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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

What the point of coincidence?

Since starting on page one in July, last night I finally reached page 864 - the end of Donna Tartt’s bestselling novel, the Goldfinch. At last. I kept going because of its reputation: last years’ Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014. And even more impressive: Amazon’s Best Book of the Year for 2013. And of course, rave reviews. But if the truth be known, I think I would have chosen the Reader’s Digest edition – except that RD disappeared some years ago. Pity – it would have freed up about 12 hours of my life. One reviewer did describe “The Goldfinch” as a sprawling bildungsroman. Now I have no idea what a bildungsroman is but it sounds about right. All I know is no more bildungsromans for the time being.

(Bildungsroman - that’s a new word to add to my spell checker, the same spell checker which – as some of you noted - let me down so badly last Friday in my haste to send out my blog before the school harvest service). The novel pivots around a set of coincidences concerning a 17thcentury Dutch painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch. In actual fact the painting has been quietly hanging in the Mauritshuis in The Hague for over a century, but hey, this is a novel and Ms Tartt can create any universe she chooses. However, in her world coincidence is significant. And on page 850 God gets an unexpected mention by Hobie: “Who was it that said that coincidence was just God’s way of remaining anonymous?” Well, Hobie, I’ve just googled the quote for you – and the answer is Albert Einstein. Sounds like him. We are all fascinated by coincidences and as Albert suggested coincidences often suggest God at work. Having said that, coincidences are inevitable given the number of events we all experience each day. The simple laws of probability would suggest that unlikely coincides are bound to happen – but not very often. I well remember when my good friend Ken doing his best to explain the birthday problem to me. That the probability of two persons having the same birthday is more than 50% in a group of only 23 persons. Intuitively you would expect far more. But looking back over my Christian life I can see coincidences having a particular significance, two or more events happening together for no obvious reason. Way back in 1992 we set out for our holiday in the Dordogne, having had a set of interviews for the vicar of Christ Church Aughton at the home of David Dennison in Prescot Road. There seemed every reason to say “Yes” but I was waiting for that spark, that recognition that this was where God wanted us to go. We drove straight from the ferry at Cherbourg all the way to our campsite in Sarlat, all 458 miles in one day. As we fell out of the car I went to say hello to the man sitting in the neighbouring emplacement. “Whereabouts are you from?” When he said Glasgow, I commented that that’s even further than Rochdale. “No problem,” he answered. “We broke our journey.” “Anywhere special?” I asked. “A place called Ormskirk.” I didn’t react but simply asked: “Where in Ormskirk?” “Prescot Road, Aughton.” What was the probability of Prescot Road, Aughton cropping up in the first three minutes of our arrival at Le Moulin du Roch? I’m not saying that we decided to come to Aughton on the basis of this surprising coincidence – but it played a part. We need to realises that surprisingly coincidences do not play a large part in the Bible narrative. They happen, of course but they are not definitive.

Just two weeks ago, for example, we heard how Philip the Evangelist found himself just at the right place and at the right time to meet up with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. But he is guided there by the Holy Spirit for this strategic encounter. You don’t get the sense that this a random event. In other words we need to be careful about what appears to be coincidence. They need context and above all the gift of discernment which the Holy Spirit freely gives. We are to be guided by God not by events – although God can always use events to affirm his guidance. However, there is one coincidence in scripture which says it all – two events which have no causal connection at all, at least from our perspective. With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:37-39)

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