I think, looking back, that maybe my favorite memory of "Old Time Religion"...and maybe one of the things I most wish we'd restore...is the Testimony Meeting.
There were two types. The planned and the spontaneous. The planned usually occurred on or around Thanksgiving. My church used to have a Thanksgiving morning service and it was essentially one or two hymns and then open floor for testimonies. Those were sort of rehearsed and geared more at what you were thankful for over the past year. They had lots of value, but it wasn't a personal story.
Or you might be a teen, just home from summer camp and getting up in front of the church on Sunday night to share what happened to you at Camp Overlook.
Those were the planned testimony meetings and they were great in themselves. But the really special ones were the spontaneous Testimony Services that occasionally broke out. Pastor E.L. would open the floor to whomever wished to give a word of thanks or tell their story. (This was always during the Sunday Evening service) One person would stand up...then another...then another. Sometimes the emotion and the sweetness of recounting what God had been doing in the hearts of some of these folks was so full that it became the service. There wasn't much to add after some of these Saints told their stories and so sometimes the Pastor simply closed us in prayer.
There were a few folks who I simply loved to hear talk about God. When the floor would open, I would be sitting in the pew hoping one...or all...of them would stand up and tell us the latest events in their life of faith. One of them was my best friend's aunt Debbie. She was an insulin dependent diabetic and had gone blind at a fairly young age. She had a beautiful singing voice and sang often in church. She never seemed to be down, despite the loss of her eyesight. She would give testimonies of sharing her faith on a bus or in the grocery store or at many of the places she had been asked to sing. She was a sweet, beautiful soul and as I got to know her more, she became something of a hero to me. I admired how she never complained and how she seemed so vibrant and excited about telling anyone who would listen, about Jesus.
I remember hearing one man, whose daughters were dear friends of mine, talking about his life before Christ. How he'd been a drinker and a bit of a ruffian. It was shocking to me. I had only known him long after he'd met Jesus and I only saw him as one of the Godliest men I'd ever know. To know that, prior to Jesus, he'd been something far less than the man I admired so much was amazing. It was hard to comprehend. But years later, when I had become and adult and had slipped up a few times, it did me well to remember his story, and how God had never given up on him, and how a praying wife won him over.
I particularly loved when the Pastor gave his testimony. He had been a hard-living lumberjack in the U.P. area of Michigan. He was a big, physical man and in his youth even more so. He refused the earnest pleading of a neighbor over and over. But one day, this man who refused to quit finally found him at his moment of surrender and lead him to Jesus. This pastor was one of the most devout, godly men I have ever known...and still is today at 91. Knowing that he too had a dark past and was a scalawag once in his life was and is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ on even the most stubborn hearts. But I only know this about him...and was only able to take comfort in his redemption story...because he shared it with us.
Our high school principal, who now serves as the pastor at that church, was a former heroin addict who got saved as the result of a cousin he worked for who had become a believer and who took him in when he had nowhere else to go. He set the conditions very strict and they included church attendance. It wasn't very many services into this agreement before he had come to the altar on a Sunday night and began what is still an ongoing adventure in service and ministry.
Oddly enough, one of the testimonies I remember almost verbatim was from a man who I always genuinely liked. His name is Mike and he is the father of three daughters I grew up with. One Sunday evening, Mike was asked to give his testimony about how God had been providing for him in some amazing ways, since he decided to get consistent in his tithing. He told a lot of neat, completely credible stories of little "miracles" and one great story of coming home from the beach and looking like he was going to run out of gas. He made it home and it was an exercise in seeing God honor his faithfulness.
Now, there were those who abused this tradition as well. Some who padded the stat sheet and added greatly to their sinful past. The Church can be guilty of making heroes out of those with horrid histories and that sort of recognition can be intoxicating for someone seeking attention. A few "testimonies" raised some eyebrows now and again. Sometimes a testimony would morph into a sermon, because the person had a desire to be a "preachah" and eventually we'd be clearing our throats and rolling our eyes. But those folks tended to disappear after a while anyway.
For the most part, hearing what God had done, was doing, and what we'd hoped He would do, was a seminal influence in my life. I was a young boy when I first started hearing these eyewitness accounts of God being God. I came to know His character through the testimonies of men and women who had been walking with Him for far more years than I had even been alive. In bits and pieces gleaned from the stories of these folks, I began to develop my understanding of Faith, consistency, forgiveness, Grace, Mercy, and most of all I learned that God had a plan. It wasn't like a flight-plan, filed with the control tower before takeoff and then followed, without mishap or detour, to it's destination. rather, it was like riding a roller-coaster in the dark. Sometimes it was like groping along the back wall of a pitch-black cave knowing only that there was a passageway here somewhere. All you really knew was that God was in control...and that He loved us madly. He often took us through things we wished we'd never seen or experienced. But He never sent us there alone, rather, He lead us there by hand. I learned this...this became part of my life...before I was 12 years old. Because that church believed in a Testimony Service. I soaked those stories up as a boy. And when I had grown to adulthood, I recalled hearing how God had provided time and again, how He healed, how He changed someone, how a marriage was restored or a sickness cured, or a lost soul, adrift on the seas of life, found it's way home. When I was that wayward soul, I remembered others who had told their stories of redemption and I knew I could come home too.
I remembered, as I got older, that the great men I admired in that church had at one time, lead far less than exemplary lives. I had known them long enough to have seen the effect that a relationship with Jesus had wrought. It encouraged me. Up until Christmas, I attended a church that had grown to almost 5500 people. I went there 9 years. And I could not tell you how ONE person in that congregation came to Jesus. Not one. My former church was around 400 in membership and I would bet I could tell you how almost half of them experienced Salvation. That made a difference. That made us part of each other's lives.
I understand how this can be uncomfortable for some. But it's another tradition with such a personal impact on me that I wish it were still popular. These days we have pastors so afraid of someone saying something "uncool" that they all but eliminated the Testimony Meeting. I have even sat through sermons that were actually about what you should say in your testimony. How much time is too long, what not to discuss, etc. To me the Testimony is as individual as the individual himself. Structuring it and filtering it only quenches the Holy Spirit. And to be honest...it's arrogant and megalomaniacal, and maybe a slap in God's face.
I miss the Testimony meeting. I miss those voices and those quivering lips and those tears as godly, loving folks who I had known most of my life, were overwhelmed by recounting the goodness of God in their lives. They challenged me to reach something they had reached. Something special. A walk with God that had become an adventure and gave birth to stories of provision, of rescue, of forgiveness, of strength in times of weakness, of Faith, of healing for sickness, or grace when no healing would come. People telling other people about how their walk with God was going. That was something I loved then, and miss today.
To contact Craig for speaking or interview opportunities, email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit his website (Big Fat Grace) at www.craigdaliessio.com
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