February 2010 Anglican Newsletter
Keith resumes his monthly newsletter with two moving stories of faith
St Augustine of Hippo was born in 354 AD in Carthage in N Africa. He had a Christian mother and an atheist father. We don't know whether he was Black, Arabic or European or tall or short or much about him at all in a physical appearance sense (how refreshing to know that nobody then seemed to care about such things!). In a Christian book of quotations, he appears at least twice as often as almost anyone else (except the Bible). He is perhaps most famously remembered for his prayer "Give me chastity and continence - but not yet!" He was a real human being, not just a stuffy academic. He also said: "Do not seek to understand in order that you may believe, but believe so that you may understand." In the same vein he remarked that "Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature." Here are a couple of stories:
A new Pastor and his wife were newly assigned to their first ministry - to re-open a church in suburban Brooklyn. They arrived in early October, full of enthusiasm. The church was very run down and needed a lot of work. They determined to have it ready to open for a first service on Christmas Eve. They worked hard, repairing pews, plastering, painting etc - and were on schedule and just about finished, when on December 19th there was a terribly tempest - a driving rainstorm that lasted for two days.
On the 21st, they went back to the Church and the Pastor's heart sank. The roof was leaking and a large area of plaster about 20 feet by 8 had fallen off the wall just behind the pulpit, from head high extending upwards. He cleaned up the mess on the floor but decided he had no option than to cancel the Christmas Eve service.
On the way home he passed a local business holding a sort of flea market sale for charity and he popped in. He found inside a beautiful handmade, ivory coloured crocheted table cloth, with exquisite workmanship, fine colours and a Cross right in the centre. It was just the right size to cover the hole in the church wall. He bought it and took it back to the church.
By then it was beginning to snow. An elderly woman running down the street missed her bus. The Pastor invited her into the warm church to wait for the next bus in 45 minutes. She sat in a pew while he got out the ladders etc and hung the tablecloth as a sort of wall tapestry. The Pastor could not believe how beautiful it was and how well it covered up the entire problem.
Then he noticed the old woman walking down the aisle, with a face as pale as a sheet. "Pastor," she asked, "where did you get that tablecloth?" He explained. She asked him to check the bottom right corner, to see if there were crocheted initials 'EGB' there. They were. She explained that they were her initials and she had made the cloth 35 years before in Austria, She explained that before the war, she and her husband were well-to-do people in Austria. The Nazis had come and she had been forced to leave. Her husband was due to follow, but was arrested and imprisoned and she never saw him again. The Pastor wanted to give her the tablecloth, but she made him keep it. He then insisted on driving her to her home on the other side of Staten Island.
They had a wonderful service on Christmas Eve. The church was almost full. The music and the spirit were great. The Pastor and his wife greeted everyone as they left the church after the service. But one old man, whom the Pastor recognised as being from the neighbourhood, continued to sit staring at the tablecloth. He asked the Pastor where he had got it from. He explained that it was identical to the one his wife had made in Austria before the war. She had got out before the Nazis had arrived, but he was arrested and imprisoned. He never saw his wife or his house again. This had all happened 35 years ago.
The Pastor asked him if he could take him for a drive. They drove to Staten Island to the same house where he had taken the lady three days previously. He helped the man to climb the three flights of stairs to the old woman's apartment, knocked on the door and saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could ever have imagined.
Pastor Rob Reid says this is a true story.
The other story is one I told you all some time ago, but it is worth repeating.
A missionary lady in Africa worked in the back of beyond in a very poor and deprived area. She tried to educate the children and to help medically those who were hurt or sick. She also taught about her faith in Jesus. One little girl asked her to confirm that it was true that Jesus always answered prayer. The missionary, feeling that she was about to be overwhelmed, cautiously answered 'Yes'. The little girl said that, having heard the stories the missionary had been reading to them the previous day, she was praying for a blonde doll that she could dress and look after. She said that no doubt Jesus would send it to her tomorrow. The missionary nodded unable to say anything useful or meaningful.
The next day, a large packing crate arrived with all sorts of goodies sent from English churches and people that supported her in her work. The bits and pieces had been collected over several months and put together and sent surface (sea and land) mail, taking about 6 months to arrive. The little girl jumped up and down with excitement and said that Jesus had sent her the doll. The missionary's heart sank as she realised that the girl's simple faith was about to be shattered, as they always sent what was asked for - and that had never included a request for a doll! As the crate's contents grew in piles on the ground, she kept her eyes away from the little girl, until suddenly there was a squeal of excitement as the girl jumped up and down with a blonde-haired doll in her arms - the last item to come out of the crate.
The missionary knew then that God had planned ahead, making sure that someone slipped the doll into the crate long before the little girl had even thought of her prayer.
Do these stories tell us of miracles? If you believe, you will say "Yes" and understand that God does provide. If you seek for an explanation, of course you will conclude that these are cases of coincidence. St Augustine's dictum on understanding and belief does not actually enable any one to change their position - although it seems very wise. His dictum on miracles remains unproven - although it is undoubted fact that what in the Middle Ages would have been regarded as miraculous cures are performed routinely nowadays, as we understand so much more of nature (the word 'science' was not, of course, available to him).
Perhaps we need to come further forward in time to see if we can make anything of all this. Jane Fonda was a confirmed and voluble atheist until her sixties. Suddenly about 4 or 5 years ago, she underwent a conversion to fervent Christianity. She could not say why, merely, saying "I'm still not ready to defend [Christianity] or analyse it or anything, but I have become moved by it, fascinated by it and helped by it - and I am not even sure what it is. But I am humming with reverence and going at it in my usual full-bore way." Again this proves nothing, but it does illustrate someone who has taken Augustine at his word and believed as a first step to understanding. Most importantly, she is helped by her conversion. Many atheists are quite evangelical about their anti-religiosity. That makes no sense at all - even though they rely on logic to try to confound the believer. For those, who like Augustine's father, just do not believe, then to take a small step of faith (Yes, faith!) and try to accept the religious explanation of, for example, co-incidences may lead to a small understanding of the love which those who are believers seem to be able to find in every situation and are all the happier for it.
Licensed Lay Minister