White-Haired Wisdom

Elisabeth Elliot is the one to credit—or blame!?, depending upon your perspective—for #thereyougothinkingagain, the blog.

I’m sure there are many more wonderful things Elisabeth Elliot can be hailed for, not least of which is her daughter and grandchildren, but also her lovely feminine power in submission, her beautiful humility, her wisdom and faithfulness. These all came to mind when I saw the news that she’d died and gone on to receive her reward from her beloved Savior. The memories and remembered accounts of the multitude of ways she’d influenced so many was rolling down upon me like a boulder and I had to sit down for a few days to ponder it. 

I don’t want to forget this, I thought to myself. I have let too much get forgotten, just accepting the fading memories and blurring recollections. This is too important to forget. So I opened a journal, and I began to write.

Elisabeth Elliot has died.
She has been a spiritual mentor to so many thousands of women—most of whom have never met her. She kindly and gently encouraged me once 20 years ago—like the others, not in a face-to-face encounter, but for me that day, it was over the phone.

I thought about Elisabeth Elliot recently following our pastor’s message about Joshua toward the end of his remarkable life as Moses’s successor as the leader of Israel. This man who had led daring escapades, scaled walls, forded rivers, and kept this unruly nation of Israelites together was coming to the final chapters of his life, and in true to epic form, he was distributing wisdom and exhorting the nation he’d been called to lead. At approximately 110 years old, he probably looked like the wise and ancient saint that he was. I often think of the descriptions or movie portrayals of the fictional Gandalf when I picture elderly Old Testament saints in my mind — white beard flowing, eyes rimmed with lines etched by experience and life but bright with burning faith and devotion to God. For all the speculation, we don’t know what Joshua looked like as he stood before his people at this time, but we do know that he called for them to “be very careful to love the Lord your God” (chapter 23) and to “choose this day whom you will serve” (chapter 24)

We also know that however he looked, it was more than mere aesthetics that granted him the substance of the position he held as the leader of the people of God. He had been chosen by God, a choice that was underscored publicly by Moses and acknowledged by all—even Israel’s enemies—for decades. His accomplishments were many, but his heart belonged to the Lord. Joshua’s recorded encounters with God reflect a man who knew where to turn in every circumstance throughout his long life and who received the favor of God.

“No man shall be able to stand before you all the days of your life. Just as I was with Moses, so I will be with you. I will not leave you or forsake you. Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” (Joshua 1:5-9)

So the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame was in all the land. (6:27)

And the Lord said to Joshua, “Do not be afraid of them.” (11:6)

Just as the Lord had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the Lord had commanded Moses. (11:15)

A man who follows the man who was commanded by God . . . there’s a simple formula for what to look for in a mentor and a model for older men and older women who wish to leave a godly legacy.

There is immeasurable value in the elderly saints we have to turn to. When my daughter calls with discontentment over her current state of childlessness and feeling like she doesn’t fit in with the young moms, I encourage her to seek out older women in her congregation. Who knows if any of them experienced childlessness? Just because they have children now doesn’t mean there may not have been a time when they wondered if they were ever going to be a mom. She learns that one never knows what is ahead and discovers that sometimes our assumptions about people get in the way of the gifts they can be for us.

It got me to thinking about the elderly saints for whom I am thankful, and in particular, the legacy of Elisabeth Elliot. Whose woman’s voice was heard most—or at all—before hers? Not only did she address the issues close to her heart as a woman, wife and mother, but she also encouraged women not to neglect all aspects of Christian life and faith—despair, suffering, contentment, loneliness, scriptural diligence, holiness. After giving us the nutritious bounty of her writings, God fed us with more godly older women in Susan Hunt, Martha Peace, and Joni Earickson Tada, followed by the next wave of women mentors—Aimee Byrd, Christina Fox, Nancy Guthrie, Jen Wilkin, Rosaria Champagne Butterfield . . . the list goes on. What a legacy of spiritual motherhood!

Elisabeth Elliot laid the groundwork for this growth in women’s voices in teaching and writing not because she foresaw the day of the uprising of women’s power in preaching or she because was starting a movement or she was deceptively planting seeds for feminist revolution. That’s actually laughable; her work is known for encouraging women to recognize that power lies in biblical femininity and submission to God’s greater and higher ways. 

That phone call many years ago was supposed to be a simple message about a writing assignment, but in true Elisabeth Elliot fashion, she turned it into an opportunity for encouragement and exhortation.

We were planning the 1995 Christmas issue of Tabletalk and decided on Mary, the mother of Jesus, for the theme —hoping to highlight her biblical personage over mystical speculation. One voice we wanted was that of a young Mary facing an unmarried pregnancy. The editorial staff assigned me the task of contacting Elisabeth Elliot to write this piece. Ha —a “task”. Indeed. I was intimidated, but it was not a task or a chore.

When I called EE, we discussed the parameters of the issue, who the other writers were to be, what RC was going to write, etc.. In the process, I talked to her about what I felt it was like to be an unmarried woman facing a pregnancy. She was a good listener and gently and with genuine interest in her voice asked me questions about God’s gracious work in my life. In the end, she said, “No, I’m not going to accept the offer to write this.” 

I was stunned. This was not the answer I was supposed to take back to the team, but she insisted, adding, “God has taught you spiritual lessons that would be much more authentic for Tabletalk’s readers and have more impact for God’s glory than if I were to try to use all the best of my imagination. You’re going to write it, and you go tell RC I said so.” She promised that she would pray for me, and we hung up.

Elisabeth did not even consider that this was another opportunity for her to be acknowledged and receive compensation. She thought only of the power of the message and who best to share it — the very thing an older woman ought to be thinking of when encouraging and mentoring a younger woman to pursue the greater things of the Lord. That was my first journal entry (ever!), which led eventually to the birth of this blog.

While looking back over those words a few mornings ago, I heard the slow, slipper-sliding shuffle of my mom as she left the bedroom area downstairs and began the short climb to the living area where I was sitting.

Here comes a different kind of elderly saint. She has taught me the art of stretching dollars, that home-cooked meals are the best, and that simple vacations and day trips can be amazing. It is from my mom that I have learned about being content with simple joys. 

“Will you be up at 7?” she asked me the other night before she went to bed. I processed that: After all these years of my unloving personality and impatient ways, she still can’t wait to come sit with her daughter for a cup of coffee and time shared in the morning light. 

She loves the Word and loves hearing the Word preached. She is just as anguished over the foolishness of her grandchildren as she is for the lack of belief in one of her sons. She prays for the latter with cries to heaven, and she knows, for the former, if it’s in the Lord’s plan, that they will learn.

  • Marriage is the greater and nothing—no matter how good or Christlike or sacrificial it seems — is worth it if it interferes with the unity of husband and wife. Nothing.
  • Money and wealth changes people and divides families.
  • Biblical doctrine and theological integrity are essential to a steady, lifelong walk with the Lord.

She is not too proud to sleep in a room with super hero posters on the wall. She is not too particular about what people think of her that she won’t hang at the beach with nearly every inch of skin covered up to resist the threat of skin cancer—just to hear the waves rocking the shoreline. She’ll readily flick her fingers at the one who dares to present her with steamed crabs clearly not prepared Maryland-style. She’ll apologize for not being able to reach across the space between us with a handful of candy, explaining that her shoulder is sore from the gardening that she did at her granddaughter’s house.

And she always asks to take a certain route when we travel between my house in Pittsburgh and hers in Annapolis, where we can pull off at Sidling Hill to see the view of the Appalachian mountains, “because I never know whether this will be the last time.”

My mom was born the same year as Elisabeth Elliot, and as a white-haired saint of the Lord’s still among us, I recognize that I may not long have with me this gift that she is, but I will always treasure what God is teaching me through her:  

Christian living, faith, New Covenant grace are radical. Eternal impact is external and internal. Relationships begin not in the horizontal but with the vertical. We follow not the world’s standards but God’s standards. It’s not about self but service. There is power in submission, and redemption in dying to self. And finally, these Christian truths are practiced out not in the boardrooms or the committees, or the amphitheaters or the halls of entertainment, but in spheres of life we all have: family, friends, church.

I encourage you today to seek out an elderly saint in your life in whom you can find an abundance of blessings from the Lord.

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