Best Movies of 2018

Always the latest list of best movies, according to me.  2018 seemed like a pretty decent year for film.  The usual caveats apply:  I have by no means seen everything released in 2018 or even close to it.  I delay my list to make sure I see films that came out in 2018 that I was really looking forward to seeing or ones that I think may be contenders based on recommendations from friends or by film critics I generally agreement with.  At any rate, here are the movies I really liked from 2018 out of those I have seen.

Runners Up:  Mission Impossible: Fallout; The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Blindspotting; Vice; Black Panther

The Rider A poetic and brilliant film that takes place in the non-commercialized rodeos of a South Dakota reservation.  Young men in this space live for the rodeo and riding horses like cowboys.  One of those men is Brady Blackburn (portrayed by Brady Jandreau in one of those real life performances).  He has suffered a near fatal head injury which sidelines him from his dream and passion.  “The Rider” gives us a glimpse into low-income, working class America without the slightest condescension.  This is a movie that, maybe more subliminally, is about what it means to be a man in this culture but the broader aspect is a quest for identity once a past identity has been taken from you.   Some of the best cinematography you will see all year is in this film by James Joshua Richards who will remind a viewer of Terrence Malick’s best work.  All the while, director Chloe Zhao has crafted a masterpiece behind the scenes.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  I must have missed out.  Growing up, I did not watch much of “Mister Roger’s Neighborhood” but the documentary about the life of Fred Rogers is excellent.  Drawing the viewer not only into who this extraordinary man was, the focus is also on Rogers passion for educating and encouraging kids.  He taught that every person is sincerely special and, believe it or not, was criticized for that message.  People being sincerely special does not mean they should be narcissistic or selfish but Rogers hoped by recognizing the value that each person has themselves, they would translate that into being able to recognize the same in others.  A devout Christian and lifelong Republican, Mister Rogers spoke out for civil rights and against racism.  The unlikely TV star preached values of empathy and compassion and embodied those values through the entirety of his work.  In a culture that is bitterly divided and where people are openly hostile toward “the other tribe”, this documentary shines, humbly, in the darkness as a vitally important film for our times.  A shame the Academy Awards did not recognize this fact.

First Man– Neil Armstrong’s perilous journey to the moon is chronicled in the rising directorial star Damien Chazelle’s new biopic film.  A lot of space movies portray an adventurous and heroically conquering journey into orbit or the moon but “First Man” focuses on the intensity and wildness of the experience.  Armstrong (played by Ryan Gosling) is a broken man haunted by the death of his daughter, Karen, to cancer. The climax of the film is pure fiction however the emotional character arc of this pioneering man is unforgettably moving.

Free Solo- I cannot remember a documentary which gave me a high degree of tension and that unique feeling of being tempted to take my eyes off the screen but simply being unable too as “Free Solo”.  Alex Honnold is the focal point of this film.  He enjoys rock climbing and propelling himself up cliff faces without any climbing equipment.  The dream is to “free solo” El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a 3,000 foot vertical climb.  Is this man insane?  They actually have Honnold do a brain scan that shows something wrong with his amygdala (the brain center that processes emotions) and he may not feel fear like the rest of us.  I mean, I hate to be captain obvious.  The Oscar-Winner for best documentary, “Free Solo” is a jaw-dropping ride.  Directors Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi have their camera crew dangling from ropes while they film Honnold climbing with spectacular scenery on display below.  The climax is, of course, about Honnold’s famous climb but we learn all about his life as well including how a guy with a wild hobby like this carries on a relationship (his girlfriend Sanni McCandless).  His scramble up the 3,000 foot cliff in Yosemite is beyond description but I guarantee that you will want to check this out.

First Reformed– A down angle camera shot pans up the stairs to a church while the sky in the background looks ominous and the winds howl during the opening scene of “First Reformed”.  Ethan Hawke, in one of his best performances (and that is saying a lot), plays a protestant minister named Toller.  He is an alcoholic and shepherding a dying church while being disillusioned and going through the motions of his pastoral duties.  Misery invites more misery in the form of congregant, a pregnant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) who tells Toller that her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) wants her to have an abortion because he is in despair about the Earth’s environmental future.  She pleads with Toller to counsel him and the situation grows more grave when Mary discovers a suicide vest constructed by Michael who is considering terrorist action.  Writer and director Paul Schrader, famous for writing Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver”, has crafted a difficult and uncompromising look at faith and fanaticism and perhaps what could be viewed as the thin line nuances between the two.  Schrader is not afraid to go to where the tough questions are:  what if someone’s fanaticism is correct and what does this mean for other moral principles and convictions that they may hold?  Unsettling as hell but you won’t be able to take your mind off of it.

A Quiet Place- The directorial debut of Jim from “The Office”.  John Krasinski, in his first feature film outing behind the camera, has crafted a classic thriller.  He is not just behind the camera but also in front with his real life wife, Emily Blunt.  The couple plays Lee and Evelyn in a post-apocalyptic world with their children where alien monsters patrol the earth.  These monsters have ultra sensitive hearing and are fast so human survivors live in a haunting silence, communicating by sign language and bodily expression.  The story abides by its own logic well and the unique device creates an effectively eerie silent movie.  Well done and unforgettable.

Lean On Pete- The second horse film on my list is not centrally about the racehorse from which this movie receives its title.  The story is focused on 15 year old, Charley (one of the best performances of the year by Charlie Plummer), who gets a summer job tending to the old, washed up racehorse, Lean on Pete.  The owner of the horse and employer is Del (Steve Buscemi) who seems to have plans to sell the horse soon which also certainly means the horse will be put to death.  Charley lives with his single parent father and they have recently moved to Portland, OR looking for a fresh start.  Needless to say, tragedy strikes and any innocence that 15 year old Charley had is quickly shattered.  Writer/director Andrew Haigh never gives in to melodrama or overt sentimentalism.  The film carries a realist tone throughout and even with the horrific experiences along the way and the impossible life situation and moral choices Charley finds himself immersed in, grace roars into the story becoming salvation in an unimaginable situation.

Eighth Grade– I don’t think I have ever seen a movie capture junior high/middle school quite like “Eighth Grade” written and helmed by comedian Bo Burnham.  The shocking thing about this project though is Burnham is not going for laughs.  The awkward essence and emotional instability of the dawn of the teen years is observed with an empathy that few filmmakers have ever captured.  At the center is, in my mind (screw the Academy), the best single performance of 2018 by Elsie Fisher (16 years old) who portrays introverted Kayla during the last week of middle school before she moves on to high school.  I especially resonated with Josh Hamilton playing Kayla’s father, a single parent who cares deeply for his daughter but might not always make the “coolest” choices.  He tries to understand and guide but Kayla must come into her own.  Absolutely excellent.

Blackkklansman– One of the best Spike Lee movies of all time, “Blackkklansman” stars Denzel Washington’s son, John David Washington as the first African-American cop to be hired by the Colorado Springs police department.  The surprising thing about the film is the balancing of serious matters with comedy.  In my review, I wrote some of the following:  “Blackkklansman”’ with its powerful subject matter, is mostly serious and has to be because of what is at stake…Though Spike, as if conducting a passionate orchestra, takes us from these moments of fury to scenes of comedy almost effortlessly…Spike is a master at dissonant tones in a movie.  No, it doesn’t always work in all of his films but here it seems perfect.  Like an old pro, he moves from scenes that are uncomfortably very funny to heightened drama where the terror of racism leads to real violence. His profiles of racist buffoons including a young David Duke (played by Topher Grace) leads one to wonder why anyone in their right frame of mind could be persuaded by these ranting bigots but alas, the sin of racism is buried deep and that is precisely Spike’s point.  That people look for justification for their deeply held prejudices among leaders whose brain dead screeds lack any coherence at all.  Director Spike wants audiences to squirm:  do we laugh or cry?”  A bonafide masterpiece with an ending that reminded me of the Coen Brothers work.

Leave No Trace- Hard to pick a best movie this year as there were a handful of good contenders.  “Leave No Trace”, directed by Debra Granik, probably moved me the most because of the nature of the story and characters.  Will (Ben Foster) lives with his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) in a vast forested urban park outside of Portland, Oregon.  He is a military veteran.  There isn’t much talk about where mom is but father and daughter live in their own idealized existence.  Authorities soon track them down based on a small mistake they make and place them into a social services program.  Suspicious of authority and societal institutions, Will cannot maintain a life in these conditions and he and Tom soon escape back into the woods seeking out a new home.  At this moment is where the central clash comes between the characters.  Will cannot live in civilization as he does not trust it.  Tom, being 13 years old, is curious about community and the people they encounter along their trek.  All Will has in life is his daughter and vice versa but for most of the running time of this film, we feel the inevitable tension growing:  Will has to let his daughter go as she needs to chart her own course in life.  Bittersweet, simple and at the same time thematically profound, “Leave No Trace” quietly works its way into the hearts of viewers based on the care that is developed for these characters.  I have thought about if I would have loved this movie as much if it came out while I was single.  Likely, I would have but the effect on me would not have been as powerful.

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Perspectives: Abide Series John 1:1-18

The following is a sermon I preached at Seed Church on January 6, 2019.  You can listen to the message here.

Think back to a time in your life where you saw the most stars in the night sky.  Maybe it was recently or perhaps it was back in your teenage years.  Where were you at?  Up in the mountains camping or in a desert.  If you were going to see a lot of stars and planets and constellations, it probably would not be around here.  Too much city light.

For me, the sighting of the most stars I had seen in my life was at summer camp when I was 17 years old.  A camp called Clear Lake Camp that was run by the Grace Brethren.  The entire camp was on a hill that slopes down to the ice cold water of Clear Lake. Seriously, this was some of the coldest water ever. So it was a workout getting up to the main lodge for Bible teaching or to your own cabin from the lake.  At night, of course, we were supposed to be sleeping in our cabins but what fun is that? We snuck out of our cabins and made our way down to the water where there was a dock that stretched out into that chilly glacier water.  It was the quintessential warm and clear summer night.  There were, I don’t know, 7 or 8 of us and we all laid down on are backs and looked up at this glory.  Not a cloud in the sky.  To this day, this event was indescribable.  That was the moment that I had never seen so many stars.  Like pinpricks across the entire night sky filling almost every black gap in the sky.

I was a freckled kid when I was younger and I likened it to if I had thousands of more freckles then I had across my face as far as what I was seeing.

Do you remember your time of seeing so many stars?  What did you think about?  What did you feel?  For me, I always think about perspective.  As in a perspective on life.  My life.

Anybody remember the film ‘Contact’?  If you recall, the very opening scene is silent and there is a visual of earth and the camera pulls back and the audience sees the planets of our solar system and then we are out into deep space and then outside the galaxy and the camera keeps pulling back until we experience the immensity of this thing.

Perspective.  All of this is an arrow.  A message.  A big flashing sign that simply says, ‘there is more going on here than what we know or can always see.’

Roughly 2000 years ago, John the son of Zebedee had amazing experiences with a guy he travelled around with named Jesus of Nazareth.  John was the beloved disciple.  He was in on the inner circle.  And he, or people closely associated with him in a Johninne community, wrote this gospel of John toward the end of the first century.

Seed Church is going to be going through the Gospel of John this year.  An up close and personal look into the life of Jesus and what it means to be fully connected with Him and with a community that believes in Him.  Connected to Jesus and connected with one another.

You will notice as we go through this series that the gospel of John is a very different gospel than the other three.  The stories and accounts in John are sometimes unique only to his gospel and are not found in another.  The gospel of Mark is a raw look at Jesus.  Jesus the apocalyptic preacher.  Matthew is obsessed with prophecy and tying Jesus to the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy as he was trying to convince a Jewish crowd.  Luke was after the Gentiles.  Those are the synoptic gospels.  Synoptic meaning the same.

John is all about Jesus’ nature, who Jesus is, and His interactions with people.  Relational gospel with a more developed Christology.  Jesus is 100% God and 100% man.

Speaking of perspective…John’s gospel has a little more perspective being written later and more when Christians could digest and talk about and comprehend who Jesus was and His teachings.

So John starts with the ultimate perspective:  In the beginning was the Word.

John 1:1-5 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.  Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made.  In Him was life, and that life was the light on all mankind.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’

From the very beginning of his gospel, John asserts that Jesus is God.  Jesus is the living Word.  That means, this baby that was born in Bethlehem and that grew up in Nazareth.  This guy who may have followed his dad into carpentry and started a public ministry around the age of 30 was present at the very beginning of the universe. Yes, those stars you saw that one time in your life, the most you ever saw…this guy Jesus, a homeless guy who grew up in Nazareth put those stars in the sky.  Gave planets their orbits.  Created the laws of gravity and physics.

John is stating from the beginning here a core truth of Christianity.  Jesus is 100% and 100% fully man.  A dual nature but one that is not separated or given to a dichotomy.  He manifests both of those natures at the same time.

Post gospels and when Christianity was legalized by Emperor Constantine, there were church councils that were called which ratified Jesus’ deity as official doctrine.  These councils are recognized by our Catholic brothers and sisters, our orthodox brothers and sisters and most protestants (like us).  The first key council was the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD.  Convened by Constantine himself, this council ratified that Jesus was begotten, not made and that He was of one substance with God the Father.  Now, many of you have heard of Arians or Arianism.  Arian rejected the divinity of Christ and had a statement that there was once a time when Christ was not i.e not existing.  At the end of the Nicene Creed, they had statements in a list specifically meant to reject this view.

Another key council was 451 AD called the Council of Chalcedon.  The Chalcedonian definition was issued stating that Jesus is “perfect both in deity and in humanness; this selfsame one is also actually God and actually man.”

Now, this is a doctrine of Christianity (of Biblical Christianity) so I think we take for granted how wild this idea or belief actually is.  How many of you are contractors?  If Jesus was indeed a carpenter like his dad, this would be like the person working next to you on the carpentry job being divine.  Can you imagine that?  If someone at your work place was strolling around, hammering boards together, sanding down wood and during breaks letting you know that he or she was deity, what would be your reaction because that is a window into probably what it was like for people in the first century who knew Jesus had to come to terms with.

Jesus was identified as having life in Him and that life was the light of humanity.  John definitely had Genesis in mind when he wrote this gospel.  The obviousness is shown in that both Genesis and John begin with in the beginning.  God in Genesis also seemingly speaks the world into existence.  He creates things by simply stating that they should exist.  Jesus is identified as the Word and John states that everything was created through Him.

In Genesis, the name used for God is Elohim and the spirit of God (ruah) is hovering over the face of the waters.  With John’s account, we see a picture of the glorious Trinity at work creating the universe and within the universe, the earth, and calling the creation good.

Every once in awhile someone will point out that day one in Genesis had light being created but it was day four when the sun was made.  What happened here and why would Genesis be written like this?  Well, we are conditioned in the Evangelical camp to read Genesis like a scientific playbook.  Remember though, the Holy Spirit inspired the Biblical authors to write within the context of their own history, culture and language.  This was a pre-scientific world and Darwin had not written anything yet.  I preached on Genesis one and my ideas about what the creation account is about back at the beginning of 2016 and we don’t have time to dig through that all again.  The idea that I had though was that Genesis was written as a smack down of other gods.  As one example, light was on day one and the sun was on day four.  Who had a significant sun god in their deity pantheon?  Egypt who had enslaved the Israelites.  Their puny sun god was on day 4 and no match for the ultimate God who created everything. 

In that same vein, Jesus is described as the light of people by John.  Like Genesis, Jesus is an exclusive spiritual light.  Elohim in Genesis 1 was the ultimate God, the true God.  The Israelites were monotheists.  Jesus is the light and the giver of life.

The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  Think about the context of John.  Jesus was crucified dying a violent death.  This was not the Jewish idea of a King looking to rule a kingdom.  Their idea was a leader to overthrow the Romans and reestablish the Israelite kingdom.  A suffering Messiah was outside of their initial conception.

But the darkness of that day at Calvary could not overcome the light of the world.  Jesus burst forth from that grave and ascended to heaven after multiple encounters with His disciples and others.  The light was not overcome.  Early Christians were being put to death.  Nero was murdering Christians and lighting them on fire at his garden parties.  Yet the light and message of Christ carried through.  The Roman general Titus sacked and destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 a massive both to Jewish life and culture.  An apocalypse.  Remember, a lot of the early church was Jewish.  The light of the gospel was not stopped.  And John with his Johannine community wrote this gospel and continued to spread Jesus’ message.  They had seen very dark times.  Times that may have caused some of us to turn back but they never did.  The light continued to shine in these devastating times.

John 1:6-8 ‘There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.  He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through Him.  He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.’

This witness, of course, was John the Baptist.  He was a forerunner for Jesus and was akin to a cousin of Christ. He preached a strong message of repentance for the Kingdom of God was near (see Matthew 3).  John the Baptist, via the description offered of him, seemed to be a peculiar crazy man.  Matthew 3:4 describes, “Now John himself was clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey.”  So there you go.  Somewhat unusual, right?  But this guy was the forerunner to Christ.  As John says in his gospel, John bore witness to the light that had come into the world.  God chose this man to be the witness for Jesus.  This weirdo.  Even more than that, John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River where we get a scene of the Trinity.  The voice of God the Father saying Jesus is His Son with whom He is well pleased, the Son going under the water and the Spirit of God descending like a dove.  Jesus revealed in the baptism account as the second member of the Trinity.

John 1:9-13 ‘The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.  He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.  He came to His own, and His own people did not receive Him.  But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man but of God.’

I preached on this passage during the advent season so I won’t dive back into this one.  The verses are really pretty self-explanatory.  Jesus as the true light coming as a Jewish guy and they did not receive Him.  But now to anyone who wants to receive Him, any race, ethnicity, no matter where someone is from or what they have done in life….they can become children of God.  They can become a part of His kingdom.

John 1:14-15  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.  (John bore witness about Him, and cried out, ‘This was He whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because He was before me.’)

The word “dwelt” means dwelling in a tent or tabernacle.  More than likely, this means that the divine presence which would dwell in the tabernacle for Israel and later in the temple had been fully embodied in Jesus.  He became flesh.  Jesus incarnated to become a human and walk among us.

The Apostle John and the other disciples and other people who had experiences with Jesus were able to see His glory.  They saw first hand that He was God.  The miracles, the teaching, the resurrection and finally the ascension.  Jesus was full of grace and truth.  Grace is getting what we do not deserve.  The Truth is Jesus as the living Word.  As God He speaks the ultimate truth.

John the Baptist again bore witness and recognized that although he would kick off Jesus’ ministry and Jesus technically came after him in an earthly sense, he also recognized that Jesus was before Him.  Jesus came from further back.

John 1:16-18  For from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.  No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, He has made Him known.’

Christ’s fullness of deity gives us a super abundance of grace.  Grace upon grace is what the gospel writer says.  A comparison is made between Moses and Jesus.  Moses brought the law down from Mount Sinai to Israel.  Jesus brings grace and truth.  The law was something exterior to Moses.  He was just a messenger of God’s law.  Jesus Christ was the embodiment of grace and truth.  These qualities were not separate from Christ like the law was separate from Moses.

“No one has ever seen God” but Jesus makes God known.  The wording here expresses an intimate relationship like between a parent and a child.  Jesus has made God known.  The greek wording there literally means to “expound” or “interpret” or reveal a mystery.

Matter:

The writer of John gives his readers a perspective, the ultimate and true perspective on who Jesus of Nazareth was and is.  As it turns out, our perspective of who Jesus is means everything and has eternal significance to our lives.  Out of all the perspectives we can have in life, John calls us to believe that Jesus is the living Word and calls us to become God’s children.

Perspective or worldview or the way that we see touches every part of our lives.  There isn’t an action that we take in life that did not come from how we ultimately see the world.  Whether or not we believe in Jesus will impact our spiritual lives and seep into the rest of our lives.

How do we see things when times are good?  How do we see things when times are difficult?

Thesis:  In good and difficult times, a firm foundational perspective built on Jesus can help anchor us through the sea changes of life.

Struggle:

We struggle with having the perspective that we should in life because our focus can easily go awry.  Our culture is very time oriented.  I first learned this in a cross cultural communication class in college.  Other cultures can be event oriented.  For example, not important for an event to start on time as much as it is about everyone who is supposed to be there being at the event.  There is a stronger community feel.  Every individual is obviously different so there are obviously exceptions but we tend to be really into time.  Appointments, getting to work on time, what time church starts, what time my kids sports event is and on and on.  We are running from one event to the next, checking our watch or our smart phone making sure we are  fitting everything into our schedules.  

We are busy.  I have to check my 4 or 5 social media accounts, my email, I call my parents, I’m involved in church and there is so much going on constantly.  Where do I have a moment to think about ultimate perspectives?  Distractions abound.

When we are going through difficult circumstances, sometimes it is hard to pull ourselves outside of those painful events in our life to gain a perspective.  Rightly so.  Pain and grief need to be addressed and dealt with.  Avoiding the hurt in our lives and burying it is unhealthy and will guarantee we will continue to carry the difficulties along with us.

Our church has been going through an extremely difficult trial that we all know about.  The founding pastor, who had founded our church 14 years ago, was called by God out of ministry.  Our lives were all impacted by the Rood family, Brent and Christy.  They sacrificed a ton to move across the country all those years ago to plant this church and all of us were blessed by God to be a part of Seed.

We have had other pastors come and go: Phil Higley who is a great friend of the church.  And the Krabachs, after a season of prayer and consideration, are called by God to move across the country to be closer to family.  Others who haven’t had the official title of pastor have moved on.  Good friends, fellow brothers and sisters in Jesus.

This is difficult.  It is hard.  Full stop.  There is no other way to describe that.  Some of us are going through grief about the losses of these good friends of ours.  A lot of us, if not all of us, have anxiety about what exactly is going to come next.  What are God’s plans for our community, our little Seed Church?

We need to think about these things because we need to gain perspective about where we are at while at the same time being real and authentic about what we feel and the hard times that we are going through.

First of all, grief, pain or being upset about where we are at as a church is normal.  Frustration is normal as this is not easy.  We can be honest about these thoughts and feelings with each other and try to work through them together.

Second, while we deal with these legitimate thoughts and emotions…we also need to fight for a perspective.  We need a way to see that is going to help us through this trying time.  That way to see, that perspective should be the same Jesus…the living Word that John is talking about in His gospel.

Gospel:

Jesus can bring us hope in a difficult circumstance for our church.  There have been a lot of changes with our church community and there inevitably will be more.  We have had chapters end and close.  We will be opening new chapters and new times and new experiences as a church community.  It will be Seed 2.0 in a sense.

Here is a perspective we can have:  we all can be a part of writing these next chapters in the history of Seed 2.0. We are not forgetting our past or the people who labored in the Lord to bring us to where we are at.  But here in 2019, we will be moving forward in different directions.  What will those directions be?  Well, that is up to all of us.  This is not just the elder’s church or the elder candidates.  It is not just the deacon’s church or the staff’s church.  It is all of our church as we serve and worship and believe in Jesus.

What are some of the things that you have always wanted a church to be or do?  Do you have a dream or vision for a ministry that we would like to start up?  What kinds of things are stirring in your soul?

If you have ideas or resources regarding a ministry that you would like to be a part of or start, why don’t we all talk further about this?  We are having a core meeting at the end of January and we are going to be covering some needed topics for sure but maybe we can make a part of that time talking about passions that people have and ministries that we can do together.  We can see what resources we can dedicate to help your passion become a part of our church.

Overall, our highest prayer for Seed is that the most important thing that we are about here will never change.  That is our devotion to Jesus, God in human flesh and the perspective that John invites us to have.  Even beyond perspective, John asks us to believe and draw near to Christ.  To repent of our sins and trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.

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Advent: Experience Joy John 1:9-13

***The following is a message I preached at Seed Church on December 16, 2018.  You can listen right here.

Christmas time is getting closer to us.  The holiday that inspires and awe and reverence within us as we believe that the God who formed the universe and earth from nothing took on human flesh and became a helpless infant.  A crying baby completely reliant and dependent upon his human parents.  Born into poverty and raised in a fairly rural town, Nazareth.  Being Jewish, the Word that took on human flesh was a part of an oppressed people group.  The Roman Empire occupied and had conquered the territory that the Living Word was born into.  From His throne in heaven to being under the boot of a King’s political power and a violent civilization where the murder of babies was not out of the question by a despotic and sociopathic King, the light of the world entered human history.

The man of sorrows and acquainted with grief would go on to die a bloody death on the cross in front of his mother Mary who had once cradled that child in a humble manger.

The deep and unbelievable irony of the living Word’s life was that this God who broke into human history came to show us how to attain a lasting experience with joy.  A homeless guy who was under constant threat from religious leaders, had nowhere to lay his head and died in such a terrible fashion is literally the source of experiencing joy.

Our third advent message is ‘experience joy’.  Advent meaning to come.   We look forward to the celebration of the coming of the Christ who takes away the sins of the world.

So, what is joy?  What does it look like to experience joy in your life?  Is having a consistent lifestyle of joy possible?  Does this mean I have to always act like that one person I know who is always smiling and happy but inside, I really suspect that this person is faking this whole constant happiness thing?

I have felt moments of happiness in my life.  When I beat ‘The Legend of Zelda’ on the original Nintendo as a kid.  When my parents took me to Disneyland also when I was a kid. A day filled with fun times.  When I went white water rafting on the Rogue River in Oregon as a teenager.  I felt an elation after I was baptized at 15.  Joy when I got a game winning hit in baseball while I was in high school.  Joy came when I knew the Seahawks were going to win their first Super Bowl in 2013 in, what, the second quarter?  (Despair is also being a Mariners fan).

All of these moments make me happy when I remember them and there are many more.  I’m thankful.  But is joy these things necessarily?  They are great things and important things and I think I had a genuine joyous mood but these moments always end.  And as time moves us along, some of the specific memories become a little hazy.

Can we experience a lasting joy?  Although it sounds like an oxymoron, can we even have joy during times of pain and grief?  Can we have joy when we are thrust into the sad valleys by circumstances beyond our control?

Let’s continue this morning with Advent and looking at the gospel of John.  What does this man, Jesus of Nazareth, have to do with a potential lasting joy for us?

Let’s turn to John 1:9-13.

Verse 1:9- ‘The True light, which gives light to everyone was coming into the world.’

The word for ‘true’ here is alethinos and it translates as true or real.  The real light as opposed to phony or counterfeit light.  Light we are all familiar with as a concept.  It provides an illumination and is a guide through darkness. Try driving your car at night without your headlights on.  OK, don’t do that but you know what I’m saying?  True light helps to guide us and navigate us through potentially dangerous terrain or maybe deadly.

Christ’s light is for everyone.  All people, all tribes, all nations, all races…every single person born in the world, Christ came to be a light.  What is Christ illuminating?  The Father for one.  Jesus is the face of God.  He calls Himself God in this very gospel.  He illuminates the Father, the truth and His gospel.

World in this verse is translated ‘kosmos’ which is extremely common for that word in the Greek New Testament.  The meaning is the ordered universe however, in the Johannine writings, the context often has the word mean the disordered fallen world.

Jesus as the light was coming into the world.  John, as the author of this gospel, was perhaps mimicking the beginning of Genesis.  The gospel starts out in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the word was God.  Genesis obviously starts with, ‘in the beginning, God created.’  So Jesus was breaking into human history having already been present at the creation of the universe. And not just present but active in shaping and for,8ng the earth from a lifeless void.  We notice in Genesis that light was present before the sun which was created on day 4.  That is because God is light and Jesus was the light as God, as the divine.  Now, John says, He was being incarnated.  He was coming into the world.

Verse 1:10- ‘He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world did not know Him.’

Jesus was in the disordered fallen world.  Remember John’s contextual take on kosmos.  The world was made through Jesus.  Think about this for a second.  Jesus was there at the beginning of this entire thing.  Some of you have been Christians for a long time.  You have heard all this before and heard lots of sermons and messages.  Ok, stop for a second and think about this.  The historical Jesus, this Jewish and homeless guy who lived in Palestine under Roman rule who had a crazy cousin who ate locusts and honey whose mother was pregnant with Him out of wedlock and who grew up in Nazareth.  He was there at the beginning of the kosmos.  Obviously we know a lot more about the universe right now then we did back then.  Still seems like we don’t know a lot.  Our universe is expanding based on the red shift of stars.  There are billions and billions of planets and who knows how many stars.  We live on earth, this pale blue dot (what Carl Sagan called our planet in his book) that is three back from the sun in just the right zone-not too hot and not to cold.   Bigger planets like Jupiter and Saturn shield us from a lot of meteors and other debris flying around.  All of this, was made through Jesus.  The historic Jesus who existed in history was there at the beginning and not only that, has existed from eternity past.

Although Jesus had this status, immense fame and glory, the world did not know Him.

Verse 1:11- ‘He came to His own, and His people did not receive Him.’

Jesus was born to Jewish parents and grew up Jewish.  He came from a human tribe.  Many scholars believe that the denomination of Judaism that Jesus came from was the Essenes.  Both Jesus and John the Baptist.  The Essenes were smaller in number then the Pharisees and Sadducees.  They were focused on an apocalyptic strain of Jewish thought.  The Dead Sea scrolls we discovered in the 1940s was from an Essene Sect.  Now, I say all of this but Jesus as God (as John refers to Him here in the opening chapter of this gospel) obviously transcends any one tribe or race or ethnicity as He is God.  However, He also was incarnated as a man and so came from a specific place in the world.

‘He came to His own’ but His people did not receive Him.  Are you familiar with those passages in the gospel where His own family had extreme doubts that Jesus was the Messiah?  I mean, Jesus performed miracles, raised the dead, fed hungry people, turned water into wine, and His people (referring to other Jews) did not receive Him.  Ultimately some of them conspired in His death.

Verse 1:12-13- ‘But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.’

There is a pivot in this verse where Israel was God’s chosen nation in the Old Testament to reflect His glory, revelation and values among the rest of the nation’s, the good news gospel is now that any person from any nation, race, ethnicity on earth can come to Jesus and be a part of His Kingdom which is a spiritual kingdom existing in the hearts of people.

‘Believed in His name’ the Greek word for believe is pisteuo and it means to have faith or could also mean within the context to declare allegiance too.  And by doing this, people have a right to become children of God because of Jesus (Jew and Gentile alike).  John here begins the concept in his gospel which will come up all the way through and especially with Nicodemus in chapter 3, being born again.  People born not of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man but of God.  God being a spirit, we are talking about being being spiritually born.  Becoming awake and alive in their spirit because of the work of Jesus Christ.

How you are perceived by God or known by God has nothing to do with your bloodline or what family you are from.  See, in the first century, blood line was a big deal.  What family you were from…what your family name is…the reputation of your family…wealth or lack of…socio-economic status and so on.  In our time, it still means some of those things but without as much as tribe or lineage.  Mostly, we are just focused on the wealth and inheritance.  But God is not.

God gives the right for people to become children of God.  We don’t naturally belong to God’s family because of the Fall but God desires to redeem us and mold us into His family via spiritual  regeneration.  

What a reason to experience joy.

Matter:

What is joy and how can we experience it?  What is the difference between joy and mere happiness?  Is it possible to live a life that is joy filled?

Joy is defined as a deeper happiness and contentment.  A richness in a person’s soul that knows God and fully trusts the Lord.

Being happy is wonderful but sometimes this is a more fleeting emotion.  I’m happy when I eat pizza.  I’m happy when the Seahawks win but that may only be a week until the opposite result happens.

So therefore, joy is a condition that is longer lasting then happiness and has to be something that is rooted deep in our souls.  It is a feeling but it is not just that.  Joy is a perspective and one that can impact every facet of our lives as it emanates from the core of our soul.

Aren’t most people looking for joy?  Or do some people get distracted in looking for lesser conditions?  Most people want to be happy and find meaning and satisfaction in life.  Blaise Pascal wrote:  ‘All men seek happiness.  This is without exception.  Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end.  The cause of some going to war and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views.  The will never takes the least step but to this object.  This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.’

We are built as people to pursue happiness and more then that, there is a longing in our souls for a deeper meaning and contentment.

As different as we are in this room.  As diverse as our stories can be or the places we have come from, there is one thing that I’m willing to wager that we all have in common.  There is a yearning or a longing for something more.  For some of us, this sense or feeling was present in our lives at one point.  For many of us, that feeling is present right now.

So this yearning takes over our thoughts when we aren’t distracted by life or other things?  Is there something more and better?  Some of us have an idea on what would make our lives feel more complete.  Is it the so-called perfect job?  The beautiful house and place to live?  Maybe it is a whirlwind romance or the perfect spouse who we think is going to Jerry Maguire us (remember you complete me)?  A certain salary or compensation level?  

Some of us may get a taste of these things at different points in our lives and then we come to realize that attaining these things doesn’t necessarily satisfy those yearnings or longings on a deeper level?

Many of us when we feel these things, we think we are alone.  That no one else feels the way.  We check into social media and see people doing fun things, we see their home remodels, we see their new boyfriend or girlfriends or we see happy families with smiling kids and cute moments.  And when you are looking at your friends over the internet having these experiences, at that moment, perhaps you are just living in the normal and things look great for everyone else.  So, when we have longings for something more, we feel alone.

Here is a little secret.  If you feel alone with these longings and yearnings, you are not alone.  Bono of U2 wrote an entire song about this back in the 1980s, right?  ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.’  Yearning and longing for deeper meaning, contentment, peace in your soul is built into the human condition.

This matters more then anything else.  This is the big existential thing in our lives.  This passage in the gospel of John can point us to a thing that is more true then the yearning of our human condition.

Thesis:  That Truth is that God, the Creator of all, broke into this world 2000 years ago to show us how to become children of God which correlated with experiencing joy.

Struggle:

As good as joy is and sounds to us and as much as we know that joy is a satisfying answer to many things that ail us, there are many struggles we have in experiencing joy.  

  1. Distractions.  There are many things in our world which distract us from pursuing important things that are going to lead to greater peace with God and a deeper meaning in life to hold on to.  Many of our lives are busy.  We are moving at supersonic speeds between work, and volunteer work and family responsibilities and hobbies that we always feel time crunched.  We are distracted away from healthy spiritual disciplines where we will here from God.  And we hate that word discipline don’t we?  It is good to desire to do something, like John Piper has his ‘Desiring God’ ministry, but some of the time (if we are really honest) we don’t really desire God.  This is where discipline comes in.  Prayer and Bible reading/ study.  A common application but one we need.  Your first thought be:  it doesn’t sound very joyful to create a discipline where I carve out time intentionally to read the Bible and pray but you know what…sometimes to experience joy, we need to create the good habits in our lives so we can open our hearts to God speaking to us.

Distraction is a real thing and Holy Spirit inspired discipline is needed to combat it.  Just this past week, I was trying to pray and I closed my eyes and there in the dark my mind was still racing.  Even though my eyes were closed, there was like a ping pong ball literally being bonked around.  I know this sounds crazy but true story. I’m so distracted by so many things that it is hard to focus on God and pray.

2)  The been There and done that feel with the Christian life.  I’m willing to bet that for many of you, you have heard lots of sermons before.  You have been to Bible studies.  Maybe some of you went to Bible college or seminary even.  During the week, you might listen to a lot of sermons from preachers around the country.  Maybe you listen to Christian music on the radio.  Christian stuff is always around you and you have probably heard messages and quotes on joy before. You have heard it constantly but you don’t feel anything.  It is all old hat.  Cliches.  You have heard it all before.  And how to break out of this?  There is a shell around.  No freshness anymore.  Nothing feels new related to faith.  Maybe we can’t even remember what joy feels like.

3)  Tempting to say that a struggle with joy may come from a lack of faith in God.  I have heard many say that.  Seems to rationally make sense, right?  If I have doubts or a lack of faith that God can do something, seems like that may rob me of joy.  Certainly possible but I want to take a different track on this that is inspired from a book I recently read by Austin Fischer called ‘Faith in the Shadows’.  Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13 that these three remain:  faith, hope and love but the greatest of these is love.  Maybe when we feel like we are struggling to experience joy in our lives, we have a love problem rather then a faith problem.  Are we still passionate about loving God and loving our neighbor?  Is the Greatest commandment that was articulated by Jesus at the forefront of our minds regularly?  Do we pray about that in our interactions with others, at our work, with our families?

I’ve gone this long without quoting the famous CS Lewis quote but it is such a good quote…I have to throw it in here.  This is from his ‘Weight of Glory” sermon in 1941, ‘It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.  We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.  We are far too easily pleased.’

Gospel:

The big hang up with not having joy is often looking in the wrong places.  John says He came into the world but the world did not know Him.  He was the true Light and His own people did not receive Him.  But He gave the right for anyone to become a child of God, to become a part of God’s family.

Christmas time celebrates that initial coming.  The King of the universe lying in a manger.  Is a helpless infant really the key to understanding joy?

The gospel of John starts off with a line that sounds like Genesis 1:1.  ‘In the beginning was the Word…’.   John ties Jesus coming to earth up in language similar to the creation of the universe.  The realization of John and other disciples as they hung out with Jesus, travelled around, listened to His sermons, ate, drank wine, burped that this guy was there at the beginning of everything and not only that, had existed in holy Trinity from eternity past.  The three members of the Trinity in endless and eternal celebration of joy with one another.  Probably a few minds blown and post-resurrection especially so.

Since we all had a beginning, we could never be on the same plane as God.  Impossible.  And we cannot attain the status of God, as many religions teach, because God exists in this other plane as uncreated and eternal.  How do we access the joy that exists in the godhead, the divine pleasure that God received when He created the universe?  We can’t on our own.  We are dependent on God coming to us!

So the all powerful, eternal King of the universe became this helpless infant whose only language as a baby to communicate would have been crying.  Completely reliant on human parents to clothe, shelter, feed him and keep Him safe.  Bask in this wild paradox.

When Jesus was incarnated, the message He brought from His kingdom beyond was the gospel.  A gospel to bring joy to the nations.  That God loves you unconditionally.  That Christ, the helpless baby, would grow up and go to the cross for our sins.  That God would raise Christ from the dead on that third day defeating humanity’s oldest and most feared foe.

The gospel message is that we can have peace with God because of Christ and the joy that comes along with that status regardless of our life circumstances.

If this has been a hard year for you and there have been family difficulties, losses, physical pain, disillusionment, political worries, or doubts…Christmas is the time to be consumed with that holy child in the manger.  The Creator and source of joy.

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Make America Read Again: Completely and Totally Exonerated Edition

The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical by Shane Claiborne

This 2006 book is an exploration, from the mind of author Shane Claiborne, as to how living a genuine Christian life can be done in 21st century America.  Claiborne is an evangelical but a more left leaning thinker specifically with politics.  In that case, this is a differing direction from the dominance that the “religious right” has over the church in America.  Claiborne is distinctly different and a fierce critic of those sort of politics (he has written recent books against the death penalty and also challenging gun culture…neither of which I have read).

“The Irresistible Revolution” is less about politics though and more about Claiborne’s search for a sincere Christian walk in contemporary America.  Less preachy and revolving more around an autobiographical approach to Claiborne’s life, he talks about meeting the Christian musician Rich Mullins (who took a vow of poverty), meeting Christ followers in Iraq after the start of the Iraq war, dumping $10,000 in coins and bills on Wall Street to redistribute income and his intentionally living in a poor area of Philadelphia (not sure if he still lives there but Kensington).  His focus is on living a Christian faith based around belief, action and love.

Having sharp pointed elbows for megachurches and mega pastoral celebrities, Claiborne looks to model what he calls “The Simple Way” an organization he is involved with that seeks to create neighborhoods worth living in of which the description sounds like Acts 2.  They have community meals, food distribution and collect money to help those in need.

The concept plays into his sub theme title on the book “living as an ordinary radical”.  In other words, a normal and everyday person challenging the common system.  There is some of Claiborne’s book that may not be fully fleshed out as far as the practical ideas go but there are other parts that are supremely compelling.  Still other parts are very uncomfortable in a good way.  How much has American consumerism shrouded our souls?  How much has nationalism blinded us to the value of human beings living in other places?

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“And I think that’s what our world is desperately in need of – lovers, people who are building deep, genuine relationships with fellow strugglers along the way, and who actually know the faces of the people behind the issues they are concerned about.” 

“We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the Kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy, too. But I guess that’s why God invented highlighers, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.”

“Mother Theresa always said, ‘Calcuttas are everywhere if only we have eyes to see. Find your Calcutta.'” 

 “I asked participants who claimed to be ‘strong followers of Jesus’ whether Jesus spent time with the poor. Nearly 80 percent said yes. Later in the survey, I sneaked in another question, I asked this same group of strong followers whether they spent time wit the poor, and less than 2 percent said they did. I learned a powerful lesson: We can admire and worship Jesus without doing what he did. We can applaud what he preached and stood for without caring about the same things. We can adore his cross without taking up ours. I had come to see that the great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.”

“For even if the whole world believed in resurrection, little would change until we began to practice it. We can believe in CPR, but people will remain dead until someone breathes new life into them. And we can tell the world that there is life after death, but the world really seems to be wondering if there is life before death.”

“And that’s when things get messy. When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: ‘When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.’ Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”

The Most Beautiful Thing I’ve Seen:  Opening Your Eyes to Wonder by Lisa Gungor

A reader may be slightly tricked by the title of Lisa Gungor’s new book.  Her writing is less about capturing wonder in every day existence and more an autobiographical telling of her life in which wonder is discovered anew in unexpected channels.  One half of the former Christian music group “Gungor” with her husband Michael, Lisa recounts the details of her early life growing up in- what she describes- as Christian  fundamentalism.  She talks movingly about her relationship with her mother, learning about shame in relation to her body, and how she met Michael which caused some turbulence in her family relationships (especially with her mom).

Gungor became a more indie Christian band that had a few worship songs become popular:  “Beautiful Things” and “Friend of God”.  Then Michael wrote- or commented- on his views about Genesis.  By Lisa’s telling, the Gungor’s had founded a church in the Denver area called “Bloom”.   They had a gay neighbor whom Lisa became close too named Paul.  Eventually, other powers at be at Bloom Church asked the Gungors to step down from leadership.  Being that their career was built in Christian ministry, to Lisa this felt like everything about their lives was changing and ending.

An extraordinary section of the book was Lisa recounting her experience giving birth to her daughter, Lucie, who had two heart defects.  Depression and despair followed.

Sadly to me, this spiritual memoir recounts Lisa’s journey out of evangelical Christianity and into a more mysterious and open-ended faith.  She will keep the readers in some suspense as she reveals what the actual “most beautiful thing she ever saw”
was but when we find out, it makes perfect sense within the confines of her story.

At times, poetically written and heartbreaking but centered in an awe-inspiring look at this wild life (for all of us).

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“I used to believe there was some line between what is sacred and common, miraculous and mundane. My perspective had to shift to see that actually all of the bushes are burning, the entire world is ablaze.”

“New sight didn’t come from someone giving me a summary on how to get through tough times. It came from hitting rock bottom, knowing what suffering is, feeling what love can do, and continuing to let both teach me in the years that followed.”

“I still see harsh comments online or receive them right to my face, comments on how we have fallen into the deep end, how we throw the word love around to too many people. And to that I’d say, ‘Oh, thank you, I’m trying to.’”

Suicide of the West:  How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy by Jonah Goldberg

And that is a lot of -isms.  Conservative pundit and commentator Jonah Goldberg has written “Suicide of the West” as a book that many are calling a must read for our times.  I don’t necessarily think that they are wrong but I will certainly take issue with some of Goldberg’s thoughts within the book.

He begins the book in a unique way for a conservative by almost triumphantly declaring that there is no god.  While walking that declaration back by declaring himself “not an atheist”, he suggests his point is we cannot rely on a god to save America or western civilization from decline.  He argues that “we the people” have to take charge, realizing what we have, and work to preserve our civilization.  As a theist, I disagree with him on god but will give him his point that progress toward ideal conditions for western civilization is not a given.  In Goldberg’s world, the future containing economic principles of “free market capitalism” is not a guarantee nor is larger Enlightenment philosophies of individual liberty a given.  Succinctly, if people value these things, they have to fight for them.  All the time.

Goldberg spends a large amount of time talking about how humanity’s natural tendency is toward tribalism.  Speaking of the development of humans according to the evolutionary time table, people have been a part of groups since the dawn of homo sapiens.  Built upon that is the instinctual tendency, according to Goldberg, to yearn for a paternal figure who is in charge.  The divine right of a king.  An authoritarian.  Indeed, Goldberg persuasively argues that classical liberal democracy is unnatural to human beings and highlights that this has really only been on the earth for nearly 300 years.  Compare that with how long scientists believe homo sapiens have wandered the planet.

While I have never read Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, I suspect that Goldberg has borrowed extensively from that work as he quotes Pinker on multiple occasions.

Having laid that foundation, he attacks “identity politics” and “nationalism” as being movements that are regressing humanity back toward our unhealthy natural tendencies rather then forward into a society based on the aforementioned classical liberalism.  To his credit, he identifies a lot of nuance.  Some of the movement within identity politics is based on minority groups in the past not being seen as equal even in the eyes of the law.  The past is not a vacuum.  Our society is where we are at for a reason and that reason is horrible things that stain our shared history.  Goldberg does attack “both sides” while hammering the left for “identity politics” he also vehemently shreds the rising nationalism on the right as a regression toward more centralized authority’s (especially in some European countries).

Toward the middle and end of the work, Goldberg gets into more familiar territory for a conservative discussing the issues that have been common rhetoric for the right since Ronald Reagan.  He lambasts the decline of the family but in this section makes the same mistake that other right of center pundits make.  When conservatives talk about the nuclear family, I always sense that they are speaking to a pre-fall institution.  Goldberg gently acknowledges that there are nuances but he doesn’t go far enough.  What about people who experience abuse or children who experience abuse?  Should those people stay in those marriages?  No fault divorce laws have helped people get out of marriages where they were not safe or perhaps their lives were at risk.  People are always changing and that is true even within marriages.  I hate divorce and I’m glad conservatives do as well but there are legitimate reasons to divorce (even according to Jesus and Paul in the Scriptures) and so people find themselves in less than ideal circumstances.

Finally, he laments Donald Trump and rightfully so as being an amoral and character-less hack who surprisingly took over the Republican Party.  No matter what someone may think of Goldberg’s politics, at least he is making an attempt to be intellectually consistent as well as make sure his views are grounded in principles that he applies to everyone as a conservative.

After talking about the evaporation of faith (and what he means explicitly is Biblical faith) from western civilization, he reminds everyone that the continued allegiance to the principles of western civilization which are unnatural are up to us.  There are no guarantees that the Constitutional system of government will be upheld unless we hold to the Constitution (and therein rule of law system) and pass these benefits down to our children.  All through the book, he refers to the ideas of the Enlightenment which influenced our founding fathers and thereby gave us this country as “the miracle”.  I agree on the value of what he have and his point about being grateful for it.  Most of human history has found people not living under systems of government such as the one we have.

Lester Lauding Level:  3 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Capitalism is unnatural.
Democracy is unnatural.
Human rights are unnatural.
The world we live in today is unnatural, and we stumble into it more or less by accident.
The natural state of mankind is grinding poverty punctuated by horrific violence terminating with an early death.
It was like this for a very very long time.”

“We drown in information but we starve for knowledge.”

“When we fail to properly civilize people, human nature rushes in. Absent a higher alternative, human nature drives us to make sense of the world on its own instinctual terms: That’s tribalism.”

“Way to understand the Founders’ vision and how it differed from other Enlightenment projects, specifically those of Revolutionary France … one can be found in the differences between French and English gardens. For instance, the French gardens at Versailles, with their ornate, geometric, nature-defying designs, illustrate how the gardener imposes his vision on nature. Nature is brought to heel by reason. The classic English garden, on the other hand, was intended to let nature take its course, to let each bush, tree, and vegetable achieve its own ideal nature. The role of the English gardener was to protect his garden by weeding it, maintaining fences, and being ever watchful for predators and poachers. The American founders were gardeners, not engineers. The government of the Founders’ Constitution is more than merely a “night watchman state,” but not very much more. It creates the rules of the garden and the gardeners and little more. This does not mean the government cannot intervene in the society or the economy. It means that, when it does so, it should be to protect liberty, which Madison defined in Federalist No. 10 as ‘the first object of government’.”

“Hannah Arendt once observed that, in every generation, Western civilization is invaded by barbarians: We call them “children.” The family is the first line of defense against this barbarian invasion. The metaphor is inapt, because parents aren’t at war with babies themselves. But parents are at war with the darker side of human nature, which we all work to trim away from for our children by inscribing in their hearts notions of decency, fair play, and self-restraint. When parents fail to do that, other institutions, including the government, try to step in and remedy what they can. But no teacher, counselor, social service worker, priest, rabbi, imam, or police officer will deny that, when the family fails to do its part, the work of every institution downstream of the family becomes that much more difficult.”

“That internal beast is human nature. It cannot be killed; it can only be tamed. And even then, constant vigilance is required.”

“The Founders knew this history well. They understood that people were always going to form factions and that there will always be elites. The trick was to prevent any faction, including a majority of the people, from commandeering the state for its own ambitions. “The only remedy” to the problem of majoritarian factions taking over the government and bending it to its will, James Madison wrote, “is to enlarge the sphere, and thereby divide the community into so great a number of interests and parties, that, in the first place, a majority will not be likely, at the same moment, to have a common interest separate from that of the whole, or of the minority; and in the second place, that in case they should have such an interest, they may not be so apt to unite in the pursuit of it.”

“Because he is bereft of any coherent ideology and largely immune to any of the norms of good character, Donald Trump is, in many respects, a perfect example of how capitalism, absent the extra-rational dogmas of morality, creates creatures of pure appetite, guided only by the most rudimentary software of human nature. He cares about sex and power, dominating others, and having his status affirmed. He puts family above all other considerations, but defines the family’s interests in terms of wealth and dynastic glory. He views others as instruments of his will whose value is measured in their loyalty to him, a loyalty that is rarely reciprocated. When asked what sacrifices he made comparable to those of parents who lost a child in war, he couldn’t even name any sacrifice at all.  He is a knight, in the Nietzschean sense, and he makes his own morality.”

“It was inevitable when we stopped looking up to God for meaning and started looking down into ourselves that we would look to find fulfillment, belonging, and meaning in tribes and crowds. ‘Classically, there are three ways in which humans try to find transcendence—religious meaning—apart from God…,’ the theologian and pastor Eugene Peterson writes, ‘through the ecstasy of alcohol and drugs, through the ecstasy of recreational sex, through the ecstasy of crowds. Church leaders frequently warn against the drugs and the sex, but at least, in America, almost never against the crowds.'”

God, Freedom and Evil by Alvin Plantinga

My first experience reading a book by the famed Notre Dame Professor Alvin Plantinga and unfortunately, I’m extremely disappointed.  Generally, I have heard a lot about Plantinga and I’m assuming maybe there are more meatier books out there on the topic of the existence of God and his “free will defense”.

Where to begin?  The paperback version of this book is only 112 pages and I should known going in that this is woefully short to tackle a topic like this one.  For goodness sakes, he even talks about theodicy while being completely dismissive of the cosmological argument in about 3 or 4 pages.  The book was published in 1974 originally and maybe the “Big Bang Theory” was not as prevalent back then?  The Big Bang Theory adds a ton of credence to the cosmological argument because, according to the theory, the entire universe had a beginning.  Plantinga does not even deal with this aspect and dismissively tries to write off perhaps a thousand years of dialogue around the “First Cause” theory in a miniscule amount of pages.

The core of the book is surrounding the “free will defense”.  Plantinga makes the rather obvious case that the fact that there is evil in the world does not logically contradict that there could be an all-powerful, all-loving God.  Through an exhausting amount of unnecessary academic jargon flaunting, he shows that God may allow evil for other reasons rather than being impotent.

The “free will defense” is problematic on numerous fronts.  One of those (not addressed by Plantinga) is that science is now showing us that we may have less “free choice” then we think we do.  A combination of nature and nurture (most of which is completely out of our control) may hardwire us toward decisions in our lives.  Again, being that this was written in the mid-70s prior to a lot of this research coming out, I can extend some grace but would be interested in hearing Plantinga take on that research.

He dedicates the end portion of the book to the ontological argument which he concludes could possibility argue for the existence of God.  Personally, I guess anything is possible but the ontological argument is a profoundly weak thesis.  Plantinga makes it sound somewhat interesting but when one thinks more about it, there isn’t much there.

Honestly, I cannot recommend this book.  Find something else to read on this topic.

Lester Lauding Level:  2 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“The existence of God is neither precluded nor rendered improbable by the existence of evil. Of course, suffering and misfortune may nonetheless constitute a problem for the theist; but the problem is not that his beliefs are logically or probabilistically incompatible. The theist may find a religious problem in evil; in the presence of his own suffering or that of someone near to him he may find it difficult to maintain what he takes to be the proper attitude towards God. Faced with great personal suffering or misfortune, he may be tempted to rebel against God, to shake his fist in God’s face, or even to give up belief in God altogether. But this is a problem of a different dimension. Such a problem calls, not for philosophical enlightenment, but for pastoral care. The Free Will Defense, however, shows that the existence of God is compatible, both logically and probabilistically, with the existence of evil; thus it solves the main philosophical problem of evil.”

“And by way of concluding our study of natural atheology (atheism): none of the arguments we’ve examined has prospects for success; all are unacceptable. There are arguments we haven’t considered, of course; but so far the indicated conclusion is that natural atheology doesn’t work.”

“Is it a fact that those who believe in a Heavenly Father do so because or partly because their earthly fathers were inadequate? I doubt it. If it is a fact, however, it is of psychological rather than theological interest. It may help us understand theists, but it tells us nothing at all about the truth of their belief; to that it is simply irrelevant.”

 

 

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Thanksgiving Sermon: Psalm 100

This is a Thanksgiving sermon that I preached at Seed Church on November 25, 2018.  You can listen here.

Intro:

Happy Thanksgiving Seed Church!  Did you all have an enjoyable holiday?

Well, this morning we have decided to stick with the occasion and talk a little about this idea of Thanksgiving.

In the USA, we can trace this day all the way back to 1619 when a group of 38 English colonizers arrived in Charles City County Virginia and upon arrival, per their charter, they were required to ‘that the day of our ships arrival at the place assigned…in the land of Virginia shall be yearly and perpetually kept holy as a day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God.’  The technical first Thanksgiving may have been in 1621 after the first Harvest in Plymouth where the Pilgrim’s landed while aboard the Mayflower.  Michelle and I got a chance to be at that spot back in 2015 which was pretty cool.  In 1621, there were 53 colonists and 90 Native Americans and the feast lasted 3 days.

Thanksgiving became a federal holiday under Abraham Lincoln in 1863 and you will note, this was even before Christmas became an official federal holiday which would be in 1870.

So we have had this idea, this set aside holiday to give thanks to almighty God generally.  We uphold this, theoretically, as a paramount virtue in our culture.  This is a big, giant date on the calendar every year.  But are we as a people actually thankful?  Do people in our society have a mentality or lifestyle of Thanksgiving?

Don’t get me wrong.  I love this holiday.  Love it.  I get to hang out with family, get into loud shouting matches about politics that evolve into food fights (just kidding…my family is like a hippie commune.  We agree on a lot of those things), lose to my uncle Ron in chess, eat turkey and pass out watching the Cowboys lose.  Or the Lions.  It’s a great day.

If people were thankful beyond this day, what would change in our communities?  How would people’s lives change?  If we are to be thankful, to who or what should we be thankful too?  I’ll never forget reading one of Bart Ehrman’s books and him discussing a tragic loss of faith in his life.  After it happened, he became haunted because when he would feel immense gratitude during his life, he would be unsure who to be thankful too for those moments.

Well, a Psalmist is going to help us toward a target of Thanksgiving this morning.  An ultimate target.  A target that can bring hope and meaning to our life while empowering us toward a lifestyle of Thanksgiving.

Let’s dive into Psalm 100.  As a bit of background, this hymn is for worshippers to sing about the Lord (Yahweh) and His covenantal relationship with his people (at this point in history, the Israelites).  This may have likely been a song that was sung at one of Israel’s religious festivals but there is no way to really know for sure.  It comes after Psalms 96-99 which are considered to be Psalms proclaiming Yahweh’s kingship.  It comes in a stanza that is relatively simple.  A call to give thanks and then a celebration of the covenant and then repeat.

Psalm 100:1  ‘Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth!’

An invitation goes out to all the earth.  Come and shout for joy before Yahweh, the Great King.  Notice that this invitation is free.  There are no prerequisites.  There is nothing that anyone has to pay.  And this invitation, this call, was not just for Israel but the whole earth.  All the kingdoms.  Yes, this would have included Israel’s enemies.  This submission to God should come out of a heartfelt response of joy, not necessarily duty or obligation (though there sometimes is maybe a place for those in life).

100:2  ‘Serve the Lord with gladness!  Come into his presence with singing!

The word gladness here (Simha) speaks to a joy of living in harmony with Yahweh the Creator.  Worship Yahweh with gladness which is a sense of living in harmony and peace with God.  The Israelites were obviously followers of the Biblical Law.  They would follow the Torah as closely as possible and memorize many of the Torah’s commands.  I don’t know about you but that sounds hard and like it is a path of shame and guilt.  But this Psalmist says in this verse that this service of the Lord should come with a harmony with God.  As we are all Image bearers of God, a closeness with God reflects a love, peace and meaning exclusively in Him that will be noticeable to other people in your life.

And then it says, ‘come into his presence with singing’ or other translations, ‘come before Him with joyful songs.’  Instead of coming before him with burnt offerings or sacrifices (as they would do in this culture and in the nation of Israel for atonement for their sins), the Psalmist is inviting people to come before Yahweh with songs.  Joyful songs.

100:3  ‘Know that the Lord, He is God.  It is He who made us, and we are his; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture.’

‘Know’ signifies confession or a total acknowledgment.  Yahweh is the only God.  Monotheism.  Every other civilization or culture on the earth in this day believed in multiple gods.  Sometimes hundreds or thousands of gods out there.  The Psalmist recognizes that Yahweh is exclusively the God.  Forget about any of these other gods.  Israel had likely heard myths from other civilizations.  Perhaps Enuma Elish or the epic of Gilgamesh or about Egyptian gods when they were slaves in Egypt.  But Israel was privileged to be the representative of God on earth.  They knew in Genesis that the True God had made them.  They also knew through the covenants established by Noah, Abraham, Moses and others revealed that they belonged to an all powerful but loving God who was very near.

The Israelites or people of God are the sheep.  Sheep are not known for being the brightest animals and they don’t have much defense against fierce predators.  They are small and weak so in other words, they need a shepherd who can guide them to pastures that will quench their hunger.  The shepherd needs to keep wolves from praying on the sheep.  Protection is a top priority as sheep often cannot protect themselves.

So we confess that He is the shepherd that guides us.

100:4 ‘Enter His gates with Thanksgiving, and His courts with praise!  Give thanks to Him; bless His name.’

Now, the gates are the entryways into the walled and fortified city.  In God’s kingdom, the unclean are often left outside the gates but in this Psalm, the gates are thrown open to all who will come.  The invitation has gone out not just to Israelites but also to the whole world as we have seen.  All may come to know God and worship and praise Him as the Lord.

And the invitation is not just to enter the gates but to venture further into the kingdom to the courts which likely would have been the outer courts.

The thanksgiving that flows from the lips of people in this Psalm is the joyous noise of people who have been invited into the sacred.  Invited in to more fully know God.  Outside the city are people who are begging and pleading to get into the large walled city where they can be sustained and protected.  God, as the King, flings His gates open and enthusiastically asks everyone to come in.

100:5 ‘For the Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever, and His faithfulness to all generations.’

God is good and His love endures forever.  These are His characteristics.  He has made a covenant with Israel and has every intention of keeping this covenant and celebrating this promise with the people He has made these promises too.  Later, the writer of 1 John would tell us that God is love.  Agape or unconditional love being a defining and central characteristic of God.  What a reason to offer worship, to praise and go crazy with joyful offerings.  The God who created all, is totally other and all-powerful has drawn near to His people by flinging open the gates of His kingdom for all to come and hang out.  What a glorious reason to be thankful.

Matter:

Now, a culture like ours may acknowledge the importance of a message like this but I think our big issue is that our understanding of thankfulness and gratitude is very shallow.. As much as we value Thanksgiving on paper in our country by designating a very popular holiday for its celebration, are we really that thankful?  Or are we more entitled? 

How much would our culture or we as individuals change if we had a mindset of thankfulness?  Would our culture, known for people being increasingly isolated, lonely, depressed change if we truly had a general perspective of thankfulness that was greater than just a holiday on the calendar but was an encompassing mark of our lives?

How do we cultivate a general level of thankfulness with all the awful stuff that happens in this world?

Thesis:  When we come to Jesus and surrender our lives to Him, he wants to sow in us a heart of gratitude based on Him giving us this gift of life and dying for us on the cross so we can know God.

Struggle:

Having a perspective of thankfulness is hard because this world that we find ourselves living in.  From the time we are toddlers, we are bombarded with advertisements saying that we are not complete or won’t be satisfied until we have this certain product.  There is a mass consumeristic brainwashing going on that leaves us discontent and rather then being grateful for what we do have, we are always yearning for more, more, more.  It is more then a little ironic that after the holiday that is designated as a day to be thankful, we have a mass shopping day where we are ultimate fighting our way through retail shops in order to fill our shopping carts up with stuff for the next holiday.  Or you can fill up a cyber cart on cyber shopping Monday.

And it’s not that shopping is bad or shopping for family and friends gifts for Christmas is wrong.  It is more a question of what is going on in our souls.  What is the main central thing that we are bowing too in our heart of hearts and what is the impact on how we see life?  Are we generally thankful and grateful for what God has given to us?  Or are we discontent, entitled, always yearning for more?

Another struggle we have with thankfulness is more weighty.  What about all the bad things that happen in our lives?  The grief, the pain, the heartbreak.  What happens when we lose a job or don’t get the job we wanted?  What about when a loved one or a friend passes away?  What about if we get sick or develop a condition where we are constantly in physical pain?

Michelle and I know a family that has a 4 year old going through hell on earth.  She has a rare disease in her liver and doctors are struggling with how to treat her.  She is constantly sick and in pain.  How do we approach an attitude of thankfulness with this situation?  Can you imagine someone walking up to a family going through this and tritely saying, ‘whelp!  Just be thankful.’

When things don’t go the way they should, it is hard to be thankful and even more difficult to consider where an attitude on thankfulness comes in.

How do we develop this when life is brutal and painful?  When there is another shooting on the news?  A store that runs a guy out because he is a specific race?  Another war breaking out?  Homeless people struggling for shelter and food?

How do we develop a mindset of Thanksgiving in a dark, dark world?

Gospel:

To develop that mindset, we have to come to Jesus.  Beyond just being inspirational, Jesus empowers us to be thankful by the nature of who He is and what He has done for us on the cross.

There is a nuanced approach here to the trials of life that come.  On the one hand, we have to deal honestly with pain and grief.  We have to face it.  We cannot dress up in plastic smiles and walk around pretending everything is ok.  We have to be honest about where we are at with the immense difficulties on life.  But here is what we have to realize.  If we do not have any hope, nothing to be thankful for, then we will be on the path to complete despair.  To deal honestly and realistically with pain and grief but also to try and cling to things in your life that you are thankful for.

Even outside of painful experience, we can get distracted from moments that make us thankful.  The other night I was cleaning up after dinner, focused on my tasks and my son Reuben is over by our front window.  And Reuben is saying, ‘Daddy, daddy!  Look!  Moon.’  I’m thinking, ‘what is this kids?  I got stuff to do.  I have my house chores.’  Reuben says the same thing again.  So, I gave in and said ‘fine’ and walked over to the window.  There was the moon.  A thin crescent moon right up there in a very dark night sky.  Reuben and I were looking out our window looking up and through these bare branches from a tree in our front yard.  It was perfectly framed and radiating this light.  Reuben was transfixed and I stood there and said, ‘God made that’ and Reuben said, ‘Yeah.’  It became a moment I was thankful for.

The Psalmist exhorts us in this passage to know God.  The God that made that moon.  The God that gave that moment to Reuben and me.  We can know God.  Know that God made us and know that we are His people.  Nothing that can happen to us in life or to our church can change that.  We are His people that can know Him and what a thing to be thankful for.

And this God whose love endures forever and whose faithfulness extends to all generations, His gates are always open so that you and I can come into His kingdom and into His courts so we can know Him.  For sure, the road to get to those gates may be narrow, like Jesus says, as opposed to broad like the path of destruction.  But people from all over the world are a part of that kingdom.  People from all races, ethnicities that speak all kinds of languages and people from all different backgrounds.  People who have committed all kinds of different sins.  The gates are open for all of them.

The gates are open to all of us here.  The gates are open for you.  This is what we can be thankful for.  This is why we can enter those gates with Thanksgiving.

For those struggling with physical pain and hardship, the gates are always open,

For people wrecked with depression and anxiety struggles, the gates are always open.

For people who have been assaulted, abused or bullied, the gates are always open.

For those who are struggling to find a job or let go from one, the gates are always open.

For those struggling with the loss of loved ones or friends, the gates are always open.

For a church struggling to find a pastor, the gates are always open.

And the gates are open for people to come and find the True God, Christ Jesus, who is the ultimate monarch of this Kingdom in people’s hearts.  Thanksgiving can come to your heart when we are impacted not just intellectually but to the core of our beings that Jesus died for us as a demonstration of His love and then beat one of our greatest foes and feared enemies-the grave.

True, the Psalmist did not know the specific name of Jesus but the Psalmist knew the True God and in this Psalm, overwhelmed with joy and thankfulness.

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The Problems with “A God Problem”

The recesses of my mind conjure up grateful memories of my experiences back in college.  A fond span of time that will be with me until my prefrontal cortex fails.  This era of my life includes, obviously, my freshman year and as rookie college students sitting around a dorm without much else to do.  During that time, we engaged in infamous night-time amateur philosophizing that came over us like a benevolent spirit of comedy (although we thought we were brilliant and serious at the time).   “Can God make a rock so big that He could not pick it up?”  Actually, my brain is now reminding me:  this wasn’t college.  It was high school.

Enter Peter Atterton, a professor of philosophy at San Diego State University.  I’m sure he is a lovely person.  Based upon a google search, I see that he came from London to the United States.  We are glad he is here.  He also has a specialization in continental philosophy and animal philosophy (I’m not sure how well animals in general do philosophy but I’m assuming he means human beings as animals from a common ancestor with chimpanzees).

Imagine a philosophy professor who has been teaching in a collegiate department of philosophy since at least 2005 asking, in the pages of the New York Times on March 25, 2019, whether God could make a square circle.  Well, you actually don’t have to imagine this scenario because here it is:  “Thus, God cannot lift what is by definition ‘unliftable,’ just as He cannot ‘create a square circle’ or get divorced (since He is not married).  God can only do that which is logically possible.”

Thus from the piece’s beginning, we are bewildered.

If I must get into this, human beings have this gifting called language and with these linguistics, we assign descriptions to various items that we observe in life.  A spherical item may be described as a circle whereas a boxy type thing would be called a square.  There are built in limitations to language so we can categorize and define what we are talking about as we communicate with other people.  I really don’t mean to sound like I’m pandering here but honestly, I’m just trying to respond to this editorial.  The question of “can God make a square circle?” is utter nonsense.  The inquiry is a complete absurdity because we have cordoned off in our language descriptions of “squares” and “circles” as too different items so we can appropriately organize the reality we experience.

The same is true of the question ‘can God make a rock so big that He could not pick it up?’  For theists, God is a Supreme Being.  That is what we knowingly believe God is.  A rock is a created item.  Sedimentary, igneous, or metamorphic rock are all created things. These diverse rocks had a beginning.  A theist believes that God did not have a beginning so immediately we will understand there is an infinite chasm between a Creator and a rock.

The awkwardness of this article is Atterton will introduce argumentation and then half-heartedly refute his own questions by quoting other philosophers in history.  He bounces around from Thomas Aquinas to Renes Descartes before finally coming around to the problem of evil.

Now, the problem of evil (theodicy) is a completely legitimate theological debate and has been raging for some time.  My own philosophy professor, the great Dr. Skip Forbes, used to call theodicy “the nastiest issue that Christians have to deal with”.  In my opinion, Atterton doesn’t really explain this issue very well so I will go ahead and do that using David Hume so we are all on the same page.

Hume’s Theodicy:

Point # 1 A loving and all-powerful God exists.

Point # 2 If such a God existed, there would be no evil in the world.

Point # 3 There is evil in the world.

Conclusion:  A loving and all-powerful God does not exist.

There are holes in his logical breakdown (one of which is how do we know what good and evil are and who defines those terms) and there are ways to debate these points.  This “Timothy Ministry” blog post sums up the issue well while discussing Hume:  “if God is all good and all powerful, how can He allow evil and suffering to exist in the world? God’s allowance of evil and suffering does not seem to make sense in the light of human experience and human conceptions of goodness and justice.”

Atterton brings up Alvin Plantinga (I’m actually reading his book right now “God, Evil and Freedom“) and the free will defense to the problem of evil. “To create creatures capable of moral good, (God) must create creatures capable of moral evil; and He can’t give these creatures the freedom to perform evil and at the same time prevent them from doing so.”  Setting aside the theological issues of predeterminism and how much free will human beings actually have (maybe a blog post for another day), love as an all-encompassing power in the universe has to involve a choice (at some level).  Forcing affection or running relationships like an authoritarian does not result in a pure love:  a care or deep affection that results in an unconditional embrace.  Can genuine love spring from a human being that has no choice but to always do what is righteous?  Or is a higher meaning unlocked by choosing a righteous path or behaviors BECAUSE of one’s deep love and desire to follow what is right?

The answer to Atterton’s question as to whether God can create a world that is free of evil is a resounding yes.  This is the culmination described in Revelation and actually throughout the Bible.  If people interpret the final chapters of Revelation (this is admittedly debated) to be an eternal state without any sin, than God is in fact shaping this world as we speak as He engages in redemptive activities.  The events of Revelation though are post people making a choice as to whether they want to join His (now spiritual) kingdom.

Another thought on moral evil.  From Atterton’s point of view, where do human beings obtain a sense of right and wrong?  Who decides what is good or evil?  The reason why human beings have a deep sense of justice rooted into their souls is because of the existence of a just God.  There is an innate and near universal human yearning for just outcomes.  Around our world, people plead for racial justice, march for feminist justice, or join other justice causes because they all know there is a better world available.  A standard of justice exists that is transcendent to this world that exclaims to us that all people are valuable, have worth and should be treated with dignity.  Those innate desires come from a just God.

The editorial then breaks off from talking about moral evil and moves on to natural evil where Atterton quotes Charles Darwin.  “A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time?”  A great question.

The Christian worldview involves a fall (Genesis 3) which is a marring of creation.  Whether someone takes Genesis 3 as literal history or someone interprets Genesis 3 as a metaphor getting at theological truth, the point is that there is something deeply wrong with the world.  Humanity has chosen this wrong and because of people’s choices, nature itself has been affected.  An interesting note on natural evil is that in our times there is a blurring of the line between catastrophes in the world and human choices.  Climate scientists and environmentalists have connected collective human decision making with polluting water, garbage in the ocean as well as greenhouse gas effects in the atmosphere (to name a few).  A poor stewardship of this creation has caused the degradation of animal life as well as inhumane conditions for the world’s poor (see Flint, MI’s water supply for a USA story as one example).  The bottom line is:  theism generally teaches that humanity’s terrible decisions have furthered a world where things have gone massively wrong.  Again, we come to the big existential question of if we can all imagine a world that is better, where is that imagining coming from and from where do we attain that sense?

From the theodicy problem, the opinion article tries to attack God’s omniscience and if God knows everything, does He know what it is like to sin on a subjective level?  Atterton writes:  “As the late American philosopher Michael Martin has already pointed out, if God knows all that is knowable, then God must know things that we do, like lust and envy.  But one cannot know lust and envy unless one has experienced them.  But to have had feelings of lust and envy is to have sinned, in which case God cannot be morally perfect”.  This is silliness.  Knowledge can be divided up into two categories:  objective and subjective (experiential).  A theist believes that God has an all-knowing objective knowledge of everything.  One can know objectively about lust and envy.  Anyone can read about lust and envy or listen to someone talk about their experiences with those vices.   Getting back to the Bible, the Scriptures do declare God to be holy (without sin- Leviticus 11:45 and Isaiah 6:3) so Atterton is correct that God has never lusted or given into a sinful envy.  Jesus, whom Christians believe was God, was tempted in every way yet found to be without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  God has all objective knowledge and has experiential knowledge in what it is like to be tempted by all manner of sins but not give in to them.

I’m assuming that the editors at the New York Times only give Atterton a certain amount of space in an opinion piece to make his point.  At the end of his “A God Problem” piece, he declares that he is going to ignore the incarnation of God as Jesus.  This seems telling.  A central cornerstone for Christian believers in understanding God comes from Jesus Himself and His teachings when He came to earth.  “Can God die?” Atterton asks.  Yes, He can.  And three days later, by the power of God, He can be risen again.  He briefly pontificates that the incarnation leaves us with formidable difficulties.  Sure, I’ll give the author that one.  An infinite God becoming a human baby and growing to the age of his early 30s is never going to be an easy one to rationally explain or understand.

The overall accusation by Atterton is that God (that he laughably defines via the dictionary at the opening of this article) is not coherent.  Is the alternative any more coherent?

I can appreciate thought pieces on the mysteries of God and His nature.  Questions about theodicy are important and critical (this was the best part of Atterton’s piece).  No one can climb inside the mind of God as we are not God.  Theists believe that we are dependent upon God to reveal things about Himself because we are flawed human beings trying to figure all of this out.  However, an article that begins by going to the dictionary to describe a Being that most of the world has believed in (by one form or another) since the dawn of humanity and that a great deal of people report having spiritual experiences seems like a pathetic joke.  Furthermore, to continue the line of reasoning based on lifting rocks and square circles seems like the author does not even want to have a serious conversation on the topic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Spielberg Marathon: Jurassic Park

“If I may… Um, I’ll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you’re using here, it didn’t require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn’t earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don’t take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now…”

“God creates dinosaurs, god destroys dinosaurs, god creates man, man destroys god, man creates dinosaurs.”

“Hold onto your butts.”

“That is one big pile of shit.”

______________________________________________

The first time in the history of my life that I read the book before watching the movie was “Jurassic Park”.  A worn, white covered paperback had been lying around my house already read by my mom.  Being a normal pre-teen kid, I was fascinated by dinosaurs and Michael Crichton writing a story about prehistoric reptiles in a zoo-type environment where things go really wrong sounded exciting enough.  The novel truly is excellent with Crichton riding an intriguing fine line thematically between science fiction that sounds like it is incredibly close to happening in the real world or that theoretically could very soon.

As a 13 year old kid, my anticipation for seeing “Jurassic Park” was greater than any other movie I have ever seen in my life even to this day.  Who else to direct the film but Steven Spielberg with a chance to mix his science fiction, wonder and thrills all in one picture?  I still remember seeing this movie for the first time at Southcenter Mall (now Westfield Mall) at a one- screen theater that was off on its own oasis in the parking lot (the building is now a Caribbean restaurant, Bahama Breeze).

“Jurassic Park” was already a story that had garnered fame and attention. This movie had to be excellent and attain the high bar that people had ascribed prior to going to see it.  The film delivered and still holds up to this day.  The now legendary soundtrack by John Williams ever reminding us of the exhilaration we felt when we first saw those brontosauruses with palentologist Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie (Laura Dern), mathematician Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum), and the blood-sucking lawyer Gennaro (Martin Ferrero).

Eventually, we meet a young Samuel L Jackson (portraying Arnold) as a computer systems guy at the park, puffing away on his cigarette.  Jackson would be catapulted to superstardom a year later following Quentin Tarantino’s release of “Pulp Fiction”.

As owner and visionary John Hammond (Richard Attenborough) guides his guests (from whom he seeks endorsements of the park) through his planned tour prior to the park being open to the public, there is a sense of sheer excitement for the technology that could possibly bring a place like this into existence but also simultaneously a sense of terror.  Often scientific breakthroughs can bring along both of these things.  Awe and profound wonder at what scientific advancement can bring with unique experiences but sometimes, there is a dark underbelly.  How do we feel about our current tech age with social media? Dinosaurs munching on people is certainly different than the potential psychological impact of Facebook or Twitter or other online connectors however, the darker complexities of our progress remain.

Much is discussed in the film about chaos theory, mostly from Malcolm’s character, and principles of unpredictability.  Who, besides God, has a read on human behavior and what people are capable of?  When greed is a prime motivator embedded in people’s fallen natures, we can start to imagine what could happen when so much depends upon human beings harnessing terrible lizards from 65 million years ago (or thereabouts) in a complex menagerie they have developed.  The law of unintended consequences is a haunting reality.

The maddening terror of the scene with the tyrannosaurus Rex breaks loose from his paddocks, eats the lawyer, and attacks the children still reams with intensity.  A horrendous thought on how wrong progress can go.  And yet the thing that really makes this Spielberg movie fascinating is a scene like that juxtaposed with the sequence of Grant and the children (Tim played by Joseph Mazzello and Lex played by Ariana Richards) feeding a plant-eating brachiosaurus from a tree with all the flavor of that Spielbergian wonder. This tension lasts most of the way through the movie until in the final third where it turns into a relentless thriller.

After I saw the movie for the inaugural time, honestly I did feel a little bit of disappointment.  I knew that what I had seen was amazing and especially for the time in 1993, something that had never been done in the movies before.  But I kept thinking about the book and all that was edited out of the screenplay (written by Michael Crichton and David Koepp).  A lot of the scenes from the final third of the book would be outsourced to the sequels making the ending of “Jurassic Park” seem abrupt to me.

26 years after the movie’s release, I am over my slight feeling of disappointment.  “Jurassic Park” remains a Spielberg masterpiece in the upper echelons of his considerable filmography.  A movie and story that will be with us for a long, long time and whose warnings and themes we should continue to think about.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Raiders of the Lost Ark (Review here)

Jaws (Review here)

Jurassic Park

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Review here)

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Review here)

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (Review here)

Empire of the Sun (Review here)

The Color Purple (Review here)

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (Review here)

Hook (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

Always (Review here)

1941 (Review here)

 

 

 

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