The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (John 3:8 ESV)
In the summer of 2017 I hosted an experimental English poetry group in my living room. I’ve written previously about how my Central Asian students were asked to wrestle with the messages of Herbert and Henley, among other famous English poets. Some students showed up for the English practice, but dramatically bemoaned the fact that we had to study poems. One older man came primarily to demonstrate his skill at pulling secret and hidden meanings out of poems, like so many rabbits out of a hat. When this happened the rest of us were typically left scratching our heads and trying to graciously move the discussion on. But one student in particular continuously responded well to the poems and questions that drove at biblical themes. His name was *Aaron, and by the end of the summer I knew if I followed up with any of my students, it should be this guy. He showed a resonance with the humility of Herbert’s Love III, the mortality of Shelley’s Ozymandias, and the questions of missed opportunities and fate raised by Frost’s The Road Not Taken. But after our poetry group disbanded and normal English classes began again, Aaron disappeared. Still, I waited and wondered what might come of the stirrings I thought I saw in his eyes when we had discussed poems like The Universe As Primal Scream. Could the Spirit be working in his heart, preparing him to keep following these themes into a study of the Bible?
One year later, Aaron unexpectedly reappeared. He was a student in one of my colleague’s classes, but he mentioned how much he had enjoyed the poetry cohort the year before. He invited me to spend time with him and his group of friends. Eager to see if my sense of Aaron’s spiritual sensitivity was accurate, I readily agreed on the plan. I wondered if he had been chewing on some of the topics we had discussed in the months that had passed since our poetry group disbanded.
Not long into the visit, however, I was disappointed. Aaron and his two college friends were very kind and hospitable, but just didn’t seem to want to take the conversation in more serious directions whenever I tried to do so. The conversation was fun and pleasant, but not what I was hoping it would be. I wondered if we were just hanging out so that they could sharpen their English skills, nothing more. As I had done so many times before, I prayed. “Lord, if you will turn the conversation and open the door, I will step through it.” The evening hours passed, we grilled chicken, ate sunflower seeds, and enjoyed the cool air of Aaron’s family’s picnic house (nestled into a cooler neighboring valley). But the conversation about spiritual things wasn’t happening.
I had already given up the evening as lost regarding gospel conversation when we transitioned inside because the night was getting chilly. Some nights you just trust in the sovereignty of God that the relationship-building will somehow be a part of eventual fruit, even if you didn’t get to share much truth. Then, out of nowhere, sometime around 12:30 a.m., Aaron’s friends started talking about the things in Islam that really frustrated them. Aaron joined in, though not as enthusiastically as his friends. They asked me my opinion about the topics they were discussing and what exactly it was that I believed. I quickly tried to rally my thoughts. Here, unexpectedly, was the open door.
I remember sharing with Aaron and his friends in detail about the difference between gospel and religion, a major theme when I find myself sharing with Muslims. Whereas Islam and all other religions promise salvation if you’ve done good enough and your good has outweighed your bad, the good news of Jesus promises salvation based on what Jesus has already accomplished for us in his death and resurrection. It is the contrast of a paycheck vs. a gift, a contract vs. a covenant, an employee vs. a son, a conditional salvation vs. a salvation safe and guaranteed by God’s own promise of pardon.
As I dug into these topics I noticed that Aaron wasn’t really interested. Maybe I had misjudged what was going on in his heart – it would certainly not be the first time that had happened. Aaron’s second friend by this point had actually fallen asleep. Too much chicken and not enough chai. But the other young man, *Darius, was sitting, mouth wide open and eyes transfixed. He was tracking every single word I said. I started focusing more on Darius, sharing more and more aspects of the gospel and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He had very few questions, but it was clear the wheels of his mind were turning. Later, Darius shared with me that he knew that evening that his search was over. God had confirmed in his heart that whatever this following Jesus thing meant, he needed to do it.
We hung out several times more, but Aaron and the second friend slowly drifted away, while Darius kept coming back for more and more conversation. He started visiting our fledgling church plant and again, sat mouth agape, stunned by this small circle of locals and foreigners worshiping Jesus together and studying the Word.
Trying to discern how the Holy Spirit is moving is a tricky business, not unlike trying to see the wind. The man I was so convinced was the one being drawn was actually not interested at the end of the day. But his best friend was. At some point around 1 a.m., at a picnic house in the mountains, the Holy Spirit landed in power and arrested Darius where he sat, munching on sunflower seeds. I’m not sure at what point exactly he came to faith, but a few months later it was crystal clear. Darius was a new creation. God saved the guy next to the guy that I was focused on. Maybe the whole poetry group a year before was just so that I would get the chance to meet Darius. How strange and wonderful.
Darius continues to grow in his faith to this day.