Rather than give a Statement of Faith, I am giving some of my story, which is part of God’s story. My story is an outworking of my theology. All theology is to some extent autobiography – theology should not be separated from ministry and God’s mission to every human being in the world and all of his creation.
Martin Luther said:
It is not by standing outside the circle of God’s plan, trying to gain objectivity, that we do theology. It is only by standing in the circle of His story, intimately acquainted with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, relating our story, that we effectively proclaim Christ until He comes again.
This month my wife, Mary, and I have completed 33 years of ministry with Youth With A Mission as faith missionaries. God has proven Himself faithful to provide, to guide, and to bless His ministry through us.
My story is typical of my generation. I was raised in the eye of a cultural hurricane amid the turbulence of economic and political turmoil and family breakdown in the early 70’s. I had no vision for a secure future and no example of a happy marriage or family. However, the hope of God’s call on my life began early. Shortly after my parent’s divorce, my great uncle, Fr. Austin Henry, sponsored my 9th-grade enrollment at Holy Name Seminary boarding school, where I would wake to the morning bell at six and minutes later I would be on my knees in morning chapel service. We also had mass and holy communion daily before lunch. I studied Latin, the history of the Catholic church, and I witnessed moving ordination ceremonies. Candidates for the priesthood spent the entire ceremony laid out on the floor in the sign of the cross.
Jesus did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. I may have gone to seminary, but I was lost. Alone in a frightening world, I spent the better part of my high school and college years escaping into a false community through alcohol and drugs.
One intoxicated night during my first year in college, I climbed into my friend Joey’s new Cutlass Oldsmobile. Joey raced down a country road as it began to rain. He drove the car into a utility pole at 90 MPH. I was 18 years of age with a compound fracture of my femur with five months of traction and time to think. I lost my first year of college. For over 40 years I have walked with a limp – a constant reminder of my folly and sin.
I saw a priest when I first arrived at Frostburg State University in western Maryland. I asked, but the priest told me there were no fellowships for Catholic students, and that the Protestant groups would not be right for me. He recommended the biggest social fraternity to which I later became president. Four years later, I graduated from university in a horrible and depraved condition. It was as if I was living without a face – unable to see, hear, or speak – I was spiritually dead and I knew it. All my relationships resulted in failure.
Because of God’s grace and the prayers of my mother, I first felt the touch of the Holy Spirit when I attended a dinner at my brother’s church. My brother told me I needed to “repent.” And God made me open enough to listen. I read the brilliant theology of C.S. Lewis, and God gave me hope. However, I still relied too much on my strength and understanding.
One night in 1981, while running in the rain, I shouted a prayer to God through the lighting and thunder: “Why won’t you save me?” It was futile because I was running alone; God wanted to reach me through others. Lesslie Newbigin writes,
“There is no private salvation, no salvation which does not involve us with one another.”
God wanted me to be a part of His family, so he led me to Jenny, a student from Oral Roberts University, who confounded all my high-minded philosophical ideas about God. She simply said,
“I don’t know about all that, John. All I know is I gave my whole life to Jesus.”
When I share the good news of Jesus today, I ask the Lord to show me how he is going to bring the person I am praying for to brokenness and surrender at the cross. The way I do that is by simply sharing my story and stating the fact that Jesus is LORD. The day came when I was broken enough to surrender at the cross of Christ.
But my surrender came only after I first landed in jail for loitering drunk on the streets of Baltimore. I was a groomsman at a college friend’s wedding that day. I didn’t know how to surrender to God or how to get near to him, so I decided to make my personal commitment to the LORD at the altar while my friend made his vows of marriage. The night before the wedding, the groomsmen all celebrated with a late night of drunkenness. That morning at the altar, I was still intoxicated. The wedding was over before I could gather my thoughts to pray. I felt like a failure. I spent that entire day drinking. Still wearing my tuxedo, I stepped outside a tavern at midnight to get some fresh air. A police car pulled up and the officer told me to move along. I explained that I was simply getting some air. He said it again, and I responded the same, adding that I would not be driving. The officer said,
“I’ve told you twice to move along.” I responded, “Officer, I told you twice.”
So this is my testimony: I wore a tuxedo to jail. As I sat in a cell with twenty other men. I realized how utterly powerless I was to save myself – to experience the salvation that C.S. Lewis and my friend Jenny described. I bowed my head to pray silently. Just then, an inmate began mocking:
“Oh God, please forgive me!”
I looked across the jail cell at the face a man who was likely demon-possessed. I was terrified into silence. I could not utter a prayer. Would I always be a failure? Could I ever be saved? I wanted salvation, but I needed to know it’s not my effort, or good works, or a strong desire that was going to get me saved. It had to be a complete surrender. I had to know, once and for all, that I am not worth saving. I do not deserve a better life than the failure I had become, and I did not deserve salvation.
Rom. 11:32 says,
“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.”
Jesus, the righteous Judge will come again looking for those who do not depend on themselves for their salvation. He is appealing to those who do not consider themselves entitled.
God is committed to us, but for a reason; so that we might become instruments of his purpose of love for ALL people. Not all will accept this good news. What is worse is that not all preach this good news.
The night I was bailed out of jail, Jenny told me to read through the gospel of John. When I came to the passage in John 11 about Lazarus. I read,
I began to weep too. I actually sensed Jesus’ tears and prayers for me. My tears fell on the pages of the Bible as I read,
“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
“Yes,” I responded to God. Then suddenly, the Holy Spirit came upon me and, right there on my bed weeping with tears of joy, I began to speak prayers of joy that was not even an intelligible language.
It was not until Jenny genuinely shared with me her love for God saying she gave her whole life to Christ that I had a living witness of joy in Christ. That surrender qualifies us to represent Jesus to our world. And it is a call to willingly suffer reproach and humiliation in His Name. I had to experience humiliation in that jail cell where I experienced brokenness because my salvation is not based on my choice or my efforts. Since that day I have experienced humiliation and some measure of suffering as His witness.
In response to God’s free gift, I shared the joy of salvation with thousands of people. I have laid hands on people and they have been healed. I have prayed for people with Spirit-given words of knowledge. I have heard the voice of God about specific things that could not be known, including the exact date our adopted daughter from China would be in our arms. I have led students toward a full surrender, including their careers, by leading them on applied missional learning experiences in 40 countries and over 75 projects. More important than all these works of ministry is the beautiful wife and family God has given to me. All this sounds like boasting, but I am boasting in the Lord because none of this would have been possible by my effort. All of it is to the glory of God.
- by John Henry