Telling your story

January 23, 2012

"I Am Second" is an online collection of personal testimonies of faith.

In an anecdote from my sermon yesterday, I told the congregation that I grew up in a Christian tradition (Southern Baptist) that emphasized the power of the personal testimony. Growing up, it was a common feature of youth camps, retreats, and Sunday night worship services. A testimony is a Christian’s story of what God has done and is doing in their life.

Even in our Methodist tradition, testimonies play an important role. For the eight years during which I sought ordination as a United Methodist clergy, I frequently had to tell (and write about) the story of how I became a Christian, what it’s meant to me, and how I knew God was calling me into pastoral ministry. We didn’t call it either a testimony or story, mind you—why use those words when a more pretentious seminary word like “narrative” is available?

Over time, I learned to tell my story in such a way that its sharp edges were smoothed over. It became more cohesive but also more stylized. My call into pastoral ministry did not unfold as neatly as I described in my account of it. This is no surprise: living life, as opposed to talking about living life, is always much more ambiguous.

But here’s the important point: my testimony is true, regardless whether a journalist or historian would describe it just this way. I believe in the power of testimonies.

With that in mind, you can imagine how pleased I was to find this website, “I Am Second” (there’s also now a book version). “I Am Second” is an online collection of personal testimonies from people (Americans only?) from different walks of life.

Aside from the distractingly modish way in which these testimonies are filmed, I like it. Like most people, I’m more curious about famous people’s testimonies. Aside from some star athletes, the celebrities are mostly B-listers, but that’s O.K. (On what planet does Michael W. Smith qualify as a rock star? The guy from Korn, sure, but why not Alice Cooper?)

One final thought: I watch Survivor. Last season featured a few outspoken Christians on the show. I appreciated their faith and witness. One of them—if you watched the show, you’ll know who I’m talking about—seemed annoying, if not like a mental case. (This is “reality TV,” which means, ironically, that what you see does not reflect reality very well; he may be completely normal in real life.) He talked about Jesus. A lot. Even as he acted, act times, like a jerk. My daughter complained that he wasn’t making us Christians look very good.

I got where she’s coming from, but I disagreed. I said, “Yes, but just think of what this person would be like if he didn’t have Jesus in his life!”

And that’s how we should view a person’s testimony—not so much who they are now, but who they are in relation to who they used to be.

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