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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Just a Coincidence?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, December 16, 2001

 

Reading- “The Tablecloth” (author unknown)

The brand new pastor and his wife, newly assigned to their first ministry, to reopen a church in urban Brooklyn, arrived in early October excited about their opportunities. When they saw their church, it was very run down and needed much 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, etc. and on Dec. 18 were ahead of schedule and just about finished. On Dec. 19 a terrible tempest - a driving 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 about 6 feet by 8 feet to fall off the front wall of the sanctuary just behind the pulpit, beginning about head high.

The pastor cleaned up the mess on the floor, and not knowing what else to do but postpone the Christmas Eve service, headed home. On the way he noticed that a local business was having a flea market type sale for charity so he stopped in. One of the items was a beautiful, hand-made, ivory-colored, crochet tablecloth with exquisite work, fine colors and a cross embroidered right in the center. It was just the right size to cover up the hole in the front wall. He bought it and headed back to the church.

By this time it had started to snow. An older woman running from the opposite direction was trying to catch the bus. She missed it. The pastor 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 the pastor while he got a ladder, hangers etc. 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. The he noticed the woman walking down the center aisle. Her face was like a sheet. “Pastor”, she asked, “Where did you get that tablecloth?” The pastor explained. The woman asked him to check the lower right corner to see if the initials, EBG were crochet into it there. They were. These were the initials of the woman, and she had made this tablecloth 35 years before.... in Austria.

The woman could hardly believe it as the pastor told her how he had just gotten the tablecloth. The woman explained that before the war, she and her husband were well-to-do people in Austria. When the Nazis came, she was forced to leave. Her husband was going to follow her the next week. She was captured, sent to prison and never saw her husband or her home again.

The pastor wanted to give her the tablecloth, but she made the pastor keep it for the church. The pastor 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 housecleaning 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 pastor and his wife greeted everyone at the door and many said that they would return. One older man, whom the pastor recognized from the neighborhood, continued to sit in one of the pews and stare, and the pastor wondered why he wasn't leaving. The man asked him where he got the tablecloth on the front wall because it was identical to the 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 pastor 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 saw the greatest Christmas reunion he could ever imagine.

The Sermon by Rev. Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz

Maybe it is the natural cynic inside of me, but as is my practice when I come across an event that strains credulity—something that seems too good to be true—or too absurd to be true—to just too amazing to be believed—when something doesn’t quite fit into m “normal” day in/ day out thought patterns—I check it out on the web. I go to one of the websites that exist, solely, for debunking “urban legends”, modern myths, unsubstantiated rumors, those kinds of things.

So it was with some trepidation (because I really wanted this story to be true) that I checked out the story of the lovely ivory-colored tablecloth that we shared earlier and that some of you might have heard before, fully expecting that something this miraculous couldn’t possibly be true. I found it listed on the “Scopes” website, one of the best for this sort of thing, usually ruthless in debunking urban legends and sending them packing. I honestly thought that was what they were going to do with this wonderful story, too.

You know what? The tablecloth story was there all right—and the editors of the website had a few questions about when it happened, and where, and certain other details. But the bottom line was: they didn’t debunk it! They didn’t endorse it, either, and say—yes, this is 100% verifiable—but instead said: “We can neither verify nor refute this particular story. It is, truly, a question of faith.”

Well, that was good enough for me!

Life is full of delicious coincidences in the same league the one about the ivory lace tablecloth:

On December 5, 1664 a ship sank in the Menai Strait off the coast of North Wales. Of its 81 passengers only one survived; his name was Hugh Williams. On December 5, 1785 a ship carrying 60 people sank in the same waters; its sole survivor was named Hugh Williams. And, on December 5, 1860 a ship with 25 passengers sank in the same spot. Its one survivor? I think you see the pattern: his name was Hugh Williams.

If that coincidence doesn’t intrigue you, here are a couple of other:

  • About a hundred years ago or so, German woman lost her wedding ring, which upset her very much, of course. But in time, she put it out of her mind and had almost forgotten about it—until a day, about forty years later, when she was at home in her kitchen, making supper for her family, slicing potatoes—and there was the ring, embedded in one of the potatoes!

  • Or how about the case of Charlotte Muse and her co-workers who were annoyed one day by a housefly buzzing around their office? One of them slammed it with an open book, which they later discovered to be a dictionary. When they looked inside, they saw that the fly had been smashed right on the word "housefly."

  • Or, one more: A grandfather clock in Winnipeg, Canada stopped on the very same day that its owner died, at the age of 72. According to family tradition, the clock was supposed to be passed along to the family’s eldest son, but since this couple had no male heirs, the widow kept it. She tried to have it repaired; several clockmakers looked at it, but to no avail; no one could figure out what was wrong with it. Then one afternoon years later, she returned home from running errands and heard the clock ticking loudly. Somehow, it had just started working again. Right at that moment, the telephone rang: it was her son-in-law, with the happy news that her first grandson had been born 15 minutes earlier.

Just coincidences? Maybe. But they sound an awful lot like true-blue miracles to me. I supposed it all depends on how you look at it…

Of course, sometimes the coincides life deals us aren’t quite as fortunate. Here’s a story about a different young pastor. This one was from Illinois who left the snowy streets of Chicago to go on vacation in Florida. His wife was on a business trip and was planning to meet him there he next day. When he got to his hotel, he decided to send his wife a quick e-mail to confirm everything, but he couldn’t find the little scrap of paper on which he’d written her e-mail address. He did his best to type it in from memory. Unfortunately, he missed one letter and his note was directed instead to an elderly preacher’s wife, whose husband had passed away only the day before. When the grieving widow checked her e-mail, she took one look at the monitor, let out a piercing scream, and fell to the floor in a dead faint. When they heard the noise, her family rushed into the room and saw this note on the screen: "Dearest Wife, Just got checked in. Everything prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Your Loving Husband.” Then he added: “P.S. Sure is hot down here."

(That story isn’t true, by the way. Nevertheless, life is a pretty amazing thing sometimes…

In Herb Gardner’s play A Thousand Clowns, the main character tries to teach his young nephew something about the wonder and surprise of life. He tells him:

“Every day is like going to the circus. You remember how a little car always drives into the middle of the ring and it looks so tiny, and then all of a sudden, all of the sides open up and out pop a thousand clowns? You never dreamed that all those people could be in such a vehicle, but somehow they were.

“That’s the shape of life, my boy. There is always so much more to any event than we humans can see on the surface. Do not ever assume that you know everything about anything. Every day is a little car filled with a thousands clowns—learn to be humble, and a friend of mystery, and who knows how you will be surprised?”

It is these amazing coincidences—this synchronicity—that reminds us, as Hamelt says, that “There is more to life, dear Horatio, than is written in your philosophy.” The existence of synchronicity is like the Spirit popping its head up from time to time, and declaring” “Here I am! Over here! Catch me if you can.” An openness to life’s synchronicity helps us to catch the Spirit when we can. 

The great psychologist Carl Jung defined “synchronicity” as a “meaningful coincidence”; it is a “deeper” coincidence which, somehow, helps us to understand ourselves and our lives more clearly. Jung first became intensely interested in synchronicity when he was treating a woman at his practice in Vienna.

Jung thought that the woman was so locked inside her head, so caught up in rationally explaining away everything about her life, that she was not able to reach that deeper level of understanding that makes therapy effective. She had logical answers and explanations for everything and so, she couldn’t grow anywhere.

Jung was running out of ideas on how to treat her; in his own words, he wanted to find some way to "sweeten" her rationalism, to get inside the intellectual walls she had built around herself, and open her up to change.

One afternoon, Jung was seated across from the woman in his office, and she was telling him about a dream she had had the night before. In the dream, she had been given a valuable piece of jewelry, a golden scarab, a golden beetle. Now, in ancient Egyptian symbolism, the scarab represents transformation or metamorphosis, and Jung knew this, and so he grew even more intrigued. As he listened to the woman, he heard something tap—tap-- tapping against the window behind him, as though it was trying to get his attention, and come into the room. Jung got up; he opened the window; he then caught a large insect as it flew in. When he saw what it was, he was amazed: it was a scarab beetle, mostly gold in color. "Here is your scarab," he told the woman as he handed her the insect. The woman, of course, was astonished; she finally understood that not everything in life can be rationally explained away. Her resistance to inner change was broken by the incident, and, according to Jung, she made great progress in therapy after the golden beetle came into her life.

Of course, most of us in the course of our lives probably won’t experience an incident as dramatic as that woman in Jung’s office. Or as the pastor with the tablecloth. Or the woman with the wedding ring in the potato.

But we all, I would daresay, have experienced moments of synchronicity—times when things came together in (seemingly) coincidental, yet somehow meaningful ways. We recall the name of someone we haven’t thought of for years, and that very day, perhaps, they reappear in our lives., or we read about them in the newspaper; or a mutual acquaintance will happen to say something like: “I was wondering, whatever happened to So-and-So,” or, “You’ll never guess who I saw the other day…”

We think about how we haven’t seen Judy in a while, and then, we turn the corner at Stop and Shop (or Shaw’s)—and there she is—and we stop, and converse for a few minutes.

We hold the door for someone at the library, and they thank us, and we go our own separate ways. Until, several hours later, they reappear in our lives to hold the door for us at the post office. (That one happened to me the other day.)

Interesting coincidences, sure. But maybe they’re something more. I don’t know about you, but if more than two people mention the same book, or the same writer, to me in the course of a short time period, I think that’s a signal that someone’s trying to tell me something. If we see the same person, over and over in the course of a day, maybe that’s a signal that one of us has a message for the other, and maybe we should stop for a few minutes and exchange data. If someone reappears in our life from days gone-by, maybe there’s a lesson from our past we need to reclaim. 

I’m not saying that every moment of our lives is preordained, predetermined, that we’re predestined to do the things we do, that all of our lives’ stories are written already, complete, and that there’s nothing we can do to change them, that we must passively act out the script already written for us. Not at all. 

But I am saying that life is seldom as linear and rational and straightforward as it seems, or as simply one-dimensional as it seems. And I am saying that life is much more interdependent than we realize, and that we are more intimately and intricately connected to one another than we know.

Thinking about physics usually gives me a headache. But there are some things in modern physics that fascinate me. One of these is Bell’s theorem. A scientist named Bell studied pairs of sub-atomic particles (the smallest bits of matter) in great detail, and he discovered some amazing things. One thing he discovered is that paired particles remain in relationship, even when they are separated over space and time. So, if you kept one particle here in your laboratory at MIT, and took the other and moved it, somehow, to the other side of the moon, if you spun one of them clockwise, the other would begin spinning counter-clockwise, just as if they were in the same laboratory. Bell’s theorem suggests that our reality is best understood on the basis of relationships, rather than on individuality. 

Writer Philip Cousineau says that if we really want to appreciate synchronicity, we need to think of it not as a linear matter, but as a field theory—another insight from modern science. The events of our lives are not a simple matter of one thing causing another, which leads to the next, which leads to the next. Reality is more like a field of influences and events, all operating on each other at the same times and often unpredictably. We are not just individual men and women who have influence, sometimes profound, on one another. We can think of ourselves, instead, as magnetic force fields, interacting with all other fields with which we come into contact. What an amazing human universe that kind of vision creates. And how profound and powerful then, at least potentially, are our connections with one another.

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences,” said Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. “All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” And it is not by sheer accident that we come into each other’s lives, either. “We live under the bombardment of synchronicity,” wrote Andrei Condrescu. Or, as another writer put it: “Synchronicity is the way life knocks two unrelated things together to make sparks.” It is that bombardment which makes us shake in wonder at just how amazing this life can be. It is those sparks of connection—and interconnection—which light up our lives, which illuminate our lives, and warm up our lives when the night would seem too cold otherwise. “There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.” There is more to heaven and earth than is dreamed of in our philosophy.

I think it all depends on how we choose to look this heaven and this Earth we inhabit. If we hurtle through time and space, racing to get from point “a” to point “b”, constantly tyrannized by all the things we have to complete on our chore list before we can feel justified in being alive, then we’ll probably miss out on many of the small, everyday miracles life offers to refresh our spirits and remind us of the Something More in which we live and move and have our being. But if we slow down enough—and listen with all our senses—and take care of these bodies of ours (which are, after all, the outermost layer of our souls)—then who knows what amazing things we may yet apprehend?

The ancient Hindus had an image of the world strikingly similar, I think, to our belief in the interdependent web of all existence. The world, they said, is like a huge net. At junctures in that net, holding the webbing together, are brilliant, beautiful gemstones. Each moment, any one stone will reflects all the other stones, and is itself reflected in the others as well. This, said the great mythologist Joseph Campbell, is what coincidence and synchronicity are about: The connections are always there, at certain especially brilliant moments, the connections shine through all the more brightly. As Susan Milnor has written: “We see [the connections], and know them, and trust them. For brief thrilling moments we realize the truth, that we are more deeply connected than we dare to imagine.”

Synchronicity reminds us to find the connection, to look out for them Synchronicity reminds us to stay alert—to open our eyes and ears—to open our hearts—to keep watch for the Spirit and the lessons we need to learn in this life.

May we learn to be humble, and a friend of the Mystery. Who knows, then, how we yet may be surprised?


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