"...Because anyone who comes to him must believe...
that he rewards those who earnestly seek him."
When we merged our bookshelves after our wedding, I was surprised to find one of my favorite authors in Chris's library. I thought I'd read most of Elisabeth Elliot's books, but Who Shall Ascend: The Life of R. Kenneth Strachan of Costa Rica was a title I had not even heard of. And Chris not only owned it, he'd actually read it! "You should read it," he said. And eventually, while our babies were napping, I did.
* * *
Many years earlier, church friends had given my husband-to-be this missionary biography as a goodbye gift. Chris was eighteen, a homeschool senior more interested in computer upgrades than in history or foreign missions. When Chris moved to Indianapolis to work with Bill Gothard's Institute two years later, he took the still unread book along.
The book was ignored in Chris's room for two more years as he studied, did chores, learned about computers, and mentored juvenile delinquents. Shortly before Chris's scheduled departure from the center, he was assigned to monitor a teen who had been placed in IBLP's "care". Chris's duties required him to remain in a suite with the young man most of the week. Few diversions being permitted, Chris pulled out his book. The story was not what he expected.
Kenneth Strachan grew up in Costa Rica, the son of Protestant missionaries. While studying at Wheaton Bible College to prepare for his own evangelistic career, Ken was plagued by depression, anxiety, hypochondria, and feelings of failure or worthlessness. He would commit his life to Christ, only to believe he was backsliding again when he went dancing with a pretty girl. Despite his doubts "as to whether Christianity is a huge hoax", he chose to continue studying theology.
Ken was torn between his own enjoyment of small pleasures like movies and cigarettes, and the the nagging guilt that these might be "sin". Though he admitted that strict Christianity did not always seem attractive, "worldly" Christians disgusted Ken and he was cynical about testimonies, observing that the majority were "not consistent with the life behind" them.
When his younger, more easygoing brother died suddenly, Ken's faith was sent reeling. Eventually, however, with the strong encouragement of his parents, he found his way back to college. Elliot writes, "His understanding of the will of God was nearly indistinguishable...from the will of his parents." And this was certainly true of the way he joined his parents' mission in Costa Rica. His one move toward independence was his decision to move into the dormitories rather than live with his parents.
Even as a minister of the Gospel, Ken worried about his shyness, and his temper, his relationship with his mother, and the ease with which he could still slip into apostasy (dancing and smoking).
When a drawn-out correspondence turned to talk of marriage, Ken tried to impress the girlfriend he hardly knew with his low character, while making it clear that he expected the highest level of unconditional and even sacrificial devotion of her. Through months of letter-writing, the couple negotiated and explained and planned the sort of life they would lead together.
The son that arrived shortly after Ken's marriage to Elizabeth was named Harry, after Ken's late brother. Five more children followed over the next decade, though evangelism and fundraising frequently took Ken away from home. The homesickness, the anxiety, and the thought of a more comfortable material existence sometimes made him question his calling as a missionary. When things got tough, he blamed himself.
And the years did not settle Ken's misgivings about Christian conduct. What did God expect? Was it okay to go swimming on Sunday, for example? What of the freedom of individual conscience? When was it better to stifle one's liberty to preserve peace among the brethren?
When his father died, Ken felt the added responsibility to operate the mission alongside his mother. And he felt inadequate. On a trip to the States, he felt that God answered his prayer for the power of the Holy Spirit. Yet the joyful frame of mind didn't last. Before long he was again wishing for a "more or less permanent state of 'peace and joy in believing'." Was he still missing something? Holiness? Faith? "O for a meeting with the Lord which would permanently settle the matter!"
At a camp meeting the next year, Ken went forward to receive "sanctification" and,even after totaling the car on his way home, believed he had experienced the real thing. Still, there were prayers that went unanswered. Ken was moody as ever, continually wanting to be "in God's will", but ever uncertain what that meant. He struggled with his many responsibilities, and suffered from a variety of stress-induced health problems.
In the midst of an ambitious evangelism project, Ken Strachan had a physical and mental breakdown. An examination at the Mayo Clinic turned up no physical cause for Ken's symptoms. For a while, he tried to cut back his schedule. But before long he was back in the thick of the work, teaching in the U.S. and involved in evangelistic campaigns in Central America.
And then Ken was stricken with lymphoma.
At first he was feared being told once again that his symptoms were imaginary, but this time the disease was real, and it was dreadful. A missionary woman was certain that it was God's will to heal Ken, but watching her husband's suffering, Elizabeth Strachan complained to God on his behalf: "The meanest man in [the city] would put a stop to this if he could!"
The disease relented enough for Ken to go home. Billy Graham called and shared his assurance that God was going to heal. Ken improved slightly and began talking about another visit to Costa Rica. But a few days before the trip, he was hospitalized again.
Christians of various traditions came to pray over him, anoint him with oil, lay hands on his body, and do spiritual battle with Satan. Ken endured it all, wondering whether God meant him to resist the suffering or accept it with patience. In the end, he fell, choking, into a coma. Elizabeth was with him when the choking started again, and Ken died.
This was hardly the inspirational memoir we had come to expect. Here was no triumphal climax of a "good and faithful servant" being warmly welcomed into heaven. Every time one expected the story to take a positive turn, it disappeared around another dark corner, only to wind up exhausted and beaten at the end. The final chapter left the reader with emotional whiplash.
It left Chris wondering, too. Would God allow one of his followers to spend an entire lifetime knocking on a door that never opened?
What of the promise, "Seek, and you shall find"?
Or Jesus' words to the woman at the well, "Whoever drinks of the water I shall give him shall never thirst..."?
Or the hopeful Beatitude, "...those who hunger and thirst for righteousness...will be filled"?
IBLP held out the continual offer of "more"--more victory over temptation, more fulfilling relationships, clearer life purpose, improved health, freedom from debt. The key was simply to follow all of the "principles" Gothard pulled out of the Bible. Chris was already becoming disillusioned with this formula, and now he had even more questions. Was a life of squelching one's own desires what God had in mind?
Was there a secret to this "Christian life"? A key belief, practice, or mystical experience?
If there was, could we expect to figure it out?
What did faith mean, anyway?
Harry Strachan sat with his father's casket before the burial in Costa Rica, and later spoke eloquently for the family at Ken's funeral. He wove together soothing Bible passages and lines from familiar hymns. But his own faith had been on the rocks since he went away to college. And his father's death was catastrophic.
When the mission asked Harry to write his father's biography, he realized he could not write the book they wanted. As he later explained in his own memoir, Finding a Path, "I turned over the files, interview notes and tapes to my mother, and the mission asked Elisabeth Elliot to do the job."
And do the job she did, calling it as she saw it and highlighting Kenneth Strachan's humanity and foibles as much as his genuine concern for the people of Central America. Perhaps her forthrightness is one reason the biography was soon out of print.
Harry Strachan--now a gentle agnostic--taught at Harvard Business School, helped create Bain Capital, and eventually returned to the land of his childhood to create the Strachan Foundation, continuing his family's legacy by promoting education and entrepreneurship throughout Central America.