She bore herself with a grace and dignity that you could not help but notice. For even for someone like myself with little knowledge at the time of the wider evangelical world, it was immediately clear to me that she was royalty indeed within that realm.
Though it had been almost two decades since the death of her husband, in fact, their story was still spoken of in almost hushed tones at the seminary where I studied. For in the Nifty 1950’s, when America was at the peak of its economic power, even the secular world found the tale to be a compelling one: “Missionary Massacre in Ecuador Jungle,” so Life, the leading magazine of the day, had called it.
Because I was just a child at the time of those events, however, the Huaorani Indians never came into my horizon. Likewise, growing up in a mainstream Methodist church in the Houston suburbs, I had never even heard of Wheaton College, the “Christian Harvard” in Illinois that those missionaries had attended. And in the era long before ISIS, even the very idea of Christians still being martyred for their faith was a rather foreign concept to be sure.
But as I was to learn, the story didn’t end after five young men were speared to death on a shallow riverbank in remote Auca territory. For in an incomparable act of incarnational evangelism, the widows of two of those men returned to live among the very same Indians who had killed their husbands, one even taking their young daughter with her, and later chronicling that chapter in her life in perhaps the most widely read missionary account of the past century.
She married again, this time to a professor of theology, and it was that which brought her to that Boston area seminary where she joined him as a member of an incredibly God-focused faculty like few others in the nation. But when Addison Leitch died of cancer within a few years of their union, tragedy once again seemed to leap into her life.
What I discovered in watching her, however, was a faith that remained imposingly strong as she followed the advice she would give to others: “Leave it all in the hands that were wounded for you.” And just as other students who similarly interacted with her, I was impressed by the quiet passion for the gospel, her impeccable manners, and the unwavering commitment to simply do good that still seemed to drive her.
A housing shortage at the seminary led her to take in an older student to live with her and her daughter. What a joy it was then when, much to the surprise of many of us, she and my classmate were married in a quiet ceremony some thirty-six years ago. For Lars became an incredible gift of God in her life, as they each lived “sacramentally” enjoying the daily tasks of life, even after her onset of dementia almost ten years ago.
Elizabeth Elliot died on Tuesday at the age of 88 and the world is the lesser for it. To quote the title of but two of her best-selling books, she has now entered Through Gates of Splendor and rests In the Shadow of the Almighty.
I would be amiss indeed, however– and perhaps even deserving of one of her gentle classroom chides–if I didn’t say simply, “Thank you, dear sister, for all you taught me about the God who controls both the big and the little things in our lives. For truly, in the words of Jim Elliot you recorded so well, “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.”