Friday, June 19, 2015

Remembering Elisabeth Elliot (1926-2015)

"The deepest things that I have learned in my life have come from the deepest suffering,
and out of the deepest waters and the hottest fires
have come the deepest things that I know about God."
Elisabeth Elliot



To begin with, I should acknowledge that Elisabeth Elliot would likely be disgusted with the effusive obituaries and remembrances being written in response to her Homegoing this week. She might perhaps call them humbug. Then again, I'm writing this as part of my own heart-work in processing her death, and it would thrill me to no end if these memories introduce her to a new reader or send an existing reader back to her writings for wise, straightforward counsel on their Christian journey.

For the uninitiated, Elisabeth Elliot Leitch Gren was a pioneer missionary who worked with tribal peoples in Ecuador in order to translate the Scriptures into their native tongues. Early in her service, she married Jim Elliot, whom she had known since their days together at Wheaton College, and they continued their translation work together. They had a daughter, Valerie, who spent her earliest years in the jungle. She was not yet a year old when her father and his teammates prayerfully seized an opportunity to make contact with a people group as yet unreached with the gospel of Jesus Christ. After some initial friendly interaction, those people brutally murdered Jim and his colleagues.

So what does a young, newlywed, newly widowed mother do? If that mother is Elisabeth Elliot, she goes back. She continued her translation work, and when an opportunity presented itself, she returned to take the gospel and the Scriptures to the same people who had murdered her husband. She took her toddler daughter with her to these people. The Word of God took root in this tribe and has flourished, utterly transforming them. (The film The End of the Spear documents this story.)

When the Lord led her eventually to move back to the United States, she continued serving Him through the writing ministry that had grown out of her widowhood and subsequent choices. As often happens, writing led to speaking at conferences and retreats. This is how I made her acquaintance.

My mother introduced me to Elisabeth via a cassette recording of an Urbana conference message she had given. The original audience would have comprised mostly college students considering the possibility of a vocation to missions, and the message aired on Focus on the Family (sometime in the 1980s). She lifted high the cross, not just for salvation but as a pattern for the Christian life. She introduced me to her husband Jim Elliot and the 4 men martyred with him. I copied out from the tape his famous quote, "He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose." To this she added, "There's nothing worth living for unless it's worth dying for." I also transcribed and learned by heart the Amy Carmichael poem "Hast Thou No Scar?" which she read during the message. These were the most challenging words I'd ever heard outside the Bible. Elisabeth's life itself was a challenge to courageous obedience and forgiveness.

During my high school and college years, a family-owned Christian bookstore called The Mustard Seed was a bicycle ride away from our home. I spent many allowances there on books and sheet music, but among the first purchases were Elisabeth's book Passion and Purity (a memoir of her courtship with Jim and a charge for chastity among Christian young people) and Amy Carmichael's poetry collection, Toward Jerusalem, which included the poem read in the Urbana message. I read both of them to tatters, complimenting the authors with a plethora of dog-eared pages.

From there my book collection (by both Elliot and Carmichael) grew until my library contained most of the books I could find in print by both ladies. Before I ever needed it, they trained my thinking to expect suffering and to "see in it material for sacrifice." They, especially Elisabeth's book A Path Through Suffering, sustained me more than any other devotional writers outside the Bible during the first intense sorrows of my Christian life. They enlarged my vocational horizons to consider world missions. Without my realizing it, they taught me that powerful Christian teaching in print could also be smart, literate, and profound. Through Elisabeth's books, messages, and newsletters, she became a spiritual grandmother to me, a true Titus 2 woman.

In my twenties, my mother and I attended a conference Elisabeth gave at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas. If memory serves, this was my first time to hear her in person. In lieu of the standard complimentary introduction by the conference organizer, summarizing the person's accomplishments and impact, Elisabeth walked out onto the platform, set down her Bible and notes, and sat down at the piano. She pounded out one of the old hymns, I think "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" or "Trust and Obey," and clearly expected all of us to sing along with her. By memory. Only then, after we'd worshiped the Lord in song, did she proceed to the podium and begin to speak. Without her explicitly saying so, this communicated to us, her audience, that this day was not about her, not about her missionary exploits or her best-selling books, but about the Most High God. She was only a servant, a messenger.

After she spoke, she sat in the front pew while people queued up for her to sign their books. I was one of them, carrying her biography of Amy Carmichael, A Chance to Die. I thanked her for her own books but also for introducing me to "Amma," as Amy was known in India. She looked me in the eye and said, "Good! Well then, you don't need to buy any more of my books. Just read hers!" (This advice I rejected. Why choose when I could have both?)

Over the next decade or so, God allowed me to attend at least 2 more of her conferences, both at Denton Bible Church, usually with some combination of my mother and sisters. Her themes remained consistent, every time I heard her:
the cross as a pattern for the Christian life;
the goodness and wisdom of God in every hard thing we face;
the difficult simplicity of trust and obedience;
the absolute essentials of forgiveness and gratitude;
the possibility to grieve profound losses with grace, humility, and faith;
the Bible's pattern for home and family, including the wife's submission and the beauty and nobility of motherhood and homemaking;
and the call to holiness, to godly living.
Her third husband (now her widower), Lars Gren, faithfully and cheerfully manned the book table in the back of an auditorium full of women at each event. (Perhaps I should add "bravely.")

My final encounter with her occurred in my newlywed, missionary-in-training days. A personal friend and mentee of Elisabeth happened to serve in the missions office at our church, which had just begun to operate as its own missionary training-and-sending agency. This dear woman knew that Elisabeth was in the area for an event, I think related to the homeschool community, and she arranged for our church's prospective missionaries to spend an hour with her at her lodging for a question-and-answer session. Amore and I were living in Denton as we prepared to move to India (so we thought) and built our support team at the time, so we were included in the group.

She was just the same in that private, "off-stage" setting as she was in her public conferences: modest, no-nonsense, firm but kind. Sadly, the only specific content of the discussion that I recall was that I asked her if she ever felt any conflict between her view of a woman's submission to male leadership in the church and home and her teaching and writing of Christian discipleship materials. Perhaps this seems inconsequential to you, but a man we knew had recently said he would never read a book by a woman because that would be sitting under her teaching. Since I was writing the bulk of our newsletters, this was an immediate and personal need.

She said something to the effect of, "Well, I never even considered that to be a conflict. The men out there have a choice whether to read my books or listen to my talks. It's not as though I had any authority over them. If I speak from a pulpit, it's only at the invitation and under the authority of the minister there. Writing is the job God has given me to do, and my job is simply to obey Him." Coming from such a strong complementarian as Elisabeth, that encouraged me to keep writing what God gave me and trusting Him to work out who read and who didn't.

I miss Elisabeth, but then I've missed her voice ever since she stopped public ministry in 2004 due to declining health and the onset of dementia. How thankful I am that she did the writing work God gave her to do! Because of that, her counsel is just a page turn away. Recordings of her messages are on YouTube and in my CD collection. Her newsletters fill a thick file in my study. Her voice still sounds in my mind's ear, though her radio show ceased a decade ago. Her wise counsel lives on in her books and remembered sayings, which the Holy Spirit brings to mind at just the right time (usually when I'm about to grouse about some providence I don't like).

Now that I've added my voice to the humbug about a woman who simply sought to trust and obey God, allow me to conclude with a simple thanks, an acknowledgement that ultimately, it's not about her. It's about Christ, her Savior and mine. She has joined the "great cloud of witnesses" of Hebrews 12:1-2, those men and women of faith whose lives encourage us also to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."

Thank You, Lord, for Your servant Elisabeth. Thank You for giving her grace to finish her earthly race well, always lifting high the cross of Jesus Christ and the call to trust and obey You. Thank You for the hope of the resurrection that assures Your people that there are no final good-byes, only au revoir, because we will see each other again in Your presence, with whole bodies and minds. Comfort her family and friends with Your truth. Thank you for Titus 2 women and their wise, fortifying counsel. Raise up many more for this generation which needs them so desperately. Make one even of me. If it pleases You, bring forth much more abundant, eternal fruit from the life and witness of Your servant Elizabeth, until the Lord Jesus Christ returns. In His name I ask this. Amen.

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For further reading on her life:

her personal ministry page, including opportunity to purchase her books and recorded messages or read her archived newsletters

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