For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9. K.J.V.)
O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! how unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! (Romans 11:33, K.J.V.)
In early October of 1948, a young minister was called to pastor what could have been described as an “old” church. The church building had once been a magnificent structure in a wealthy part of the town, but by the time the young pastor began his ministry there the building was in bad shape and much of the wealth had moved to another part of town. Nevertheless, with unusual enthusiasm, he and his wife began the work of painting and repairing the building in an effort to restore it to some of its former glory. Their goal was to have everything ready for the night of the upcoming Christmas Eve candlelight service.
Just one day before Christmas Eve, however, a storm dumped a lot of rain on the area. The rain was more than the church’s old roof could take, and a leak sprung just behind the church’s altar. The water ran down onto a wall, and the wall’s plaster, after soaking up as much as it could, began to crumble. The end result was a gaping hole in the wall.
As could be expected, the pastor and his wife were very despondent over this setback. They couldn’t get the wall fixed before the Christmas Eve service, and it seemed to them that almost three months of hard work had been wasted. To their credit, though, the young couple determined to accept the ruined wall as somehow being God’s will.
That afternoon the couple attended a benefit auction for the church’s youth group, and one of the items that was put up for bid was an old ivory-and-gold-colored lace tablecloth that was nearly fifteen feet long. When the pastor saw it, an idea came to his mind. He would buy that old but still beautiful tablecloth and hang it over the hole in the wall behind the altar. Fortunately for him, nobody else really wanted the tablecloth, and he was the high bidder at $6.50.
The next day Christmas Eve came, bringing with it snow and high wind. As the pastor unlocked the church doors to make the preparations for the candlelight service, he noticed a woman standing at the nearby bus stop. Since he knew the bus wouldn’t be there for at least half an hour, he invited her to come inside the church and stay warm.
She accepted the offer, and as they talked, she explained that she wasn’t from the neighborhood and was only in the area because she had interviewed for a job as governess to the children of a well-known wealthy family. But she hadn’t gotten the job because she was a war refugee and her English wasn’t very good. The woman would only be inside the church until her bus arrived, but she said that she’d like to pray while she was there. So, the pastor left her sitting on a pew near the back, with her head bowed in prayer, as he began hanging that tablecloth across that unsightly hole in that wall behind the church altar.
But when the woman looked up from her praying and saw the tablecloth, she immediately rushed up to the pastor and said, “It’s mine! It’s my banquet cloth.” Of course, the pastor was startled by her reaction and didn’t quite know whether to believe her or not. She convinced him, though, when she showed him her initials that were embroidered in one corner of the cloth. Then she told him the sad story of how she had lost the tablecloth. It was the kind of story that could only happen during intense times of war.
According to the woman, she and her husband had lived in Vienna, Austria, and had opposed the Nazis before the World War II. Eventually, the couple had decided to flee to Switzerland, but the husband had felt that it would be safest if they traveled separately. The woman had left first, with the plan being that her husband would soon join her. Tragically, though, he had never arrived. Later on, she had heard that he had died in a Nazi concentration camp.
The pastor was so touched by the woman’s story that he insisted that she take the tablecloth. The woman thought about the offer for a moment but politely declined. After all, she didn’t need the tablecloth anymore, and it did look beautiful hanging on the wall behind the altar. She then thanked the pastor for what had been an amazing experience, said good-bye, and left the church to catch her bus.
Later that night, as the pastor conducted the Christmas Eve service, he couldn’t help but think even more highly of the old tablecloth, and he noticed how beautiful it looked in the flickering light of the candlelight service. Consequently, he wasn’t surprised when, after the conclusion of the service, many of the attendees made a special point of complimenting him on how beautiful the church looked. One older gentleman in particular even stayed after the service just to spend some more time admiring the tablecloth.
When the gentleman finally did make his way back to the door, he said to the pastor, “It’s strange. Many years ago, my wife – God rest her – and I owned such a tablecloth. She only used it on very special occasions. But we lived in Vienna then.” When the pastor heard this, goose bumps rose up on his skin. He thought, “Could the woman I met this afternoon actually be this man’s long-lost wife?”
Trying his best to keep his excitement in check, the pastor told the man about the woman, and the old man, with tears streaming down his face, said, “Can it be that she is alive? How can I find her?” Fortunately, the pastor remembered the name of the family who had interviewed the woman for the job, and with the trembling old man standing beside him, the pastor telephoned the family and got the woman’s name and address.
The address was on the other side of town, but the pastor and the old man certainly didn’t mind making the trip. They climbed into the pastor’s car, drove to the address, and knocked on the apartment door. The woman opened the door, and right then and there that pastor was privileged to witness the tearful, joyful reunion of a wife who thought her husband was dead and a husband who thought his wife was dead. It had been more than ten years since the couple had seen each other, but now they were together again on Christmas Eve, 1948. Yes, God does indeed work in mysterious ways.