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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Coincidences

In director M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 movie Signs, Mel Gibson plays Graham Hess, a man who used to believe in God.


In fact, he used to be an Episcopal priest.


But a seemingly random and meaningless accident has taken the life of his wife, leaving him with two small children. His son Morgan is stricken with asthma. To Graham, these family disasters are ample evidence that there is no God.  Or at least a God who gives a rip about people in pain. 


His brother Merrill, played by Joaquin Phoenix, has moved into the house to provide friendship and support.


Early in the film they’re facing an entirely different kind of crisis – pervasive global panic that extraterrestrials are poised to land on earth. Crop circles mysteriously appear in the cornfields on the Hess farm. Are these signs or indicators that something terrible is about to happen? 


Late at night, as the brothers watch media coverage of the potential invasion and cradle the sleeping kids, they talk:


Merrill:  Some people are probably thinking this is the end of the world. 

Graham:  That’s true.

Merrill:  Do you think it could be? 

Graham:  Yes. 

Merrill:  How can you say that? 

Graham:  That wasn’t the answer you wanted?

Merrill:  Couldn’t you pretend to be like you used to be? Give me some comfort?


But Graham refuses to pretend that he still believes. 


He says to his brother, “People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence.  They see it as a sign – evidence that there is Someone up there watching out for them.”


“Group number two,” he goes on, “sees it as just pure luck.” When the members of group two experience a crisis, “Deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they’re on their own. And that fills them with fear.”


People in group number one, he explains, see the same data but come to different conclusions. “They’re looking at a miracle, and deep down, they feel that whatever happens, there will be Someone there to help them. And that fills them with hope.”


Graham then turns to Merrill and asks the movie’s central question: 


“So you have to ask yourself, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles, or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?”


The Bible is essentially a collection of stories about these two groups: those who journey hopefully because of their trust in God, and those who go through life fearfully because they assume they’re on their own. 


During the movie, Graham has to decide if there is sufficient evidence – enough “signs” – to bet his life once again that reality resides in group one. 


His wife’s dying words, he believes, were pointless – a consequence of her shock and delirium as her brain shut down. She had said, “Swing away, Merrill,” apparently a random memory of the fact that Graham’s brother had had a storied minor league baseball career. 


But (and here’s a spoiler alert) when the Hesses come face to face with an extraterrestrial in their family room, Graham says those very words – “Swing away, Merrill!” – and the family is saved. Morgan, who should have inhaled a lethal dose of the alien’s poison gas, is rescued by the fact that his airways were constricted by asthma. The worst things that had happened to the family prove to be the very means by which they are saved.


Signs is an intriguing movie. Is it a summer popcorn flick? Yes. A science fiction thriller? Yes, again.   


But it’s also a film with an underlying message that resonates with those who have concluded that life’s smallest details always matter, and that (under the providence of God) there are no coincidences. 


Shyamalan teases us with the premise that our attention should be fixed on mega-signs like crop circles. 


But he is far more interested in urging us to consider the possibility that life’s seemingly innocuous “little signs” are evidence of a divine presence. 


By the end of the film, Graham Hess has to make up his mind if all those little things point to a God who is actually there – and who actually cares.


Which is the very decision we have to make every day as well.

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