Spielberg Marathon: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

“He says the sun came out last night. He says it sang to him.”

“I guess you’ve noticed something a little strange with Dad. It’s okay, though. I’m still Dad.”

“We didn’t choose this place! We didn’t choose these people! They were invited!”

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Mysterious appearances of planes missing for 30 years.  Airplanes narrowly avoiding a mid-air collision with an unidentified flying object.  Lights in the skies.  Steven Spielberg’s classic, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” maneuvers effortlessly between meta events of humanity’s first encounter with aliens to the personal homes of families affected by the visitation.

That family includes Roy Neary, (Richard Dreyfuss returning to another Spielberg movie from his role in “Jaws”) an electrical lineman, who goes out to investigate a suspicious series of power outrages in Indiana.  While on the job, he has a close encounter with a UFO that slightly burns his face while passing overhead.  His truck starts acting haywire and after his truck returns to normal operating, he begins to pursue the UFOs with the police along a highway.

His family includes Ronnie Neary (Teri Garr) and their three kids.  She becomes increasingly dismayed by Roy as he becomes obsessed by the UFOs and begins to make a mountain-shaped structure that looks an awful lot like the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

Meanwhile, Jillian (Melinda Dillon) lives in Muncie, IN with her son, Barry (Cary Guffey) and they have a terrifying encounter with a UFO descending over their home.  The occurrence causes all of the appliances in the house to malfunction.  Bright shiny lights outside entice Barry enough that he moves toward them and is abducted by the aliens.

Eventually, scientists discover that the UFO makes a 5 tone musical phrase in a major scale.  When they broadcast this communication into space, a series of numbers come back.  Coordinates to the Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.  Roy and Jillian watch the same television broadcast about a train wreck near the Devil’s Tower and the spilling of nerve gas (a falsely planted story by the United States Army).  They, along with other seekers, travel to Wyoming in search of answers and brave through the public scare tactics of the government.

Spielberg, who wrote the screenplay as well, juxtaposes between scientists studying and trying to solve the mystery of events around the visitation and the personal lives of families affected.  This isn’t a big blockbuster with aliens conquering earth with ray guns.  It is a unique film that tries to ground itself by visualizing what it would be like if intelligent life came down from space.  The conception of the alien space ship owes probably to influence of 1950s culture along with the mistrust and suspicion of government that was a product of the post-Watergate era.

Thematically, I can see an analogy of spirituality as well emanating from the film.  Roy and Jillian are seekers yearning to understand a transcendent experience that changes the courses of their lives.  Roy loses his family and Jillian has her son abducted.  Together, they are looking for answers while ignoring the authorities and the imposed safeguards.  Deeper truths are being sought.

Spielberg is playing with a much wider canvas with “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” after dealing with a road rage tanker truck and a murderous great white shark.  In this movie, he introduces one of his signatures and that is an invitation for the audience to be overwhelmed with awe and wonder along with him.  Spielberg’s child-like imagination mixed with real adult themes would go on to have a massive impact not only in his career but in movies generally.

Incredibly, he was just getting started.  In the next ten years after “Jaws” and “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”, Spielberg would rocket to the very top of the most influential film personalities in all of history.  Deservedly so.

Lester Lauding Level:  4.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Jaws (Review here)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

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In Memoriam: Nala the Beast

The first time that I even knew Nala existed was Michelle and I’s second date.  Entering her home in Bremerton to pick her up, we were on our way to Mount Townsend in order to do a hike with her friends from church.  On our first date, I think she mentioned having three dogs.  Walking into her house, I fully expected to meet them but she had them all in a different room.  Perhaps she thought it would be a little overwhelming to me on only our second hangout to meet her crew:  Boo Boo, the feisty chihuahua (read his remembrance here), Chief the spastic border collie and Nala the dominant greyhound/husky mix.

Nala welcomed me in once we officially met and I started showing up to Michelle’s house on most Monday nights and often on Saturdays (I lived in Seattle so Michelle and I put a lot of miles in during our dating chapter).  Later, when I walked into Michelle’s house one Saturday, Nala leapt about three feet off the hardwood floor planting her paw into the center of my chest while having her mouth open and tongue hanging out.  I knew I was in at that point.

Nala was a complex dog.  Michelle told me lots of stories including when she rescued Nala while living in Canada.  Involvement with training for dog sledding teams may have left Nala to be neglected and possibly abused.  When Michelle was driving back from first picking her up, she named her Nala (the previous name was “Sandy”).  I thought Michelle was reminded of one of the main characters from “The Lion King” but she actually wasn’t.  She just liked the name.

About 60 pounds and with beautiful tan fur, many of my friends thought Nala looked like a wolf.  In Michelle’s single years, she used to take Nala on runs through sketchy parts of Bremerton.  No one ever really messed with them.

The sophistication of Nala was all in her personality.  There was a sweetness to her that longed for connection.  She would prance elegantly up to a loved one and bury her head in their lap demanding to be petted.  Another tactic was brushing up against one’s knees, waiting for a fellow family member or friend to extend their hand out.  It was also true that Nala liked her space.  She would sometimes be out of sight, behind a couch or in another room lying down away from people.  The dichotomy was noticeable.

This was also a dog terrified of house flies.  Upon spotting one, she would race back to her kennel and hide as close to the back wall of her crate that she could.  Even while being scared of flies, she hunted possums in our backyard (why I gave her the nickname of “the beast”).  I caught her at least twice with a possum trapped in her jaws as she violently shook her head from side to side.  In the aftermath, there would be specks of the possum’s blood on Nala’s fur around her mouth.

One of those episodes, I remember looking into Nala’s eyes and she returned my look.  There was a stark wildness there.  I will never forget that.

So many memories are recalled.  A big one was hiking Mount McDonald with Michele, Nala and Chief early in our marriage. More come when I think about Nala and myself moving into our new home a few months before Michelle and I got married.  Jumping the six foot fence in the backyard, Nala embarked on an adventure into the neighbor’s yard.  That episode put me into a panic but Nala just simply leapt back over the fence.  Prior to getting married, I would come home from work and Nala would often just be in her crate with the door open.  Adjusting from her former house in Bremerton to a new one in the North Seattle area was quite a change.  Perhaps as a trip to nostalgia bliss, I started playing Tecmo Super Bowl on my old school Nintendo (the original) prior to getting married.  Nala would never come out of the dog room or her crate.  Puzzled by this I, of course, told Michelle and she mentioned that Nala probably hated the whistles on the old Nintendo game.  Being a former snow dog, whistles likely brought up unpleasant memories.  I muted the volume after.

The richest recollections are Nala interacting with my kids.  She seemed to understand their smallness and was always so gentle in her encounters with them.  My son, Reuben (one years old), and Nala especially made a connection.  Reuben was always fascinated with her and actually called both of our dogs “Nala”.

Of course, my boy is probably too young to have lasting impressions.  That is too bad.  Naomi, my daughter, is being introduced to the long term enemy- death and what death takes.  At the dinner table when Reuben called out for “Nala” one night after her passing, Naomi matter-of-fact told him:  “Nala isn’t coming back, Roo.  She died.”

With a presence missing in our house, it still doesn’t seem that Nala’s passing has settled in.  I haven’t come to terms with it really.  She got sick very quickly and at that point, the time was short.  Shocking.  A few times I have expected to see her as I have walked into our mother-in-law kitchen downstairs that doubles as the dog room.  Chief is always there waiting, a faithful friend but a member of the family is missing and not coming back.

Nala the beast ??? to Monday, June 18, 2018

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Spielberg Marathon: Jaws

“Very first light, Chief, sharks come cruisin’. So we formed ourselves into tight groups. Y’know, it’s… kinda like ol’ squares in a battle like, uh, you see in a calendar, like the Battle of Waterloo, and the idea was, shark comes to the nearest man and that man, he’d start poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, and sometimes the shark’d go away… sometimes he wouldn’t go away. Sometimes that shark, he looks right into ya. Right into your eyes. Y’know the thing about a shark, he’s got… lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes. When he comes at ya, doesn’t seem to be livin’… until he bites ya. And those black eyes roll over white, and then… oh, then you hear that terrible high-pitch screamin’, the ocean turns red, and spite of all the poundin’ and the hollerin’, they all come in and they… rip you to pieces.” -Quint (Robert Shaw)

“Mr. Vaughn, what we are dealing with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. It’s really a miracle of evolution. All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that’s all. Now, why don’t you take a long, close look at this sign.” -Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus)

“Smile, you son of a BITCH!”  -Chief Brody (Roy Scheider)

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Do you remember the first time you saw Jaws?  For me, sometime during my childhood is when I first encountered the manhunting Great White Shark chomping his way through people swimming in the ocean surrounding Amity Island.  An indiscriminate killing machine, the shark terrifies an entire small town over a 4th of July weekend celebration.  How many generations have been afraid to go into the water because of visceral fear summoned by this movie?  Every time I waded or swam in the ocean as a kid, I could hear John Williams’ famous score and could recall the legendary opening sequence where a teenage girl is pulled under water during a night time swim by an unseen menace.  The music starts slow with ominous chords and crescendos to an intensifying forte.

Reportedly, Steven Spielberg, upon being offered the chance to direct “Jaws”, agreed upon one condition:  that the shark would not be shown for the first hour.  Therein is a lot of the brilliance of Jaws.  The horror is off-screen, lurking beneath and any one can disappear into the watery abyss at any moment.  Are characters even safe on a boat?  ‘You’re going to need a bigger boat,” says Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) famously to the shark hunter, Quint (Robert Shaw).

“Jaws” did something to the collective American psyche that cannot be undone and stands as one of the greatest horror/ thrillers of all time.  Deservedly so. The film made history in other ways as Spielberg released the movie originally on June 20, 1975.  This practically invented the summer blockbuster for Hollywood.  Of course, this rocketed Spielberg to stardom and with future career offerings such as “Close Encounters with the Third Kind” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” upcoming, he would be transferred to legendary status.

Based upon Peter Benchley’s book (which I haven’t read), the killer shark movie opens at a night time bonfire on the beach.  Chrissie (Susan Backlinie) decides to go for a night time ocean swim and is violently pulled under water.  Upon finding her remains later, Chief Brody debates with local Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) about closing the beaches.  The mayor objects using his smooth manipulative tone we might expect from a government leader and tells Brody to blame the tragic death on a “boating accident”.

All hell breaks loose when a child Alex Kinter (Jeffrey Voorhees) is attacked and killed while people are swimming one day.  His mother, Mrs. Kinter (Lee Fierro), puts out an ad that is widely spread around that gives a $3,000 bounty on the shark’s head.  Suddenly, people are coming through Amity Island from all over trying to kill Jaws and collect the money.

Spielberg has the reputation of being a sentimental filmmaker that pulls on heart strings.  This description would fall on him later in his career.  With “Jaws”, he seems to meet the criteria for the uncompromising 1970s filmmakers who surprise audiences.  Not too many directors would have children murdered in a bloody eruption that spews out of the ocean while the boy’s lifeless body is thrown around like a rag doll but such is the fate of Alex Kinter.  It meets all the merits of a shocking death scene that may come close to the surprise of Alfred Hitchcock killing off his leading lady (Janet Leigh) in the middle of “Psycho”.

With the epic bone crunching violence and horror, if you watch “Jaws” again you will notice it has an unusual tone.  At times the dialogue is funny and characters joke around with each other.  During the third act on Quint’s boat, oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) and Quint brag about their various scars like soldiers exchanging stories of war wounds.  With a dramatic intensity, Quint shares a tale with Chief Brody and Hooper about the fateful USS Indianapolis struck by Japanese torpedoes in World War 2:  “You know by the end of that first dawn, lost a hundred men. I don’t know how many sharks there were, maybe a thousand. I do know how many men, they averaged six an hour.  Thursday mornin, Chief, I bumped into a friend of mine, Herbie Robinson from Cleveland.  Baseball player.  Boson’s mate. I thought he was asleep.  I reached over to wake him up. He bobbed up, down in the water, he was like a kinda top. Upended.  Well, he’d been bitten in half below the waist…You know that was the time I was most frightened.  Waitin for my turn. I’ll never put on a lifejacket again.  So, eleven hundred men went into the water.  316 men come out, the sharks took the rest…”  Like your grandpa telling scary stories by the campfire, a beam of flashlight casting his face in contrasted shadows and light.

Regarding this tricky tone, noted film critic Pauline Kael wrote:  “It may be the most cheerfully perverse scare movie ever made. Even while you’re convulsed with laughter you’re still apprehensive, because the editing rhythms are very tricky, and the shock images loom up huge, right on top of you.”  Lesser films could not pull off the balance of sheer terror and light-hearted laughs but Spielberg walks that fine line like the best ever.

I have probably seen “Jaws” more then 10 times in my life.  The movie never gets old, the music building the suspense is still creepy and it is still a masterful ride.  Featured in Roger Ebert’s Great Movies, the American Film Institute’s top 100 American films of all time, and the New York Times’ Top 1000 movies of all time, “Jaws” is worthy of all the acclaim.

Lester Lauding Level:   5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Jaws

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express (Review here)

 

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Spielberg Marathon: The Sugarland Express

“We’re in real trouble.”

“When I called you a son of a bitch, I didn’t mean it.”  “And you ain’t no mental subject neither.”

“You got me out here with no where to sit.”  “Why don’t you sit on your fist and lean back on your thumb.”

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An often forgotten entry in Steven Spielberg’s filmography is his theatrical debut, “The Sugarland Express” which arrived in 1974 and borrowed from the counterculture road trip movies that were popular at that time.  “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Badlands” are far superior movies for the record.  With “The Sugarland Express”, Spielberg toys with popular elements that would connect him to audiences in later work.  Unfortunately, his theatrical debut is an uneven mixture of comedy, tragic drama and absurdity.

Based upon a true story (I’m guessing fairly loosely) that happened in Texas 1969, a young Goldie Hawn (character’s name is Lou Jean) breaks her husband (Clovis played by William Atherton) out of prison with a nutty plan.  First, the jail break and then the drive across Texas in order to kidnap their own baby son who had been placed with foster parents. Clovis is a tad hesitant to follow through on the jail break as he just has four months to go on his sentence but Lou Jean is determined and impulsive.  Her desire is made clear from the outset:  she wants to bring her family back together.

Eventually, there is the inaugural car chase (in a movie that is essentially one big car chase) involving Lou Jean and Clovis and a highway patrolman.  At the climax of this chase, Lou Jean has grabbed the highway patrolman’s gun and tossed it in the general direction of Clovis who takes the patrolman hostage.  This is a dumb thing to do.  Surely, Clovis knows how this will end and the patrolman, Slide (played by Michael Sacks), constantly reminds him.  Lou Jean is so committed and dedicated to her goal of bringing the family back together that she may not even contemplate how all of this will inevitably play out.

Pursuing the pair with hostage Slide is Captain Tanner (Ben Johnson) who is a good man that does not want to see the events de-evolve into bloodshed.  We see a vast quantity of camera shots showing us a seemingly endless line of police cars following the trio.  Spielberg seems to revel in the train of cop cars and flashing lights.  Also thrown in for action purposes are the cars slamming into each other during the chase and even cop cars flipping over on the road.  With the serious drama at the heart of this story, these sequences give the movie a madcap physical comedy feel.

As the caravan makes it’s way across Texas and toward Sugarland, the notion of celebrity is briefly explored.  The fugitives have become famous on the news and various people stand by the side of the road with signs encouraging them and their family.  In a small town, a parade of people jams the street and the cars drive slowly through.

All of these elements mixed together are a part of the problem, the uneven feel.  Does the movie want to be a slapstick comedy in the vein of showing cars smashing into each other?  Does it want to be a moving drama about a woman trying to put her family back together?  Does the film want to investigate the role of media with celebrities or in this case, overnight celebrities well before the age of YouTube and the internet?  With Spielberg and screenwriters Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins exploring these different threads, they could not cohesively put it all together.

“The Sugarland Express” does have some very good moments and a viewer can see the Spielberg audience pleasing style coming into play which will be worked to perfection during future offerings.  As a matter of fact, Spielberg will have made leaps and bounds in his director duties by his next film which will always be one for the ages.

Lester Lauding Level:  2.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Duel (Review here)

The Post (Review here)

The Sugarland Express

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Giving: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 9:1-15

**The following is a sermon I preached on May 13th at Seed Church.  You can listen to the message here.

Introduction:

Happy Mother’s Day everyone.  We are going to talk about giving today and no one gives more then mothers.  Without moms, the earth would be an uninhabited waste land.  Mom’s give so much and exhibit a lifetime of generosity.  In celebrating Mother’s Day, we realize there are many women who, through no fault of their own, are trying to be mothers but can’t.  We stand in solidarity with you and pray that in your noble task in seeking to be a mom that you would become a mom very soon.

There was a mega church pastor here in town that used to have a phrase.  He would encourage people to reverse engineer their lives.  What he meant was…to imagine your own funeral in the far future.  When people come to your funeral and stand up and give a eulogy or share a testimony about you, what will they say?  What will you be known for?  What would be the reputation or legacy that you leave to your family, friends and community?  Hopefully the life of someone who loved Jesus and others generally but what if another trait that they mentioned was your generosity?  That you were incredibly giving to the people in your life.

Paul has been encouraging the Corinthians to give the last couple of chapters in his epistle that we have gone through.  He will continue that here as we dive into 2 Corinthians chapter 9.

 Verse 1 and 2:  There is no need for me to write to you about this service to the Lord’s people.  For I know your eagerness to help, and I have been boasting about it to the Macedonians, telling them that since last year you in Achaea were ready to give; and your enthusiasm has stirred most of them to action.

 Our passage begins with the words of the Apostle Paul flowing from the previous passage.  Paul was bringing an envoy to Corinth with Titus from Macedonia.

For all of the many issues of the Corinth church which we have discussed, the Corinthians apparently talked a good game about their giving.  The church was eager to help but money collection had fallen on hard times.  Paul had boasted about the Corinthians giving and was confident they would come through.

We have talked about the ‘severe letter’ Paul had sent from Asia before he travelled on to Macedonia.  Macedonia was located north of Corinth.  Thessaly was to the south.  Basically this is modern day Greece but Corinth, obviously being the shipping port, was down toward the sea.  In the chronology, this severe letter may have ruffled feathers (recall this was after Paul’s painful visit to Corinth).

Paul, since last year had been counting on the people of Achaia, and people were excited.  The Macedonians had an overwhelming giving response as Paul pointed to the Corinthians as being this generous example.  Well, now Timothy had come with bad news.  The collection from Corinth was not so great and Paul, based on him talking up the Corinthians, may be subject to some embarrassment here.  Paul’s mission with this collection was to have the Gentile churches pool their resources together and send it back to Jerusalem for the poor.

 Verse 3-5:  But I am sending the brothers in order that our boasting about you in this matter should not prove hollow, but that you may be ready, as I said you would be.  For if any Macedonians come with me and find you unprepared, we- not to say anything about you- would be ashamed of having been so confident.  So I thought it necessary to urge the brothers to visit you in advance and finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised.  Then it will be ready as a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given.

 Paul had already written to them about the importance of giving and Paul has confidence in them and has boasted of them but he doesn’t want the boasting to ring hollow.  This is like the friend you have that builds something up really, really huge!  They tell you about the funniest YouTube video of all time and how they laughed for an hour.  Once you pull that video up, it is just a cat running into a wall or something.  Perhaps slightly amusing but not something you would laugh about for an hour.  The friend’s build up would be hollow.  They totally built it up but the video was anti-climatic.

Paul continues on with how he would be embarrassed if Macedonians showed up in Corinth and the church hardly gave a thing.  Paul had built up, boasted and believed this church would chip in and help the cause of the gospel.  The report Timothy brought back had him nervous.

The plan is floated to have the brothers visit Corinth ahead of time to help them get ready for the big gift as the church had promised this.  Paul is not just concerned about the gift itself as evidenced at the end of verse 5.  He is also interested in their hearts.  Not wanting the Corinthians to give begrudgingly is key here and the Apostle gives further details on this as the passage flows along.

It is important to emphasize that Paul seems confident that the Corinth church will give as they have enthusiastically responded about taking up a collection.  They just needed help organizing this effort.

Verse 6:  Remember this:  Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.

This statement, quoted by Paul, flows like a proverb but is not found in the Old Testament.  The society back in Corinth was heavily agricultural.  People lived very close to the food they ate and many were farmers.  Whenever someone throws seed out into their field, they run the risk of birds snatching the seed away, insects destroying the seed, or weather not cooperating with the seed’s growth.  Therefore, much better to spread or sow lots of seed because there is a better chance of a harvest.  Paul gives an analogy here that would have spoken Corinth hearts.

Verse 7:  Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Giving should be done individually.  Paul, in context, is talking about a community collection from the Corinth church but in verse 7, he breaks this down to the individual person.  An individual has to decide to contribute to the community collection.

Reluctance implies a temptation to cling or hoard possessions or money rather then give to those in need.  There is a hesitation or even a hostility to giving because people are clinging to their possessions.

‘Under compulsion’ suggests a person who is not happy while giving.  Perhaps they feel pressure from the community to give and so feel pressure or force rather then giving sincerely out of their hearts.

God loves the cheerful giver.  The cheerful giver has a joy in helping someone else or responding to a need and giving sacrificially.  This phrase comes from the Greek Old Testament (the Sepatuagint) in Proverbs 22:8a, ‘God blesses a cheerful man and giver.’

Verse 8:  And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

God is a God of grace.  God is all powerful and able to give His children what they need.  In the economy of God, grace begets grace.  God says He will give us all that we need so we should not be afraid of giving sacrificially.  By Him giving us everything we need, we can abound in doing good works for others namely giving financially to those who need assistance or offering other kinds of help.

Verse 9:  As it is written:  ‘They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.’

 Paul again in strengthening his letter by quoting Scripture with a slight omission from the passage.  This quote is from Psalm 112:9.  There are some translation issues here.  Some commentators suggest that the first half of this quote is referring to a person- i.e. someone who is able to give generously to the poor from their wealth and riches.  The second half of the quotation can be translated ‘His righteousness endures forever’ as in God’s.

But we are getting a picture in this passage of a joyful giver who is happily bestowing upon the poor many needed gifts.

 Verse 10-11:  Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving.

 Yet another loose quotation from the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) in Isaiah 55:10 as Simon J. Kistemaker notes:  ‘“The rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater.’  The context of Isaiah’s prophecy shows that God is the subject who provides the rain and the snow to function as His instruments to germinate the grain that was sown.’  The phrase ‘harvest of your righteousness is from Hosea 10:12.

The farmer or the Corinth church member has seed.  He is reliant upon God for the rain and weather to germinate the seed and the subsequent growth that would produce a harvest.

All material and spiritual blessings have their origin with God.  He provides.  He gives.  What He gives us is an opportunity to give to the poor.

Now we come across a verse that sounds an awful lot like the prosperity gospel.  ‘You will be made rich in every way to be altogether generous.’  What does this mean?  Does this mean that if you give to the church, you can expect to become richer and buy nicer cars and houses?  Is this about giving in order to receive a higher material standard in life?

The Greek word for ‘in every way’ and ‘altogether’ is pas.  It does indeed give a sense of God’s hand being opened for those who choose to give to the poor joyfully.  God supplies materially, socially, intellectually, and spiritually in order for gifts to be given to others.  However, this does not mean that people who give will be showered with material gifts from God to satisfy selfish desires.  Rather, the wording in this context is along the lines of God supplying ways and means for people to give to the poor- to bless others and in so doing, being blessed themselves.

Generosity should result in thanksgiving and indeed thanksgiving to God for all parties involved.   This is the endgame on how people are blessed and how they are enriched.  By the feeling of gratitude that God is providing and the joyful feeling that comes along with giving.

Verse 12-13:  This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.  Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.

 The service again is the gentile churches, including Corinth, taking a collection for the church in Jerusalem.  Supplying for the Lord’s people is giving to the poor.  Believers throughout Achaia, Macedonia, and Asia Minor were joining in to help the saints in Jerusalem.  The needs of the poor should be met and expressions of thanks to God would be the result.  Meeting physical needs through the provisions but also meeting spiritual needs through inviting other people to give thanks to God for the provision.  The gentile churches were being used to answer the prayers of the saints in Jerusalem.

Obedience goes along with confession of the gospel.  Of course, a famous command of Christ was in a parable- the Sheep and the goats.  ‘Whatever we do for the least of these we have done it unto Christ.’  In other words, our confession of Jesus as Lord and Savior should spur us on toward listening to Jesus’ commands about how to treat one another.

Verse 14-15:  And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.  Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!

James and the elders at the church in Jerusalem were praying for Paul and the gentile churches he was ministering too.  Paul describes their hearts going out to the Corinthian believers or it could be translated yearning for the Corinthians.  The extreme poverty around Jerusalem probably prevented most from travel so they had a heartfelt desire to see the church who was helping them so greatly.  Given the theological disputes between Jews and Gentiles in the early church, the Body of Christ taking care of one another was showing the grace of the gospel.

Paul toward the end offers a doxology.  ‘Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift.’  And that would be the gift of Christ Jesus.

Matter:

While going through this passage, we see that God (through Paul) is tying joy and gratitude and thanksgiving to the act of giving.  If God is the ultimate Giver and also is the Author of all reality, it follows that we discover a deep sense of joy and meaning when we pursue a mentality that results in sacrificial giving to others.

Giving matters in a culture that exalts a radical individualism and thereby selfishness to an extreme.  When we sacrificially give, this connects us to others and by connecting us with others, we become connected to God.

When we give, we are prayerfully trying to meet a fellow image bearer of God in their struggle and trying to help in whatever way we can.  We are mourning with them in their pain and developing the empathy that guides us to want to alleviate their suffering.

We should not treat the issue of giving like we are the ones who are high and mighty.  The righteous heroes riding in for the rescue.  No.  Rather, we should strive for the perspective that all of us, in some way, are in need and flawed and struggling and other people can give to us.  All of us have something to give but there are gifts that others want to bless us with that we can receive.

 At Seed, we have many generous people and during this chapter in Seed’s history, we need generosity and continued financial giving.  This topic is always awkward for church’s to talk about but maybe not so much for me.  I don’t get paid by Seed and have actually never been paid by Seed so I can talk about financial giving.

The thing is Seed has given a lot to our family.  We’ve been coming here since the beginning of 2014.  We always gotten strong Bible teaching, cool friendships, some decent BBQ/ potluck food and when Michelle and I welcomed Naomi and Reuben to our family, lots of good teaching and activities for our kids.  When both our kids were dedicated to the Lord, we were given the gifts of ‘The Jesus Storybook Bible’.  This is a book we read about every night and Naomi has been very interested in the crucifixion account and asking lots of questions.

I don’t want to turn this into an advertisement testimonial but everything I have said is absolutely true regarding what Seed has meant to my family.  As a community at Seed, we realize there are expenses such as taking care of Pastor Jeff and Kim and their family.  We are going to be hiring a new teaching pastor that we will want to take care of as well.  Some of you help out with children’s ministry and worship or other areas where you get paid a stipend.  And we have the building and utility costs and all the boring stuff.

In financial giving, we don’t give a percentage.  The Bible asks us, as it does here in 2 Corinthians, to give generously.  What does giving generously look like for your family and within your budget?  We all fully recognize that you may have different stages in life where you have to give less because maybe you have other bills piling up or, tragically, a job loss.  Then there are times where perhaps you can give more.

Whatever you can give, it matters and giving joyfully will bring a deeper meaning to your life.

If you can, besides giving financially to Seed, consider giving to other noble causes.  Give to science where we are searching for cures to our most devastating diseases.  Cancer.  Alzheimer’s and dementia which my grandma died of.  We all can research online and find incredible organizations and charities that are genuinely trying to alleviate human suffering. We can join in and, prayerfully as God moves us forward, find a cure for these terrible diseases.

Seed actually regularly gives to other organizations in our community that give back to their respective communities.  Here are some of them:

1)       Nourishing Network.  We are actually in the middle of a food drive for them right now.  This organization started in 2014 and their mission was feeding hungry and homeless students in the Edmonds School District.  Originally it was weekend meals and then it evolved to a larger  role.  They estimate that 600+ students in the Edmonds School District are homeless.  Often times, these students leave school on Friday and don’t have another meal until Monday.   This organization strives to get food to these students.

2)      AJS is another organization we support.  Organization stands for ‘Association for a More Just Society’.  They work in Honduras and provide investigative, legal, and psychological support for people who have been the victim of violent crimes and don’t have the resources to get a good attorney.  Honduras is well known for being one of the most corrupt governments and legal systems in the world.  They also push for structural change in Honduras security and justice systems.  Extremely vital and important work trying to change a country.

3)   Hand in hand is a third organization near and dear to our hearts.  Some of you have worked with this organization becoming foster parents and helping kids get into a safe, godly home.  This organization as well as those partnering with them are giving kids who have been abused, neglected or marginalized a new and different support system.

So as we give to Seed Church, our church also gives to other organizations.

The major context of Paul’s exhortation in 2 Corinthians 9 is financial giving.  He was desiring this Corinth church to create a collection for the poor in a Jerusalem.  The context is definitely giving generously out of our wealth.

As I mentioned before though, there may be chapters in life where you cannot give much money away but there are other things you can give away.  We can give our time to visit those who are sick or elderly.  We can give time to visit people in prison.  In the past, people at Seed have given time to a local elementary school to have a homework club.  There is so much we can give.

If you have owned a business for awhile, you can give advice to a young entrepreneur who is just starting up.  Everybody in here has different hobbies, interests or things they have studied.   We all can give to each other are various areas of knowledge and expertise.

It comes down to a couple of things again:  are we willing to surrender ourselves to God’s will to be generous in an exceedingly materialistic culture?  If we reverse engineer our lives, do we think that a reputation of being an extremely generous person at the end of our lives will be gratifying and meaningful?  A reputation and a legacy to hand off to others.

Thesis:  Paul challenges us to be cheerful givers so we can be more deeply connected to the heart of God.

Struggle:

Being a sacrificial giver is a challenging thing in our world.  We live in a culture that came up with the bumper sticker, ‘He who dies with the most toys wins.’  There is such a focus on ourselves and all thing things we may desire in a materialistic culture.

Sometimes we may have an anxiety about giving because of how expensive living is.  We pay mortgages or rent.  Utility bills.  Taxes.  We pay for healthcare and food and gas.  On top of that, it’s good to enjoy ourselves and pursue entertainment, vacations and other leisurely activities.  Being responsible entails saving or investing for retirement and also doing the same for our children’s college education.

With all of these bills in our lives that we have to pay that are also good and important things, how do we make room in our budgets for giving?  What does engineering a budget that allows us to give sacrificially look like for our individual families?  This is a big struggle in a culture that encourages these things (which are good things) and also dealing with cultural messages and mass advertisements that indulge our selfish desires.  Being a sacrificial giver is very much a going against the flow type of position that requires a prayerful focus in a society that always has us busy and distracted (and often distracted from the things that really truly matter).

How can we become sacrificial and cheerful givers?

If you have a budget, do you list giving as a priority for that budget?

Here is an uncomfortable question:   Should giving hurt a little bit?  Is that sacrificial?  We want to be cheerful givers.  There is a fine line between conviction and guilt.  We want to be a community of cheerful based giving upon our foundational convictions.

Gospel:

Ultimately to be a cheerful giver, we need to be connected to the God who is a generous God.  By connecting with this God, we need to allow Him to change our mentalities to a focal point of thankfulness for what we have.  When we realize that the money and possessions that we have are a result of the grace of God, perhaps we will hold a little bit loosely to these things in order to intentionally look for opportunities in our lives to give to others.

In a culture that is radically individualistic and there is so much me, me, me all the time, Christianity is a faith and a philosophy that is outward focused.  How am I loving God and loving my neighbor?  Love, by this definition, is not a mere feeling or just joining a fellow person in empathy (although that is key).  Love must always be accompanied by action.  The action of reaching out to someone in need and giving sacrificially, not out of coercion or guilt but because we sincerely care about the people God has put in our lives.

God is a God who has indeed given us an indescribable gift.  His grace as shown in the sending of Jesus.  The ultimate gift offered by Jesus and His death on the cross and resurrection is peace with God.  A reconciliation with the God who loves that we have strayed far from.

Have you received the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus?  That is a big first step in being transformed by Jesus into a sacrificial giver.

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Spielberg Marathon: Duel

“Come on you miserable fat-head, get that fat-ass truck outta my way! ”

“My snakes! I’ve gotta find my snakes!”

“The highway’s all yours Jack… I’m not budging for at least an hour. Maybe the police will pull you in by then… maybe they won’t… but at least you’ll be far away from me…”

______________________________________

The most famous director in the history of movies had to start somewhere…relatively.  Prior to Steven Spielberg’s TV movie “Duel” which aired as an ABC movie of the week on November 13, 1971, the director had several credits but mostly for short films and episodes of TV series (including Columbo, one of my grandpa’s favorites).  Spielberg had a credit in 1964 for directing a full length movie called “Firelight” which he apparently premiered in Phoenix, Arizona at the age of 18.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any clue about how to track this film down to see it.  Certainly would be an interesting watch.  Or maybe not.

“Duel” is considered by some critics to be one of the best “made for TV” movies ever (and by that, I think they mean before the streaming era of Netflix, Amazon and others).  The story is very straightforward and simple.  This is a tale of road rage and the reasons are not even that clear as to why a mysterious driver of a dirty 1960 Peterbilt tanker truck decides to take his murderous ire out on the driver of a Plymouth Valiant.

The film opens with an extended sequence showing the open freeway in California.  The camera attached to the front of the Plymouth Valiant as it drives along out of Los Angeles.  With the backdrop of chatter on the radio, we see the suburbs and then the rural countryside and eventually into the desert.  Sports talk radio eventually turns into garble that becomes more melodramatic and absurd.  The man driving the Plymouth Valiant is David Mann (played by Dennis Weaver) who is travelling across the desert to meet a client.

Quite randomly, David passes the old tanker truck on the highway drawing an obnoxious horn that, in retrospect, will prove to be ominous.  Spielberg and screenwriter Richard Matheson do something interesting here.  David Mann did not break any rules of the road and there seemingly is no action he took that should have offended the unseen driver of the big truck.  However, offense is taken and the driver of the beat up tanker escalates his road rage into a dangerous game of cat and mouse.

First seeing this film probably in the early 1990s because of the Spielberg connection, I remembered enjoying it back then.  Watching “Duel” in 2018, I was surprised about how well the movie holds up.  These days, it is refreshing to watch cinema that isn’t chalked full of CGI and other phony effects.  This “made-for-TV” movie has very real stunts and authentic vehicles.

Beyond the relative quality of the director’s first major film, thematic material elevates this story more then when I first saw it as a kid.  We never see the driver of the old tanker truck.  Spielberg wisely keeps everything about the driver shrouded in the unknown because the driver is not the point.  I sense a parable here in the early 1970s, prior to the Terminator franchise, of man versus the machines.  This malevolent truck symbolizing a changing economy that started moving faster and faster and was running the common man off the road, so to speak.  Evidence of this is found in slight hints that obviously were intentionally put into the movie.  There are at least two scenes with trains and when the action has subsided, the tanker truck honks it’s horn as the train rumbles away down the tracks and gets a nodding return train whistle.  A comradery.

Some critics have even found a connection in the main character’s name, David, after the Biblical patriarch (Spielberg’s Jewish roots mean a lot to him and he explores his cultural ideas in future films).  With a huge rumbling tanker truck coming after David in his Plymouth Valiant, is this a modern retelling of David versus Goliath?

One of the scenes that doesn’t work is the annoying voiceover monologues that David has while he is at Chuck’s Café around the halfway point.  Most of the voiceover is completely unnecessary as the audience was picking up on what was going on simply with the expressions on the character’s face and the action of the scene.  There wasn’t any need to explain this already to the viewer and feels somewhat patronizing to the audience.

That quibble aside, this actually is still an effective thriller- a movie that embraces fully what it is but also tries to go a little bit deeper.  The ending is Spielberg magic (and again, without CGI) and there was a warm homage to the western genre.  Spielberg toying with suspense in this one is definitely a precursor to his coming blockbuster “Jaws”.

And, yes, I’m ranking this movie higher then “The Post”.  “Duel” is better.

Lester Lauding Level:  3.5 (out of 5)

Ranking of Spielberg Movie (so far):

Duel

The Post (Review here)

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Make America Read Again: 2018 is Lit Edition

Trying to keep up with my reading in the first months of 2018.

Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers by T. David Gordon

T. David Gordon teaches media ecology and biblical studies at Grove City College. Suffering from cancer and given a 25% chance to live, he wrote this book as a screed against contemporary preaching. The writing style is definitely confrontational and he pulls very few punches while basically stating over and over again that preaching in our day and age sucks.

Unfortunately, he does not add much (if any) data that backs up his very broad criticisms. One of his main focuses is TV and the internet have come along and culture is now more visual. People no longer have the ability to perform sermons with a careful consideration of the words used or with any ability to write well. While people may agree this is generally true, he cites no studies or academic research which would bolster his claims.

As I mentioned before, this book reads like a rant and comes across mostly as a cranky old man lamenting on how culture has changed. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few valuable nuggets in this short book. He recommends that potential pastors and current pastors study English literature for one which actually seems like a wise insight. Otherwise, there isn’t much substance here other than Gordon droning on about how much he hates the preaching in our day and age.

Lester Lauding Level:  2 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Faith is not built by preaching introspectively (constantly challenging people to question whether they have faith); faith is not built by preaching moralistically (which is exactly the opposite effect of focusing attention on the self rather than on Christ, in whom our faith is placed); faith is not built by joining the culture wars and taking potshots at what is wrong with our culture. Faith is built by careful, thorough exposition of the person, character, and work of Christ.”

“As a medium, reading cultivates a patient, lengthy attention span, whereas television as a medium is impatient. One is therefore suited to what is significant; the other merely to what is insignificant.”

“I would guess that of the sermons I’ve heard in the last twenty-five years, 15 percent had a discernible point; I could say, ‘The sermon was about X.’ Of those 15 percent, however, less than 10 percent demonstrably based the point on the text read. That is, no competent effort was made to persuade the hearer that God’s Word required a particular thing; it was simply asserted.”

“Ministers have found it entirely too convenient and self-serving to dismiss congregational disinterest on the basis of attenuated attention spans or spiritual indifference. In most cases, the inattentiveness in the congregation is due to poor preaching—preaching that does not reward an energetic, conscientious listening. When attentive listeners are not rewarded for their energetic attentiveness, they eventually become inattentive.”

Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns

Author Peter Enns has had an interesting relationship with the Evangelical church.  One of the hosts of the podcast, “The Bible for Normal People”, he no longer attends an Evangelical church but still remains engaged in issues impacting this specific niche of Christianity.  “Inspiration and Incarnation” was first published in 2005 when Enns was (I believe) still involved personally with Evangelical Christianity and in this work, he highlights a very important problem.  How do Evangelicals approach the Old Testament?  One may find Evangelicals in denial that such a problem exists at all but once we drill down into the issues that Enns brings up, a different story emerges.

The framework to approach the OT (according to Enns) is viewing the canon of books as inspired by God but also having an incarnational element.  Sort of like Jesus being fully God and fully human.  Of course, Enns admits this is not a perfect analogy but his goal in offering this framing is to investigate the Divine origin of Scripture but also it’s human element.  That people were carried along by the Spirit of God in their own languages, cultures, history, scientific understanding (certainly limited compared to today) and spiritual understanding.

Enns’ divides the book into three major contemplations:  1)  The Bible as compared with ancient near eastern literature.  2)  The Old Testament and theological diversity  3)  The New Testament and it’s interpretation of the Old Testament.

Enns seems to be suggesting that 1 and 2 are problems but I would contend that they aren’t or at least not as much as he may say.  Much of the ancient near eastern literature (the epic of Gilgamesh or Enuma Elish) pre-dates the Old Testament writing.  The Code of Hammurabi also pre-dates the law.  This isn’t a problem for Old Testament understanding.  Evangelicals believe God inspired people to write His Word according to their own cultural understandings.  One of the scholarly interpretations of Genesis 1 is that it was written specifically to combat other creation narratives and to show that Elohim was the One True God who created everything ex nihilio.

The theological diversity is not especially problematic either. Enns points out Proverbs that seem to disagree with one another (Proverbs 26:4-5).  Differences in the accounts of the ten commandments between Exodus and Deuteronomy.  The philosophical ideas in Ecclesiastes versus other teachings in the Torah about God and life.  All of this again is acknowledged by most Evangelical scholars.  Different people (men and women) wrote down Scripture over an extended period of time.  Might it be possible that these men and women had some different beliefs in the cultures they lived in?  Absolutely and the idea of God inspiring Scripture still applies in those scenarios.  The diversity of the Old Testament gives a full picture of the hard reality of life and how a nation (community) of people sought after God.

The third point that Enns brings up is how the New Testament writers quote the Old Testament and thereby how they interpret the Jewish canon of Scripture.  Here, Enns has a very uncomfortable point.  Try reading the Gospel of Matthew for instance and each time you come across a prophecy citation from the Old Testament that was fulfilled in Christ, go back to the specific Old Testament passage and read the whole context.  It will not take us long to discover that the New Testament writers did not adhere to a more conservative hermeneutic standard of “grammatical-historical” interpretation.

Enns “solution” is to acknowledge that second temple setting of apostolic hermeneutics and the difference that those authors had in approaching Scripture versus what we have today. He states that Scripture interpretation should be viewed as more a path to walk then a fortress to be defended. He also argues that interpretation of the Bible should have more of a community-oriented sense then individual (which may fly in the face of our western sensibilities).

“Inspiration and Incarnation” is a compelling, thoughtful and challenging read.  Enns has a gift in bringing scholarly type ideas down to words that anyone could understand.  This book is a good tool in helping people further engage the Old Testament text honestly.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“Ours is a historical faith, and to uproot the Bible from its historical contexts is self-contradictory.”

“It is worth asking what standards we can reasonably expect of the Bible, seeing that it is an ancient Near Eastern document and not a modern one. Are the early stories in the Old Testament to be judged on the basis of standards of modern historical inquiry and scientific precision, things that ancient peoples were not at all aware of? Is it not likely that God would have allowed his word to come to the ancient Israelites according to standards they understood, or are modern standards of truth and error so universal that we should expect pre-modern cultures to have made use of them?”

“The findings of the past 150 years have made extrabiblical evidence an unavoidable conversation partner. The result is that, as perhaps never before in the history of the church, we can see how truly provisional and incomplete certain dimensions of our understanding of Scripture can be. On the other hand, we are encouraged to encounter the depth and riches of God’s revelation and to rely more and more on God’s Spirit, who speaks to the church in Scripture.”

“It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to Westerners several thousand years later. To do so borders on modern, Western arrogance.”

Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo

We purchased this book back in January to read to my daughter.  “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls” has the distinction of being the most crowdfunded original book in history.  Reportedly, publishers didn’t want to publish this work (or perhaps wouldn’t give the authors and illustrators what they wanted) so they put the book out by themselves.

This is the story of 100 women from the past and present.  The book provides one page summaries on women who are (or have been) queens, politicians, scientists, naturalists, philosophers, inventors, ballerinas, writers, pirates, astronomers and others.  Each woman is profiled with the one page summary and also an illustration.  The illustrations in the book are beautiful and were done by 60 female artists all over the world.

Reading this to my daughter is a great experience because it continually shows her that women can do anything or can be anything they want as they follow their passions and curiosity.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name by Sally Lloyd-Jones and illustrated by Jago

I read this book regularly to my children.  My son is not 2 yet so obviously he just enjoys the unique and cool illustrations by Jago.  My daughter enjoys the Biblical stories being written in a way that she can understand and the book, written by Sally Lloyd-Jones, appropriates softens some of the violent or intense content.

From Genesis to Revelation, “The Jesus Storybook Bible” lays out the Biblical story.  The mission of the book is to bring Jesus into each account.  The garden of Eden, the flood, the exodus and the life of David all end up being arrows pointed to the coming Messiah Jesus.  This is probably being picky but I do have mixed feelings about bringing Jesus into Old Testament accounts.  As we read the Old Testament, we need to be mindful that the Hebrew Bible was written within a particular historical and cultural context.  Pulling the writings out of that context can lead to some funky interpretations.

That being said, I give this book a pass on that point because this serves as such a good tool that the whole family can enjoy and that gives opportunities to talk about Jesus and the Christian faith.

Recommended for parents of young children who wish to introduce their kids to the incredible Biblical story.

Lester Lauding Level:  4 (out of 5)

Oh, the Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss

On a vacation to Whidbey Island, I read this book to my daughter and son for the first time.  This is my favorite Dr. Seuss book of all time which, through the common original illustrations, provide contemplation upon the nature of life.

Lester Lauding Level:  5 (out of 5)

Quotes:

“You won’t lag behind, because you’ll have the speed.
You’ll pass the whole gang and you’ll soon take the lead.
Wherever you fly, you’ll be best of the best.
Wherever you go, you will top all the rest.

Except when you don’t.
Because, sometimes, you won’t.”

“Oh, the places you’ll go! There is fun to be done!
There are points to be scored. There are games to be won.
And the magical things you can do with that ball
will make you the winning-est winner of all.
Fame! You’ll be as famous as famous can be,
with the whole wide world watching you win on TV.

Except when they don’t
Because, sometimes they won’t.

I’m afraid that some times
you’ll play lonely games too.
Games you can’t win
’cause you’ll play against you.”

“You will come to a place where the streets are not marked.
Some windows are lighted. 
But mostly they’re darked.
A place you could sprain both your elbow and chin!
Do you dare to stay out? Do you dare to go in?
How much can you lose? How much can you win?”

“You’ll get mixed up, of course, as you already know. You’ll get mixed up with many strange birds as you go. So be sure when you step. Step with care and great tact and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act. Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left.”

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