H.I. McDonnough receives the promise

This is the third in a short series of guest posts. Today’s author, Paul Wallace, is a freelance writer. A professor of physics and astronomy at Berry College from 1998 through 2008, Paul received his MDiv from Emory’s Candler School of Theology in May. He lives in Decatur, GA with his wife and three children. Paul blogs at psnt.net.

A flower, you are. Just a little desert flower. Nick Cage as Herbert I. McDonnough getting nabbed — again — for raiding his local Short Stop Mart — again. As he stands for his mug he comes face-to-face for the first time with Ed, the woman of his dreams

Hope lives where normality gives out.

One of my favorite funny movies is Raising Arizona. In it, a hapless H.I. McDonnough, small-time compulsive crook, falls in love with and marries Ed (short for Edwina, played by the indefatigable Holly Hunter), a twice-decorated police officer who works the mugshot camera at the county lockup in Tempe, Arizona. But trouble starts when Ed’s insides are found to be, according to H.I., “a rocky place where my seed could find no purchase.” Science couldn’t help them, although it had worked wonders for Nathan Arizona, a local furniture magnate who, with his wife Florence, had quintuplets — five blond baby boys — on their hands.

So H.I. and Ed devise a plan that would be “the solution to all our problems and the answer to all of our prayers”: drive up to the Arizona mansion under cover of night and steal one of the quints. After all, as Ed insists, “they’ve got more than they can handle.” H.I. pulls off the heist. With that, the circus begins. And at the end of a rollicking tale involving our protagonist, Ed, Junior, two escaped cons, a very scary biker dude, a pack of insane dogs, and a box of Huggies, the haggard couple returns the unflappable Nathan Junior to the very crib from which he had been lifted.

Distraught, childless, and hopeless, H.I. and Ed decide they should break up their marriage. But a gentle and understanding Nathan Arizona encourages them to sleep on it. So they do. And that night H.I. has a dream. It is a dream of the future, a dream of children, a dream of a good land. His description of the dream closes the movie in this way.

But still I dreamed on, further into the future than I’d ever dreamed before. And this was cloudier, because it was years, years away. But I saw an old couple bein’ visited by their children and all their grandchildren too. The old couple weren’t screwed up, and neither were their kids or their grandkids. And I don’t know. You tell me. This whole dream. Was it wishful thinkin’? Was I just fleein’ reality, like I know I’m liable to do? But me and Ed, we can be good too. And it seemed real. It seemed like us. And it seemed like, well, our home. If not Arizona, then a land not too far away, where all parents are strong and wise and capable and all the children are happy and beloved.

I don’t know. Maybe it was Utah.

What a fantastic movie.

The book of Genesis tells the story of another man who, thanks to the facts of biology, could not have children. Abraham and his wife Sarah were too old. Yet God gave Abraham a vision of the future and in that vision Abraham found great hope.

The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless.” [The Lord] brought him outside and said, “Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.

– Genesis 15.1-2a, 5-6

So I find myself lining up H.I. McDonnough and Abraham. What a brilliant pair. On one hand, H.I.: a solid-gold screwup if ever there was one. Unable to control his impulses to commit petty crimes, willing to steal children to make his wife happy, unable to keep his job at the local plant drilling holes in sheet metal. On the other hand, Abraham: paragon of virtue. The model of faith for hundreds of generations, the father of a nation, the man through whom God chooses to redeem the whole earth.

You already know the truth, though: They are the same man, they are anyone and everyone who ever had a dream that defied reason. H.I., in addition to being a world-class goof, is a model of goodness and faithful love. And Abraham, in addition to being an icon of faith, certainly drove his poor family up a tree with his aloofness, his silences, and his irrational behavior. We are all mixed bags, is my point.

And we are mixed bags who live in a world circumscribed by the possibilities — and impossibilities — described by natural science. The oddness of quantum mechanics notwithstanding, the world that we live in is pretty well contained by predictable laws and absolute limits. You can’t do this, but you can do that. You can’t fly by flapping your arms, but you can build a 747. You can get pregnant like this, but not like that. Etcetera. In a similar way we are bound by our societies. If you do this, you will lose your friends. If you do that, you will not. If you walk up the Mount of the Lord to sacrifice your only son, you will not be very popular when you get back home, no matter how the killing comes down. But if you play nice and push that voice down hard, everyone will smile and nod approvingly: he’s such a good family man. Etcetera.

So we are mixed bags who hear voices, who have visions, who dream dreams. Voices, visions, and dreams that won’t let us go. And we want to pay attention to them, we want to see the visions made real, we want to believe in them — even if we don’t understand them — and act in the world accordingly. Yet we fear the way the world will respond. The world of rules and hard limits. The world that pushes back. What a strange combination: We, so unknown, so mixed-up; we, goofs and saints simultaneously. The world, so set in its ways, almost mechanical in its responses.

Can Abraham and Sarah have a child? Biology says no; it would break all the rules of science. Their friends and family say no. It would be unseemly and more than a little creepy. But that voice, Abraham says to himself, it seemed so real.

Can H.I. and Ed have a child? No and no. Same story: nice vision, but no soap. But that dream, H.I. says to himself, it seemed like us.

This is not a commencement speech. I will never say that anyone can be anything they want to be. There are limits in this world. There are limits to each of us. What I am saying is, I believe in the power of Christian hope. That hope sits at the very still point of faith. That hope whispers, You can be made new. That hope assures us that our fleeting glimpses of Canaan are reliable, despite the inflexibility and resistance of the world. That hope speaks to us in the words of the world’s biggest goof, H.I. McDonnough: We can be good too.

May you act on your hope today, now, without fear.

One thought on “H.I. McDonnough receives the promise”

  1. One difference, however, between H.I. and Abraham–Abraham’s “dream” came true. Why? Because God gave it to him, and God is the worker of miracles, i.e., acts that “override” the natural laws of the world. Which laws he created when he created the world subject to those laws, and is in charge of both. So, while dreaming is good and pursuit of dreams is good, ultimately it is the “dreams” which come from God that count, and that we can count on to succeed, because God “reigns” over all.

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