Coen Marathon: Raising Arizona

What is the greatest Nicholas Cage movie of all time?  The Coen Bros second feature film may very well be a contender.  Every once in awhile, I see lists about the funniest films of the 1980s and I don’t recall seeing “Raising Arizona” on any of those lists.  It should be.  Set in the rural desert in Arizona (southwestern culture becomes a character in the Coen canon) and featuring a prison convict falling in love and getting married to his prison photographer, the terrain finds the Coens in pure screwball comedy mode.

Idiosyncratic dialogue, Biblical references, and occasional wild camerawork season this story revolving around H.I. McDunnough (Nicholas Cage) settling down with Edwina “Ed” (Holly Hunter) after the prison stint.  They reside in their mobile home out in the rural desert of Arizona and tragically learn they cannot have children.  Adoption is out of the question as well because of McDunnough’s criminal record.  Here we get an economic lesson from the film:  it is so unfair that some people have so much and others so little.

The wealthy Nathan Arizona, Sr (Trey Wilson) and his wife, Florence Arizona (Lynne Dumin Kitei) have five children.  McDunnough and Edwina judge this is too many kids for them to have and they should share so they hatch a plot to kidnap one of the children to have one of their own.  The couple escapes from the Arizona home with one of the babies.

Randomly entering the movie shortly thereafter, the lone biker of the apocalypse Leonard Smalls (played with a menace by Randall ‘Tex’ Cobb) roaring on his motorcycle down an otherwise deserted patch of southwestern road (straight out of hell presumably).  Out of a cloud of smoke, his motorcycle flying through the air only to land on the pavement, the lone biker is armed with big guns, features grenades attached to his vest and is decorated with tattoos.  He lobs grenades at wildlife and shoots lizards on rocks as he rolls past.  Naming his price at $50,000, he offers to find Mr. Arizona’s missing child which puts him on a collision course with McDunnough and Edwina.

One of the funniest sequences that the Coens’ have ever done happens a little ways into the film when McDunnough goes into a grocery store to steal diapers.  Donning a nylon stocking over his head, he attempts to hold up the store but things go awry and he finds himself running from police with a cop hanging out of his police car window firing at him, an eager teenager with braces holding a magnum, packs of dogs that he attracts along the way and all of this while carrying a pack of diapers.  The soundtrack music during this sequence features yodeling by John R Crowder.  When I first saw this scene, I laughed so hard that I’m not sure I have ever laughed harder in a movie.  It is Coen magic where they are at their most zany and insane.

Things eventually get resolved, we get voiceover narration over the final scenes and the final line is just about perfect when held up to everything that has come before.  The most hilarious movie in the Coen canon?  One can certainly make a valid case.

Next:  “Miller’s Crossing”- a prohibition-era gangster film done Coen-style and also vastly underrated.

Ranking of Coen Bro Movies:

Raising Arizona

Blood Simple (my review is here).

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Make America Read Again: My March Book List

March has come and gone.  Still working on my admittedly low bar of 24 books for the year.  Last month’s offerings:

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell

Only having experienced Malcolm Gladwell’s writing in “Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking”, I thought of him as a guy who is a good writer who uses interesting stories (often true life ones so he claims) to state rather obvious themes and conclusions.  These conclusions may not always be scientific.

The main thematic thrust of his “David and Goliath” book is in the title:  smaller organizations and/or individuals can often “win” against bigger organizations or bloated corporations because they are leaner and meaner (one of the reasons would be a lack of bureaucracy).  A person walking down the street may be able to spout this off the top of their head but Gladwell makes the concept sound fascinating, dressing up his message in clever analogies and accounts, while sounding profound in the process.  As the book moves on, particularly toward the back half, the reader becomes less and less convinced that the information Gladwell is selling and the analogies he drenches throughout his narrative necessarily line up with what he wanted to do from the outset.

Gladwell talks about underdogs playing basketball, how a significant percentage of CEOs and other leaders have dyslexia, children who lose parents, students who attend mediocre schools and even individuals who are discriminated against.  His argument remains that these disadvantages can be turned to advantages hence the Biblical account of David slaying the giant.  Some of his writing seems a little neat and tidy compared with the roadblocks that society puts in front of some people that is entirely out of their control.

All of this to say, there are still fascinating gleanings that we can take from the work.  I have read the actual Biblical account of David and Goliath dozens of times and have heard sermons on the encounter between the shepherd’s boy and the giant Philistine but I have not delved into the expert analysis of the episode.  To be sure, Gladwell is not representing even the mid-range of scholarly commentary at the beginning of this book when he talks about David and Goliath but the ideas he brings out of the text are interesting to consider.  He theorizes (as others have) that Goliath had poor eyesight while being an intimidating brute in combat. The poor eyesight condition, according to Gladwell, could have come from acromelagy, a disease of the pituitary gland.  Gladwell also talks about the necessary component of “slingers” in those battle times and those would be individuals who had slingshots to fire at the opposing armies and some perhaps could sling a rock from 200 yards toward their target.  There are other issues that are not addressed by Gladwell (as Goliath wearing a helmet and why not?).  Some even ponder if Gladwell chose the right “moral” to bring out of the David and Goliath account.

If someone enjoys Gladwell’s work, they probably will enjoy this book.  For others or for those compelled to learn more about David and Goliath, I would recommend looking elsewhere.

Here are some quotes:

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.”

“Any fool can spend money.  But to earn it and save it and defer gratification—then you learn to value it differently.”

“We spend a lot of time thinking about the ways that prestige and resources and belonging to elite institutions make us better off. We don’t spend enough time thinking about the ways in which those kinds of material advantages limit our options.”

“The excessive use of force creates legitimacy problems, and force without legitimacy leads to defiance, not submission.”

“When people in authority want the rest of us to behave, it matters—first and foremost—how they behave.”

Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith by Rob Bell

The inaugural book by Rob Bell came out in 2005.  The popular author/ speaker and occasionally controversial pastor has had quite the interesting spiritual journey since then.  As I was reading this book, I realized I could refer to this as the period of Bell’s life when he was more orthodox in his Christian faith.

That doesn’t mean that Bell doesn’t significantly challenge the status quo and that “Velvet Elvis”, while meandering around in parts, is not a good read.  To the contrary, Bell introduces important concepts to re-visualize the Christian faith while being fairly bold with his own doubts and struggles while being a mega-church pastor.  This book simply felt different from anything that a mega-church pastor would write.  More raw, real and honest.

The “Velvet Elvis” is reportedly a figure that Bell had in his basement.  A relic. Out of date.  He compares this old figure with the American church.

The book continues with Bell describing the doctrines of the Christian faith (which he affirms, if questions, in the book) as akin to the springs on a trampoline from the outset of the book.  People are jumping (experiencing) the doctrines on the trampoline and inviting others to join in.  A kind of cheesy metaphor but Bell starts here at the outset of the book before launching into his challenges of “American Christianity” while not really explicitly saying that is what he is doing.  He calls the different segments of his book “movements”.

Different episodes are captured such as when he is wrecked by doubt between services on Easter.  Is Christianity actually even true?  He contemplated getting in his car and driving away between services while he was intensely doubting and struggling.

Questions, grace, forgiveness, phony pastors, salvation all are covered in Bell’s book.  The best thing about the work is Bell’s knowledge of Judaism and how he repeatedly uses the facts of Jewish cultural traditions to illustrate Jesus’ teachings and bring different elements of the gospel alive.

I don’t agree with Bell on a lot theology currently and that is why I liked this book.  As I mentioned, this is the period of Rob Bell where he was more orthodox.  While he always has challenging and interesting thoughts rather on paper or on his podcast (the Robcast), a part of me wishes he would circle back around to an embrace of these few baseline beliefs of the Christian faith.

“Velvet Elvis” is a smooth and conversational read that will both challenge and affirm faith in Jesus.

Here are some quotes:

“If there is a divine being who made everything, including us, what would our experiences with this being look like? The moment God is figured out with nice neat lines and definitions, we are no longer dealing with God. We are dealing with somebody we made up. And if we made him up, then we are in control. And so in passage after passage, we find God reminding people that he is beyond and bigger and more.”

“Your job is the relentless pursuit of who God made you to be. And anything else you do is sin and you need to repent of it.”

“Whether we are reading the Bible for the first time or standing in a field in Israel next to a historian and an archaeologist and a scholar, the Bible meets us where we are. That is what truth does.”

“Think about some of the words that are used in these kinds of discussions, one of the most common being the phrase ‘open-minded.’ Often the person with spiritual convictions is seen as close-minded and others are seen as open-minded. What is fascinating to me is that at the center of the Christian faith is the assumption that this life isn’t all there is. That there is more to life than the material. That existence is not limited to what we can see, touch, measure, taste, hear, and observe. One of the central assertions of the Christian worldview is that there is ‘more’ – Those who oppose this insist that this is all there is, that only what we can measure and observe and see with our eyes is real. There is nothing else. Which perspective is more ‘closed-minded?’ Which perspective is more ‘open?’

“It is such a letdown to rise from the dead and have your friends not recognize you.”

“Whatever those things are that make you feel fully alive and like the universe is ultimately a good place and you are not alone, I need a faith that doesn’t deny these moments but embraces them.”

“For Jesus, the question wasn’t, ‘How do I get into heaven?’ but ‘How do I bring heaven here?’

“But the first Christians didn’t see Jesus this way, as if God were somewhere else and then cooked up some way to solve the sin problem at the last minute by getting involved as Jesus. They believed that Jesus was somehow more, that Jesus had actually been present since before creation and had been a part of the story all along.”

“This is why it is so toxic for the gospel when Christians picket and boycott and complain about how bad the world is. This behavior doesn’t help.  It makes it worse. It isn’t the kind of voice Jesus wants his followers to have in the world.  Why blame the dark for being dark?  It is far more helpful to ask why the light isn’t as bright as it could be.”

 

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“Magic”

Listened to this song from the Boss this morning on my walking/ train commute to downtown Seattle:

“I got a coin in your palm
I can make it disappear
I got a card up my sleeve
Name it and I’ll pull it out your ear
I got a rabbit in the hat
If you wanna come and see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got shackles on my wrists
Soon I’ll slip and I’ll be gone
Chain me in a box in the river
And rising in the sun
Trust none of what you hear
And less of what you see
This is what will be
This is what will be

I got a shiny saw blade
All I need’s a volunteer
I’ll cut you in half
While you’re smilin’ ear to ear
And the freedom that you sought
Driftin’ like a ghost amongst the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be

Now there’s a fire down below
But it’s coming up here
So leave everything you know
Carry only what you fear
On the road the sun is sinkin’ low
Bodies hanging in the trees
This is what will be
This is what will be”

-Bruce Springsteen from the album “Magic”

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Coen Marathon: “Blood Simple”

The first time I encountered a Coen Bros movie was in high school when my friend, Jake, recommended we check out “Fargo” from our local movie rental store “Video Update” (remember when we had movie rental stores?).   Watching the film at the house I grew up in (south of Seattle in Kent), I couldn’t shake how zany and wild “Fargo” was after we saw it.  The next movie of theirs I watched was “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” while I was a junior at Grace College in Indiana.  After that experience, I was a full-fledged fan.

The strange thing is, I can mostly recount where I was and who I was with when I first saw each of the Coen Bros movies and I’m not at all like that with other filmmakers.  The Coens strong production values (even sometimes on indie budgets), originality, bizarre (and sometimes dark) humor, and their existentialism (they have to be existentialists, right?) have always been compelling to me.

Recently, Michelle and I decided to watch all of the Coen Bros films in a marathon of sorts (this certainly does not mean back to back to back).  We would start at the very beginning with “Blood Simple” which came out in 1984.

Blood Simple

When one has experienced seeing other movies in the Coen catalog and watch their debut movie, it is like seeing glimpses of a blueprint which harken things that would come.  “Blood Simple”, the aforementioned debut, belongs squarely in the genre camp of film noir.  However, the Coen’s invent unconventional ways to handle the story and even exhibit some of their diabolically dark humor from their career beginnings.

Julian Marty (played by a man who exudes sliminess Dan Hedaya) owns a Texas saloon and hires a private eye (M. Emmett Walsh) to kill his wife and her lover, Ray (John Getz) who is one of the bartenders at the saloon.  Ceiling fans become an ominous harbinger in one sequence where Julian stares at the circulating ceiling fan in his office at the same time that Abby stares at a fan in the home as Ray sleeps in the other room.  Making her cinema debut as Marty’s wife (Abby) is Frances McDormand who married Joel Coen back in 1984 (they are still married to this day).  She gives a brilliant and measured performance exhibiting why she would become a mainstay in many Coen films after this and an Oscar-winning actress.

The stories of the characters get more entangled and complex. The private eye decides not to kill Abby and her lover and instead opts to collect the money from Julian and off him in his saloon.  Who would happen upon the dead body of the scumbag husband then Ray?  Realizing that the clear murder of the man of whom he was having an affair with his wife might not look so good to him and Abby, Ray decides to dispose of the body.  A famous Coen Bros theme is birthed.  The imperfect but normal-ish person who makes a very stupid decision to involve themselves in a crime (somewhat innocently) ends up creating an even more terrible situation.

One of the elements of a Coen Bros film that is sometimes overlooked is that the setting becomes its own sort of character.  “Blood Simple” takes place in the dead heart of Texas (a marketing tagline for the movie made reference to this phrase) and is embodied by multiple shots of the headlights of cars illuminating a flat road extending out into blackness.

SPOILER:  By the time of the conclusion where the private eye is trying to take out Abby sniper-style, she turns off the lights in the room she is in forcing the would-be assassin to enter that very space.  This leads to the most famous scene of the film that involves Abby attempting to hide from the private eye. He reaches around a wall, trying to see if he can grab her, and she nails his hand to the wall.  Flailing he attempts to remove his hand from the wall and the way that he has to get out of this predicament creates both a painful reaction from the audience as well as laughter.  Pure Coen bliss.  By the time the private eye gets himself freed, Abby has located a gun and shoots him.  The gunshot propels him backward and he lands under a bathroom sink.  As he lays there dying, his eyes focus upon a lone drip of water coalescing around a pipe that is about to drip on his face.  The screen cuts to the credits.  From the outset, the Coens were into ending their movies, not with some glorious concluding shot but rather suddenly.  END SPOILER

A considerable debut film for future Oscar-winning and critical darling filmmakers, “Blood Simple” delivers quite a statement with a cocktail mixture of thriller and laughs.  When this came out, it was wholly original and marked a new, unique signature on the noir genre.

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Make America Read Again: My February Reading List

After January, I had a head start.  Completing two books in the first month of the year, I had started a few others but I slacked in February.  Definitely should have completed more than two books.  Maybe in March…

Genesis:  History, Fiction, or Neither   Three Views on the Bible’s Earliest Chapters  Edited by Charles Halton/ Contributors:  James K Hoffmeier, Gordon J. Wenham and Kenton L. Sparks

Having read parts of this book for research for my Genesis sermon, I figured I should just finish the book and I’m glad I did.  The parts I read prior to my message didn’t connect with me but I think that has more to do with the information not being quite what I was after in compiling notes for my message.  The scope of this book has to do with Genesis 1-11 (i.e. pre-Abraham) and my sermon was addressing Genesis 1 exclusively.  Once I was able just to read the book (with no assignment attached), I got a lot more out of the work.

As I mentioned, three scholars dive into the Bible’s earliest accounts:  creation, Cain and Abel, the Nephilim mixing it up with earth women, Noah’s flood, the Tower of Babel and the table of nations.  All three scholars consider themselves evangelical(ish) and hold the Bible to be the Word of God.  The takes and interpretations on these early Biblical chapters certainly differ among them.

Hoffmeier definitely weights the first 11 chapters of Genesis to be actual history.  With the existence multiple genealogies in those chapters, he rationalizes that this is an accurate family history of Israel that communicates theology (specifically Israel’s relationship to the true God).

Wenham’s view of Genesis 1-11 is more complicated.  He argues that the text is “proto-history”.  The genealogies represent an expanded history of Israel and it is less important, in his view, that events “may not be datable and fixable chronologically, but they were viewed as real events”.  Emphasis on “viewed” or one could say believed to be real events.  Wenham moves a little bit away from an importance that every story in these opening Biblical chapters actually happened in history or perhaps if an event did happen, it has been recorded with hyperbole and certainly is not impartial.  He would uphold the theological teachings and messaging to be truth.

Sparks would be considered the most “liberal” of the three scholars.  His belief is that the opening chapters of Genesis are ancient historiography.  From his perspective, while Biblical writers probably intended to record historical events, the opening chapters of Genesis “do not narrate closely what actually happened. . . . There was no Edenic garden, nor trees of life and knowledge, nor a serpent that spoke, nor a worldwide flood in which all living things, save those on a giant boat, were killed by God”.  Sparks, like Wenham, would uphold the theological teaching of these chapters as the Word of God and maintains their value in communicating humanity’s relationship to God but would argue against their literal history and general scientific assumptions.  He would ask:  does something have to happen literally in history for it to be considered theologically (or philosophically) true?

Of the three perspectives, Sparks seemed the most reasoned and persuasive of the arguments…and I don’t agree with him on some of his points.  Attempting to weave a theological truth with modern scientific consensus and an understanding of anthropological history is not an easy task and Sparks comes the closest to actually pulling this off.

A few excerpts.  Hoffmeier wrote the following in response to Sparks:

“Human evolution and the biological sciences are by nature descriptive.  They cannot tell us what caused or who made it happen, and what or who made matter and transformed inanimate material living to organisms.  Even if one recognizes that biological evolution occurred, the Bible demands that we view this as how God created.  God is the who behind the processes and He sovereignly controls them creating according to His will.  Scripture answers the real questions the humans long to have answered.” (page 144)

“Augustine was very explicit that one should be open to changing one’s mind when it comes to the book of Genesis: “(I)n matters that are obscure and far beyond our vision…we should not rush in headlong and so firmly take our stand on one side that, if further progress in the search of truth justly undermines this position, we too fall with it.  That would be to battle not for the teaching of Holy Scripture but for our own, wishing its teaching to conform to ours, whereas we ought to wish ours to conform to that of Sacred Scripture.’  The Bible, like every other text, is not self-interpreting.  Augustine, along with those mentioned above, realized that humans construct interpretations from Scripture and these can be, and often are, in error.  In his view, we should attempt to conform ourselves every closer to Scripture, not to human constructions derived from Scripture.  Readers have an active role in forming the meanings and understandings that they embrace.  The questions they ask of a writing, the ways in which they formulate synthetic conclusions, the methods they employ, the interpretive frameworks they bring, and even their emotional states and personal histories affect how they construct interpretations.  The emotional needs of readers may be the most overlooked shaper of interpretive outcomes because they often work on a subconscious level.  And as Roger Scruton observed, in many cases emotional needs precede rational arguments and shape theological conclusions in advance.  Often times the conclusions we draw from the Bible have more to do with our emotional disposition- our fears and wants- than they do about the data that is in front of us.  this is true when we read Gen 1-11 and this is one of the reasons why Christians often disagree over matters of Bible and theology.  We bring different emotional needs to these debates.” (Page 158)

If anyone is interested in scholarly debate on the first eleven chapters of Genesis, this is a highly recommended read.  The book is assessable (only 163 pages in the paperback) and introduces the audience to the interpretative challenges of Genesis in our modern era.

Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel by Russell Moore

“The shaking of American culture is no sign that God has given up on American Christianity. In fact, it may be a sign that God is rescuing American Christianity from itself.”

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spawned some waves during the 2016 presidential election when he took a fairly hardline stance against republican candidate Donald Trump.  In a Washington Post editorial, he eviscerated the Donald’s worldview and moral actions as he claimed that Trump had snuffed out the religious right.  Before these series of editorials from Moore, he wrote a book called “Onward” in 2015 about how Christianity should engage a “post-Christian” America.  Obviously, a lot of politics are discussed.

Welcoming a growing secular age in America, Moore seems to say “bring it on” in the sense that a Christianity with conviction will make a roaring comeback up against what was, in large part, a national civic religion.  He writes:  “The problem was that . . . Christian values were always more popular in American culture than the Christian gospel. That’s why one could speak of ‘God and country’ with great reception in almost any era of the nation’s history but would create cultural distance as soon as one mentioned ‘Christ and him crucified.’ God was always welcome in American culture. He was, after all, the Deity whose job it was to bless America. The God who must be approached through the mediation of the blood of Christ, however, was much more difficult to set to patriotic music or to ‘Amen’ in a prayer at the Rotary Club.”

Moore is still fiercely conservative.  He is unapologetically pro-life, believes same-sex marriage to be sinful (but has numerous quotes about loving and being good neighbors to LGBTQ people) but seems less convinced that the best way for the church to go about politics is trying to legislate or elect the correct leaders.  “We receive celebrities simply because they are ‘conservative,’ without asking what they are conserving. If you are angry with the same people we are, you must be one of us. But it would be a tragedy to get the right president, the right Congress, and the wrong Christ.” The book was published in August 2015 and this specific quote seems haunting now.  He continues:  “Our vote for President is less important than our vote to receive new members for baptism into our churches. . . . The reception of members into the church marks out the future kings and queens of the universe. Our church membership rolls say to the people on them, and to the outside world, ‘These are those we believe will inherit the universe, as joint-heirs with Christ.’”

A big theme of the book is the Kingdom of God. That this Kingdom is transcendent and is made up of people all over the world.  Moore condemns racism and recognizes oppression that certain minorities face which must be made right.

If anyone is a Christian and interested either in cultural or political issues, this is a vastly important book to contemplate.  Moore is onboard with emphasizing less of a power religion (in the political sense) and more of churches living out the meaning and calling of the gospel.

Some other quotes:

“Our story is that of a little flock and of an army, awesome with banners. Our legacy is a Christianity of persecution and proliferation, of catacombs and cathedrals. If we see ourselves as only a minority, we will be tempted to isolation. If we see ourselves only as a kingdom, we will be tempted toward triumphalism. We are, instead, a church. We are a minority with a message and a mission.”

“Our life planning ought to be about the next trillion years, and beyond. If we assume that what’s waiting for us beyond the grave is a postlude rather than a mission and an adventure, we will cling tenaciously to the status quo, or at least the parts of it we like. . . . Our lives now are shaping us and preparing us for a future rule. Our lives now are an internship for the eschaton.”

“The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6-7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run. The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a ‘ministry project.’ He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ. . . . The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.”

“Let’s model what happens to a culture when the kingdom interrupts us on our way to where we would go, if we were mapping this out on our own. Let’s not merely advocate for causes; let’s embody a kingdom. Let’s not aspire to be a moral majority but a gospel community, one that doesn’t exist for itself but for the larger mission of reaching the whole world with the whole gospel. That sort of kingdom-first cultural engagement drives us not inward, but onward.”

“It may be that America is not ‘post-Christian’ at all. It may be that America is instead pre-Christian, a land that though often Christ-haunted has never known the power of the gospel, yet.”

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A Prayer for Reuben

This is a prayer I wrote out for my son, Reuben, with Michelle’s blessings.  We dedicated Reuben to God on February 26th, 2017 at Seed Church.  I forgot the below transcript at home while going to the baby dedication service but prayed the spirit of the below in front of our church family.

Lord Jesus, we are grateful that you have brought Reuben into our family and our lives. Thank you that our son is healthy and has the early strength to withstand getting hit in the head with a book by his big sister, Naomi.  Beyond that, thank you that Naomi is so protective and sweet with Reuben.  We will never forget the first meeting between Reuben and Naomi in early October when he first came home.  Your grace is evidenced in so many ways.

We pray today that Reuben would have an understanding of your love, Jesus, now and as he grows older. In the future, we pray that he would have a strong faith in God and a hunger to learn more about the Bible.  We pray that Michelle and I would consistently model your love, grace, and thoughtful discipline with the extraordinary task of being parents.

Looking forward, we anticipate the many adventures together including: learning (both him and us), sporting events (if he likes them), church community events, hikes, family travel and prayerfully great conversations…eventually. May we always recognize life’s many blessings as being gifts from You.

Thank you Jesus for loving us, being with us and being for us as we have welcomed our son, baby Roo, into our home.

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Why Belief in God Matters: Genesis 1 Sermon Transcript (Part Two)

This is a message I preached at Seed Church on January 15th, 2017.  Here is the link to the audio.

Continued from Part one.

Matter:

Ancient Israelites were drawing the attention of the culture of the day and all cultures down through the ages of how vital it is to believe in the existence of God. For Israel, theoretically as they were in Babylonian captivity and recounting how Elohim or Yahweh provided for them in the past, this became their hope. A way to radically connect their lives to a higher meaning.

That meaning and hope can still be found today.  In our world, western civilization in the 21st century, we hear a lot about the rise of the religious ‘nones’. Some of you probably read the Pew Research Study and subsequent articles about it and heard how many people are not associating with church or organized religion anymore. I won’t get into the specific numbers but this is one of the fastest growing groups in America.

Here at Seed Church, we have seen great friends go through this haven’t we? Sometimes, they have a crisis in life or they come to a place where they don’t believe anymore for whatever reason and leave our community here at church. Now, we still have friendships with these people and we don’t shut anyone out at all but there still is a sadness to see people we care about abandon faith in Jesus.

A popular phrase is often muttered, ‘I’m spiritual but not religious.’ We hear this a lot in Seattle. So, what is interesting is it doesn’t seem like people are going to a hardcore atheism (like the New atheists) but still maintaining an open position to God and spirituality.

Here is the big question for us: Why does belief in God matter? Why does belief in this God that we heard about in Genesis 1 make a difference? Does belief in God make us merely feel better? Is belief in God just something we have always done or done for a very long time? What is the point? Why is this important?

Since I’m speaking, I should make a confession. I’m kind of a fan of the late Christopher Hitchens, the new atheist. I have read 3 of his books and I just finished a book by Larry Taunton, a pastor, which was about his friendship with Hitch (as his nickname was). In this book (which sadly wasn’t very good), Taunton describes a theorem that Hitch had that he used in debates all the time. Hitch would say (paraphrase) ‘Tell me one thing, morally speaking, that you Christian can do that I cannot do as an atheist?’ Now, his question is flawed because if we are basing Christian morality on the 10 commandments (though there is certainly more to it than those tablets Moses brought down), the first 2 commandments have to do with worshipping the true God and not having idols. By definition, an atheist cannot worship the True God so that is one thing that a believer can do that an atheist can’t. Hitch’s point though is well-taken: he can choose not to commit adultery, he can choose not to steal, he can choose to not kill anyone just like a believer can so what difference does belief in God make?

Thesis: By connecting with the true God that is testified to in Genesis 1, we can find a transcendent meaning and purpose to our lives.

Struggle:

Let’s face it and be real. Faith in God in the fallen world we live in can be extraordinarily difficult. When we look around at the world, read the news, and learn about the things going on out there, trusting in God can take just about everything within us. People who have tremendous faith in Christ suffer horribly right along side those who have no faith at all. The inverse is also true. People of faith sometimes have mostly comfortable and fun lives right alongside those who don’t believe at all. What difference does it make?

We could spend a bunch of time on apologetics, which is valuable to do and discuss, no doubt. We can talk about the cosmological argument related to God being the First Cause in a universe of cause and effect or what Aristotle called the ‘Unmoved Mover’ or ‘Prime Mover.’ I think this is an effective argument for me. Nothing cannot create something so that means something must be eternal, right? Or we can talk about the design argument and the fine tuning of the universe. This can also be effective to a certain extent.

These are merely intellectual arguments though (that again can be helpful) but do they really speak to why the existence of God matters?

1) Belief in God matters because it gives us a way to see the world. A foundation to sift information through and solid to construct our worldview and values upon. In Genesis 1, God brings order out of chaos. Believing in God helps us do this same thing. The world can seem random and chaotic. Trusting in God and helping us to see the world like He does can order this chaos.

2) Belief in God helps us to look outside of ourselves to others and challenges us to love without condition. This is not based on the ever changing sentiment about love in pop culture that is shallow and fake. God’s love is transcendent and rooted in firm commitment’s (covenant). Do we really meditate on the fact that God loves us or has it just become a phrase that we sing and pray with empty, cliche words? Believing that God loves us changes everything. That God loves our kids, our families, our communities, our country, our world. Really believing that God loves us and is for us changes our outlook as we go through this world. It affects everything about our lives.

3) Belief in God helps us to have unity when our society and culture is bitterly divided. In our country, we see this partisan outrage everyday. People literally hate other people because they have different political beliefs. The cool thing about Seed is we have people from all across the spectrum. What God can create in this community is a unity among us, with all our differences, around Him and His kingdom values. This can be a big difference that belief in God can make in our community and with our friends.

4) Belief in God can inspire and empower us to be free from things that may entrap us. God did not cease to be a Creator after the 7th day. He can create in you a new heart and new desires to conquer addictions, to be free from guilt or shame from the past. He can free us to have a deep seated joy through the difficulties of life that Jesus also faced when He was a man.

5) Belief in God gives us a present and future hope especially related to justice. To dive deeper into this enigma, I want to compare and contrast two people. I don’t know if these two have ever been compared before but I’m going to give it a shot. On one side here, we have Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr….a noble person, civil rights leader, Christian pastor, and one of the most consequential people in American history. On the opposite side, we have film director Woody Allen. Woody has made some really great films and some lousy ones.His personal life is a mess reportedly and he has been accused of extremely awful things. Have you heard of anyone comparing these two? Let’s see how this goes.

Woody Allen, in 2005, made a movie called ‘Match Point’. The theme of the film is that there is no cosmic justice. Everything is absurd and meaningless. If justice happens in this world and existence of ours, it is nothing but fateful chance.

In contrast, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Had the famous saying, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ This implies that there is a progress of justice toward a final conclusion.  A reckoning. A direction that justice and morality are headed in while being orchestrated by a Higher Being. Even if we don’t see justice in this life, justice will eventually prevail because God will bring it to us.

Gospel:

And this belief about justice from these two personalities and the tension that we feel wherever we are in between those two points. Eventually in the life of a true believer in God, these intellectual concepts move from being just in our heads to the core of our being. Jesus not only inspires us toward His Kingdom values of ‘Love God with all your heart mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself’ but He empowers this work in us. Purpose. Meaning. Mission. Hope.

Hope comes because even if we don’t see the gospel and justice take root in our lifetimes, we know they eventually will come upon the creation being brought to completion by the True God who created the heavens and the earth. God did not cease to be a Creator after Genesis 1. He still is creating and one of those acts of creation is giving those who want to follow Him a new heart. Ezekiel 36:26 states, ‘And I will give you a new heart, and a new Spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.’ For those struggling with addictions or entrapped by sins that you feel are getting the best of you, God can work and change your heart. For those struggling with apathy or a sense of being overwhelmed at the craziness of our world, God can create in you a new heart and guide you to the things you can do to help build His Kingdom and pursue justice even if they are the littlest of steps.

When cultures, governments or other groups perform evil acts, we follow a transcendent moral code given to us by Jesus. When we fall short of our own moral code, we are offered God’s grace and Christ continues to embrace us. To view others, with the Spirit’s help, through Jesus’ perspective which includes upholding them as bearing the image of God, we can be kept from getting carried away by a poisoned, evil ethical system of thought advanced by our society. All people, from unborn to the elderly, both sexes, all races, are valuable to God as they bear His image. Another difference that belief in God makes. Not only helping us to have an intellectual framework to discern truth and morality but we are given His Spirit to be empowered to live according to His truths in the manner of love.

At the end of the day, arguments and debates can be made from any position. If any of you have been in a debate class, you already know this. The thing about taking debate is that we learn by often getting assigned viewpoints we disagree with and then we have to defend them.

All information can be spun around and used for whatever purpose. Same with the debate about God. Here is the question: how do you want to see the world? What do you want to place your trust in? Do you want to see the world as random chaos? According to this view, we are all extremely lucky to be here (against all odds) and morality and ethics are simply human constructs subject to adjustment and change depending on who is in power. Another way to see the world is that in the beginning God created. He brought order out of chaos. He created all things: sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, animals and human beings.  All of these things are beautiful and inspire awe and wonder because they come from the true Creator’s hand. And this Creator came into history as Jesus, a poor carpenter from Nazareth, to speak the truth and ask us to follow Him.

May we see the world through the poor carpenter from Nazareth’s eyes. The brutal death He suffered and the empty tomb on the third day. And may we see from the testimony of John’s Gospel (chapter 1) that at the beginning of the creation of the universe and earth, this homeless carpenter was there (present in the creative act) and was even there even prior to the creation to eternity past. ‘In the beginning was the Word….’

 

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