Sunday, October 14, 2012


"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret."  Matt. 6:3-4a

Argo is a declassified tale of real-life events that transpired in 1979 and 1980 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini.

While 52 Americans were held hostage after militant students broke into the United States Embassy in Tehran, six escaped into the homes of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (played here by Victor Garber) and (though not represented in the film) Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown.

Meanwhile in the U.S., CIA specialist Tony Mendez (portrayed by Argo director Ben Affleck) engineers a fantastic scheme to extract the six hiding with the Canadian officials:  in the wake of the science fiction renaissance brought on by Star Wars in the late 1970s, Mendez will travel to Iran as a Canadian film producer looking to film a low budget sci-fi adventure in the exotic locale of Tehran and leave a few days later with his six-person "production crew," that is the six American diplomats.

The ruse seemed so fantastic it was believable. To ensure credibility, Mendez brings Hollywood into the act by bringing aboard sci-fi make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin).  They develop storyboards, scripts, marketing, and actors - all kept in the dark on the ultimate purpose of their work:  to save American lives overseas.

For years, President Jimmy Carter, along with the real-life Ambassador Taylor, Sheardown, Mendez, Chambers, the six diplomats, as well as all those in the White House, State Department, and CIA who were involved with this covert operation, kept quiet on the details.  It wasn't until 1997 when President Bill Clinton declassified this story.

Secrets can often lead to corruption, but in this circumstance, it saved lives.

There is always a delicate balance between keeping information hidden, and we're not just talking about CIA missions or declassified stories. When it comes to our relationships with others, we don't want to exclude others from the facts; but at the same time, there is a place for discretion.

We live in the tension:  What do we share with others?  What do keep to ourselves?  Which of our actions should be tell others about?  Which should we keep hidden?

During one of his most memorable teaching moments in the New Testament, Jesus dealt with this internal conflict.  In the Sermon on the Mount, he spoke of three instances where secrecy is not only allowed, but encouraged:  in our prayer, in our fasting, and in our almsgiving.

"When you give of yourself, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving will be done in secret." (Mt. 6:3-4a)   We live in a time when self-promotion is the norm, when reality television demands that nothing be kept secret.  Jesus' words increasingly fall on deaf ears.

Even in our churches, charities, and schools, we engrave plaques with donors and give prizes for those who do the most community service.  Practicing churchgoers often wear clothing, jewelry, or drive in cars labeled in a way that tells the world about one's religiosity.

Yet, despite other less-than-admirable actions, the CIA can teach us a lesson in discretion.

In Argo, one could argue that, even though he is credited for Spock's ears in Star Trek, Herman Munster's look in The Munsters, and the primates in Planet of the Apes, John Chambers' greatest accomplishment was saving the lives of six diplomats, not to mention Tony Mendez, Ambassador Taylor, and others in the Canadian embassy.  And for twenty years, he had to keep it completely secret.  His truest masterpiece was never to be known.

The same goes for Mendez, the Canadian government, and Jimmy Carter, who - in part - lost the 1980 election due to the public's assessment that he had been successful rescuing anyone from Tehran.  Their secrecy not only helped those stranded in Iran, but also reminded us of the importance of Jesus' words: "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

It should also remind us not to judge others too quickly for their seeming lack of charity, spirituality, or discipline.  Perhaps, in secret, they are doing what Mendez, Chambers, and others once did.  Let us also remember that Jesus follows up his statements on discreet prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (in Matthew chapter 6) with an admonition against judging one another (in Matthew chapter 7).

So is there a dividing line between what should kept secret and what should be shared?  I believe so, yet I also think that such a line is different for each person.  In their hearts, they will know when they are pushing the envelope too far, stepping over that line for one's own glory.  When we act with humble hearts and do what is right for God, for ourselves, and for others, we will know what is best.

In the meantime, let us pray (discreetly, of course) that our minds and hearts will be more occupied by our desire to do those good things for the Kingdom of God - rather than to worry about how often we should reveal those deeds to the world.  

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Taken 2

"For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you." (Lk. 6:38)

In the first Taken movie (2008), Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) wreaked havoc across Paris to find his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who had been kidnapped and sold into prostitution by an Albanian human trafficking syndicate.  Using his training as a CIA operative, Bryan kills and tortures anyone that gets in his way, but ultimately tracks Kim down and saves the day.

Like so many other heroic tales in the movies, we pay little attention to the body count as long as the goal of the film is accomplished: find the girl, defeat the villains, save the world, and so forth.

However, Taken 2 is the story of "what happens next."  It reveals that, while Kim was saved from a life of prostitution, there are consequences to the extreme measures taken to rescue her.  In the first film, Bryan killed many people including the gang of Albanians that kidnapped Kim at the Paris airport.  Now the Albanian father (Rade Serbedzija) of one of those men wants revenge.

Our actions have consequences.  In the laws of physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction.  In the Scriptures, Jesus says without hesitation, "For the measure with which you measure will, in return, be measured out to you." (Luke 6:38)   And St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, offers sage advice, saying, "...for a person will reap only what he sows." (Gal. 6:7)

For Bryan Mills, his singular focus on saving his daughter, no matter how noble, made him destroy the lives of others.  Now we see that those actions have serious consequences, as the Albanians out for revenge will stop at nothing in their resolve to punish our hero.  They seek to, once again, kidnap Kim along with her mother Lenore (Framke Janssen) and Bryan himself - and destroy them.

As the Book of Proverbs says, "Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of his fury will fail" (22:8)

Looking inward at our own lives, do we get so caught up in a singular focus or task that, like Bryan Mills in the first movie, neglect to reflect on the consequences of our actions as we move toward that goal?  For instance, are there times when we get so focused on getting a job done at work that we ignore our colleagues or family members in the process?  Or is there a cause that is so noble and for which we are so incredibly passionate about, but because of our passions, we end up ignoring other matters or end up hurting others in our fight for that cause?

While (hopefully) none of us are like Bryan Mills nor choose to kill without hesitation for our singular focus, we can easily fall into his line of thinking.  We can find ourselves so wrapped up in one thing that we loose sight of so much else.

Our actions have consequences, even (and especially) the ones we don't even realize we're doing.

Perhaps the first movie's Bryan Mills is so entrenched in his CIA training that he never realized that he was destroying others' lives in a passionate struggle to save his.  In this movie, it seems, he begins to notice those consequences.  Even in domestic matters, he has to live with the consequences of his actions in his broken marriage to Lenore or his overprotective relationship with Kim.

We, too, must start to wake up to the actions of our lives.  We have to be more conscious of what we are sowing in our race to the finish line.

In the business world, in an attempt to cut corners and save costs, millions of lives are negatively affected.  For instance, certain retail giants, in their corporate objective to offer customers low costs, choose to save those costs by using labor paid below poverty standards and treated with no dignity.  The same is true with international trade companies (especially those dealing with coffee, tea, and cocoa exports) and Wall Street tycoons.  What if, for a moment, those in the leadership of those companies decided to examine the consequences of their actions?

In another example, there are those who feel so charged up about a certain political or religious issue that they will stop at nothing to make their point.  This doesn't just apply to oppressive governmental regimes and religiously-inspired terrorism, but also to everyday individuals who are so very passionate about their beliefs.  Even in small ways, such zealousness can harm so many others in the process.  What if, for a moment, those who have such strong convictions stopped for a moment to ask themselves what consequences their words and deeds have had - and who or what has been harmed as a result?

Sure, it is fun to watch Liam Neeson crush his way through Istanbul in this movie, just as it was thrilling to watch him in the previous film.   So let us keep our desire for unbridled dedication to the movie theatres and the fictional story we see on screen - and not repeat his actions in our own lives.

Let's let Bryan Mills have his day, but let's be aware of the consequences of our actions in every day we have from here on out.  Let's be conscious of the people who may be hurt by our words or deeds, no matter how noble or profitable they seem to us at the time.

And should we find that we have hurt others in the process, let us pray for our forgiveness and that we might reconcile with those individuals or fix the damage we may have caused.

St. Paul concludes his Letter to the Galatians by saying that those who sow forgiveness, reconciliation, and love in the busy stretch of their lives will reap such blessings as well.  "For the one who sows for the Spirit will reap eternal life from the Spirit.  Let us not grow tired of doing good, for in due time we shall reap our harvest, if we do not give up." (Gal. 6:8-9)

In whatever quest we are on today or those we will engage in tomorrow, let us always sow good works: love, awareness, compassion, and patience - for those are actions with consequences we will most certainly want to receive from the Lord and from others.