The Gift of God in Exchange for Ashes

Sit on a wooden bench (behind a goat) for a day long bus ride through the Andes.  When the bus stops, the only way forward in 1952 is to rent a horse for an excursion over steep mountain trails with muddy puddles up to your knees. You’ll know you’ve reached the village of San Miguel de los Colorados because the large clearing before you is ringed by a number of small houses–and because your fellow missionaries open their doors in greeting.

This was the inauspicious beginning to Elisabeth Elliot’s famous missionary career. Those who have read Shadow of the Almighty or seen the Life Magazine accounts of her husband’s brutal death at the hands of an unreached people group know that Elliot became a sought after public speaker and her words reached literally millions via print and radio ministries. With her perfect diction, ironic humor,  and crisp, no-nonsense delivery of gospel truth, she set the course for my following life and has influenced my teaching and my parenting like no one else, and yet her on-ramp to ministry was beset by disappointment and confusion and was characterized by nothing that would point to a future of success or influence.

These Strange Ashes was originally published in 1979, and when I read it during my early mothering years, it quickly became my favorite of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, partly because of its realistic portrayal of the mundane (and sometimes simply boring!) nature of ministry life, and partly because of the titular reference to a poem in which Amy Carmichael writes about the experience of personal suffering that seems to come to nothing:

“But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?”

I hear in the anguished question a howl that expresses a broken heart and empty hands, but Elisabeth is quick to point out  the “mysterious exchange” by which we offer this emptiness to God and receive back from Him the gift of Himself. Following the death of John Chau and in a season in which many believers seem to be disappointed that salvation has not arrived on Air Force One, Revell has re-released Elisabeth’s deeply personal account of her first year as a missionary under a new title, Made for the Journey: One Missionary’s First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador with a foreword by Kay Warren. In a world in which Twitter and YouTube can bestow celebrity status upon anyone, it becomes a holy experience to read about “calling” in the sense that God “calls people who believe in Him to [go to] others who do not.” This “going” may be beset by what looks for all the world like “downward mobility” and, in Elisabeth’s case, entailed a good bit of what she referred to as “jungle housekeeping,” the making of a safe and livable dwelling in the midst of amoeba infested waters, plain and monotonous food choices, and often deep loneliness.

Taken from journal accounts and her own memory of her young adult self, Elliot comes across as restless and uncertain. Her evangelical roots have led her to expect that her “calling and election being sure,” she should expect resounding success in the jungle– success being defined as a written language for the people, a Bible translation in their brown hands, and a line up of converts to be trained and discipled. What she found instead was a self-sufficient people group, hidden from white culture and content to stay that way, who may have been living in “bondage, sorrow, and night,” but were not interested, “not in the least, in our definition of liberation.”

Confronted with four stunning set backs to her ministry in the jungles of Ecuador, it began to appear to Elisabeth that God had failed her. Given the opportunity to prove Himself strong before the Colorados, He chose to work in quiet and incomprehensible ways that looked, to Elisabeth’s young eyes, like the silence of betrayal. Those who struggle with the mysterious ways of God or who have experienced the anger and disappointment of feeling as if God is not to be trusted will find a surprising voice of comfort and collegiality in Elisabeth Elliot’s long, slow wait:  waiting for help from the nationals with reducing their language to print, waiting for the local population to trust the missionary presence, waiting for a commitment from her fiance, Jim Elliot, that would allow them to marry and minister together.

When God does not “cooperate” with our vision of success or yield to our will for Him, the believer is left to yield her own will to a story arc that may eventually untangle itself in the passing of years–or it may not. In characteristic Elisabeth Elliot fashion, the veteran missionary looks back with clear eyes on her youthful disappointment and derives bracing counsel for us in our days of uncertainty.

Whether or not God chooses to reveal His plans to us, “faith, prayer, and obedience are our requirements.  We are not offered in exchange immunity and exemption from the world’s woes. What we are offered has to do with another world altogether.” Our assignment, then, becomes a fierce cooperation with God that brings our hearts into alignment with His to the point that this other world becomes more valuable to us than the one we can see with our own eyes.

Many thanks to Revell for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.

Thankful for joy that “lights the way like some great star,”

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