Serendipitous encounters – when what’s happening isn’t what you are doing.

by Barbara Glasson.

Ahead of the day following my second Covid jab, in anticipation of feeling under the weather, I had cleared my diary of anything that required my brain to function. Anticipating being under the weather is enough to make a person feel under the weather, so I decided to busy myself with some other things and went to get my watch fixed. As it was going to take half an hour, I sat in the warm sunshine in the courtyard outside the market and bought myself a cup of coffee and the wagon serving bacon butties. Before I knew it I had struck up a conversation with a biker who was getting his breakfast. By the time half an hour had gone by, I knew about his motorbikes, his two marriages, his six children and his three dogs. Turns out he tests pipes in nuclear power stations for leaks in radioactivity, I learned some technical things too.

Later, still feeling perky not peaky and with the sun still shining brightly I decided to walk the dog, As I got to the furthest point from home it began to spit with rain and very swiftly it began to bucket down. I was cursing my stupidity at not taking a coat when I noticed the shape of a person trying to squeeze through a gap in a wall and clearly stuck. Coming closer, I discovered he was an elderly man wearing a full waterproof kit and carrying a huge rucksack, hence his inability to squeeze through. As he tried to traverse the gap and as I got increasingly soaked, he told me about his friend’s dogs, his wife’s illness, his grandson’s achievements at University and his autistic grand- daughter.  On returning home, changing out of my soggy clothes I pondered what it was about me that caused random people to tell me their life stories.

I’ve been teaching Pastoral Theology for almost a year now, and I have worked students steadily through a process of theological reflection on the human lifecycle, we have discussed what makes for good pastoral practice, we have talked about boundary setting and well-being, we have had input from a funeral director and completed our safeguarding course, all of this on Zoom with the aid of break out rooms and powerpoint. But what we haven’t done this year is bump into random people along the way and listen to unsolicited disclosures of human life. In my experience these sort of encounters usually happen outdoors, or at least in doorways, and are not scheduled.

In the Persian fairy tale of the Three Princes of Serendip a King sends his three sons on a voyage to be trained by the scholars of the day in order to attain wisdom,  The irony of the story is that in order to fulfil their commitments to Serendip the princes must leave it and go wandering along unknown roads and amongst common people. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent that it is not the scholars that are going to impart the wisdom they need but the random encounters with a variety of ‘common people’ the princes mingle amongst along the way.  In his book, The Moral Imagination Jean Paul Lederach refers to this serendipity as a way peace-making: ‘Serendipity describes the fascination and frustration of sideways progress that constitutes the human endeavor (sic) of building peace ….for constructive social change is often what accompanies and surrounds the journey more that what was intentionally pursued and produced.’[i]

I don’t think Jesus kept a diary. The gospel accounts seem to reference him subverting any sort of organised plan to keep an appointment. He appears to spend his life bumping into people, or being summoned when he is in the middle of something else. He didn’t organise a conference or a rally or have an executive council to discuss strategy, and quite clearly that was quite annoying to those disciples that were trying to get a grip on what in heaven’s name he was up to. And yet, it was in the cracks that those life-giving, life-transforming encounters were given space to happen. There was a serendipitous space between what he was doing and what was actually happening into which the spirit could breathe new life.

Thing is, I did manage to get my watch fixed, have my jab and walk the dog yesterday, but what happened was much more engaging, fascinating and – I believe – the essence of pastoral encounter. And, as Lederach reminds all those who seek peace, this attention to our peripheral vision enables a ‘panorama of the possible’.[ii]

[i] Lederach, John Paul, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace. Oxford University Press (2005) p.114

[ii] op cit. p.121

4 thoughts on “Serendipitous encounters – when what’s happening isn’t what you are doing.”

  1. What a refreshing start to a Bank Holiday, in which (for once) we are promised sunshine!

    The Epworth Press published a series of little books between 1935 and the end of WW2 by H.L.Gee, describing the sort of ‘chance’ encounters you describe. They grew out of pieces he wrote in the Methodist Recorder and were very much of their time. He took journeys on foot at different time of the year, and had all sorts of ‘pastoral’ opportunities along the way.

    I have often wondered how to rate ‘the plan’ and ‘the interruption’ in terms of importance and urgency, and your paragraph about Jesus and his assessment of a situation is helpful in a life, even one well past retirement age, when ‘we have left undone that which we ought to have done’ still resonates.


  2. This cheered me up too! There I was trying with great difficulty to find the words that explain the utterly amazing unconditional love of God and to read of these serendipitous encounters made all things clear – to me at least! Some years ago I was on my own in Birmingham and had to wait for my train home from New Street. An elderly muslim chap sat by me and we spoke about the woes and joys of our lives. The conversation was meaningful, ethical and about our ultimate concerns. As I see it this fleeting relationship was unconditional love and the conversation was between me, the nameless friend and God.


  3. Thanks so much for this Barbara. As a chaplain I have very much missed these kinds of encounters. Chaplaincy is what happens in between other things (usually meetings!), along the way. I often tell people that if I’m not being interrupted I’m not doing my job.


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