Lynn Williams is a professor of creative writing at Emory University and she has written a wonderful little short story called, “Personal Testimony.”
Personal Testimony is a story about a 12 year old girl who is the daughter of a fire and brimstone evangelistic preacher from West Texas, who every summer sends his little girl to summer camp. Not just any summer camp, but church camp. Fundamentalist church camp. Which means that during the day it is like any other summer camp – softball, sailing, archery, hiking, swimming – but at night, every night, there is a sweaty “Come to Jesus” sermon by some visiting preacher who seeks to woo children into heaven by scaring them out of hell. Hell is vividly described as a place of fire and brimstone and sulfur and demons and pain and agony.
The unwritten rule of the camp is that at sometime during the week every child will come forward and give his or her life to Christ. And not just that, but each child will give a personal testimony.
The problem is that most of these kids are just ordinary kids who don’t have a great story to tell during a testimony.
That’s where our 12 year old preacher’s daughter comes in because she has figured out a way to make some extra money at camp – as a ghost writer for Jesus. She fabricates personal testimonies for the other campers. For $5 she wrote a personal testimony for a boy named Michael which he delivered tear-stained before the congregation. It was all about how in his old life he was bad – so very bad. He would take the Lord’s name in vain during football practice, but now that he has met Jesus his mouth is as pure as a crystal spring.
Her best work, however, was for a young boy named Tim Bailey, and he was able to say that his life was empty and meaningless until that fatal night, when in a pick up truck accident in Galveston he almost met his death, but Jesus himself took the steering wheel and steered it away from disaster.
Now that one took imagination so she got $25 for that one.
I like that story because it sheds light on a truth about personal testimonies – and that is that in many churches they become so pat, so predictable, so cliché, that they all have the same plot.
“Once my life was in shambles, but I met Christ, and now everything is wonderful!!!”
“I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, then the master of the sea lifted me, and safe am I. I once was blind, but now I see.”
And we love that sort of testimony – predictable, pat, formulas that never change – because we like a religion that is predictable, pat, and based on a formula that never changes. We like it simple.
And we like our faith simple.
We like a predictable God.
We like having a God who fixes things and makes everything nice for us.
But God is not always simple, or predictable. And He rarely “fixes things” for us so that everything is nice and easy.
Have you ever heard someone give a personal testimony by saying, “I was living a pretty good life. Had a nice job, nice family, had a nice home and car. Then Jesus came into my life and messed everything up.”
Actually, that is what we see in the personal testimony of this man in John chapter nine.
Here is a person who should have the greatest of all personal testimonies – in fact we have right here in John, chapter 9, verse 25, that wonderful phrase, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
But the interesting thing is that the one person in the world who could never give one of those pat, easy, cliché, formulated testimonies, is the person who said in John’s Gospel, “I once was blind, but now I see.”
Because the day he met Jesus is not the day his troubles ended.
The day he met Jesus was the day his troubles began.
The passage begins with Jesus walking into town. He sees a man who was blind from birth, and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents?”
In other words, the disciples want an easy, simple faith.
We want our faith to be simple. Why there is suffering in the world. We want a simple answer. Why did terrorists kill innocent people on September 11th? Why does grandma have cancer? Give us a simple faith.
The disciples buy into the cultural teaching of that day that said if you are blind, you are a sinner. So they want to know, since this man was born this way, did he sin or did his parents sin.
But Jesus refuses to give a simple answer – he says, “Neither sinned.”
He then begins to give a little sermon in which he says, “We must do the works of God while we are in the light of day, night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
Then Jesus spits onto the ground, makes a gross little mud patty, spreads that on the man’s eyes and tells the man to go wash his face in a nearby pool. He does, and then he sees.
Now in a simple faith, what would happen next is that the man who once was blind would tell everyone the news. Everyone would then praise Jesus and accept him as Lord and savior and there would be peace in the valley.
There is never a simple faith with Jesus.
For the man born blind, once he sees, life gets very complicated and his troubles begin.
People look at him and ask, “Is this the man who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is.”
Others said, “No, it’s just someone who looks like him.”
But the man kept saying, “I’m the one who was born blind. Now I see.”
They took him to church and had the clergy, the Pharisees, investigate.
“How did you receive your sight,” they asked.
And the man explained all about the spit and the mud and the pool, but the Pharisees said, “No, can’t be. He can’t do this on the Sabbath. We have rules. He didn’t observe the Sabbath. He’s a sinner.”
So the Pharisees call in the parents. “Is this your son? How does he see?”
And the parents distance themselves from this controversy, saying, he’s an adult. Ask him.
So they do, they call the man to meet the Pharisees yet a second time for an explanation, but the man has none to give. “All I know is that though I was blind, now I see.”
There is no simple faith here. No easy testimony. For the man born blind, once he sees, life gets very complicated and his troubles begin. He is hounded by the authorities. He has to give testimony over and over and over again about what Jesus did for him. He finds himself in conflict with the social order of his community – he was healed on the Sabbath, which is against the law. What a mess!
I have told you before that I have been amazed at the success of the book, “Forty Days of Purpose.” I’m not the only one. Most ministers are amazed at the success of that book, including Rick Warren, who is the author of the book.
Asked on Larry King Live to explain the success of the book, Warren said he couldn’t understand it. He said there is nothing in that book you can’t encounter in any church in America. Spend 40 days in any church, and you will encounter pretty much everything that book teaches. There is, Warren admits, nothing new in that book.
I’ve thought about this and I’ve said more than once – and perhaps you’ve heard me say this – that the success of that book is probably based on two things. First is the opening sentence, “It’s not about you.” The church has been teaching that for 2000 years, but that is a dramatic contrast to what our society is now teaching us. Second, the book is so, very, very simple. I think that once in a while Christians need to step backward and take a class in Christianity 101 and to hear the simplicity of the faith. Rick Warren’s book does that so well.
But there is a danger to that, and that is that we would just stay right there in the simple faith, and never move forward.
It may be a good starting point, but where do you go from there.
We like our faith to be simple.
We like it unchanging.
We like it unchallenging.
And if we have come to Jesus just for our lives to be easy and simple and for God to fix everything for us, then we’ve made a grave mistake. Because we have made our faith all about us.
And it’s not all about us.
It’s about God.
And if you really have found Jesus, then you know your life can never be simple, and you can never rest easy again.
You know how those medicines that are advertised on television have a disclaimer. The commercial begins by telling us what a wonderful product this is, and if we get our doctor to write us a prescription, then our blood pressure or cholesterol or whatever will be managed. Then at the end, there is a rapid succession of words about how this product may cause headaches, weight gain and in some cases death.
We never listen to that part of the commercial. We tune that part out.
Jesus filled his ministry with disclaimers. But we tune that part out.
More than once the Bible speaks of how a true disciple should be prepared to suffer.
In Matthew 16: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. “
Matthew 10: “I did not come to bring peace to earth, but a sword.”
Luke 21: “People will hate you because of me.”
When you get in the light of Jesus your eyes are opened and you no longer have a simplistic faith – you have a REAL faith. A faith that struggles with “why is there suffering” and yet has no easy answers. A faith that demands that you get up and work. A faith that often puts you at odds with society. A faith in which you can no longer rest easy.
Meeting Jesus does not always fix everything so that your life is now nice, and pleasant and simple and easy.
When Jesus opens your eyes, that’s not when your troubles end. It’s when they begin.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor whose eyes were opened to the oppression of the Jews at the hands of Nazi Germany. He stood up against the Nazis, spoke out against them, and even helped sneak Jews out of the country so they could survive. He wrote a book entitled “The Cost of Discipleship.” The world found out what he was talking about when the Nazi’s executed him in 1945.
You think it is easy being a Christian? Open your eyes!
It’s tough. If you want your life to be “fixed” so that everything is easy and simple, see a shrink. You want to become a disciple? See Jesus Christ.
Suzie Scott had a successful modeling career. She became the Miss May of Playboy magazine. She got divorced and then married her divorce attorney, who himself was a very wealthy person. They had a home in California and another in Miami, Florida. They traveled the world.
Then one day she and her husband found Christ.
And their easy life vanished.
All their problems began.
Suzie found herself moved by pictures of hungry children. You know the kind. We see their ads on television all the time – but we don’t really see them. Children with swollen bellies and some professional actor tells us that for a few pennies a day, this child can be fed and sent to school.
But she saw these ads. And she opened her eyes.
She found herself traveling to Ethiopia, and to the Sudan. She tried to use her status as a celebrity model to encourage other people to give money.
And one day she found herself in Haiti – where she and her husband bought a home. They opened a hospital for children in the poorest part of the city of Port au Prince.
Let Jesus open your eyes – and you can never rest easy again.
It’s a lot easier to stay blind. We can ignore the poor. We can forget those in need.
It is so much nicer to have a simple faith.
But remember what Jesus said at the beginning of this text? The disciples wanted a simple faith – an easy explanation to suffering. When asked if the man born blind was blind because he sinned or because his parents sinned, Jesus says, “Neither.” Then without offering a theological rationale behind the suffering in the world he goes onto say, “We must do the works of God while we are in the light of day.”
Open your eyes!
There is work to do.
A few years ago the Presbyterian Women of a tiny little country church decided to take on a new social ministry. One thing about the Presbyterian Women is that they have a long history of putting their faith into practice. Someone mentioned that their little town, being a beach resort, often had a lot of college students. And from time to time their little jail became host to some of those college students from out of town. Perhaps the Presbyterian Women could bake some cookies and make some nice baskets for those young boys who found themselves in a little spot of trouble.
Nice idea. They asked the police if they could do that, the police chief didn’t see any harm in it, so one Saturday night the ladies arrived at the prison to comfort some of the young, slightly misguided youth from out of town.
And suddenly, their eyes were opened.
These young people were suffering from abusive guards. One of the inmates was a young woman who told the church women stories of sexual harassment.
At first, the church women assumed that they were being sucked into wild tales that had no substance. They didn’t want to be manipulated by these people who had been arrested and were awaiting trial. But the more they looked into things, the more they found. The more they saw. Scandals. Abuse. Misconduct by officials.
So the Presbyterian Women began working to change things for the better, which resulted in the Police Chief being fired and himself facing criminal charges.
In anger, the corrupt police chief called the leader of the Presbyterian Women and said, “Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? Why can’t you ladies just be Christians on Sunday morning?”
“We must do the works of God while we are in the light of day.”
Open your eyes!
There is work to do.
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church is in New York City. It is a wonderful cathedral standing in the midst of the wealth of the city. The church’s neighbors include Sax, Tiffany’s and right across the street is the Trump Towers.
For years, many of the homeless of the New York would find a home at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. They would sleep there under the arches of the porch. On Sunday morning, members would arrive and would have to walk around the homeless.
Then one day, by the grace of God, their eyes were opened.
They decided to see the people in their midst.
They reached out to these poor and said, “Sleep at our church, we will get to know your names, we will protect you, in the morning we will offer you breakfast. Welcome to God’s house.”
That’s when the trouble started.
First there were the neighbors, “What’s going on at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, isn’t that the church that used to be blind?”
No it must be a different congregation,
No it’s the same one.
Then it got around to the authorities. On a cold night in December the police showed up to run the homeless off the porch and the church protested and the authorities said, you are running an illegal shelter on your porch and you can’t do that.
It went to court, and the court said, “You are licensed only as a house of worship. This is not your mission.”
And 5th Avenue Presbyterian Church said, “You ask Isaiah about our mission. You ask Jesus.”
And the judge decided the church was right and ruled in favor of the church.
The city appealed and lost.
Appealed again and lost.
It’s not over yet, but after the 3rd or 4th victory, some members of the congregation gathered on the porch with the homeless for a service of thanksgiving. And after a prayer of thanksgiving, one of the homeless guests spontaneously began singing Amazing Grace. You know it. We just sang it a few minutes ago.
“Once I was blind. But now I see.”
And when they finished singing it, one of the members of the congregation blurted out, “Look up! Look up!”
And when they looked up she said, “It’s a sign that the founders of the church knew we would be here tonight.”
And when they looked up they saw something the members of the church had never seen before.
In the roof of the archway overhead there was a beautiful mosaic of angels reaching down protectively, and the eye of God was keeping watch. Many of them had been through that doorway hundreds of times and had never seen it.
And one of the homeless men said, “Yep, we see that every night -- When we are flat on our backs and we open our eyes.”
When Jesus gives us our sight, it is not a comfortable thing – it’s a dangerous thing. It disrupts our lives and the lives around us. When Christians open their eyes and see, they can never rest easy again.
Copyright 2005, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.
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