I went to see Onward the weekend it opened—a two hour respite in what would turn out to be a few crazy weeks. The Tuesday before, an acquaintance lost his home in the Nashville tornadoes. It was a miracle that he and his family survived. The following week, half of my home state of Michigan went into quarantine over Coronavirus.
But I can’t stop thinking about Onward, in spite of life’s craziness—or perhaps because of it.When Coronavirus hit Michigan, I was reminded of how little control I actually have.
See, Onward is really a story about faith and how it plays out in the lives of brothers Barley and Ian. Despite growing up in a literal magic world—they have a pet dragon, and feral unicorns rummage through the trash—magic isn’t a part of the brothers’ world; it’s too inconvenient. Despite not really believing in it, younger brother Ian has the ability to use magic and is forced to learn it quickly. Older brother Barley, meanwhile, knows all about magic. Despite not being able to use it himself, he’s the one who teaches Ian how to cast spells—what to say, how to stand, and how to speak them from the heart. And he never waivers in his faith in Ian’s ability to cast them.
This part of their journey comes to a climax about halfway through the film. The brothers arrive at a drawbridge over a seemingly-bottomless ravine, and the mechanism to release the drawbridge is on the other side. Ian, still doubtful of his own powers, is scared to cast the bridge spell, which allows the caster to walk across air as long as he is confident he is not going to fall. So Barley ties a rope around Ian’s waist so that if he does fall, Barley can pull him up.
At first nervous, Ian’s confidence grows with every step, believing at first in the rope as his safeguard and slowly in the power of his spell. But Barley, at the edge of the ravine, watches in horror as the knot on the rope comes loose. If Ian looks down and realizes the rope is gone, his confidence will shatter, and he’ll fall to his death. All Barley can do is shout out his faith in Ian until he finally, safely, arrives at the other side.
Replace magic with faith in general, and at times I’ve found myself in both Ian and Barley. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” Ian’s faith journey is about growing in magic, and while that’s not a perfect parallel to faith in Jesus, sometimes faith is about the miraculous power of God. In Matthew 17:20, Jesus tells us that even just a tiny amount of faith is enough to move mountains. I’ve never moved a literal mountain, I doubt any of us will, but I have prayed and watched God move virtual ones—meeting physical and financial needs and opening doors I thought were closed. It’s great when my faith feels like Ian’s.
More realistically, though, I’m like Barley. When Coronavirus hit Michigan, I was reminded of how little control I actually have. I can’t magic toilet paper or hand sanitizer back on the shelves. I can’t magic all of my loved ones to permanent health. As events get canceled, I can’t even hang out with the people I want to hang out with. I feel like Barley, kneeling at the edge of ravine, looking at the gears of normalcy on the other side and saying to God, “You can bring us there… right?”
It’s been humbling to realize that’s where I actually am. It’s been easy to trust God as long as life has been relatively smooth. Not perfect, of course. But this is one of the first times I feel like I’ve had to fully rely on him—that everything about this situation is 100% out of my control, no matter how long I wash my hands or how many bleach wipes I use.
And that’s okay. Like Barley, I can’t rely on my own efforts. Taking precautions is a good thing, of course, but ultimately, like Barley’s rope, they may fail. But in the end, nothing is about my power anyway. It’s all about putting my faith in the One who has the power, no matter the road.