The well-dressed man standing at the pulpit is sharing his testimony. The pastor, Brother Will B. Done, sits behind him.
The testifier shouts, “Brothers and sisters, I’m not the man I used to be! Yes, friends, I used to be a drunkard.”
Will B. Done calls out, “Tell it brother.”
“And I used to be a gambler!”
“Tell it brother!”
“And I used to carry on with women!”
“Tell it brother!”
“And I used to dress my Doberman in ladies’ clothing.”
“Ooooh I wouldn’t tell that!”
Testimonies used to be a favorite part of worship, because someone might say something juicy. When missionaries gave their testimonies it included oddities like eating scorpions and learning languages you have to spit. Evangelists had the best testimonies. They dropped out of high school, went into show business, were miraculously converted, and stopped sleeping around—“Hallelujah!”
Testimonies have a long, checkered history. Some tell their story as though it is an achievement. They consider themselves self-made. We are tempted to tell our stories as if we pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps.
For instance, I grew up in the turmoil of the Deep South in the 1960s and the hardships of the rust belt North in the 1970s. I chose Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, a demanding school with a terrible football team. My parents wondered if I would have enough money to pay tuition—it was $45 a semester hour—but I took a grueling job in the bookstore, worked as many as eight hours a week, and I made it. I moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where I finished a Master’s and a Ph.D. in only eight short years. I set my sights on a beautiful woman whose parents considered her way out of my league but I persisted. I served as a pastor for twenty-two years in four churches that my mother would describe as prominent. In each place of service I was respected by several people in the community. The fourth largest seminary in Atlanta thought I should be shaping young minds, so now I’m one of the fourteen finest professors at the McAfee School of Theology.
Telling our story that way is fun, but there are a variety of ways to tell your story. You can tell your story without it meaning anything. One thing happens, then another, random occurrences without meaning. Sometimes we tell our story that way.
I was born in South Dakota. I went to elementary and junior high in Mississippi and high school in Ohio. I graduated from college. Carol and I met in Louisville and got married. I took a job in Indiana. Graham was born. We moved to Kansas. Caleb was born. We moved to Waco, then Fort Worth, and now Atlanta. That’s the story.
All the facts are right, but it does not mean anything. To see our lives as meaningless happenstance or as the product of our own labors, means we have missed the point.
This is my testimony. Way back in the beginning God’s goodness erupted and created the heavens and the earth. God made people to hear their stories.
Two thousand years ago, my story took a dramatic turn in the story of Jesus. We see the heart of God broken and opened in front of us in Jesus’ life and death. The people who loved Jesus’ story discovered that the Spirit was with them to help them remember and live the story. The best of our ancestors were not only faithful to the story, but added to its glory.
Not many years ago, some people in Mississippi told the story to my grandparents who told it to my mother who claimed it as her story, too. A college student in San Antonio told the story to my father who decided that he wanted it to be his story. My parents and those with whom they share the story helped me slowly but surely understand that my life has meaning in the light of God’s story.
Several churches encouraged me to explore God’s gracious invitation to ministry. At seminary, I met a most genuine Christian who worked at an inner city church. Carol’s mother and father had taught her Christ’s way of compassion. I was way behind and still am.
A church in Indiana welcomed us and cared for us through a painful miscarriage. When Graham and Caleb were born, we recognized that they were gifts of grace. We have served delightful churches and a wonderful seminary. Through those caring sisters and brothers God has taught me. My story is all about God’s grace. My testimony and yours is the story of God loving us, through good and bad, helping us find hope in a story bigger than our own.