by Jim Killam | 6-minute read
The 1997 sci-fi film Contact, based on the book by Carl Sagan, made an unusually good attempt to reconcile science and faith. Both share a search for truth and “a thirst for wonder” that sometimes neither wants to acknowledge about the other.
Sagan himself was deeply agnostic, saying he could find no scientific evidence for belief in God. Yet in Contact he searched for common ground — and found some. Sure, from a Christian point of view we could poke some holes, but when a scientist’s novel and then a major Hollywood offering help their audiences think hard about faith, I’d call that a cultural win.
The film is a generation old, but I’ve been thinking about it during COVID-19. We all feel an alarming lack of control. No one knows what our society will look like in a month, let alone a year or two. Will we be locked down again? Can our economy withstand more? When is a vaccine coming?
In Contact, humanity has been instructed by extraterrestrials to build a colossal machine that can transport its lone occupant to … well, no one’s sure. Maybe another solar system. Maybe nowhere at all. Jodie Foster’s character, astronomer Ellie Arroway, is chosen as the passenger. The capsule plans do not include any known safety device, so human engineers add a seat and a harness (this idea of trusting a superior intelligence only goes so far).
The machine works, and takes a spectacular journey through interstellar wormholes. Ellie is strapped into her seat, but the turbulence is so bad that it nearly knocks her unconscious. Desperate, she does something counterintuitive. She releases the harness. Immediately she floats peacefully. Moments later, her seat wrenches free and slams violently into a wall.
By releasing control and trusting in the one who devised the ship and its method of travel, Ellie floated freely and safely as her capsule arrived at the mystery destination. Had she trusted in her own idea of safety, she would have been crushed.
The wrong kind of safety
You see where I’m going with this, right? And you see where I’m not going? This isn’t about wearing masks and social distancing. That’s simply loving our neighbors when no one is quite sure of the risk from place to place, moment to moment. That’s placing our Christian identity far above our political or cultural identity.
At the same time, I think God is offering us a far deeper sense of trust and safety. We like predictability and control. We especially value comfort. Following Jesus means letting go of those safety devices we have known and trusted: money, possessions, career, home. Maybe even church culture. Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean we forfeit all of that — though for some it could — but we sure need to loosen our grip. What if COVID-19 is offering us the chance to recalibrate our faith? To let God take us somewhere we have never been? To rethink where our trust belongs, and what that looks like?
“Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” the Proverb says, “and lean not on your own understanding.” That is the polar opposite of clinging tightly to what we know.
A leather boat
Almost 1,500 years ago, an Irish monk named Brendan got together with a few other monks to build a wooden frame for a boat, or curragh, lashing the oak or ash pieces together with leather thong. Then they stretched ox hides across the frame, sewed them together with flax thread and sealed everything with animal fat. Raising a sail and a prayer, they let the sea take them wherever it would.
Depending on which account you read, they were hoping to spread the Gospel wherever God directed them … or they were searching for the Garden of Eden … or they simply wondered what lay beyond the blue horizon. Maybe all three.
Irish legend says St. Brendan the Navigator was carried thousands of miles south and west, to the Azores. Then the monks crossed the Sargasso Sea and wound up in the Bahamas – possibly even reaching Florida, not far from where the Apollo rockets would one day launch men to the moon. The Gulf stream then carried the little boat northward to what’s now Newfoundland, and from there Brendan and his shipmates made it back to Ireland.
With no map, no compass … and in a leather boat.
Legend places Brendan’s journey from A.D. 512-530: 450 years before the Vikings and 900 before Columbus. Some believe it. Others think it’s embellished and that the monks never got past the British Isles. Regardless of exactly where they ended up, I’m more intrigued by the kind of trust required to boldly go, in God’s name and for his glory, where no man had gone before.
Releasing a death grip
In his profound 2011 book, Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Work of the Holy Spirit, Mark Galli proposed that American Christians are addicted to safety and control. Thus, we have a terrible time getting past our cultural Christianity and truly following Jesus. It’s risky.
It’s not hard to see how quickly stewardship of our time becomes a means to control and order our lives, rather than an opportunity to begin each day asking, “Spirit of God, to where will you carry me today?” Most likely it will be to the usual places, where we’ll meet the usual assortment of people. Once in a while, he’ll call us to forsake the golden opportunity in order to send us to the desert. Other times he’ll magically transport us to a place or calling we never would have imagined possible. But even when he again carries us back to the same office and classroom, to the same people we meet every day, we will know this: that our lives are not our own, and that the Spirit has given us these people and this place to do God’s work.
If that is not liberating, I don’t know what is. Scary, to be sure. Requiring more faith than we seem to have on most days. But imagine how freeing it would be to release the death grip we have on our lives and just let the gracious and loving Spirit of Jesus carry us where he would each day.
Instead of longing for “normal” right now, what if we unbuckled our cultural safety harness and allowed God to carry us someplace new?
*Opinions expressed are the writers’ own, and do not necessarily represent First Free Rockford or the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA).