Into The Wild – by Jon Krakauer (1996)

Into The Wild

I went to sleep last night thinking about this book, and woke up still thinking about it. It is the excruciatingly sad story about a young man on a quest to be totally alone in the wilderness of Alaska. The book traces his childhood, his family relationships, the growing dissatisfaction with living a “normal” life, and his obsession with Jack London’s books and living in the wild. Out of duty, he finished college, then quietly gave away his remaining money and left town. He told no one he was going, and changed his name from Christopher McCandless to Alexander Supertramp.

Alex drifted around the Southwest for awhile, occasionally staying in one place long enough to pick up some work. Along the way, there were many people that said what a nice, thoughtful young man he was. He was honest and hard-working, but had some strange ideas. Some dismissed Alex’s talk of living in the wild as a dream he would never act on. Others realized he was dead serious, and tried to give him better survival supplies and money. Many urged him to call his family and let them know he was alive and okay, but Alex/Chris refused.

The story of Chris’ life, pieced together from journal notes and interviews with people that spent time with him along the way to Alaska, is puzzling. He seemed to be intelligent, yet he was inadequately dressed and supplied, and barely knew how to hunt. No compass, no map, no cell phone with solar recharger to call for help. What was he thinking?! At first he had a car, but when that got died, he just got out and started hitchhiking.

Chris McCandless got to live his dream for a short time, but at what a cost. He died alone inside an old abandoned, rusting bus of starvation and eating the wrong kind of root. Alone. In his last journal entry, he reverts to his real name, indicating that he was finally thinking of his family back home and wishing for rescue. But it was too late. A moose hunter found his decomposing body and notified the authorities.

The McCandless family was forever changed. I imagine that the father still grieves the missed opportunity to make things right with his son. The sister undoubtedly grieves the future times of being together that will never happen. And his mother will never get to wrap her arms around her precious son again, and tell him how much she loves him, even though she didn’t understand him.

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The Cross And The Switchblade (1962)

The Cross And The Switchblade

In the late 1950’s, David Wilkerson was the pastor of a small country church in Pennsylvania. One day he read the story of seven young men – “boys” as he called them – on trial for murder in New York City. Almost immediately, he felt God calling him to go to the city and talk to them. His attempts to meet the seven were thwarted repeatedly, but while David was in New York, he was introduced to gangs and the drug culture.

He went home to his wife and small congregation, but just couldn’t stop thinking about what he had seen. On his days off, he would drive to the city and just walk around. Before long, the Lord told him to move to Brooklyn and minister to those battling drugs, alcohol, and gang life. From that point on, miracle after miracle happened. David told gang members about God’s love and how He could change their lives. It started slowly, but one by one hardened gang members chose to leave their old lives and follow Jesus.

Then David started praying about buying a house where people who were trying to get off drugs could stay while they were detoxing and recovering. God sent just the right people and exactly the right amount of money to buy a run-down house. Former gang members cleaned it up, as a squatter had filled it up with eight garbage trucks’ work of junk.

That was the beginning of the Teen Challenge ministry. At that time, the average person living outside the big city had no idea how bad the gang problem was, or that an epidemic of drug addiction (primarily heroin) had begun. David’s description of being in a room with a few people who were shooting up heroin was especially vivid.  In the book, he says: “I had never felt so close to hell.” He also wrote users’ descriptions of how they were forced into gangs, and how easy it was to get sucked into using drugs and then selling them to support their own habits.

This much love could not be contained to one city. Teen Challenge houses sprang up all over the country. Other people grabbed the torch and ran with it, although David continued to be involved until his death in 2011. One man with almost no money, but endless love for his God and his fellow man, made the world a better place by the way he lived and loved. If ever there was a book to inspire us to help others, this is it!

Mistaken Identity – by Don & Susie Van Ryn and Newell, Colleen & Whitney Cerak with Mark Tabb (2008)

Mistaken Identity

They looked enough alike to be sisters. Same weight, same athletic build, same eye color, same hair color and part. Both were students at Taylor University in Indiana, but were originally from Michigan. Laura and Whitney were among nine people in a university van that was struck by a semi that veered over the divider line and hit them head-on. Five of the nine in the van died. Whitney was pronounced dead at the scene, Laura was rushed off to the hospital, where she lay in a coma. Later she was transferred to Spectrum Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Newell and Colleen Cerak held a funeral for Whitney, and buried the young woman they believed was their daughter. Meanwhile, Don and Susie VanRyn and their daughter Lisa kept vigil at the hospital for Laura. The physical damage to her body disguised the fact that she was not Laura, but was instead Whitney. Five weeks went by before the mistake in identity was revealed.

It is hard to fathom how such a dreadful mistake could be made in the first place, then continued for five weeks. But equally unfathomable was the way in which the two families handled the tragedy. No angry press conferences. No lawsuits. Just two families grieving and loving at the same time, trusting God to heal their hearts. If I am ever in a situation as terrible as this, I pray that I would be able to handle it with as much grace and understanding as the VanRyn and Cerak families.

Who Stole My Church? – by George MacDonald (2008, 2010)

who stole my church

There are millions upon millions of people that love Jesus and gather to worship every Sunday. But having people from as many as five generations trying to do something together can be challenging. There are endless variations of ways to conduct services, sing, study the Bible, reach out to the community, support missions, have classes/youth activities, etc. Each generation has strong feelings about how exactly to do those things.

The author wrote this book in a unique way. Although it’s non-fiction, it’s written as fiction. The only characters in the story that are real people are the author and his wife; other characters are prototypes of church members you might have. The setting: a church that is slowly dying because most of its members are older, and the younger people have disappeared. So the pastor gets a small group of church members to meet twice a week to talk about how to re-connect with the younger generations and re-invent the church.

Some parts of the book were agonizing to read. It just seemed like the odds of being able to actually have services and programs that were relevant for everyone were all but impossible to achieve. What was good for one group was not for another group. But in the end, the only thing that really worked was different age groups getting to know and love each other, and a willingness to alter the way they did things without changing their basic mission of helping people find Jesus.

What stood out the most to me was how individualized each church has to be to make it really thrive. There is no one formula that every congregation can follow, and be guaranteed happiness and growth. And just about the time you think you have things running smoothly and everyone’s getting along and your numbers are increasing…things will change again.

 

90 Minutes In Heaven – by Don Piper 2004

 

When Don Piper’s car was struck head-on in 1989 with an impact of 110 miles an hour, that should have been the end of his earthly life. And for ninety minutes, his spirit was absent from earth, and present at the gates of heaven. The paramedics declared him dead and covered his lifeless body with a tarp. But one man passing by felt God telling him to pray over Don. For more than an hour, the man prayed and sang hymns. Then the unimaginable happened: Don came back to earth.

Although a sliver of the book is devoted to the attempt to describe heaven, the majority of the book focuses on the unbearable pain and long recovery of Don Piper. It was difficult to read this book, as so many parts reminded me of my son’s accident, recovery, and ongoing pain. The detailed description of the fixator Don wore for many months was especially familiar.

Some people who read this biography will say it’s proof of the power of the human spirit. But I say: it is a testimony to the power of God to bring life out of death. This book is one that everyone who battles pain – or has someone in their life battling chronic pain – should read.

 

Excerpt from page 73:

I was in Hermann ICU for twelve days. Then I stayed four to five days in Hermann Hospital before they transferred me down the street to St. Luke’s Hospital. Both hospitals are part of the world’s largest medical center. I remained in St. Luke’s for 105 days. Once I was home, I lay in bed for thirteen months and endure thirty-four surgeries. Without question, I am still alive because people prayed for me, beginning with Dick Onetecker and other people around the country, many of whom I’ve never met.

Excerpt from page 83:

At night they gave me additional medication to try to make me sleep. I write “try” because the additional medicine didn’t work. Nothing they did put me to sleep – not sleeping pills, pain shots, or additional morphine. I had no way to get comfortable or even to feel relieved enough from pain to relax.

I’ve tried to explain it by saying it this way: “Imagine yourself lying in bed, and you’ve got rods through your arms, wires through your legs, and you’re on your back. You can’t turn over. In fact, just to move your shoulder a quarter of an inch is impossible unless you reach up and grab what looks like a trapeze bar that hangs above your bed. Even the exertion to move a fraction of an inch sends daggers of pain all through your body. You are completely immobile.”

 

Look Me In The Eye – by John Elder Robison (2007 hardcover, 2008 paperback)

Look Me in the Eye My Life with Asperger's

As a child, John Elder was aware that he wasn’t like other kids. For some reason, he had a terrible time conversing, making friends, and acting in ways that most people considered “normal”. Even looking his teachers in the eye when they were talking to him was nearly impossible. To further complicate things, his father was an alcoholic and his mother mentally ill, which made home life very tense. It wasn’t until he was 40 years old that a friend suggested that he might have Asperger’s. Once diagnosed, things finally made sense.

Even before he found out why he was different, John Elder worked hard in life and eventually became very successful. He made customized guitars with special effects for the band KISS, helped develop electronic games for Milton Bradley, opened his own shop to restore/repair high-end European cars, became a national speaker and advocate for persons with Asperger’s, and became a best-selling author.

In some ways I found this book similar to “The Glass Castle” – the poverty, the dysfunctional family, trying to cover the shame of their childhoods, and then their success despite all odds. Both books were disheartening at the beginning, but slowly morphed into stories of triumph. It just goes to show that no matter what disadvantages we may start off with, it’s really up to us to make our lives a success or a failure.

Some excerpts that I found thought-provoking:

from chapter 1:
Machines were never mean to me. They challenged me when I tried to figure them out. They never tricked me, and they never hurt my feelings. I was in charge of the machines. I liked that. I felt safe around them…

from chapter 17:
When people were drinking and doing coke around me, I often felt confused. I didn’t like feeling out of control, and I had seen people do outrageous things while they were drunk and have no memory of it the next day. The mere thought that I might do things like that was enough to make me cringe. So I didn’t know what to do. “Relax, Ampie! Here, have a line! Here, have a drink!” An observer would have said temptation was all around me, but to me it wasn’t tempting at all. I did a few lines and I drank a few drinks – just enough to feel like I was being polite. I never felt the desire to pack in all the beer I could drink or all the coke I could snort. I just did not like how it made me feel. The few times I was drunk or on drugs, I would close my eyes and the world would spin, and I would say to myself, When is this going to end? Why did I do this? It didn’t take me very long to outgrow it, if outgrow is the right word. I stopped doing drugs and liquor, and I didn’t resume.

from chapter 18:
Heroin was scary. I’d read how you could become addicted with a few pricks of the needle, and I saw how the addicts lived. In dumpsters, and passed out in doorways. No way am I going to do that, I thought. That was even worse than my father’s drinking. I watched it all with the same detachment I had learned to feel when I was excluded from playing with kid packs when I was five. No one made fun of me, but I still could not integrate myself into the groups around me. I wanted to make friends, but I didn’t want to engage in the activities I saw them doing. So I just watched. And I worked. And I stayed, convinced that it was better to be destitute in Amherst than in New York City.

from the postscript to the paperback edition:
Today when I speak to kids, I see myself in their struggles, and I want so much for them to have a better life than me. I resolved to clean up my language because that would help me reach more young people. To that end, I’ve made a few changes in this edition. I’ve cleaned up the language in some thirty passages to make the book appropriate for tweens and teenagers. All the pranks and tricks and wild times are still there, including passages that may be rough for a kid to read. But real life is like that, and some unfortunate kids experience things worse than I describe in my book every day. This book depicts my life as I live it. If you are a purist and prefer to read Look Me In The Eye in its original profane glory, the hardcover remains untouched.

Blasphemy – by Asia Bibi and Anne-Isabelle Tollett (2013)

Blasphemy

It wasn’t too far in our country’s past that we had separate drinking fountains for black people and white people. It was a disgraceful part of United States history that has been left behind. The same cannot be said for Pakistan, where Asia Bibi was sentenced to death for using the same drinking cup as the Muslim women in her community in 2009.

Asia and her husband Ashiq were the only Christians in their village, the rest of the residents being Muslim. However, they were respectful of the dominant religion, and had always lived peaceably with their neighbors. Then came the day that Asia was picking falsa berries with a group of women, and one woman objected to her having used the common water cup for a drink. All hell broke loose at that point, and Asia soon found herself in prison on trumped-up charges of blasphemy against Muhammad. Her captors said that if she gave up her allegiance to Jesus and converted to Islam, her life would be spared. She refused to renounce Jesus Christ.

In 2010 Asia was sentenced to be hanged for her crime, despite protesting her innocence. Her family had to go into hiding, for when one person is charged with blasphemy, the entire family is considered guilty. People all over the world protested her arrest, diplomats tried to negotiate her release, and the Pope begged the Pakistani government to release her. It has been eight years, and Asia still sits on death row, her life in limbo. Several people who have attempted to help her have been assassinated.

An international reporter affiliated with France 24, Anne-Isabelle Tollet, was moved to write a book about Asia’s imprisonment. It was a difficult task, as Asia could not read or write, and only the lawyer and husband were allowed to visit. So the lawyer would read questions to Asia, she would verbally answer, then the lawyer would convey them to Anne-Isabelle, who wrote them down. The book was finished and published in 2011, then re-published in 2012 and 2013.

It is simply appalling to think that in this day and age, people can be executed simply for the beliefs of their heart. Asia was not hurting anyone, nor was her family. Yet she will, in all likelihood, die of malnutrition or illness in prison. Would most Americans be willing to hold to their religious beliefs if faced with the hangman’s noose? I think not.