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Grisham’s The Testament,
And Other Experiences That Turn You Around
Larry Reimer
June 11, 2000

Acts 2:43-47

John 7:37-38

Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.

Two weeks ago Sandy shared her reflections of Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Poisonwood Bible. Today I am going to do the same with John Grisham’s The Testament, a much simpler yet still quite good book.

The Testament begins as seventy-eight year old Troy Phelan, an eccentric business tycoon in bad health worth eleven billion dollars, has a videotaped meeting with a panel of psychiatrists to prove that he is of sound mind. That accomplished he signs a will that parcels out his wealth to a family of grown children and ex wives. He has already given each of the children five million dollars on their twenty-first birthdays and the ex wives more than that in divorce settlements. They have all squandered every cent. They now await the hundreds of millions the will promises each of them.

With psychiatrists and lawyers before him, he then produces another document, not a will but a hand-written testament. He slides this testament to his lawyers, gets up from his wheelchair, walks to the balcony of his penthouse at the top of his tall office building, and jumps to his death.

With the video cameras still running, Phelan’s lawyer and confidante, Josh Stafford, reads the testament. It cancels out all previous wills. The testament bequeaths to his adult children and ex-wives enough money to cancel their debts as of the day of his death. Phelan then gives the remainder of his estate to a daughter no one knows about, Rachel Lane Cunningham, whom he fathered out of wedlock.

Rachel works for the World Tribes Missions in the Pantanal, a maze of jungle and rivers inhabited only by tribal peoples along the border of Brazil and Bolivia. The job of Phelan’s lawyer, Josh Stafford, is to find Rachel and give her the bequest. In the last twenty years Phelan had no contact with her. Prior to that his connection was little other than money to put her through college.

The suspense of the novel centers around three issues. First, is this holographic, hand-written testament legal? Phelan’s adult children all challenge it. Secondly, will Phelan’s lawyers find Rachel before the statute of limitations on this document runs out? If not the scoundrel children will get all the money. Third is the main story, that of the lawyer, Nate O’Riley, designated to find Rachel Cunningham.

O’Riley is a forty-eight year old partner in Stafford’s law firm, a skilled litigater who has made a fortune suing doctors for negligence. His obsessive and excessive personality traits have led him to serious addictions to alcohol and cocaine. His wife has left him. He has little contact with his children. His recent life has been a roller coaster of alcohol and drug binges, stints in expensive rehab centers, impressive comebacks and legal triumphs, drunken, drug-crazed, suicidal crashes, followed by even more expensive treatment. In a word, he’s a mess.

Josh Stafford calls Nate, now at the end of a four-month rehab in a designer spa. Nate is clean and dry, and Josh gives him this chance to do one last job for the firm, to find Rachel, then take a pension and clear out.

You can see what’s coming here. On the one hand we have Nate O’Riley, who has virtually destroyed his own life for money and power. On the other hand we have a woman who has devoted herself to living in poverty, giving her life to an Indian tribe in an all but lost jungle. O’Riley is sent on a quest. It is his last chance to do something right before he is bounced out of his profession. Will he make it without self-destructing? Will he find the girl? Will she take the money?

Like a medieval religious pilgrim, O’Riley faces all manner of challenges in his journey. He survives a crash landing of a small search plane. His boat sinks. He and his guide get lost in the labyrinthine streams and rivers of the Pantanal. A man used to money, BMW’s, alcohol and drugs to protect him from mental and spiritual pain, he now must struggle for life on what becomes his own vision quest. He is plagued by mosquitoes, heat, storms, hunger, and the confusion that comes from seeking what you know you must find in a land where you know nothing of the path. He is being stripped down to where he seeks not only Rachel, but also his own true self.

He does find Rachel.

She lives simply in her own hut in the midst of the tribe she serves. She turns out to be a true believer. She is not great success bringing Christianity to the tribe with whom she lives. But she is clearly a person quite different from the fanatic father of The Poisonwood Bible. She cares for the people she lives with and seeks to learn from them. She has medical ability and does what she can to cure their diseases.

Nate finds that Rachel is deeply committed to the Indians and her simple life. She has no desire to sign her father’s testament or accept the nearly eleven billion dollars that it would bring her. She cannot even be convinced to take the money in order to do good for the people she serves. Money simply means nothing to her, and she is going to keep it that way. She is kind to Nate, praying for him without condemning him. There is clearly a tender bond of love that develops between them.

He leaves, realizing that he is becoming seriously ill. He has dengue fever, something like malaria, only worse.

He makes it back to the city of Corumba, spends delirious days and nights in the hospital. At the critical point when his fever reaches 105, he believes that Rachel comes to him at night, telling him he won’t die, that God has other plans for him.

When Nate awakens and recovers from the disease, there is no Rachel. No one has seen her. There is no evidence that she came in from the jungle to the hospital to be with him.

Does he ever find Rachel again? Does she ever sign the testament freeing the money to flow to and through her to help the people she gives her life for? Those elements I will leave you to find out if you read the book.

What I can tell you is that the experience does change Nate. He doesn’t go back to the jungle to become a missionary himself. Rachel does not run off with him to be a poverty lawyer. But he is changed, healed by his encounter with the Pantanal, with Rachel, and a scrape with death.

One of the words that is thrown around a lot in evangelical Christianity is conversion. We don’t speak much of radical conversion experiences in the United Church of Gainesville. We speak more of faith as a journey in which we grow into new awareness.

But I think there are conversion moments in all our lives. There are experiences of new awareness burned in our memories. When we wake up after these experiences we find the landscape radically changed. The word conversion comes from the Greek, perepetia, which means to turn around.

I want you to think of three things.

First, think of a time in your life, an experience, a journey that was like a conversion, that literally turned you around, changing you and your life in some way.

Once such moment occurred for me in college when a black and white touring company came to our campus and presented the play In White America. It traced the black experience from slavery to the moment in 1954 when a 15-year-old black girl tried to go to school at Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas. I had always been a sympathetic but sidelines liberal. But as I sat in the audience that night, something clicked in me. I watched as this girl ran in fear from that National Guard which wouldn’t let her into the school. I listened as the crowd yelled, "Drag her over to this tree and let’s take care of the n_____," until a white man stepped from the crowd, put his arm around her and said, "Don’t let them see you cry."

I heard the narrator say, "There’s no neutral ground to injustice. You’re either marching for freedom, or you’re on the side of the racist mob.

The whole cast then began singing quietly, "Which Side Are You On?"

That was a conversion moment for me, in terms of Civil Rights for one, but also to realize that when human rights are at stake there is no middle ground. Neutrality supports the status quo.

Think of conversion moments in your life.

Second, think of your own testament, the financial legacy you will leave and what you want that legacy to do. What are you doing with your money now while you are alive that shows your deepest values, to your children and to the community around you?

When my children were young, my financial goal was to stay out of debt and carry adequate insurance so that they would be secure if something happened to me.

Now that they are grown my financial goal is to be generous to them and to this church.

In my legacy beyond this life, I want not only to leave a gift to my family, I also want to designate a portion, probably ten percent, for this church, for it is a place of kindness and care unlike any other institution I have known.

What is and will be your testament, your financial legacy?

Finally, if you need a conversion your life right now, if you could turn around and face a new direction, what would it be?

I need to tell you that I was rather distracted when I wrote this sermon up to this point. I rewrote the ending on Saturday. I have had a nagging low-grade cough since December, and my doctor ordered a chest x-ray last week. I didn’t think much of it until last Monday when I got a call from his office telling me that they found something in the lung they called an interstitial density and they were ordering a CAT scan. The room spun for a moment. For the next four days I prayed, I imagined, I visualized, I was scared, I was irrational, I was calm. I told most of the people I encountered this week about the test and asked for prayers. I prayed for myself. I had the CAT scan Thursday, and then of course computers were down and results were slow in coming, and my doctor was out of town. At 4:30 Friday afternoon a back up doctor called to tell me there was no cancer and no tumor. The room spun back again. What a wake up call!

I’ve been through the phone calls where the news was terrible with both my parents, with Sandy’s dad, and with dear friends when the news was not good. And I do not wish to be insensitive in any way to those of you who have been on the receiving end of those calls. But this was a week in which I was forced to look deep into my soul, ask my friends for prayer, and pray for myself. It was a warning shot across the bow of my life if there ever was one. This got my attention. I know I have been moving into a new stage of life where I need to live differently than I did the last ten years. It’s clear now that I am there. I don’t know yet what the differences are, but I don’t want to forget that call. I am sorting through the aftermath of a conversion experience.

Thank you for your love and prayers. Blessings to you in new turns in life. Let us all be open to the spirit of God. It comes to us like streams of living water, and when we receive it we live the water ourselves.


O God, there are days when we wake and discover that the landscaped has changed.

We suddenly notice that the light suggests a later season, the land is different, and we are not who we once were. Time, struggle, growth, have changed us.

In these days O God, you push us deep into the river of faith, and there we find you flowing with the ever-changing stream of our lives. We sense your pulse in the beating of our hearts. WE feel your grace in the cleansing wash of tears. We experience your release in the burst of laughter, and we find that what we feared was lost in all those changes is ourselves, and we are found.

O God we pray that in the times when the landscape changes, we may find you again and anew in the deep gifts of your presence.

We pray for ourselves, our loved ones.