins. This perfect Substitute who bore the wrath deserved for me so I could know grace. Jesus Christ taking upon Himself my sins and giving to me His righteousness. A divine exchange took place that day and I have still not fully recovered. So rebel or Pharisee there is mercy to be found at the cross. Repent and trust in the Person and the finished work of Jesus Christ.

Titus 3:5-7 “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”