Steve Saint and Elisabeth Elliot and the Revealing Epilogues to Their Stories

2325686115_9baa8eafd4_nIn doing research on Scott Wallace’s work with isolated tribes of the Amazon, I came across his March report about two Waorani Indians who had been killed by members of an “uncontacted” tribe. According to witnesses, “the assailants belonged to a clan of Taromenane, a branch of the Waorani who spurned contact with evangelical missionaries in the 1950s and continue to roam the forests of Yasuní as nomads.”

I knew about the Waorani (Woadani, Huaorani, Auca) story, that their original contact with Western Christians had resulted in the spearing death of five missionaries in 1956, but I hadn’t updated myself on what was currently going on with the tribe. I also knew that the son of one of those missionaries, Steve Saint, had continued the work with the Waorani and that last year an accident had left him partially paralyzed. Again, I hadn’t kept up with his situation and assumed that his recovery was complete.

Following through a number of links, here is what I found: Steve Saint and Elisabeth Elliot (wife of one of the slain missionaries) living out their lives after tragedy, grabbing hold of their all-too-often idealized stories, stripping away the neatly tied bows, and letting the loose ends speak.

Our stories are part of God’s story, and by adding their epilogues, Saint and Elliot show that all our stories are best told completely, fairly, and honestly.

Steve Saint: All Is Not Good, but Let God Write Your Story

One year ago this past June, an accident left Steve Saint partially paralyzed from the neck down. Saint, the founder of the Indigenous Peoples Technology and Education Center (I-TEC), was testing an aluminum wing when it became unmounted from its stand, striking him in the head.

Steve Saint was five years old when his father, Nate Saint, was killed by the Waorani Indians in Ecuador. The story of their deaths is told in Elisabeth Elliot’s book Through Gates of Splendor and in the film End of the Spear.

Due to the continued efforts of Saint’s Aunt Rachel and Elliot—wife of Jim Elliot, another of the five killed—many of the Waorani became Christians. And as teenagers, Steve and his sister, Kathy, were baptized by two of the men who had killed their father—in the Curaray River next to the beach where the killings had taken place.

After Rachel Saint’s death, Steve Saint was invited by the Waorani to come live with them, which he, his wife, and children did, for a year and a half. Later, he started I-TEC to “enabl[e] indigenous churches to overcome the technological and educational hurdles that stand in the way of their independence.” I-TEC’s most famous invention is the Maverick, a “flying car” developed to help Christian workers reach “frontier” areas.

Since his accident, Saint has produced a series of six videos, called “The Next Chapter,” telling about his injury and recovery. The first was filmed a week after the accident, with Steve speaking from his hospital bed. The last came a year later. In it, Saint begins, over footage of him struggling to get up in the morning,

I think, maybe in some of the recordings we made earlier on, what I wanted to show was, you know, how wonderful things were, and I think we gave the impression that, you know, all is good now. And there is good now, but not all is good. . . . You know, stand up, and that’s the worst, standing up is just agony in the morning, you know, trying to get these stilts, ’cause I can’t feel from my waist on down . . . and I can’t feel most of my arms, and I certainly can’t feel my hands. . . .

I was privileged to meet Saint and his good friend Mincaye several years ago when they gave an interview at a ministry I worked for. Mincaye, now a Christian, was part of the group that speared Saint’s father. I am encouraged by Saint’s faith and dedication. Despite his current condition, he has kept his trust in God. Three months after his injury, he told the Ocala StarBanner, using much of the same language that is part of the video above:

My motto has been, “Let God write your story,” and that’s what I have always done. Opportunity comes in strange formats. You have a lot of people, nowadays, who want to write their own story and have God be their editor, when something goes wrong. I decided long ago to let God write my story.

Elisabeth Elliot: We Are Buffoons, but the Work is God’s

It’s been a long time since I read Elisabeth Elliot’s Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot. I remember being inspired by Jim and Elisabeth’s lives, but also discouraged. It seemed that their level of faith was unattainable for someone like me. If they were the definition of missionary, then I probably shouldn’t even try.

I’ve had trouble in the past putting missionaries on pedestals. But experience has taught me that missionaries are imperfect people, too, especially my experience living out my own far-from-perfect missionary life.

In 1961, Elliot wrote The Savage My Kinsman, chronicling her two years working with the Waorani. Twenty years later, she penned an epilogue that includes a brief explanation of why she left them: because she wanted to provide a better education for her daughter and because the “differences” between her and her fellow missionary, Rachel Saint, meant that they were “not in any strictly truthful sense really working together.”

“One of us, it appeared, must go,” she writes. “My decision was a painful one.”

But while Elliot doesn’t want to gloss over the difficulties of her story, neither does she want to “magnify the trivial.” According to Elliot, there are two “dangerous” extremes in the way Christians interpret life, and the stories we tell:

One is the sheer triumphalism which is the coin of much religious telecasting. Make it appealing. Make it cheap. Make it easy. Be a Christian and watch your difficulties dissolve. Obey God and everything you touch will turn to gold. The other is the exposé. Out of a very muddy notion of something called equality, and perhaps also out of an exaggerated fear of hero-worship or cultism, springs an urge to spy out all weaknesses and inconsistencies and thereby discredit practically all human effort, especially when its intention is an unselfish one.

To be sure, the life of a missionary—the life of a Christian—is a natural mix of victories and defeats. Elliot saw this in her team’s contact with the Waorani: the highs (“the Auca Indians were finally reached”) and lows (“nine children were left fatherless”), the joys (“the Aucas heard the gospel”) and sorrows (“they also got polio”). And her list goes on.

How we long to point to something—anything—and say, “This works! This is sure!” But if it is something other than God Himself we are destined for disappointment. There is only one ultimate guarantee. It is the love of Christ. The love of Christ. . . .

God keep us from sitting in the seat of the scornful, concentrating solely on the mistakes, the paltriness of our efforts, the width of the gap between what we hoped for and what we got. How shall we call this “Christian” work? What are we to make of it?

Elliot continues with these thoughts in another epilogue, this one added to Through Gates of Splendor in 1996, marking the 40th anniversary of the missionaries’ deaths:

[W]e 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. . . .

The massacre . . . was interpreted according to the measure of one’s faith or faithlessness—full of meaning or empty. . . . The beginning of a great work, a 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. Bulletins about progress were hailed with joy and a certain amount of “Ah! You see!” 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 Waorani 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. . . .

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. . . .

[W]e 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.

(Scott Wallace, “Uncontacted Group Kills Two Natives in Ecuador,” National Geographic News Watch, March 11, 2013; Doug Engle, “Partially Paralyzed, Inventor and Missionary Saint Letting God Write His Story,” Ocala StarBanner, September 2, 2012; Shadow of the Almighty: The Life and Testament of Jim Elliot, Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009; Elisabeth Elliot, The Savage My Kinsman, Ventura, CA: Regal, 1996; Elisabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendor, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2002)

[photo: “Humility,” by Toni Verdú Carbó, used under a Creative Commons license]