Book Review: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

Elisabeth Elliot has been one of my heroes for decades. I first discovered her in college when I read Through Gates of Splendor, her book about the ministries and deaths of her husband and four friends. Then I read nearly everything she had written, received her newsletter and a Back to the Bible devotional mailing of her writings for years, and got to hear her speak in person twice.

The Elliots and their friends had wanted to reach out to a seemingly unreachable tribe in Ecuador. Though the beginning seemed promising, all five men were speared to death by the tribe, known then as Aucas (later by their own name for themselves, Waodani). A few years later, Elisabeth and her young daughter, Valerie, and Rachel Saint, sister to one of the other men, went to live among the Waodani. Some became believers, with a testimony that still stands to this day.

Elisabeth eventually came back to America. She authored 30 books and spoke to women, eventually hosting a radio program, Gateway to Joy, and sending out a monthly newsletter.

She surprised herself by remarrying a college theology professor, Addison Leitch. He succumbed to cancer four years later. She was an adjunct professor for a while. A few years later, she married Lars Gren. She had dementia the last several years of her life, lost the ability to speak, and died at age 88 on June 15, 2015.

Those are the spare details of her life. But they don’t capture her personality, her character. Why did so many women love to read her words and hear her speak and write her letters asking her advice about their problems?

Ellen Vaughn has attempted to answer those questions in her authorized biography, Becoming Elisabeth Elliot. I admit I had mixed emotions when I first heard of this project. Vaughn was well aware that she was going to be up against a number of expectations. She had access to Elisabeth’s multiple journals as well as many friends and relatives.

Of course, Elisabeth didn’t start out as the Elisabeth Elliot of such wisdom and depth. She began life as Betty Howard. Her early journals reflect a normal girlhood and a fair amount of teenage angst over boys and disagreements with her mother. Yet even as young as eleven, she showed a depth of thought and desire to follow and obey God. Betty Stam, who was killed by the Chinese along with her husband, John, had been a guest in the Howard home and made a great impression on young Betty. As a child, Betty Howard wrote and took Betty Stam’s prayer for her own.

Vaughn goes on to follow Betty’s education, meeting of Jim Elliot, and the long wrestling over whether they should marry. Jim had thought God wanted him to be a single missionary. When he became attracted to Betty, he wasn’t sure whether that was a result of God’s leading or his own desires. It took a few years to figure out. Finally he and Elisabeth married and worked among the Quichua Indians in Ecudaor. Then there are the details leading up to the Waodani outreach, the men’s deaths, Elisabeth’s wrenching grief, working with Rachel Saint, and return to the US.

The biography stops there, with a second volume in the works. I hadn’t realized that this was only part one until I started reading it. I wish that had been made more plain, but it wouldn’t have affected my desire to own and read the book.

Elisabeth was a critical thinker and wrestled with the ways of God, pat, churchy answers, what worldliness and being a missionary even meant, and so much more. She was strongly introverted and could come across as distant and aloof (when she first met Jim’s parents, he told her she had “made a universally horrible impression.”) She could seem unemotional, but she poured out her emotions in her journals.

One thing that Elisabeth discovered in her walk of faith was that God’s ways are inscrutable. She was a gifted linguist, and her first mission was an effort to reduce the Colorado language to writing. But the one man who knew both Spanish and Colorado well and who was willing to help her was senselessly murdered. Her careful work and notes were stolen. Her husband died. Her time of living with the Waodani bore some fruit but was fraught with frustrations. She felt all her work to that point was in ashes.

But she knew God was good and trustworthy, and the best thing, the only thing she could do was obey him, even when she didn’t understand. Her experiences and wrestling over issues of faith and practice made her who she was and gave her a depth and realism that struck chords with other women.

I felt overall that the biography did a good job. Ellen didn’t put Elisabeth on a pedestal, nor did she present her as unworthy of esteem. My one criticism is that, perhaps in an effort to show that Elisabeth was an ordinary woman and not a super-saint, some excerpts from her journals were shared that I can’t imagine Elisabeth would have wanted public. I understand why some people destroy their journals and letters before they die. I’m thankful Elisabeth didn’t, and I appreciate the insight they gave into her thinking. Still, some of it was probably not meant for public consumption.

Also, an index would have been helpful.

I’m looking forward to the next volume. I knew much about Elisabeth’s early life from her writings, but I’m not as familiar with the second half. I did learn several new things, however. For instance, I didn’t know (or forgot, if I had known) that Elisabeth was told about and wanted to go to the Waodani long before she and Jim married, and that part of the groups urgency to reach them was “rumors that the Ecuadorian government and the oil companies might well solve the ‘Waodani problem’ by using the military” (p. 139). Also, Through Gates of Splendor was written in a six-week period while she was in a hotel and her folks took care of her daughter. The publishers urgently wanted the story to be available. In her previous writings, I had sensed some tension between her and Rachel. The problems there are detailed here, and understandable. They were two very different personalities with completely different methods and training. I appreciate Elisabeth’s discretion in not dragging all of it out into the public eye.

I appreciate this summation of the Elliots near the end of the book:

Whether you agree or disagree with their choices, whether you resonate or not with their particular personalities, the takeaway from their lives is a reckless abandon for God. A willingness to cast off any illusions of self-protection, in order to burn for Christ. An absolutely liberating, astonishing radical freedom that comes only when you have, in fact, spiritually died to your own wants, ambitions, will, desires, reputation, and everything else (p. 274).

A couple of my friends reviewed this book as well:

Michele: A Life of Reckless Abandon for God
Ann: Becoming Elisabeth Elliot

(Sharing with Tell His Story, InstaEncouragements, Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent)

(I’m counting this book for the Biography category of the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.)

Coping and Ministering in Isolation

Blessed is the man who trusts the Lord, floruishing even in droughtAs soon as Arthur and Wilda Mathews arrived, they knew something was wrong. The Chinese church in Hwangyuan, China, had asked them to come and minister in 1950. But now the church leaders seemed strained. The Mathews soon learned that the area had fallen to Communism, and association with white missionaries was a detriment to the Chinese Christians.

The Mathews thought it best, then, to leave. But a capricious Chinese official would not grant their exit visas. The money from the Mathews’ mission came through this official, who then made Arthur wait, grovel, and ask repeatedly for the needed funds. The official only gave them a fraction of what they were due. He also slowly tightened the restraints on the Mathews. First, they could not have the building belonging to the mission. Then they could not evangelize or participate in ministry. Then, a short while later, they could not leave their premises except to draw water, buy food, and gather materials for a fire. And finally, they were not allowed to speak to other Chinese.

The Matthews’ story is told in the book Green Leaf in Drought by Isobel Kuhn, which I reviewed a few years ago here. Their story came back to mind in our current situation. They were isolated for different reasons than we are. We’re not suffering persecution, being spied on by people who would benefit from betraying us, or starved out by petty power-mongers. But they did wonder: how in the world could they be a testimony when they couldn’t even speak to people?

What was there inside these walls to do? It just seemed as if every time they tried to engage in any Christian service, they were knocked flat! Life’s accustomed joys were slowly drying up; but the trees of the Lord have a secret supply.

The title and theme of the book come from Jeremiah 17:8:

But most amazing of all was their spiritual vigor. Whence came it? Not from themselves: no human being could go through such sufferings and come out so sweet and cheerful.

As I was in a small prayer meeting one morning one prayed thus: “O Lord, keep their leaf green in times of drought!”

I knew in a moment that this was the answer. Jeremiah 17: 8: He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.

That was it! There was an unseen Source of secret nourishment, which the communists could not find and from which they could not cut them off.

This is the story of that secret Source. To add another book to the many telling of trials under communist pressure is not necessary and is not our purpose.
But to tell of the secret Source by which a tree can put forth green leaves when all others around are dried up and dying from the drought—that is timeless. That is needed by all of us. Your drought may not be caused by communism, but the cause of the drying up of life’s joys is incidental. When they dry up—is there, can we find, a secret Source of nourishment that the deadly drought cannot reach?

Here are a few ways that Source helped them cope:

Resting in God’s sovereignty. They wrestled with “Ifs”—if the Chinese church had not asked them to come, if they could have gotten word to them before they came, if this or that had or hadn’t happened. They kept coming back to the fact that God orchestrates our steps.

They fed their souls truth. They regularly read God’s Word and Christian authors. They found help in something Andrew Murray had written (though Isobel doesn’t quote the source):

1. Say, He brought me here. It is by His will I am in this strait place and in that fact I will rest.
2. He will keep me here in His love and give me grace to behave as His child.
3. Then He will make the trial a blessing, teaching me the lessons He intends for me to learn.
4. In His good time He can bring me out again—how and when He knows.
So let me say, I am (1) here by God’s appointment; (2) in His keeping; (3) under His training; (4) for His time.

Before Easter, 1952, Wilda

set herself to study the resurrection story and the resurrection life. As she came to the part that Peter played in the courtyard of the high priest’s palace she suddenly felt heart-condemned. She had not said, I know Him not, but she had no joy. She was not bitter, but she was frustrated and restless. Her opportunity to witness to the Chinese eyes around them that she did know the Lord and that He was satisfying her drought—had she shown that? If not, wasn’t that denying the Lord before man? On her knees before Him she confessed it as such, and the result was a glorious Easter.

They learned to delight in God’s will. While studying Ephesians 5:10, Arthur was arrested by the phrase “learn in your own experience what is fully pleasing to the Lord.”

A few nights later it came to Arthur like a flash: the Son had left heaven, not [just] submitting to the will of God, but delighting in it. Up to now they had been submitting; rather feverishly submitting because they felt they should press His promises. “Lord, why dost thou delay? We could be out spear-heading advance into new mission fields! Open the door now, Lord!” They had been acting like servants who don’t want to do it but have to, because they can’t get out of it. What a different attitude was the Son’s! There came a day in June when together Arthur and Wilda knelt before the Lord and abandoned themselves to live on in that stinted little kitchen as long as He wished them to. And the peace of God poured in like a flood bringing such joy as they had not known before.

Arthur later wrote of this experience to supporters and concluded:

So we came to see that God wanted us to will with Him to stay put; not to desire to run away as quickly as we could persuade Him to let us … It was natural that we should go from there to cry with David, I Delight to do thy will, O my God (Psalm 40: 8)…So we are no longer stupid bullocks being driven or dragged unwillingly along a distasteful road; but sons, cooperating wholeheartedly with our Father…

They endured, trusting God was working through their trials. Arthur wrote, “These trials of faith are to give us patience, for patience can only be worked as faith goes into the Pressure Chamber. To pull out because the pressure is laid on, and to start fretting would be to lose all the good He has in this for us.”

And these are ways God worked through their ministry and testimony even when they were silenced:

The words, actions, and touch expressed earlier were remembered. Their first few weeks in Hwangyuan, Arthur had been able to preach and Wilda had been able to go with the pastor’s wife to minister to the women.

Little did she guess that her loving words and smiles those days were to be the only direct ministry she was to have among them. But it was enough to show the women and girls of Hwangyuan that the white woman in their midst was there to love them.

Those were the days of the touch of the hand, the loving concern in the eyes, the simple testimony of the voice. They would not be forgotten later on when the government forbade it.

People saw God’s provision in their need. Isobel refers often to what she called the Feather Curtain of God, based on Psalm 91:4a: “He shall cover thee with his feathers, and under his wings shalt thou trust.” Story after story relates God’s perfect timing and loving care in supplying their needs.

All the courtyard had heard when the father ordered the milk for the little one to be discontinued for lack of funds; yet that very evening, they not only sang, but the song of praise had an exultant ring in it! (No one knew of Ben’s secret gift.) And the next day the old Tibetan lady was recalled and the milk money was there! Had it fallen from heaven? It most certainly had not come in by the door—that they knew. Did the God of Elijah really live? What more potent message could God have given these people?

People saw them endure the same trials they were experiencing. “The message above all others which the Chinese church needed was to see that truth lived out under circumstances equally harrowing as their own.”

[Arthur wrote} “Then Christmas night, another kind of gift, from the One whose birthday it was. This is what happened. Timothy [the spy] away, the local shepherd voluntarily came to the door to wish us Merry Christmas, and to tell us that the church was packed with outsiders and the few believers, who were met together for singing and the Christmas message.”

What had packed that church with heathen, living under communism? What we lack and lose and suffer are our most prized facilities for bringing home to the hearts of this people the glorious gospel of the grace of God. They had seen green leaves in a time of drought; they themselves were dried up to the point of cracking. What made these Christians able to stay uncomplaining, smiling above their patched clothes, and despite their growing thinness? How did they stay alive when Felix had done his best to starve them? They knew the power of Felix. This was the service which God had planned for His children when He deliberately brought their feet into the net.

In another section:

Was the Chinese Christian falsely accused? So were Arthur and Wilda Mathews. Was he persecuted? So were they. Was he attacked by sickness and bereavement without much medical aid? So were they. Was he laughed at? jeered at? constantly humiliated? So were they. Was he tantalized by specious promises of release? So were they. Was he forced to do menial work, thought very degrading? Much more Arthur Mathews…

And yet as trial piled upon trial; as the ground (their human comforts) grew so parched with drought that it threatened to crack open, their leaf was still green. Every evening the sound of singing and praise to their Lord ascended…Their clothes grew ragged, and their food became so poor that the Chinese themselves were moved with pity. Yet still these missionaries sang on and taught their patched-clothes baby: “In heavenly love abiding, No change my heart shall fear,” until she could sing it too.

Eventually Arthur and a coworker were the very last China Inland Mission members to be evacuated out of China after the Bamboo Curtain fell. Wilda and their little daughter, Lilah, had been sent out a short time earlier. But they all left behind with the Chinese church, the CIM family, and everyone who has read their story a testimony of God’s grace and provision.

Isobel concludes: “But who knows when the drought is going to strike us also? Is it possible for any Christian to put forth green leaves when all he enjoys in this life is drying up around him?” Yes. God’s promises are still true. May He keep our leaves green and flourishing for His glory.

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Global Blogging, Senior Salon, Hearth and Soul,
Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, Happy Now, InstaEncouragement,
Anchored Abode, Recharge Wednesday, Worth Beyond Rubies,
Share a Link Wednesdays, Heart Encouragement, Let’s Have Coffee,
Grace and Truth, Faith on Fire, Blogger Voices Network,
Carole’s Books You Loved, Booknificent Thursday)

Book Review: Granny Brand

Granny BrandI first came across Granny Brand by Dorothy Clarke Wilson some 25-30 years ago after reading the same author’s biography of “Granny’s” son, Paul Brand,  Ten Fingers For God. At that time the ladies’ group of the church we attended had an extensive collection of missionary biographies that we could check out at the monthly ladies’ meetings. It was through that venue that I read both books, so I did not own them. I thought about both of them when I was doing the 31 Days of Missionary Stories, but it had been so long since I had read them, I thought it would be better to wait to discuss them til I had a chance to read them again. I found used copies and enjoyed revisiting Granny’s life. The book about Paul was actually written first, and the author met his mother in the course of her research and wanted to write about her, too. Granny agreed at first, and then changed her mind and started to write her own book, and finally gave permission but asked the author to wait until her death.

Granny Brand began life as Evelyn Harris. She was born the ninth of eleven children into a strict but loving well-to-do Christian family in 1879. She had “the eyes and soul of an artist,” and all through her life would stop to paint or sketch beloved sites. But though she loved her art, it didn’t fully satisfy. She had been raised doing charitable works, but she wanted to do more. Various events turned her eyes towards missions, especially a booklet by a young missionary named Jesse Brand, who ministered in India. Not coincidentally, that very same Jesse Brand came to speak at her church. She was over 30 when she told her father she was called to missions. He had wanted to keep at least some of his daughters close by and brought forth various arguments as to why she should stay, but finally, “He understood. It was his own stern creed of obedience to a higher Will that she was determined to follow” (p. 34).

Though at her farewell party someone remarked that “She looks more like an actress than a missionary” (p. 35), it didn’t take her long to lay aside her finery and immerse herself into the work and life in India. There she unexpectedly met up again with Jesse Brand, though he was assigned to another area. When they parted, they began a correspondence which blossomed into love, and when he proposed, she agreed to join him in marriage and his work.

Their wedding night was typical of her response to life: they started on a long journey to Jesse’s home, first 5 miles in wagon drawn by a pony, then in a dholi. I tried to find an image online to share, but none of them looks like the picture in the book, which shows a long length of canvas with poles through openings on both sides, which were carried by four men. The passenger would recline along the length of the fabric and be jostled up and down, back and forth, hanging onto the poles while the men walked…or ran…up and down steep mountain paths. First the heat wilted her clothing, then a deluge drenched her, the higher mountain air chilled her (no one had told her she might need warmer clothing there). Then they walked over a narrow trail with thorns tearing her skirt and branches slapping her face. Finally they trekked across a muddy rice field, and when they arrived, she thought, “Life is not going to be easy. It’s good all this happened. I may as well know it now.” “But she had not come here for an easy time. She had come for love of God, and of these hill people, and of the man whose strong arms were now lifting and carrying her over the threshold” (p. 48).

Jesse was a man of many talents, with skill in medicine, building, and planting, all put to use in ministering to the people and helping them improve their lives. Evelyn’s medical skills were more homeopathic, but they worked together smoothly. One boy was saved early on, but it was six long years later before any other converts. A priest who had actively opposed their message and work became ill and asked them to take his children when he died, as they would otherwise be left to die. His own “swamis” deserted him in his hour of need, and he now believed “Yesu-swami” was the one true God. His conversion and the Brands’ care of his daughter began to crack the door open for the gospel, and eventually more believed and a church was started.

Jesse and Evelyn took in many more children, had two of their own, and had many fruitful years in the “mountains of death,” until, nearly 14 years after their marriage, Jesse contacted malaria, which turned into blackwater fever, and died.

Evelyn was devastated and, after making arrangements for the work, went back to England for a time. But she was called to India, not just to Jesse, and wanted to go back. There were five mountain ranges that she and Jesse had dreamed of bringing the gospel to, and she wanted to continue on.

The mission board had a policy against sending a missionary back to a field that another missionary had taken over because of the understandable rifts that could arise, but Evelyn argued that this work was begun by herself and Jesse and much of their own money had been poured into it. They had built it up with their own hands. The board relented and let her go, and though she loved being back in her beloved hills, and the people loved having her, indeed “this five-year term…was filled with tensions and frustrations.” The missionary couple who came to take over the work “were capable and dedicated, but they were not Jesse Brand, and of course their methods were there own. It was inevitable that differences of opinion should arise between them and one who for sixteen years had been co-creator, co-manager, co-builder of every enterprise in the beloved complex – one who, moreover, could be neither meek nor silent when she felt a principle was at stake” (p. 113).

Meanwhile Evelyn did want to press on to the other ranges. She took camping trips to scout them out. Long used to simple, even stark living, all she could see was the exciting possibilities, while some of those she took with her could only see the hardships. But she persevered. The board wanted her to retire at 68, but after a year she resigned from the board and remained in India independently. She was 84 when she moved to her third mountain range. She continued taking in children, caring for the sick, fighting the production of kanja (marijuana), riding a pony from village to village, and sharing the gospel. She added two more mountain ranges to the original five she wanted to reach. Somewhere along the way people started calling her “Granny Brand,” though she scoffed at the thought of being old until relatively late in life.

She experienced sicknesses, broken bones from falls, and when carriers accidentally knocked her head against a rock and she never regained her balance afterward, she walked with the aid of two long sticks. Whenever she was in the hospital, she disobeyed orders to stay in her bed and went from room to room via wheelchair or pulled herself along the floor to visit other patients, share the gospel, and encourage them.

When her 95th birthday was approaching, she was afraid people would praise her for continuing to work at her age. She wrote to her son, Paul: “I am not wonderful.  I am just a poor, old, frail, and weak woman.  God has taken hold of me and gives me the strength I need each day.  He uses me just because I know that I have no strength of my own.  Please tell the people to praise God, not me.” God took her home before that birthday, but those words would continue to express her desire.

She wasn’t perfect and never would have claimed to be. She was opinionated, feisty, independent, and strong-willed, all qualities which can good but can also be a problem in some situations. But because she yielded herself to God, He transformed her and used her to touch many lives for His glory, in her lifetime and still today.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Missionary Books for Children

When I was making a list of Christian missionary biographies that I have read and benefited from and could readily recommend, it occurred to me that I ought to make a similar list of missionary books written for children. It has been a long time since I read missionary books for children, but I read several both for my own and for gifts for nieces and nephews. But though many of these are still in print, they are not recent, so if you have any to recommend, please feel free to list them in the comments. Some of these are true stories, some are fiction based on true stories, some are biographies, a few may be totally fiction.

These I haven’t read personally but I know enough about the publisher and/or author to believe they would be good:

In addition, though these aren’t written specifically for children, I think they’d be easily understood by children. An older child could probably read them alone, but these books might be especially fun to read together as a family:

  • Cowboy Boots in Darkest Africa by Bill Rice (I read this to my boys during the brief time we home schooled and they enjoyed it quite a bit.)
  • Mimosa by Amy Carmichael

In fact, probably a great many on my original list could be read as a family, but I would definitely hold off on Peace Child and Spirit of the Rainforest as they are quite graphic, though not gratuitous.

There are probably some I have forgotten, and there may be some newer ones that are good as well. Most of these are as adventuresome as any fictional story your children might read with the added benefit of examples of Christian faith and action that glorifies God and draws people to Himself.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)