I alluded last week to the deceptive potential of a testimony. But it is clear in Scripture and in life that an honest retelling of what the Lord has done can be a powerful encouragement as well. It’s not always easy to put it into words though. That’s what I’ve been wrestling with this week–how to boil down the story of God’s working in my life to a blog-bite’s worth of text.
When I was a kid we went to ‘Testimony Meeting’ on Wednesday nights at church. The service was a short one. It opened with a few hymns and then the microphone was turned over to whosoever-will-may-come! There were various regulars, some more predictable than others. Mostly it was the grown-ups that made their way up to the microphone to say a bit. But there was this wild-card. When Mr. T led the service one never knew what might happen.
Now I admired Mr. T. He radiated a love for the Lord and for His creation. He was an avid bird watcher and he was also my highschool Bible teacher. But when he led testimony meeting it could be intimidating. For he was very eager for the ‘young people’ to be a part of the service. And he didn’t mind making it happen. Every so often he would verbally lasso the whole lot of us. And we’d find ourselves lining up at the front to take a turn at the microphone dispensing a ‘testimony’ of what God had done in our lives that week or that year, or once-upon-a-lifetime-and-worth-repeating. This could be very uncomfortable, especially if you couldn’t quite figure what there was to say, beyond what you’d already said the last time this happened! To make the matter even more intimidating, the first half hour of these services was broadcast over the radio! And this was not small-town radio. Our testimonies would reach all the way to New York City! There was definitely pressure to have something worth saying!
We youth usually came up with something fairly formulaic to say, patterned after our elders and kept very brief: “I’m thankful that God saved me and I’m on my way to heaven” or something of that nature. Rarely would we volunteer a testimony and how well I remember the uneasy tension of waiting till we were off the hook and the meeting over.
I’ve grown up quite a lot since then and have experienced the Lord’s good hand in many more situations but still this week I’ve been grappling with how to give a ‘testimony’ here that would be of some encouragement and not merely a glorified personal history. A classic salvation testimony is supposed to tell the before, the ‘then what’, and the after. Ideally there should be a big contrast of ‘before’ and ‘after’ and just enough spice thrown in so the listener can relate and be ‘wow’ed by the obvious transformation without being dragged through the messy details. Well, that’s not my history. Mine is a rather ‘boring’ story given those parameters. For I was born into a Christian heritage of believing parents and grandparents on both sides. I grew up with believing cousins, surrounded by a community of dedicated Christians in our own little protected world. We not only sang hymns and read the Word responsively together. We ate together after church and the people we saw on Sunday we went to school with and were taught by on Monday. In the summers these were the ones we picked strawberries with on Saturdays and even swam with at our own local pool. Into this heritage I was born, as my parents had been born before me.
Still, I remember a moment of personal ‘decision’.
I was ten I think, when I went forward with my friends at the close of an evening service to kneel at the bench and pray. I didn’t anticipate it being a life-changing moment in my life. It just seemed like the right thing to do. It’s what people did at Camp Meeting. You prayed around the ‘altar’ (beautiful low wooden benches) following the official closing of the service. And maybe there would be more singing, and maybe if people were very happy there’d be marching around the perimeter of the auditorium and back up the center aisle, just for the joy of it. That was Camp Meeting.
But this particular evening a wise older lady knelt beside me and asked if I knew that Jesus had died for my sins and whether I had ever prayed to receive Him as my personal Saviour. I supposed that I hadn’t but it certainly seemed the right thing to do. So I did. As did my friends. And we were very pleased with ourselves on rising from our knees. And happy to know Jesus was in our hearts. As I recall we dashed out the side door into the balmy summer evening bubbling over with joy. But really, it’s a bit of a foggy memory for me. Though I have a definite recollection of Mrs. Wolfram’s gentle entreaty to me but I couldn’t tell you if there was a dramatic change in my life after that. Maybe so. I don’t remember. So much for the crucial ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a good testimony!
Mine has always been a ‘boring’ testimony consequently. But the older and wiser I grow the more grateful I am for a ‘boring’ story. It is the one God has scripted for me to walk out for His glory. He eased me into this faith I call my own. He did the drawing and shaping and destining me for what I would become. Even the temperament with which I was born was His doing. I was a child eager to conform to others’ expectations of me. Having grown up in an atmosphere of devotion and service to God it was as natural as breathing to follow in this path.
Here of course is a potential deception. For children are not born like radiant sunflowers pointing God-ward. We are born in sin and bent on having the world revolve around us. I was no different. It’s just that pleasing others pleased me. My motives were self-serving. Only in retrospect do I see the great mercy of God in welcoming me to His family despite my very limited awareness of my desperate plight. I assented to needing a Saviour but, conscientious pleaser that I was, I thought I was pretty good already. (I’ve been unlearning that every since! It’s been no small feat, but God is faithful.)
So that was the beginning of my ‘testimony’ as I see it. Perhaps the clearest evidence of God’s spirit at work in me though was my love for His Word. I cannot remember a time when it was not important to me. I had the advantage of Christian schooling, and dedicated teachers that taught us to memorize it and to personalize what we were reading by asking questions of the text and noticing the details. That was Junior High. Reading the Bible through in a year was a challenge we kids all took up more than once. My parents modelled a dedication to reading the Word. Their morning quiet times were a part of my definition of morning!
What was missing though was a reminder of the difference it makes to know Jesus. Because I didn’t rub shoulders with ‘the world’ I lacked this appreciation. The Word began to seem same-ish and old like stale bread. I didn’t see it changing lives. Then God sent Audrey. She was a top-notch student, eager and studious. She even liked History class, which I did not. Unlike me she wasn’t afraid to ask questions and we became good friends. But she was not like my other friends from childhood. She hadn’t grown up in our kind of church. Her mother was staunchly religious but not approving of the evangelical idea of salvation in a personal sense. However, Audrey’s parents had recently divorced and Audrey was interested in a relational God. One night at youth group she asked me how she could become a Christian. True to form I doubted I could get her there so I took her to George, our leader, and he had the honor of introducing her to Jesus. That’s when life began to change, for her and for me. Overnight she developed an insatiable appetite and enthusiasm for the Word of God. She copied down verses on wee scraps of paper to share with me each morning at school. Little verses jumped off the page and into her heart–promises and sweet truths she was seeing for the first time. And her enthusiasm was contagious. It revived my faith. We grew together, played guitar together, wrote songs and ate ice cream on waffles. She was God’s gift to my life that year, just when I needed it. She was pulled out of my school and my life the following year. This sort of faith was too radical; it ran counter to her mother’s form of religion. So ended our friendship and so began an intense testing of her newfound faith. But that is her story to tell.
As for mine, God had plans I wouldn’t have dreamed of. I wasn’t much of a dreamer really, just a quiet somebody content to have a few friends, to read my Bible and to love the natural world around me. I imagined growing old in my childhood home in New Jersey beside a little woods with a little stream running through and a little lake for skating when it froze a little in the winter…Mine was a small and protected world that I had no particular interest in leaving, but God had bigger dreams for me. To Him I owe all that I am, all I have and all that I will yet become. It’s His doings. He has carried me all the way…The journey has been a good one.
That is hardly the place to stop my testimony but for this week it will have to suffice. Hopefully next week I can commence another installment without such a struggle to ‘step up to the microphone’ and find something worth saying!
Thanks for your patience,
“He chose our heritage for us…” Ps.47:4
“Listen to me, O house of Jacob…who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am He, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” Ps.46:3,4