Behind the Scenes: Plain Vanilla Wrapper
Some of you know me well enough to know that telling our life stories is important to me. I strongly believe everyone who knows God on a personal level should be willing to tell others what has happened to them. There is no such thing as a bad testimony. It could be the sharing of a specific incident, or a series of occurrences, or your entire journey from the beginning until now. Regardless of how small we think our stories are, we all have something to share about our relationship with God that can be an encouragement to others. In this newsletter, I am going to give a little background on how I went from wanting to hide and forget my story to being willing to use it as an important part of this ministry.
The idea of telling my story was never on my radar. After my incarceration in 1991 and release in 1993, my goals were to live my life quietly, work off my debt, be a good citizen, and try to not embarrass my family and friends any further. When I was released from prison, I planned on keeping that part of my life as much of a secret as possible. I wanted a fresh start, a new beginning, a better life.
But then one day, out of the blue, I had this thought: Gary, I want you to start telling your story. I’ll show you who and when.
At first, I dismissed the thought as something crazy (which is generally my reaction when God tells me to do things I don’t want to do). “This is a bad idea,” I said. “Nobody wants to hear my story. It will just make them uncomfortable and make me look ridiculous.” But the Lord would not leave me alone on this, so I decided to put it to a test. I would tell the story to one person I trusted and see how they reacted. If they were put off by it, I would take it as a lesson learned, and keep my mouth shut from then on.
To my surprise, the person I shared it with encouraged me to tell others. “God is going to use your story to help a lot of people,” he said. That was not the reaction I expected, but I interpreted his insistence as a sign to try it out on a few more people, and over the next five years, I began meeting with men one on one and telling my story. It was never easy, but a pattern began to develop. Their reactions were similar.
“Gary, you have no idea how much I related to your experiences in life, and how much God was speaking to me about myself while you were talking. Thank you for your transparency and obedience to tell me. You should write a book.”
Had these comments been made without emotion, I may have simply thanked them for their kind words and moved on. But what caught my attention was not so much what they said but their expressions. They were never casual. Sometimes their voices would quiver, sometimes their eyes would well up with tears, sometimes they would break down crying. Yet, despite the positive feedback, the idea of putting my story down on paper sounded dreadful.
Finally, though, I could resist God no longer, and I got to work. The more I wrote, the more I didn’t want to finish. I saw just how much of a mess I had made of my life. There were a lot of hurtful things I had to face. Sometimes I would sit and weep after reviewing some of my experiences. The only way I could continue was by convincing myself I didn’t need to write the book for anyone else to read, but as a healing process for myself. I was dealing with things that I had kept locked up inside of me for a long time. This kept me pressing on.
As I got closer to finishing, I sensed God wanted me to follow through with putting it out there for others to read. This led to some complaining on my part. “Lord, I do not want to put this out there,” I said. “It’s embarrassing.” But in my next thought, I heard, Gary, you’re missing the whole point. This story is not your story—it is mine. Yes, you are in it. You are a character in it, but the purpose and theme is not about you. It is about me. It is about what I can and will do if someone will finally get to the point where they are tired of living life their way and are willing to do it my way. The story is about my healing, my restoration, and my love, and that is what I want you to communicate.
All at once, the pressure was gone. I was able to swallow my pride, dig in, and finish the project. Looking back now, I know I did the right thing. I have shared my testimony in person hundreds of times. We have given away over 19,000 copies of Plain Vanilla Wrapper to individuals who are incarcerated. Over the past eleven years, we have received hundreds of letters confirming this was God’s idea. In every instance of these letters, one of three things is said: “I just finished reading your book and gave my life to the Lord;” or, “I just finished reading your book and rededicated my life to the Lord;” or, “I just finished reading your book and for the first time in my life I feel like I have hope.”
I am not talking about this as a way of patting myself on the back. All I did was be obedient, and even then, I was reluctant. My hope here is that someone, maybe you, will read this and start heeding God if He is telling you to do the same or something similar. Maybe it is not an entire book. Perhaps you are not even supposed to write it out. But everyone who knows the Lord has something to share with someone else about their own personal encounter with Him. Someone who does not know God might become inspired to know Him through your testimony. Someone who already knows God might become encouraged to get more serious about Him. The results are in His hands. But how can people know if nobody will tell them?
Romans 10:13-14 (NLT)
... “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
14 But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?