Thursday, September 15, 2016

90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper (Book Review #45 of 2016)


90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life

It would be incorrect to call Piper or this book a "modern-day Book of Job," because it contains no poetry, prose, or a search for theological meaning. But Job is the closest analogy I can make for the book; Piper was a pastor and aspiring church planter who followed Jesus and had a pretty normal life until his accident. It took a long time for him to tell the complete story and writing it all down was as much for therapy as it was for posterity. It is quite difficult to read about someone describing chronic pain 24 hours a day, an inability to move, 34 surgeries and counting, and an inability to take care of yourself for years. That is what this book is-- a description of what that is like.

Piper was clinically dead after a car crash on a bridge involving a Texas inmate without a drivers license who was drafted by prison guards to drive a van of prisoners (which put Piper's estate oddly at odds with a Texas Attorney General he otherwise supported). The legalities of that get little mention, other than noting that Texas lost the case and had to pay much of the enormous medical bills.

Piper came back to life after a fellow Christian felt strongly impressed to argue with the police (who were waiting on the coroner) to allow him to climb into what was left of the car and pray. Skeptics can say what they want, there is plenty of medical evidence and eyewitnesses that document this event. As word spread, thousands of people in churches around Texas began praying for Don Piper. Piper should have bled to death and yet was alive enough to be transported to two hospitals. That's where the pain begins. He was fortunate enough not to suffer any serious head or thorasic injuries. While that meant he would live, it also meant he would feel the pain.

Piper's wife and children have to make arrangements as Piper lives in a hospital. He is hand-fed, has an unusual Ilizirov apparatus attached on his arm to slowly and painfully allow bones to grow in place. (Aside, I used to live in Qusar, Azerbaijan where Ilizirov grew up and I first saw the apparatus at a museum there). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilizarov_apparatus . Piper's body fights dangerous infections as he undergoes surgery after surgery. The never-ending pain saps his will to live and he is faced with depression. Initially, Piper tolerates those from his congregation who come to visit him but wishes they would not. Eventually, he is rebuked by a deacon for not allowing people to help him more, and he gives in-- recognizing the joy that comes to people when they bring him magazines, milkshakes, or whatever. He gets over the deep shame he feels about his helplessness, and this teaches him more about his own dependence on God. When he eventually returns home, he makes a brief, exhausting visit to his church-- leaving the house at all is exhausting.

Once his attitude changes, so do his prayers and praise. He meets others in the hospital who have the Ilizarov apparatus or are suffering and begins to bring encouragement to them via empathy. He saves the life of one man with the apparatus by discovering he was badly infected an in danger of death. He encourages others that life is worth living. In an emotional part of the book, Piper includes his children's thoughts and response-- Piper regrets missing his boys' formative years and not being able to go hunting, fishing, or play catch with them-- they have an invalid father.

Piper never develops a deep theology of suffering; there is no preaching to that effect in this book. Nor does he come to any conclusions as to "why" God let this happen. He only recognizes that it has given him a connection to others who are suffering and tries to use that for God's glory as best he can.

After some time in the hospital, Piper confides to a friend the vision he had of heaven while in his 90 minutes of official death. He heard a cacophony of praise, saw faces of many he knew, and had indescribable happiness. It was from these moments of comfort and peace that he can't compare to anything on earth that he returns to his bleeding body in his car. His friend convinces him that he should share this remarkable story. Piper puts this heaven story at the front of the book, and that is what has gotten the ire of many who want it banned from Christian bookstores. My guess is they don't bother slogging through the other 95% of the book. Piper's suffering then gives him an audience with people who are terminally ill, in chronic pain, or have about given up on their own lives. He uses both platforms to share the Gospel. He closes the book with an acknowledgement that some people with near-death experiences return back to life saying unbiblical things. He maintains he's only sharing what he remembers.

I heard Don Piper speak at a week-long series of revival services hosted by local churches in the small town I used to live in. I did not return after the first night, so I had not heard his tale of suffering. I am glad to have read this book, though I would not do so again and don't recommend it if you're not ready to deal with gruesome. I would, however, like to read his wife's book about her perspective on dealing with a husband and how marriage works in sickness and in health.

In all, I give this book 4 stars out of 5. I am glad he wrote it.

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