WAITING IN LINE at the dry cleaners this morning, I experienced what might be called certain mellowing thoughts relative to the diversity of people entering and leaving the laundry area with their bundles and baskets, juggling and jingling their dimes and quarters. Here were T-shirted youths seemingly wise in their mastery of soap and duds. I watched gaily dressed mothers ably managing both laundry and children, and oldsters – an assortment of agreeable folk, many whose aging bodies were draped in nothing one would ever see on a store mannequin.
As I am chiefly a solitary sort of person. I’m not necessarily interested in engaging any of these people in serious talk, offering instead a friendly smile sheltering my reticence to become further involved. Nevertheless, I recognize that this muddle of humanity is my neighbor. These are the ones whom Jesus commanded that I should love. Moreover, and serendipitously true, there just might be within this human muddle one person whom the gods of chance mean that I should know.
ACTUALLY, HAD I through the years kept track, I could cite more than several occasions when the gods of chance looked favorably upon me. While stationed at Forbes Air Force Base in Topeka, Kansas, in the early 1950s, I met a man – a stranger and soon my good friend – a member of the church where I chose to worship during the three-plus years at the base. I learned early that he was a denominational official of the larger church of which that parish was a part. Toward the end of my enlistment, I knew I needed to plan seriously for what was to follow my discharge. I had completed two years of college but needed at least two more to finish. Where should I go?
I WISHED to continue at a college in the West – as it would take me far from Iowa State College where I had been less than a star student, I looked to my stranger-turned-friend who seemed to have some knowledge of colleges in the West for some advice in the matter.
As an official in the church, he was able to suggest two Christian-oriented schools on the West Coast where I might finish my education. Feeling good about his suggestions, I chose one of the colleges, where I happily and successfully obtained a degree in mathematics, thinking that I would become a teacher.
That college was the right place – not only did I live up to becoming the student I knew I could be, I was also elected senior class president.
Now I realize that my Topeka friend was the one person in this chain of relationships who at that stage of my life’s journey I had needed to know.
AS ROBERT FROST reminds us “way leads on to way” in “The Road Not Taken” – in this instance, not way but person – I met the next one in this serendipitous chain of relationships. Four months from graduation, at this particular college at this particular time in my life journey, I had done my practice teaching and was seeking a post in a Western state. That morning while I was moving between classes, one of my professors collared me in the hall.
I had taken a couple of courses in philosophy and religion from this likable but ordinary man. He said that for some time he had wanted to speak to me. He then said I should give serious thought to the possibility of becoming a minister.
He encouraged me to continue graduate studies in Boston at his alma mater. I did, obtaining two master’s degrees – one in ministry, the other in sacred theology.
Again, looking back I am persuaded that his words were the final piece in this particular and serendipitous chain of relationships leading to my ordination in 54 years ago.
THESE CHAINS OF RELATIONSHIPS are for me one of the most remarkable aspects of what it means to belong to this muddle of humanity. I have no doubt that God (not the gods of chance) has been mysteriously monitoring and governing this business of my life.
No doubt you have your own stories wherein the serendipitous chain of relationships lifted you up and set your feet down in a place you could not have imagined.
In an old essay by Logan Pearsall Smith titled, “Trivia,” we are reminded of the force of coincidental meetings and events and the folly of failing to listen to our lives:
When I seek out the sources of my thoughts, I find they had their beginning
in fragile chance. Slight the impulse that made me take this turning at the
cross-roads, trivial and fortuitous the meeting, and light as gossamer the
thread that first knit me to my friend. These are full of wonder; more
mysterious are the moments that must have brushed me with their wings and
passed me by; when Fate beckoned and I did not see it, when new Life trembled
for a second on the threshold; but the word was not spoken, the hand was not
held out, and the Might-have-been shivered and vanished, dim as a dream, into
the “waste realms” of non-existence.
Come with me to the cleaners. There we might reflect upon those serendipitous meetings and occasions that have shaped and guarded our varying pilgrimages. Perhaps afterward we’ll both be inclined to own what Hamlet told Horatio: “There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.”
The Rev. Merle G. Steva is minister of visitation emeritus at First Parish Church in Saco and may be reached by email at: