Edith Schaeffer | A Very Special Heritage
By Ranald Macaulay
I first met Edith Schaeffer when I was a Cambridge undergraduate. It was a brief encounter and the future, naturally, was hidden from us. But we would have been surprised to see it. The work she was involved with in Switzerland seemed insignificant - yet she was to become a voluminous writer and one of the most influential Christian women of her generation. And neither of us, for sure, realised that she would soon be my Mother-in-law!
That first meeting took place on the 6th June, 1958. A few friends had gathered to welcome Edith and her husband, Francis, to Cambridge. They were on a flying visit. Mike Cassidy, a school friend from South Africa, met them and brought them to St. Catharine’s college. We gathered at the top of ‘C’ staircase overlooking the Main Court. Everything was pretty ad hoc. We knew little about our mysterious guests. We’d been told they were from Switzerland and had started a new Christian work called ‘L’Abri Fellowship’. But that was about it. In any case this was the busiest time of the year with ‘Finals’, ‘May Balls’ and ‘May Bumps’ (the latter, dances and boat races), so it was all very inconvenient. I arrived red-faced and sweaty from a College hockey match.
But that afternoon changed my life. When the tea and toasted crumpets had been served and our supply of chit-chat exhausted, Edith took charge of the proceedings: ‘Fran,’ she said, why don’t you say something to these young men.’ He hesitated briefly and then launched into a survey of western thought, outlining along the way some of the devastating consequences from that so-called ‘enlightenment’. It was strange – but intriguing. We’d never heard anything like it. We could see Schaeffer was a ‘bible-believing’ Christian, but what was all this about philosophy, art and culture?
Each of us that afternoon was marked by the experience. Four made it out to the Swiss L’Abri fairly soon. Two found wives there. Mike started an evangelistic work in Africa called ‘African Enterprise’. I ended up working for L’Abri – and marrying Edith’s second daughter, Susan. And, from the topical point of view, Christian Heritage can also be said to be a result of that June afternoon in 1958.
The college tea party I’ve described is a simple anecdote but it illustrates several key things about Edith. Take, for example, the fact that she initiated the conversation that afternoon. Edith was nothing if not a ‘missionary’. She was, after all, the daughter of missionaries to China, born there in 1915. If they were missionary minded so was she. Whenever an opportunity presented itself she grasped it eagerly. Her passion was to tell people just how wonderful the message of Christ’s gospel is. On this occasion her concern was that a group of evangelical students in Cambridge should realise how adequately God’s Truth could answer and challenge the scepticism and cynicism of the modern world. And there was no time to lose: ‘Fran, speak to them!’
Behind this lies the simple fact that really it was Edith who began the work of L’Abri. She and her husband had been expelled from Switzerland because, as the police report put it, ‘they’d been a bad religious influence in the village of Champery’. Around 1954 Schaeffer had been instrumental in helping one of the leading men in their Catholic village to become ‘a born-again Christian’ – out of atheism note. But the Catholic authorities in Valais took exception to this and expelled the whole family! At which point Edith prayed.
And that’s the first point I want to highlight. Edith knew that prayer was absolutely central in a Christian’s experience and it was her faithful praying that underpinned all that followed. On one occasion, for example, right in the midst of the expulsion, she prayed that God would send them $1000 in the morning as a sign. I can’t go into the details. The whole story is beautifully explained in her classic best-seller ‘The L’Abri Story’ (1971). She’d never prayed like this before – and never urged others to use it as a model for all situations. But the answer to that desperate appeal (having earlier knelt tearfully in the snow saying ‘Lord! we are ready to do anything for you, just show us where we should live’), led on to the foundation of the L’Abri Fellowship. When the family moved into Chalet les Melezes in Huemoz, she was 40 years old. There, over the next 20 years, she poured out her life in practical hospitality to thousands of young people. Then came the writing, travelling and speaking. She also helped in the making of her husband’s two important documentaries ‘How Should we then Live’ (1977) and ‘Whatever happened to the Human Race’ (1979).
But whatever Edith was involved in she knew that prayer is central in the Christian life.
She also knew that being a Christian means being willing to serve. Although she was married to a remarkable man, she knew she too had extraordinary gifts. She was equally intelligent. She could write well. She was a riveting speaker. She had a creative flair both as a cook and as a seamstress. She was a beautiful woman and dressed elegantly (for a long time she made her own clothes!). So she could easily have resented her husband’s brilliance and status. But, as in St. Catharine’s in 1958, she promoted him and was glad to act as an abiding support. In any event they loved each other deeply. And when he became demanding, as he was at times, she consciously took this as an opportunity to imitate Christ’s service of us and not to be demanding or resentful in return. Service epitomised all her relationships. She radiated kindness. Nor, after becoming something of a celebrity and visiting the White House etc, was she in the least bit vain. Once, for example, she got into conversation with an Afro-American lift-operator at a large gathering of wealthy Southern ladies who’d come to hear her speak. The ladies were kept waiting!
In terms of convictions, though, she was unbending. Sensitive and kind as she was, no one was left in any doubt about the issue of ‘truth’. With dark eyes flashing she would take people back to the bedrock of revealed truth in Scripture. A favourite, for example, was her talk called ‘Bird’s Eye View of the Bible’, later published as ‘Christianity is Jewish’. Essentially it was the gospel message from Genesis to Revelation. But along the way she made it abundantly clear what she thought about other philosophies and religions. For her, as for her Master, salvation came only through the nation of Israel and the ‘Son of David’. Similarly, in her book ‘Affliction’ she showed a profound and sensitive grasp of the theological issues relating to human suffering. Human disease and human death came through Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. They didn’t just ‘evolve’. She was adamant about this.
And so to conclude, though much more, obviously, could and should be said. By any estimate Edith’s life was remarkable and thousands worldwide owe her an immense debt. But was it an easy life? Hardly. Just to give one example, after spending her life in the work of hospitality in LAbri, when her husband died in 1984 she had 29 years of widowhood ahead of her. That’s a long time, especially after a partnership of mutual love and service as profound and fruitful as theirs had been. After 1984 she continued to speak and write, mostly in the USA. Twice she was able to return to her birthplace in China. She also remained a Trustee of L’Abri till her 86th year. Later she returned to Switzerland where, in her last few years, being cared for by one of her daughters, she was virtually bedridden. But to the end her heart was fixed on the simplicity of God’s ‘amazing grace’. Three weeks before she died on March 30th 2013, aged 98, I had the privilege of 10 days intermittently holding her hand and singing the old favourites – like, ‘Sing them over again to me, wonderful words of life...’
Ranald Macaulay, 27/05/2013
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