Doubt, Grace and Aliens...Oh my!
“You have to ask yourself what kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person that sees signs, that believes in miracles? Or are you the person who believes that people just get lucky?”
So, what kind of person are you?
Episcopal priest and grieving widower, Graham Hess poses these questions about faith to his younger brother in M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 thriller, “Signs.”
Graham believes that there are two groups of people in this world: those believing in miracles and those believing in luck. His differentiation between these two groups stems from his struggle with the idea that all things are “meant to be.”
How are all things meant to be?
Was it meant be that Graham’s wife who was taking a walk before dinner was hit by a pickup truck when the driver fell asleep at the wheel? This idea that God intentionally took his dear wife and the mother of his children because it was “meant to be” throws him into spiritual turmoil. For Graham, how could a God exist that would allow such pain to be inflicted on his family?
To escape his anger and frustration, he realizes that he can’t be angry with a God who does not exist, so he walks away from his faith and the priesthood.
Humanity’s struggle with God’s role in the world is not an unfamiliar or foreign concept. We wrestle with how, and when and why God intervenes in our lives and when we feel that God doesn’t. And sometimes this can open us up to doubt God’s very existence, especially when we are in a state of grief.
For some reason when we our grieving the loss of a loved one or a job or a dream, we don’t take into consideration that our faith and belief in God will also change, and that it will be challenged by our loss. And doubt is a big player in our faith life when we do grieve.
We doubt God’s love for us and for those we’ve lost. We doubt the ways in which we might have cared for them. We doubt whether or not we did enough. We doubt our reality--is this really happening? Am I now living without this person or without this dream/goal? We doubt.
And doubt is a natural part of our faith life too and doubt is an expected by-product of our grief. But we don’t like to talk about it too much, do we? Christians are afraid of doubt. And it’s not the questions that make us fearful as much as it is the fact that we don’t always have all the answers to the questions.
In the film, Graham’s brother said to him “I can’t take my older brother who is everything I want to be, also be the one to lose faith in things.” We also get scared when doubt grows into something that is more than just unanswered questions. When it really does affect our belief in God.
But again, instead of welcoming our doubts about God, and Jesus, and God’s role in our lives, we tend to find it easier to hide behind our fear, and to become quick to criticize those brave enough to honestly share their doubts just like Thomas.
Unfortunately, Thomas has gotten a bad rap throughout history just because he doesn’t immediately believe his friends’ claim that they had seen Jesus. He needs physical proof of Jesus’ resurrection to even be close to considering it a real possibility.
Doesn’t Thomas fall into one of Graham’s groups from the film? The group that seeks signs from God. And Thomas needs some signs—some big ones. He’s pretty specific too with what he needs and he needs to see those nail marks in Jesus’ hands and physically put his hands in his side. He needs a tangible sign of Christ’s resurrection.
And this has been interpreted as weakness or a lack of faith on his part but honestly I don’t think that at all.
Rather, I believe that clergy and historians and academics have not taken into consideration, the condition of Thomas’ mental state. He is mourning a major loss. And it had only been a week since his friend and teacher had been brutally and publicly executed on a cross by the Roman government. What do we expect from him?
Like the other disciples, Thomas is grieving Jesus and on top of that he’s living in fear of being persecuted by the Roman Government for being his follower. Let’s remember, Jesus had a very public ministry—it wasn’t like people in the community didn’t know who was part of Jesus’ following.
Thomas is scared. Thomas hurts.
So, when he demands signs of Jesus’ resurrection it’s not out of unfaithfulness or weakness but the need for truth and stability. His doubt is an honest and true reaction of a man in mourning.
We are not that different from Thomas—have you never said, “Oh come on, God let me know what I need to do…you got to show me a sign here!”
Come on, you’ve said it!
What makes Thomas so different from you and me? Or from Graham in Signs? Aren’t we all looking for confirmation from God in the midst of our discomfort or heartbreak? Isn’t doubting then just us actively seeking that confirmation of God’s presence in our life in the form signs and miracles?
In the film, Graham has an asthmatic son, Morgan, and a daughter, named Bo who leaves glasses of water all around the house for various reasons. He also gets some help raising his kids from his younger brother Merrill, who is a former minor league baseball player that now lives with them.
On their Pennsylvania farm, Graham really tries to make sense of his life without his wife and without God and without the priesthood. Even though he tries not to, he still looks for the signs of God’s love and hopefulness but they just seem nonexistent.
Yet the signs that Graham does see are the ones that all point to an Alien Invasion. That’s right! Aliens! And if you haven’t seen the movie, I bet you're wondering if Shyamalan's film is just another extraterrestrial thriller like Independence Day or Alien. And I’m relieved to report its not, it’s better.
So, yeah there are signs of extraterrestrial beings lurking on Graham’s family farm. And the first time you see the movie you get caught up in the unexplained crop circles and in the sporadic and unexpected appearances of green creatures. You get so focused on all the signs of alien life like the characters do, that you can miss the signs of God’s grace trying to help this grieving family find their faith once again.
And that is what is happening in the scripture reading today as well. The story of Thomas is not about his doubt but rather the “abundant grace of Jesus who meets Thomas’s demands point for point in order to move him to faith” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible).
Jesus tells Thomas when he appears to him, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."
Jesus’ appearance to Thomas is a sign of Jesus’ abundant grace that does not let Thomas grieve alone or not experience the hope of Jesus while all his friends had witnessed Christ’s resurrection.
Christ blesses him with this grace filled moment to move his faith toward believing in the hope of the resurrection. So, Thomas’ encounter with God’s grace is an act of love so that he’s reminded that he will never be alone and he has witnessed Christ’s promise to rise again.
What signs of God’s abundant grace have you seen or felt in your life? In your dark moments? In your times of doubt?
For Graham, those signs of God’s abundant grace are evident in the ways his wife’s final words gift him with unexpected signs of guidance in his fight against the aliens.
First, she tells Graham to see. Out of the blue the man who hit his wife with his truck, whose name was Ray, called him for the first time since the accident then unexpectedly hung up. Feeling uneasy about the call, Graham makes his way over to Ray’s house.
Graham unknowingly finds himself in a grace filled moment where Ray apologizes by saying “I know what I have done to you, I have made you question your faith. I am truly sorry for what I have done to you and yours.”
It is in this moment that Graham is called to see. To see Ray not as the evil man that killed his love, but rather the human being that made a terrible and human mistake.
His wife’s last words were a sign. Graham needed to go and see Ray, so that Ray could apologize and so that GRaham could forgive him and let go of some of the anger that was debilitating his relationship with God.
It is also this encounter that Ray casually shares his assumption that the aliens do
n’t like water. So, when the movie reaches its climactic conclusion with one of the alien’s in Graham’s home holding his son whose suffering from an asthma attack, it is then that his wife’s final words register once again. After she had told Graham to see, she said to tell his brother, the ball player, to “swing away.”
It is at that moment Graham looks up to see the bat hanging on the wall and notices the room filled with Bo’s glasses of water she had left around the house. He tells his brother to swing away—and in effect he knocks over water glass after water class splashing the liquid onto the alien causing it’s skin to burn and it’s grip on Morgan to be released dropping the boy to the ground.
His wife’s final words ended up being signs of God’s abundant grace that rescued them from aliens and ultimately, rescued Graham from his doubt in God’s love for him and his family that was pulling him farther away from all that he loved. But was his wife’s death meant to be? Meant for signs to be shown? Of course not! It was God’s grace through signs that Graham is able to see that God has not forgotten about him or ever stopped loving him through his painful loss.
Which is why the film concludes with Graham leaving his bedroom with his collar on—and we are left knowing that God’s grace moved him to believe once again and called him to return to the priesthood.
We will doubt like Thomas and like Graham. Our faith will falter. Our hearts will be broken in this life. But may we be comforted that in those periods, Jesus doesn’t leave us to handle them alone. We may not always see his grace at the time but it will always unexpectedly move us to believe.
Today we will baptize Charlotte Elizabeth Baker. And she will grow up with many questions and many doubts like the rest of us. It is our call as a community of faith to show her the signs of God’s abundant grace and love so that she may know the hope we have in Christ’s resurrection.
So, ask yourself, what kind of person are you? Are you the kind of person that sees signs, that believes in miracles? Or are you the person who believes that people just get lucky? Amen.