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No such thing as a chance encounter

Published September 18. 2010 09:00AM

When I ride or bike through my neighborhood, I often see an old man wearing a florescent vest out walking.

Because he waves and smiles to everyone who goes by, people started referring to him as "The Waver."

I believe everyone has a story and I figured The Waver would have one, too. I didn't know how good his story was until a chance encounter at our polling place.

When Elkan told me he was celebrating his 96th birthday that week, I was astounded. I see him walking long distances in Florida's punishing sun.

After he agreed I could come to his house to interview him, I learned his physical ability is not the only extraordinary thing about this man. He has one of the sharpest minds I've ever encountered.

When I first got to his house, I started talking louder than usual. I thought anyone that old must be hard of hearing. Wrong.

Elkan doesn't need a hearing aid or even glasses. He said one day while he was out driving he discovered he could see better without glasses so he took them off and never used them again, not even for reading.

I was surprised, too, when he said he doesn't take any prescription medicine. "That stuff (pills) is killing us," he said. "Everything we take has a side effect."

Instead, he relies only on three supplements and daily physical activity to keep him healthy.

He walks six miles at a time, five days a week. I don't know about you but when I'm out walking, I get tired and bored after a few miles.

"Until I turned 85, I used to run six miles a day before my knees gave out. Age is not a matter of years. Activity determines how we age," Elkan says. "Couch potatoes die young. We need to keep our mind and body active to stay alive."

I came back from that interview motivated, determined to up the level of physical activity.

Elkan told me he smiles at everyone because "a smile is a focus of God's love."

I like that thought. It made me resolve to smile more, too.

The ironic thing is that because I saw Elkan smiling at everyone who passed by, I thought he was simple minded. Little did I know.

A Biblical scholar who has earned worldwide recognition for his Greek and Hebrew interpretations of ancient texts, those languages flow easily from his tongue as he quotes long passages of Scripture the way they were originally written.

In his 50 years as a Presbyterian minister, he uses his Biblical knowledge as the backbone of his teachings.

While most people his age would speak of their work and career in past tense, the 96-year-old guy continues to preach, teach Bible study classes and publish books.

Even his deceptively simple act of waving to people on his daily walks ties in with his lifelong ministry. He calls those walks his "six mile parish."

"People often stop to talk to me and I end up counseling them about their problems. I'm now helping one guy whose wife walked out on him and others with personal problems."

Every encounter has a purpose, he believes, and there is no such thing as an accidental meeting.

I must say I agree with him on both accounts. Every single encounter we have has the potential to bring something meaningful to our life.

My friend Lou Sportelli is fond of saying we are the same person today as we were yesterday - except for two things: The books we read and the people we meet.

When we meet someone new, we never know if we will pass a few briefs words then never see each other again, or, if meeting that person will have more significance.

Elkan told me a story that probably best illustrates that point.

When he was in the service at Pearl Harbor, five visiting schoolteachers asked him to find them a place to stay. When he saw the five teachers, his eyes stayed on one of them and something happened to his heart. A year later, they were married.

It was Nettie who changed his life. He says he never had much use for church until he met her.

Her first request during their marriage was that they read the Bible together every night. "She kept drawing me more into the church," he says.

Before he met Nettie, he was a high-school dropout. Through her influence, he got his high school diploma through a correspondence course then went on to earn two bachelor degrees, a master's degree and a doctorate of divinity.

He never would have become a distinguished scholar without her.

I like the expression that says people come into our lives for a reason, a season, or forever.

I believe that we gain something from everyone we meet. Even relationships that end badly shape us and teach us something important - if we are open to the lesson.

I know my life has been deeply enriched by so many wonderful people who have come into my life. Even though I may not see some of them anymore, I hold them close to my heart.

Often, I get overwhelmed with happy memories and with gratitude when I think of all the people who have been a part of my life.

And Elkan is right every encounter is another chance. We never know what simple encounter will influence or change our lives.

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