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,”

michele signature[1]

I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase Made for the Journey: One Missionary’s First Year in the Jungles of Ecuador, simply click on the title here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a very small commission at no extra cost to you.

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The Missionary Experience: A Path of Faith in the Midst of Paradox

Starting in the book of Acts, the history of missions is characterized by controversy. It may have begun when Paul and company set out with freshly-minted instructions from the Jerusalem Council, defining the parameters of the message they were sharing. It was certainly evident when the citizens of Lystra decided to fold Paul and Barnabas into their eclectic assortment of deities–and then to take up stones against them. And remember the story of New Testament heroes of the faith clashing over personnel issues and going their separate ways for a season? Throughout history, according to His own counsel and sovereign wisdom, God has chosen to put the transmission of the Gospel into the hands of His fallen and often short-sighted children, and the effects of that have made for some fascinating reading.

A Train-Wreck of Two Cultures Colliding

Over fifty years ago, Eleanor Vandevort came home from South Sudan in the wake of political unrest. Her thirteen years of language acquisition, Bible translation, literacy work, and relationship building were cut short with no certainty as to their effect or ultimate impact. When she set down the account of her struggle and her achievements in A Leopard Tamed, she was a woman ahead of her time, asking questions few in the golden age of U.S. missions were asking and even fewer wanted to entertain.

Vandevort’s narrative centers around her work among the Nuer, a remote and primitive culture eking out a living on dry, flat, hard-packed land bordering on the Sobat River in South Sudan. She was fortunate, early on, to connect with Kuac (pronounced /kwich/, rhyming with quite), a young man who had been educated at the mission-sponsored village school and was, therefore, a valuable informant for learning the language and reducing it to print.

What followed from Kuac’s conversion, subsequent education, and eventual call to pastor the church in Nasir is a glorious triumph of light over darkness–and it is also the story of a train wreck of two cultures colliding in one frail human soul. With vivid descriptions of the Nuer way of life, this 50th anniversary edition transported me to a land of unique beauty alongside unimaginable hardship and hopelessness.

As Eleanor learned to respect and collaborate with national believers who did not share her affinity for logic, efficiency, or planning, she also gained a sharper image of God in the context of heathenism, for He has made it clear that He loves the entire world, even the parts a North American Christian cannot comprehend:

“Try, if you can, to fathom Him, to draw His picture with clear, solid lines, to pin Him down. Just when you think you have God in focus, He moves, and the picture blurs.” (11)

A Bridge that Spanned Two Cultures

In 1949, at the tender age of 24, Eleanor Vandevort embarked upon her career as a Bible translator, joining the ranks of Wheaton College classmate Elisabeth Elliot and her peers who put their hands to the plow with no thought of turning back. It was an era in which the boundary between Christian culture and Western culture was decidedly blurred, so Vandevort was nonplussed to find that she had arrived in Africa bearing a message that would meet a need the Nuer did not even know existed.

With Kuac’s help, Eleanor slowly acquired a working command of the language with its fourteen vowels, three levels of tone, and absolutely no Christian jargon. Learning her way into those speech patterns helped in building the bridge that spanned the two cultures. However, observations throughout the book reveal a growing awareness that along with the Gospel, she and her fellow missionaries were sharing a full menu of lesser messages, some merely lamentable and others disastrous:

  • “I was incredulous that after fifty years of missionary work among these people, there was no striking hunger on the villager’s part to hear the Gospel. I wondered where the people were who reportedly were crying out for the Word of God.” (34)
  • “As far as I could ever tell, Christian behavior patterns were outlined by the missionaries and were not born out of the Africans’ own experience with God.” (22)
  • “It was painful and disappointing to be making friends with people for whom my ideas were nonsense. The more I came to know them, the more I realized the barrier of taboos between us. But my disappointment went deeper. It stemmed from the fact that God was not shining in the darkness as I had prayed and hoped for and expected.” (39)
  • “Is my scientific orientation to life, which has removed me from the constant threat of death, the factor which stabilizes my faith? Or, in that I need not fear God physically as the heathen do, has this freedom set me adrift from God, missing Him altogether?” (46)
  • “How does a person decide that he’s not going to be afraid of death?” (83)
  • “The many problems of translation exploded my theories of Bible translating, and precluded the possibility of producing an exact and therefore inerrant–as Evangelicals used the term–translation of the Scriptures. (95)
  • “We did not foresee that our things would become more important to the people than our Gospel, that they would want them. No one was to be blamed for this, but as it was turning out, were we not becoming more of a stumbling block than a help to the people?” (187)

Leaving the Results in God’s Hands

As a young missionary, Eleanor Vandevort began to realize that the methods she had inherited from her forebears were an imposition upon the culture. From the tone of voice used when speaking aloud in prayer to the denominational distinctives around church government, Christianity and its trappings became an ill-fitting garment in a world that required Christians to address issues such as polygamy, marriage to the dead, animal sacrifice, and grisly coming-of-age ceremonies.

The prevailing idea among Presbyterian missionaries was that “what was good for Calvin was certainly good for the south Sudan.” Within a context of very isolated and individualized people groups, the concept of “a congregation” was strange enough, but then they must “call” a pastor and provide for him. “It would hardly have occurred to the people to pay a man just for talking about God. . . In that as Christians they were now to believe that God works by the faith of His people, it would seem likely that they would wonder at having to pay a pastor at all.” (82) Then, they must submit to the leadership of the Presbytery with decisions handed down from the UPC of the USA.

Nearing the end of her time in South Sudan, it was evident to Eleanor that Kuac was floundering in his role as “Pastor Moses.” (Upon ordination, national pastors took on a biblical name which, in Kuac’s situation, was never adopted by his people because it was unpronounceable and meaningless to them.) With the introduction of a money-based economy and the acquired need for clothing, furniture, blankets, soap, and utensils, Kuac was under pressure to become something for which there was no precedent in his experience or in his history. When the mission withdrew their support and yet continued to expect Pastor Moses to pay the expense of travel to official church meetings, it became clear that the white man was dictating “what was to be done from behind the Bible without having to submit to the discipline involved himself.”

Therefore, when Eleanor received word from the Commandant of Police in December of 1962 that she was no longer welcome in South Sudan, she wondered, with a sinking heart, what would become of her translation work and of the ministry. The Arab military government had already imprisoned Kuac numerous times in an effort to stamp out Christianity through fear. Like Elisabeth Elliot in These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?she was called upon to leave in God’s hands the results (or lack of same!) of any work to which He had called her.

To Know, to Believe, and to Understand

From her home and new career in the United States, Eleanor heard of war coming to the Sudan, and then coming again.  Her story challenges many of our western assumptions about missions, while underscoring the sovereignty of God. He is free to work in a nation –or in a young, white, and slightly perplexed former missionary–in any way He deems fitting. As believers who are committed to the fulfillment of the Great Commission, let us also read and love God’s words to Isaiah, setting forth the purpose of our witness on this planet:

“You are My witnesses,” says the Lord,
“And My servant whom I have chosen,
That you may know and believe Me,
And understand that I am He.”  (Isaiah 43:10)

In our witnessing and serving, the path of God may cut through mystery and paradox. Sometimes the greatest test of faith is to know, believe, and understand the power and presence of God, even when the evidence we receive is not what we had expected.

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


I  am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. If you should decide to purchase A Leopard Tamed or These Strange Ashes: Is God Still in Charge?, simply click on the title (or the image) here or within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.

I appreciate your joining me today in thinking through the conflicts and the joys of the missionary experience,

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I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.