I lost it at Tower Records, 1 Utama Shopping Centre, Petaling Jaya. I can’t remember the year but it was a long time ago when there was still a Tower Records. I had headphones on and was listening to the music of Les Miserables. When I heard “Empty Chairs and Empty Tables” I lost it. I cried. The tears fell, I sobbed uncontrollably. I must have scared all those around me. I am not sure how I regained control, at least enough to take off the headphones, leave the shop and go to the nearest washroom to clean up. It was a painful time in my life. I had lost much and was grieving. The song triggered my grief.

My family know this is one of my favourite songs. Son Andrew sang it for me for my 60th birthday on a clip he sent from Toronto. I heard it again last night when I went to watch Les Miserables at the Esplanade Theatre, with Bernice and the Cheng boys. No, I didn’t burst into tears this time though the song moved me as always. It reminded me that there was indeed much pain and tragedy in the story. Think of the deaths of Eponine, Gavroche, and the idealistic student revolutionaries (and the young soldiers in the National Guard though their faces are only shown in the movie); the injustice suffered by the poor and powerless, seen to some degree through the story of Fantine; and even when Jean Valjean dies and goes to heaven, there is still the sorrow of death.

I am sure Les Miserables is popular for many reasons but I like to believe one of the reasons it resonates with so many is its honest portrayal of the tragedy that is life. I have often wished the church would also acknowledge the tragedy of life in a fallen world but we too quickly want to fix people’s pain and, if we can’t, distract from thinking about it. I believe that there is healing in the Lord. I do believe that:

We will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
We will walk behind the plough-share,
We will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.
(Les Miserables — Finale 2)

I believe because, crazy as it sounds, Jesus did die and He did rise again. But I also believe that we do not help people get to that tomorrow by understating the sorrow of today.

In his book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, Frederick Buechner writes:

When Jesus was brought to the place where his friend Lazarus lay dead . . . he did not offer any solution. He only wept. Then the other things he said and did. But first he simply let his tears be his first word. (Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale [New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1977], 35.)

Later Buechner writes that joy is indeed the last word but that “it can only be spoken after the first word”. (Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale, 35.)

I am not advocating that we go around morbid and sad. All I am saying is, let us be honest with the reality of pain in this life. I have friends in Penang and Hong Kong who just lost their spouses. The pain is unbearable. (I have been down that road before.) And even as I am writing this I just received news that the Chief Minister of Penang has been arrested under charges of corruption in what looks like an attempt to destroy him politically. Meanwhile, leaders in Malaysia who have mismanaged funds in the millions remain free.

Do I have faith? Of course I have faith. I know how history will turn out. But please don’t take away my anger and my pain. Joy is the last word. But we need to speak the first word first.