the shape of leadership

Ten Words That Changed My Life

What a 98-year-old taught me about serving with purpose

Kayla Marcantonio on October 9, 2018

I was not familiar with the name Nettie Cooper before April 23 of this year. I still haven’t had a chance to meet her personally. Honestly, I might not recognize her at this point even if we were standing in the same room together. Though I’ve forgotten much about her physical appearance, her chosen words in a crowded sanctuary on that April evening are immovable and inerasable in my mind.

It was the first night of the annual Assemblies of God Louisiana District Council meeting, which took place at the district’s campground. There was a sense of nostalgia in the room as generations of ministers came together, many acknowledging with gratefulness, “This is where I experienced the Lord.”

There was also an atmosphere of honor. First, we were honoring and praising God. But we were also honoring one another. This is how I came to hear from 98-year-old Nettie Cooper. District Superintendent Scott Holmes asked her to come to the front of the room. In the midst of honoring missionaries and pastors, innovators and the faithful, it was now time to recognize the pioneers of our great network with the annual Legacy Award. This regional recognition came not only with a trophy of glass, but also a trophy of words.

We learned of Sister Cooper’s diligent, faithful and steadfast service, as well as her Christlike character and great love for people. We heard of Sister Cooper’s life of church planting and pastoring in partnership with her husband, a lifetime poured out — and still flowing — to accomplish God’s plan. We took in details of her life and the extensive value she pillared for the ongoing work of the Kingdom.

In full transparency, it was in the midst of these expressions toward Sister Cooper that my mind wandered for a few moments. I expected that following this honoring speech, she would have an opportunity to share her wisdom and recognitions. I wondered what Sister Cooper would say when they handed her the microphone.

I am starting to see more clearly what following Jesus means over a lifetime.

I considered whom I would thank publicly if I were in my late 90s, looking back on a full life of serving. Which leaders and mentors would I mention? Which stories would I tell of victories won and hard times championed? Though this distraction lasted only a few seconds, by the end of it, I was writing my own Oscar-equivalent speech to present in 70 years.

Expectancy swelled in my heart as they handed Sister Cooper the microphone. I was on edge of my seat, ready to soak up any stories, any wisdom she might offer us. I did indeed receive wisdom, but not in the way I imagined.

With a single sentence, Sister Cooper pointed away from herself and toward the One who is worthy of all honor: “I am only what God has made me to be.”

Five seconds. Ten words. And just like that, she handed the microphone back to the hand it came from. Sister Cooper made her way back to her seat. Just as quickly as honor came her way, Sister Cooper readily bestowed it upon the Lord, like the crowns we will one day lay at the feet of Jesus.

I can vulnerably say that is not how I would have responded. Her speech was so contrary to what I had built in my head that I’ve been chewing on it ever since. Sister Cooper’s speech will not only remain alive in me but before me. Her words are now posted as a piece of art in my office as a constant reminder of what Sister Cooper’s attitude and character have come to mean and what we can learn from that example.

In today’s world, social media platforms beckon us to share our stories and trumpet our accomplishments. Yet, as followers of Christ, our stories and achievements are worthless if we don’t accurately portray them in light of His story. Paul wrote, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).

If you asked a younger version of myself what my biggest fear was at the time, I would have said it was dying and not being remembered — not making my mark on history. Though I still wrestle with these feelings, I am starting to see more clearly what following Jesus means over a lifetime. I saw it in Sister Cooper’s demeanor, her stance and her sentence.

I want what Sister Cooper so evidently has, to be able to confidently say, “If there is anything in me that is worth celebrating, then it’s not me. It’s the Lord, who lives in me.”

Let my small part of His great story always point back to Him.


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