Elisabeth Elliott's book, "These Strange Ashes", about her first year of missionary service, has stayed with me for many years after I read it. Elisabeth spent her first term of service living with "an unreached tribe" attempting to codify their spoken language into a written language for purposes of fostering literacy and translation of the Bible into their tongue. After more than a year of working diligently on the project ALL her language work was irretrievably lost.
I was already familiar with the story Elliott told in her most well-known book, "Through Gates of Splendor" about the murder of her husband, Jim Elliott, and several other men, as they attempted to befriend a remote tribe of people, and her subsequent story of remaining for many years, with her children, to continue to get to know that tribe of people and introduce them to Jesus Christ.
It is not difficult to call the loss of the young husbands and fathers a sacrificial service that resulted in great blessing when one looks through the window provided by the results of her subsequent years of friendship with and service to the tribe. But "These Strange Ashes" is Elisabeth's reflection on the meaning and purpose of the loss of her entire year of literacy work.
I can't remember whether a storm or fire or something else destroyed her work, but I do remember that her story and her reflection left me feeling unsettled and dissatisfied. I wanted life to be explainable if not predictable, and to be able to clearly see and name God's movement and purposes in our lives.
Over the past few years I've spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on the people, motivations, and results of my four decades of service to God and "the bride of Christ", the church, looking for possible purpose and meaning. I have been sifting fragile ashes from one hand to the other, examining what remains.
I began this blog in the middle of that reflective season, and the blog title, "These Three Remain" hints both of my struggle to make meaning of the unknowable and my hope, however faint at that time, that faith, hope, and love are truly cornerstones of life that remain when all else fades away.
So Amber's invitation to reflect on and write about a season of service or influencing people and blessing or benefit that may have come to us through or as a result of that service has really challenged me as I've sifted the ashes of my service through my fingers.
"Personality assessments" I've taken over the years have made me realize that "influencing others" has been a primary motivation most of my life - it's a very strong thread in my personality, and it shows itself in my history of church service activities which focused far more on teaching and mentoring than on preparing meals, cleaning homes, or mowing lawns. I did all those things and more as both a "stay-at-home" and working wife and mother, but I didn't routinely help people outside my family in those ways.
I grew up in small church, so I was put to work at a young age: helping with a weekly children's program, and annual summer vacation bible school, teaching a 3rd grade Sunday School class, singing in the choir, leading youth group activities, counseling at summer church camps, teaching sunday school to a wonderful group of middle schoolers while in college, and participating in community evangelistic campaigns.
Later, immersed in a much larger home church, I found myself discipling women on an informal individual and group basis as I continued in the church-structured activities of teaching sunday school (7th grade girls, then later 4 year old children ), teaching the Bible in vacation bible school each summer and writing and leading interdenominational women's bible studies in the community.
I took an active role in a local women's retreat ministry for about a decade, and though I found myself locked out of the teaching structure of the church (another story for another time) I gave myself to serving in the children's wednesday night program, singing in the choir, chaperoning field and camping trips, counseling at youth camp, and praying on a very regular basis for my church's leaders, people, and programs.
When I was locked out of the teaching leadership structure after 20 years of teaching, I turned to intercessory prayer (praying for and on behalf of others) as an alternate avenue of "using my life to influence others for God and Truth".
At first I prayed mostly for my church, on my knees in the tiny prayer room or face down in the sanctuary on weekdays, and tucked away in a less traveled hallway on Sunday mornings. After awhile, I began meeting regularly with others for the purpose of prayer; sometimes to support interdenominational organizations and efforts in the community, other times to encourage individuals in their prayer life.
I took to "prayer- walking" not only on my mega church and christian school campus but also in neighborhoods and on busy city streets in my community, often bringing partners along to walk and pray with me for God's blessing for the people, neighborhoods, churches and cities through which we walked.
For several years when I did not have to work outside the home, I prayed with someone, morning and afternoon, five days a week. I heartily believed God would intervene in the affairs of men and influence lives as a result of our prayers.
Trying to complete the many "faith assignments" I felt God had for me was usually intuitively and intellectually fulfilling but it was also very challenging emotionally. At times I risked damage to my reputation or rejection and loss of treasured relationships in order to pursue "the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (Phil 3:8).
For as long as I can remember I have had a major pride problem. During the years of intense prayer and mentoring activities, I battled pride on a daily basis, asking God to root it out in me, expose it and help me to confess it to others and turn from it.
So it may be no coincidence that looking back these past few years at the "results" of my decades of service has seemed more an act of "sifting through ashes" than rejoicing over visible results. For quite a few months I felt like my decades of service to "the church" had been a colossal mis-use of my time and resources.
During this season of my life of withdrawal from "church" activities, I have focused on giving simple life-sustaining gifts to my family: preparing many nourishing meals, caring for children, painting and planting, and offering stressed and weary parents moments of respite and a welcoming home where each person is accepted, respected and loved.
I've returned with new emphasis to this service that is so very physical and largely restricted to my family mostly because we simply needed it to survive and overcome the challenges we faced, and also because it provided a "quiet" backdrop of work for me to address the unanswered questions, heartache and angst about God and the church which occupied such a large portion of my heart and mind.
As I have taken up this towel, I've experienced an unexpected new joy and satisfaction in planning and preparing appealing, wholesome meals as well as surprise that a meal that takes 5 hours or more to prepare will often be dished out and consumed by 8-12 people in less than 15 minutes. I've experienced a body weariness that clamors for rest long before the day is done, and fed my appetite for learning as I've devoured books and lectures about nutrition, fitness, the brain, and personality development.
In order to serve my family in this way, I've exchanged personal activities and goals I'd looked forward to accomplishing during this "empty nest" season for more cooking and cleaning and childcare.
But I've also tasted recurring delight as I experience anew the wondrous world with and through my grandchildren; reading marvelous books, cooking, baking, working and laughing together; exploring the great outdoors and its many inhabitants in yard, park, and beach; getting messy with mud and paint and glue, playing every ball game imaginable, struggling to communicate with my "special needs" granddaughter, and answering 387 questions a day.
I realize that I've been breaking the commonly taught rules for spiritual health by refusing involvement in the "messy Christianity" within the organized church during these recent years.
I realize with a clarity I lacked in my younger years just how far I am from loving others as God loves.
But after 35 years of intensive service to the organized church, investing my energy, gifts and love in that community (and the world through my intercessory prayer and our financial giving), I am content with this towel and this bowl for now.
I do not shy from truthful answers or cringe in guilt when I face the questions and responses from extended family and friends about my lack of involement in the organized church.
For this season, my "family church" has provided more than enough opportunity to practice forgiveness and model imperfection, more than enough pain to stretch my heart, more than enough heartache to keep me on my knees crying out for mercy and grace, and more than enough joy and blessing to keep me lifting my voice in praise to the God who is Love.