Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book Review: The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin & Alex Malarkey

A week ago my mom handed me this book and said, "You should read this." Though I usually trust her book suggestions, this one made me kinda roll my eyes. A six-year-old quadriplegic's near-death experience and descriptions of heaven? I believe in both near-death experiences and heaven (and six-year-olds, as a matter of fact) but this sounded awfully cloying--like a poor disabled kid has more rampant imagination than real inspiration. But seeing as I had just finished another book and a day without a book feels like a ship without a compass, I took the book home. I figured I'd give it a chance. Perhaps the authors' last name was just a funny one and the contents would not actually be malarkey.

The book opens with the events of a morning in November 2004, when therapist Kevin Malarkey and his son Alex experienced a devastating car accident. While Kevin escaped virtually unscathed, Alex suffered what is known as an "internal decapitation," meaning his spinal cord was severed from his head. While family, friends, church community, and a number of strangers "coincidentally" on the scene prayed, Alex managed to survive this horrific injury (though hospital staff said they had never seen a child do so). As Alex lay in a coma for two months, hundreds if not thousands of people continued their petitions to God, and further miracles began to occur. But that's not even the crazy part yet. When Alex returned from The Big Sleep and regained the ability to speak--another miracle no one could have hoped for--he brought with him detailed descriptions of where he had been…heaven. The book is structured so that Kevin tells his perspective in longish, narrative chapters endcapped with mini-chapters written by Alex, explaining some of his spiritual experiences.

I was pretty surprised to find that by the end, I believed the entirety of both Kevin and Alex's stories. Now you're probably rolling your eyes at me. And maybe you'll have to read it yourself to fully understand how such a preposterous premise could be totally credible, but allow me to explain my own arrival at this conclusion. First, Kevin makes quite plain that supernatural experiences like miracles, angels, and prophecy were never part of his personal faith prior to the accident and its aftermath. He is as skeptical as he expects anyone reading his book to be. He says he probably wouldn't believe any of this had it not happened to him and his family. Secondly, nothing in the book is unorthodox whatsoever. I never read a chapter--or even a sentence--and went, "Okay, spiritual creepazoid. Done." Lastly, (minor spoiler here) Alex was able to describe vivid details from the scene of the accident, though he was completely unconscious at the time, as well as details of what transpired on the scene after his body had been air-evac-ed to the hospital. To me, this is evidence in favor of his having been in the spirit and out of his body.

Beyond whether or not I believe Alex's supernatural experiences, the take-home point for me in reading this book was that it really stirred up my faith--my faith in the phenomenal power of prayer, my faith in the wonderful place God has prepared for us when we leave this mortal coil. It jarred my memory to realize that angels are real beings who act on behalf of God here on earth. It reminded me that nothing is truly hopeless, and like the woman to the judge in Luke 18, we can and should keep on praying, even when circumstances look impossibly lost.

My only criticisms: Kevin's chapters could have used some editing; he does tend to repeat himself at times and wax a little too profusely on some basic spiritual points. (But hey, the man's not a writer by trade, so that makes it more forgivable.) Also, since Alex's experiences in heaven are primarily what give the book its intrigue factor, I wish he would have shared at greater length about them. Then again, he claims that God instructed him not to share certain details. So if that's the case, I guess I can deal.

All in all, I highly recommend The Boy who Came Back from Heaven. It's a quick read that just may have you marveling at how clear God's intervention in our lives can be, not to mention the incredible future He has planned for those who hope in Him.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I can't believe I'm writing this. Because writing it--and sharing it with others on my blog--means it's real. If I make it public, I might actually have to do it.

What is "it," you ask? I am considering training for a half-marathon.

Pause for half of my brain to screech, "Are you INSANE???" I am not really a runner. In school, I was one of those P.E. weaklings who drag themselves past the finish line of the one-mile run gasping raggedly and asking for last rites. Those kids who chose to do cross country always seemed to me like some pack of deranged animals running in formation--just running, madly running. I didn't get it. Give me a nice, tame, indoor racquet sport. Running is for the crazies.

First of all, it's painful. It's constant movement; no breaks. Over and over, your feet slap down on hard, unforgiving ground. This is Arizona, so usually the sun is turning your skin the color of sweet potato casserole and you're sweating like you're in a Gatorade commercial. Your side starts to cramp. After awhile, your breath feels like it's being squeezed out of you by a rusty accordion. The end. Gee, wasn't that fun?

That's all what I used to think. (And what half of me is clamoring that it still thinks.) But when I worked at the YMCA several years ago, it was highly encouraged that everyone on staff participate in the annual Thanksgiving Turkey Trot 5k. I figured 3.1 miles was a fairly innocuous distance, and it didn't matter if I walked most of it. Then my competitive, perfectionistic edge kicked in. Walking it would be lame, I thought. I'm stronger than that. So I started to train, and by the day of the Trot, I was actually looking forward to the race. When the race began, I was near the back of the 100 or so runners, but then something magical happened. Little by little, I gained ground, passing people I checked in to the Y every day working at the front desk. This gave me a thrill, and I started passing more people. Finally, I was on the last stretch of the race with no one left ahead of me. (I wasn't winning the turkey; there was just a wide open space between me and the next person before me.) My two bosses, whom I loved, picked up the ribbon that had been broken by the winner and held it up for me to break through. Suddenly, everyone started cheering for me. I covered that last stretch in record time and sailed through the ribbon like the real thing. And a runner was born.

Well, for a while. Then I had kids, which stopped me in my tracks--literally. I finally joined a gym early this year, less for the exercise benefits and more for the childcare. I figured I could sit on the recumbent bike for a leisurely thirty-minute reading break while my kids worked out some of their wiggles under someone else's supervision. Enter once more my competitive edge. (If it weren't for competition, I'd probably be 300 pounds.) Seeing so many others pounding it out on the treadmills motivated me, and I started running again, just a little. Then last week I heard the gym is offering a free training program for people who want to do the P.F. Chang's marathon and half-marathon in January. Somehow these words have planted themselves in my brain ever since, and I find myself turning it over in my mind.

Here is why I want to do it:

1. Because I think I can't. I have always said I could never run a really long race. Well, never say never. If I've learned anything in the last few years, it's that the most difficult things in life are the ones that make us grow the most--spiritually, emotionally, and in this case, even physically.

2. Because I supposedly have fibromyalgia. Yes, I was unofficially diagnosed with this in the absence of any other answers for the pain that hops around my muscles like a misguided trolley. Running a half marathon is a way of blowing raspberries in the face of this medical hex. I refuse to allow a scary-sounding five-syllable word to keep me down. My body is capable of this, and I want to prove it to myself and everyone else.

3. Because it's a goal to work toward; it's a great accomplishment. Enough said. Can I put this on my resume?

4. Because it will keep me motivated to continue really exercising. More real workouts and less recumbent biking at mai tai-sipping speed.

5. Because it might actually be fun. When I think back to my Turkey Trot experience, I can still feel the thrill of a crowd cheering, a heart pounding, a good race completed. There is a reason so many people get into marathon running. I know it will be exhilarating.

So, dear reader, with your accountability, I believe I have decided to embark upon this journey. Call me a running fool.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The SLED Test: Not Just a Winter Sport

One of the most valuable sessions I remember attending during RCIA (the program by which adults enter the Catholic Church) was the one on the Church's position on abortion. As a Christian, a parent, and a self-described thinker, I already knew my own stance on abortion. In fact, I served as a volunteer counselor at the Crisis Pregnancy Center in Mesa for about eight months, for which I was required to attend some pretty extensive training on the topic. But until that RCIA session, I had never heard of the SLED test, a four-pronged argument for the unborn's right to life beginning at conception. Perhaps you are already familiar with it; if so, fabulous! But since it was new to me, I thought it might also be new to others, and since I find it an extremely sound argument, I'd like to pass it on. (And to give credit where credit is due, the test was created by author Stephen Schwarz in "The Moral Question of Abortion.")

The basic premise is that those in utero differ from those of us who are "ex utero" in a limited number of ways. We can all (probably) agree that we ex-uterites possess basic human rights, including the right to life. So let's compare ourselves with the in-uterites in these four ways:

S - Size

L - Level of Development

E - Environment

D - Degree of Dependency

Size: A toddler is smaller than me. I am smaller than Shaquille O'Neill. Does Shaq win? Or do all three of us have the same human right to life? Does a fetus or an embryo lack that right because of its size? Because it doesn't have enough cells yet?

Level of Development: An 8-year-old is less physically developed than me. I am less physically developed than Dolly Parton (if you know what I mean). My pre-schooler is less mentally developed than me. I am less mentally developed than Stephen Hawking. Are we going to let Stephen and Dolly live, but not the kids and me? While I'd sort of like to see the two of them ruling the world together, it doesn't make much moral/logical sense. Neither does withholding the right to life from the unborn.

Environment: Did you know that there are modern-day cave dwellers? Wouldn't you say they have the same rights as the mansion-dwellers in Malibu? Or let's think about astronauts in space--do they check their human rights at the atmospheric door? No. So why would we deny someone human rights just because their home happens to be a uterus?

Degree of Dependency: Our government has gone to great lengths to protect the rights of the disabled, who have a different degree of dependency than the rest of us. At one time or another, even as adults, probably all of us have been dependent on others for our very lives. Does it mean we relinquished our rights during those times? Does an embryo/fetus lack the right to life because of its sole dependence on its mother?

Last, I'd like to add that DNA is determined at conception. Even if you consider an embryo "just a clump of cells," it is a clump of cells that is genetically unique. So whenever I hear someone argue pro-choice by saying, "A woman has the right to do what she wants with her own body," my response is, we're not just talking about her body. We're also talking about another genetically unique being within her body. Which some might also have the audacity to call her child.

If you are already pro-life, I hope you find this argument helpful. If you are not, I hope you find it intriguing and (I especially hope) convincing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

One of a kind kid

If you've been a sentient human being for the last, oh, ten years or so, you've probably noticed that there's a certain trend happening in the realm of baby naming. Increasingly, parents are seeking to give their children names that are unique, unusual, even invented. Strange spellings, last names as first names, words spelled backwards to make names (such as "Nevaeh"), opposite gender names, and shameless I-came-up-with-this-stone-drunk names--Brecklyn? Really?--seem to have taken over the market. The percentage of children who are given the top ten names on the U.S. Department of Social Security's list has shrunk significantly in the last several years (and even those top ten reveal the changing nature of baby naming). This article lists several revealing statistics, such as the fact that "in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys' name in 2007."

So what's the deal? Researcher Jean Twenge of San Diego State University theorizes that this trend toward interesting/unusual baby names represents a cultural shift toward ever-increasing individualism, which may have the unfortunate side effect of increased narcissism. And celebrities have clearly paved the way for regular parents to take the plunge and give their kids outlandish names (I give you "Bronx Mowgli Wentz"). Though I am no social psychologist, I've given this topic some thought, and would like to offer some theories of my own.

Those of us who have a common name grew up hating it; it made us feel common and unspecial. Believe me, I am a drop in the river of Sarah Elizabeths that feeds into the ocean of Sarahs. Growing up, kids like me sort of admired those kids with the weird names because they never had to use their last initial or some weird derivative of their name to be identified. They simply were who they were. (In college, I knew a girl named Jessica who went by "Seeca" because as a child, she had been in a carpool in which all the girls were named Jessica. Someone got to be Jessica, someone Jess, another Jessie. Seeca apparently drew the last straw.)

Essentially, we all want to be unique. We want to believe and know that we possess an identity all our own. I am no Generic, Dime-a-Dozen Sarah. I am Sarah Superquirk, Defender of Idiosyncrasy! I do things no one else can do; I think thoughts no one else can think! …Except that I shop at the same stores and eat at the same restaurants as all the other Sarahs (and all the other people, too). And I go to a giant church filled mostly with strangers, just like everybody else. And every new neighborhood I see being built looks exactly the same with the same three floorplans and limited variety of exterior flourishes.

Wait a minute…what if I'm really just like everybody else? What if my child, the extension of myself, is just like every other child being born today?

No, that can't be. MY child will stand out above the sea of Wal-Marts and beige stucco. MY child will be special. And I will show him how special he is by giving him a name--an identity--that will be all his own.

Just like everyone else.

And therein lies the problem (in my opinion) with the unique naming trend. If the majority of children have unusual or unique names, the value of that uniqueness diminishes. If you really want your child to stand out these days, you could really buck the trend by naming him something like Mike or Steve.

At any rate, I don't mean to offend anyone who has given their child an unusual name. Plenty of my friends--probably some of whom have enough grace in their hearts to read this blog--have done so, and their children (like their parents) are wonderful little people. But it isn't their names that make them wonderful and interesting. It is the essential self God has placed in each of them, and the tending and watering of those little souls undertaken by their parents. They will stand out as special people because they are special people who have been cultivated in their upbringing to be unique--not because of what's on their birth certificate.

What's your take? Especially if you've chosen an unusual name for your child?