Stories are powerful. A good story reaches across cultural boundaries and draws us in. For better or worse, stories are the primary tool that popular culture uses to communicate its version of life, love and reality. It’s almost as if the attraction of a good story is written into our DNA, and when we fall under that spell, our walls and preconceptions weaken. We learn without realizing it, and we are persuaded without an obvious argument. For Christians, stories hold great significance. Much of the Bible is written as a narrative, and Christ himself often used stories to teach. There is one story in particular, that every believer carries around in his or her back pocket that is uniquely special to each individual, and that is our personal testimony. The question is, are we making proper use of it?
Growing up in evangelical Christendom, I learned that testimonies had special power; the more dramatic and sensational they were the better. Good testimonies got you an audience. Great testimonies made you a minor superstar. The two main components of a good testimony were grievous sins in your past, and a miraculous, dramatic conversion. Those points were so well-reinforced that on at least one occasion, I remember a scandal where a person got caught padding his testimony like a bad resume, adding a couple of sins that weren’t actually there. You may now pause to ponder the irony for a moment.
The problem was, of course, that I had a lame testimony. No dramatic story of conversion. I was a pastor’s kid saved at a young age, so no big sins from which God called me. In fact, my own conversion was so non-eventful that I don’t remember the specifics. Have no fear, it actually happened, the problem is that I was at the altar in so many camp meetings and revivals that I didn’t even know which time counts as the first. Not the sort of stuff that gets you called up to podium on last night of revival, right?
And don’t get me started on my baptism. Most people are baptized in their home church, with family and friends around as they declare their intent to be a Christ-follower. Me? Not so much. I was baptized as a preteen, in the muddy Greenbrier River at camp meeting. For some reason that now escapes me, none of my family was there. In fact, I barely knew anyone in the group, including the pastor that performed the baptism. To make the whole situation a little more awkward, when my turn arrived, it came to the attention of some of the more motherly individuals in attendance that I lacked the proper footwear, and they insisted that I borrow some. So, I was baptized by strangers in a muddy river wearing a borrowed pair of girl’s flip flops. Inspiring, isn’t it?
Years later, I began to entertain the thought of a redo. This time I would be baptized the right way. Family, friends, video testimony, inspirational music, heated baptismal – the whole nine yards. That of course, is not really the way that baptism is supposed to work. I don’t think there is such a thing as baptism upgrades. What matters is that we meant what we were saying when our heads dipped under the water. In time, my mind changed as I began to love my baptism story for what it is, one small example of the larger way that God has worked in my life. In the awkwardness and foreignness of being isolated from the normal support structures that many people take for granted, in the loneliness of having to walk alone, and even in the uncertainty and sense of impermanence that comes from existing in an environment that belongs to another. It all just somehow works.
The lie that I had long believed is that my story wasn’t powerful because it wasn’t sensational. Without in any way diminishing those that have been saved dramatically from grievous sins, we need to recognize that the grace of God is no less present in the lives of those whom He kept from sin, than it is in those whom He brought out of sin. Furthermore, the obvious changes that happen at the beginning of a believer’s journey are only part of the story. While being saved from alcohol and drug abuse or promiscuity are truly miraculous expressions of God’s grace, its slow work over time – the grueling hammer and chisel of the Holy Spirit refining and purifying deeply entangling sins – is a story that must be told as well. Sometimes it’s much easier to stop doing the “big” sins, than it is to make a thousand small choices daily to be changed in the “little” things, and it is only by God’s power that it ever happens.
One of the most powerful assurances for our faith is the ability to look back in time and appreciate that “though I once was blind, now I can see.” Every believer should be able to do that, looking back one, two, five, or ten years. It’s a reflection of a living and breathing continual work of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough to simply remember that 45 years ago God helped you to stop drinking. How has he changed you in the past year? Through our own confidence in God’s life changing work, we have a launching point to share more than just sensationalism, but the real, down-to-earth reality of a God who helps us become something vastly greater than ever we could be on our own.
That’s why I love my baptism story. To me, it’s weird and unusual, with a ting of painful awkwardness. But, it’s my story, which God is writing. It reminds me that often He doesn’t want things to happen the way we think they ought. He likes to keep us on our toes and out of our comfort zones, because that is when we know best that He gets the credit for the good that results. Though I may have at one time thought I needed a baptism redo, He continues to remind me that the work represented in that ceremony is real and genuine and continues to this day in spite of all the ways that I have thrown a wrench in the gears or gotten off course.
I hope that you truly appreciate the story of grace in your life, whether or not it is over-the-top dramatic, or just simple and profound. It is a story that needs to be told, and a powerful personal expression of what it means for you to be a follower of Jesus Christ. It is confirmation of the simple fact that there are no mundane stories of grace. When God transforms a life, it is a truly spectacular show.