Book Review: SEAL of God

SEAL of GodI got SEAL of God by Chad Williams and David Thomas a few years ago when it came up on a Kindle app sale without really knowing much about it.

It’s the story of Chad Williams, who, as he was growing up, was talented athletically, played baseball, went on to skateboarding (even making commercials and receiving sponsorships), and then made a lot of money sport fishing, but his interest in each fizzled out after a time. He didn’t do well at school, not because he couldn’t, but because he didn’t like academic work. He was from a Christian home, but was not a believer (beyond the occasional prayer for help out of a jam) and got into drinking, doing drugs, and partying. He liked taking risks, pulling pranks, and doing crazy, senseless (to anyone else) stunts just for the thrill. But at a point in his freshman year of college when the thrill of everything else was gone, and desiring to do “something big,” he decided he wanted to be a Navy SEAL.

His parents were dismayed, not only because of the danger, but because nothing in his life indicated that being a SEAL would work out for him. But he was determined. They had numerous discussions and confrontations that ended in stalemates until his father hit on the idea to ask a former navy SEAL to put him through the toughest workout he could. But that backfired – the SEAL, Scott Helvenston, saw something in Chad and took him on to train him for SEAL tryouts. They developed a close friendship through their time together, and Chad looked on Scott as a mentor.

Before Chad left for the Navy, Scott accepted a contract with a security firm that aided the military to go to Iraq. Only nineteen days before leaving for boot camp, Chad learned that Scott had been one of four Americans killed when Iraqis ambushed their vehicle, beat them, dragged them through the streets, and then hung them upside down from a bridge. Chad was crushed, but his sorrow turned to rage and a desire for revenge.

A good chunk of the book tells of the SEAL training, beyond rigorous both physically and mentally.

Chad continued his drinking, partying, and drug use when he was away from the base. On one trip home, he placated his parents during an argument by agreeing to go to church with them and planning to go to a party afterward. He warned his girlfriend what the service would be like and cautioned her not to raise her hand during the service if the preacher asked if anyone wanted to get right with God because it was a trick – they would then ask anyone who raised their hands to come forward and go to a room and talk with someone. But as Chad listened to the message, something finally clicked. He ended up raising his hand, going forward, and trusting Christ as Savior.

Fairly soon afterward, he had a desire to be an evangelist. He tried to see if there was a way to leave the SEALs early, both because of this desire and because his becoming a Christian and not going with the guys to drink any more put a wedge between them: they thought he was diluting their camaraderie and even physically attacked him. He ended up having to stay but was transferred to another unit. He eventually was “one of only thirteen out of a class of 173 to make it through to graduation.”

The rest of the book tells of some of his missions, his first forays into ministry, and how God led in both his ministry and his personal life.

One aspect that surprised and greatly interested me was that this story touched on two other books I had read. In the Presence of My Enemies by Gracia Burnham tells of her and her husband’s experience being captured by the militant group Abu Sayyaf, and a couple of years after that, Chad’s SEAL group along with some Green Berets helped “lay the groundwork” to overcome them. Also his group almost was part of the SEAL group that rescued Captain Richard Phillips, whose ship was commandeered by Somali pirates.

There is a lot of good spiritual truth in this book, but one that stood out to me was his description of how, during his SEAL training, his instructors would push them to the brink of quitting – not because they wanted anyone to quit, but because they wanted the trainees to be able to resist that temptation when they were in adverse conditions on the field. Instructors would either berate them or tempt them with the nice warm bed and food that would be awaiting them if they quit. Whenever someone wanted to quit during what was called their BUD/S course (Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL) and Hell Week, they’d have to go ring a bell specifically designed for the purpose. One particularly hard night, “the bell kept ringing at the hands of guys who were walking out on their dream for just a little bit of comfort.” I can identify with that. I would not have lasted a day in SEAL training, but in other areas of life, it’s so tempting to go the easy route when God’s help is available for whatever He wants us to do.

I enjoyed the book, especially seeing how God radically changed Chad. There are people for whom I am praying for just such a radical change, and seeing it in Chad’s life when there was no previous inclination bolsters my hope for others.

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books)

Book Review: A Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea

A Captain's DutyA Captain’s Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy Seals, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips first came to my attention through Lisa. I vaguely remembered this incident in 2009 and knew a movie had been based on it, which I’ve not seen. But I decided I wanted to read the story behind it.

Captain Phillips tells a bit of his own background and a bit of merchant marine history. I had a step-uncle in the merchant marines and didn’t know much about it, so I found this quite informative. I liked that Phillips read a lot of merchant marine history and regarded his position as not just a job to earn a paycheck and pay bills, but rather a continuation of that tradition. This information as well as some background into his family is told mostly in flashbacks in conjunction with getting ready for his next trip. He also tells of the danger of pirates, particularly in certain hot spots, but said there had not been an instance of pirates taking an American ship in 200 years. However, he notes, “Sailors are bringing the world’s most vital resource through the world’s most unstable region, which had turned the area around the Gulf of Aden and the Somali coast into a shooting gallery. Anyone sailing there would be under constant threat of attack from pirates, who were getting smarter and more violent by the month” (p. 26).

The chapters are set up in a countdown fashion leading up to the day the pirates did overtake his ship. He talks about training his men in what to do in case of a pirate attack and shoring up security. They had two uncanny close calls with pirates, and then, suddenly, when the Somali pirates did come after his ship, it happened incredibly fast. They had time to sound an alarm so that most of the men could go into a prearranged hiding place and so that Phillips could turn dials and switches that would disable the radar and many of the functions on the ship. They wanted as few people as possible to be visible so that the pirates could not kill them or hold them hostage.

The way it usually worked was that the pirates had a larger “mother ship” nearby which they could communicate with once a ship was taken, and negotiations would begin to demand a ransom. But Phillips had made it so that the radar wasn’t detecting their ship and had turned the radio channel so their hails were on a little-used frequency. He convinced them that many of the ship’s operations were broken and he couldn’t fix them and didn’t know where the rest of the crew was, and they believed him. They threatened to kill the four men on the bridge but did not carry out their threat after two deadlines, and finally stopped threatening. They took Phillips through the ship to try to find the missing crew, but he was able to keep them away from their hiding place, or, in a couple of instances, the one or two crewman who were at large heard them coming and hid in time. When they began taking the other crewmen on the bridge to do the same thing, those men were able to get away into hiding places of their own. Finally Phillips was able to convince the pirates to take the lifeboat, and him along with them. I had not realized that the bulk of this ordeal occurred with just Phillips and the pirates on the lifeboat, but he succeeded in getting ship and crew free.

The pirates thought they could still hold out for a ransom. They actually all got along pretty well, even joking together, until Phillips tried to escape. Then they turned on him, kept him tied up, and began beating him. After four more long days, Navy SEALs rescued him (no spoiler there since that was in the news. 🙂 ) In fact, during some of the tenser moments in the book, I had to keep reminding myself, “It’s going to be ok. He makes it our alive.”) The SEALs did admit, though, that the outcome was better than they thought it was going to be.

Phillips weaves in to the story what was going on with his wife and family during this situation as well, how friends came to be with his wife and help in various ways, how the media made a nuisance of itself by camping in front of their house.

Even knowing the outcome, this was a riveting story.

One major problem with the book, however, is a heavy smattering of bad language. I had set it aside for a time, not sure if I should go ahead with it. I finally decided to pick it back up again, and large chunks of it would be profanity-free, then I would be blasted with it again. Of course, it’s his story, and he is telling it like it happened. “Cussing like a sailor” is a known idiom, though I don’t know why they have a penchant for or think they’re free to engage in such speech. I know it’s real to the story: I just don’t like to fill my brain with it so that it comes into my own mind in tense moments.

I am always interested in the spiritual side of things, even though spirituality is not a major component of the book. Phillips and his wife were Catholics, but, by his admission, not good ones. He talks about being a believer in some sense of the word, and says that this incident helped his wife come back to her faith. He calls one of his crewman a born again Christian, so he seems to acknowledge that that’s something different from himself. He says he prayed:

“God, give me the strength and the patience to see my chance and to take it. I know I’m going to get only one shot. Give me the wisdom to know it.” I never prayed to get away. I just prayed for strength and patience and knowledge to know when to make my move. I believe God helps those who help themselves. Asking for Him to do all the work is just not my style (p. 191).

What a wonderful opportunity that would have been to completely humble himself and abandon himself to God. I’m glad he had the measure of faith he did and pray God will continue to grow it.

Another interesting thing he discusses near the end is what he calls “the H word: Hero.” He was very uncomfortable with people calling him that and noticed that other people in a similar position would also comment that they didn’t feel they were. I have noticed that, too, in those kinds of interviews. People will say things like, “I wasn’t a hero – I just did what I had to do.” Phillips theorizes that “we are stronger than we think we are” and we can handle far more than we think we can (p. 284). He feels that everyone has “this potential inside you, too. If fate put you in my shoes, you’d have done the same thing” (p. 285). He acknowledges that “mental toughness” and “training your mind never to give up” are a part of it (pp. 284-284).

I’ll close with one quote I especially liked that he opened the book with from John Paul Jones, who was also a merchant mariner and Revolutionary war hero:

If fear is cultivated, it will become stronger. If faith is cultivated, it will achieve mastery.

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Book Review: The Narnian

NarnianIn The Narnian, Alan Jacobs wanted to write a biography of C. S. Lewis, but not one that brought out a lot of extraneous details of his life. He wanted to concentrate mainly on what made him “the Narnian” – the intellectual, imaginative, and spiritual developments in Lewis’s life that led to his creating Narnia.

He begins with Lewis’s early life and family: the death of his mother and the fact that afterward “all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life”; the imaginary worlds he created with his brother (separately first, then they joined them together), his problems with his father, the solitary days playing alone in his home after his brother went to boarding school. When Lewis’s own turn came for boarding school he didn’t get on very well socially and eventually thrived under a private tutor. Jacobs then progresses through Lewis’s time in the military, in academia, His conversion from atheism,  his apologetic writing, his fame as a defender of the faith, and his turning from that genre to children’s stories, and closes soon after telling of the end of Lewis’s life.

Along the way he pulls up information from Lewis’s published writings, letters, diaries, and other people’s letters, diaries, comments, and a few other people’s biographies of him.

I didn’t “discover” Lewis until in my early 40s (I know, how did that happen? My education was definitely deficient!) Some time after my first reading of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, I read a biography of Lewis, but I don’t remember which one. I’m thinking it must have been one geared to children, because his childhood is what I mostly remembered from it, but then maybe that’s just due to a faulty memory. At any rate, I enjoyed being reminded of elements I knew and then learning new details of his older life.

I liked the way Jacobs juxtaposed elements of Lewis’s life with the Narnia books, quoting some of the sections about schooling along with talking about Lewis’s schooling, doing the same with his early childhood and military service. There is not much more than basic information about Lewis’s time in the military – he seems to have kept thoughts about it close to his vest – but some of the passages in the Narnia books about having to fight, particularly from Peter’s viewpoint, probably grew from his own experiences. Digory Kirke was based on Lewis’s private Professor Kirkpatrick (sometimes called Kirk), though Kirk was a staunch unbeliever (“Digory Kirke is a picture of what William T. Kirkpatrick might have been – had he ever found a way into Narnia.”) Of course, Jacobs isn’t saying that everything in the books is based on something from Lewis’s life explicitly. Much in the stories came from his imagination, but that’s going to be based on his own experiences as well as those he had read about.

I especially appreciated his defense or explanation of where Lewis was coming from in a couple of areas where some are critical of him. He has been called a misogynist because of his views on women, particularly in regard to teaching that the man is the woman’s head in a relationship, and racist because the Calormen people, the “bad guys” in Narnia, are dark-skinned. Tolkien was also accused of racism in LOTR, and Jacobs explains:

The imaginations of those two men were shaped before the great wars of the twentieth century: they belonged indeed to an Old Western culture to which the chief threat, for hundreds of years, had been the Ottoman Empire. The Calormenes and the Haradrim are but slightly disguised versions of the ravaging Turk who filled the nightmares of European children for more than half a millennium — but whose “exotic” culture (manifested in images of elegant carpets, strong sweet coffee, slippers with turned-up toes, and elaborate story-telling traditions) had also been an endless source of fascinated delight.

Jacobs asserts, and I agree, that most readers “can tell the difference between, on the one hand, an intentionally hostile depiction of some alien culture and, on the other, the use of cultural differences as a mere plot device,” and he puts Lewis’s comments on both topics within the context of the culture of his time and his own upbringing.

What I strongly disliked about this book was Jacobs’ frequent arguing with Lewis’s own reasons for saying certain things. For instance, Lewis asserted that his having prayed for his mother to be cured and not receiving the answer he sought did not influence his eventual conversion one way or the other. He had thought of praying not so much as a religious exercise but as a formula in those days and assumed he didn’t have the right formula or it hadn’t worked. Her death affected him in many ways, but it wasn’t a particular factor in that decision. Jacobs is incredulous and posits that perhaps Lewis’s “insistence must be his attempt to uphold a set of beliefs about what Christianity really is, or really should be” or he had “a great resistance to anything like a ‘Freudian’ explanation of his spiritual history – and in the Freudian account, childhood experiences are usually definitive for later life.” On another subject Lewis “seemed to think that [certain experiences] were not related; I have a sense that they may be.” Jacobs finds it “rather difficult to believe that Lewis’s description of [his first meeting with his tutor] is wholly accurate.” He feels Lewis’s claim that his wartime experiences “‘show rarely and faintly in memory’ – is either something less than fully honest or something less than fully self-knowing.” He quotes Lewis as saying those experiences “haunted my dreams for years” as proof, but Lewis says for years, not for the rest of his life, so at the time he said they were only rare and faint memories, that could have indeed been the case at the time of that writing. He questions Lewis’s account of his conversion and what stage of belief he was in at what point. He questions his relationship with Janie Moore, the mother of a friend who died in WWI. He and this friend had promised each other that if anything happened to one of them, the other would care for the dead one’s parent. This man did die, and Lewis took care of his mother for the rest of her life. He often refers to her as “the woman I call my mother.” But Jacobs insists that the relationship was romantic and even sexual at first (he is not alone in that view, but I am not convinced). When Lewis asserted that he had no “romantic feelings” at first for Joy Davidman Gresham, whom he married in a civil ceremony so she could stay in the country, Jacobs notes that his other biographers “take his word for it” and exclaims, “This seems crazy to me,” and explains why. (Lewis did come to love her, but who is to know at one point that happened.” About a third of the way into the book, Jacobs says as an aside, “Autobiography is, of course, often suspected.” I don’t think that’s the best way to look at autobiography, as if as a reader or researcher one has to disbelieve or suspect or prove what is written. Sure, the viewpoint of an autobiography may be limited: I feel it’s the best source for learning what is going on in the author’s head, what his motives and concerns were, etc., yet it can only show his own point of view. I’m sure there are autobiographies where the material is deliberately slanted, but I don’t think it’s healthy to have a suspectful view of autobiographies in general.

Mr. Jacobs not only disagreed with Lewis’s own views about his life, he also disagreed with some of his biographers, some of whom knew Lewis personally. In one of my snarkier moments I felt that an apt subtitle to his book could have been, “Why I Am Right About C. S. Lewis and Everyone Else Is Wrong, Including Lewis.”

But though this seeming attitude or perspective of Jacobs really bugged me, I did enjoy the book overall and enjoyed getting a fuller picture of the “The Life and Imagination of C. S. Lewis.”

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Lewis in the book:

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito. And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate. The real labor is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”

Finishing this book completes my TBR Challenge. I also read it as a part of  Carrie‘s Reading to Know Classics Book Club and her Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge.

Reading to Know - Book Club

Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge

(This review will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

Laudable Linkage

Here are just a few commendable links from the last week:

Borrowed Lights: Inspiration for Christian Living. Benefits of reading about the lives of other Christians who follow the Lord closely. Loved this that Robert Murray McCheyne said of Jonathan Edwards: “How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” I liked it so much I added it to my previous post Why Read Biographies.

Are You a Mentoring Momma? “Most likely if you asked them, not one [of these women] would say she mentored me. Yet her life influenced mine in profound ways. The common thread among each of these unique women is that she was further along in the journey, loved me, loved Christ more, and modeled how to treasure Him above all else.” To me that’s the best mentoring – not an official program, not a formal set-up mentor-mentee relationship, but just this.

When Motherhood Drains Your Happiness. The truths here of what to do when you feel drained ministered to me even though I wasn’t feeling that way with regard to motherhood at this point.

My Mother Practiced the Piano. “There’s nothing selfish about working toward your artistic interests as God allows the time. In fact, your children can benefit from watching you model discipline and discovery.”

And, for a smile – I’ve watched this several times and love the look on this cat’s face – although it wouldn’t really be funny to live with a cat who does this:

Happy Saturday!

Laudable Linkage

Its been another good week with some thought-provoking posts to ponder:

Open Roof Hospitality. Very convicting to me. If I had been the lady of the house whose roof was being torn up so people could bring their paralytic friend to Jesus, my first emotion would not have been gratitude and joy, I’m sure.

Pressing In To the Ungrateful.

Is It Possible For Christians to Idolize the Bible?

Seven Questions to Ask Before Having a Difficult Conversation.

The 3-Second Pause That Can Save a Morning and Spare Some Pain.

Six Observations About Speaking to Pastors Right Before They Preach. Although these are especially true for pastors for obvious reasons, many of them hold true for anyone. Once when my husband was the head usher in a very tightly packed church and was trying to find seats for people right before the service, someone who was also a neighbor chose that moment to tell him that he thought the lawn mower that we often let him borrow had been stolen. Hard to concentrate on anything in the service after that. 🙂

The Do Not Depart site has been focusing this month on what we can learn from the lives of Godly Women: Inspiring Stories of Faithful Daughters, mostly from the past. You know how much I love biographies, so I have enjoyed this series. So far they’ve shared from the lives of Corrie ten Boom, Susanna Wesley, Elisabeth Elliot, Helen Roseveare, Harriet Tubman, and Monica of Hippo (Augustine’s mother).

I saw this on Facebook and thought it rang very true. 🙂


The bad weather that was forecast for last night did not happen, yay! Have a wonderful Saturday!

Why Read Biographies?

You would think a post like this would come at the beginning of a series titled 31 Days of Inspirational Biography rather than the end. That would have been more logical – but I didn’t think of it then beyond the few remarks in my introductory post. However, having been steeped in biographies all this month, I have been reminded of several good reasons to pursue them.

I’ve always been interested in people’s stories, in what makes them tick. The very first book I remember checking out at my school library in first or second grade was a biography of Martin Luther (that may not have been the first book I ever actually checked out, but it is the first I remember). I’m sure I read more through my school years, but it was at college that an older woman spoke to a group of us involved in praying for missionaries about her years of reading missionary biographies and the benefit they were to her. That got me started reading Christian and missionary biographies, and that practice was reinforced at the first church we attended after we were married, where a part of the monthly ladies’ meetings included a book report by one of the officers from one of the books in the group’s lending library. So I have been purposefully reading biographies for some 35+ years.

The first benefits that come to mind from reading biographies are the same first benefits gained from reading anything: learning about other places, times, cultures, people, gaining empathy for the people in the story, and understanding how other people think and react.

While you can derive these benefits even from fiction (I have another post in the works about the benefit of reading fiction), biographies and “true life” stories have the advantage of being real. Though spiritual truth can be conveyed even in fiction, in a biography there is no arguing with how the story should have ended or what directions the plot should have taken. If you believe in God, as I do, part of reading a biography is tracing His hand in people’s lives, even, perhaps especially, when the circumstances are different from what we would have thought they would or should be. Though I primarily read Christian biographies, I enjoy some secular ones, and it is interesting to see not only what has influenced them, but they also often have some brush with spiritual truth (Robert Burns‘ story, for example).

We learn history for a number of reasons, among them: to better understand our current times, to appreciate our heritage, to avoid repeating mistakes. There are heroes in our national history who inspire us to a love of country and duty and courage. There are heroes of our spiritual heritage who inspire us in love and dedication to God and to greater faith in remembering that the God they served and loved and Who provided for and used them is the very same God we love and serve today and Who will provide for and use us. Though times and culture change, human nature at its core doesn’t change much, and God never changes.

For me the primary  reason for reading Christian biographies is to follow others as they follow Christ, as Paul said. No, they won’t be perfect, but we can learn from their mistakes just as we learn from David’s or Peter’s in the Bible. Missionaries would never want to be thought of as super-Christians or a step above anyone spiritually, but by and large there usually is a seriousness and maturity in their walk with the Lord, some wrestlings and overcomings, if they have gone through everything they need to in order to get to a mission field. Even though I am not called to “the” mission field (it’s my belief that every Christian is called to “a” mission field, whether on foreign soil or in their own homes and neighborhoods), I can still learn much from what Christians who have gone before me have learned and experienced.

Some people, including a former pastor of mine, don’t like to read older biographies because they made the subjects seem almost too good to be true. Even Isobel Kuhn, whose writing I love, put Amy Carmichael’s books, which I also love, back on the shelf because she thought she was too high and unattainable (I think Amy would either be highly dismayed or would laugh that anyone thought such about her). Admittedly some older Christian biographies can seem unrealistically perfect. I think there are several reasons for this: I think a “warts and all” type of biography was not the fashion in older times like it is today, even in secular biographies, and since Christians are generally instructed to give each other the benefit of the doubt, love each other, overlook each other’s faults, and not gossip or “backbite,” I think that would come into play in writing a biography as well. Yet the Bible shares people’s faults and sins in a realistic and not malicious way. I think we relate to people better when we can see that they are as human as we are, but they acknowledge their faults and are growing in sanctification. I think many of them would probably blush to read the glowing reports people wrote after their deaths.

Let me share, as well, some points to keep in mind when reading Christian biographies.

When reading any book, of course we filter everything through our own frame of reference. But an author can’t possibly know what every reader’s frame of reference will be even in her own time, much less hundreds of years later. So it is the reader’s responsibility to try to figure out the author’s frame of reference or at least to give the benefit of the doubt.

Different times and cultures will yield different practices. It’s fairly common in older missionary biographies for them to speak of servants. That doesn’t mean they were living upper class Western lifestyles while ministering to more primitive people. In more primitive cultures especially, sometimes they would hire help in the kitchen or for certain household tasks so the couple, particularly the wife, could teach or minister in other ways. (Even in modern times I had a missionary friend who mourned over having to spend so much time in the kitchen instead of  in ministerial pursuits: if that is so today, imagine what it would have been like 100+ years ago). Too, in some cultures where becoming a Christian could cost someone their job or family standing, sometimes missionaries would hire them in order to help them out.  Today they might say they hired help or employed someone; likely no one would use the word “servant” today. Another example would be schooling situations. In a lot of older biographies, missionaries sent their kids off to a mission school at a fairly young age because there was no appropriate school available and home schooling as it is known today was unheard of.  Often it was agonizing for both parents and children, and some stories share how God gave grace for the parents to cope. We can’t really hold it against parents then for sending their kids off if that’s all they knew to do at the time. I think the hardships involved as well as the realization that educating and raising their kids was a part of their ministry and testimony led to the changes we see today, where most missionaries home school and some send their kids to public schools in town. But we can understand that God could give grace to people who sent their kids away to school even while that is not a choice most of us would make today.

Even in the more glowing missionary books, you won’t agree with everything. You likely wouldn’t agree with everything even in a biography of your best friend or closest loved one. No two of us is going to agree on every little point of faith and practice. One of the things that stood out to me in 50 People Every Christian Should Know by Warren Wiersbe is that a lot of those people would be on opposite sides of certain fences from each other, yet God used them all. That doesn’t mean the fences and sides don’t matter: each of us is responsible to search out issues and take the stands we feel most faithfully represent Scripture. There are fundamental or foundational issues on which we cannot budge, but there are some beliefs and practices where we can give each other room to differ.

On the other hand, there are those foundational issues to consider. If someone is preaching a false gospel which is going to lead his followers to hell, we need to be aware of that and even warn people about it even though some of what they might say sounds compatible with Scripture, which tells us to “rebuke them sharply,” “mark them and avoid them,” “receive him not. ” Even the devil uses Scripture and appears as an “angel of light.”

I think to sum up what I have been verbosely trying to say in the last few paragraphs, we need to be discerning but not critical.

On the other hand, you might find practices you want to emulate, but don’t feel you necessarily need to change everything with every biography you read. In my early years of reading them, I might be inspired by how one had their time in the Bible, and in the next book I’d see a different way and wonder if I should try that. Feel free to try some of those things and glean what works best for you, but don’t feel tossed about or feel you have to do something just like they did.

Instruction. Encouragement. Inspiration. Illustration of the Christian life in action – overcoming difficulties, growing, seeking God’s wisdom, help and grace. Comfort from that which has comforted others. Warning from their mistakes. These are among the many reasons I enjoy reading Christian biographies.

I’ve often said that reading Christian biographies has been the most influential impact in my Christian life, next to the Word of God itself. I’ve posted this poem before, discovered by an unknown author in the first pages of Rosalind Goforth’s Climbing, but I post it here again as it embodies what Christian biographies have been to me:

Call Back!

If you have gone a little way ahead of me, call back-
It will cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track;
And if, perchance, Faith’s light is dim, because the oil is low,
Your call will guide my lagging course as wearily I go.

Call back, and tell me that He went with you into the storm;
Call back, and say He kept you when forest’s roots were torn;
That when the heavens thunder and the earthquake shook the hill.
He bore you up and held where the very air was still.

O friend, call back, and tell me for I cannot see your face;
They say it glows with triumph, and your feet bound in the race;
But there are mists between us and my spirit eyes are dim,
And I cannot see the glory, though I long for word of Him.

But if you’ll say He heard you when your prayer was but a cry,
And if you’ll say He saw you through the night’s sin-darkened sky-
If you have gone a little way ahead, O friend, call back-
It will cheer my heart and help my feet along the stony track.

Robert Murray McCheyne said of Jonathan Edwards, “How feeble does my spark of Christianity appear beside such a sun! But even his was a borrowed light, and the same source is still open to enlighten me.” May we learn from these “borrowed lights” to seek the same Light they did.

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I have been sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in this series here.

(Sharing with Literary Musing Monday)

31 Days of Inspirational Biography: A Short List of Several

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

As we near the end of the 31 Days writing challenge, I find I have many more inspirational biographies I’d like to share than days left in the month, so I’d like to share a short list of the ones I didn’t get to with a few comments on each.

Last year I wrote about 31 Days of Missionary Stories and ended with a list of the favorites I had read over some 37 or so years. In addition to those, plus the ones I have listed for 31 Days of Inspirational Biography this year, I can recommend these (those with links are ones I have reviewed and linked back to):

Kitty, My Rib by E. Jane Mall is story of the wife of Reformer Martin Luther. He was a former priest, she was a former nun. She was a well-suited complement to his personality.

Ida Scudder: Healing Bodies, Touching Hearts by Janet and Geoff Benge. The Benges actually have a series of biographies aimed primarily at younger people, but I have enjoyed the ones I have read. Ida was a daughter of a missionary doctor in India and had absolutely no plans of being a missionary herself until one night when three different women died whom her father could have helped but who were not allowed to be seen by a male doctor. She eventually became a doctor herself and went back to India.

Bruchko: The Astonishing True Story of a 19-Year-Old American, His Capture by the Motilone Indians and His Adventures in Christianizing the Stone Age Tribe by Bruce Olson. I really wanted to talk about this one this month, but it has been too many years since I read it and I did not have time to reread it this month. I do remember thinking he was perhaps a little headstrong, but overall it was a great book.

Dorie, The Girl Nobody Loved by Dorie N. Van Stone. It has been years since I’ve read this one, too, and I’d like to reread it some time, but the story of a grueling, abusive childhood overcome by God’s grace was very touching.

Gifted Hands by Ben Carson. I’m not sure if Dr. Carson is a Christian, but this is a great book about overcoming difficulties in childhood and changing direction in life. He grew up in poverty, did not do well in school, and had a horrible temper, but ended up being a pioneering neurosurgeon.

The Valley Is Bright by Nell Collins, the story of her salvation, her training as a nurse and plans to go to Africa, and the disruption (as it seemed) of her life by a serious cancer diagnosis. Part of her testimony is here.

Walking From East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias. You may have heard his radio broadcasts or benefited from his apologetics ministry. This is the story of how he came to the Lord and some of the difficulties in doing so for those from an Eastern mindset.

The God I Love by Joni Eareckson Tada. I’d also recommend When God Weeps by Steve Estes and Joni, not a biography but a book about why God allows suffering, and Joni and Ken: An Untold Love Story by Ken and Joni Eareckson Tada.

The Titanic’s Last Hero about John Harper, who told people about the Lord while clinging to debris from the ship. A testimony of him is here.

Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore. How one man’s reluctant service in a homeless shelter led to a lifelong friendship. This was riveting.

Heir to a Dream by Pete Maravich. I mentioned in an earlier post that I wasn’t really a sports fan, but I loved this autobiography of “Pistol Pete.” His dad groomed him to play basketball, even tucking a basketball into his bed instead of a teddy bear. He achieved great success and acclaim, but it was all empty until he found Christ. I first heard a bit of his testimony on some news show – 20/20, I think – and he seemed so genuine that I had to read the book. I could not find that interview online, but I did find this one:

The Autobiography of George Muller. Wonderful testimony of his rescue from a debauched lifestyle to an exercise of faith in supporting orphanages by depending on God alone.

Mistaken Identity by Don & Susie Van Ryn, and Newell Colleen & Whitney Cerak. Another riveting story of two girls in a horrific accident, and the surviving one was identified as the other.

In Trouble and In Joy by Sharon James, short biographies of Ann Judson, Margaret Baxter, Ann Steele, and Frances Ridly Havergal.

Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God by Noel Piper, short biographies of Sarah Edwards, Gladys Aylward, Lilias Trotter, Esther Ahn Kim, and Helen Roseveare.

Thunder Dog: The True Story of a Blind Man, His Guide Dog, and the Triumph of Trust at Ground Zero by Michael Hingson

50 People Every Christian Should Know: Learning From Spiritual Giants of the Faith by Warren Wiersbe

Infinitely More by Alex Krutov, about an abandoned orphan in Russia whom God brought to Himself.

A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken, about his relationship with his wife, their conversion after originally having no interest in Christianity, her cancer, and his letters to C. S. Lewis.

The Reel Story by Larry D. Vaughn. Wonderful story about how someone outside the “bubble” of the conservative Christian world ended up a Christian. Larry was a film buyer, and his pastor and almost everyone else said he should continue in his job to be a witness to the film community, but Larry felt his conscience pricked and provoked enough that he finally had to leave the business.

The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom about her family’s involvement in helping to hide Jews during WWII and the consequences.

More Precious Than Gold, the Fiery Trial of a Family’s Faith by John and Brenda Vaughn. A garage fire had devastating consequences for Mrs. Vaughn and her young daughter. This book details the circumstances and how God helped the family through this trial.

As I have shared biographies that have inspired me this month, I tried to include some from people of various walks of life and some that were older as well as some modern ones. I hope you’ve found something to inspire you in some of these posts as well.

Tomorrow I want to write about “Why Read Biographies.” I know, a post like that should probably have come at the beginning of this series. I didn’t think about it then, beyond the remarks in my introductory post, but as I have been steeped in biographies this month, some thought came to mind I thought I’d share.

31 Days of Inspirational Biography: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity

SeekingIn Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus: A Devout Muslim Encounters Christianity Nabeel Qureshi first gives a window into a loving and devout Muslim home, with all its practices, disciplines, and teachings, as well as a peek into the perspective of growing up Muslim in a non-Muslim culture.  Wanting to be a faithful representative of Islam, having been taught critical thinking in school and having a mind geared for it, he often turned the arguments of some of his Christian classmates on their heads, bringing up aspects they had not thought about before and were not ready to defend.

In college God brought to him “an intelligent, uncompromising, Non-Muslim friend who would be willing to challenge” him, someone who was “bold and stubborn enough” to deal with him but also someone he could trust “enough to dialogue…about the things that mattered to [him] the most.” Nabeel and his friend, David, were both on the forensics team and knew how to get to the heart of an argument and draw out and refute key points. For the most part they did this with each other’s worldviews good-naturedly, but when a given topic became too heated, they’d table it for a while. Muslims particularly have trouble with the reliability of the Bible, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, and the connection between Christ’s death on the cross and how it atoned for others’ sins. For three years Nabeel studied the Bible and its claims and others’ claims about it, fully confident that he’d be able to disprove those claims, and then to study the history of Mohamed and the claims of the Quran, fully confident that Islam would be justified. Though he was obviously biased toward the Quran, he really wanted to know the truth. He discovered the Bible’s claims were justified and Islam’s to be on shaky ground.

For some time he resisted acting on this knowledge. Being a Muslim was a matter of identity as well as religion: his whole life, everything he had always believed, his relationship with his family and community, everything would be turned upside down if he became a Christian. Yet he could not continue on, knowing what he now knew. In one of the most beautiful and touching passages in the book, he was seeking time to mourn before making the decision he knew he had to, and he opened the Bible for guidance this time, not simply to look for information to refute. He came to Matthew 5:4, 6:

Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.

 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.

Nabeel writes further:

There are costs Muslims must calculate when considering the gospel: losing the relationships they have built in this life, potentially losing this life, and if they are wrong, losing their afterlife. It is no understatement to say that Muslims often risk everything to embrace the cross.

But then again, it is the cross. There is a reason Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

Would it be worth it to pick up my cross and be crucified next to Jesus? If He is not God, then, no. Lose everything I love to worship a false God? A million times over, no!

But if He is God, then yes. Being forever bonded to my Lord by suffering alongside Him? A million times over, yes!

All suffering is worth it to follow Jesus. He is that amazing.

I feel I must comment on one aspect of the story that I questioned at first and I am sure other readers might as well: When Nabeel mentioned early on being “called to Jesus through visions and dreams,” I admit I inwardly winced and wondered what kind of story I’d be reading. For reasons too long to go into here, I am of those who believe that once God gave us His completed Word in writing, then dreams, visions, tongues, and the like fell away as unneeded.  The few modern instances I have ever heard or read of that seemed most in line with Bible truth were in cultures which didn’t have the Bible, often didn’t have a written language at all. Another problem with relying on dreams Nabeel discovered himself: one questions what it really means (his Muslim mother and Christian friend had completely opposite interpretations for what Nabeel’s dreams meant), wonders how much was due to wishful thinking, asks “Could I really hinge my life and eternal destiny on a dream?” etc. If that’s all he had to go on to become a believer, I would question what he was really trusting, but these dreams came after years of intense searching and study. In an appendix by Josh McDowell on this topic, he states, “Dreams and visions do not convert people; the gospel does,” but he explains, “In many Muslim cultures, dreams and visions play a strong role in people’s lives. Muslims rarely have access to the scriptures or interactions with Christian missionaries.” As in Nabeel’s case, “the dreams lead them to the scriptures and to believers who can share Jesus with them. It is the gospel through the Holy Spirit that converts people.”

One of many passages that stood out to me was in the chapter “Muslims in the West,” which described how Muslims view the West and Christians and, because they think both have corrupting influences and Westerners they are against Islam, they tend to keep to themselves. “On the rare occasion that someone does invite a Muslim to his or her home, differences in culture and hospitality may make the Muslim feel uncomfortable, and the host must be willing to ask, learn, and adapt to overcome this. There are simply too many  barriers for Muslim immigrants to understand Christians and the West by sheer circumstance. Only the exceptional blend of love, humility, hospitality, and persistence can overcome these barriers, and not enough people make the effort.”

I didn’t agree with everything Nabeel’s Christian friend said in the section about the Bible, in regard to believing some sections in the Bible were added later and not part of the original canon, but I do acknowledge that some do believe that.

There are multiple good aspects of this book: the window into another culture and mindset and the understanding of the difficulties a Muslim would have in coming to Christianity; the example of David and other friends who shared truth kindly and politely rather than belligerently or condescendingly, who genuinely cared about Nabeel as a friend rather than a “project”; the  wealth of information Nabeel found and shared from his studies which give a valuable apologetic (supplemented by several appendices>); and the touching yet agonizing conversion of a soul truly hungering and thirsting after the one true God.

(Reprinted from the archives. I hope regular readers will forgive my doing so with so recent a post. I was going to just summarize but then didn’t feel I could leave anything here out.)

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

31 Days of Inspirational Biography: Charlie Wedemeyer, a Motivational Speaker Who Couldn’t Speak

Charlie's VictoryI have never been a sports fan (except during the Olympics), so I don’t remember what first brought Charlie and Lucy Wedemeyer’s book, Charlie’s Victory, to my attention. But it has been one of my favorite biographies.

Charlie grew up in Hawaii, where he was a star athlete and quarterback. He went on to play football for Michigan State University and eventually ended up as the head football coach at Los Gatos High School in CA. (His brother, Herman Wedemeyer, was an actor and played Duke on the old Hawaii Five-O series.)

When Charlie was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he began to lose the use of his body bit by bit, and he was originally given one year to live. He wanted to keep coaching as long as possible. PBS made an Emmy-wining documentary about Charlie and Lucy called One More Season, which documents the time up until Charlie had to retire, his very last game closing with an almost fairy-tale ending.

After retiring from coaching, Charlie and Lucy began public speaking, even though by this time he could not speak much. Lucy “interpreted” for him.

The courage of both of them on this journey was inspiring and heart-warming. Lucy told him early on, “This isn’t your disease, it’s our disease.” One incident that stood out to me was when Charlie began to feel he was being a burden and it would be better for his family if he had died. Lucy said, “We’d rather have you this way than not at all.” Another incident was when Charlie was rushed to the ER, unable to breathe. A nurse told Lucy that this was the natural path with ALS patients, and she needed to be willing to let him go. Another nurse told her about portable respirators (like we saw Christoper Reeve and others using years later). When Lucy asked the first nurse about them, she actually got angry with Lucy, but Lucy prevailed, and Charlie had several more years on the portable respirator, even traveling to see his family in Hawaii.

One of their main goals in the years since Charlie’s diagnosis was to give others hope. One of Charlie’s nurses was able to show him and Lucy how they could invite the Lord Jesus Christ to be their own Lord and Savior, and not long afterward a friend came for a visit and spent some time of intense discipling, which Charlie soaked up like a sponge. They are very honest in the book about the struggles they endured as well as the faith that sustained them.

A short video about them is here:

What made the biggest difference in their lives was their faith, which is discussed here:

Charlie lived over 30 years with ALS, far beyond the original one year diagnosis.

A news report at his death in 2010:

See also the Charlie Wedemeyer Family Outreach site.

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.

(This will also be linked to Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books.)

31 Days of Inspirational Biography: The Last CIM Missionaries in Communist China

In 1950, Arthur and Wilda Mathews and their 13 month old baby, Lilah, traveled to Hwangyuan, China. China had fallen to Communism, and other missionaries were leaving, yet the Chinese church had invited them to come, with the approval of the Communist government. They felt this was a miraculously opened door God would have them go through. Yet, when they arrived, they could sense that all was not well. The Christians pastors who met them were strained, and they discerned that between the time of their invitation and arrival, the Chinese learned that association with the white people would be a liability under Communism, not a asset. The Mathews then thought perhaps, if they could not be a help to the church, they could endeavor to evangelize the unreached Mongols in the area and nearby. They had a few weeks in which to minister, but soon found that they were restricted in ways they could help. They endeavored to set up an inn with which to reach the Mongols, but Chinese troops took it over the day before it was to open. Arthur protested, but soon found it would have been wiser to have said nothing. In two days a policeman came to the mission compound to announce that no one there could do village work without permission, and the white people were forbidden everything: they could not have meetings outside the compound, they could not give out tracts or dispense medicine. They were restricted to the mission compound.

They finally decided that since they were more of a hindrance than a help, they would apply for exit visas. They thought, since the government did not want them, they would be allowed to leave quickly, and so gave away or sold dishes, curtains, etc., keeping just the bare minimum to function until they could leave. Arthur was summoned to the police station and asked to sign a statement that he was for world peace. He had heard of another missionary having to sign some document before leaving, so he signed without thinking much of it. The government official then asked what contribution Arthur was then willing to make toward world peace, outlining a plan in which Arthur would go to India and essentially be a Communist spy. Arthur realized that the Communist definition of world peace was a world dominated by communism, and of course could not consent.

A government official called Arthur in and promised his exit visas if he would do something for them, like write a report of five other missionaries. At first Arthur did write glowing reports of the missionaries in question, but someone told him he dare not turn that in: the Communists would change what he had written but keep his signature. So Arthur threw his report in the fire and told the official he could not be a Judas. The official then told him that he could have given him a pass, if he had cooperated, but now a charge had been laid against him which must be investigated, and “investigations take a long time.”

Thus began a two and a half year ordeal. Their provisions from their mission were frozen by the government, which made Arthur submit a report of what he would need, and then they doled out to him much less than what the report said he needed. Every victory they mentioned in a letter seemed to be immediately challenged by the enemy of their souls: once when they wrote what a blessing Lilah was, she then came down with scarlet fever, and they almost lost her. All of them had turns being ill. Eventually they were told that no one could speak to them, and they could only leave home to draw water from the creek and get food.

They wrestled with the “what-ifs” and the frustration of what they called “second causes,” finally coming to the conclusion that they had to trust that the Lord was in control and had them there for a reason, though it was hard to discern that reason when they were so restricted. Yet the Lord did use them even when they could not speak to the people. The few weeks they had had to minister before restrictions set in, people knew their hearts and saw their love. When the Mathews could no longer speak openly, the people saw them in tattered clothes, persecuted, attacked by illness without much medical aid, laughed at, jeered, humiliated, doing menial, degrading work just to survive, tantalized by the government offering release and then not giving it or doling out money that was theirs in the first place. They saw the Lord provide miraculously for them in many ways. Yet more than that, they saw them endure graciously and joyfully until, finally, the Mathews became the last CIM missionaries to leave China.

Green-Leaf-in-DroughtHow the Lord provided for them and ministered through them in unexpected ways are some of the most exciting parts of the book Isobel Kuhn wrote of their story titled Green Leaf in Drought. She says,

But most amazing of all was their spiritual vigour. Whence came it? Not from themselves: no human being could go through such sufferings and come out so sweet and cheerful. As I was in a small prayer meeting… one prayed thus: ‘O Lord, keep their leaf green in times of drought!’ I knew in a moment that this was the answer. Jeremiah 17:8: “He shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.” That was it! There was an unseen Source of secret nourishment, which the Communists could not find and from which they could not cut them off…That is needed by all of us. Your drought may not be caused by Communism, but the cause of the drying up of life’s joys is incidental. When they dry up — is there, can we find, a secret Source of nourishment that the deadly drought cannot reach?…Is it possible for a Christian to put forth green leaves when all he enjoys in this life is drying up around him?

The answer, by God’s grace, is yes!

(Reposted from the archives.)

photo 3(2)

For the 31 Days writing challenge, I am sharing 31 Days of Inspirational Biography. You can find others in the series here.