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The word “serendipitous” comes from an ancient name for Sri Lanka; it was coined by a fellow who happened upon (serendipitously, of course) a Persian fairy tale about three princes who traveled about making incidental discoveries of things they were never in search of. The word describes an occasion or discovery that is both accidental and fortunate.

This past weekend, I was on call as a chaplain down at Centennial Medical Center. And as often happens on my Sunday afternoon rounds, I have serendipitous encounters with people. One Sunday a few months back, I knocked on a doorjamb of a room I thought was occupied by a person on my referral list. The lady in the bed sweetly informed me that she was someone else. Her name was Juanita. “Well,” I said, “Would you mind if I visited with you?” She nodded kindly and waved me in and for the next hour we had a delightful conversation. In for another heart scare, she said; but she was barely interested in pursuing that old news. She’d sparkled as she talked about where she lived, whom she was related to, what she knew, and why she sleeps with a rifle next to her bed (good to know). Not sure about the condition of her heart, but mine felt better after I left her room.

Then on the way down the elevator, one of the passengers asked me who I was. Barely got the word chaplain out of my mouth when she burst into tears. So for about the next hour, Christine and I talked about her life, her family problems, her addictions, and her boyfriend (in ICU thanks to a bad mix of alcohol and asphalt). The reality is that she and her boyfriend have a long road to walk to reclaim their lives. So I didn’t leave feeling like I did when I left Juanita. I wish I could say, as a result of our talk, Christine was resolved to make some hard choices and some needed changes. Can’t say that. What I can say is that had I not stepped onto that elevator at the same moment as Christine, our serendipitous conversation would have never happened at all. She would not have had a chance to tell her painful story to someone. And I would not have had a chance to offer a word of hope.

The season of Lent is appropriately billed as a time for disciplined activities—praying, reading, reflecting, repenting. I recommend them. I also recommend that you reserve a little open space in your schedules during these next few weeks, just in case a serendipitous encounter were to come your way. The amazing thing about God’s grace is that you are apt to stumble upon it in the dark, in an elevator, or by walking in the wrong room.

Serendipitous: a word to the wise.