Ten years ago I had to fly to England for a conference. But just before that I had to be in Dallas, and there wasn’t time for me to fly all the way back home to New York. So I booked a flight straight from Dallas-Fort Worth to London. How convenient!
The day after my speaking engagement in Dallas I was in my hotel room getting ready to go to the airport for my London flight. In the bustle of packing I grabbed my Blackberry — yes, I still had a Blackberry — and in grabbing it I saw that I had mistakenly hit a button that dialed the number of someone in my vast address book, someone I hadn’t spoken with in many years.
At that time there were over two thousand entries in my phone’s address book, most of them useless and long out of date, but I had never taken the time to delete them all, and they seemed to get automatically transferred from phone to phone. They’re probably all in my iPhone as I write this, numbers that I first transcribed into my flip phone in 2001.
The number that I — or my phone — inadvertently dialed that afternoon was of someone I never see or speak with. Actually I might see Wendy every ten years or so, at my Yale class reunions. We were in a writing class together at Yale and Wendy is a very dear soul and a very good writer and journalist. But I really had no idea why her number was on my phone. I knew Wendy mainly through other writing friends, but I had mostly lost touch with those other friends too. I suppose I had gotten her card at our most recent college reunion and in a fit of being organized I probably had tasked an intern with inputting it and other information from other cards I had gathered into my data base. Honestly, I had no idea, but that’s my best guess.
But wherever I had gotten it, I was suddenly dialing it from a hotel room in Dallas just as I was scrambling to leave for the airport. When I saw that I was dialing Wendy — because of course her name popped up as the phone was dialing it — I quickly did what anyone would do in those circumstances and hung up to spare myself the embarrassment that would have followed had she picked up, when I would have had to explain that I had dialed her by mistake. What would I have said to her?
In any event, the embarrassment was averted, and that was that. Thank goodness. So I packed my bags, got a cab to DFW and flew to London Heathrow on an overnight flight. But London was not my final destination. Groggy from the overnight flight, I staggered through Heathrow to catch another, smaller plane, bound for the northern English city of Newcastle-on-Tyne. Newcastle was once a major coal mining region — hence the famous phrase “like bringing coals to Newcastle,” which means doing something utterly pointless. The reason I was going there was to attend a conference of something called the British-American Society. I knew almost nothing about it and was invited by a good friend from New York, Lolita Jackson, who wanted me to come and talk about William Wilberforce. My book on him had only come out a few months before. Lolita has a buoyant, forceful personality and I trust her judgement, so I agreed to go.
When I finally arrived at the hotel in Newcastle — really wiped out — I knew that the conference had already started, but I had planned to just leap in whenever I got there. But after I had checked in to my room and went back down to the registration desk, I realized that they were right in the middle of a session, which I was told would be over in about thirty minutes. So rather than barge in and try to catch the tail end of that, I decided to wait in the lobby and look through the registration materials, which the woman at the registration table had given me.
Because I’m what’s generously called “a people person,” I immediately picked up a bound booklet with pictures and descriptions of all the participants in the conference. I began leafing through it, hoping to find someone I might know, or someone whom someone I know might know. But this was not a circle with which I was at all familiar, nor did it intersect with any circles with which I was familiar. So as I flipped through the pages not finding anyone whose name even rang a bell I realized I was getting totally skunked. Nonetheless I read through the whole boring book, every single name. But quite as I predicted, I didn’t know a single soul but for the friend who had invited me, and whose warm and familiar face I was more and more looking forward to seeing. Because I know so many people in so many circles, I confess that it was odd to read through all those names — there had to be over two hundred of them — and not know a single person. But that was the situation.
As I got to the very end of the book — I suppose I must have been at the W’s — I stopped cold. Was I dreaming? Because I really was that exhausted. But no, I was not dreaming. There was her name and her photo: Wendy Wilson. I was thunderstruck. Or as the Brits say, I was gobsmacked. The insanity of seeing her name and photo in that book in the lobby in Newcastle in the north of England just about undid me. And yet there she was, the very person I had inadvertently dialed in my hotel room in Dallas, Texas, about fourteen hours earlier.
So, what could be the odds that I would quite mistakenly “dial” someone randomly out of the two-thousand plus names in my phone’s address book in Dallas — and then fourteen hours later across the Atlantic Ocean at a conference in Newcastle-on-Tyne realize I am at a conference where I know no one but my host and this same person I misdialed? I hardly required a pencil and paper to work out the fact that the odds of this happening were so infinitesimally small as to be quite unworthy of serious consideration. Or really they were so infinitesimally small as to be eminently worthy of serious consideration.
One must wonder what this was? Kismet? Synchronicity? Neither of which I believe in, by the way. One thing I knew: it wasn’t mere happenstance. It was a miracle, and nothing less. But to what purpose exactly? Why would God spend the effort on something like that?
As far as I was concerned, it must have something to do with my sharing my faith with Wendy. Perhaps the insanity of this happening would make her realize that God was real? Perhaps she was going through a hard time in her life and God wanted to reach out to her and comfort her? I didn’t know, but when the seminars broke up and the scores of strangers filed out and into the area where coffee and biscuits (not cookies, since this was the UK, you see) were being served, I scanned the faces for my host, Lolita, and for Wendy. I saw Wendy first, moving in a crowd of people exiting one of the conference rooms. And like a Golden Retriever I practically bounded up to her to surprise her and say hello. If I had only seen her at the conference without having mistakenly dialed her some hours before I would have been thrilled and amazed to find her there. But having mistakenly dialed her in Dallas twelve hours earlier and then finding her here in this hotel in Newcastle made it utterly impossible for me to contain my amazement at it all. As soon as there was a moment in our conversation to do so, I told her: “Okay, Wendy, seriously, you are not going to believe this, but literally just yesterday — just fourteen hours ago in Dallas…”
After what I was saying sunk in, I could see that Wendy was somehow slightly uncomfortable. I assumed it was probably because she knew I was serious about my faith and perhaps she wasn’t in the mood for God getting her attention this way through her sloppily overenthusiastic born-again Yale classmate. I didn’t know, but I was of course disappointed that she wasn’t as bowled over about it as I was, that she seemed actually almost to be put off by it. So I changed the subject.
The next day many of us were at a bar together and I found Wendy again and we were chit-chatting and although I well suspected she would shrink from it again I nonetheless couldn’t resist again bringing up the insanity of it all, hoping this time she would see it as I saw it. But this time she deftly deflected it with a wide-eyed, ironic, faux-spooky “the gods do strange things…” The plural subject of the sentence did its work. I knew she knew I was a serious Christian, so I suppose I didn’t need to say anymore. Hadn’t I been annoying enough?
But I was still reeling from it and wondering what the point of it all was. Perhaps it was only God’s way of blowing my mind and reminding me that he is there. But I think it was a bit more than that. I think it was his way of showing Wendy that he is real and that he loves her and that if she’s ever ready to open her heart and mind to him, he’ll be there. The experience reminded me that God is always trying to touch us, to reach us, to bless us. I pray that someday dear, sweet Wendy will be ready to open herself to this amazing God of the universe, who loves her and all of us more than we can ever hope to imagine, who so longs for that moment when we will know we can trust him and will let him in.