What Elisabeth Elliot Told Me
by Lucinda Secrest McDowell
Elisabeth Elliot prayed for years that I would be granted the blessings of husband and children. I was in my thirties when Mike proposed to me near my home in San Francisco, and she happened to be visiting from Boston on her way to India researching the Amy Carmichael biography, so we dropped in at her friend’s home.
“God answered your prayers – meet my fiancé, Mike!” I exclaimed. What a delightful visit that was and how grateful I am for the privilege of knowing and learning from this remarkable woman of God.
And now Elisabeth Elliot has passed “through gates of splendor” and is finally Home.
Upon hearing the news I immediately did 3 things – talked to her daughter and my dear friend Valerie, re-read some of my journals from back when she was my mentor, and then disciplined myself to keep on writing my new book because that’s what she would have urged …
Many years ago when I was studying at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, I lived with Elisabeth Elliot as her student lodger. By then she had already written 20 books and was well-known for taking her young daughter, Valerie, to live with Auca Indians in Ecuador – the same ones that had speared her husband, Jim Elliot, and four other missionaries to death. By the time I first heard her speak, at ‘Urbana ’76,’ her second husband, Dr. Addison Leitch, had just died of cancer.
Though I was a disappointment as a housecleaner (her words, not mine) I did pretty well at my other duties – transcribing Jim Elliot’s journals for her current manuscript (on a typewriter), driving her to the airport for frequent speaking engagements and organizing events in her home. We shared many lively breakfast conversations (yes, we did have differing opinions on a few things), hosted hymn sings and dinner parties, and even shoveled out of the Great Blizzard of ’78. I loved her sense of humor, her mimicry and enjoyment of parlor games. I don’t remember there being a television in the house at all.
We were certainly an odd couple – me with my gushy southern type-A personality and her with her reserved New England demeanor and dry wit. But somehow God brought us together in a friendship that lasted 38 years. As I review my journals from that time so long ago I am amazed at how much of my own Life Story and message was shaped by my exposure to Elisabeth’s teachings during that formative season.
Reading in my journal about a Sunday dinner I cooked for Elisabeth, her mother and sister, and four of my friends, I treasure the notes from that conversation. Jim, a seminarian from North Carolina, commented that so many people he admired had gone through great suffering. “Do you feel that’s necessary in order to become a man or woman of God?” he asked.
That evening I scribbled as much of her answer as I could remember in my journal. “She said ‘yes’ she believed we must know the cross in our own lives — Philippians 3.10 ‘that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death…’ That we must suffer for the Lord even though we don’t seek out the suffering, nor do we have anything to do in choosing the fashion it will take. Sometimes this means allowing ourselves to be joyfully inconvenienced, not seeking our own way, but serving others. Daily prayers for another can be an opportunity of laying down our lives for someone else.”
I remember her warning us that our generation was not prepared to suffer or even be inconvenienced. I wrote “She pointed out that we must learn discipline and submission to authority in order to better be able to submit more wholly to God. Discipline should be exercised in our daily devotions, in our studies and in our love life. We must become responsible for that with which God has entrusted us now so we can be better prepared for all He has in store for us later.” Do you remember the very first time you heard such powerful and challenging teaching as a young follower of Christ? I was like a sponge, soaking it all in…
This particular journal entry (October 30, 1977) closed with my own lament “Oh! How can I remember all she said – it was so profound. I can’t possibly do it justice writing it down here. But there are at least 2 basic things I want to begin putting into practice right now:
- Discipline in all areas, but especially my devotions and studies.
- Daily seeking ways to ‘suffer’ for God through discipleship and serving others.”
Today I find myself way past the age Elisabeth was when I lived with her. I am an older woman of God, utterly dependent on God’s mercy through all my life’s experiences, and yes, suffering. I am also, by God’s grace, a person He uses to touch others through my writing and speaking. I still find that remarkable – that the Creator and Sustainer of the universe would choose me to have even a small part in helping to further His kingdom.
I smile as I read the postcard Elisabeth sent me shortly after she married Lars Gren and moved down to Atlanta while I stayed in her Massachusetts home. I had sent her an article of mine which appeared in the seminary newspaper. “…The parable is very good, I think. Perhaps it would be more effective if a wee shorter in the description of your failure, and a little longer on the remedy. You definitely have a flair for writing. Have you tried to do anything for Christian magazines? Spring is lovely in Georgia, isn’t it? Today I get a NOW hairdo to replace the THEN one….E”
After my graduation a few years later, Elisabeth spoke strongly into my life concerning God’s call and purpose. “Cindy, God has given you a gift of writing and it is your duty to offer it back to Him.”
And so I do.
Once Elisabeth told me that each of us is given only about two major themes/messages and that everything we speak and write about flows from that core. Tonight, reflecting on her life and international influence through her 30 books, Gateway to Joy radio program and many seminars, the messages that resonate most clearly seem to be:
- Offering our suffering and circumstances to God, knowing that nothing is wasted – laying it on the altar and asking how we can learn and grow through this.
- Serving others through the discipline of having a my-life-for-yours attitude every time we pray for someone or encounter a God ordained interruption.
Some years ago Mike and I drove to Boston and took luncheon over to Lars and Elisabeth’s home so that I could say some important things that needed to be said. This was during her final quiet years and though the conversation was somewhat one-sided, it was precious and special and I was gratified that she seemed to remember me.
This week we will return to Boston for her funeral and say our earthly goodbye along with other friends and family to this remarkable woman.
Now and in the days ahead many will write and share the legacy of Elisabeth Elliot on their own lives. I know that I am simply one of thousands whom she touched. And many will mention suffering. I don’t know if it is written in any of her books but one of the most powerful things I remember her telling me was “Suffering is having what you don’t want and wanting what you don’t have.”
Maybe you are in a position of suffering today. If so, I hope some of these remembrances will encourage you (as they certainly re-encourage me even in the writing of them) to grasp a firm hold of the God who is always there for us and will guide and provide.
May I close with the words of a letter Elisabeth Elliot wrote to a very, very young Cindy Secrest back in 1978: “Amy Carmichael of India said ‘all weathers nourish souls.’ It’s true. All situations, all circumstances, all privations and abundances are opportunities to be spiritually nourished – if we respond in faith. This lesson has been laid before me again here. There are things that are not to my liking about the situation, of course. So what! ‘I have learned in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content’ (Philippians 4.11). You are dear to me, Cindy. In the will of the Lord we’ll see more of each other. You are in my prayers – keep me in yours, please. Lovingly, Elisabeth”
We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender!
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise;
When passing through the gates of pearly splendor,
Victors, we rest with Thee, through endless days.”
(“We Rest on Thee” hymn by Edith G. Cherry 1895 – sung by Jim Elliot and his companions before they went to meet the Auca Indians in Ecuador 1956)
under the mercy, Cindy
©2015 Lucinda Secrest McDowell