Tuesday, July 25, 2006

A Letter to CTV Newsnet

I'm not proclaiming to be an expert on Mid-East affairs. Nor Judaism. Nor Islam. I'm not sure why I'm so upset by things right now. I guess I'd be more nervous if things in the Mid-East were not bothering me at all. Anyway, I wrote a letter to CTV in regard to something I saw on the news. I don't know what they'll do with it, but I thought I'd post it here. It speaks for itself I think. Those of you reading this stuff can say so if you think I'm out to lunch here.

Dear CTV Newsnet,

Last night I saw something on CTV that turned my stomach. You showed an image of someone in Montreal holding an Israeli flag with a swastika markered over a star of David. I am neither Jewish nor Muslim, Lebanese nor Israeli. I'm a 4th generation Canadian, and I have to say that this repulsed me.

Even if Israel is partly in the wrong in this conflict, that was stepping way across the lines of respect to flout such a thing in public. The swastika is a symbol of "ethnic-cleansing". Pure and simple. It is synonymous with hatred. It did nothing to shed light on the Mid-East crisis for this protester to have displayed such a thing. In fact it cast an embarassing shadow of ignorance over the whole parade that I imagine not all protesters would have been happy to walk under. I realize it came from deep seeded emotion, but for those of us who are looking to understand the situation overseas, it made it more difficult to sympathize with the opponents of Israel rather than less.

I understand that you are merely reporting the news but I think it was in extremely bad taste to have broadcast such a thing. I don't recall CTV showing the cartoons of Mohammed that caused such a stir in Denmark. I thought that was the respectful thing to do. Now I wonder if it was respect or if it was the threats that informed your decison.

I've said my peice. I must say I appreciate Newsnet most of the time, and I hope you'll take my comments with all due respect. I pray peace for Isralis and Lebanese alike, and for the safety of all Mid-East civilians, Canadian or otherwise.

Jon Coutts
Spruce Grove, Alberta

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Lebanon, the media, and discord all around

Is it just me or has the Canadian media completely lost its mind? Criticizing the Canadian government for not being as quick as other nations at getting their citizens out of Lebanon. Other nations; like France and Britain, who are just across the Mediterranean; and the US, who have the entire globe at their disposal. Other nations who, despite being much larger than Canada, do not have as many people to get out.

"Canada should have anticipated this because of the tension in the area," the media speculates. We see stories of families separated, Canadians showing up for a ride out and finding they aren't on the list. The criticism is against orderliness, but there is also criticism for going in alphabetical order.

Now, I have a rant brewing here, but before I go into it let me first say that I empathize with the people who are there stranded. Especially those with young children or those who have separated family members. I empathize. It must be tough. But here's my rant ...

Give me a break. If the Canadian government should have anticipated this, why didn't you? And yes, the panic must be almost unbearable, but that's the type of situation it is isn't it? Not to be cold-hearted, but how is this the government's fault? And do you realize that the US is actually charging their people for the ride out? Your ride is paid for by the Canadian taxpayer! Is this how it works? Our citizens can live anywhere they want, and when there is trouble we'll bail them out? I'm not saying we shouldn't bail them out, but let's have some perspective.

Of course, if I was stranded in a city being bombed, perspective might not come that easy. So these folks can be forgiven their frustration and even their criticism. But the media? Let's have some objectivity. They talk and talk about Harper polarizing the media/government tensions and making the media out to be the enemy but they play into his hand over and over. Do they think we are all this stupid? Maybe most of us are. I'm not. I'm more liable to vote the opposite of what the media tells me to, that's how little I trust them.

The thing that sickens me about all this is that it reminds me of Rwanda. Remember that scene in Hotel Rwanda? People desperate to get out and only the foreigners are evacuated? It all is diplomatically justifiable and understandable but it leaves you feeling like puke inside, especially when you know what ended up happening there. Well, the main difference I can see here is that we don't know what is going to happen in Beirut yet. I'm not suggesting genocide will happen, of course not, but many civilians will die, and all we can talk about is getting Canadians out.

Of course we should do our best to get people out, but are we supposed to just buy this assumption that Canadians are the only ones we should be concerned about? As one man on CTV (giving credit where it is due) just said with a note of sadness in his voice, all things considered "Canadians in Lebanon should be thankful they are Canadians."

Its an awful situation, pure and simple, and I suppose if I want to give the media the benefit of the doubt I'll say they see it as their role to light a fire under the government to get it done. Perhaps if they didn't things would be even slower. I don't know. I just don't see how we are supposed to buy this line of thinking that we can go anywhere in the world we want to, put ourselves in harms way, and then get mad at our home country when they don't make things better right away. I'm not saying they shouldn't try to rescue people, I just don't think you can be so demanding. Its like if I jump into a well, I should expect the fire department or whoever to come rescue me, but I shouldn't blame them if it takes them awhile to find me and get me out. Am I totally off base here?

Maybe we're all just mad at each other because when it comes to the Middle East we don't know who to blame anymore. It is a seeminglly perpetual conflict; our world for all its tolerance and globalization is no less conflicted; and there is as little hope as there has ever been. So here on the sidelines we are like brothers and sisters whose parent's are fighting: we just want them to get along, we don't know who to side with, and we have no recourse to reconcile them ... so in our angst we take it out on one another and yell amongst ourselves.

If nothing else I guess this venting makes us feel a bit better in the short run. Maybe that outlet and that spark is the best thing the media can give us in such dark times. Having said that, now that I've said my piece, I don't feel a whole lot better.

I can't blame the folks in Lebanon and Haifa for how they are feeling. I hope they get out soon.

Better yet I wish the life-takers would give it up already and trade the swords for plow-shares.

Monday, July 17, 2006

A Terrible Thing (Part Two)

I wonder how many pulpits today can handle "Its a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God" (Hebrews 10:31)? Never mind that, how many preachers can handle it without explaining it away? I'm not sure I could.

Is a preacher allowed to just stand at the pulpit speechless for a few minutes? How many preachers can get on their knees and say,"You know what? I'm at a loss for words here. I just don't get God here." Could we handle that? Would we see that as pastoral leadership or as a failure to lead? Be honest now.

I think preachers feel a lot of pressure to have the answers, and certainly we don't want them copping out and just saying "I don't have the answer to that" all the time when 30 minutes of prayer and study would make all the difference, but when pastors have all the answers our respect level for God can go down can't it?

I don't think there are many preachers who want to seem negative, or unsettling, or at a loss, or too profound before lunch. Maybe there are things they'd like to talk to their congregations about but they know they can't do it justice in 30 minutes. Or 30 months. So they don't. And what we may end up left with, whether it is from pride or pressure, is pithy pop theology week after week. And I think most people in the pews can sense it, even if they haven't labelled it yet.

Which is why Dorothy Sayers hit me on the head today. In her book Creed or Chaos? she writes:

"If spiritual pastors are to refrain from saying anything that might ever, by any possibility, be misunderstood by anybody, they will end--as in fact many of them do--by never saying anything worth hearing."

Now, don't get me wrong, I can't stand preaching that is irresponsible. A preacher does have to try to avoid being misunderstood. A lot of things we say can have double-meanings. Metaphors may only be meant to go so far. And many a heresy or misguided notion have come from mere misunderstandings which careful preaching, and writing, could probably have avoided. Preachers and writers and whoever else could use a bit of that fear of misrepresenting God that made the ancients so hesitant to fill in the vowels.

However, that's where I was already coming from before reading the above said quote. Sayer's point is that we still have to try to understand, articulate, and represent the truth about God. After all, fear is the beginning of wisdom, not the end of it.

I guess what I'm saying, then, is that we have to watch for this tendency to explain God away for the sake of the comfort of our listeners, when what we really want to say is: "You know what, God is really out of this world." Then we can talk about God coming into this world in the flesh and speaking into the printed page. And the gravity of the situation may be impressed on us in such a renewed way we might even dare to call it a revival.

A Terrible Thing

The othere day a good friend of mine told me, almost in passing actually, that his favourite verse was Hebrews 10:31:

"It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God."

Why is that his favourite verse? I actually haven't asked him yet, but since he mentioned it that line has been ringing in my ears. It is a difficult one to wrap your mind around. But I feel like I'm kind of starting to get it. Trouble is, I don't feel I can explain it. But I'll try anyway.

This summer my wife and I have been trying to figure out what to do. Everyone has these decision times; turning points; crossroads, or whatever. Anyway, point is, try as I might I haven't been able to shake this nagging desire to stay in God's will; to be sure our decision is what he wants.

I don't know if you've noticed, but God's will can be hard to track. And even harder to see ahead. So there is this trial and error, give and take between me and God and he's like the relentless hound of heaven who won't let me go on my own. I can go prayerless for months if I try, but I'll never be happy. Call it mercy, no doubt, but it can be a terrible sort of mercy, you know? Much better than the terror of rejecting God, but terrible in an "I can hardly handle it" sort of way.

This summer I've also been reading some Fredrick Buechner. The Son of Laughter i't's called. Its a really good novel based on the story of Jacob. And the startling thing to me in this book is that the characters never used God's name. We know that in Old Testament times God's name was considered too sacred to write with the vowels, so it came out YHWH. But in this novel the people took it a step further and made up a name:

They called God "The Fear".

Actually, one of the characters didn't even say that. She just said "he" and bulged out her eyes so you knew who she meant.

And it made me think how flippant I am, with my "Lord" this and my "Father-God" that. I celebrate how boldly we can say his name, by the grace of God. But I guess I'm saying I'm getting some of that holy fear back. Maybe because I have kids now and it scares me to death to think how easily I could mess up their lives and it makes me beg God to help them find HIm and love Him and turn out okay, despite their dork of a dad. And I'm begging God, see, because He doesn't have to do that. He doesn't have to do that for any of us.

But He's the hound of heaven, and He does. He's merciful that way. But his mercy can be hard to take. Once we accept it, he doesn't let us off the hook that easy. He seems to take great delight in refining our character. You know when you have to swallow some bitter cough syrup because it'll make you better and your dad says, "It'll put hair on your chest"? Well, he got that from God. He knows we have some hard lessons to learn, and he puts us through them, if we follow him. And while I hate to consider the alternative, I have to say that sometimes it can be terrible to fall into the hands of the living God. He's too much! And that's him holding back!

We don't think about God's transendence much do we? I don't anyway. His immanence, or his closeness, is all the rage these days, and for good reason don't get me wrong. But isn't the immanence only amazing because of the transcendence?

I think we feel that if we talk about The Fear of God we'll lose people. People we're trying to reach with The Love of God. Thats a heavy thing to have on your head. But we can't forget the fact that the Love is almost meaningless without the Fear. If God is not Holy and Inapproachable then who needs a cross? Who needs Jesus?

And in the end, here's the most amazing thing: no one quite knows how terrible it is to fall into the hands of the living God as well as Jesus. He went there. He took it on the chin, and like none of us could have done, he got back up again. And so even at these moments when I feel like I'm coming to grips with The Fear, I remember the words Jesus used so often with his disciples: "Do not be afraid." Wow. And yet somehow still it causes me to tremble.

Monday, July 10, 2006

On Syriana and Why We Fight ... Sort Of

I rented two movies in two nights recently which really could be sold as a package deal: Syriana and Why We Fight. In case you haven't heard of the latter, its a documentary probing the accuracy of Dwight Eisenhower's seemingly prophetic warning about the then-new US "military-industrial complex". The former is one of George Clooney's Oscar nominated films from 2005 which amounts to a thriller/social commentary on the influence of corporate oil dollars on Middle East and US relations.

Both were excellent. Both carry pretty frightening messages between the line yet avoided Michael Moore's blatant manipulations of media footage and were therefore subtle enough to seem honest.

Somehow, though, they didn't seem all that earthshaking. And that worries me.

I think we all know, or at least suspect, that corporations "make the world go 'round", so to speak. I think most of us have either read Grapes of Wrath or gathered the notion that capitalism has some inherent dangers to it and don't have much trouble imagining how it looks on a global scale. Am I wrong? Maybe these are still radical films, I don't know, but they seemed sort of old hat to me. And that's the thing. Perhaps the most frightening thing about these movies for me was how little I was moved by them. I felt like they should be compelling me to do something, but when you know there is nothing you can do, not much can compel you to try.

Sounds awfully pessimistic, but that's where I'm at. Being a Canadian citizen, I can't do much about US foreign policy. And for all the glories of democracy, even in Canada I know better than to imagine my vote amounts to much of anything at all. The only people who can make a difference are those with money or clout, and the only realms where you don't need money to have clout are in the media and in religion. Maybe you want to add the internet to that. But money is going to end up helping a lot in those realms as well. And in the end, all these voices blended together tend to drown each other out. We have too many revolutionaries, too many revolutions. Too many places to shop for a cause. And they all get watered down don't they?

Someone once said the all evil needs to win is for good men to do nothing. But maybe the devil has a new strategy: to get good men to try to do a bit of everything.

With the powers that be, and all that's wrong, I think many of us feel like someone tied to a chair under a dripping faucet who has struggled against the ropes long enough to know they won't budge and has resigned himself to the finer art of "getting used to it" and "hoping maybe it will stop".

Maybe I'm just getting old. Maybe I'm just in a jaded spell. But judging from how many people stay home on election day and stay out of global concerns I don't think I'm far off. Even amongst those who are aware of corporate power in world affairs, I think most continue to shop at Walmart and fill up at Shell and max out their credit cards. So I think I'm describing fairly accurately the helpless malaise of the democratic public. We are a complacency-soaked, charitable-cause-overloaded, issue-bombarded, fear-paralyzed, pleasure-sponge of a society.

I certainly can't claim to be any different, except maybe by degree, but is that because of my self-restraint and thoughtful purchasing, or is it because I don't have a lot of money?

So anyway, about those movies I was talking about (and if that flippant segue from the serious back to the relatively trivial doesn't bother you then the societal attitude I'm describing has rubbed of on you more than you probably care to admit) I recommend them highly! They were really good.

Matt Damon's character in Syriana is most of us I think: generally naive, trying to do the best we can with our family and our interests, trying to make the most of the situation we're in. And the docomentary has some amazing stuff in it, including the strartlingly prophetic words of Eisenhower and the reflections of his kids and an interview with John McCain implying some heavy stuff about the vice-president which gets interrupted by the VP himself.

There was more good stuff in both ... but you'll have to see them yourself since I can't remember it. I've since seen Seinfeld reruns and can't get Kramer's antics out of my head. Oh man that guy was funny.

There's one of those segues again. Maybe they're the best way we have of keeping sane.