Following Jesus

discipleship • the inner life • prayer
community of goods • faith • repentance

Following Jesus

All of Life For Christ, Part I

April 30, 2020 by

"It is the mission of the church to lead all men to dedicate all of life to Christ. This has been the call of prophets in this century. They have held that each man’s life is one indivisible whole, and that every phase of his life must be open to Christ’s control. Men need Christ at all times and in all places, not only in the church during periods of worship, but every hour, while at work in the fields, shop, or kitchen. And they need Christ’s presence in their relations with other men, direct or indirect."

This is how my grandparents, Bill and Charlotte Wiser, began the final chapter of their book For All of Life, published in 1943 while they were on furlough in the United States during World War II. They had by that time spent some two decades on the mission field in India.

Dad was born in India, and India shaped every facet of his life. More often than not our home was enveloped in the aromas of cumin and coriander, cardamom and turmeric, cloves and cinnamon, garlic and ginger (to name only a few), much to the consternation of the neighbors! To her credit, Mom was a quick learner; her dahl recipe is one I treasure, written in her own hand.

Best was when Grandma visited. She always brought spices, chutney, and tea fresh from India. And mangos, which were almost as rare in our house as the semiprecious gems she picked up in Tibet or the coins and stamps that represented distant and mysterious ports her ship had docked at. Grandpa Bill does not play a part in these memories; he died when I was three. Though I can’t recall his face, I can still feel the enveloping love that drew me to his wheelchair.

painting of a housePainting by Frank Wesley.

Impassioned by a global revival that swept through the Christian circles of their youth, the two felt a call to the mission field. Charlotte left the comfortable social life of Chicago and Bill abandoned a promising career as a concert violinist. Just how gut-wrenching the separation from family and friends turned out to be is clear from a letter written by Charlotte to her father shortly after her arrival in India:

Mother told me that you have never mentioned me since I left. Why do you do it, father? You still love me, don’t you? I keep loving you more and more. Distance does not affect the feeling between father and child. God sent his Child to the world because the world needed Him. Aren’t you glad to have me come where I am needed? O father, the girls and women here need to be told about Christ and they want a friend who will help them to make their homes better and happier, healthier and cleaner. . . .
Father, I am going to be so happy in the work, but I could be O so much happier if I knew how you felt. As I look back on that last awful night, you seemed to understand when I wanted to burst with grief but didn’t dare let go. You did seem willing to have me go. Won’t you please write to me?

The couple were married in Allahabad in 1916, and notwithstanding the many challenges they faced, mission life under the British Raj seemed well ordered enough: missionaries lived in the Mission Compound, waited on by the natives. But trouble started when my grandparents invited an Indian for a meal in their own home, an impropriety that almost got them ostracized from the compound.

Then there was the letter to friends back home, written in 1926, in which Grandpa Bill outlined his vision for mission and what he felt to be the serious deficiencies of the going model. (More about that in the next installment.) Bill and Charlotte found themselves at a crossroads.

Few had traveled this road, and, indeed, that made all the difference. The decision to forsake missional norms took its emotional and financial toll as the mission board back home re-evaluated its support.They chose to leave the security of the compound. Dad used to tell us stories about living in tents in a mango grove outside a village while his parents earned the trust and then the love of the people by introducing better agricultural methods for the men and improvements in health and hygiene for the women and children. This consistent, patient, humble service eventually gained them a place in the village.

Few had traveled this road, and, indeed, that made all the difference. The decision to forsake missional norms took its emotional and financial toll as the mission board back home re-evaluated its support. Though surely not by intent, my grandparents felt abandoned by the church. And after decades of dedicated service in the field, Bill passed away in a private nursing home in the backwoods of Pennsylvania.

Charlotte later returned to the village, adding chapters to their book, Behind Mud Walls, as the years went by. Published in its original version in 1930, this book eventually gained wide recognition among anthropologists and sociologists for its unique contribution to Western knowledge of Indian village life. But what both impelled and inspired my grandparents along their lonely road was their desire to embody the Beatitudes among the common people. That’s what For All of Life is all about.

I am now a mere seven years younger than Grandpa Bill was when he died, and I am only now beginning to understand my grandparents’ radical discipleship shaped by Jesus’ life and teachings, and the extent to which their legacy is shaping my own developing understanding of what mission means.

Dad was born in 1920, as was the Bruderhof movement. And in this centennial year I am struck by the similarity between my grandparents’ mission statement and these two paragraphs from the Bruderhof’s Foundations of our Faith and Calling:

Church community is a gift of the Holy Spirit. Any attempt to force it into being will produce only a disappointing caricature. Without help from above, we human beings are selfish and divided, unfit for life together. Our best motives and efforts ultimately prove unsound; as Jesus tells us, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” We remain sinners utterly dependent on grace.
Yet we have experienced Christ’s transforming love. He makes the impossible possible: for ordinary men and women to live together in forgiveness and mutual trust, as brothers and sisters, the children of one Father. It is his Spirit that calls believers to a life of love where work, worship, mission, education, and family life are brought together into a single whole. We are convinced that such a life in church community is the greatest service we can render humanity and the best way we can proclaim Christ.

All of life for Christ, for all of life!

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About the author

photograph of Bill and Grace Wiser

Bill Wiser

Bill Wiser lives at Danthonia, a Bruderhof in New South Wales. His daily activities include teaching and pastoral work...

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