Coincidental travel

by Steve Brock on November 21, 2013

When you step onto a plane, you never know who will be sitting next to you. Unless you’re traveling in a large party together, it is purely a matter of chance as to who sits next to you. Or is it?

Airplane Seats

I’m on a business trip, on a plane in the exit aisle seat. Next to me in the center seat is a man I noticed as he boarded. Everything about him seems precise and intentional: neatly clipped beard and hair, tanned skin, burgundy leather jacket, blue – bright blue – pants. Flamboyant is too strong a word, but what is the right term for his impeccable look?

After we take off, he talks to his friend in the window seat. Periodically, he speaks across the aisle and up one row to two young boys. After that, he periodically checks across the aisle to make sure they are eating the food he’d apparently provided for them.

I’m busy working, so I don’t pay much attention to the two guys sitting next to me. Instead, I make a quick judgment call: Two guys, both well-groomed and dressed and now two kids? I assume they are partners who have adopted these two boys.

Then I overhear them mention something about creating a devotional. Devotional?

One of the boys eventually comes over complaining about the lack of food choices. The guy next to me explains that he has nothing else for the boy and then comes another surprise: He tells the boy to go ask his mother. Off the boy trots up toward the front of the plane.

I’m definitely curious about this situation now, so I put aside my computer and the work I’d been doing and engage my neighbor more intentionally beyond brief comments about kids and picky eaters. We move through a range of subjects and I find out that my well-dressed new friend is a pastor. But not your typical one.

He started as an actor – theatrical! that was the word I was thinking about his outfit, but in a stylish way like a celebrity – on Broadway and then he got into the ministry. Most recently he produced a rock/rap version of The Passion in Jerusalem. Now he travels and preaches across the US. A fascinating person.

We have a wonderful conversation exploring issues of faith, meaningful travel and life in general. As the plane begins to land, we tell each other how much we’ve enjoyed talking to each other. He informs me that he’d given his upgraded seat in first class to his wife (wise move!) and had dreaded having to sit in a center seat. And then he shares a question to explain his delight in being stuck in that particular seat and all that we learned from each other in our conversation.

“Do you know that in the ancient Hebrew and even ancient Aramaic, there is no word for ‘coincidence’?”

As we swap business cards in the hope of some day reconnecting, I think about what his words mean.

If everything is God’s then things like where we are and who we meet don’t happen by accident. Even when we make wrong assumptions (as I did) or think something will turn out worse than it does (as he did), God has a way of bringing together exactly what we need when and where we need it but often in the most unusual of ways.

So next time you experience an encounter on a trip that you think of as chance or coincidence, well, you might just want to think again.



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Old friends, meaningful travel and trolls – Part 1

by Steve Brock on November 23, 2011

On the surface, Vienna seems so normal. But once you get beneath the surface...

I noted last time that I had no idea why I ran into my friend Bruce while on a family vacation to Boston.

I lied.

I still don’t understand all the reasons for such chance encounters, but I do have a theory in addition to my belief that such “coincidences” remind us that wonder and mystery still occur in our wired world.

Here goes.

The reason for the chance meeting with Bruce in Boston may be as simple as this: It makes you aware of the value of your friends.

Good friends don’t change over time. Or rather they may change, but your friendship doesn’t because you find you can pick up right where you left off even if that was a decade or more ago. In particular, friends with whom you travel share a unique bond. You experienced something together that is forged between you and is deeply imprinted on your hearts and minds.

Such was the case with Bruce: all we have to do is see each other after 15 years and immediately all the old shared stories and experiences together come flooding right back.

Such also was the case with my friend Mark. Other than the periodic Christmas card, I haven’t connected with Mark since we were in college together. And then one day several weeks ago, out of the blue he calls. We chat and within minutes we’re telling old stories and updating each other on the highlights of life since graduation.

Of course, it didn’t take long for one particular subject to come up, one that formed a bond between us many years ago and sustains that bond to this day: trolls.

You read that right. Trolls. I’m not talking about Grimms Fairy Tales here. No sirree. The real thing.


Or so we like to tell ourselves.

When I was a junior in college, I was about to begin the spring semester studying in Germany. Mark was already over in Vienna, Austria at a university there. So I took a week in early February and visited Mark and other friends in Vienna.

Mark and I had one long afternoon together that started as a quest for the best apple strudel in Vienna and ended in something rather unexpected. After all, who goes to Austria expecting trolls?

We’d already visited three or four cafés and bakeries in our quest and all were good. But you get mighty thirsty consuming all those pastries, so we were washing down our tasty treats with a good deal of beverages. I’m sure there’s some law of thermodynamics or something that states that the human body will have the need to eliminate excess liquids at the very point in time when restrooms are least likely to be available.

So there we were, hunting for a restroom when we gratefully spied the two letters that, to us, spelled relief: WC (for Water Closet). Curiously, the sign hovered above some stairs that led down, down, down, under a busy Viennese boulevard. Rather ominous we thought, but when you gotta go…

We made our way into the shadowy depths to find a 1920’s era restroom. But you don’t worry about décor when you need relief. So we rushed over to the row of urinals and…I’ll spare you the details except to tell you this:

As we’re standing there “making our bladders gladder” as they say, we heard this voice. We didn’t think anyone else was in the restroom and no one followed us down the stairs. And yet, at that moment – that rather vulnerable moment – we realized we were not alone.

To be continued…

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It's a small world after all – Part 2

by Steve Brock on November 18, 2011

 Last time I wrote of how my friend Bruce and I met an elderly man in Taiwan who had attended our grad school long before it was a school. Nice, interesting coincidence.

It is a small world, after all, so chance encounters like that happen. In fact, they probably occur more than we realize. On a trip, however, we take better note of them. We see connections we might otherwise miss at home. We do so in part because we pay better attention. We notice more.

But trips also create greater opportunities for these chance encounters because we’re out and about more, mixing it up with a wider variety of people. Thus, a chance encounter with someone you have a connection to is likely just a matter of statistical odds, mathematical probability, six degrees of separation and all that.

Uh huh.


I’m on a trip with my family this summer to Boston. We’ve just visited King’s Chapel on The Freedom Trail. As we’re walking out, guess who comes walking in?

The elderly gentleman from Taiwan? Nooooooo. Nice guess.

It’s Bruce.


Bruce, Eric and Xu outside King's Chapel, Boston

He, his wife Xu and their son Eric are in town for a football camp for Eric. They are taking one day to see the sights. Bruce and family live in Chicago. I’ve seen him once in the last fifteen years and now, here he is.

In Boston.

In a place where I would have missed him had I arrived or departed just two minutes earlier.

I’m not all wigged out in a Twilight Zone doo doo doo doo way, but I am struck by the extreme curiosity of it all. What, exactly, are the mathematical odds of this occurring? I’ve wondered about that since then, trying to figure out not the probability of the event, but the meaning behind this coincidence. I regularly quip that my theology does not include the word coincidence, so there has to be a reason for this chance encounter, right?

So after pondering it for quite some time, here’s my conclusion:

I have no idea.

It was later that day that I met Tony and helped him get a train ticket to Portland, Maine. So maybe it was God’s little joke about meeting an old friend and a new one all within a handful of hours. Maybe.

But you know what? It doesn’t matter why. It was just good to see an old friend in an unexpected place and thus add meaning to both the location and the relationship.

Also, in many ways, I don’t really want to know why. I know why planes fly and how microwave ovens cook but that doesn’t enhance my experience of flight or of defrosting food rapidly. Instead, coincidences like this one remind me that there’s still mystery and wonder in the world.

In our sophisticated culture where answers to practically anything are a Google search away, I find that wonder and mystery take a hit. I simply don’t acknowledge or value them much.

But running into Bruce in a place miles from each of our homes helps me appreciate that mystery and wonder still abound.

In Boston.

In Taiwan.

And in friendships that transcend both time and distance.

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It's a small world after all – Part 1

by Steve Brock November 15, 2011

The more you travel, the more you realize – as I found out one evening while visiting a family in Taiwan – how small our world really is.

Read the full article →