Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A cry in the night

Over a number of summer nights I was shook from my sweet slumber by the same couple walking beneath my open bedroom window conversing in loud and inebriated tones. Over the course of a week or so they were like clockwork—very loud clockwork—and the conversations were a cornucopia of slurred, liquored chatter that was a convoluted combination of cursing and startlingly deep and thought-provoking sermon material.

On the last night of these midnight visitations, the robust banter went all-out theological. God, Jack Daniels and John Labatt were stirred together in a curious mix, and the results whetted my appetite for more as they rounded the corner and drifted off into the darkness to disturb someone else.

The man was quoting Scripture, talking about life and the reality of God. The woman, consistently the more obnoxious of the two, was throwing a classic God-objection in his face. “I have prayed and tried to see him,” she said. “I have gone to church,” she claimed. She recounted some of the pain in her life, the disappointments and anxieties, and then repeatedly called out to the Holy One: “Where is he? Where the %#&* is he?”

How would you answer her cry in the night?

Elie Wiesel, in his famous little book, Night, tells of prisoners in Auschwitz asking the same troubling and very human question: Where is God? We must take this question seriously. We must be with those who ask it. We must admit that even we who believe ask it. Even the Scriptures wonder, “O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Psalm 22:2). We must have an answer for the seeming hiddenness of God or we’re no longer human, let alone honest.

If you’ve ever walked with the frustrated, you know there are no pat answers. The fact that many rely on pat answers, clich├ęs or Oprahisms is perhaps proof we’ve been far too asleep and in need of a midnight walk. Still, we must be able to point those crying in the night to hope, to some reason to believe, and the hiddenness of God is actually one of the more beautiful aspects of the reality of a loving Redeemer.

In remaining hidden God acts in grace and holiness:

• First, he does not coerce us into belief. God respects our humanity in all its created beauty and sin-induced brokenness.

• Second, he heightens the joy of discovery. God both looks for us and waits to be found, so that our joy is complete, even in the midst of trial.

• Third, and uniquely Christian, God enters our suffering. God does not ignore us, but meets us in our pain, and we are awakened to a grace and love that would never have come into view otherwise.

God in Christ enters humanity’s anguish and answers our question of where he is with a cross that flips the question around: “Where is humanity? Is this what you people do with love and grace? Who do you think you are? Do you crucify the Good and then blame the Good for not stopping you?”

Now there’s a question or two that might keep us up at night.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Russian Roulette

Those Russians sure are courageous! Legend has it that 19th century Russian soldiers invented the dangerous life-gamble of Russian roulette – a “game” that could only have been concocted with the help of vodka. The “player” in Russian roulette has a 16.67% chance of cashing in all their chips – to lengthen the pathetic gambling metaphors.

What are the affects of gambling on a society? Government-run lotteries, casinos, and sports wagering sell themselves to the masses as the way to fulfill our dreams and good for the social construct (like a steroid-bloated rummage sale or penny auction). “Imagine the Freedom” touts a popular Canadian lottery and the ads encourage us to an ethic and “love of your neighbour” that is not-so-altruistic.

Even further, the popular social acceptance of gambling is witnessed in the growth of Poker as a television event of all things and the reality that most professional sports grow only to the extent that people bet on outcomes (even if that didn’t work so well for Pete Rose). On the other extreme of the gaming industry is the messiness of situations reflected in the lives of Michael Vick and the underground fight clubs that really do exist. Physical and financial risk seems to go hand in hand. Gambling is in many ways a form of financial pornography with many brands, brush-overs, and extremes to choose from and be sucked in by.

The statistics say that in the United States about 3 million people are gambling addicts and up to 150 million people are low-risk gamblers. In Canada where Video Lottery Terminals (VLTs) are almost as common as donut shops and pitched as a close-to-home vacation the problems are equally disturbing. The statistics say that 25% of those using VLTs are at risk or already have gambling problems. One writer called
VLTs the “crack cocaine” of gambling.

Now comes word that Russia of all places has very courageously tackled the issue of gambling as a society by outlawing casinos to, quite literally, Siberia. On July 1 Russia put into affect a law that had been passed in 2006 that will cost up to 10,000 jobs in Moscow alone. The Russian Association for Gaming Business Development estimates the move will cost the state 2 billion dollars in tax revenue. Quite a gamble, isn’t it? Would other nations have such courage or would they risk shooting themselves in the foot?

The rationale for this radical Russian move was former President and current Prime Minister Putin’s contention that the social risks of gambling addiction were greater than that of alcohol. Now, either Putin’s on to something or he has a Potemkin full of Smirnoff stocks.

So, let me put my cards on the table: why have we in the West accepted gambling carte-blanche? Why are we as Christians so quiet on the subject these days? What are we afraid of? Our very public constructs and means of doing good are tied to that which ultimately destroys and yet we keep eerily silent as a troubling version of social Russian roulette spins on. The social risks are enormous for it really is an issue of the stewardship of lives, the exploitation of the poorest (those making less than $20,000 spend an average of 2.6% of income on gambling, while those making more than $80,000 average 0.6%), and a statement about that which matters most in society. Gambling’s growth and prevalence points to both the decadence and desperation of our culture. Where are the voices of those who speak of he who said, “Seek first (the Father’s) kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you…” (Matthew 6:33)?