Through Gates of Splendor - Sinners and Buffoons, an Epilogue

It's been a couple of weeks since I reached the end of Through Gates of Splendor, by Elisabeth Elliot. I was tremendously moved by the story, but perhaps even more so by the second Epilogue, written in honor of the 40th anniversary of the martyrdom of Elisabeth's husband, Jim. Four decades later her reflections are helpful, her wisdom profound. Until reading this book the version of these events which I carried about in my head were along these lines: Jim and his fellow missionaries went to Ecuador with a passion for a certain tribe. They went; they landed; they were massacred; their widows bravely ventured back toward the murderous tribe and when the killers saw the forgiveness of these women they repented and turned to Christ. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church" is a maxim proven yet again. I liked that version. It was clean and it made a certain sense. But the actual events were not so neat and tidy, not in the events leading up to the massacre, not in the aftermath.

In the span of forty years Elisabeth had seen the tale oversimplified, even mythologized,  with lessons being taken from it which perhaps ought not be, and other lessons missed entirely. It appears to be her concern in this later Epilogue to bring some realism to our dreamy romanticizing of the lives (and deaths) of her husband and his fellow mission workers, herself and the rest of the widows, and others like them who's stories we love to tell and re-tell. As we look at these lives, she would have us see them as they really were, deeply flawed, sinful human beings, serving an almighty, perfect, and sovereign God:

"There is always the urge to oversimplify, to weigh in at once with interpretations that cannot possibly cover all the data or stand up to close inspection.  We know, for example, that time and time again in the history of the Christian church, the blood of martyrs has been its seed. So we are tempted to assume a simple equation here.; Five men died. This will mean x-number of Waorani Christians.

Perhaps so. Perhaps not. Cause and effect are in God's hands. Is it not the part of faith simply to let them rest there? God is God. I dethrone Him in my heart if I demand that He act in ways that satisfy my idea of justice....

For us widows the question as to why the men who had trusted God to be both shield and defender should be allowed to be speared to death was not one that could be smoothly or finally answered in 1956, nor yet silenced in 1996.... I believe with all my heart that God's Story has a happy ending....But not yet, not necessarily yet. It takes faith to hold on to that in the face of the great burden of experience, which seems to prove otherwise. What God means by happiness and goodness is a far higher thing than we can conceive....

The massacre was a hard fact.... It was interpreted according to the measure of one's faith or faithlessness - full of meaning or empty. A triumph or a tragedy. An example of brave obedience or a case of fathomless foolishness. The beginning of a great work, and demonstration of the power of God, a sorrowful first act that would lead to a beautifully predictable third act in which all puzzles would be solved, God would vindicate Himself, Waoranis would be converted, and we could all 'feel good' about our faith...But the danger lies in seizing upon the immediate and hoped-for, as though God's justice is thereby verified, and glossing over as neatly as possible certain other consequences, some of them inevitable, others simply the result of a botched job. In short, in the Waorini story as in other stories, we are consoled as long as we do not examine too closely the unpalatable data. By this evasion we are willing still to call the work 'ours,' to arrogate to ourselves whatever there is of success, and to deny all failure.

A healthier faith seeks a reference point outside all human experience, the Polestar which marks the course of all human events, not forgetting that impenetrable mystery of the interplay of God's will and man's....

I think back to the five men themselves, remembering Pete's agony of indecision as to whether he should join the others in the venture; Ed's eagerness to go even though Marilou was eight months pregnant, his strong assurance that all would be well; Roj's depression and deep sense of failure as a missionary; Nate's extreme caution and determination; Jim's nearly reckless exuberance.

I think of the tensions that developed after the men died among those who had to try to 'pick up the pieces' of the work they had left behind. There was misunderstanding between some of the mission boards as to what part each was to play in continuing efforts to reach the Waoranis.

I think of how, when Rachel and I finally arrived in the Waorani's jungle clearing, we found that what she and Dayuma had been using as the Waorini language was not readily understood. Dayuma had forgotten a large part of it, and had unwittingly jumbled up Waorani, Quichua, a smattering of Spanish, and a little English intonation for good measure.  Then gradually I saw, to my dismay, that Rachel's approach to linguistic work, her interpretation of what the Indians did and said, and the resulting reports she sent out were often radically different from my own.

I think of the Indians themselves - what bewilderment, what inconvenience, what disorientation, what uprooting, what actual disease (polio, for example) they suffered because we missionaries got to them at last! The skeptic points with glee to such woeful facts and we dodge them nimbly, fearing any assessment of the work that may cast suspicion at least on the level of our spirituality if not the validity of our faith.

But we are sinners. And we are buffoons....It is not the level of our spirituality that we can depend on. It is God and nothing less than God, for the work is God's and the call is God's and everything is summoned by Him and to His purposes, the whole scene, the whole mess, the whole package - our bravery and our cowardice, our love and our selfishness, our strengths and our weaknesses. The God who could take a murderer like Moses and an adulterer like David and a traitor like Peter and make them strong servants of His is a God who can also redeem savage Indians, using as the instruments of His peace a conglomeration of sinners who sometimes look like heroes and sometimes like villains, for 'we are no better than pots of earthenware to contain the treasure [the revelation of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ], and this proves that such transcendent power does not come from us, but is God's alone.'" (2 Cor. 4:7 NEB)
[Emphasis in bold is mine.]


Scott said…
Excellent - thank you so much for the added insight this 2nd Epilogue provides. Wonderful.
Jean said…
Thank you for posting this. I love Elisabeth Elliot. Always willing to look beneath the surface that we so easily cover over with platitudes.
Laurie M. said…
Thanks for your comment, Jean.
She lived a remarkable life.

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