“Faith is different from theology because theology is reasoned, systematic, and orderly, whereas faith is disorderly, intermittent, and full of surprises,” wrote the writer and Presbyterian minister, Frederick Buechner (“Faith and Fiction”). Put another way, faith involves long periods of trudging forward, punctuated by coincidences and the unexpected — and these sometimes build upon one another.
On one of my last Sundays in England before returning to the USA, I attended the early Holy Communion service at Ely Cathedral. That day, the vine from John 15 was the Gospel reading from which the Dean preached. But the passage itself reminded me of a chain of surprises, coincidences, and the unexpected that began three decades ago.
Back then I was Executive Director of the newly-established SPCK/USA and had spent the weekend in the Washington, D.C., area. My Monday engagement was at Virginia Theological Seminary, and, while driving back to where I was staying late that afternoon, I turned on the car radio to catch NPR news. It was then I learned of Wall Street’s meltdown, wiping out 22% off the market’s value. It was Black Monday 1987.
The following evening I sat slumped in misery, waiting on a Delta flight through Atlanta to my home in Tennessee, thankful the seats beside me were unoccupied. The pessimist in me was convinced another Great Depression was coming, and I knew a fledgling, undercapitalized organization would have little hope of survival, so I was terrified for us and my then young family. The flight was ready to depart when a group of shabbily-dressed people boarded and filled the vacant seats; the two beside me were taken by a pair of women who chatted in a tongue I did not recognize.
In those days food was served, so no sooner were we airborne than little trays of airline food appeared. As they were placed in front of us, the woman beside me turned and asked in accented English, “Vhat is this?”
My reply was monosyllabic. “Lasagne.”
“Italian,” she replied.
“Sort of,” was how I responded, hoping I had nipped the conversation in the bud, but she wanted to talk.
This was when Gorbachev and Glasnost were all the rage, and my companion was part of a friendship group from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia to US Georgia. She was an English professor, and her husband and small son were at home in Tbilisi. She was one of the Soviet Union’s experts on Tennessee Williams, so I just kept feeding her questions.
Every so often a bearded man wandered by. “KGB,” she muttered.
As we approached Atlanta she suddenly asked, “And vhat do you do?”
I seldom wear my collar when traveling so I mumbled, “I’m a priest.”
“Oh,” she clasped her hands, “My prayers are answered.”
Mr. KGB ambled by, then she told me of a dream she had had. She was sitting in the front passenger seat of a car at a railroad crossing. The sun, low on the horizon before them, along with the upright and crosspiece of the barrier, took the form of the Cross, shining silver against a red sky. As she watched, a vine sprouted from the ground, wrapping itself around the Cross.
“Can you help me?” she asked sheepishly.
Perhaps this qualified as a God-given surprise. As the plane touched down I was still stammering out my inadequate answer, drawing on Old Testament imagery of the vineyard, and John’s narrative about Jesus and the Vine. I so wished I had had more warning. She was desperate to know how it applied to her and her life. All I could suggest was that she might listen to God who, perhaps, had something to tell her. Having read too many espionage novels, the reputation of the KGB had spooked me, so I never asked her name to keep in touch. After the Soviet Union’s collapse I made inquiries at the Georgian Embassy in D.C., but they had no record of the visit.
In the early 1990s, I began a number of years of involvement with the Russian church. October 1993 found me as part of an official Episcopal visit to the Moscow Patriarchate, and one chill afternoon we were taken to see an art exhibit. The gallery had already closed when we got there, but vendors had set up little booths to sell their paintings and craft work in the entrance.
This was when I spotted a lovely leather necklace embossed with a silver cross on a red background. Wrapped around the upright was a lush green vine. I had to have it. While she completed the transaction, the young female trader asked why I was so eager to have the necklace. Despite my companions’ protests, including that of two diocesan bishops, I told her how I met the professor and about the professor’s dream. She gasped, “My husband made this …. He is from Georgia, he went to university. I come to Moscow to sell what he makes.”
My wife claimed the necklace when I got home. It has become very precious to both of us.
Fast forward to around 1998-1999 and a consultation at Camp St. Christopher in South Carolina. One evening a choir of Gullah women from a local Baptist congregation entertained us with their traditional spirituals. Finishing their selection, they asked this small international group to sing or tell stories. I talked about the Georgian professor, the dream, the vine, and the necklace. I concluded by saying:
There are great mysteries about our dealings with God, and the way God encounters us. I wish I knew what had happened to the Georgian professor and the man who made the necklace. Did they know each other? Was this part of something God was doing in their country? Does this coincidence have deeper meaning?
In the social time following, a wise and elderly Gullah woman sought me out. She looked me straight in the eye, put a hand on my shoulder, then said, “Pastor, you’re missing the point.” Then poking me in the chest with a long dark index finger she said, “Shouldn’t you be asking what this all means to you?”
The little land of Georgia sits uncomfortably beside the increasingly bad-tempered Russian bear, and a long time ago I had a conversation with a woman who lives there that may have impacted each of our lives in different, unknown ways. I suspect she is retired now. Then there is the couple who made and sold the necklace, perhaps awakening to Christ as the Soviet empire dissolved and the churches awakened from a seventy-year exile. To me, all this is more than coincidence, and each time the next chapter of the story has opened up at a crossroads or turning point in my life. Which brings me back to Buechner:
Faith is less a position on than a movement toward, less a sure thing than a hunch. Faith is waiting. Faith is journeying through space and through time.
In this he is paraphrasing the writer to the Hebrews about “faith being the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
The featured image is “Cross Vine” (2003) by Susan Adams. It is licensed under Creative Commons.