I was first introduced to Amy Hollingsworth’s writing with a book that was so popular that it was sold at Walmart: The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers. This book is clearly a labor of love. Amy was blessed to become a friend and pen pal of the favorite neighbor that everyone would have enjoyed knowing.
Her more recent book, Runaway Radical: A Young Man’s Reckless Journey to Save the World, is coauthored by her son, Jonathan Hollingsworth. In stark contrast to the love on each page of Mister Rogers, Runaway Radical is filled with angst, difficulty and hard fought lessons.
The narrative, based upon the personal experiences of Jonathan, opens with his eagerness to live out his faith and show his devotion for God (and His people). This passion inspires him to minister to the homeless, give away many of his possessions, shave his head and sleep on the floor of his room as an act of asceticism. He seems to grow in his walk with Christ (he is a Protestant, but his denomination is not ever mentioned) as he makes these sacrifices and performs acts of kindness. Yet, he is still pushed forward to do more, so he plans a year of missionary work in Africa and gives away the last of his remaining possessions in preparation for the journey. He felt certain that his previous offerings to God were not enough, therefore this grand act of sacrifice was obedience, such as was requested by Christ of the rich young ruler who did not do as instructed, but rather went away sad.
The extent of Jonathan’s sacrifice and commitment was huge, and he was confident that it would equal success. Imagine his surprise when he arrived on African soil and his desires and plans did not pan out as he had hoped. Circumstances can be bad in such a difficult place, but perhaps the worst assault to his hope was the betrayal of those he had trusted to assist him in his mission – both in Africa and back home.
In our culture, we are taught that the right effort will yield the right results. Surely, God honors such profound sacrifice. So how does a young man cope with failure and betrayal when he has done everything possible toward a mission that should have been successful?
Both Jonathan and Amy effectively engage the reader in understanding how heartbreaking the experience was for both of them. We are brought fully into their pain and helplessness. Most of us can likely see ourselves in part of their journey, remembering a time we thought we did just the right thing, and yet, we failed, only to dig our heels in and try harder, only to ultimately fail. As I write this column, my mind goes back to that moment in my life where I was so sure that I had God on my side. I was confident that I would succeed once He saw my commitment and how badly I wanted to succeed, and yet failure dogged me.
I was pulled into the story of these authors’ experiences. However, as the lessons that God had for the authors (and the other 2 members of their family) started to become clear, I was struck with the realization that God has things He needs to teach us. Even though the lessons are the same, our uniqueness as individuals means that He must use completely different methods and circumstances to teach us these lessons. Amy and Jonathan’s newfound understandings were lessons that life has also taught me. As I read, I often nodded in agreement, folding corners of the pages where the lessons are explained. I thought, ”Oh, yes, I agree totally; I learned that when . . . (something other than a mission trip to Africa)”. For me, sharing our experiences and learning from one another is the value of spiritual memoirs. We can better understand the lessons God teaches us when we can also see the same lesson taught to other people in different circumstances.
Jonathan’s biggest take away lesson from it all centers around legalism vs. grace. He came to recognize that his flawed perception sent him on a tangent in the wrong direction – like traveling with a broken compass. This insight fascinated me as a Catholic, because “legalism” is something that we often get accused of in our Church. I get so used to defending “us” on the topic, I didn’t realize that it sneaks into the thinking of other Christians in a myriad of ways, and Jonathan does an excellent job of explaining the pitfalls.
Amy shared many things she learned – some spiritual and some practical things. One issue she dealt with was in trying to parent young adults through life difficulties. I have 3 young adult children, and I sometimes feel this task is completely beyond my capability. I felt a great kinship with her struggle and growth.
While not a major focus, I also found the topic of vocation / discerning God’s direction, a fascinating topic in the book. Each of us need to learn to discern God’s will for our lives and figuring out how to do that is important for everyone. Some people ARE supposed to go to Africa and feed poor children, while some are supposed to be moms in Kansas and some are supposed to be mechanics in Cleveland. Just because God leads another person to their vocation, it doesn’t mean that same vocation is destined for me. I fell into the flawed side of this thinking for a while when I tried to leave nursing to pursue something that failed spectacularly. As I read about Jonathan’s experience in Africa, I nodded my head and said “Oh, yes, I agree totally. I learned that when God lead me to be a bereavement nurse in Virginia.”