Finding truth in the steel city

Sigma Tau Delta — Smith (second from left) and Wilson (top right) pictured with their team in Pittsburgh. Photo provided

It was late when the knock came at the door.

After Luke Wilson, a junior at Liberty University, answered it, two drunken college students from up north stumbled into the hotel room where four friends and I sat relaxing on our second night in Pittsburgh.

We looked around at each other, bewildered, while they chatted for nearly an hour. Suddenly, they left as quickly as they had appeared.

The day before, 11 English majors, members of Sigma Tau Delta and our sponsor, Dr. Marybeth Davis, caravanned to Pittsburgh, Pa., to present papers, creative writings and a panel discussion at the international convention of our English honor society. We were there to demonstrate the strength of our program and to contribute to the cultural exchange of literary ideas. We did not know that the next few days would prove much more academically, personally and spiritually significant than we had dared to hope.

The next morning, we found our late-night visitors and the rest of their group at a nearby Dunkin Donuts. Seizing the opportunity to build friendships, we all sat down together.

The conversation soon turned from literary theory to worldviews and beliefs about God. After telling our new friends how a biblical worldview impacts our study of literature, we could see God’s grace at work on their curious faces — especially Dan.

Like all of us, Dan was studying English, but unlike everyone else leaning on the wobbly tables, he was also pursuing a religion minor.

Dan related that he had “divorced” himself from the divine in high school, but after reading books from various religious and philosophical sources, he encountered something else: “The experiential knowledge of a mysterious and transcendent God emerged as a kind of laughing, delightful, but insistent thirst in my life, and faced with the burning need to speak to this thirst, I began studying religion.”

As we realized that God was up to something in Pittsburgh that was bigger than ourselves, we began to pray that he would direct our words and guide our conversations.

Over the next two days, the Liberty students and our new friends attended each other’s presentations, ate our meals together and found that every discussion came back to God and the pursuit of truth.

“One of my favorite quotes from St. Augustine,” I told Dan over my plate of steaming curry, “says that ‘All truth is God’s truth.’ That gives us freedom to study and to learn outside the leather-bound cover of the Bible, because if there is any truth in a book, idea or movement, it already belongs to God anyway.”

He nodded as a sweeping smile lit up his intent face. “Yeah, that’s it. Wow.”

During our last night at the convention Dan sat alone at the hotel bar thinking about “how ineffective my way of life had become, how confused and complicated when it could be so much easier, so much simpler. I knew that I was yearning for a foundation from which to grow and to develop and deepen a faith — rather than casually window shop from many –- but there seemed (to be) a barrier that my strength alone couldn’t breach.”

Stemming from a desire to love people and to meet their needs, Dan became the sage his friends sought for life advice. But afterward, he felt exhausted because of his lack of spiritual resource to draw from. However, Dan noticed that when he engaged in matters of faith with the Liberty students, they had a different effect.

Luke ventured downstairs in search of Dan. Dan remembered, “I felt as though I didn’t have to worry about Luke drawing too much out of me: he had his own spiritual reserves to draw on. And as it turned out, it was I who was weak here. I needed his help in making the first step toward committing myself to accepting faith.”

After talking about the Gospel for an hour, Luke asked Dan the question: Did he want to accept Jesus as his Savior?

He did.

“I realized Dan was earnest in his search for answers — he didn’t just want to talk about God, he wanted God,” Luke said.

On his decision to accept Christ, Dan says, “I realized that my strength alone would never be enough for the harshness of the world. But even more than that, I realized that it didn’t have to be.”

The next morning, clad in a plaid flannel shirt and jeans, Dan somehow looked like he had experienced more rest than the remainder of us combined. But it wasn’t that his body had slept, but rather that his soul had found peace.

Dan didn’t want us to leave, and neither did we, but even after we walked away, he was less alone than he had ever been.

The five of us were once again crammed in a Toyota Yaris for the drive back to Lynchburg, but our encounter had us in awe of what God had done in the past 72 hours: he had allowed us to watch the dispensing of his grace on a wounded soul. He used our mouths to speak truth and our love of literature grew into a love of people.

Five bookish English majors never could have orchestrated all the details that composed the divine experience we encountered in Pittsburgh. But we also would have been sadly ineffective if we were not well-equipped by our academic program to discuss with our peers the cultural and personal effects of literary theory. Because Liberty students could clearly and poignantly articulate the relationship between the two and prove the legitimacy of our program, other students also listened to what we said about Christ.

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