Crumbs from Elisabeth Elliot’s Table

Posted on 21. Sep, 2015 by in Uncategorized

God’s work is never done under prime conditions. It is never what you expected. It is infinitely more glorious.
– Elisabeth Elliot

My favorite photo of Elisabeth is in her book “The Savage My Kinsman.” Still living with the Quichuas in Ecuador, she is sitting at a table, her head bowed in prayer, elbows resting on the table and hands covering her face. A small lantern glows next to her Bible. All around is pitch black. The caption reads: “The Lord is my Light and my Salvation; whom shall I fear?” I believe that, and asked Him daily, in the quiet hours before dawn, for light for that day.

I stare at this picture now, wondering where I would be without the example of this woman.

In 1980 our family was trying to find its way to a new nesting ground. Like a small flock of birds, our migration from Tucson, Arizona ended in Lugulu, Kenya at a Quaker mission hospital.
I wrote to Elisabeth that first year in Kenya: “Thank you for playing a part in getting us here.” A year earlier, while in the throes of deciding whether or not to go with our three children to Africa, I attended a retreat where she spoke.

On Saturday afternoon of the event, I stood in a line of women. It snaked through the restaurant. We all waited for five minutes with her. Like the Old Testament judge Deborah, sitting under the palm trees, Elisabeth sat in a booth. When it was my turn, I slid in across from her.

“How can I help you?” she asked. I laid out the possibility of going to Kenya as medical missionaries and paused.

Going directly for the jugular, she asked, “Do you want to do God’s will?”

”Yes,” I replied, while still quaking at the myriad of unknowns.

Her confident reply settled by heart. “My former husband Jim said that God is good at pulling strings for his children.”

She ended our brief interaction regarding Scripture and counsel for discerning God’s will by quoting a line from the hymn, “How Firm a Foundation”: What more can He say than to you He hath said?

Plain and simple. Direct. No nonsense.

As I left her, I hummed a different hymn in my head and heart: My chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth and followed Thee. Back home in Tucson, I walked in the door and told my husband Sam, “I’m ready to go to Kenya.”

Some months later with tropical medicine school completed and three months of language school behind us, I put pen to a blue air form to let Elisabeth know and to express appreciation for being God’s conduit. The Spirit used her words to soften and prepare my heart.

But in that moment of writing, we felt unsettled. Our spirits longed for family, friends and the familiar. New sights, sounds, smells, and flavors assaulted our senses. We were experiencing the vice grip of the narrow end of the upside down funnel Elisabeth described. Not yet at home in our new place and culture, her words rang in my ears:

Do the next thing. In so doing God will meet you there. Do today what you know. Then you’ll know what to do tomorrow. Make it an offering to God. Every task is material for sacrifice. So I picked up a broom and swept my cement floors.

Wherever you are, be all there. I worked at not drifting through the day, week or month waiting for circumstances to change for the better–to stay engaged in the present.

Accept your givens and your not givens. This proved a good Rx for comparison with other missionaries.

Over the six years in Kenya, these themes became part of the warp and woof of my life.

* * * * *

I was an impressionable 7 year-old when Life magazine was delivered to our home in Colorado Springs in 1956. The Auca Indians and the story of the martyred missionaries captured my imagination. Fast forward through high school, college, Urbana missions conference, and life as a teacher married to a medical student. I rode train and tramped through tough neighborhoods to hear Elisabeth speak at a CMDA gathering in the fall of 1970. Over the years, I copied by hand whole paragraphs from her books onto pages in my journals.

I carried “Twelve Baskets of Crumbs,” a collection of her essays, to Kenya. A gift from a friend, she wrote on the fly leaf: “Surprise! You can’t go to Africa without this!” Every book counted in our baggage allowance. We took a carefully chosen few. This one offered new territory to cover.

Like the prophet Samuel, Elisabeth’s words did not fall to the ground. She herself recommended using Scripture or hymns to prepare your heart to move into God’s presence. This practical advice issued from someone who admitted prayer to be work and confessed, Praying is the hardest thing in my life. Thinking is next.

But she had an astute mind, and read widely. Her first books “Through Gates of Splendor” (1957), and “Shadow of the Almighty” (1958) were best sellers. Critics of her book “No Graven Image” (1966) said that she asked more questions than she answered and “this book will edify no one.” But her determined character and disciplined writings eventually spanned more than five decades, inspiring and instructing generations who followed. I was among them. Not only did she mentor and build me up in the faith, I enjoyed her references to other authors. Because of her recommendations, I consumed books by Amy Carmichael of India, Lilas Trotter of Algeria and British novelist Elizabeth Goudge.

We’ve recently watched futuristic demos of air drones delivering books to our doorsteps. But in the late 1950’s, Elisabeth lived in the Ecuadorian jungle and received periodic air drops of books. I imagined her reading in her hammock after a day of translation work, her daughter Valerie sound asleep. Although an ocean away, I followed a trail of reading suggested by Elisabeth. She introduced our family to the writing of Isak Dinesen, so one of the first things I read by lantern light in Kenya was “Out of Africa”. Surrounded by distant drumming and bird calls, it was an environment that would have been familiar to Elisabeth.

* * * * *

The extremes of Elisabeth’s life offered perspective. She lived and worked with three different tribes in Ecuador. Each time she started over at the bottom of the ladder. Eleven years of faithful translation work “achieved precisely nothing.” Once, her portfolio of translation work tumbled off the roof of a bus and rolled down the mountainside.

She often referred to life as being a mystery to be comprehended and lived, not a problem to be analyzed and solved. I can endure if I know life is not a problem but a mystery, she said. The Apostles’ Creed is full of mysteries. The mystery of God was the answer to all of Job’s problems.

When I remember this, I am helped to walk by faith through the vicissitudes of life.

* * * * *

Since her death in June of this year, magazine articles and two memorial services stirred-up memories for all who knew Elisabeth well.

My relationship with her grew out of correspondence, a few retreats and a seminar at her home in Massachusetts. She spoke candidly about the joys of her life as well as her self-doubt and disappointments. Even though famous, I told my children, Elisabeth needed friends too. So my ten year-old daughter made a trivet and we sent it to her. Later, she received a personal thank you postcard.

During one trip to Spokane, Lars and Elisabeth accepted our invitation for Sunday breakfast at a restaurant. In the rush of my husband leaving for hospital duty, and me getting the family to church on time, we had the dubious distinction of inadvertently leaving them at the table to pick up the tab. Our chagrin and written apology brought only laughter and an enhanced intimacy to our relationship.

Another family story involves my sister inviting them to her home for lunch when Elisabeth was speaking in Colorado Springs. When Sandi asked them what they’d like to drink, her three year old son piped up, “My mom drinks beer.” While my mortified sister who doesn’t even like beer pondered what to say, Lars chimed in, “I like an occasional beer myself.” The lunch went on alcohol-free but with a good head of humor.

Controversial. Prickly. Forthright. Funny. A visit to her own home offered substance as well as hilarity. She introduced us to the skull on her book shelf. He had a name and she said he served as a reminder of her mortality. Later, we howled at her impersonation of a British pre-school teacher.

When the thing you fear comes upon you, He will be there, she aptly observed. Little could she have imagined that the last ten years or more of her life would be progressively restricted by dementia–back in the narrow end of the upside down funnel. She lost all sense that she was part of something epic. Even in those last years, in some mysterious way, God’s grace carried her.

Now, in her real home at last, she has passed into and through the wide end of the funnel. God has planted her feet in the ultimate spacious place.

Early this morning I heard geese honking. The migration south begins. I’m reminded of Elisabeth’s clarion call to trust and obey the sovereign Lord. She frequently underlined this summons by quoting lines from “To a Water Fowl” by William Cullen Bryant:

He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must tread alone,
Will lead my steps aright.

  • Earl Moore

    What a great read Judy….I first heard Elisabeth Elliot speak at a Moody Conference in the 80’s here in Spokane…this is what I remember her saying…….” You can never lose what you have offered to Christ..Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences..you are a very special lady!!

  • Barbara Comito

    Beautiful, Judy! You have brought her to life for me who did not know her. I will be sure to share with Jan.

  • Lauren Locker

    Oh, the graciousness of our dear friend, Elisabeth! Thank you for this poignant memoir. Only the Lord knows (though perhaps Lars could guess) how many of us hold her dear because of her example and her selfless offering of herself to us. “My life for yours,” she would say. May each of us carry on her legacy as our way of saying thank you. God bless you.