I’d like to share a story with you from my life this week. Yes, as the title suggests, there were a couple moments that seemed a bit miraculous, in both senses of the word. But you’ll have to hold tight, because the context matters and I also want you to get a glimpse into my life through the story.
In the Graduate Christian Fellowship, I lead the team that runs the Friday night large group sessions. Pretty much every week during the year, this involves either a talk or a social activity, so this is a big part of my life.
The planning team meets together monthly, and as we were first brainstorming what to do this summer, the idea came to my mind to watch a movie together and discuss it afterwards. After the meeting, I revisited a website that I had discovered back in college, cinemagogue.com. There, pastor James Harleman writes and speaks about movies from a refreshing Christian perspective that isn’t just how many swear words there are and how all of the characters behave in unholy ways. I remembered being floored by his takes on some of my favorite movies like The Prestige and The Dark Knight, and went back to revisit some of those.
In the process, I found that he’d written a book, Cinemagogue: Reclaiming Entertainment and Navigating Narrative for the Myths and Mirrors they were Meant to Be. I bought a copy, and read the entire thing in one sitting on a cross-country flight. It’s that good.
Inspired, I fleshed out the idea of a summer movie and discussion series with my large group team, and they were on board. This is probably the first time in a couple years that I’ve had this level of inspiration for large groups. I started to plan which movies to watch and organize the team.
Last Friday, we had our traditional summer kickoff barbecue, where I announced the series and showed the trailers for a couple movies that I thought would be good fits: Groundhog Day and The Princess Bride. After giving it some thought, I decided to watch Groundhog Day the first week, and was debating whether to simply decide to watch The Princess Bride the second or give the group some options. (I know I sometimes delve into rabbit holes of detail, but this matters. Hold tight and you’ll see why.)
At that gathering, though, some of the older graduate students warned me about something I should have seen coming all along: copyright law. After some brief website browsing, we found that yes, we do need a license to show the movie, even though we aren’t charging admission and the movies are over 20 years old.
So on Monday, I started contacting people. I asked a friend in MIT student government, who suggested I ask the librarians. One of them gave the most interesting response, enthusiastically recommending a handful of environmental films that the libraries owned the rights to. No, we didn’t just want to watch any film, I explained, and another librarian confirmed that we would be violating copyright law if we showed these movies to our group without a license.
The Student Activities Office was a little more helpful, telling me to contact Swank Motion Pictures for Groundhog Day in particular for a license. Once I finally got to talk to a representative from Swank on the phone, though, she quoted me a price of $275 for a one-time showing of a movie to 20-50 people.
I brought all of this information back to the fellowship leaders, and we all agreed that we wouldn’t want to make people pay and didn’t really have the funds for that. Our chaplain, Kevin, told us that he thought our sponsoring organization, Intervarsity, might be already have a license covering us, and he’d look into that, but we hadn’t heard anything yet.
On Wednesday, I went to my small group bible study, and during the prayer time, I shared this saga and asked for prayer. After getting back, I was browsing Facebook and at 11:04pm came across a list of outdoor movie screenings in Boston this summer. I decided to take a look.
I scrolled down to see that the next movie they were showing was, well, Groundhog Day. And they were showing it on Friday, June 19th at the Boston Harbor Hotel. It turns out that the hotel is showing classic movies every Friday, and they’ve got a list here.
Any guess what movie they’re showing next week, June 26th? Of course, The Princess Bride. I was shocked.
I’d like to jump in a little bit here and talk a little bit about what I think of miracles. In a previous post, I laid out why modern-day miracles are important to the claims of Christianity. But this is probably the first opportunity I’ve had to observe a potential miracle first-hand.
Naturally, the first question I tend to ask is, “How much evidence do we have to detect God’s presence?” In the end, this comes down to having a more accurate view of the world. A religious explanation for a miracle needs to have some predictive power, as objectively as we can evaluate that in hindsight.
So, let’s assume that you’re in my position Wednesday evening at, say, 10:52pm. How unlikely is it that…
- There would be public movie screenings somewhere in Boston over the summer.
- Some of those movies would be shown on Friday evenings.
- Those Friday movies would be “classics”.
- Groundhog Day and The Princess Bride would be included among the classic movies shown this year.
- Groundhog Day would be shown on June 19th, and The Princess Bride on June 26th, exactly as we had planned.
- Thrillist would decide to publish a list of all outdoor movie screenings in Boston during that 2-day span while we were looking for alternatives to paying Swank $275 to watch our movie.
- While browsing Facebook, I would come across this list.
- I would do so less than an hour after sharing this very situation as a prayer request and praying about it among other things together.
Of course, some (1, 2, 7) are pretty likely, and some (3, 4, 6) are harder to compute. As a simple upper bound to the probability, though, we can use 5 too see that there are 13 movies being shown at the Boston Harbor Hotel this summer, so not seeing any natural ordering, the probability that these movies would fall on these particular weeks is something like 1/(13*12), or less than 1%.
Depending on your estimates for the rest of these circumstances, you probably would rate this as 4-8 orders of magnitude unlikely, i.e. a “one in ten thousand” to “one in a hundred million” chance. Then we can ask: Are there similar circumstances that would seem just as remarkable in this case? And sure, if someone else had come across this list, or if I had searched it out myself, that would seem a little bit less surprising, but maybe remarkable enough. Let’s say that we lose a factor of 2-3 from these possibilities.
And then we can ask, how many chances has God had to act like this before? As a Christian, how likely should I have rated this to happen? Well, a quick estimate says that I’ve been a Christian for close to 10 years and shared prayer requests a bit less frequently than weekly over that time. Based on how I felt at small group, I’d estimate this as a top 5-10% urgent prayer request, so there have been maybe 20-40 such potential chances before.
In conclusion, this experience leads me to update my odds of a God who interacts with me existing by around 2-6 orders of magnitude.
I was sitting across from Grace when I found the list, and I immediately showed it to her. She was also shocked: “Wow.” I quickly moved into logistical mode, asking Google maps how long it would take to get to the hotel, estimating the time of dusk from when sunset would be before calling to find out if there would be a place nearby we could hold our discussion. With the previous plans we had made, it seemed plausible. I sent an e-mail to the other GCF leaders who had been getting the updates about the license with these ideas.
The next day, though, Kevin was able to secure a much cheaper Christian Video License through Intervarsity — $75 for three months of coverage. The leadership agreed that this was a worthwhile purchase, and Kevin filled it out that day. The Swank folks were persistent, but after talking on the phone with CVL, I confirmed that yes, their license did cover these movie screenings.
So in the end, we didn’t end up utilizing the option miraculously presented before us. One of my fellow leaders encouraged me with the situation in 1 Samuel 24:1-7. While that decision was based more on morals, he pointed out that God might bless us with unlikely fortune without intending for us to simply seize that opportunity.
Quite honestly, I wasn’t bummed. We had eventually gotten what we’d wanted, and in the moment when we were most in need, the hotel option gave us a backup plan that wouldn’t involve either breaking the law or cancelling the series. I interpreted it simply as a gentle confirmation that God wanted us to do this movie series.
So our first movie night came, last night. After grilling the leftover burgers and hot dogs from the previous week, we watched Groundhog Day and listened to Pastor Harleman’s sermon on it. Even though this was my second time watching the movie and third time listening to the sermon, I was convicted by one of the messages he brought out. What if we behaved as if everyone around us was more important than us? What if we were more like Jesus in our humility?
See, even though I do a lot for GCF and other things, I’ve often drifted into serving because I should, or because I think someone should do it, and I’m probably the best person for the job. What if instead I was serving out of joy for all of the people around me? What if I looked around and asked myself, “How can I be a blessing to all of the people around me?
As we walked back, I was talking with Grace and Lyndon about that very question. As we were approaching our dorm, I saw a homeless man pushing a cart in our very direction. “Well, that’s kind of obvious, God,” I thought as I went over to him and gave him one of the $10 McDonald’s gift cards in my wallet before he could even say a word.
After I explained what it was, he was shocked. Why would I want to do something like that? I decided to keep the explanation short and simple: “I’ve been inspired. God bless!” He told me a variant on the Good Samaritan story, and I smiled and told him I couldn’t do that much for him, but this is what I could.
Besides the improbability, the other defining characteristic of a miracle is that it fulfills a purpose of God. This is why you sometimes see Christians call every birth of a baby or salvation a miracle, because new birth and rebirth are purposes of God. Personally, I think that cheapens the word, but that isn’t to say that God is only interested in showing up for the sake of showing up.
Here, we get to see both. Based on my experience, I have seen homeless guys in that area before, but only (estimating) 1-5% of the time I walk there (nearly every day), so that’s another 1-2 orders of magnitude of God’s fingerprints. The God of the Bible is constantly telling his followers to help the poor and downtrodden, and even if this guy never makes it to McDonald’s, his reaction alone shows that it made an impact.
Looking back on it all as I write this post, I see features of both God’s ordinary and extraordinary action. I’ve emphasized the extraordinary in this post, since I don’t get to see that every day. But in the background, there’s still me being uplifted and convicted by a pastor’s sermons in college, a month ago, and last night, and praying together as a normal part of Christian community.
What do you think?