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The old lady with the two umbrellas

October 2001 | by Derek Swann

The story concerned gold coins that were mysteriously being smuggled out of France into Spain. The French authorities knew exactly the point where the smuggling was taking place, but, despite extensive searches over many weeks, they could discover nothing.

Fair and foul

The gold continued to leak out from France to Spain. Everyone was baffled, and there was no clue, except the appearance of the old lady with the two umbrellas whenever gold was being smuggled.

They stopped and searched her. They even took her umbrellas apart. But they found nothing. Nevertheless, the authorities were convinced that she was in some way the key to the mystery.

Twice a week she appeared, and twice a week gold was smuggled. Sometimes she carried two different coloured umbrellas, and when asked why she replied: ‘one for fair weather and one for foul’. She became known as Madame Fair-Foul.

Solution

Eventually a sharp-eyed older official came up with the solution. He suggested to his superiors that instead of focusing on the old lady, they should look out for a man carrying a walking stick, who would be somewhere near her.

They arrested a man and, of course, his stick was hollow and contained gold coins. The old lady was a decoy. She was there, with all her eccentricities and coloured umbrellas, simply to distract.

The art of distraction is as old as the hills. Every magician’s act depends on it. While the audience is busy concentrating on his right hand, the left is about to do deceiving work.

It is all good fun. But, there is a more sinister aspect to the art of distraction, and Christians are not always as wide awake as they ought to be. Our attention is focused on something relatively minor while, without realising it, bigger, more serious issues slip through the net. The process is known as ‘majoring in the minors’.

Top of the agenda

The Lord condemned the scribes and Pharisees in the strongest possible language for this error. ‘Woe to you teachers of the law, and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former’ (Matthew 23:23).

Notice that the Lord did not condemn them for their tithing; quite the opposite, he commended them. He attacked them for their neglect of the big matters like justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Are we, as Christians, in danger of falling into the same kind of trap? It would be interesting to look back over the past twelve months at the kind of matters that have been at the top of the agenda of our local church meetings.

What sort of issues have been uppermost at the presbyteries and assemblies? I have no doubt that many necessary and valuable matters have been discussed. But were they mint, dill and cummin, or justice mercy and faithfulness?

Expectancy

The columns of our religious newspapers and magazines have been taken up recently with the merits and demerits of the new hymn book Praise!. It has all been legitimate and much of it helpful. But I would classify that as the mint, dill and cummin of the Evangelical world.

Have we given the same kind of thought and attention to weightier matters? Matters that concern not just time, but eternity?

Has there, for example, been a steady concern to see people saved? Has that been the burden of the weekly prayer meeting?

Has there been an air of expectancy that, under the preaching of the gospel, the lost would be found and brought home?

If none of these things are true, then has there been a restless concern over our indifference, coldness of heart and worldly spirit?

Again, has there been a zeal for overseas mission or a prayerful concern for those serving there? Has evangelism or revival been at the top of our agenda?

Eternal issues

I remember the editor of a weekly Christian newspaper telling me that, if a contributor made a critical comment about a hymn, he could guarantee a stream of irate letters keeping the correspondence column going for months.

It was, he said sadly, one of the few topics that would stir readers. Major eternal issues rarely did.

The old lady with the two umbrellas is still with us. Don’t let her distract you; keep your eyes open for the man with the walking stick. Go for what matters.