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The Spiritual Practice of Testimony


Sermon Preached by Jack Cabaness

Covenant Presbyterian Church, Palo Alto, CA

June 9, 2024

Scripture Text:        Matthew 28:16-20

 


Young Ellen Whitmore is a twelve-year-old PK. A Preacher’s Kid. She runs a Ghostwriter for Jesus service in Lynna Williams' hilarious short story “Personal Testimony.”

 

Ellen’s father is a hell fire and brimstone evangelistic preacher in west Texas. Each summer Ellen is sent to spend a couple of weeks at a fundamentalist Bible camp in Oklahoma where by day, the camp is like any other summer camp with hiking and canoeing, archery and arts and crafts.


But at night… every night… there is a “revival meeting” held for the campers – a high pressure worship service where there is sweaty “come to Jesus” preaching and lots of pressure for kids to surrender their lives over to him. And the unspoken expectation (which all the kids know) is that sometime during camp each one of them will come forward and give a moving personal testimony about how Jesus had dramatically changed his or her life.

 

The problem is that these are just kids… most of them pretty normal kids… and a good many of them don’t really have a personal testimony to share.

 

That’s where our twelve-year-old preacher’s daughter comes in. You see, Ellen Whitmore figured out that she could make a little money on the side being a “ghostwriter for Jesus”… writing personal testimonies for the other campers to share at evening worship.

 

For instance, for a mere five bucks she wrote a doosie for a boy named Michael – who got up and talked about how in his old and sinful life he used to be so bad that he would take the Lord’s name in vain at football practice. But now that Jesus had come into his heart, his mouth was as pure as a crystal spring. Michael’s story was a good one, of course… and received a hearty AMEN! from the other kids…

 

But Ellen’s most dramatic personal testimony… her best piece of work… was crafted for a kid named Tim Bailey. It was about how his life was empty and meaningless until he met Jesus in a tragic and almost fatal pickup truck accident near Galveston. It was all made up, of course – none of it was true - but he told of this near catastrophe in which Jesus himself grabbed the steering wheel and averted certain disaster. Now, that took some real imagination so she charged twenty five dollars for it.

 

This short story plays upon the fear that many people have that their stories of faith are somehow inadequate. The truth of the matter is that each one of us does have a story, and we even have the words with which to share that story. You don’t need a twelve year old Ellen Whitmore to be your ghostwriter.

 

Rick Warren, in his book The Purpose-Driven Life offers some suggestions for talking about our faith. According to Warren, God has given each of us a life message, and that life message has four parts.

 

The first part of your life message is your relationship with Jesus Christ. Think with me - How did it begin? How long have you been following Jesus? Have there been ups and downs along the way? Times when your relationship with Christ has been strong and alive? And times when it has been dry and lifeless? Remember, it is YOUR testimony...and that’s the important thing.

 

Second, your life message includes your life lessons. For those of you who are adults … what has God has taught you over the years? For you who are young, what is God teaching you: about what matters most... about patience... about forgiveness... about handling success and failure... about suffering. These life lessons uniquely shape who you are... they are your deep wisdom... and they are part of the message God is sharing with the world through your life.

 

Third, your life message includes those things you are passionate about. These are the things God has shaped you to care about most. For one of you it may be a cause – like protecting the planet or speaking up for people who ordinarily aren’t heard. It may be ministering to someone facing a particular life challenge or teaching children… or singing or playing music… it may be caring for older adults using a therapy pet or welcoming foreign exchange students. You see, your unique passions are a part of the message of your life… and what God knows is that we can’t keep from talking about those things we care most about.


Finally, number four, your life message includes the Good News of God... the gospel... the message of salvation through Jesus Christ. Your life story is a testimony to the power of God. Your testimony to the power of God might include a dramatic before-and-after moment. Or it might be more subtle but no less powerful, the kind of story where you reflect over everything that happened to you over the course of a lifetime and you realize that it was God all along.


In her memoir One Writer’s Beginning, the famed short story writer Eudora Welty said that writing about her life was like traveling on a train at night:


“And suddenly a light is thrown back, as when your train makes a curve, showing that there has been a mountain of meaning rising behind you on the way you’ve come, is rising there still, proven now through retrospect.”


As you look through that metaphorical train window, you might see that it was God who guided you along the way. It was God who put the right people into your life at exactly the right time.

It was God who helped you discover your passions and callings and deep purpose. Even without dramatic before and after moments, your life story is a testimony to the power of God.


Using these four steps to think about your life message could be a very effective tool in helping you talk about your faith. But you don’t have to wait until you’ve answered all the questions or have your “life message” perfectly crafted before you can start talking about your faith.


In previous sermons I’ve talked about Thomas G. Long’s book Testimony. The main idea in the book is that we do not have to have everything figured out before we can talk about our faith. In fact, it’s often by talking things through that we discover our faith and grow in our faith.


In Long’s words, we talk ourselves into being Christians. In his book he has several chapters about talking through the course of a day. If we engage in God-talk or God-thoughts throughout the course of the day, then God talk becomes a more natural part of our everyday speech.


For instance, in the mornings, many of us ask ourselves “what do I have to do today?” Or if we’re retired or on vacation, we might ask ourselves, “what do I want to do today?” But there’s a third question we could ask. What can I do today that would be joyful?


This question is different from obligation, such as meetings to attend or bills to pay, and it’s different from pleasure, because some joyful things like childbirth or volunteering in a shelter or prison, may involve more pain than pleasure, more sacrifice than selfishness.


Asking this deeper question about joy is a response to the Psalm we quoted in our Call to Worship:

This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.


This is an invitation to look for places in the world where God is at work and to join in the activity of God. Whether it is piloting a plane full of passengers, teaching a class of third graders, working as a nurse in ICU, changing the diapers of a newborn, entering data and code on a computer, studying for a chemistry exam, or repairing a leaky faucet, the best work in life is work that we can understand as part of what God is doing in the day.


Another chapter in the book is called Conversation over Lunch. Long shares how talking about faith should be done as an act of hospitality, such as having lunch with a friend. It need not be and should not be heavy handed. You might simply share a story and then say, “it was a God thing.”

 

In Long’s words, if we will think honestly and deeply about our lives, we [often] have moments when the presence of God is alive for us. These are our loaves and fishes, and if we will talk about them to others, spread them on the table of hospitality, God will make of them a great feast.


In another chapter titled, The Six O’Clock News, Long writes about talking about our faith in the public square. Long taught at Candler Seminary which is part of Emory University in Atlanta, Ga.

There was one graduation ceremony where the graduates were even more rowdy than usual. A Pulitzer winning playwright received a degree, and the students chanted noisily and joked throughout his speech. The same was true for the world-class mathematician and internationally known diplomat. In fact, there was only one moment during the entire ceremony when the students were silent and attentive.


It was when a man named Hugh Thompson was speaking. Thompson was probably the least educated one on the platform that day. He grew up in the little village of Stone Mountain, Ga., in a family of modest means. He started but did not finish college, choosing instead to enlist in the Army, where he became a helicopter pilot.


On March 16, 1968, he was flying a routine patrol in Vietnam when he happened to fly over the village of My Lai just as American troops, under the command of Lt. William Calley, were slaughtering dozens of unarmed and helpless villagers—old men, women, and children. Thompson set his helicopter down between the troops and the remaining Vietnamese civilians. He ordered his tail gunner to train the helicopter guns on the American soldiers, and he ordered the troops to stop killing the villagers. He then call for other helicopters to come to the area and to evacuate the surviving villagers and them them to hospitals.


Hugh Thompson’s actions saved the lives of dozens of people. However, for his efforts, he was almost court-martialed by the U. S. Army. It was thirty years before the Army recognized him as a hero and awarded him the Soldier’s Medal for his courage. As he stood at the microphone, the normally rowdy student body grew still.


“I’d like to thank my mother and father for trying to instill in me the difference between right and wrong" Thompson said to the hushed crowd. “We were country people, born and raised in Stone Mountain, but they taught me ‘Do unto others as you would have them do to you’ … just a little thing called the Golden Rule; you try to live by it, and you’ll be OK."


The words were simple, but the students were startled and invigorated by them.


The final chapter of the book is titled Whispered Secrets and Bedtime Prayers. He cites the example of parents praying with children at the end of the day. And he writes that here again we see that the key is not knowing just what to say or possessing all knowledge about the Christian faith. The key is to provide the kind of environment in the home where talking about God can take place. If talking about God is as expected and as natural as talking about playmates or TV programs, children will learn how to ask questions about God, speak their thoughts about God, and come to trust this God, whose presence is woven into the fabric of everyday.

 

And if we don’t have children in the home or even if we live alone, we can have this kind of dialog with ourselves, in which we take stock of our day and confess our wrongs and regrets while mostly giving thanks for our joys.

 

There’s a wonderful story about Angelo Roncalli, an Italian peasant who rose to become Pope John XXIII. During his brief papacy, the Roman Catholic church went through the major upheaval of Vatican II, a tumultuous time and controversial time of reform and change. It is said that in the midst of this volatile time, Pope John would read his bedtime devotions, say his private prayers, and then, before turning out the light, would say to himself,


“But who governs the church?

You or the Holy Spirit?

Very well, then.

Go to sleep, Angelo, go to sleep.”

 

Here is the testimony.


We are all floating in a sea of mercy and grace and providence.

So go to sleep.

In confidence and trust, go to sleep.

 


All glory and praise be to our God. Amen.

 


Please note: Each week I try to write a complete sermon manuscript in advance, but in the preaching moment I often use an outline or sparse notes. Accordingly, this written blog post will likely differ slightly from the sermon as actually preached.

 

 

For Further Reading about Spiritual Practices:

 

Thomas G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian, 2004. Part of the Practices of Faith Series.

 

Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People; Dorothy C, Bass, editor; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 2019.

 

 

           


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