Long Walk to Freedom

Nelson Mandela

One of the fascinating stories of the 20th century is the story of Nelson Mandela and the fight for freedom by blacks in South Africa.

This is Mandela’s autobiography.  He was born in a rural village with a poor, but happy childhood.  He was able to get an education and then pursued a law degree in Johannesburg.  He practices law for a number of years, but his primary passion and engagement is in the struggle against apartheid.  Apartheid was the systematic government policy which denied blacks in South Africa of many basic freedoms, including the right to vote.  Mandela joins the African National Congress, or ANC, which led the fight against racial injustice in South Africa over an 80 year period.  Mandela not only becomes involved with ANC, but he has increasing influence and becomes one of the central figures in the ANC.

At one point Mandela faces arrest because of his involvement in the fight, and he flees from the police.  He lives as a fugitive in his own country, and then in exile outside South Africa.  Shortly after his return he is captured and arrested.

Mandela would serve 27 years in prison, from age 44 to age 71!  Most of this time was spent on an island prison off the coast of Cape Town.

Eventually, because of internal opposition and international pressure, the South African government agrees to negotiate with the ANC for a new government.  Mandela leads this negotiation process for the ANC, first while he is in prison and then after his release.

In 1993 blacks in South Africa were allowed to vote for the first time.  Not only did the ANC win a majority of the seats in parliament, but Nelson Mandela was elected as president.  By this time Mandela was famous throughout the world and had met with many world leaders, including the U.S. president.

How did Mandela achieve this extraordinary accomplishment?  First of all, he did not do it by himself, he was part of a team, a team that led a large movement.  He was the consensus leader.

Moreover, Mandela and others were indefatigable in their struggle against racial injustice.  They simply would not give up and they were willing to pay any price and make any sacrifice.

Mandela was a man of character, of principle, of honor.  He was courageous in the battle.

Interestingly, Mandela has a surprising amount of humility.  Throughout the book, he understates his role in the struggle and magnifies the role of others.  I think he truly saw himself as a servant of the people and not the hero of the people.

Certainly, he and his family paid a high price for this fight.  He never lived a normal family life, as he was always engaged in the fight against injustice.  He would spend most of his life away from his family – either working in the cause, living in hiding or exile, or his 27 years in prison.

I might note that Mandela did consider himself to be a Christian – specifically a Methodist.  However, there is no evidence in the book of him pursuing the Lord.

For a long time I’ve wanted to read this book because Mandela has made such a profound impact upon our world.  I would say the book is good, perhaps even quite good, but not a great book.  He was a great man, though, and it was fascinating to learn his story.

The Way of the Mystics

John Michael Talbot

John Michael Talbot, who was a leader in early contemporary Christian worship and is now the Catholic Church’s #1 recording artist, is the primary author of this book on 13 Christian mystics.

It is good to learn more about these well-known Christians.  I thought the most interesting sketches were of Thomas Merton, Ignatius of Loyola, John Donne (an Anglican, most are Catholic) and Francis of Assisi.  George Fox, founder of the Quakers, was heretical and difficult.  I’m not sure why he was included.

The book is interesting but not superb.

My Reading Life

Pat Conroy

I loved this book.  Pat Conroy is a novelist from the South and toward the end of his career, he pens this delicious memoir on his love affair with reading and books.  It is so fun.  Any decent bibliophile will love this book.

He talks about his childhood, which was marked by an abusive Navy pilot father, and a mother who loved books.  She successfully infected him with her delight.

The book was a treat from cover to cover, but especially the chapters that told of his mother’s influence on his reading, the life-altering influence of a high school English teacher who because a father figure for him, a quaint bookstore in Atlanta and his friendship with the eccentric owner, and the time he spent writing and walking in Paris.

But he also has chapter-length treatments of Gone with the Wind, Thomas Wolfe, War and Peace, and the writings of James Dickey.

Conroy is a powerful writer, and can he tell a story!  The vocabulary in this book delightfully stretched me perhaps more than any other book I have ever read.  This entire book was a treat, so much so that I was tempted, when I finished, to go back to page one and start over.  It is definitely a book that I will want to read again.

Enthusiastically recommended!

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard

This is a surprisingly good biography.  I say surprisingly good because James Garfield is not a well-known president.  He only served a few months before a deranged assassin shot him, leading to his death about two months later.  He is not well-known to history, but he was much loved at the time, and in general, quite a remarkable man.

His father died when he was only an infant, and his widowed mother raised Garfield and his siblings in poverty.  But he rose above the poverty, getting an education and learning everything he could.  He was a voracious reader and an indefatigable learner.  He quickly became a professor in college and then the president of a college before entering politics.

He rose to a prominent position in the US congress and to his surprise, to everyone’s surprise, he became the Republican nominee for president in 1880.  He did not want the presidency and did not seek it, but nonetheless he was nominated and then elected.

He did not serve long enough to have any notable achievement, but under the right circumstances he could have been a great president.  Perhaps one of the best. 

Moreover, he was a good man.  He was big-hearted, a man of character and integrity, a devoted husband and father, warm and fun-loving.

When he was shot, the entire nation was grief-stricken.  In fact, his assassination in some ways united the country that had been ravaged by the Civil War, for all the country mourned for him not as northerners and southerners, but as Americans.

His early death led to several other changes also.  For one thing it transformed the weak Vice President, Chester Arthur, into a strong man of character and fortitude.  Also his death led to the failed career of New York’s powerful political boss Roscoe Conkling, who dominated the Democratic Party at the time and was behind the corrupt spoils system of government.  Arthur and Congress passed legislation to reform the spoils system by which political favors were passed down.

Garfield’s death could have been prevented if his doctors and surgeons would have accepted the early work of Dr. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon who called for antiseptic surgery to prevent infection by the unseen germs.  Lister’s ideas were scoffed at by many doctors at the time, but became widely accepted after Garfield’s death.

A final interesting note of this biography is the role that Alexander Graham Bell would play.  The young Bell had already invented the telephone and had become world famous.  With the shooting of Garfield, he worked non-stop to invent a machine that could locate a bullet.  Though this did not lead to Garfield’s recovery, his machine, essentially a metal detector for finding bullets in a body, was used until the invention of x-ray decades later.

Candice Millard has written niche history books on two other figures:  Theodore Roosevelt’s journey down the river in the Amazon, and the young Winston Churchill’s escape during the Boer War.  This is her first full-length biography and it is excellent.

Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret

Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor

This is my fourth time through Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret.  Some books deserve rereading. 

Hudson Taylor was born in 1832 in England and he died in 1905 in China.  He is widely considered one of the greatest missionaries ever, and was the founder of the China Inland Mission.  This Mission focused on sending missionaries to the interior of China, when previously, missionaries were only at the ports on the coast.

What do we learn from Hudson Taylor’s life?

1.     He was a man who lived by faith.  He trusted God for big things, for tough things.  He never asked for money and God provided faithfully, year after year, for an evergrowing ministry.  Sometimes the provisions were remarkable.  Taylor exemplifies what it means to live by faith.

2.     Not surprisingly, Hudson Taylor was a man of prayer.  Prayer and faith always go together.  He was devoted to prayer because he was devoted to God.  He lived a life marked by earnest prayer, fervent prayer, persistent prayer. 

3.     Taylor had a deep heart for lost people, especially the lost people in China.  Before he even went to China, after God had put China on his heart, he wrote these words:  “I feel as if I could not live if something is not done for China.” 

4.     Taylor prioritized time alone with the Father.  His common practice was to spend two hours in Bible reading and prayer, often between 2 and 4am, when he would be undisturbed.  He did this even when he was traveling and staying in crowded rooms partitioned by a curtain.

5.     Taylor shows us how to trust God through suffering.  Three of his children died young and he also lost his much-loved first wife when she was only 33 years old.  Though devastated by each of these deaths, he trusted his God in some amazing ways.

Here are a few quotes or stories from the book that stand out:

“When I get to China,” I thought to myself, “I shall have no claim on anyone for anything.  My only claim will be on God.  How important to learn, before leaving England, to move man, through God, by prayer alone.”  (p. 23)

“Depend upon it, God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supplies.” (p. 86)

“It doesn’t matter, really, how great the pressure is,” he used to say; “it only matters where the pressure lies.  See that it never comes between you and the Lord – then, the greater the pressure, the more it presses you to his breast.”  (p. 107)

After the death of his first wife when she was only 33 years old:

“I never witnessed such a scene [wrote one who was present].  As dear Mrs. Taylor was breathing her last, Mr. Taylor knelt and committed her to the Lord, thanking Him for having given her and for twelve and a half years of perfect happiness together, thanking Him too for taking her to His own presence, and solemnly dedicating himself anew to His service.

The summer sun rose higher over the city, hills and river.  The busy hum of life came up around them from many a court and street.  But in an upper room of one Chinese dwelling, from which the blue of heaven could be seen, there was the hush of a wonderful peace …

He and he only knew what my dear wife was to me.  He knew how the light of my eyes and the joy of my heart were in her.  On the last day of her life – we had no idea that it would be the last – our hearts were mutually delighted by the never-old story of each other’s love … and almost her last act was, with one arm round my neck, to place her hand on my head and, as I believe, for her lips had lost their cunning, to implore a blessing on meBut He saw that it was good to take her – good indeed for her, and in His love He took her painlessly – and not less good for me who now must toil and suffer alone, yet not alone, for God is nearer to me than ever.”  (p. 124)

A young man observed Hudson Taylor leading a prayer gathering in London:

“Mr. Taylor opened the meeting by giving out a hymn, and seating himself at the harmonium led the singing.  His appearance did not impress me.  He was slightly built, and spoke in a quiet voice.  Like most young men, I suppose I associated power with noise, and looked for physical presence in a leader.  But when he said, ‘Let us pray,’ and proceeded to lead the meeting in prayer, my ideas underwent a change.  I had never heard anyone pray like that.  There was a simplicity, a tenderness, a boldness, a power that hushed and subdued me, and made it clear that God had admitted him to the inner circle of His friendship.  Such praying was evidently the outcome of long tarrying in the secret place, and was as dew from the Lord.

I have heard many men pray in public since then, but the prayers of Mr. Taylor and the prayers of Mr. Spurgeon stand all by themselves.  Who that heard could ever forget them?  It was the experience of a lifetime to hear Mr. Spurgeon pray, taking as it were the great congregation of six thousand people by the hand and leading them into the holy place.  And to hear Mr. Taylor plead for China was to know something of what is meant by ‘the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man.’  That meeting lasted from four to six o’clock, but seemed one of the shortest prayer meetings I had ever attended.”  (p. 133)

“A leader of the Church of Scotland said to Mr. Taylor:

‘You must sometimes be tempted to be proud because of the wonderful way God has used you.  I doubt if any man living has had greater honour.’

‘On the contrary,’ was the earnest reply, ‘I often think that God must have been looking for someone small enough and weak enough for Him to use, and that He found me.’” (p. 142)

“It was not easy for Mr. Taylor, in his changeful life, to make time for prayer and Bible study, but he knew that it was vital.  Well do the writers remember travelling with him month after month in northern China, by cart and wheelbarrow, with the poorest of inns at night.  Often, with only one large room for coolies and travelers alike, they would screen off a corner for their father and another for themselves, with curtains of some sort; and then, after sleep at last had brought a measure of quiet, they would hear a match struck and see the flicker of candlelight which told that Mr. Taylor, however weary, was poring over the little Bible in two volumes always at hand.  From two to four A.M. was the time he usually gave to prayer; the time when he could be most sure of being undisturbed to wait upon God.  That flicker of candlelight has meant more to them than all they have read or heard on secret prayer; it meant reality, not preaching but practice.”  (p. 165)