They’re mighty reports,
Of God’s interrupting the sinner’s run to hell,
Turning him heav’nward,
To life, by gifted faith, in Christ;
These, are testimonies.
These, our testimonies.
One reason I love editing The Front Porch is because I get to hear testimonies often. The job has its quirks, though. For example, I can’t help but think of The Front Porch’s website when I hear the words, “the front porch.” Yeah, I know – tough life. Nonetheless, I was eating my oatmeal one morning and reading a poem by Langston Hughes. It mentioned – no surprise – “the front porch.” As a rookie poet, I figure to write better poetry, I better read the best poetry. And O, does Hughes hoist a proud trophy among that camp. Born this month (Feb. 1) in 1902, Hughes is a champion of the Black community, a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and a laureate of modern American poetry. The book I’m reading about him crowns his writing well in this summary:
“Hughes wrote a fundamentally new kind of verse – one that told of the joys and sorrows, the trials and triumphs, of ordinary black folk, in the language of their typical speech and composed out of a genuine love for these people.”
The poem I stumbled on captures this love and black culture:
“Aunt Sue has a head full of stories.
Aunt Sue has a whole heart full of stories.
Summer nights on the front porch.
Aunt Sue cuddles a brown-faced child to her bosom
And tells him stories.”
We could delight more in the treasures Hughes’ pen spilled. But as I read this, what sprang to mind was a tragedy Hughes’ pen bled. It’s a testimony of sorts. Really, it’s an anti-testimony; it’s Hughes recalling when, where, why, and how he rejected Christ. Take a look at his words:
“I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this: There was a big revival at my Auntie Reed’s church. Every night for weeks there had been much preaching, singing, praying, and shouting…Finally all the young people had gone to the altar and were saved, but one boy and me. He was a rounder’s son named Westley. Westley and I were surrounded by sisters and deacons praying. It was very hot in the church, and getting late now. Finally Westley said to me in a whisper, ‘G* d*! I’m tired o’ sitting here. Let’s get up and be saved.’
So he got up and was saved.
Then I was left all alone on the mourner’s bench. My aunt came and knelt at my knees and cried, while prayers and songs swirled all around me in the little church. The whole congregation prayed for me alone, in a mighty wail of moans…God had not struck Westley dead for taking his name in vain or for lying in the temple. So I decided that maybe to save further trouble, I’d better lie, too, and say that Jesus had come, and get up and be saved.
So I got up.
Suddenly the whole room broke into a sea of shouting, as they saw me rise…I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more…”
As I thought about Hughes’ saddening words, eight implications occurred to me for church practice. I thought I’d share them for what they’re worth:
“…now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore…”
1. Our churches should make clear (1) what the gospel is and isn’t and (2) what true conversion is and isn’t. Thus, we must explicitly say words like “belief, repentance, and baptism” and we have to biblically define those words. We don’t know from Hughes’ anti-testimony that he ever actually heard the only message that saves – the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17).
2. Our churches should graciously and thoroughly inspect and instruct candidates for baptism and church membership. This protects the inspected’s soul and the church’s witness.
3. Our churches should consider that some among our numbers would knowingly lie about their conversion (like Langston and Westley). False professors may be in our pews (2 Cor. 13:5) or our pulpits (1 Peter 2:1-3). Though we may feel very sincere for someone, we can be very deceived by that person as well (like Langston’s aunt). We must guard one another from deception (Hebrews 3:12-13).
4. Our churches should not necessarily be discouraged if false converts harden their hearts toward Jesus in response to their experience with us on Sunday morning. It is the Lord who ultimately revives the heart (Eph. 2:1-11).
5. Our churches should recognize that they can, to a fault, place too much emotional pressure on people. We must be careful of peer (emotional) pressure. How many youth groups have Westleys that encourage Langstons to lie? We must be careful of parent pressure as well. How many parents have said to their child, “it’s about time for you to get baptized.” If anything, Langston’s story shows us the particular vulnerability of children. So be clear, courageous, and gracious in your pursuit of sharing the truth with children – but be patient as well. Build relationships, teach them the Scriptures, and seek genuine fruits of the Spirit that signify their conversion (Galatians 5:16-23).
6. Our churches should not assume that physical or emotional responses – tears, walking an isle, raising hands, etc. – means that someone is saved. Phil expounds on this danger in his article, “Where’s the Altar Call?”
7. Our churches should be safe places for people to confess their weaknesses, fears, and doubts (Romans 12:14-21). Langston couldn’t bear to say that he lied about his conversion. Are we making people more afraid of our judgment or God’s?
8. “And such were some of you.” (1 Corinthians 6:11)
Our churches must be remember these words, lest we think Langston’s story couldn’t easily be our own. But by God’s grace some of us who lied in the temple weren’t struck dead; we were made alive. By God’s grace, some of us who cussed in churches and were “so tired o’ sitting there” now sit in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. By God’s grace, some of us who didn’t believe there was a Jesus any more, now believe there’s a Jesus forevermore!
“For by grace [we] have been saved through faith. And this is not [our] own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)
Those are some implications that struck me. What about you?
 A poem I wrote titled, “Of Christians, A Theme”
 The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (Vintage, 1995), p. 4.
 “Aunt Sue’s Stories” from the Crisis (July 1921; it was first published here), p. 121. Found in The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, p. 23.
 “Salvation” from The Big Sea (1940) cited in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief (1996), p. 270.
 This is not to say that churches cannot swing to the other side of the pendulum and place too little pressure on the emotions. This pressure is not inherently evil by any means – and we Reformed types can be too quick to make it seem so. Yet Paul pleads for the Israelite’s salvation in Romans 9:3-10. Great wisdom and discernment is needed here.