This morning, when I read the news that Elisabeth Elliot died, I was sad, but not for her. I was sad for her family and friends, because I know that they will miss her, but I wasn’t sad for Elisabeth Elliot. If I could live a life even a tenth as full as the life she lived, if I were able to influence even a fraction of the number of people she influenced for the sake of the Gospel, if my life pointed to Jesus even marginally as much as hers did, then I would consider my life to have been well-lived. So rather than mourning her passing, I want to share a couple of memories of when I was privileged to meet Elisabeth Elliot, and I share these memories as a way of celebrating her life.
It was the mid-1990’s, I was in my late 20’s, I was single, and I was living in one of the most beautiful cities on earth – Charleston, South Carolina. I was working full time for the resident theater company at the Dock Street Theater, and I was attending East Cooper Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the area, where I was a regular part of the single’s ministry.
When my friend John and I heard that Elisabeth Elliot was coming to town to speak, we – as good Christian singles – recognized the moment as a perfect double date opportunity. This was, after all, Elisabeth Elliot – an actual living legend and hero of the faith – the former missionary who gained fame for ministering to the Huaroni tribe in Ecuador, the very people who murdered her husband and his colleagues, a story made famous in the book Through Gates of Splendor.
Not only that, but Elliot was also a prolific writer, authoring many books that should be required reading for followers of Jesus, including a biography of missionary Amy Carmichael, a biography of her late husband Jim (who most young Christian men want to emulate at some point), and Passion and Purity, which was one of the most convicting books I ever read on the subject of dating – and a book that is possibly one of the most counter-cultural books a person could read these days.
So, yeah… a perfect double date.
Being the complete goober that I am, and wanting to impress my date that night, I brought the ultimate impress-your-date accessories to the Elisabeth Elliot talk: a couple of Pez dispensers. Inspired by an episode of Seinfeld, I offered Pez to my date during the middle of the talk, with thankfully less explosive results.
Afterwards, we stood in line for the opportunity to meet Mrs. Elliot, and while we waited, I commented that everyone seemed to be talking to Elisabeth Eliot very earnestly, pouring out their hearts, sharing deep things in their brief two or three minute audience.
“That has to be emotionally exhausting,” I said, “listening to so many heart-felt things from so many people all of the time. I should offer her a Pez.”
“You should what?” my date asked, laughing.
“Offer her a Pez,” I replied. “Seriously, she would probably really appreciate something different.”
“Offer Elisabeth Elliot a Pez? Elisabeth Elliot? You won’t do it,” she said, and she looked back at John for confirmation. He just smiled and shook his head.
He knew me well.
“Here, you hold Gonzo as a backup,” I said, handing her my second favorite dispenser. Then I turned and started planning what I would say when I reached the living legend. I figured I had about five minutes until it would be my turn.
“This is Elisabeth Elliot we’re talking about here,” my date insisted, no longer laughing. “And you’re going to offer her a Pez?”
“She’ll love it,” I replied. “It’ll thrill her to hear something different.”
I tucked Kermit into the shirt pocket of my blue Oxford and wiped my now-sweaty hands on my pants. Whatever I said to her would have to be simple and to the point. I didn’t want to take up too much of her time. I needed to say what I needed to say, and get out.
And then, too soon – much too soon – it was my turn.
There I stood, before Elisabeth Elliot. The Elisabeth Elliot. The woman who had been married to Jim Elliot. The woman who’d had the strength of faith and character to forgive the people who had taken Jim from her. The woman who had more wisdom, life experience, theological understanding, and humility in her little finger than I had in my entire body.
She looked at me expectantly from her seat at the small, round, wooden table, ready to hear what I had to say. She was so distinguished and regal, but also open and friendly, and behind her, her husband Lars stood like a protecting force. He was quite the imposing figure.
Maybe I shouldn’t do this? This woman had experienced so much in her life, had helped so many people, and she was more than just a woman, she was also a beloved icon of my faith.
And I was going to offer her a Pez?
I chanced a glance back at my date, and her eyes were wide. She shook her head almost imperceptibly, pleading. Then I looked at John, who stood beside her. He nodded.
His nod said exactly what I needed to hear.
You got this.
Emboldened, I turned and sat down across from Elisabeth Elliot, and launched into my hastily prepared, mostly unrehearsed speech.
“Mrs. Elliot, you have helped so many people through the years with your words and your writing, including me. I have been inspired by your story, and the way that you challenge my generation. But I know you hear this all of the time, and so rather than just telling you, I want to demonstrate my appreciation.”
To this day I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but it seemed that Lars leaned closer with a concerned look in his eye.
I ignored him and pressed on.
“And so, Mrs. Elliot, I would like to offer you a Pez.”
What happened next happened two different ways. First, is the way it happened in my mind, and second was the way that it really happened.
In my mind, I smiled a charming smile, reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit. In one fluid motion, I set him on the table in front of Mrs. Elliot, and pulled back on the frog’s head to reveal the lemon flavored candy within. She, of course, laughed with delight and received the proffered Pez. She smiled up at Lars, who visibly relaxed, and then she turned back to me, leaned forward, and placed her hand on mine. Conspiratorially, she whispered, “I really needed this, young man. Thank you for being so clever and unique.”
The moment was magical, and certainly my date was suitably impressed, and at this point, a second date would be assumed. I would walk away from this night a hero, Christianity Today would issue a special edition just to name me one of the 25 under 25 most influential young Christians, and then the pièce de résistance, Billy Graham himself would invite me to The Cove to join him in some North Carolina barbecue.
That was what happened in my mind.
Following is the way it really happened.
I did do my best to smile a charming smile, but when I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out Kermit, his oversized plastic green head caught on the lip of the pocket. I gave a little yank, forcing his head back, and ejecting Pez candies all over the table and the floor in front of a wide-eyed Elisabeth Elliot.
Thinking quickly, I turned back to my date and blurted, “Give me Gonzo! Give me Gonzo!”
I’m sure only half a second passed between Gonzo’s appearance and Elisabeth Elliot’s response, but for me it seemed like time had slowed to a near-complete halt. There I sat, Gonzo in hand, smiling a lunatic smile at one of my faith heroes, and waiting to see if the rest of the incident would play out like it had in my mind.
It would not.
“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked, staring down at poor Gonzo as if I were holding a squirming cockroach and not a beloved children’s character.
“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.”
Seeing that I wasn’t going anywhere until she had pulled a little tablet of candy from under Gonzo’s chin, Elisabeth Eliot reached over and pulled one out, and smiled at me. I’m sure it must have been the same smile she reserved for delusional men on the subway who insisted that they were actually the President of France.
I thanked her, scooped up the other Pez candies with as much dignity as I could muster, and walked past my giggling friends, my only solace being the knowledge that as bad as that had been, my friends had to go after me.
A few years later, I was studying for my Master’s of Divinity degree at Beeson Divinity School on the campus of Samford University. Beeson is an excellent institution of higher learning, a terrific training ground for people looking to go into ministry or pursuing higher education. It is a place of rigorous academic study, and challenging theological settings.
And somehow, I had been elected president of the student body.
Being president of the student body gave me unique access to visiting dignitaries, including Elisabeth Elliot, who spoke in our chapel in May 1996.
At that time, I was dating a young woman from Kazakhstan who was at Beeson working on her Master’s in Theological Studies. I’d told her my Elisabeth Elliot story, and thought that Mrs. Elliot’s visit was an opportune time to impress my girlfriend by seeing how well Elisabeth Elliot remembered that crazy kid in Charleston.
Following her talk, Elisabeth Elliot and her husband Lars sat in the student center, and they welcomed people to come up and talk with her. With my Kermit Pez firmly in hand, and with my girlfriend beside me, I approached the table and asked if we could sit. She smiled and gestured to the empty chairs.
“Mrs. Elliot, you probably don’t remember me, but a few years ago back in Charleston I heard you speak. Afterwards, I was able to talk with you, and when I did, I embarrassed myself by offering you a Pez. Well, since that time, I’ve had a fantastic time telling people that story, and so as a sign of my gratitude, I want to offer you something.”
I glanced at Lars. He didn’t move this time. But he was listening.
I sat Kermit on the table between us, and smiled.
“I’d like to offer you a Pez.”
This time, I was completely confident. I wasn’t trying to be cheeky, my supportive girlfriend sat beside me, and certainly Elisabeth Elliot would remember the incident from before. In my mind, she would laugh, say something like, “I remember you!”, take a Pez, and the story would have come full circle.
I would be a hero, once again. The dean of the seminary would put me on cover of the next newsletter, Christianity Today would put me on their list of the 29 under 29 most influential Christians, and Steven Curtis Chapman would call me to ask if I could teach him a thing or two about playing the guitar.
That was what happened in my mind.
Following is the way it really happened.
“What… is… that?” Elisabeth Elliot asked. Again.
“It’s Pez,” I stammered. “It’s candy from a cartoon character’s head.” Again.
Elisabeth Elliot smiled a very patient smile, and again, she took a Pez. Without having any candies to clean up, it was easy to stand, say thank you, and leave.
“I’ll stay a little longer, if that’s okay,” my girlfriend asked, and Mrs. Elliot nodded. I backed away, wondering what my girlfriend wanted to talk to Elisabeth Elliot about.
They talked quite a while, and my girlfriend ended up invited to Elisabeth Elliot’s hotel for breakfast the next morning to continue the conversation. Turns out they talked about me quite a bit, and they discussed my girlfriend’s frustration that she didn’t know where things were going with us. That I seemed afraid to commit. That I seemed to be obsessed with Pez.
Looking back, I realize that while it might be exhausting to have people come to you constantly, pouring out their hearts, looking for guidance and wisdom at their times of great need, Elisabeth Elliot did this for years, gladly and inexhaustibly. My only way of understanding this is that she must have felt such gratitude towards her Savior, who met her in the jungles of Ecuador at her time of greatest need, and that it was the least she could do.
And so I am not sad that Elisabeth Elliot has died. I’m grateful for her life, for the legacy she left behind, and for the witness that she will continue to be to countless individuals through her writings and her story.
And I smile when I think that she is with Jim and the others, missionaries and Huaroni alike, worshipping and praising the Lord whom she loved so much.
How could I be sad?
By the way, I don’t know the details of the conversation between my girlfriend and Elisabeth Elliot, but I do know that it was a very important conversation.
That girlfriend has been my wife now for nearly twenty years, so it was a very important conversation, indeed.