A Tribute to Elisabeth Elliot
Yesterday afternoon I received word that Elisabeth Elliot had passed from this life to the next. She had battled dementia for the last ten years of her life and now her struggle is over. She is home and at rest.
In the middle of my first year at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, God arranged for me to be a boarder at her home along with another student. We received breakfast and dinner daily in exchange for rent and chores. I was thinking of her yesterday morning when I was straightening the fringe of an oriental carpet in our living room. She taught me how to make them straight and uniform with a vacuum cleaner.
Last night and today I find myself reminiscing about my year sharing life in her home. She was disciplined and determined, and could seem distant and austere, but what I recall is her sense of humor and compassion. One night I was awakened by a knock at my door. She told me that my father was on the phone and wished to speak with me. It was 4:00 AM.
I made my way to the telephone to learn that my brother had died in an automobile accident and that my mom and dad had just identified his body at the hospital. He said he had made arrangements for me to fly home from Boston to Pittsburgh in a few hours.
I numbly packed and then Mrs. Leitch, as we called her, drove me to the airport. On the way she told me one truth which I had her repeat several times until I was able to recite it from memory: “God does not exempt us from suffering, but transforms us in it.”
If I had read this on a placard at a Christian bookstore I would have smiled and thought, what a nice sentiment. But coming from someone who had lost her first husband of three years, to a natives’s spear in Ecuador, when her daughter was 10 months old, then witnessed her second husband of four years die from cancer, these were weighty words.
These words not only provided comfort to a 22 year old young man grieving over the death of his second brother, they changed the way I viewed Christianity.
When I first heard the good news, I heard that God loved me and desired to have a relationship with me. I also learned that I could have a clean slate with all my sins forgiven. I was told that God would never leave me but be with me forever. And I would have eternal life in the future and joy and peace in the present. This was indeed good news! But I did not hear anything about suffering.
In many ways I had asked Jesus into my heart and received Him as my savior for the perks. I wanted to have joy and peace, a fresh start, and know Jesus personally. I thought that if I became a follower of Jesus, I would escape life’s troubles and be spared suffering. But that morning in her big blue Dodge I grasped what Mrs. Leitch was saying and my understanding of God and His ways forever changed. God does not exempt us from suffering, but transforms us in it.
I knew enough of other religion’s beliefs to understand their struggle to deal with death, evil, and the problem of pain. But now I comprehended that God does not eliminate the valleys in our life but is with us in them. Jesus is a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. When we weep, He weeps. Not only does He accompany us through our darkest hours, He transforms us in the process.
Two days later, as I was about to speak at my brother’s memorial service, a friend asked me if we could find a place to pray. We went to a side room at the church and knelt to ask God for help. While praying, God’s presence came upon me and I arose with joy at the nearness of God and yet still grieving at the loss of my brother.
I remember being puzzled as I was feeling joyful and yet hurting at the same time. I naturally thought that these were two conflicting emotions. But then I recognized that only a Christian could experience these feelings simultaneously.
Since that day I have endured other valleys and difficult experiences. But God has proven faithful and near. My faith has not been shaken as I had been told by a wise women, who had proven God’s faithfulness in her own dark valleys, that suffering is normal for followers of Jesus.
Thank you Father for the privilege of knowing your daughter Elisabeth Howard Elliot Leitch Gren and for faithfully carrying her through a long, difficult, blessed, and fruitful life. Thank you for her talks, her radio broadcasts, and her books. Most of all, thank you for her life. I know she is fully cognizant and radiant today. Ask her to do her impression of a radio evangelist, but then I know you have seen it and enjoyed it as we did. Bless her daughter Valerie, her faithful husband Lars, and her eight grandchildren. Amen.
PS If you would like more information on this remarkable lady here are some links. I have read four of her books, and they were all life-changing.
Missionary Pioneer Elisabeth Elliot Passes Through Gates of Splendor (Christianity Today).
A Profound Legacy: Remembering Elisabeth Elliot (CBN).