A young minister had been called to serve at an old church that at one time had been a magnificent edifice in a wealthy part of town. Now the area was in a state of decline and the church was in bad shape. Nevertheless, the pastor and his wife were thrilled with the church and believed they could restore it to its former magnificence.
When the minister took charge of the church early in October 1948, he and his wife immediately went to work painting, repairing and attempting to restore it. Their goal was to have the old edifice looking its best for Christmas Eve services.
Just two days before Christmas, however, a storm swept through the area, dumping more than an inch of rain. The roof of the old church sprung a leak just behind the altar. The plaster soaked up the water as if it were a sponge and then crumbled, leaving a gaping hole in the wall.
Dejected, the pastor and his wife looked at the defaced wall. There was obviously no chance to repair the damage before Christmas. Nearly three months of hard work had been washed way. Yet the young couple accepted the damage as God’s will and set about cleaning up the damp debris.
It was a depressed minister and his wife who attended a benefit auction for the church youth group that afternoon. One of the items put of for bid was an old gold-and-ivory-colored lace tablecloth, nearly fifteen feet long.
Seized with an inspiration, the pastor was the high bidder at $6.50. His idea was to hang the orange cloth behind the altar to cover the ragged hole in the wall.
On the day before Christmas, snowflakes mingled with the howling wind. As the pastor unlocked the church doors, he noticed an older woman standing at the nearby bus stop. He knew the bus wouldn’t be there for at least half an hour, so he invited her inside to keep warm.
She wasn’t from the neighborhood, she explained. She had been in the area to be interviewed for a job as a governess to the children of a well-known wealthy family. She had been a war refugee, her English was poor and she didn’t get the job.
Head bowed in prayer, she sat in the pew near the back of the church. She paid no attention to the pastor, who was hanging the tablecloth across the unsightly hole. When the woman looked up and saw the cloth she rushed to the altar.
“It’s mine!” she exclaimed. “It’s my banquet cloth!”
Excitedly she told the surprised minister its history and even showed him her initials embroidered in one corner.
She and her husband had lived in Vienna, Austria, and had opposed the Nazis before the Second World War. They decided to flee to Switzerland, but her husband said they must go separately. She left first. Later she heard that he had died in a concentration camp.
Touched by her story, the minister insisted that she take the cloth. She thought about it for a moment but said no, she didn’t need it any longer, and it did look pretty hanging behind the altar. Then she said good-bye and left.
In the candlelight of the Christmas Eve services, the tablecloth looked even more magnificent. The white lace seemed dazzling in the flickering light of the candles, and the golden threads woven through it were like the brilliant rays of a new dawn.
As members of the congregation left the church, they complimented the pastor on the services and on how beautiful the church looked.
One older gentlemen lingered, admiring the tablecloth, and as he was leaving he said to the minister:
“It’s strange. Many years ago my wife -- God rest her -- and I owned such a tablecloth. She used it only on very special occasions. But we lived in Vienna then.”
The night air was freezing, but the goosebumps on the pastor’s skin weren’t caused by the weather. As calmly as he could, he told the man about the woman who had been to the church that very afternoon.
“Can it be,” gasped the old man, tears streaming down his cheeks,” that she is alive? How can I find her?”
The pastor remembered the name of the family who had interviewed the woman. With the trembling old man at his side, he telephoned the family and learned her name and address.
In the pastor’s old car they drove to her home on the other side of town. Together they knocked on her apartment door. When she opened it, the pastor witnessed the tearful, joyful and thrilling reunion of husband and wife.
Some people would call it an extremely lucky chance happening, the result of a hole in the church wall, an old tablecloth, a pastor’s ingenuity in solving a problem and so on. But the combination of events was far too complex for it to have been merely “coincidence.”
If one link in the fragile chain of events had been broken, the husband and wife might never have found each other. If the rain hadn’t come, if the church roof hadn’t leaked, if the pastor had decided not to go to the auction, if the woman hadn’t been looking for a job or standing on that corner at just the right time…the list of ifs is virtually endless.
It was simply God’s will. And, as it has been said many times, He works in mysterious ways.