Someone handed me Elisabeth Elliot’s memoir of her first year on the mission field titled “These Strange Ashes” during a particularly low month while I lived in Japan. (Spoiler alert, you really must pick this up for a quick and wonderful summer read, but it was published when the Spice Girls were in the Top 40, so I’ll share the ending for the sake of the conversation.)
I drank up her story like a thirsty soul that so badly wanted to specifically help young women living overseas. I was prepared to read her story as a shining example of a woman who just nailed it on the mission field, far from what I was experiencing. Instead I found a woman who wrestled with so many of the peculiar questions I did, and yet her response to those struggles was so grounded in her trust in God that it lifted my own response as well.
She is absolutely invited to my hypothetical dinner party.
Her entire purpose of following her beloved Savior deep into the thicket of South America was to learn an unwritten language of the Colorado Indians so they might have a written language and then a copy of the Word of God. The details of her travel there, the day-to-day keeping of her jungle home, and the odds against her as she found an informant who would grant her access into the homes and lives of the indigenous people were fascinating.
She recalled “The frontier laid before us. ‘Therefore I have set my face like a flint’ were the words from Isaiah that had held me steady this time as well. Obedience to God was the reason for this journey… I had no sense whatever of gritting my teeth and doing a thing I disliked. It was the one thing I was made for and I was full of gladness.”
She sounds so very much like Jesus himself, who told the disciples, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work,” John 4:34. It’s hard to imagine comparing her physical food (weevils in her flour for bread baking among other delights) with her heart’s joy doing the work of God.
She recounts the devastation of losing not only dear friend Macario, but the single human in the world who held the key to mediate between her and the language she labored to translate. He was shot in the head during a fight, and she watched the grotesque autopsy performed by other missionary friends, Bill and Doreen. “Each time I saw it [the blanket that had been full of autopsy parts], I thought of the sight of those spilled brains, the only brains in the world that contained the languages I needed. I felt like a son who had asked for a fish and been given a scorpion. I had honestly (surely it was honestly!) desired God. I wanted to do His will. That bloody poncho mocked me. It was a long time before I came to the realization that it is in our acceptance of what is given that God gives Himself. Even the Son of God had to learn obedience by the things that He suffered…His reward was desolation, crucifixion.” She deeply felt the loss of this comrade who joined her on expeditions to collect vital information for her singular purpose.
I would tell her I cried in her last chapter. That is always the part of the story that wraps up nicely, isn’t it? It’s always the part of the story where we Americans are ready for Pixar to win the day. When she should have, after such a devastating loss, triumphantly slammed down the Tsahfihki manuscripts on her boss’ desk in delight. When she should have, a few years later, held the first copy of the New Testament obtained by her gut-wrenching labor. When she would have received the joy of the fruit of her labor, finishing what she started when first she set her face like flint. Redemption was ready!
It was not to be hers.
“I received a letter from Doreen, telling me that all my Colorado language materials had been stolen. They had been in a suitcase that disappeared from the top of a bus. Everything I had done in the nine months in San Miguel de los Colorados was undone at a stroke. Lord, let it not be. I read the letter again and again. The filebox, the notebooks, the charts – all of it gone. There was no light, no echo, no possible explanation. All of the questions as to the validity of my calling, or, much more fundamental, God’s interest in the Colorados’ salvation, in any missionary work – Bible translation or any other kind – all these questions came to the fore. Had I come here, leaving so much behind, on a fools’ errand? If this is how the Lord of Hosts looked after His servants and His glory, if this was a sample of how He answered prayer for His work and His wonders, it certainly fit none of my categories. How was I to reconcile His permitting such a thing with my own understanding of the missionary task?”
Oh, Elisabeth, thank you for fearlessly and humbly asking God these questions I was too ashamed to ask! She looked back on her first year in ashes of such dumbfounding and senseless loss, yet beautiful and hard hope, all held in tension and trust.
“The suitcase did not turn up. And so it often is. 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.”
Lord, let the strange ashes of this life turn our hope and eyes and full satisfaction in You and Your world to come.
Mrs. Elliot, I truly look forward to sharing a table with you one day and learning together God’s unseen purpose in the lost suitcase and my losses as well. No weevils in our bread.
*All quotes from “These Strange Ashes” by Elisabeth Elliot, 1998, Servant Publications.