Backpacking alone through Europe in 1985, I watched every penny – or pence, or lira, or pfennig – I spent. The couple thousand dollars of savings I had left after I dropped out of Duke Law School and took off for Europe had to last me for three months – until the date of my return ticket. So when an American named Dan I’d just met on a train from Salzburg to Vienna told me he knew of a place I could stay in Vienna for only $5 a night, I paid attention.
And that is how this travelling unChristian ended up in a guest room of the European Christian College in Vienna.
I wrote a few posts back about the seed-planters God brought into my life during my time as an atheist/agnostic. Dan was one of those planters.
He was a missionary in Yugoslavia, but he was on some kind of break in Austria. I had no idea he was a missionary when I met him, It was only after we got to what I realized was a Bible College in Vienna (“Hey! What is this?”) and I asked him what his connection was that he told me. I thought about leaving and finding somewhere less . . . spiritual . . . to stay in my Let’s Go Europe book , but finding affordable accommodations was the biggest hassle of wandering from city to city. I wasn’t going to find anything that wasn’t a hostel for the price. So I braced myself for the inevitable conversion pressure and figured I could endure it for a couple of days.
Only it never came. Not from Dan, anyway. There was the head of the college who invited us to dinner and a short sales pitch, but mostly he had a lengthy discussion with Dan about Christian doctrine during which I was just a bystander. The college leader was very much concerned with doctrine, while Dan intrigued me with his more open-minded approach.
I spent the next couple of days touring Vienna with Dan and had a blast. Among lots of sightseeing, I saw my first opera at the world-famous Vienna Opera House (the Staatsoper). We got “standing places” tickets for 75 cents each, and met a guy in line who was studying music in Vienna on a Fulbright scholarship who told us to “follow me” when the doors opened and all the standing places-people sprinted for the best spots. After securing our places, he gave us a tour of the opera house.
Other folks reserved their standing places by tying a scarf to the balcony railing. Neither Dan nor I had a scarf so I took off my extra pair of wool socks – it was winter – and tied them there instead. Our guide said he’d never seen that before.
I learned a lot from the Fulbright guy. Everything I had known about opera before I had learned from Dick Motta (the Washington Bullets coach who famously said when behind in the playoffs, “The opera ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings”), so everything was new knowledge. After the opera we learned more when we went out to dinner with the Fulbright guy and some of his friends.
Anyway, I had a great adventure with Dan in Vienna. We also saw “Cats” in German, and lots of historic and touristy stuff. And we did talk about religion some, mostly when I asked him about being a missionary and about his faith. Here’s what I wrote in the journal I kept: “It was good travelling with someone for a couple of days for a change, and Dan was a good companion. And he never tried to push his beliefs on me as some people of his persuasion might.”
I really believe that God used him – and a few others like him – to help keep the door open when I was looking for reasons to shut it permanently.
And one more thing . . . Dan told me that if I ever wanted to find out more about being a Christian, I should read Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis. When I started back toward faith almost 10 years later, I remembered that. Besides the Bible, Mere Christianity was the most influential book I read – or have read – on my journey back to God.
You really never know how you might impact someone else. The important thing, I guess, is to be open to being a seed-planter, and not always worry about being the harvester. After all, as Paul reminds in I Corinthians 3, it is God who makes the seeds grow, not us.