Born Wrong, Made Right

Greg Stoughton

This is Greg Stoughton’s story of his life.  He was born without a full set of fingers and toes, and that caused a lot of challenges in his earlier years.  This is the story of his journey to faith in Jesus Christ and the difference God has made in his life.  It is a candid, entertaining and God-glorifying account of God’s faithfulness in one life.

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.

My Marathon: Reflections on a Gold Medal Life

Frank Shorter

In the 1972 Munich Olympics, Frank Shorter won the marathon, becoming the first American gold medalist in the marathon since 1908.  This marathon victory helped propel the nascent running movement in the United States, which continues to thrive today, nearly 50 years later.  Frank Shorter, a Yale graduate and an attorney, became an iconic figure for distance runners in the United States. 

Shorter also won the silver medal in the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.  Later, it was discovered that the gold medalist, Waldemar Cierpinski, from East Germany, was part of the systematic East German doping program.  So actually, Shorter deserved the gold medal for the marathon in both the 1972 and 1976 Olympics.

In this autobiography, Shorter tells the story of his training and racing over the years that he was competing.  He also explores some of his relationship with such fellow runners as Steve Prefontaine and Kenny Moore, both fellow Olympians.  Moreover, Shorter also would become a leading figure in the movement to help make track and field, along with other sports, drug-free.

However, the heart of the book in some ways is not running, but the tragic story of an abusive father.  Shorter grew up in a smallish town in New York State, one of 10 children.  Their father was a hero in the community, a local physician, who was held in wide esteem.  But what people did not know, and what many people today refuse to accept, is that his father terrorized the rest of the family.  The terror included emotional and physical abuse, and with the daughters in the family, sexual abuse.  It was horrific.

Because of shame and fear, Shorter kept this tragedy private from even his closest friends, and even his first wife, for decades.  But eventually he decided to go public and tell his story.  It is a sobering story.

I found Shorter’s autobiography surprisingly fascinating.  Some of that is the story of his tragic childhood and how he has dealt with it.  Some of it may be that I lived, to some extent, in the world of international distance running and marathoning, even interacting with Shorter on several occasions.  And I certainly enjoyed some of the riveting running stories, both about his training and his racing.  But perhaps, the reason the book impacted me so much was that I saw in Shorter a marathoner who was intentional, deliberate and thoughtful about his training and racing, an athlete who fully leveraged his gifts and abilities for running.  For various reasons, including deep struggles with OCD, I do not think I maximized the running abilities that God gave me.  I suspect that the book had a subconscious poignancy in me because of this issue.

For most distance runners, Shorter’s autobiography will be a great read. 

Just As I Am

Billy Graham

It has been almost 20 years since Billy Graham published his autobiography entitled Just As I Am.  At that time he was in his late 70s.  Billy Graham is a remarkable man who has lived a remarkable life.  (Incidentally, he is still alive in his late 90s, although I understand suffering quite a bit from Parkinson’s.)

He was raised on a farm in North Carolina, from a Christian family, and when he is 18 years old he commits his life to Christ, attending Florida Bible Institute and later Wheaton College.  There he meets Ruth Bell, who had been raised by missionaries in China.  Soon they will marry and begin a long, strong marriage until her death many years later.

Billy Graham serves for a time as a pastor and with a youth ministry and as a college president of a small Bible college in Minneapolis.  Pretty soon he gives himself wholly to his life’s calling, that of evangelism. 

The watershed tour happened in 1949 when Billy Graham was only 31 years old.  The crowds packed in, the crusade was extended by many weeks, and Billy Graham became a household name in our country.  After that, Billy Graham and his team never looked back, doing crusades across the United States, and then, beginning in 1954 with a crusade in London, on other continents around the world.  He took cities and he took countries by storm.  Or rather, the Spirit of God fell upon him and his preaching and God used it incredibly.

Most of the book was underwhelming in that it became a bit tedious, talking about crusade after crusade – and by no means did he cover every one of the crusades in the book.  But still, it grew tedious and I began to wonder when is he going to share his heart, his life, his soul, his family.  He would drip tidbits here and there, but it was overall a bit superficial until the end, when he includes four chapters of reflections.  He talks about the close teammates that he worked with, many of whom were with him the entire time! 

He also talks about friendship that he had shared across the years.  And then the best chapter yet, on his home and family and heart.

The long autobiography finished well, just as he did in his ministry.

The impact of Billy Graham’s ministry is phenomenal.  They way God used this man.  The thousands upon thousands who came to Christ and made decisions for Christ.  The millions upon millions who heard the gospel through him.  Clearly, God’s hand was upon him in an unmistakable way.  Sovereign grace.  I think this is the most significant fact about him and his ministry, the way God’s hand was upon him.

At the same time, Billy Graham is a deeply godly man, with a deep heart for God.  He is a man of profound and genuine humility.  He is a man of the Scriptures who is faithful to the Word of God.  He is a man of prayer, something that I did not really understand until I read this autobiography.  His crusades were bathed in prayer and he personally was a man of prayer.

Clearly, Billy and Ruth Graham had a wonderful marriage, which is somewhat surprising considering Billy traveled so much.  How he did travel!  Whenever he could he would coax Ruth into joining him on one of his extended trips.  But they also had five children and it was limited how much she could travel with him.  He would be gone for weeks and weeks, and even months and months at a time while his children were small.  He expressed some regrets about being away too much, but when he was home it seems like he was a fully engaged father and loved by his kids.  Two of the five kids, the two boys, had periods of rebellion, but all five became devoted followers of Jesus and the two boys devoted their lives to full-time Christian service.

I was also struck that Billy Graham was not just a great preacher but he was a great leader.  He was an innovator with evangelism and crusades.  He was always behind some innovative step.  He was also a team builder.  It is remarkable the close team that he built and maintained around him.

One of the most surprising things in the book was his relationship with president after president, beginning with Harry Truman and running at least through George W. Bush.  By the time President Obama was in office his Parkinson’s had deteriorated too badly.  But he knew, quite well, most of these presidents.  And he was good friends with some of these presidents – Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, the first President Bush.  Most of these presidents treated him as their pastor.

In addition, it seems like in every country he would go to for a crusade he would at some point meet with the country’s leader.  For example, he probably met over the years with Queen Elizabeth a dozen times.  God raised him up and used him in an unusual way.

Thank God for Billy Graham