More than twenty years ago I began to learn something of the meaning of Hebrews 12:1, “Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endure the cross, depising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” That is to say, I was beginning to learn the role of those witnesses in this asketical struggle.
Yes, as a good Protestant, I’d read Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. And by then I’d learned the discipline of daily Bible reading–thanks to the Navigators and my paternal grandparents. (One can never underestimate the influence of both sets of my grandparents on my faith, the one of sound doctrine and the other of a muscular exertion of discipleship. Though God knows I could not have articulated it this way when I was younger.) But, and here is where my learning began a quarter century ago, the heroes of the Scriptures and the heroes of Foxe were so large and magnified in my mind that they seemed hardly exemplars and more as miracles. Both of course are true of them, but it only meant a great imaginative distance in my mind, and therefore remote, in terms of witness, from my daily living. No, I needed more “modern,” examples.
Because God loves us and meets us at our point of need (even if we don’t know we need it), he graciously has given me two such witnesses, each a martyr (I am stretching the English a bit, but not the original Greek), just when I needed such to provide the influence on my soul to move in the direction of his will. The first was Jim Elliot. Many years later it was Fr Seraphim Rose.
In April 1986, barely more than thirty years since the Sunday afternoon of 8 January 1956 when Jim Elliot and his four martyr companions were speared to death by the Waorani (formerly known as Aucas), I checked out and began to read Elisabeth Elliot’s account of those men, Through Gates of Splendor. As a young idealistic teenage senior in high school, it is difficult to exaggerate the impact of that book on my life at the time and my then-future decisions. In my Christian world of the mid-80s there was no real outlet for a sense of complete dedication and surrender to the will of God. Youth gatherings were more about “fun” and social connection, however much the youth pastors or speakers might exhort us to holiness and a regard for speaking the Gospel to those around us. Yes, of course, I knew about mission work, but having been subjected to numerous slide presentations, I was little impressed.
Here, however, was something new. Re-reading the book now a quarter of a century later, I do not miss as I did originally the descriptions of the mundane aspects of mission work and of the sense of stagnation and no progress for the Gospel–the sort of things that did not then impress me. No, caught up in the fervor of romantic youth, I saw one thing and one thing only: adventure, filled with glory and sacrifice. These are the sorts of things that naturally appeal to a young man and they did to me as well. God gave me enough of an analytical mind that I did give sober consideration to what I sensed of his vocation for me, but there is no use avoiding the plain truth: I wanted to be like Jim Elliot.
So, after months’ worth of wrestling, including an afternoon by the city lake, I made my decision to attend Ozark Christian College and to work in preparation to do missionary translation work. Upon my arrival at college, I tested out of the English requirement and began immediately my Greek studies. I requested by mail (there was no email twenty-five years ago) materials from Wycliffe Bible Translators and their summer linguistics institute, and paid close attention to missionaries on campus involved in translation work.
After arrival at Ozark, the story of Jim Elliot’s life and his example of unswerving obedience to the will of God continued to feed my soul, and I read his biography, Shadow of the Almighty and the collection of his diaries The Journals of Jim Elliot. This is not to say that I was not nourished in other ways by other readings and the mentorship under godly professors and ministers. But if there was one life which filled my imagination and fueled my imitation, it was that of Jim Elliot. Even today, as I re-read the materials about his life, these things move me powerfully. God save me from the mere experience, however, and grant me that example of obedience.
I will not tell the story that nearly always happens, the cooling of the ardor, the distraction, the engagement of a different focus, one after the other. That I was sustained so long in such a dedication of heart, despite the youthful immaturities from which all men must emerge, and without judgment and bitterness toward others, is a testament to God’s mercy and grace.
More than a decade came and went, hopefully a little more maturity was gained. The struggle for discipleship continued, thank God. And then, somehow, I encountered the first edition of the biography of Seraphim Rose, in September or October of 2002. A massive thousand page volume, it took me months to work through as I also labored in my PhD program and made preparations for the arrival of my older daughter. Father Seraphim’s life had less of the romantic element about it, at least at first. Not being acquainted with much of Orthodoxy, there was a certain foreign quality about his life as an Orthodox monk and hieromonk. But there was so much with which I resonated: his frustration with academia, his growing sense of the inadequacies of intellectual life, his desire to find an outlet for utter dedication to God. Over time, and as I became more familiar with the Orthodox Church, the entirety of his life began to make much more sense.
Of course, any romantic notions I may have had for emulating Father Seraphim were immediately tempered by marriage and fatherhood. I might have thought of running off to the mission field to do translation work at eighteen and nineteen years of age. No notions of heading to a monastery were at all entertained in my mid-thirties. But the obedience to the struggle of faith, the asketical details of repentance, of obedience and discipleship, these were there just as they had been in my contemplations on Jim Elliot’s life. So much so, that on my chrismation I was blessed to take the name of Father Seraphim as one of my patron saints. If Jim Elliot had been Orthodox, I might have asked to take his name as well.
These two martyrdoms each have their own energy and sweetness about them. With Jim Elliot came the exuberance and joy of youth, the romance of the adventure of faith. And no wonder, he was killed at the age of twenty-eight. With Father Seraphim came a more considered and balanced dedication to the struggle. Again, this is not surprising as he departed this life in his forties. In both cases there is the fragrance of the mercies of God and his love.
Hebrews 13:7-8 exhorts us, “Remember those who rule over you, who have spoken the word of God to you, whose faith follow, considering the outcome of their conduct. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.” May God grant me the strength to live as these men lived, with joyful obedience and humble discipleship.