How God uses coincidence, again.
“Coincidence,” mused Albert Einstein, “is God's way of remaining anonymous.” In which case, for me yesterday the Lord showed his hand twice. The first coincidence was in the ‘being in the right place at precisely the right time’ category. I had just arrived at the Burscough waste recycling centre at the very same time as John (who gets this blog); he had come to deposit a large and heavy metal storage frame. Clearly he couldn’t manage it by himself and so he had taken the precaution of requisitioning his long-suffering wife. To their mutual relief I was able to offer to help John carry the structure up the steps to the skip. As coincidences go, very much so. Had I arrived just a few minutes earlier or later our paths would not have crossed. Furthermore it was only my second visit to the centre in as many years. But what to make of it? Maybe just one of those things or simply God being kind to John’s wife. The second coincidence is at the other end of the spectrum to council tips and involves a working knowledge of New Testament Greek. Nowadays I use my Greek New Testament as well as the NRSV for my daily Bible reading, currently Mark 13 where Jesus prophesises the destruction of the Jerusalem temple and the close of the age. He concludes ‘What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!”’ (Mark 13:37). Mark uses an interesting word for Watch: γρηγορεῖτε. In fact, he uses the same word several times, especially for the doorkeeper that he must keep watch. In Roman script, grēgorē, very similar I noticed to the boy’s name Gregory. For some reason I decided to check this out and yes, Gregory is derived from this Greek word meaning alert or watchful. Not that I know many Gregory’s - I can only think of three. Just an hour or so later I walked into Costa and met Gregory, sitting by himself catching up with some paper work. I only know Greg because I conducted his wedding service about 15 years ago and I occasionally bump into him. Nothing more. However, an opportunity to give a simple witness. I explained how I came to look up his name only that morning and that Jesus calls him to stay alert, keep watch, a name entirely suited to his occupation. He was working and so just a short conversation, maybe a seed planted. Here another kind of coincidence, an opportunity to be seized. So how do coincidences fit in to the Christian life? It was the great Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, who famously observed: “When I pray, coincidences happen, and when I don't, they don't.” Over the years I have experienced quite a few, nearly all either an opportunity to be seized or affirming a decision. I would be wary, however, of changing a decision simply on the basis of a coincidence. There is always the danger of relying on remarkable events rather than simply thinking things through - having asked for the Holy Spirit’s help. By their very nature coincidences happen all the time while some coincidences may not be as remarkable as they would first appear. Witness the so-called birthday paradox in probability theory: that is, in a group of 23 people, the probability of a shared birthday exceeds 50%, more likely than not. That being said, God does use coincidence – especially in sharing the Gospel where normal communications are inhibited or where there is a narrow but significant window of opportunity. You may remember how in the New Testament the Holy Spirit directs Philip to the single chariot along the desert road towards Gaza. Incredibly he arrives just as the passenger, the Ethiopian chancellor, is reading the suffering servant passage from the prophecy of Isaiah. (Acts 7:32f). Philip needs to react fast. He does. One of the most truly amazing coincidences was recounted recently in the Times, in the obituary of the remarkable Michael Bourdeaux, “the cold war theologian who helped persecuted Christians in the Soviet Union.” I remember him telling this foundational story. Here I paste: “In 1964, a young Russian-speaking Anglican priest, Michael Bourdeaux, was visiting Moscow when he heard that the Soviet authorities had just demolished a church. He went to investigate and noticed two women peering through a fence at a pile of rubble with a few bent crosses on top. He approached them and revealed that he was a foreigner wanting to find out what had happened. “We need you,” replied one of the women and asked him to follow them discreetly by tram and bus to a wooden house on the outskirts of the city. Safely behind closed doors, Bourdeaux explained that his visit had been prompted partly by reading letters smuggled out of the Soviet Union describing brutal attempts to intimidate monks and their congregation at a monastery in Ukraine. “Their faces turned white,” he recalled. “There was a stunned silence, then a cry, muffled in tears: ‘We wrote those documents.’ ”
“What can I do for you?” he asked. “Be our voice and speak for us,” was their reply. Thus began a remarkable ministry. Bourdeaux recalls: “I simply had to speak as a medium for the voice which I had heard so decisively.” Next time you meet a coincidence, dare to be a Gregory!