In 2000 Christian Reader magazine asked judges to identify the "best Christian biographies/autobiographies of this past century." Two of the top five choices --- David Wilkerson's The Cross and the Switchblade and Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place --- were collaboratively written with Elizabeth Sherrill and her husband John.
And now, to quote Philip Yancey's cover-copy endorsement, "The master ghostwriter steps from the shadows at last!" In her mid-seventies, Sherrill deftly relates her own spiritual journey, hanging her narrative on an intriguing line written by the 14th-century saint, Catherine of Siena: "All the way to heaven is heaven, for He [Jesus] said, ‘I am the Way.'"
On page one Sherrill sets the stage: "This book is about discovery....It's the story of how heaven, which I used to think of as an imaginary realm-in-the-sky, has become more real to me than the ground beneath my feet. Real in the past, real for the future, and best of all, real right now." The book's three-part frame --- heaven behind me; around me; before me --- contains short (one- to four-page) titled segments that draw the reader more or less chronologically through Sherrill's life. (It's hard to find the right word for the topical pieces; they aren't devotionals or reflections, and, not being numbered, they don't feel like chapters.)
Though the theme of heaven is hammered too hard, this is a deeply moving book, and the magic of the story is in its masterful prose. This woman, known for recounting dramatic spiritual turning points, here gently recounts the story of her gradual journey from skepticism --- even while writing those conversion stories, initially for Guideposts magazine --- toward Christian faith and joy. "I'm sorry that it took me more than thirty years to meet this God who walks at our side."
Raised a nominal Unitarian, setting out to be an objective journalist, she kept herself at an arm's length from God. As for her relationships with other people, she deftly weaves a description of personal contradictions: feeling intellectually superior to people of faith and yet inferior to people who seemed to have it all together. In the 1950s, the decade of the mythical happy homemaker, she was incapacitated by depression and agoraphobia. "It was simply inconceivable to me that I had value for anyone," even her young children. "The memory [John] can't shake...is of coming home from [work] each night to find me in that attic bed, face turned to the wall."
One point of Elizabeth's narrative is that God can and does meet us where we are, as we are. In 1959, after a few unsatisfactory forays to local churches --- for the children's sake --- she and John set out to look for "an unfriendly church." And God answered the request of their hearts. "John and I, fugitives from fellowshipping Christians, running scared of people with designs on our souls, made the acquaintance of this God Sunday after Sunday in that stone-pillared space where God permitted no one to invite us to a church supper, no one to ask me to sew, no one to speak to us at all."
That's on page 94. And by page 148, reflecting on a friend's casual "Have you been saved?" question, Sherrill writes, "For the very first time in my life, I heard the question….The phrase that had once made me too angry to listen [now] was an inclusive, not a divisive one. My name on a place card at a glorious feast. I heard the word saved, and it sounded like loved." By page 194, Sherrill is talking of "saints" she has been privileged to know --- Wilkerson, Ten Boom, Catherine Marshall --- and she says they were all "complex, gutsy, many-faceted folks, full of contrasts and contradictions. They get angry, they get tired, they get discouraged and confused and out of sorts. They're not absolutely anything, except absolutely sure of God's strength and their own weakness." Of course she doesn't name herself on the holy list, but I think she might well be among the sainted.
This isn't a book for people who need easy formulas. But what a delight for seekers all along the way to heaven.
Reviewed by Evelyn Bence on December 1, 2002