Stepping out of my hotel room in Bombay, India, I paused as I pulled the door shut behind me.
The piano player in the lobby twelve floors below me was playing “Für Elise” by Beethoven. It was not particularly noteworthy other than the fact that I had heard my son play it at a piano recital the night before I left for India. I stopped, and instead of heading toward the elevator, I leaned against the wall and listened to the entire song. I relayed the tape in my head of my son playing it. He was only thirteen at the time, and was in his last year of piano lessons. I knew he would never play concert halls or even hotel lobbies. But the song brought back warm memories of sitting in a university concert parlor, French tapestries on the walls, listening to my son play the recital piece that I had heard him practice hundreds of times.
It also made me feel far away from home.
I was in Bombay to teach a creative writing course to a group of adult students.
Even though I had been all over the world either teaching or writing stories for newspapers, magazines, and books, for some reason I was feeling very far way from home on this particular trip. Maybe it was because of what I was reading. I knew that, soon after I returned to my work in San Diego, I would be interviewing the legendary writer Ray Bradbury on television, in front of a live audience. I was trying to prepare by immersing myself in his writings. For the India trip I brought The Martian Chronicles. But I was the one who felt like someone from another planet.
The feeling intensified. The morning after I heard my son’s recital song, I departed my hotel room and the piano player was playing again—this time he was playing “The Spinning Song,” which my daughter had just played at that same recital. She was ten. Everyone plays “The Spinning Song” at some point in their piano lessons. Even I did, forty years before. To this day, it is the only song my dad can play on the piano. Still, I paused again, thinking about the coincidence of my hearing those two songs in the hotel on different days, and that they were the last songs I had heard my kids play. They were popular songs, and the odds were high that I would hear familiar songs of some sort in a hotel that catered to out-of-towners, the way I heard a lounge singer belting out “Bye, Bye Miss American Pie” as I was checking into the Great Wall Sheraton in Beijing the year before. (The day that music died was when it started getting played in lounges around the world by singers who were eventually mocked by Bill Murray.) But I could live with these coincidences in Bombay. And in sort of a self-amusing thought that would have fit well in the movie Bruce Almighty, I remembered thinking, “It would really be a coincidence if something reminded me of my wife. Then I would be really impressed.”
This was because of my wife’s limited piano repertoire. She can only play one song, an old church chorus that she learned growing up in a pastor’s home in small towns in Wisconsin and South Dakota. No one in the hotel lobby would be playing it—of this I was certain. Don McLean might be in every lounge lizard’s Fake Book worldwide, but not “He Is Able.”
In the writing class that morning, I asked the students to read their assignments out loud to the group so that we could critique and offer suggestions. The assignment was for each writer to take an incident from childhood and recount it with concrete and significant details, showing how it had helped shape future events in his or her life. The stories were entertaining, sometimes painful, and mostly inspiring. The last one to read was a missionary from the U.S. who had been in South India for twenty-seven years. As he read his story, I felt my jaw fall open. When he finished, I was speechless.
He told of how a pastor in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, had helped him as an eleven-year-old boy understand that God was calling him into full-time Christian service. What shocked me was that the pastor was my father-in-law, who was in his last months of life while I was in India.
In a hotel lobby, then in the Mumbai Central YMCA, something connected me with each member of my family.
My purpose in telling these events is not to tell you that I believe in magic. I do think that coincidences occur. But I also believe that grace goes before us as a way for God to say, “Welcome! I got here before you. I’ve been expecting you.” That’s exactly how I felt when I heard this missionary read his assignment in Bombay. I was alone, feeling like a Martian, a little bit afraid, and I sensed God saying to me, “See? You’re with me, and you’re going to be fine.”
This incident got me thinking about the signals God sends us—through events or each other—that we simply miss because we aren’t tuned in to looking for him or his activity in everyday life. When I heard that missionary read his story, and it began dawning on me who he was writing about, a mundane assignment took on a completely different nature. It became sacred. Something holy.
I don’t use the words sacred and holy lightly. They refer to things that are uniquely of God. That’s how I felt about this incident in Bombay. It was holy because God had used something routine to show me that he was on my journey with me—not just on it, but ahead of me. In fact, He had created the journey in the first place.
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