Friday of Trinity 6 – Acts 21:37-22:16

Friday of Trinity 6 – Acts 21:37-22:16 July 31, 2014

Conversion of St Paul by CaravaggioActs 21:37-22:16

In Acts 21 and 22 we are privileged to hear the “testimony” of St. Paul.  We hear how he was a Jew, born as a Roman citizen in Tarsus, and how he was brought up at the feet of Gamaliel, taught the Law strictly, and was zealous toward God.  He continues by telling how he persecuted the Way and bound and delivered into prison both men and women.

The climax of Paul’s testimony is, of course, when the Lord Jesus Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus as Paul sought to persecute Jesus by persecuting His Body.  He tells of the blinding light and the voice of Jesus from heaven and how Ananias took him in and he was baptized.  It’s a testimony we’re privileged to experience in Acts 9 (and a little in Acts 8), and then to hear again here in Acts 22.

Every one of us who are Christians have such a testimony, and each one is as individual as the million species of Coleoptera that exist.

Here is my testimony.  Since it’s long, I’ll divide it into two days.  Here’s part 1.

Although I grew up in a loving Christian home, by college I began experimenting with “alternative lifestyles.”  I let my hair grow and had waist length white hair and six inch fingernails.  I started smoking pot but soon graduated to other things and quickly became a drug addict.  One of my druggie friends introduced me one weekend to a Satanic ring, which I was soon sucked into.  It only took me a few years before I rose to the position of high priest, overseeing bizarre rituals and orgies.  At one point, I had 1500 followers in 3 cities and was part of an enormous and wealthy Satanic underground.  Would you believe it?  1500 followers?!

Whoops!  Wrong testimony.

Believe it or not, there was a time when I was just a little jealous of such testimonies.  It seemed to be hip to have a more decadent and sensational testimony, but I just couldn’t find it in me to fabricate one.  And then it hit me: I had a testimony, too.  God had worked mightily in my life, only like most things in my life, it was a little more subdued.

Here’s my testimony:

God has been very good to me.  I was born at the end of the Baby Boomer Generation, the fourth and final child of loving, godly parents, Dave and Gwyn Erlandson.  Unlike my siblings, who seem to have earlier childhood memories than me, I can only remember a few things from when I was four.  I remember living in Buffalo, New York and walking through the snow with my oldest brother Paul to the corner store to get large grape bubblegum balls.  I remember a door in a garage somewhere falling on my twin brother Danny’s back.  And I remember saying some version of the Sinner’s Prayer (although I may have been 5 by my first memory of this).

Now a lot of people’s testimonies end right here: the moment they make a decision for Christ.  But I’ve got a problem with that (if you’ve been reading Give Us This Day for some time, you will have noticed that I have a lot of “problems”).  What if you made your “decision” for Christ when very young?  What do you say about the rest of your life?  Many testimonies betray an understanding of salvation as if it is only about getting one’s foot in the door, and once that foot is in, God has to let you in no matter what the rest of your life looks like.  They also assume that there was an actual moment of turning, such as the conversion of St. Paul.  The problem is that for some people it’s a dramatic turn with a date stamped on it, but for many of us it’s not.

Some come to Christ for the first time as complete unbelievers.  In the U.S., however, even most of the people with dramatic conversion testimonies grew up as Christians.  Their moment of turning to Christ wasn’t the first time they’d encountered Jesus.

But I want to know what God does with the rest of our lives, after that initial moment.  Do we become like Simon Magus, who Luke says believed but to whom Peter shortly thereafter says, “Your money perish with you” and “you are poisoned by bitterness and bound by iniquity”?

So I continue my testimony.

God has been very good to me.  I remember saying the Sinner’s Prayer several times over the early years of my life.  Even then I wondered why I was saying it a 2nd . . . and 3rd . . . and 4th time.  I had always been an obedient child, and I sincerely prayed and meant it the 1st time.  Even then, I knew that something was wrong, but I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer again, because I was told to.  In fact, I have never known a moment in my remembered life when I did not know that God was real and was my Savior.

I could stop right here, and my testimony would be one of the greatest told: to think – that God had chosen me from my birth and has kept me close to Him all the days of my life.  It doesn’t make for a good altar call in the church, but it’s the truth and is a powerful testimony to God’s faithfulness, love, and power in my life.

I realize now, though somewhat dimly, that God came to me for the first 17 years of my life primarily through my parents.  No one else could ever have had the degree of godly influence that my godly parents had.  Whatever mistakes they might have made, however fallible they may have been, they left me with an unshakeable affinity for God.  So strong was my sense of God growing up that even though I didn’t feel Him in a dramatic and vibrant way like some do, He was the one given in life that never changed.  What I was taught was reinforced by what I saw of my parents’ lives.  I never analyzed it early on: it just was.  And so God was faithfully communicated to me.

However, to some degree, because of His ubiquity, God was something like the air to me: I knew He was what sustained my life, and I was thankful for Him, but I wasn’t always that conscious of Him.

My faith in God was sustained because my Mom, especially, was very protective.  I was not a very curious or adventurous child, and so my faith was allowed to incubate without much interference for my entire life until adulthood.  My grandparents were also Christians, and we thought of Grandpa Jones, especially, as a saint, even though he teased me mercilessly.

I seemed happy enough to believe in God and go to Sunday school and church.  I had no doubts or reason to doubt God.  Life was good, even if when we moved to Long Island, New York from Champaign, Illinois the kids seemed more like little heathens and savages.  My faith was rarely tested, except for the times at lunch when the guys at the lunch table would tell dirty jokes (it was the 70s and Raquel Welch seemed to figure prominently in a number of them) and wonder why I didn’t join in.  I just shrugged my shoulders, not telling the real reason, which was that I believed they were wrong according to God.

The one discernible step forward I can remember in those years was my baptism when I was in 9th grade.  Although I didn’t understand fully what was happening at the time, I knew that it was important.  Around that time, I remember my Dad challenging me in the basement of our house on 34 Bluebell Lane in North Babylon, New York to start reading my Bible every day.  Being obedient, I’ve kept that practice nearly every day of my life since that day in 1976.

The next time I heard God calling me to come closer and more on my own two feet and less on my parents’ feet (that must have hurt!), was when my high school Sunday school teacher, Tom McGee, kept nagging my brother and I until we capitulated and joined his Bible study on the book of Philippians.  His study was the first study of a book of the Bible that I undertook in such depth and to a large degree on my own.

When I got my first teaching job after college I ended up at a hip church in Humble, Texas near Houston.  The pastor was George Grant, and under his leadership, I learned to more consistently and faithfully apply a biblical worldview to every area of my life.  Reading intellectual Christian books and discussing them with a group of mostly young adults was one of the most delightfully cool experiences in my life.  After years of reflection on my life, I realize that one of the reasons I loved Believer’s Fellowship and felt closer to God was because of the things the young adults at that church did together.

One of the things we did was to worship using some of elements of the historic liturgy, and the music, which was more contemporary, was always enthusiastic and joyful, even during the songs that weren’t as good.

From high school until my late 20s I was a Tom Noone.  Oh, that’s right – you don’t know about him, do you?  For all of my life from the 2nd grade until a year or two after I was married, I wanted to be a writer.  My dream was to write poetry and novels and make a living doing it and become famous.  I wanted to express myself, and I felt good when writing, as if I’d accomplished something meaningfully.  I especially liked sharing my writings with sympathetic readers or listeners.

Tom Noone was the main character in the first novel I wrote (written when I was a freshman in college), Tomorrow is for No One.  Tom Noone was a young man who didn’t have much of a life and was pretty much a wimp. He dreams of going to the future and becoming a superhero named Zolton.  When he does get to the future, he finds that the most important things haven’t changed, and he’s still unhappy because he’s still the same person he was.

By the grace of God, I am no longer Tom Noone, and it is both painful and delightful to see who I was but no longer am.

Prayer:  Father, I thank You for fearfully and wonderfully making me, and for knowing me before I was in my mother’s womb.  I thank You for sustaining me, purchasing me with the blood of Your Son, and coming to me through Your saints and the experiences of my life.  As I remember Your love and faithfulness to me, may You fill me with thanksgiving and inspire me with knowledge of Your grace, that I may sing Your praises in Your house all the days of my life.  Amen. 

Point for Meditation:  Write down or rehearse your testimony.  What is God revealing to you through it?

Resolution:  I resolve to give thanks throughout the day to God for His grace in my life. 

© 2014 Fr. Charles Erlandson

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