When Elisabeth Elliot slipped into eternity yesterday, I lost a spiritual grandmother.
We never met in person, but she still spoke to me like a spiritual grandmother would when I tuned into her radio program “Gateway to Joy” every day in the early 1990s, shortly after I became a Christian.
As somebody who didn’t grow up in the church, and who came to Christ in his mid-twenties, her fifteen-minute program guided, encouraged, challenged and shaped me.
Her message was counter-cultural to a young Christian like myself: we must die to live, we must surrender to be free, and we must accept the lot we have been assigned if we want to find peace (she often quoted missionary Amy Carmichael who said, “In acceptance lieth peace.”)
Elliot’s approach was direct, and her tone was uncompromising, but for a wayward young single Christian man, her words were exactly what I needed to hear. They carried authority, and a ring of truth. They also came from a place of authenticity.
As a woman who lost two husbands in the most horrible of ways, she knew loneliness. She knew longing. And she wrote from those places.
While I was writing my first book (a singles devotional book called “Single Servings”), I sent Elliot a letter along with some sample devotions, asking her if she would consider endorsing my project. That letter was dated July 21, 2003 (I know this because I still have a copy of it). I was stunned when she called me a month or so later.
After introducing herself, she put her husband, Lars, on the phone, saying she doesn’t deal with men one on one. For the remainder of the 15-minute call, Lars was our liaison. She would say something, Lars would repeat it (even though I could hear her). I would respond, and he would repeat it to her. And so it went.
We exchanged pleasantries. She pointed out that we had the same publisher, as if we were equals. Nothing could have been further from the truth. But it put me at ease.
“I received your letter and it looks like your book will speak to today’s singles,” she said through Lars. “But I am unable to endorse it. Not because I don’t think it’s a good book, but because so much has changed from when I was single.”
I knew what she was talking about since I had read many of her books. She opens “Passion & Purity: Learning to Bring Your Love Life Under Christ's Control” this way: “In my day we would have called them love affairs or romances. Now they are called relationships. The word love has fallen on bad times. To many people it means nothing more nor less than going to bed with somebody …”
In that same book, she wrote about receiving letters from younger women who were confused about the status of their relationship with men they were interested in. And she made this observation: “The letters keep coming, bombarding me with questions along these lines, suggesting that the experience of one from a different generation might still be a signpost.”
“Passion & Purity” has been revised at least once, and the edition I own is the sixth, so it’s hard to say whether she wrote these particular words before or after our conversation, but either way, she seemed to be saying even then that she was amazed when someone from a younger generation might ask her advice.
She hesitated as she began to explain to me, through Lars, why she couldn’t relate to the dating/relationship culture that had become the norm. She thought it would be better if younger writers like myself addressed it instead.
The irony is, I was 27 years old when I first found her radio program in 1993, which would have made her 66 — nearly 40 years my elder, and yet she became the first female voice to speak into my life, spiritually. She was indeed a signpost who pointed me toward hope, and truth.
But in the decade between when I first started listening to her program and our phone conversation, our culture had shifted so much that she was on verge of passing the baton to a younger signpost. I don’t think the full force of that hit me until her death.
She wasn’t passing the baton to me in particular, of course. She was passing it to the generation behind her, and ultimately, to the one behind it — I just happened to be part of that generation. She seemed to be telling me it was our time to apply the scriptures to a culture that looked much different than the one she grew up in.
Over the past 24 hours, I’ve been trying to process the influence Elliot has had on me. I’ve been twisting the kaleidoscope of her many quotes, books, and radio programs in my mind, but the big picture isn't coming into focus, yet. I’m just too close to the situation.
But in the immediate, I can’t get past this notion that one generation is responsible for speaking to the one or two directly behind it, while we still can. And so I will speak when a situation presents itself.
What an enormous responsibility, and blessing.
Thankfully, through the magic of technology, I can still hear Elliot’s voice every day (BBN is rebroadcasting her old radio shows), and it will remain a guiding influence in what I pass along.