Back in 2005, my daughter invited her friend, Justin, to join her at youth group. Surprisingly, he looked her square in the face and said, “How do you even know He’s real?” She had no idea how to respond to that question, and to be honest, neither did I. It haunted me.
That is the universal question isn’t it? How do we know Christ is real? To many people, Jesus is just a legend, a wise and kind man, a prophet. I wondered, what would convince people like Justin that following Jesus is worth a try?
I embarked on a journey to prove that Christ is real. In a moment of sheer madness, I decided to write a book series that would share the testimonies of celebrities. Why celebrities? Because the American culture worships the rich and famous, and I thought that maybe if admired celebrities talked about Jesus, seekers would listen.
I started emailing, sending letters and calling Christian actors, professional and Olympic athletes, and musicians and asked them to share their faith with me. It was a pretty gutsy move; I’d never had one word published. If you Googled my name, you would get a big, fat donut. What made me think that any of these stars would give me the time of day?
Well, they did … and in vast numbers. To date, more than 120 famous people have shared their private testimonies—in many cases they told me things they had never told another living soul. I was both humbled and amazed. Well-known personalities from the worlds of sports and entertainment talked candidly about things like miracles, relationships, healing, success, sex, addiction, death, forgiveness, salvation, joy, love and much more.
The first book I had published is aptly titled How Do You Know He’s Real? It contains my testimony along with those of 34 celebrities. I suspect you’ll recognize many of their names:
- John Schneider (actor and Broadway star)
- Billy Ray Cyrus (actor and singer/songwriter)
- Gary Burghoff (“Radar O’Reilly” from the hit TV series M*A*S*H)
- Kirk Cameron (Star of the Growing Pains television series)
- Nancy Stafford (actress from Matlock and other shows)
- Jackie Zeman (actress from General Hospital)
- Ricky Skaggs (musician)
- Charlie Daniels (legendary country music superstar)
- Gloria Gaynor (disco legend)
- Jonny Lang (blues singer)
- T-Bone (rapper and television host)
- Clay Crosse (musician)
- Zoro (drummer for Lenny Kravitz)
- Noel Paul Stookey (“Paul” from legendary 60’s singing group Peter, Paul & Mary)
- Ken Hensley (former lead singer for the 70’s rock band Uriah Heep)
- Rudy Sarzo (bass guitar player with Quiet Riot, Whitesnake and Ozzy Osborne)
- Bonnie Bramlett (R&B musician and songwriter)
- Kerry Livgren (from rock band Kansas)
- Leon Patillo (former lead vocalist with the rock band Santana)
- Heather Powers (musician)
- Al Kasha (Academy Award winning composer)
- Bethel Johnson (former NFL player)
- David Carr(NFL player)
- Andrew DeClercq (former NBA player)
- Luther Ellis (former NFL player)
- Charlotte Smith-Taylor (WNBA coach & former player)
- Jason Hanson (NFL player)
- Corey Koskie (former MLB player)
- David Wheaton (tennis champion)
- Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila (former NFL player)
- Tara Dawn Christensen (Miss America 1997)
I was particularly excited to interview Billy Ray Cyrus. Back in 1991 he recorded “Achy Breaky Heart,” and he became an instant superstar. Young girls swooned over the handsome some man with his famous mullet. Yet despite his fame and fortune, he experienced periods of darkness and despair. The following is an excerpt of his testimony from How Do You Know He’s Real?
Ever since I was a little boy I could feel and hear this voice inside saying, “Someday God is going to use your life to do something for Him.”
I grew up in Flatwoods, Kentucky. My pap Paw (grandfather) Cyrus was a preacher. My pap Paw Casto rode the caboose for the railroad and played bluegrass and country music.
My earliest memories are Saturday nights at my pap Paw Casto’s house. He’d play the fiddle, my mom would play the piano and my uncle would play the guitar. We’d sing “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey” and maybe some old Hank Williams songs. And then we’d listen to the Grand Ole Opry.
On Sunday mornings I’d be inside my pap Paw Cyrus’ Pentecostal church and we’d be singing hymns like “Old Rugged Cross,” and “I’ll Fly Away” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” My dad had a gospel quartet and they’d sing just about every Sunday. When I was four or five I started getting up there and singing with them. My earliest memories of life are based around music.
But my childhood was far from perfect. My mom and dad got divorced when I was around five. We were pretty poor at my house; I remember one time my mom sold the piano that her mother had left her, just so we’d be able to pay our bills, keep our house, and have some food on the table.
I remember once when Neil Diamond came to Charleston, WV. As fate would have it, I won the last set of concert tickets they were giving away. Something incredible happened to me at that concert, I’ll never forget it. Neil Diamond was singing his song, “Holly Holy Love.” At that moment, I felt like I was being embraced by one big set of hands … it was like something was all around me saying, “There’s your purpose, that’s what you’re supposed to be. That’s what you’ve always heard and felt since you were a little boy. Buy a guitar and start a band.”
Within a matter of months I was making my living playing music and I’ve never stopped. But I wanted something more than those small clubs. As soon as I finished a gig on Sunday night, I’d take off and head to Nashville and knock on doors for a couple of days. I’d be so excited when I’d see Nashville in the windshield as I was coming into town. But then when I was leaving and looking at Nashville in the rearview mirror I’d just feel like a kicked pup—like somebody had thrown scalding water on me and told me to get out of town. I took that as a sign to move to get a change of scenery.
I moved out to Los Angeles, but my luck out there wasn’t any better—instead of turning me down in Nashville they just did it in Los Angeles instead. Between Nashville, Los Angeles and my home base in Kentucky I had failed in just about every way you could possibly fail. I was miserable and headed for home with my tail between my legs.
Something told me that I should go back to that church where my grandfather was a preacher in Flatwoods. It was strange being there without my grandfather—there was this other preacher just pounding the pulpit, just shouting that God loves a desperate man. It was like he was talking right to me. I felt inside myself, I’m as desperate as I’ve ever been; I’m as desperate as any man that’s ever walked this earth. I got up out of that same pew where I used to sit as a little boy, and I knelt down and said a desperate prayer. “God, help me. I can’t do this anymore, I need help. I’m breaking.”
I left that church and went to play my gig that night in Huntington, WV. Trust me, the devil sent every messenger he had to distract me from thoughts that were good or pure. He sent them all after me that night, but I made it out of there. Later, on my way to Nashville, I called the President of Mercury Records and told his secretary “I’m desperate. I want to play Harold Shedd my very best song and if this ain’t good enough then maybe I need to do something else.”
And she set it up for me. I played him a song that I had written called Some Gave All about a Vietnam veteran. At the end He stood up and said, “I’m going to structure you a little deal” and he got up and left the room. I figured he was going to come back and tell me I could sweep the halls or at best maybe work with some writers.
But when he came back into the room he was with the vice president of the label. Imagine my surprise when that man shook my hand and said, “Congratulations, this must be a big day for you.”
After ten years of being told “no” by everybody up and down the lonely streets of Nashville, somebody finally said “yes.” Look what God did for me once I asked for help!
My world went from its darkest point to having the number one album in the world for seventeen weeks in a row, just like that. I was even nominated for five Grammy awards. I knew I wasn’t going to win a Grammy though, I told everybody in my interviews, “I’m not going to win a Grammy; I just thank God that I’m here.”
For my performance on the award show I wore a white t-shirt with the sleeves cut off that said John 3:16 in huge letters across the chest. I wanted to wear that shirt because I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to step up to the microphone and thank God and I wanted everybody to know that I gave Him the credit.
As I’d expected, I didn’t win. When I got into the limo after the Grammy’s were over nobody was saying anything—not my manager, not the president of my record company, and not the owner.
Finally I said, “At least I got to wear my John 3:16 shirt.” And the President said, “Didn’t you have something else you could have worn?” And there was just a hush in the car; obviously they were mad at me for wearing the shirt.
The next day I got up to catch an early flight. Everybody in the music business was getting out of LA and was on this airplane. Sitting in my seat I opened up the LA Times and got a look at the headline, “Cyrus Big Loser — Not Even God Could Help Billy Ray Cyrus Win a Grammy.”
I just sat there; I thought I was going to cry. I was breathless and embarrassed in front of all of those people on that plane. Everybody knew—they were all looking at the same newspaper. Suddenly, I felt a hand on my shoulder and there stood Bob Seger. I’d been playing Bob Seger’s music for ten years in the clubs, but I’d never met him. I turned and looked up and He said, “Put that newspaper underneath your feet where it belongs.” I’ll never forget that.
… My world had been spinning out of control so much in the last ten years that I hit a couple of spots where I didn’t feel like God could hear me anymore. But it wasn’t that God wasn’t listening, it’s that I wasn’t taking the time to be still and make sure that prayer was getting through. With that realization I shifted my priorities. My family became my foundation. And my spirituality became my foundation. I started reconnecting back to life instead of being up there in the twilight zone on some rocket spinning out of control.
You know, we’re only on this earth for a little while…make the most of it. And don’t go it alone. I wish I would have known Jesus better back then… but I know Him now.
Do you ever feel like you just can’t go on? Life can be absolutely debilitating sometimes, with disappointment around every turn. But God is right there alongside you to prop you up and help you go on. Lean on Him.
Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s.
~ Second Chronicles 20:15b
Until next time,
Amy Hammond Hagberg