Human beings often feel like they are going it alone, but that does not explain those strange coincidences of life, the moments where you might wonder if someone behind a hidden curtain is messing with you.
I remember arriving early morning to Zurich, Switzerland, without having properly slept. I got out of the train station which was surrounded by a beautiful green park area, and saw a gazebo in the distance with people crowded around it. I though, “oh, this must be some kind of craft show or a country market. I am going to take a look, but not before I get some proper sleep.” So I put my head on my backpack, lay down on a bench, and had a nap with people milling all around me.
When I woke up I found that the ‘market’ was a needle exchange. This was Platzspitz park, better know as ‘Needle Park’ and it was a flagship effort from the Swiss government to stem the spread of aids and hepatitis from dirty needles. Courtesy of the government, the hopelessly addicted gathered there to shoot themselves full of drugs. Those milling around me were heroin addicts, hopped up on dope. Yep, that was me, sleeping like a baby in the middle of a big outdoor crack house, undisturbed. The Swiss government closed down Needle Park two years after I was there. Too many knifings, muggings and murders, which makes me think now, how differently that could have turned out. That flash of life in the balance, I call it a glimpse.
Let me show you another glimpse. My wife and I had cashed out all our savings and moved into a new home. Moving expenses, paint, new doors, sandpaper, lawyers, money going out the door at all quarters. If you’ve bought a home you know what I’m talking about.
I wanted to have something for my kids, some celebration of this new big back yard, a safe place for play and leisure. Broke dad. I counted my pennies and went down to Rona to pick up some wood. I was going to make some kind of play structure based on getting the most out of the least. I paid and went around to the pickup to retrieve my meagre pile of lumber. While I was waiting in the pick-up line, a guy walked up from the parking lot on the side and said through the chain-link fence, “Hey buddy, do you want some wood? I am liquidating a waterbed company next door and it’s either somebody gets it for free or it goes in the trash.” I drove around and loaded up the roof racks with as much lumber as that wagon could carry. All I could think, with a shiver in my spine, “why me, right there, right then, with that guy in that circumstance?” I went home and built my kids the most deluxe two-story playhouse that providence could provide.
These odd moments of life seem to be telling us something. Saint Augustine of Hippo had a similar experience. He was not always a saint. In fact, Augustine was a partier. He had a dad with deep pockets, and a fine education under the best philosophical traditions of the day. He was born to privilege and if he just kept right on going, he was guaranteed the corner office and a ride for life on the gravy train.
Saint Augustine had heard about a strange new movement called Christianity. One day he was sitting in a park, conflicted, staring at a copy of the Gospels. He was about to stand up and walk away. There was a garden on the other side of the stone wall, and suddenly a child’s voice rose up over the divide. The demand startled him. “Tolle lege!” – “Pick it up and read it!” Saint Augustine was shaken. He heard the voice again from over the fence, no doubt some child calling out to another in play, Coincidence? Augustine didn’t think so. He took up the Gospels and his life was changed forever. He went on to become one of the seminal figures of the early Church. Because of his experience he understood that faith is enabled by the grace – we are given some help along the way.
These funny coincidences are sometimes called the small graces – if you are like me, once you start to chock up a few of them, they become a roadmap waiting for us to connect the dots. They remind us that we are loved in veiled and secret ways by a God who is watching. They remind us that what we do should matter.
The small graces also show us that seeing in part is ok. When faith comes, it’s never because of the evidence. Rather it is in spite of what we cannot yet see. It’s like driving a car into the darkness where you only ever get to see as far as the headlights. There is always some kind of tension in faith that moves us forward yet is never fully resolved.
You don’t know what is going to happen next and neither do I. But I am going to let you in on a secret, that we are surrounded. Chance? I don’t think so. The real question is how we will respond.