I remember the feeling in my gut as I walked through the student union at BGSU. I was anxious. I was scared. Not the horror movie scared but the fear of rejection and humiliation scared. I felt unprepared and unqualified for what I was about to do. I had done it a handful of times before, but somehow the intimidation and awkwardness of it never subsided. I was looking for someone with whom I could start a spontaneous conversation. A conversation about Jesus. You know, the type of outreach that receives equal skepticism (if not disapproval) from believers and nonbelievers alike.
I saw a guy reading the school newspaper. He was sitting by himself. He dressed like me. He had short hair like me. He seemed clean-cut like me. He wore cool glasses (not like me, much to my dismay). I remember thinking “I can talk to this guy.” I led with “Hi, I’m Matthew from h2o, the church on campus. Would you mind if I asked you some spiritual questions?” He agreed. I was noticeably relieved by his willingness to talk with me.
What happened in the thirty minute conversation that followed makes sense only if there is a God above who is spinning this world with a purpose and plan for us all. I learned that my new friend Aaron had been raised in an unashamedly Baptist home in Missouri. He could remember a time when, as a young boy, he invited Jesus into his heart. In high school, he went through the religious motions- church, youth group, summer camps, and Christian concerts. Yet as he sat telling me about his life with an openness and rawness that still amazes me to this day, he admitted that those days were a thing of the past. He was living as a prodigal far from home- in northwest Ohio of all places. He had unintentionally become the stereotypical college guy- went to the parties, chased the girls, drank the beer, ditched the classes, etc. And he was left feeling lost and lonely.
I told him a bit of my story. I had been a prodigal, too. Much more prodigal than him, actually. Then he said something striking: he told me God was answering a prayer as we spoke that day. You see, the reality of his brokenness had hit him that same morning. He prayed to God for the first time in a while. His prayer was simple, as I recall him telling me. Aaron asked God to show him that He was real. He wasn’t convinced anymore. He wanted to believe, to be sure. But he wasn’t sure he could. Something had happened since moving off to college. But somehow, as our Creator orchestrated this divine intersection of our two lives at a table on the second floor of the BGSU student union, his doubt disappeared. His prayer had been answered. God was real after all. Hours after his prayer was uttered a nervous guy trying to be a missional Christian asked him if they could have a conversation. And both of our lives would be forever changed. To claim coincidence here would be an offense to the sovereignty of the One who dreamed this interaction from eternity past.
We became close friends over the next few years. Our lives were inextricably intertwined. We shared life. We did ministry together. We had those rare life-changing conversations. We had a depth and realness to our relationship that came so naturally. I remember when he told me he had feelings for Ali, a girl in our Bible study group. I remember a few years later praying with him in a small back room at the church just moments before he married Ali. Then I moved to Kent to plant a church. Our friendship changed. But our love for each other remained. The awe over how we first met that day in the student union never faded, and it created in us a bond that couldn’t broken by distance.
I was sitting in a seminary class when I got the text telling me that Aaron was diagnosed with a brain tumor. It’s ironic that I was sitting in a place that is supposed to give answers to questions about faith and life. Yet there are no token answers for why a 26-year-old would get cancer. No amount of theological precision offers hope in the midst of the reality of disease. Persistent headaches brought Aaron to the doctor and tests were run that revealed the devastating news. It was cancerous. It was in an advanced stage. It was largely inoperable. His prognosis was staggeringly bad.
As much as I remain amazed at how we met, that memory will fade long before the memory of saing goodbye to Aaron. His fight with cancer ended in May. On that day he met face-to-face the God who orchestrated our friendship and rescued him from the emptiness of this world. The day before he died I visited him with my dear friend Rob- Aaron’s closest friend in Bowling Green. With the door closed and Aaron unresponsive on a hospital bed situated in his bedroom, Rob and I told him how much we loved him and how he had impacted us. Not once had he questioned God in the midst of his disease. Not once had I heard a complaint or a curse. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such faith- it was innocently childlike and incredibly mature at the same time. We talked about old memories- as many funny ones as serious. And we talked about the glory that awaited him. When I spoke, Rob cried. When Rob spoke, I cried. It was both incredibly sad and entirely beautiful. Even my words here can’t approach the weight of what happened in that room.
Aaron’s legacy far exceeds his years on this earth. There are so many ways he has impacted me. Let me share just one.He has helped me to grow up. I live in a world of college students. A world where tears are typically the result of romantic break-ups. Where tragedy exists only in film. Where death is a fairy-tale. Where faith is stifled by the comfort and ease of our lives. Where desperate need for Jesus is a mystery. Yet today as I think of Aaron, I remember that there is a reality beyond what I see each day . And while I am called to this place, I must live beyond its borders. And I must invite others to this new place of depth. To journey beyond the superficiality and immaturity that, though unavoidable, is not insurmountable. To a place where we must painfully reckon with the tragedy and evil of this world in order to taste of the goodness and power of Jesus.