Tuesday, March 17, 2015

These Strange Ashes

Elisabeth Elliot continues to be a faithful companion. Her book, These Strange Ashes, is a collection of stories from her year as a jungle missionary in Ecuador, before she married Jim Elliot. For the first time in these past few months, I saw that my heroine was indeed made of flesh, bones, and blood.

For many years, Elisabeth Elliot had been preparing herself for the work of translating the Bible into a yet-to-be-written language. But much of her book was a confession about how distracted she was from the work she set out to do. Should she boil her milk and butter, how was she to keep her stove lighted, why it was such a trial to transport and boil the water from the river infested with human excrement, and how she made peace with wrinkled clothes.

There were points in the story when I had to put down the book, walk to my kitchen, and appreciate what she called "miracles of ingenuity"—the faucets and drains and my kitchen sink.

"The familiar became the stuff of dreams," she wrote, "and the stuff of former dream—the jungle, Indians, thatched roofs, campfires, a strange  unwritten tongue—became the familiar." Going to a grocery store became to her "almost a dream of paradise." Scotch tape, nail files, pots, vegetable parers, and notebooks became precious things, but they were always getting broken or rusty or mildewed.

Life was very stale, she wrote, and the days dragged by. But, when life was eventful, there was sure to be landslides, thefts, getting lost in the jungle, sickness, and deaths. I do not know which I would prefer.

And then, there were her losses. She quoted Amy Carmichael,
But these strange ashes, Lord, this nothingness,
This baffling sense of loss?
Son, was the anguish of my stripping less
Upon the torturing cross?
I stumbled across these words that did much good for my soul, though I do not yet understand them fully.
This grief, this sorrow, this total loss that empties my hands and breaks my heart, I may, if I will, accept, and by accepting it, I find in my hands something to offer. And so I give it back to Him, who in mysterious exchange give Himself to me.
Hers are among the strangest books I have read, and loved. There was no conclusion, no triumphant ending. I was left wondering why she suffered so, after she had poured out so much. And the losses she recorded in this book were not even the worst of her pain. After five years of waiting for the man she loved, Jim Elliot would die in another jungle just two years after they were married.

Loss after loss after loss.
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.

My miracles of ingenuity.

She ended her book this way:
A story is told of Jesus and His disciples walking one day along a stony road. Jesus asked each of them to choose a stone to carry for Him. John, it is said, chose a large one while Peter chose the smallest. Jesus led them then to the top of the mountain and commanded that the stones be made bread. Each disciple, by this time tired and hungry, was allowed to eat the bread he held in his band, but of course Peter's was not sufficient to satisfy his hunger. John gave him some of his.
Some time later Jesus again asked the disciples to pick up a stone to carry. This time Peter chose the largest of all. Taking them to a river, Jesus told them to cast the stones into the water. They did so, but looked at one another in bewilderment.
"For whom," asked Jesus, "did you carry the stone?"


Anonymous said...

I've only read a couple of her books, but through them I have found that I consider Jim and Elizabeth to be dear friends and mentors of mine. I read her books in college studying as a missions major, and to this day I am inspired by her, her faith, and her storytelling. And Jim's of course.

In Shadow of the Almighty she tells of the last time she was with Jim, and the door closing behind him as he left to get in the plane. Somehow she knew at that moment she would never see him alive again. Almost the same as I did while reading it. I knew what was about to transpire, but I didn't want to happen but knew that it would.

Once again, thanks for writing. I am always encouraged and inspired by your posts.

julie said...

This makes me want to read this one, too! Thank you for the recommendation! Do you know if it's available as an ebook or did you read the paper version? Amazon doesn't seem to have it for Kindle.

Irene Sun said...

Andrew - I guess I have to pick up Shadow of the Almighty now. =) I have nearly forgotten that you majored in missions in college! This memory brings me back to our dinner in the South apartment. I love that you and Sarah now have two little boys of your own. Thank you for your encouragement about writing, really.

Julie - Thanks again for that final push to read Elisabeth Elliot! You know how we loved the way she grounded her biography of Amy Carmichael with little snippets about Amy's weaknesses? These Strange Ashes is basically an entire book about Elisabeth's own weaknesses. This is an amazing work, and reading it brought me a strange comfort. I found a copy through the network of libraries in Illinois. Thank you, Julie.

Teyen Chou said...

This really got me in the heart. It's been so stressful and challenging to see everything that I do is for Him, not for me. The need to surrender and trust in Him every single day. Financially it's been a "struggle" since I've graduated, but God has been providing. It's always been this fear that one day I will not have enough, but just like you wrote in this post, everything around me is already enough and something great.
Especially the ending of her book that you posted... who am I really carrying these stones or living for? The worldly messages of I have to have more than enough? Or to be continuously grateful that I ALREADY have enough and should be used for Him? It's been such a battle for me whenever bills and loans comes my way when in reality, it's amazing that I already have the money to always pay them off every single month. Praise. Jesus.

I really need to read this book.

Irene Sun said...

Teyen -- Thank you for sharing your struggles. At every stage in every life, we will be faced with troubles and what E. Elliot called "Blessed inconveniences."

As I was reading, I thought, wait -- isn't it her birthday?! Yay! I got a note from the birthday girl. =) I prayed for you last night, that the Lord would give you his peace and joy that transcends our understanding. May your years ahead be fruitful and full of grace. <3