A tale of two hats

A tale of two hats February 17, 2014

By  Mark Greene, Executive Director of LICC

God’s faithfulness connects two women across the centuries.

It happened on the 18th day of October in the Year of our Lord 2012 in the London borough of Islington – a glimpse of God’s hand working across the centuries. But we’ll come to that.

We don’t always get to see the ways in which God honors our prayers or how something we did, oh, so many years ago, is now bearing fruit in extraordinary ways… When the wealthy, childless Shunammite offers the itinerant Elishah a room, does she have any thought that her generosity will lead to her having a son who will die young and be raised from the dead? (2 Kings 4:8ff) Similarly, only very rarely do any of us get to see the role we might be playing in God’s long term plans. Does Rahab have any inkling that hiding two Israelite spies on the roof of her brothel will lead to her becoming the progenitor of the Messiah? (Joshua 2) Of course, we, with the benefit of hindsight, can see it, can see what God can do with a seed, or a word, can see too that God keeps his promises.

It happened about the same time as I found myself reflecting on Psalm 105. The writer is living in the land God had promised and provided, a member of a nation that may not yet be as numerous as the sand on the seashore but already numbers well over a million. And he rehearses the history of his people that he calls “the descendants of Abraham”. Indeed, one of the main themes in the psalm is the reminder of how the story began small, with one man, and then how they were but few in number, how a lone foreign slave becomes master of Egypt and how the few turn into the many, the nomads into landowners because the Lord “remembered his holy promise to his servant Abraham.” God working over the centuries to fulfil his promises.

But, we may wonder, does God still work like that today?

In the Year of our Lord 1561, a London girl called Alice Wilkes is walking in a field in Islington, wearing a hat, as girls would have done at that time. She stops to watch some cows being milked. Over in another field some men are practicing archery. One of them clearly needs the practice because a stray arrow ends up lodged in Alice Wilkes’ hat. She is an inch or two from death.

In gratitude for sparing her life, Alice Wilkes makes a vow to the Lord. If one day she has wealth, she will do something for the poor. So she marries. And her husband dies. And she marries again. And her second husband dies. This is perhaps a dangerous woman to marry. Undeterred, Judge Thomas Owen becomes her third husband. And in the course of time he dies.

By this point Dame Alice Owen has acquired quite a lot of money and she decides to fulfil the vow she made when she was young Alice Wilkes. And so she endows a school for 30 scholars and creates alms houses for poor widows, women who were not so fortunate as she was to marryrich men. And when Alice dies it is all put in trust with the Worshipful Company of Brewers. Over four hundred years later, the school she founded in Islington still educates children, on a site in Potter’s Bar, and the land she gave has, for over 400 hundred years, been used to generate income to bless the poor.

And so in the Year of our Lord 2010, the Worshipful Company of Brewers decide to assign a building project to Thornsett Group, a smallish development company in London. Their assignment is to develop some mixed residential and commercial property, offering roughly half social housing and half private housing on the land that Alice Wilkes once walked across.

And so it was that on Thursday October 18th 2012 I find myself in Islington going to meet the project developer who had been on one of our courses, walking on the land where the cows once grazed, and good Englishmen practised their archery. And the project director is called Bernadette Cunningham. She just happens to be a Christian who comes from a family devoted to building good buildings so that people might flourish.

When I meet her she just happens to be wearing a hat, although it’s a much harder hat than the decorative tissue that Alice Wilkes would have worn. Perhaps Bernadette was mindful of the fate of her predecessor and concerned about archers in Islington High Street or perhaps she was just following health and safety guidelines.

And as I look at Bernadette in her hat working to bless the poor of Islington, I realize that God is still honoring the vow that Alice Wilkes made over four hundred years before, still working through his people to bless others.

And I got to see it.

We don’t always get to see how God may be working in us or in others, how a word here or an action there might produce fruit for years to come. We don’t always get to see how we are participating in the purpose of God or how we might be the answers to other peoples’ prayers. We don’t get to see all the ways God might work through us.

The kingdom of heaven is like what? The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and planted in his field and, though it is a small thing –a vow in a field 400 years ago, a little action today,a kindness, a decision, a word, a gift, whatever it might be – though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and perch in its branches.

All our small things now, over time, who knows…who knows…God is at work. And God has been at work in his people, in his church, in this land. And, no doubt, in you, in a myriad ways. We may not get to see the outcome in our lifetimes, but God is at work.

And so may the Lord be with you, whatever hat you wear.

From the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, EG Magazine, June 2013. Images: LICC.


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