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Sunday, March 8, 2015

"Ninety Minutes in Heaven" God Is In the Everyday: Book Review

"90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Life and Death" describes a horrific accident that ended the life of Reverend Don Piper in 1989. Piper was driving on a bridge over the Trinity River near Houston, Texas. An 18-wheeler driven by a prisoner with no license crossed the divide and rammed Piper's compact Ford Escort head-on, at an impact speed of 110 miles per hour. Piper's Ford looked like Godzilla had stomped on it – there is a photo in the tenth-anniversary edition of the book.

Four different medical professionals checked Piper for signs of life, including a pulse, and pronounced him dead at the scene. They covered his body with a tarp. They didn't even bother with an ambulance; they ordered transportation to take his corpse to a morgue. Emergency responders left Piper alone for ninety minutes and tended to others, none of whom were hurt enough to go to a hospital.

Traffic was backed up. A Baptist minister got out of his car and asked for permission to pray over Piper. Permission granted, Dick Onerecker prayed over Piper, and began to sing a hymn. Piper began to sing with Onerecker. Onerecker shouted to emergency responders that Piper was alive. They rushed Piper to a hospital.

What they did not know is that Piper had spent those ninety minutes in Heaven. The book describes Heaven very briefly. Piper says that he did not experience what many near death experiencers report. He did not experience leaving his body, floating above his body, or traveling down a tunnel. Piper says that one second he was driving his car; the next second he was in Heaven. Piper reunited with departed friends and relatives, and saw a brilliant and beautiful light, and heard exquisite singing.

Piper did not face a decision about whether or not to return to earth. Equally quickly and without transition, Piper was back in his body. He says he felt no pain at first, but at a certain point in the ambulance, he regained sensation, and the pain was so horrible he begged for pain-killers, which the emergency personnel could not give him, for fear of losing him. He has been in pain ever since that day in 1989.

Piper points out that four medical professionals determined that he had died instantly in the accident, and reviewing his injuries and the photo of the accident, it's easy to see why. Further, Piper says that had his heart been pumping for those ninety minutes, he would have bled to death, his injuries were so extensive. He reports that his experience of Heaven was the most real experience he's ever had.

The bulk of the book consists of a very straight-forward and unadorned account of Piper's recovery from the accident, and how his Christian community responded to him. Piper's injuries were extensive. He was in bed, flat on his back, hospitalized, for an extended period. He was placed in an Ilizarov device to help his body replace one of his leg bones, which, it is guessed, was ejected out of his body into the river below the bridge (since this large bone was never found at the accident scene.)

Piper has lived with constant pain ever since the accident, and there is much he cannot do. He reports, for example, that if someone pats him on the back, he is likely to fall forward, because his legs lack the structure to break his fall. He can't change the position of his elbow or hand on one arm. If nothing else, this book speaks volumes about how much pain people have to endure. One can't read this book without wishing that medicine had developed better pain management.

The other prominent feature of the book is the account of how Piper's Christian community gathered round him and supported him in over-the-top ways. A family took in his daughter. Church members visited him daily in the hospital. Thousands of people on prayer chains prayed for him. Piper appears to be surrounded by one of the most supportive Christian communities one could imagine.  

What most recommends this book to me is its ordinariness. One might think that a book about dying, going to Heaven, and returning to earth would be chock full of arcane wisdom and complicated answers to life's big questions. "Ninety Minutes in Heaven" is not like that at all.

"Ninety Minutes in Heaven" is a very, very simple book. The sentences and the chapters are short. The vocabulary is very basic. An eighth grader could read this book and not miss anything.

The scenes, conversations, and characters of "Ninety Minutes in Heaven" are scenes, conversations and characters that you could experience yourself. A man is in an accident. His body is mangled. He's in horrible pain. He recognizes that he will never have the same body again. His two sons recognize that their father will never teach them to play catch, or fish, or dance, or fix a car. Maybe not even tie a tie. The man becomes horribly depressed. He is sullen and he hurts those trying to help him. Even so, his fellow parishioners refuse to give up on him, and continue to be kind to him.

The man recovers enough that he can walk. He shows kindness to others who have suffered the same injuries he has suffered. He inspires those who are dying of cancer, and parents who have lost sons and daughters in the military. He urges them to have faith in Jesus Christ. They heed his urging, and they find peace.

That's *all* that happens in this book. Piper underplays his experience of Heaven. He emphasizes his imperfect, painful, confusing, mundane, earthly experience.

There's an old story. Tourists arrive in Hell. They see tables set with exquisite, gourmet meals. Yet all the denizens of Hell are starving. The problem is that the only forks they have are very long. Hell's diners spear the food, but can't bring it to their mouths.

The tourists then travel to Heaven. Again, tables set with gourmet meals. Here, the diners are fully satisfied. But! The tourists notice that Heaven also is equipped only with very long forks! The tour guide explains, "In Heaven, we feed each other." 

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