Mrs. Stilwell lived at the edge of my universe. Her house was the nearest one to mine, but it was a half-mile uphill on a rock road and my six-year-old legs could barely pedal a one-speed Ross that far. If I did go to her house, I usually just used her driveway as a place to turn around and coast back down the hill. But for a few days each summer, I’d go there for Kool-Aid and cookies and vacation Bible school.
My family didn’t really do church. I remember going steadily for a while, but Dad never went. Eventually, Mom got tired of taking us three kids by herself and then youth bowling leagues opened on Sunday mornings, so we quit going. Our family respected the traditions of Christianity. When we did think of Jesus, we thought well of him. But we didn’t think he was God. And the church? That was a place for hypocrites and religious fanatics.
I remember Dad talking about evangelists coming to the house to convert him. Honestly, Dad is a good man and so was his dad, but neither was a church member. All my patriarchs are honest, hard-working and genuinely kind people. Dad has four brothers and each one is a role-model. Consequently, Dad wasn’t ever going to give any hypocrite-preacher the satisfaction of bowing and admitting he was a sinner in need of anything that preacher had to offer. And I loved my dad. So that’s how I was, too.
That’s why vacation Bible school at Mrs. Stilwell’s house caught me by surprise. Only a precious few kids came. But there were several teachers and they taught us just the same. They taught me about God and His holiness. They told us that God created us to love us and for us to love Him. I learned that the first man (Adam) and woman (Eve) sinned and so have we and that is why we’re separated from God. I remember the easel with the cartoon Jesus holding out nail-scarred hands. He had a heavenly glow and He offered us a way back to God. And He was loving. And kind. And gracious. And I sort-of believed it.
But that didn’t last. There were lots of weeds to choke out such a weak little crop. School taught me that I wasn’t made for a purpose; I was to make my own purpose. Science proved that God didn’t exist; but if He did, He didn’t matter. I walked away from God for a long time. I came to resent the way that I was pressured to believe in the gospel back at Mrs. Stilwell’s vacation Bible school. Just like Dad and Grandpa, I was a good man. God was irrelevant at best. What business did they have teaching me about God? I’d have been angry with Mrs. Stilwell if I hadn’t pitied her for believing such nonsense.
When I was nineteen, I came back to God. I was broken and lonely. I believed in Jesus, was baptized and joined a church. God became my rock and He blessed me with a wife, two boys and a voice with which to sing. He led me through some difficult times that I’d have never made it through without Him. I would be utterly and hopelessly lost without God. If you ever doubt God’s existence and His interest in your life, I’d love to tell you some stories of His Divine intervention that could remove all doubt. But do you know that I still didn’t appreciate Mrs. Stilwell or those vacation Bible school teachers? I truly thought that they pushed me to make a decision that I didn’t understand, one that I couldn’t understand. I felt it was a decision that I had no business making at such a young age. I thought if people like her had been less pushy, maybe my dad would have believed. I guess I blamed her (partly) for my dad’s unbelief. For 30 years. Until last week.
Last week, Mrs. Stilwell passed away. She’s home in Glory, I have no doubt. When she died, there was a card in her bible from when her grandson and I invited Jesus into our hearts when we were six years old at her vacation Bible school. I didn’t know the card existed. Honestly, I don’t remember committing my life to Jesus. But she did. And God did. She never forgot and neither did He. She carried it around for most of my life. It was because of her faithfulness and love that I knew Jesus then, and I’m convinced that Mrs. Stilwell is the biggest reason I know Him today. How many times did she pray for me? She is, at the very least, the first reason that I ever experienced God’s grace and she’s the one I’m indebted to for showing me the One to Whom I owe everything. How many good things would I have missed if not for her?
Thank you, Mary Louise Stilwell. I’m sorry that I didn’t say it sooner. I’m sorry for blaming you for anyone’s unbelief. Thank you for all you did. The Kingdom is larger because of your faithfulness. I will use your story to encourage as many people as I can.