29 June 2017

Serendipity and Saul

Now the donkeys of Kish, Saul’s father, had strayed. So Kish said to his son Saul, “Take one of the boys with you; go and look for the donkeys.” He passed through the hill country of Ephraim and passed through the land of Shalishah, but they did not find them. And they passed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there. Then he passed through the land of Benjamin, but they did not find them.

When they came to the land of Zuph, Saul said to the boy who was with him, “Let us turn back, or my father will stop worrying about the donkeys and worry about us.” But he said to him, “There is a man of God in this town; he is a man held in honor. Whatever he says always comes true. Let us go there now; perhaps he will tell us about the journey on which we have set out.” Then Saul replied to the boy, “But if we go, what can we bring the man? For the bread in our sacks is gone, and there is no present to bring to the man of God. What have we?” The boy answered Saul again, “Here, I have with me a quarter shekel of silver; I will give it to the man of God, to tell us our way.” ... Saul said to the boy, “Good; come, let us go.” So they went to the town where the man of God was.

As they went up the hill to the town, they met some girls coming out to draw water, and said to them, “Is the seer here?” They answered, “Yes, there he is just ahead of you.... Now go up, for you will meet him immediately.” So they went up to the town. As they were entering the town, they saw Samuel coming out toward them on his way up to the shrine.

~1 Samuel 9:3-8, 10-12, 14

In the Old Testament reading for the daily office for Friday we see Saul setting off to find his father's donkeys. At the end of their resources, when they are out of travel food and out of ideas for where to look, the way his helper suggests going to see the 'man of God'.

Saul resists initially and it is only through the helper's persistence that they go into the town and meet Samuel. Out of that meeting, Saul becomes the ruler over all of the people of Israel.

On the one hand, the story later tells us that God had warned Samuel that Saul was coming; however, Saul had no inkling of what was in his future. He was just searching for lost donkeys and feeling a bit lost himself after not finding them after a long search through Ephraim, Shalishah, Shaalim, Benjamin, and finally Zuph.

Serendipity plays a role in Saul becoming King. It has played a less critical but possibly more fun role in my own life.

In 2000, my mother and I made a sort of pilgrimage to Norway. Her father, my grandfather, had been born there in the early 1900's and when his mother and father emigrated to the United States they left family behind. Mom and I first visited our cousins, including the man who was first cousin to my grandfather and who had visited us in the 1980's. Our cousins' took us around the greater Olso area and showed us some family landmarks, including the apartment building where my great-great grandfather and lived in a one-bedroom apartment with his parents and 7 siblings.*

After visiting with them, we were on our own for the rest of our trip. While in Oslo, we walked around downtown with no particular plan in mind. We went to a modern art museum which featured half of a cow embalmed, which was not our thing. Then we stumbled up on the Postal Museum which used dioramas to tell the story of the development of the postal service in Norway. All of the displays were in Norwegian so we both tried to guess what the real story was and made up our own stories based on what we were seeing in each diorama.

It was a little like theological refection, in that we engaged with the material and then thought about what was speaking to us in each story. It was a fun way to spend an afternoon. When we reached the end of the museum, we realized that they had handy little brochures in English that provided translations of the text at each diorama. I was actually glad we hadn't found those at the beginning of our tour as our way of going around and telling stories to each other was much more fun.

It was after that time spent wandering around a museum that we never knew existed that we decided to intentionally embrace both spontaneity and serendipity in our travels. Mom has always been better that that than I have so it was a great lesson for me.

Saul's search for donkeys that ended up in his being anointed ruler of all Israel reminded me of the power serendipity can have in my life if I let it.

Later, on another trip, mom suggested that we take a boat to the Isle of Staffa and see Fingal's Cave. I'm not the best on the water and was initially resistant, but then I remembered that trip through the postal museum and also that the chances that I would ever get even the opportunity to visit Staffa were nearly zero. So I said yes to something that wasn't planned and wasn't something I would have tried on my own.

Like Saul's helper, my mom encouraged me to try something I was resistant to, she answered my questions, and made it easy to say yes and I went on to have an amazing adventure that I will treasure for the rest of my time on earth.

Without his helper, Saul would have given up the search for the donkey's and would not have met Samuel. And while his reign did not end in glory, he had an amazing opportunity that he would have missed out on if he had not allowed himself to be persuaded to visit the holy man.


*What is known in my immediate family as the "nostalgia tour".

All bible quotes are from either the NRSV or RSV text at Bible Gateway.

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe in June 2017.

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