Marcus Swearingen Bates, pastor for the Knoxville First Church, shares a testimony concerning his family.
I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. “I think your father has committed the unpardonable sin.” Mom’s voice conveyed a level of seriousness to where I knew she wasn’t joking: “He just seems so indifferent to Christianity and hardened against spiritual influences that I doubt he’ll ever come around.” I had to agree with her about Dad’s indifference toward Christianity. “Well,” I remember saying, “we shouldn’t preach to him or lecture him. Let’s keep praying for him, and try to be a consistent example in the way we live our faith. Only God truly knows when someone has moved beyond the possibility of salvation.” Mom agreed, and we decided to leave Dad in God’s hands.
Looking back, my father, Terry Swearingen, had often expressed a deep cynicism regarding the Christian faith in our discussions about religion. His personal experience with Christians had given him the impression that most are hypocrites who don’t consistently live what they profess. Dad has also had difficulty reconciling a God of love with suffering in our world, a concern that stems from the fact that, as a decorated combat veteran who served in the First Cavalry Division in Vietnam, he has personally experienced the horror of war.
Even so, God was still working in Dad’s life. He attended church occasionally with my mother, Barbara Swearingen, through the years, and even went to several evangelistic campaigns along the way. Mom and I have been Adventist believers for over twenty years now, so Dad has also had several years to ponder the teachings of Adventism. As Providence would have it, a few months ago Dad faced some serious health problems and landed in the hospital for several weeks. As it turned out, he made a stunning and unexpected announcement to Mom one day when she came to visit him: “Barbara, I want to give my life to God and join the Adventist Church.” When Mom shared this news with me later that evening, I was absolutely flabbergasted! I was doubtful that Dad would ever become a Christian. Yet, I was gently reminded that, “the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save” (Isaiah 59:1).
The blessing of Dad’s decision to follow Christ didn’t stop there either. I ended up speaking to Dad on the phone a few days later, and he asked me if I would baptize him! I gratefully agreed, of course, and we immediately made plans on a baptismal date. He and Mom were eventually able to make the eight-hour trek up to Knoxville from their home in Florida, and on Sabbath, November 11, 2017, Dad publicly affirmed his baptismal vows in front of the Knoxville First church and was immersed in baptism as a believer in Jesus Christ. Our supportive church family also happily voted him in as a full-fledged member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As I reflect on Dad’s decision, I have thought about the conversation he and I had the night before his baptism. I was curious about something: “Dad, what finally convinced you to become a Seventh-day Adventist Christian?” The gist of his response was, “Well, my health isn’t the best, and I want to be right with God, because I don’t know how long I’ll be around. Also, one of the last things that Grammie said to me before she died is that she hoped that I would find God. And, of course, there’s your mother also. She has been a faithful Christian wife to me through the years.”
His response got me thinking. I thought about Grammie, Dad’s mom. She had been a faithful Christian for her entire life. No doubt, she prayed that Dad would find God right up until her death in 2012. I know she’ll be excited to see her son present with the faithful when Christ returns! I also thought about Mom, and how she has been a consistent Christian influence in our lives through the years. She is one of the main reasons why I am a Christian today, and I believe her consistent influence has also been a significant factor in Dad’s decision to follow Christ.
Looking back with 20/20 spiritual vision, Dad’s health challenges seemed to be a catalyst in his decision to follow Christ. Yet, I can’t help but think that the foundation for his conversion had been steadily formed through the consistent Christian influence of Grammie and Mom. Their faithful example through the years has poured a continual flow of grace into Dad’s life and has pointed him to a merciful and loving Savior. Through their steady influence and the untiring work of the Holy Spirit, Dad finally came to realize that, even in the midst of his questions about life, God could forgive him for his sins and love him just the way he is. I’m so thankful that Dad has finally found peace with God and the assurance of salvation in Christ Jesus.
Dad’s testimony has reminded me that God can use a variety of factors and circumstances to reach people, the most important of which is the power of a consistent Christian example. We should never forget this principle. We should also never underestimate God’s ability to reach people, especially those whom we might think are the most unlikely kingdom candidates!
by Marcus Swearingen Bates, senior pastor, Knoxville First Church