What Langston Hughes’ Lie Can Mean For Churches

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.[1]

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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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…”[4]

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 ().

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 () or our pulpits (). 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 ().

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 ().

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?[5] 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 ().

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 (). 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.” ()

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.” ()

Those are some implications that struck me. What about you?

[1] A poem I wrote titled, “Of Christians, A Theme”

[2] The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, edited by Arnold Rampersad and David Roessel (Vintage, 1995), p. 4.

[3] “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.

[4]  “Salvation” from The Big Sea (1940) cited in James A. Haught, 2000 Years of Disbelief (1996), p. 270.

[5] 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 . Great wisdom and discernment is needed here.

17 So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. (ESV)

Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test! (ESV)

2:1 So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good. (ESV)

12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (ESV)

2:1 And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands— (ESV)

16 But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. 19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (ESV)

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. 17 Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (ESV)

11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (ESV)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (ESV)

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.” 10 And not only so, but also when Rebekah had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, (ESV)

Isaac Adams
Isaac Adams serves as the editor of The Front Porch. Holler at him on Twitter: @isickadams

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