On Tuesday night I led a carol service onboard a wooden-walled sailing ship called the Unicorn. During it, I related a story and in return received a question
Firstly, let me tell you that story which I came across on the Motivateus.com website.
The brand-new minister and his wife were assigned to their first charge. And it was to reopen a church in urban Brooklyn in New York. But when they saw their church, it was very run down and needed a load of work.
They set a goal to have everything done in time to have their first service on Christmas Eve.
They worked hard, repairing pews, plastering walls, painting and by mid-December, they were ahead of schedule and just about finished. Next day, a massive rainstorm hit the area and lasted for two days.
On the 21st, the pastor went over to the church. His heart sunk when he saw that the roof had leaked, causing a large area of plaster to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit. He brushed up the mess on the floor but he knew that they would have to cancel the Christmas Eve service.
On the way home, he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity so he stopped by.
One item was a beautiful, hand-made, ivory coloured, crocheted table cloth with exquisite work, fine colours and a cross embroidered right in the centre. It was just the right size to cover up the hole in the wall. He bought it and headed back to the church.
By this time, it had started to snow. A woman was running from the opposite direction trying to catch the bus. She missed it. So, the clergyman invited her to wait in the warm church for the next bus 45 minutes later.
She sat in a pew and paid no attention to him while he got a ladder to put up the tablecloth as a wall tapestry. The pastor could hardly believe how beautiful it looked and it covered up the entire problem area.
Then he noticed the woman walking down the centre aisle. Her face was as white as a sheet with shock.
She asked, “Where did you get that tablecloth?”
The young man explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crocheted into it there. They were. These were her’s and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before, in Austria.
The woman could hardly believe it as the minister told how he had just gotten the tablecloth. The woman explained that before the war she and her husband were well-to-do people in Vienna. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week. She, however, was captured, sent to prison and never saw her husband or her home again.
He wanted to give her the tablecloth, but she made the pastor keep it for the church. In return, he insisted on driving her home, that was the least he could do. She lived on the other side of Staten Island and was only in Brooklyn for the day for a cleaning job.
What a wonderful service they had on Christmas Eve. The church was almost full. The music and the spirit were great.
At the end of the service, the minister and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return.
One older man, whom the pastor recognized from the neighbourhood, continued to sit in one of the pews and stare; the vicar wondered why he wasn’t leaving.
The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall. For it was identical to one that his wife had made years ago when they lived in Austria before the war and how could there be two tablecloths so much alike?
He told the clergyman how the Nazis came, how he forced his wife to flee for her safety, and he was supposed to follow her, but he was arrested and put in a concentration camp. He never saw his wife or his home again for all the 35 years in between.
The pastor asked him if he would allow him to take him for a little ride. They drove to Staten Island and to the same house where the pastor had taken the woman three days earlier. He helped the man climb the three flights of stairs to the woman’s apartment, knocked on the door and he saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could ever imagine.
Well, that is the story now for the question. Since, at the end of my turn at the Unicorn, a gentleman came up and asked – was that story true?
Now, strangely, I had been pondering that exact point on my way into the docks.
So, what is the answer?
Well, first, I think there is too much detail, such as the embroidered initials, that an author of fiction would not bother to make up.
Also, probability comes into it. For, in the years after the Second World War, New York must have the preferred destination for thousands of displaced persons as refugees used to be called.
But, ultimately, this bittersweet story only has meaning if it is true.
And that is also spot-on for the Nativity story.
Since if you wanted to make it up, the vagabond shepherds would not be your first choice of witnesses. The census too, coupled with the manger, seem details that wouldn’t advance a storyteller’s agenda of God’s planetary touchdown. Since let’s be honest, a stable is a highly improbably place for the divine landing-strip.
But most telling is our experience of its veracity.
For Jesus was not born in penury. His birth came amongst the trials and tribulations of ordinary people caught up in the bureaucratic machinery of life. Now, that’s an experience we can all relate to.
His coming into the world brought a sprinkling of magic into the drudgery of the shepherds. It brought joy to a young woman caught in the mean-spiritedness of those with small minds. He gave affirmation to a man not sure he was doing the right thing by getting involved in a socially comprising bind. Once again, on our Christian journey, we too can affirm Jesus is closest when things are getting us down.
Above all, the arrival of God in the flesh triggered the supernatural in the appearance of angels and magi. And who here has not had the most amazing coincidences happen in their lives. Those moments of salvation that we could even call–God-incidences.
On Tuesday, I asked the audience if they believed in Santa?
There was a ragged response. I then said I’ll ask again but with the warning that if you don’t believe there be no Christmas presents. That brought a resounding cry of yes.
So too with the narrative of Christ’s birth.
Since if we cannot see the truths in it, we are doomed. For that will chain us to mediocrity. It will enslave us to exist without the slightest sliver of magic. But, more importantly, if we close out the supernatural, we rule out inexplicable possibilities.
Therefore, let us be reunited with a childlike belief in this story.
Let us look for its flash of hope in our night skies.
Let even our most difficult and depressing moments be ripped asunder with its unembroidered promise.
The undeniable initials that God is with us.