“Christ’s thumbprint is everywhere if we’re willing to see it,” teaches the Rev. Matt Rawle. That includes our books, movies, and music.
Rawle, who serves as lead pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana, is the author of a series of books exploring the intersection between faith and pop culture. His latest, The Grace of Les Miserables is a six-week study for Lent. Using Victor Hugo’s familiar tale, Rawle explores the Christian themes of grace, justice, poverty, revolution, love and hope.
In this wide-ranging conversation, we talk about how we can find Christ’s thumbprint in the books we read, the music we listen to, and the movies and television shows we watch.
- The Rev. Matt Rawle is the pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana.
- His latest book The Grace of Les Miserables, is published by Abingdon Press.
- Study videos available for free during social distancing due to coronavirus.
- Rawle has also written:
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This episode posted on February 19, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
The Rev. Matt Rawle: Christ’s thumbprint is everywhere, if we’re willing to see it.
Joe: That’s Matt Rawle, the lead pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana. Matt has recently authored a new book called The Grace of Les Miserables. In which he uses Victor Hugo’s epic story to explore themes of grace and justice, poverty, revolution, love and hope. We talk about that intersection between faith and pop culture, and how we can find Christ’s thumbprint in the books we read and the movies and television shows that we watch.
Joe: Matt Rawle, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Matt Rawle: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Joe: You have written several books about the intersection of faith and pop culture and use stories like “The Nutcracker” and “Scrooge” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” And then I see “Dr. Who” on the list. And you have a new one coming out on “Les Miserables.”
Matt Rawle: Yes.
Joe: And you use them to share the gospel story and teach us something about our deception. What drew you to that type of work?
Matt Rawle: Well, at the beginning, I’m a fan. Right? So I write about what I enjoy. And that’s kind of fun. But, you know, culture is simply what we make of the world. God offers the raw ingredients and whatever we cook up is culture. And I love diving into…. Being from South Louisiana, growing up around the New Orleans area, culture was just ubiquitous—food, music, laissez les bons temps rouler of life. So culture has always been a big part of the joy of being alive, of what we make of the world. I’ve always, you know, been in the church. I’m a cradle Methodist. So the intersection between culture and the church has always been really important to me. And it’s church versus culture. Right? Our churches have a culture. Our families have a culture. Our regions have a culture. So trying to find that intersection and recognizing that, as Paul says, ‘God was pleased to reconcile all things through Christ.’ Culture is also part of that ‘all.’ And culture is a powerful tool to tell a good story. So that’s why I love searching for Jesus where we think Jesus isn’t. And I think that’s really…. It’s a lot of fun and it seems to be fruitful.
Joe: Have you ever been surprised by something…you went to a movie and there was an ‘ah ha’ moment?
Matt Rawle: Yeah. Well, I’m…. My dad turned me onto ‘Cool Hand Luke.’ Cool Hand Luke. And I remember seeing parts of it. And you know, it’s an old movie and you know, nothing blew up. And there weren’t light sabers in it. So I wasn’t initially interested in it. But then watching the film with eyes of faith, on the other end of it, it became profound and life-giving. And I learned a lot of lessons. The same kind of thing happened with Disney’s ‘WALL-E.’ And you’re watching it. It’s this great story about a robot. Then when you start putting things together he goes to humanity and he…. There’s this great scene where he knocks someone out of their chair, ‘cause humanity is in these chairs, these hovercrafts. She gets knocked out of her chair and she sees the stars for the first time. So he opens the eyes of the blind. And then Wally gets sent to robot prison and then through an accident releases all the robots, and there’s release of the captives. Right? And then (spoiler alert) you know, he is carrying life within him and gets crushed at the end. And of course his companion robot is Eve. So there’s, you know… Mark that. Put a check mark there. There’s a parallel there. And especially when my kids can see it, it’s really fantastic that you don’t just have to open Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to have an experience of Christ. And that, I think, is a powerful teaching tool for sure. And it’s just plain fun to look for it and to see it.
Joe: Tell me more about this idea that Christ is in these things. They weren’t designed necessarily to tell this story that you’re finding in them. How do you reconcile that?
Matt Rawle: Yeah, no. Perfect. So our faith teaches us that all things were made through Christ, that Christ is the word of God. God created through the word. And therefore Christ’s thumbprint is everywhere if we’re willing to see it. Now sometimes we don’t share that thumbprint as best as we can through the things that we create through culture. It’s not that everything is valuable for learning about Christ. But there certainly is a thumbprint of the creator everywhere if we’re able to, with patience and grace, be able to see it. So I think it’s fun, especially with books and movies and music. For one thing, I love music. I was a music major in undergrad. And I love playing with songs that aren’t obviously sacred. Like, I say, just because says Jesus in it doesn’t mean it’s a good song. And also, just because it doesn’t say Jesus in it doesn’t mean it’s a bad song. You know. ‘Amazing Grace’ never mentions the person of Jesus of Nazareth, though we sing it all the time. I love playing with that and opening that because it gets us even within the biblical text, helps us find that other layer in the story, that is deeper, especially like when we dive into something like the Gospel of John. You can just keep plumbing the depths of John and never exhaust the message that is there. And that’s beautiful. Again, I keep coming back to ‘it’s fun.’ I love to have…. It’s fun to look for these things. And that’s part of the motivation. It’s kind of a, maybe, a selfish motivation. It’s just fun to do it, to dive into things like the hero myth of a Luke Skywalker. Right? Or, Disney’s ‘Moana’ is another one. You know. The hero myth is when someone is born in a particular place they receive a calling. There is a sage to guide them. They set out somewhere else. They initially fail. Then they are successful. You know, Luke Skywalker, born on Tatooine, has Obi-Wan Kenobi and a light saber. Oh, you’re also given some kind of special gift to answer that calling. He wants to go and see the stars. And same thing with Moana. She’s on an island. The sea is calling her name. Her grandmother gives her this …the heart of Te Fiti. But diving into seeing how Jesus is like this hero, but also not like this hero, helps us understand and deepen that story that is deep-seated in all of us, of this hero that we wish we could be, and we often fail to be, but understanding that Christ has already won that victory for us. And so, yeah, looking at hero-myths, music, television, movies, it’s just a lot of fun to see Christ’s thumbprint in a lot of the cultural expressions that we share.
Joe: I think I heard you say in that (correct me if I’m wrong)…But I think I heard you say that your reading of Scripture helps you see these movies or books or shows differently, but also you’re viewing…looking for that…even the television helps you read the Bible differently. Can you say a little more about that?
Matt Rawle: Yeah. It’s reciprocal. Right? So the metaphor is: love of God informs our love of neighbor. And then our love of neighbor deepens our love of God. Right? Another way to look at that is reading Scripture helps us see these things like…. I’ll use Cool Hand Luke as an example. There’s this one scene where he’s dared to eat 50 eggs. No man can eat 50 eggs. And he does. And it’s this, you know, quote/unquote ‘miracle’ that happens in the story. In the last scene he’s laying on the table in cruciform. No man can eat 50 eggs. And they all walk away and there’s this beautiful scene of seeing him lay cruciform on the table. And when you see that you’re like, oh, look…could that be an image of the miracle of Christ, and this kind of thing. But then you go back to the text, you know, if this movie can express through metaphor, maybe there’s something in the text that I might have missed because I didn’t search deep enough for it. You know. I love bringing up, especially in the Gospel of John, the wedding at Cana. ‘Cause one, there’s no teenager on the planet doesn’t know this story ‘cause Jesus made 70 gallons of wine, after the party was finished. He made even more. Mom, don’t get mad at me for drinking a glass of wine. Jesus made 70 gallons. Right? There’s no teenager on the planet that doesn’t know this. And pulling up the imagery of 6 stone jars, that number is really intentional. Six stone jars for purification is an oxymoron. You can’t get clean with 6 jars. If there were 7 jars, then that would work. Right? Six jars is humanity. It’s creation almost to complete. So six stone jars for purification doesn’t work. But then Jesus assumes that and takes that imperfection and makes it the best…the best of wines.
Another story is, you know, Peter…. I love the Gospel of John, obviously. Peter is fishing on the lakeshore, right? This is another story that youth always pay attention to and we adults forget. He’s fishing and he’s also naked. And of course, you’re like, wait, wait, back up. And he sees Jesus on the lakeshore and Jesus is cooking around a charcoal fire. The only other time a charcoal fire is mentioned is when Peter is denying Jesus. That’s the only 2 times a charcoal fire is mentioned. So when Peter sees Jesus around a charcoal fire, Peter’s thinking, “He knows.” Oh no, he knows. So Peter puts on clothes and jumps into the water, which is weird, you know, leaving the rest of the guys to like bring everything onto the shore. But when you marry that to ‘the fall’ in Genesis 3, he puts on clothes because he’s ashamed. And he jumps into the water at first because the very last conversation that Jesus and Peter had was when Jesus was washing his feet. He goes, ‘Wash all of me.” And then Jesus said, I don’t need to wash all of you. You know. Okay, then just wash my feet. It first starts with him saying, Don’t wash me at all. And Jesus is like, Really? No. I have to unless you want to share with me…. Then wash all of me. Because it’s Peter is Peter is…bless his heart. (as we say in the south) Bless his heart. Wash all of me. I don’t have to wash all of you. Well, now, after the denial, Peter puts on clothes because he’s ashamed and then jumps head first in the water. Also, as we say in the south, ‘to get right with Jesus,’ before he meets him around the charcoal fire. And of course, (I love it.) “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” Jesus does not call him Peter. There is a loss there. “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love me?” And that’s Jesus’s answer to our shortcomings. If you love me, then feed people. Right? Loving. So, reading the text helps me see these things in media. And then if these media—if books, movies, television…if these things are cleaver enough to tell a Jesus metaphor, then maybe I should go back to the text to see is there more there? And it’s really…it’s reciprocal in that way. It starts with Scripture. Then you go to pop culture, but then it sends you right back to the story. Love of God informs our love of neighbor and love of neighbor deepens our love of God.
Joe: Fantastic. That’s fantastic. You mentioned songs for a minute, and how there are songs that don’t mention Jesus but you find meaning in them. Do you have an example?
Matt Rawle: I do. So, I love to play with the line between secular and sacred because… You, the grand footnote of everything is that we might be wrong about everything. So, take that. It’s a humble footnote to add to everything. But the line between sacred and secular is function. I think the way we use something. There’s a great song by Dave Matthews called “Bartender.” Now there’s some Christian imagery there. But rarely…. You’re not gonna find it in a hymnal. It was written when Dave Matthews was struggling with alcoholism. And he wrote this song, ‘Bartender, please give me one more drink; give me the wine that set Jesus free after 3 days in the ground.’ He also sings, [singing] ‘Bartender, please, fill my glass for me with the wine you gave Jesus that set him free, from 3 days in the ground.’ Then he also talks about ‘don’t give me the wine that he gave Judas that hanged him from a tree.’ He looking for…. And that…at least in that time of his life that was the grand metaphor for everything, was drinking. And it’s a prayer. He even sings, ‘I’m on bended knee, bartender, please…’ To him God is the bartender and he’s looking for a different cup. I need a different cup. That’s a really great example. We also play with a lot of Amos Lee songs. There’s one called ‘Freedom.’ (I love it.) [singing] ‘Freedom is seldom found by beating someone to the ground.’ There’s another song there from his album called ‘Mission Bell.’ And it’s called ‘Violin.’ And it’s a song about hearing someone play the violin and the chorus is, ‘God, why can I hear you in this violin but not in other places?’ You know. So I love playing with music that way of getting people to think past… We can only experience Jesus between the covers of the library that is the Bible, and hearing the gospel through a homeless man playing the violin on the subway. You know. ‘Cause when we can get to that place our souls are deeply nourished by the creation that God has offered to all of us.
Joe: Yeah. How have you seen it in your congregation as a pastor…have people brought you movies and said, Oh, have you seen this and this, or, in this book, or in this song?
Matt Rawle: Absolutely. And it’s one of my favorite things, when people say, Oh, my gosh, I just heard this song from so-and-so, and it really talks about Jonah in the belly of the fish, but it doesn’t mention Jonah.’ And I’m always interested in how others are hearing this. Right? That’s part of the goal, is to just make an offering and then for them to take that offering and make it their own. And I love hearing that now. I will say I’m a bit of a music snob, as my wife tells me. It’s so funny. We have this like running gag that my wife will tell me about a song and I’ll ignore it. And then 6 months later I’ll discover it and tell her about it. Oh, I heard this really great song from, you know, whomever. And she’s say, Yeah, that’s what I texted you about 6 months ago, you big jerk. But I love hearing the glimmer of the gospel when it’s organically discovered by others. That is so fantastic. That means my work as a pastor is fruitful. In other words, they’re not having to come to the sanctuary to hear a 25-minute sermon to have an expression of Christ, er…to have an experience of Christ. When they organically discover it on their own, that’s when the sermon is sticking. That’s when that sanctifying grace is becoming fruitful and coming into fruition. And that’s a fantastic thing.
Joe: Is that something that you teach or do people just kind of catch it because it’s part of your sermon style?
Matt Rawle: I think it’s something that folks just pick up. I’m not super explicit about it. I’m not practical. Ever. I wish I was. That’s one of the things I’m working on. But it’s thoughts that people pick up, that you’re more apt to hear the preaching in the sanctuary and the writings and this kind of thing because I’m not the kind of pastor that says, Okay, I want you to do these 3 things this week. You know, look for a daffodil, write a song and put your shoes on opposite foot than you normally do. That’s not my…you know, seven steps to a different day. It’s not mine…. I heard this really cool song by Amos Lee about a violin and just offering it. I’m not a big… I’m not big on saying, This is everything that’s wrong with the world. My preference is to offer the most good that I can and let the good speak for itself because I honestly believe that good is more powerful than evil. So if I offer the good I just let it be. I don’t have to say how bad your steak was at your house. I just offer the steak that I know how to cook and let it be. And that will be captured by some, not captured by others. But life is too short to not offer goodness and let the goodness speak for itself.
Joe: And that goodness is everywhere. It’s in our ordinary lives. Not in everything but everywhere.
Matt Rawle: Absolutely. And that’s the power of the Holy Spirit. I mean, it takes great work to cultivate an environment in which the Spirit can freely move. It’s like, you know, I have one of my pastor friends that says…he doesn’t prepare for sermon. He prays and gets up and just does it. And he goes, I just get up there and the Holy Spirit tells me what to say. And I’m a bit envious of that. That’s a great spiritual gift. I’ve done the same thing, and the Spirit tells me to write a sermon. So, for me at least, it takes great work to cultivate an environment in which the Holy Spirit can move. And when we do that…. Like for example, like, spiritual disciplines—starting our day in a particular way, crafting our day to make room for the Holy Spirit. I’m a big fan of improvisation and improvisation takes a lot of work to make it natural and for it to flow. Actors, when they do improv, don’t just get up there and wing it. It takes a lot of practice to do that. So when we invest in those practices, we begin to see the Holy Spirit everywhere. And it’s this revelation…. I was talking to someone just 2 weekends ago. We had a bar-be-cue at his house. And he said it’s kind of like one day you realize God was always there and you just weren’t able to see it. You know, it’s kind of like the older brother and the Prodigal Son story. I love how the father doesn’t say…. You know, ‘cause the older brother is mad and you know, you killed the fat calf for that smuck, and you didn’t do anything for me. How can you….? And the father doesn’t say, Okay, well I will give you your portion of the inheritance as well. The father says, Everything I have is already yours. And there’s that revelation of, God was here all the time. It’s the Jacob moment. ‘Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.” It’s not that God changed. It’s just that our eyes were able to see it now. And pop culture helps us to be able to see that. It’s funny. Jacob was not in the synagogue or the temple or the tabernacle when that experience happened. He was on his own, hitting rock bottom, running from his brother because his brother wanted to kill him. And he had this vision. Up until that point in the narrative he referred to God as ‘your God,’ when he was talking to his father. So Jacob…. It’s not even that he had these deep spiritual practices and was a tither and did all the small groups…. You know. God was even ‘your God’ when he referred to God. But in this moment, hitting rock bottom, looking at the stars, he had this experience of God that he could have ignored. But he said, ‘Surely the presence of the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.’ Now his life wasn’t completely changed after that. You know, the trickster was then tricked by Laban later in the story. It’s not a…. The Holy Spirit is not magic, coming from the ??? It’s not voodoo. It’s not a magic pill. And there’s not a prescription. You know, even Paul. It took him 3 years in Arabia to begin understanding this whole Christian thing. But if we can cultivate an environment through which the Holy Spirit can move we begin to see it. And what has changed is not that God is finally answering us. What has changed is that our ears are open. It’s like music. Music is a graph of pitch versus time. Right? I talk about this in the The Grace of Les Miserables, which is a new release coming out.
Joe: I’ll talk about that in a minute.
Matt Rawle: Music is simply a graph of pitch versus time. Music is literally black and white. Notes and lines. Dots and lines on a page. But it’s only black and white if we view it with our eyes. If we understand music through our ears, then it becomes…then it tells a story that words just cannot express. And I think that’s the difference, when we cultivate an environment of the Holy Spirit to move, is that we start to break from black and white, this and that. That side of the room versus that side of the room because that’s music and it’s true. That’s what music is, black and white notes on…. But let’s open our ears now. And now it becomes totally different. There’s a richness of music. There’s tone. There’s crescendo, decrescendo. There’s multiple parts. It’s a whole new world when we’re able to also engage our ears rather than just our eyes.
Joe: And to continue that metaphor, the musicians I know hear music in a lot of things. You know, my son is a musician. And he goes, the blinker on the car is a rhythm. And if he can drum a beat to that in the passenger seat. And so there’s that…. One of the things I think I hear you saying, which I’m really, really drawn to, is this idea of integration of our lives. It stops us from being able to compartmentalize—like, this is sacred; this is not. And there’s this disintegration of finding the sacred … it takes away the label of sacred.
Matt Rawle: And you see this with Jesus, right, especially in his understanding of Sabbath and that which is not Sabbath. Right? So the Pharisees (and bless their hearts) they want to keep the Sabbath holy. But the problem is, the Ten Commandments don’t say, But don’t make every other day not holy. Keep the Sabbath holy because if we’re able to keep the Sabbath holy then we’ll understand that Monday can also be holy, as Tuesday. And for Jesus this Sabbath is not about not doing work; it is a day set apart to do the work of God. And with Jesus he doesn’t ever sit with the disciples and say, Okay, now it’s the Sabbath; let’s stop what we’re doing. It is to recognize that Sabbath can be everyday because Sabbath is a time of mindfulness of God. Right? So, transgress, the word transgress, is a Hebrew word that means to pass through without paying mind. That’s what the word means. Trans means to cross. To transgress is to pass through without paying mind. And I got this from Matt Schlimm’s great book, Seventy Words Every Christian Should Know. It’s a great book. To pass through without paying mind. We do that all the time. Maybe I’m not listening to my kids. Or I think I’m too busy to do X, Y or Z. It’s like hearing Amos Lee’s violin and not hearing the metaphor that’s in that. Right? To pass through that song without paying mind. To hear the car blinker and not hear the rhythm and the beat. Right? You’re passing through and not paying mind. The antidote to that is Sabbath because Sabbath is a mindfulness of God. And Sabbath doesn’t only have to be Saturday. Right? It doesn’t only have to be…. I love the Ten Commandments. Keep the Sabbath holy. But it never says, Don’t keep Monday holy, too. Don’t keep Wednesday holy, too. And that’s what Jesus does. Are you gonna heal on the Sabbath? And Jesus is trying to say, Everyday should be a day of mindfulness of God. It’s not about should I heal this man on Monday or Saturday? It’s heal this man. Period. Do good. Every day can be Sabbath in the sense of being mindful of the ways in which God is calling to us.
Joe: You mentioned a few minutes ago about the new book that’s coming out. Tell us about that.
Matt Rawle: Yes. So, it’s called The Grace of Les Miserables. And you know, of course, Victor Hugo’s Les Mis, if you’re brave enough to read the 1400-page 19th century book. It’s also a great musical and several screen adaptations. PBS has done a 6-part series on it, which is really, really great. And ultimately it’s the story of the power of the grace of God. Jean Valjean is kind of the main character of the story. He’s a criminal, sentenced to 5 years prison for stealing a loaf of bread. Because he tried to escape so often it became 19 years of hard labor. And it’s ultimately the story of Valjean seeking grace. In the musical…. So the musical is a little bit different than the book. In the musical Valjean has this experience of a priest (and in the book, too). But there’s this priest called Monseigneur Bienvenue. I love this. He takes Valjean in because there’s no room in the inns, so to speak. No one will take him in. He takes him in, and Valjean repays his hospitality by stealing all of his silver and leaving in the middle of the night. Of course, he’s arrested and he’s brought back, but the priest says, Oh, I gave this silver to him as a gift. Oh, and you forgot the best of it. Here are 2 silver candlesticks, and you left so quickly you forgot these as well. And he dismisses the police, and he tells Valjean to use this silver to be a good man. So it’s kind of that…when the woman is caught in adultery, these men bring this woman before Jesus. We’re supposed to stone her. What do say, Jesus? And he who is without sin cast the first stone, and they leave, and Jesus tells the woman, “Where are there? Is there no one here to condemn you? Well, neither do I. Go and sin no more.” So in that moment there’s amazing grace of Jesus withholding condemnation but also giving her a new day. Go and sin no more. But there’s also great justice in the since of Jesus reminding the crowd that guilty should not pass judgment on the guilty. Or maybe more to the point, the powerful who have never been held accountable, should not hold accountable the powerless. That’s not the intention of the Law. And priest says the same thing. He dismisses the police. Where are they, Valjean? Is there no one here to condemn you? Well, neither do I. Go and be a good man. And we have this idea that he was forever changed in that moment. But not so in the book. Every day he tries to choose the good. Almost like an addict. He takes it one day, one healthy decision at a time. And then finally at the end of the story…. He was convicted by the priest, but his conversion happened through the entirety of the story. It’s like one of my professors talked Paul and his Damascus experience. I went to seminary and Dr. Douglas Campbell…. He’s from New Zealand, which is always fun to hear him. He’s just talking and he said, Paul was not converted on the road to Damascus; Paul was convicted on the road to Damascus. Paul was not converted until his enemy laid hands on him and healed him. So, in other words, conversion happens in healing. And the same thing with Valjean. He was convicted by the priest. But it takes the entirety of the rest of the story for him to realize his conversion into being a good man. He’s the kind of personality…. I love this because sometimes he confesses who he is to Marius at the end of the story. But he only confesses his faults. And therefore Marius despises him. Valjean seems to have forgotten to tell them that it was he who saved Marius’s life at the end of the story. And so I dive into, for a brief time in this book, what is the nature of confession? Do we only confess our faults to God? Is that truly being honest of what our day was like? For some people sometimes have to say out loud, I am worth it. I am valuable. And I do have gifts that God can use ‘cause sometimes we dive too deep into only confessing our faults, and that can be a heavy burden to bear sometimes. Valjean has to say out loud because he does not believe that he is a good man. And at the end of it he becomes the best of men, at the end of the story. See, the grace of Les Miserables fundamentally is about…. We talk about God as a God of grace and also as a God of justice. But what happens when the two collide? What happens when grace and justice occupy the same space and time? And that ultimately….because the main characters of Les Mis all represent a different idea. Grace, Justice, Poverty, Love, Revolution, and Hope are the six chapters. And it’s a study of what happens when all of these ideas interact with each other. Sometimes they work together; sometimes they are polar. Especially Valjean and Javier, the two main characters. Valjean represents grace. Javier represents justice. You know, Javier is the character who has studied music all of his life but never with his ears. Right? …in dealing with…navigating all this. So it’s a great story. If you’ve seen the musical…read the book or seen it on film, it is very Christological. It is very theological. There’s a whole…. Chapter 6 of the book which was probably the most fun to write. Last chapter…as we…it’s a Lenten study. So as we creep to Easter the whole last chapter deals with the role of the garden. There’s several gardens throughout the story. Almost anything good that happens in Les Mis happens in a garden. It’s beautiful. And if I were to ever give the Bible … have the awesome responsibility of giving the Bible a title, it would be ‘The Tale of Three Gardens.’ You know, the Garden of Eden. And then you have Gethsemane and the garden tomb. And then you also have the city garden at the end when heaven and earth are one and there’s the tree of life at the end. Looking at these 3 gardens you get almost everything we need to know about God’s story with humanity. And that was a lot of fun to look at that image in the book and to see faith just in the role of the garden, how gardens are used in the story. It’s a fantastic book. So deep it will never be exhausted. It’s 1400 pages long. Not my book. My book’s much shorter. You’ll find it easier to read, for sure. But yeah, that’s coming out in Lent. And I’m really excited about it because I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun.
Joe: Sounds like a great way to kind of enrich your Lenten experience, to go through at least.
Matt Rawle: It really…it is because you see…. It’s very honest. The book is very honest about Valjean and his struggle. Again, the Gospel is not a magic bullet. It’s not voodoo. It takes hard work. You know, for Valjean he finds himself to be a gardener about halfway through the book. And to him a garden is hard work. For the priest the garden is Sabbath. For Marius and Cosette, because they meet secretly in the garden, and the garden they meet is wild and not pruned. And that’s their love, right? It’s just this beautiful…. Gardens are also providence. The poor in Paris go to the city gardens to pick berries and find food. And this kind of thing. And I think it’s important, a small detail in the story, while they’re at war, when the barricades are built during the uprising of 1832, all of the city gardens are closed. It’s very difficult to recognize God’s providence when we are at war with each other. It’s fantastic. There’s so much in the book, especially in Lent when we talk about maybe inheriting new spiritual practice, taking something on or giving something up. These characters in these stories help us understand some deep and profound truths about the nature of God. So it’s great. It’s fun.
Joe: Looking forward to it. The last question I ask every guest on get on your spirit in shape is: how do you keep your spirit in shape?
Matt Rawle: So, two things really. One is…. I do have a morning practice, and I’d be lying if I said I did it every morning. I have 4 kids. So…prayers accepted. Isabella, Annalee, Cecilia and Robert, ranging from 12 to 3½. So our house is a circus. It’s a great circus, but it is a circus. But my normal daily practice is I simply start with breathing—5 seconds in, hold it for 20 seconds, 10 seconds out. When I breathe in I say, Kyrie eleison. And when I breathe out it’s Christe eleison (God have mercy. Christ have mercy.) …starting with the recognition that I am not God. It’s a fine way…and God in his infinite patience still chooses to be my God. What an amazing miracle that is already. So Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison. And then I recite part of Psalm 51: Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. I’m not asking to win the lottery. I’m not asking for a new car. I’m just asking for you not to deny your presence today. And if that prayer can be answered, then the rest is gravy.
Joe: The rest is desert.
Matt Rawle: Psalm 51. Then I sit in silence. I just sit in silence because we like to fill our prayers…. I’m a preacher; I talk too much. We like to fill our prayers with lots of words because we think sometimes prayer is me saying a lot of things to God. And that is good. But I almost feel like I’m asking God to answer a question, but I can’t close my mouth long enough to hear the answer. So I sit in silence. Sometimes it’s an abysmal 3 minutes. Sometimes, if I’m feeling very Christian, it’s like 12½ to 15 minutes. But it’s so amazing that in those moments when I’m silent and most often what happens is I see the faces of people that I need to connect with, and I’ll call them during the day. And it doesn’t happen every time. But often they’ll say, Oh, I really needed to talk to you, or, Thanks for calling. I meant to tell you about…. You know, and those are…. I think God in a way (And it may sound silly.) God giving me the to-do list for today. Okay, you’ve asked for my presence and this is what you can now do with my presence that is with you. Then I always end with the Lord's Prayer, and praying for those that I’m cognizant of that I need to pray for—friends, family and also enemies. I had a powerful experience at the Western Wall when I went to Jerusalem. I put my hand on the wall and I started praying. And I saw all of the faces of those with whom I disagree. So I said, I’m sorry; I must be praying the wrong prayer. I was supposed to be praying for friends and family. So let me pray again. And I kept seeing the friends (sic) of people with whom I disagree. So I changed my prayer and I said, Well, Father, may they see the Gospel. May their hearts be turned. And I heard as clear as one can hear, God said to me, I’m not trying to change their heart; you’re the one praying. You’re the one at the Wall. Right? So I’ve made it a practice to pray, not that my enemies’ hearts are transformed, but, you know, love your enemies. I really wish Jesus hadn’t said that. The hardest thing Jesus ever asked us to do…. It doesn’t mean to condone. It doesn’t mean that we all don’t have something to work on. But to love your enemies because when we…we’re so quickly…we so quickly define ourselves by being not someone else. And the real mystery of loving of your enemies is that you find your own true identity, by not doing that. Don’t tell me who you’re not. Tell me who you are. And sometimes the only way to discover that is to begin recognizing that the division line between us, whoever us is (us and them)…however you’re defining that that the cross…the weight of the cross has dismantled that. It’s not that there’s no Jew and there is no Greek. There is no Jew or Greek. There’s no dividing wall between the two. And when we get that we begin to discover who we really are. So that’s on the one hand my liturgical kind of rhythmic practice to start the day. And the other is, I always ask, God, what do you have in store for me today? It’s been a fun prayer. And sometimes God answers that with reckless abandon. Oh, I didn’t ask for that. But what do you have in store for me? You know, life is…it can be lots of fun with lots of hope. Sometimes it takes great work to see it and to make hope a reality in the world. But God, what do you have in store for me today? And most often that comes with a lot of joy. Sometimes joy is a happy experience. Sometimes joy is the bloom that happens in the midst of the rubble. Joy is simply the steadfast assurance that God is with us. That’s joy. It can be happy, but not always. Blessed are you when you are persecuted, and leap for joy on that day. It doesn’t mean we’re happy about it. It means that God is with us, which is different. That’s why I always, by the way, light the candle of joy the last week of Advent ‘cause joy is the culmination of God’s presence with us. Joy, as opposed to peace, hope and love… Peace, hope and love is something that we can manufacture and that we can craft and create. Joy is simply something to be received. And that sets it apart from the others, which is why I always…. Several liturgical nerds in my congregation say, Preacher, you’re doing it again. You’re doing it out of order. It’s purple, purple, pink, purple, white. You know, what are you doing? Joy is…. I looked in the Bible for the order of the Advent candles. I couldn’t find that. So I figured that as a creative and spiritual liberty to change things up a bit.
Joe: I think I could do this a lot longer, but we’re running out of time. Thank you so much. This has been a great conversation.
Matt Rawle: Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me.
Joe: That was the Rev. Matt Rawle, the lead pastor of Asbury United Methodist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana. Matt is also the author of The Grace of Les Miserables, a wonderful study for Lent. If you’d like to learn more about Matt or to order his book, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the episode page for this conversation.
Also, while you’re on the page, you can read a transcript of this conversation. My email address is there so you can communicate with me about what you love about Get Your Spirit in Shape, or maybe give some ideas for guests to have on in the future.
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Thanks for listening. We’ll be back soon with another episode that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.