The Holidays will provide many opportunities to share our life story. What is yours?
This week I read a compelling book, Pray and Go by Thom Rainer. He challenges all Christians to become Great Commission Christians, centering their lives around obedience to Christ’s Great Commission in Acts 1;8 and Mt. 28: 16-20. Day 26 in his 30-day challenge is called “Telling your story.” In this chapter he urges each reader to have a well-constructed story that explains the why and how of their testimony. His challenge is based on I Peter 3:15 “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your heart, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.” Rainer says:
Most of the time when someone asks us to tell them something about ourselves, we talk about our family or our vocation. We should also be ready to tell our spiritual story. We must be ready to explain how we came to faith in Christ. There are three major parts to Peter’s challenge to the believers in the I Peter verse - First, there is an admonition to live a holy life so that others will see Christ in us It is not a life of perfection, but a life that seeks to be closer to Jesus. Next, Peter tells us to be expectant that people would ask us about our faith. Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 9:37-38 that there is a huge harvest field waiting for people like you who will gladly tell their story. Finally, Peter tells us we must have our story ready :’Always be ready to explain it.’ These words are powerful. It is one of those Great Commission imperatives that is often overlooked . . . As you grow as a Great Commission Christian you will be amazed at how many times you have an opportunity to share the gospel and tell your story. Most people love to hear a good story. You have the greatest story. You were once blind, but now you see. You were once lost, but now you’re found. Get ready to tell your story. Countless people are waiting.” (Thom Rainer, Pray and Go, Tyndale Momentum, 2023, pp.189-191).
In the small group at my church each member signs up to tell their life story sometime during this fall semester so we can know each other better. That assignment also crystallized for many folks how to share their life story as a fulfillment of God’s mandate that we be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the end of the earth. In Rainer’s terms it has prepared each storyteller to live as a Great Commission Christian.
Two weeks ago, I gave my life story. I have found many opportunities this fall to share this story as I get to know people in my new community and church. So, I share it here as a prompt, to those of you who get my weekly sermons, to write your own version of your life story so YOU are also ready to give an account of God’s great work in your life. At the end of this sermon, I suggest you write your story down. I’d love to read it, so I invite you to send your stories to me.
ML Life Story Nov.2 2023
My life can really be divided into 4 20-year cycles and my identity has changed as the years have gone by. But through it all is the constant thread of God’s goodness and mercy as the song we often sing at Wed. nite prayer group testifies:
I love you, Lord, for your mercy never fails me. All my days I’ve been held in Your hands. From the moment that I wake up until I lay my head, oh, I will sing of the goodness of God. All my life You have been faithful; and all my life You have been so, so good. With every breath that I am able Oh, I will sing of the goodness of God.
That’s the theme of my story.
Cycle One – A wealthy Bostonian born in a well-connected family.
1n 1939 I was my parents’ first child in a well-connected, wealthy Bostonian family. Our whole clan had moral values but an underlying hostility to Christianity. In their minds God was just a crutch weak people needed. But at age 6 I contracted Type B meningitis – a disease until that year which had always been fatal. And it almost was for me too. But that year in the 40’s a new experimental drug came on the scene. The doctors told my parents, “You little girl is dying. Is it OK if we try this unapproved, experimental drug on her?” They said “Yes.” That drug was penicillin, and it saved my life. (God did but no one is my circles realized that then.)
I had a privileged upbringing as a child until the summer before my private high school graduation when our senior class president and 3 of her companions were killed in a head-on car collision they caused because they had all been drinking. That began my questioning. I didn’t know if God even existed, but I wondered where Nancy was now after her death, and if there was a God, what was God’s response to the reason for her death? I had no answers.
Traditionally, in my family clan no women went to college – though my grandmother sent all 4 of her sons to Harvard for 2 years each on her bridge earnings!! High stakes. But I was adamant that I wanted to attend a 4-year college rather than take the traditional path of my family background and go to France for finishing school so I could be a patron of the arts back in Boston. That same grandmother funded my 4 years of college, and I became the first women in my clan to have a higher education. At that secular college I also became a Christian and this turned everything upside down – or right side up! I was 19. So that story comes in the first 20 years of my life.
In my all-girls secular college- Goucher College in Baltimore, the only guys I met freshmen year were Johns Hopkins University guys. They had gotten a hold of our freshmen picture directory from Goucher and invited me and some other girls to their fraternity parties. At the first party, I discovered that their intent was to get the girls drunk and then take us to bed. I had maintained the moral integrity of my family clan, and I was appalled. I called a taxi and returned to the dorm. Several months later I got another invitation. Hoping it would be different and feeling like the college social life had me living in a nunnery, I attended, but again left in disgust. I tried transferring out to Duke University that first winter but wasn’t accepted. So, that spring when a Chinese freshman whom I didn’t know came to my room and invited me to a Naval Academy Christian conference, I thought “MAYBE these guys were moral and could be friends, so I went.
The encounter with God there changed my life. I did meet nice guys whose lives were wholesome and attractive; they talked about a personal relationship with God through Christ (which I’d never heard of) and the answered prayers and miracles they saw God do. Plus, the speaker at that conference gave clear, excellent messages about Jesus that got me thinking. But the staff guy at the conference saw that I challenged the Bible and was not a Christian, so he took it on himself to railroad me into salvation. He wanted me to believe the inerrancy of the Bible (when I thought the tales of Jonah and Noah etc. were all myths) AND believe in hell – where all those who rejected Christ would go. He assured me that was my destination. I didn’t know the Bible yet but I thought his version of God – if it was even partly accurate – was so loathsome, I wanted no part of him nor his religion. However, Sat. night of the conference I was alone in my dorm room and wrestling with God. “God, I don’t know if You even exist, and I certainly don’t believe the Bible, but what do I do with Jesus and the reality of the good lives and testimonies of these guys?”
I decided, like a good intellectual😊, to put God and the Bible to the test. I said, “OK, God, I need to do a 3-month test. Every day for the next 3 months I will read the Bible in the New Testament and if there is something You promise to do, I will expect to see You do it”, (without debating about so many parts in the Bible I find offensive). “And every day for three months, if there is something You tell Your followers to do, I will do it. Then I’ll decide.” An Inter Varsity staff member met with me for those 3 months. We studied the book of First John together and I was astonished to discover that what was described as characteristics of a Christian was becoming true of me – I began to understand the Bible; I experienced God’s presence and answers to my prayers; I had a totally new love for those who knew Jesus, many of whom were from other cultures. (The only people I knew from other cultures had all been my family’s servants, not my friends.) So, I surrendered and asked Christ to be the Savior and Lord of my life and trusted God to keep His Word fresh, so it was not reruns of 5th grade Sunday school lessons.
My parents were appalled at my conversion and basically said, condescendingly, “Louisa,” (the name they called me when they were disciplining me and I hope never to hear you call me!!!), you are just going through a teenage phase. No one in our clan believes this religious stuff. It is only for weak people; you will outgrow it.”
But, I did not. That was in 1958.
A Devoted Christian -The next 20 years of my life, from ages 20-40, tell a different story. I became a “salmon swimmer” – swimming against the cultural current to be whom God made me to be. I had a college education, and I had left my family’s agnostic antagonism to Christianity and chosen to follow Jesus as Lord and Savior with all my heart. In the traditional pattern I did get married and Keith and I had 2 children. But the passions of Jesus began to dominate my heart – especially as I realized that God loved the world and wanted His followers to tell others about Him. So, I began Bible studies with non-Christians, started an Inter Varsity group on my college campus and began meeting with the collegiate internationals I knew for meals and discussions.
During those years Keith wouldn’t let me work officially – I was supposed to stay at home, raise and disciple the children, birth more children and dust the house. I fulfilled his first 2 expectations and am extremely grateful that both our children chose to follow Jesus and are still walking with Him and their kids! But Keith’s last two expectations did not go down! The differing expectations Keith and I had about my role resulted in a decade where I questioned God about my gender: “Why give me spiritual gifts that men are supposed to have – teaching leading, preaching, evangelizing - but my church culture and my husband forbid me to use? I don’t get it, Lord.”
Freed To Work
However, for my 40’s birthday Keith gave me a briefcase, telling me he had seen the Spirit at work in me and felt God would be judging him for holding me back! I started work as a Missions Coordinator at our home church, then was asked to join a national board of those who worked with churches around the country to put missions at the center of church life. And I received my first grad degree in Intercultural Communications. My thesis was a 4-year disciplining curriculum called A Disciple’s Bifocals, Becoming a World Christian I wrote and taught in churches nationally. After a few years in that arena, I was tapped on the international stage by World Evangelical Fellowship to help lead the Commission of Church Renewal. Keith accompanied me as I took 2 long teaching trips in the 80’s to large Christian gatherings in churches and seminaries in Asia. Our kids were in college and living independently.
On one of those Asian trips, I had another life-altering encounter with God. In Singapore, as I was studying the Bible in preparation for my lecture, I was reading Eph.3: 7-8 where Paul said, “7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8 Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ.” The Lord said to me, “This is your call.” I felt qualified as “the least of all God’s people” because of the negative views of women in leadership I had experienced, but I did not see how it was possible to fulfill the pastor/preaching role that God was indicating. So, I said, “But Lord...”. wrote the date in my Bible, surrendered it to Him and went on with my life. Have you ever said, “But God!” in your life? It sets you on quite a faith journey!!
In the meantime, I continued disciplining my children and was able to complete a second Masters- this one in Theology on Buddhist Christian Hindu Dialogue and then a PhD on Asian American Identity Issues. In this period I taught in 2 seminaries, wrote a monthly journal called Bridges for those engaged in cross-cultural relationships, and worked on Inter Varsity staff in outreach to internationals. After college our children both married Christian spouses and started raising their families. I am so proud of each of them. But my story didn’t end there. I was only 60!
These last years have been The Pastoring/Writing Years – age 60 to the present.
Time doesn’t allow me to tell how this switch to fulfill the Ephesians 3 call happened, but Keith turned around in his views of women in leadership and in 1992 I graduated with my PhD and was Ordained as a minister of the Gospel in the Southern Baptist denomination! That’s an oxymoron and when the denominational leaders heard of it, I was exiled from the denomination and became re credentialed in the American Baptist denomination! In 1999 I survived my second death incident as I began my first pastorate and have since pastor-ed 4 other churches – from Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian and non-denominational backgrounds. In each setting God’s empowerment and grace enabled the ministry to focus on Him and much fruit resulted.
Currently, the church I am still connected to is our New Hope Global Fellowship – the house church Keith and I had for mainly International Grad students from Wheaton College. These grads are now dispersed globally so I still send out my weekly sermons and weekly book reviews to them and others around the world. (website: maryloucodmanwilson.com; book reviews – Marylousreviews.blogspot.com).
In this final stage, the Lord also helped me publish 4 books – Of Bananas and Hard-Boiled Eggs (a curriculum to help those learning English), Salmon Swimmers, which challenges Christians to live for Jesus outside the values of their secular or religious cultures, Supracultural Gospel, contextually adapting the gospel in terms more understandable in Asian cultures, and Effective Spiritual Warfare, helping Christians learn the principles of victory in spiritual warfare. Who would have thought!
All that has happened through these decades is because of the kindness of the Lord and the prayers and teamwork of friends and colleagues who have partnered with me at every stage. These partnerships are even more vital to me now that Keith has died, and I am a widow, seeking God’s next steps in my life. I have connected to a new church whose members vitally walk with God and I am grateful.
We will see how I can serve there, but I am still on the planet and have the confidence that God’s goodness will continue to lead me during this final lap of life before I join Jesus in heaven with Keith and all those who have loved the Lord throughout history! Heaven is the future hope and promise to all of us who have chosen to follow Jesus with all our mind, soul, heart, and strength. In God’s time I expect to meet most of you there!
In the meantime, I pray we each can become what I call World Christians and Rainer calls Great Commission Christians, prompted to tell our stories, and lead many others to new life through faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. May God continue by the Holy Spirit to write His story through each of our lives, beloved, so our story is all about Him. What a privilege! Amen.
Mary Lou Codman-Wilson, PhD
Pastor New Hope Global Fellowship – 10/2/23