Saturday, December 10, 2005

A West Wing Sermon

Last Sunday my wife and I sat down to watch our favourite television show, The West Wing, and even though we had been to church in the morning we were interested to hear another sermon the same evening, only now in front of the tube.

In case you missed it, in this episode the Latino Democrat running for president was faced with the daunting task of speaking to an African American congregation shortly after a Latino police officer had gunned down an African American teenager in the local streets as a mistaken act of self defense.

I thought it was a pretty fantastic scene even though the American phenomenon of churches allowing politicians to use their pulpits from which to campaign boggles my mind. I am from Canada. I'm sure this happens here but it seems to be less commonplace.

The show did a good job of capturing the racial tension and also of holding back from the "too easy" conclusion that might have been tempting to write. You know, where it all ends with a group hug and everyone holding candles at a White House vigil. The realism was good, and you could feel the questions sticking in your throat just as they do when stuff like this happens in real life.

The speech given by Democrat Matt Santos (played by Jimmy Smits) was what stuck with me the most. He had been wrestling with how he would walk the tightrope of trying to win votes and yet be honest with what had happened. How could he get up there and vent his anger at both the police officer for his mistake and the teenager who had brought on the tragedy? In the end he made what I thought was a great speech which the congregation could only stand and applaude. (Okay, so maybe the script could be accused of ending a bit too easy)

His speech was about the struggle between blame and compassion.

In a nutshell his point was that we need to get beyond our desire to cast blame and seek vindication and conjur up instead the compassion that it takes to really make a difference in the world. It was the sort of speech you wish people would listen to before they went out and rioted.

The line that really stuck with me was where Santos said that even if people had to pretend to have compassion, they should! That's a fantastic point. How often do we stop from doing the right thing because we don't quite feel like it?

I mean, sincerity is a good thing, and authenticity is to be strived for, but is a good and right action somehow less admirable if one has to force oneself to perform it? Is it any less sincere if I show compassion to someone not just because my passing moods led me to but because I decided to? It occurs to me that while insincerity may often be a fault, perhaps sincerity can be an even more devestating fault if our insistence on it keeps us from doing what we know is right!

To be honest, I find that quite often in my life I have to drum up the fortitude and courage to show compassion to someone only to discover that only once I've done so do I actually begin to feel that compassion. I'm not saying that i do this very often, but it happens, and judging from the fact that there are real writers behind the words of Santos, it seems I may not be the only one!

Great point Matt Santos. Once we're convinced that a certain response is the right one nothing, including our own moods (however fierce or justified), should keep us from responding in that way. Good show West Wing. Even though I disagree with many of the viewpoints expressed on this show, I have to hand it to them, they got this one right.

But I can't just leave it at that either. After all, there was something that went painfully unsaid in that fictional church service, or at least the part that was shown (as if there was any other part). Namely, it is this:

If we are to lay aside blame, then how can we count on justice to be done? And if we must pretend to have compassion even when we do not, then what hope is there for humanity? Is that really where our hope lies: In faking love for one another until somehow our utopia is achieved?

Truth is, if the congregation Matt Santos spoke to was a Bible-believing one, the reason for their standing ovation would have been not so much for the promise of racial understanding, or the articulation of good morals, but for the connection Santos' speech had with the very gospel of Christ. As a matter of fact, without Christ, Santos' speech is actually quite empty.

I'm not making a judgment call on the religious persuasion of the writers of this show, I'm just pointing out that what often goes unsaid on television is actually the part that most needs to be heard. In the gospel of Christ blame is dealt with, and compassion is dealt out in droves.

For in Christ we can actually let go of blame without fearing that justice will be lost completely. The punishment for sin has been handed out and Jesus has taken the brunt of it all and He will hand out justice accordingly in the future when all is weighed out and made right based on the perfect knowledge of God.

And in Christ our compasion has a foundation, and in one sense doesn't necessarily even need to be pretended. As we consider our own sin from his perspective and know that He loves us unconditionally we can begin to do the same. The love of Christ can compel us even when human emotion or even the force of our own will may not.

So it is that in the struggle between blame and compassion, the only proper intersection is at the cross, where blame is taken, and compassion is given in its place.

In this we the good news that flies in the face of the bad, and no matter what your political persuasion it is the only thing that can save the world.

Just what the President was looking for. Seems he was in the right place.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Hoarfrost Orange

This morning I witnessed a miracle, and all I did was walk out my front door.

Lately I've been fairly enamored with hoarfrosted trees. When they make their appearance there is nothing quite like them. The immobile dance of one tree in particular caught my eye today. I saw it as I came off the stairs from the courtyard in front of our home. It looked perfect.

The trunk was dusty brown and the evergreen branches were rebelliously white, as if scoffing at the stereotype and daring to confront a label. It was a simple tree. One of a million and, at the same time, one in a million.

As I approached this wonderful figure I noticed that I had never noticed it before. And there was another tree beside it too; much shorter and deciduous. It appeared to have white leaves with orange undersides. Seemed strange that those leaves had hung on so long, but there they were in their seasonal defiance, perhaps spurred on by the rebellion of the evergreen. It occurred to me that these two trees had been companions through thick and thin for many years now. Funny I'd never really seen them before.

The inevitability of this miracle's passing was upon me as it came time to walk on by. After all I had places to be. But at our closest point I saw more marvelous hues: a touch of green behind the snow and orange-pink dusting the white. The pink was brighter at the top where the sunrise had crept over the apartments behind us. Turning away I decided these were the most beautiful trees I'd ever seen and thanked the Creator. Certainly they'd been created long ago, but the particularity of today's display made it feel like a brand new painting on a very old canvas.

I looked back several times before turning the corner out of sight. The people who saw me from the bus stop across the street must have thought I was being tailed. But I didn't care. In fact, I was glad I looked back because in doing so I saw the strangest thing of all. In the shadow of the sunrise the tree was a charcoal-green sillhouette, as if it had decided to hide it's glory once again. Like most miracles this one was incognito, and could only be seen by those who opened their eyes.

Monday, November 21, 2005

American Idle

Words come slow
to an idle man
with nothing to hold
in his remote control hand.

He wouldn't dare go
too far from his house,
too far from the show,
too far from his mouse.

Fearing to miss
what's constantly hurled
through space to this man
who'll never know the world,

never know people,
never have not,
never need Christ,
and never know God.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Our Problem, In Eight Lines

Israel's burden
The Gentile's curse
Faith's marker the law
Only made us the worse

In comes the Saviour
To relieve and to bless
But we call him "God-awful"
And blame him for our mess

Movies I Can't Stop Thinking About

Having become a father not once but twice in the last 3 years, my time for movie watching has gone way down of late. Infants and then toddlers tend to require some sacrifices, and going to movies has been one of mine. However, I can't say I feel like I've missed much in the theatres. Every trailer I see feels like a remake of a movie I've already seen.

Since I've been staying in a lot more I've been doing a lot more movie renting, and since the selection is so horrendous when you are looking for good writing, good acting and good characters, I've had to expand my horizons. Thankfully, a brother and a friend have combined to open my eyes to the wonders of foreign film. I can't say I'm an aficionado of any sort by now, but I would like to take a moment to recommend three movies that I've seen in the past couple years which are still making appearances in my head-space.

While the whole E-Talk world seems to be oohing and aahing over the same old special effects and TV adaptations I feel like I've been enlightened, and seen what movies can be. Not just movies, but films: Moving pictures that leave a mark, that tell a story in a compelling, artful, and intelligent way. Its still entertaining, but not for the same reasons. It feels like it is improving your life, not dumbing it down. Don't get me wrong, I like vegging out in front of the tube once in awhile, but if you ask me that's what sitcoms and sports are for.

I just don't feel like I need to see the A-Team on the big screen. I'm sure its just a matter of time, and to be honest it is something I would have liked to have seen as a kid, but I don't know, I've moved on. It would be mere novelty, and if I want that I'll buy a whoopee cushion.

And how many times do we need to see the White House obliterated by a tsunami or a tornado before we look around the theatre and ask ourselves: "Why are we here?" Not "why are we here" like existentially, but why are we wasting 2 hours of our lives in this theatre watching the glamourization of mass destruction when we could have actually saved a life or two overseas or in New Orleans by saving the money we sent on popcorn alone and giving it to Red Cross?

I know not everyone agrees with me. That's okay. I know I'm looking for something different in a movie than most people. I knew that the day I saw Armageddon. I went with four guys and we got the last four seats, but not together. We could hear each other guffawing in the darkness from all over the theatre. I was marveling at the record high cheese-factor in that movie while all around me people were clapping. Yes. Clapping. In a theatre. Since then I've known I was going a different route than the whole Ben Mulroney crowd.

So, if you've read this far, and are with me even to some degree, allow me to recommend the following three movies to you:

Tokyo Story by Yasujiro Ozu
Winter Light by Ingmar Bergman
Elephant by Gus Van Sant (Yes I know this isn't a foreign film)

Each of these movies in their own way touches the soul. Tokyo Story and Winter Light are both subtitled and in black and white, but I'm not sure I've ever laid my eyes on better movies. Stick with them. Soak the characters in. Enjoy how they are filmed. Watch how the simple yet profound stories unfold. Notice Ozu's framing and the subtle build to the climactic familial statement. Watch for Bergman's long close up monologue from which you cannot remove your eyes, and the fascinating discussion of Christ's passion. It puts Mel Gibson's attempt in a fuller perspective. And watch Elephant with this warning: it is disturbing. It is disturbing, but it is real. Not glorified. Just real. And for some reason it just made me love teenagers.

Quite frankly, real is the way I like it. Chesterton said that "truth is stranger than fiction, because we have made fiction to suit ourselves," and with pop fiction becoming so repetitive and blatantly formulaic in its sense-bombardment the last couple decades it seems the truth is stranger than ever. Stories can speak truth in ways that you just can't shake, and those are the movies I love. I find them profoundly entertaining. If you see any of these, or others like them, let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Remembrance Day

To be honest I think I've always had trouble with Remembrance Day. I'm not totally sure what I'm supposed to do with it. As the day approaches I always find myself thinking about war, and when I think of war it makes me quite sincerely want to puke.

Part of my problem with November 11 is that I am not always sure whether we're honouring veterans or honouring war. Sometimes I fell like the ceremonies are skirting the issue and romanticizing the ugly realities. Maybe I should get off my moral high horse and just appreciate what the veterans have done for me instead of thinking so much. Maybe I'm too far removed from the wars of old to have the right to say anything at all. Maybe I'm just a jerk. I don't know. The day just bothers me.

No doubt it is an unsettling, and disturbing holiday. More like Good Friday than Labour Day that's for sure. We generally have a moment (not even a minute) of silence on Remembrance Day, but it feels to me like the most appropriate way to spend the morning might actually be doubled over a toilet wretching. My suspicion is that many veterans feel the same way. In fact, I suspect I don't know the half of it.

I asked my friend Terry the other day if he thought it was commendable, or even possible, to be anti-war and pro-veteran at the same time. I asked him that because the impression I get from folks south of the border is that such a thing just isn't allowed. If you speak out against war you are interpreted as dishonouring veterans. Terry figured there are worse positions a person could hold. It would be far worse to be pro-war and anti-veteran.

I'm serious though. Can't I object strongly to war and honour the veteran at the same time? My Grandpa served in World War II but I can't remember him ever talking to his grandkids about it. Sometimes I'm not sure which of those things I respect him for more. My wife's Great-Grandpa died jumping on a grenade to save his fellow troops. He recieved the first posthumous Victoria Cross for it too. We should honour these men, and the others too.

But even as I think of them, a different type of soldier comes to mind as well. I've seen footage of contemporary soldiers who seem to almost be revelling in the "glories" of war. Writing the names of their adversaries on bomb casings with felt marker the same way we label our lunches for our kids. Its almost like they think its a video game. Admittedly I haven't seen a lot of that kind of footage, but it does stick in one's brain doesn't it? Images like that make me wonder what side I'm on. That's when I get a sick feeling in my gut again. I never have had a strong stomach.

I suppose I should be more gracious with soldiers of today. After all, I can only imagine that it would take a great deal of psyching up to go into battle. You'd probably really need to find a way to want to go. You'd probably need to be utterly convinced that you were off to face the enemy. You'd probably have to let yourself get really mad. I don't know because I've thankfully never had to do it. I can only imagine.

Actually, let's be honest. I can't imagine. The thought of holding a gun, let alone firing it at another person, is quite plainly beyond the scope of my comprehension. I'm not trying to sound morally superior, I just really can't imagine it. If I was called to war I'd probably want to call myself a "conscientous objector", but more accurately I'd probably have to say I was a wimp.

With what I know of history, it does seem that at times war is a necessary evil. By calling it that it makes it sound like I'm saying that veterans did evil, but I'm not. I merely think that one of the best ways I can honour what the veterans went through for us is to name war for what it is. After all, isn't it honouring to our veterans to let the nightmares they faced serve as a reminder to not let it happen again? Isn't the best sort of remembrance to do everything in our power to keep the peace for which they fought? Are not the cross-strewn cemetaries and the survivor's fever dreams crying out to us to make the most of the freedom they bought?

Good Friday is always followed quite quickly by Easter Monday, but Remembrance Day is followed by what? Wishful thinking. Santa is everywhere. Certainly I think we should give pause on this day to honour the sacrifices of those who have gone before. But this day also needs to be a compelling catalyst for us to work as valiantly for peace and hope in the years between as they did in the years of war.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Reading The Mind Of The Maker

I used to think that God sort of had to create us because He is love. It never occurred to me that this could be heretical, although I did wonder from time to time why I hadn't heard anyone say it before.

The idea was that the love and fellowship of the Triune God was so perfect and powerful that it inevitably sparked the flames of humanity. And as the story played out the Fire-starter was indeed warmed by what He'd made, but got burned by it as well, and ended up throwing His body on the fire to save it from ravaging the forest and ultimately consuming itself.

This is all fairly biblical and actually quite poetic if you think about it, but there's one problem:
And that is that a perfect three-in-one God of love would have been just fine on His own.

Just because God thought of us did not mean he had to create us. By definition, God does not have to do anything. At least not for us.

So I gave up on my idea of the inevitability of our creation for awhile, but was reminded of it again when I read Dorothy Sayers' The Mind of the Maker, where she writes:
"To say that God depends on his creation as a poet depends on his written poem is an abuse of metaphor: the poet does nothing of the sort. To write the poem (or, of course, to give it material form in speech or song), is an act of love towards the poet's own imaginative act and towards his fellow beings."

That got me thinking. I mean, I really do think the Maker could have said, "Let's not make humans in our image, male and female, because many of them will only destroy themselves by their own free will. Even though we mean for them to use that will to love, let's not do it, because they are bound to hurt themselves, and, if we let them, they are bound to hurt us."

Seriously, I still think God never owed us anything. Not even existence. God had love around without us, and could have left it at that. He didn't have to make us. He didn't have to do that for us.

But maybe He loved the idea of making us so much that whenever that idea came to Him on the timeline of timelessness the Triune God simply had to do it. Not so much for us, but for Himself. Maybe God just decided it was worth it to Him. Maybe God was willing to get hurt in order that He might know us, and give us the opportunity to know Him. And as far as we're concerned, maybe love didn't force His creative hand (after all, true love never does that), but that doesn't mean it didn't compel Him.

And so this whole train of thought has left me with the sense that God's love is a powerful thing, and God is a beautiful poet. As a matter of fact, as I think about it, it occurs to me that not a single sonnet would ever have been written or enjoyed if not for that first and most beautiful of poems, when the Maker said:
"Let there be."

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Blood Is Hard To Ignore

On Sunday morning we went to church and sat near the back. The sermon was about Ruth, the singing was mostly hymns, and the pastoral prayer was given by the elder who also goes to our weekly Bible study. The pew bench was particularly hard this week, and there were more than a few empty spots in front of us. We weren't even all that far back either. It occurred to me that attendance was significantly lower this day. Probably some people away, or maybe it was Christian sleep-in day and nobody told me.

I noticed only part way through the service that the "elements" were out at the front of the church. The stale bread and the tart grape juice were all ready to be passed around at the end of the hour. Usually I'm pretty into this part of the service, but today it seemed so stiflingly normal.

Indeed, once we got to it, it went along like most of the rest. The eight elders gathered at the front, only one of them conspicuously wearing no suit jacket, and they took turns praying for "the bread and the cup." I started to wonder why we felt these little cubes of Safeway bread needed our petitions and these tiny glasses needed our prayers. I was also thinking about how we in evangelical circles like to call it "the cup" most likely because it sounds better than "the sacred grape juice" or the "wonderful Welch's." It all gave me a bit of a chuckle ... which of course I had to suppress.

As with most of our services around the Lord's Table, this one was pretty quick and painless and full of Christianese. Being so used to it, I never doubted our sincerity during this time though, in fact I quite appreciated that we were pausing to remember our debt to the Lord -- a debt that grows that much greater with each feeble attempt of ours to give him worship.

Once the bread started its rounds, I enjoyed watching all the people in front of me shuffle down the pew to make up for all the blank spaces, pass the plate, and then return to their places. They were sitting so far from one another! Of couse when it came my turn, I did the same.

When the cups came by, I noticed they'd been jostled a bit, and while I tried to avoid taking a spilled one, I realized my failure to steer clear of the sticky little mess as I passed the tray over to my wife.

I saw a dot of grape juice on my finger, and to be honest, it kind of startled me.

When it caught my eye it looked like a prick of blood. Blood is hard to ignore. And with the elements passed now I looked and saw an even larger smear of it on my wife's hand, right in the middle of the palm. Right where the nails might have been. She tried to flick off the grape juice but it only streaked down one of her fingers and threatened one or two drips onto the floor. To avoid this, she closed her hand and clenched it repeatedly until all of it was rubbed into her palm. Moments later we "partook" together.

I have to say that despite my best efforts to notice everything but the sacred truth behind our tradition that morning, it had now become inescapably clear. Tucked away into our pathetic little ceremony was the amazing fact that the bread was as freely passed to us as was Christ's body, and this grape juice made a mess which paled in comparison to that of His blood.

And these were just lame little attempts to encapsulate God's passion, as I am but a lame little attempt to encapsulate His Son. An attempt wrought with failure but met by the forgiveness His sacrifice won.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Coming Soon

This is my first blog so I'm still finding my way around. My intention here is to explore my passion for writing and to see where that takes me.

I plan to write mostly social commentary peices from a decidedly Christian perspective. However, I'm not so concerned about pushing religion as I am in authentically exploring the depths of this faith in a reasoned and empassioned manner.

Spirituality encompasses all of life, from doing dishes to talking philosophy, and so there will be very few topics I won't want to tackle. Unless of course they simply don't interest me at all.

Among the things which do interest me are reading, sports, culture, truth based spirituality, the church, music, movies, well-done television, and even politics to some degree. Although it is rare that my thoughts on the latter are anything less than frustrated.

I look forward to the possibilities this site might hold both for my own exploration of writing and for the potential dialogue that could ensue, whether that be among friends, family, colleagues, strangers or even enemies (should I have any out there or make any along the way)! See you soon.