Authors: Todd Burpo,Sonja Burpo,Lynn Vincent,Colton Burpo
Tags: #Near-Death Experiences - Religious Aspects - Christianity, #Heaven, #Inspirational, #Near-Death Experience, #Body; Mind & Spirit, #Religious Aspects, #Christianity, #General, #Religion, #Near-Death Experiences, #Heaven - Christianity, #Christian Life, #Burpo; Colton, #Parapsychology, #Christian Theology, #Eschatology
About the Burpos
About Lynn Vincent
In telling Coltons story, we have been afforded the chance to not just work with dedicated professionals but with real and caring people. Sure, we have been impressed with their expertise, but Sonja and I have been more delighted by their character and their hearts.
Phil McCallum, Joel Kneedler, Lynn Vincent, and Debbie Wickwire have not just invested their own lives into the making of this book; they have also enriched our family. Without their enormous efforts and sensitive spirits, Heaven Is For Real would have never developed so wonderfully.
We thank God daily for assembling these gifted and talented people to help us tell Coltons story. Each one has been a blessing to us.
Sonja and I count it a wonderful privilege to call them our friends.
PROLOGUE Angels at Arbys
The Fourth of July holiday calls up memories of patriotic parades, the savory scents of smoky barbecue, sweet corn, and night skies bursting with showers of light. But for my family, the July Fourth weekend of 2003 was a big deal for other reasons.
My wife, Sonja, and I had planned to take the kids to visit Sonjas brother, Steve, and his family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It would be our first chance to meet our nephew, Bennett, born two months earlier. Plus, our kids, Cassie and Colton, had never been to the falls before. (Yes, there really is a Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls.) But the biggest deal of all was this: this trip would be the first time wed left our hometown of Imperial, Nebraska, since a family trip to Greeley, Colorado, in March had turned into the worst nightmare of our lives.
To put it bluntly, the last time we had taken a family trip, one of our children almost died. Call us crazy, but we were a little apprehensive this time, almost to the point of not wanting to go. Now, as a pastor, Im not a believer in superstition. Still, some weird, unsettled part of me felt that if we just hunkered down close to home, wed be safe. Finally, though, reasonand the lure of meeting little Bennett, whom Steve had told us was the worlds cutest babywon out. So we packed up a weekends worth of paraphernalia in our blue Ford Expedition and got our family ready to head north.
Sonja and I decided the best plan would be to get most of the driving done at night. That way, even though Colton would be strapped into his car seat against his four-year-old, Im-a-big-kid will, at least hed sleep for most of the trip. So it was a little after 8 p.m. when I backed the Expedition out of our driveway, steered past Crossroads Wesleyan Church, my pastorate, and hit Highway 61.
The night spread clear and bright across the plains, a half moon white against a velvet sky. Imperial is a small farming town tucked just inside the western border of Nebraska. With only two thousand souls and zero traffic lights, its the kind of town with more churches than banks, where farmers stream straight off the fields into the family-owned caf at lunchtime, wearing Wolverine work boots, John Deere ball caps, and a pair of pliers for fence-mending hanging off their hips. So Cassie, age six, and Colton were excited to be on the road to the big city of Sioux Falls to meet their newborn cousin.
The kids chattered for ninety miles to the city of North Platte, with Colton fighting action-figure superhero battles and saving the world several times on the way. It wasnt quite 10 p.m. when we pulled into the town of about twenty-four thousand, whose greatest claim to fame is that it was the hometown of the famous Wild West showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. North Platte would be about the last civilized stopor at least the last open stopwed pass that night as we headed northeast across vast stretches of cornfields empty of everything but deer, pheasant, and an occasional farmhouse. We had planned in advance to stop there to top off both the gas tank and our bellies.
After a fill-up at a Sinclair gas station, we pulled out onto Jeffers Street, and I noticed we were passing through the traffic light where, if we turned left, wed wind up at the Great Plains Regional Medical Center. That was where wed spent fifteen nightmarish days in March, much of it on our knees, praying for God to spare Coltons life. God did, but Sonja and I joke that the experience shaved years off our own lives.
Sometimes laughter is the only way to process tough times, so as we passed the turnoff, I decided to rib Colton a little.
Hey, Colton, if we turn here, we can go back to the hospital, I said. Do you wanna go back to the hospital?
Our preschooler giggled in the dark. No, Daddy, dont send me! Send Cassie . . . Cassie can go to the hospital!
In the passenger seat, Sonja turned so that she could see our son, whose car seat was parked behind mine. I pictured his blond crew cut and his sky-blue eyes shining in the dark. Do you remember the hospital, Colton? Sonja said.
Yes, Mommy, I remember, he said. Thats where the angels sang to me.
Inside the Expedition, time froze. Sonja and I looked at each other, passing a silent message: Did he just say what I think he said?
Sonja leaned over and whispered, Has he talked to you about angels before?
I shook my head. You?
She shook her head.
I spotted an Arbys, pulled into the parking lot, and switched off the engine. White light from a street lamp filtered into the Expedition. Twisting in my seat, I peered back at Colton. In that moment, I was struck by his smallness, his little boyness. He was really just a little guy who still spoke with an endearing (and sometimes embarrassing) call-it-like-you-see-it innocence. If youre a parent, you know what I mean: the age where a kid might point to a pregnant woman and ask (very loudly), Daddy, why is that lady so fat? Colton was in that narrow window of life where he hadnt yet learned either tact or guile.
All these thoughts flashed through my mind as I tried to figure how to respond to my four-year-olds simple proclamation that angels had sung to him. Finally, I plunged in: Colton, you said that angels sang to you while you were at the hospital?
He nodded his head vigorously.
What did they sing to you?
Colton turned his eyes up and to the right, the attitude of remembering. Well, they sang Jesus Loves Me and Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho, he said earnestly. I asked them to sing We Will, We Will Rock You, but they wouldnt sing that.
As Cassie giggled softly, I noticed that Coltons answer had been quick and matter-of-fact, without a hint of hesitation.
Sonja and I exchanged glances again. Whats going on? Did he have a dream in the hospital?
And one more unspoken question: What do we say now?
A natural question popped into my head: Colton, what did the angels look like?
He chuckled at what seemed to be a memory. Well, one of them looked like Grandpa Dennis, but it wasnt him, cause Grandpa Dennis has glasses.
Then he grew serious. Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared. They made me feel better.
I glanced at Sonja again and saw that her mouth had dropped open. I turned back to Colton. You mean Jesus was there?
Well, where was Jesus?
Colton looked me right in the eye. I was sitting in Jesus lap.
If there are Stop buttons on conversations, that was one of them right there. Astonished into speechlessness, Sonja and I looked at each other and passed another silent telegram: Okay, we really need to talk about this.
We all piled out of the Expedition and trooped into Arbys, emerging a few minutes later with a bag of grub. In between, Sonja and I exchanged whispers.
Do you think he really saw angels?
I dont know.
Was it a dream?
I dont knowhe seems so sure.
Back in the SUV, Sonja passed out roast beef sandwiches and potato cakes, and I ventured another question.
Colton, where were you when you saw Jesus?
He looked at me as if to say, Didnt we just talk about this?
At the hospital. You know, when Dr. OHolleran was working on me.
Well, Dr. OHolleran worked on you a couple of times, remember? I said. Colton had both an emergency appendectomy and then an abdominal clean-out in the hospital, and later we had taken Colton to have some keloid scarring removed, but that was at Dr. OHollerans office. Are you sure it was at the hospital?
Colton nodded. Yeah, at the hospital. When I was with Jesus, you were praying, and Mommy was talking on the phone.
That definitely meant he was talking about the hospital. But how in the world did he know where we had been?
But you were in the operating room, Colton, I said. How could you know what we were doing?
Cause I could see you, Colton said matter-of-factly. I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. And I saw you and Mommy. You were in a little room by yourself, praying; and Mommy was in a different room, and she was praying and talking on the phone.
That was all the information I could handle at that point. I started the engine, steered the Expedition back onto the street, and pointed us toward South Dakota. As I hit I-80, pasturelands unrolled on either side, dotted here and there with duck ponds that glinted in the moonlight. By then, it was very late, and soon everyone else was snoozing as planned.
As the road hummed underneath me, I marveled at the things I had just heard. Our little boy had said some pretty incredible stuffand he had backed it up with credible information, things there was no way he could have known. We had not told him what we were doing while he was in surgery, under anesthesia, apparently unconscious.
Over and over, I kept asking myself, How could he have known? But by the time we rolled across the South Dakota state line, I had another question: Could this be real?
ONE THE CRAWL-A-SEE-UM
The family trip when our nightmare began was supposed to be a celebration. In early March 2003, I was scheduled to travel to Greeley, Colorado, for a district board meeting of the Wesleyan church. Beginning the August before, our family had traveled a rocky road: seven months of back-to-back injury and illness that included a shattered leg, two surgeries, and a cancer scare, all of which combined to drain our bank account to the point where I could almost hear sucking sounds when the statements came in the mail. My small pastors salary hadnt been affected, but our financial mainstay was the overhead garage door business we owned. Our medical trials had taken a heavy toll.
By February, though, we seemed to be on the other side of all that. Since I had to travel anyway, we decided to turn the board-meeting trip into a kind of marker in our family lifea time to have a little fun, revive our minds and spirits, and start moving forward again with fresh hope.
Sonja had heard of a neat place for kids to visit just outside Denver called the Butterfly Pavilion. Billed as an invertebrate zoo, the Butterfly Pavilion opened in 1995 as an educational project that would teach people about the wonders of insects as well as marine critters, the kinds that live in tide pools. These days, kids are greeted outside the zoo by a towering and colorful metal sculpture of a praying mantis. But back in 2003, the giant insect hadnt taken up his post yet, so the low brick building about fifteen minutes from downtown Denver didnt shout Kid appeal! on the outside. But inside, a world of wonders waited, especially for kids Coltons and Cassies ages.
The first place we stopped was the Crawl-A-See-Um, a room filled with terrariums housing creepy-crawly critters from beetles to roaches to spiders. One exhibit, the Tarantula Tower, drew Cassie and Colton like a magnet. This stack of terrariums was, exactly as advertised, a tower of glassed-in habitats containing the kind of furry, thick-legged spiders that either fascinate you or give you the willies.
Cassie and Colton took turns climbing a three-step folding stool in order to get a look at the residents of the Tarantula Towers upper stories. In one terrarium, a Mexican blonde tarantula squatted in a corner, its exoskeleton covered with what the exhibit placard described as hair in a lovely pale color. Another habitat contained a red-and-black tarantula native to India. One of the scarier-looking residents was a skeleton tarantula, so named because its black legs were segmented with white bands so that the spider looked a little like an Xray in reverse. We later heard that this particular skeleton tarantula was a bit of a rebel: once, she had somehow engineered a jailbreak, invaded the habitat next door, and eaten her neighbor for lunch.
As Colton hopped up on the footstool to see what the rogue tarantula looked like, he glanced back at me with a grin that warmed me. I could feel my neck muscles begin to unknot, and somewhere inside me a pressure valve released, the emotional equivalent of a long sigh. For the first time in months, I felt I could simply enjoy my family.
Wow, look at that one! Cassie said, pointing into one of the terrariums. A slightly gangly six-year-old, my daughter was as smart as a whip, a trait she got from her mom. Cassie was pointing to the exhibit sign, which read: Goliath Birdeater . . . females can be over eleven inches long.
The one in this tank was only about six inches long, but its body was as thick as Coltons wrist. He stared through the glass wide-eyed. I looked over and saw Sonja wrinkle her nose.
I guess one of the volunteer zookeepers saw her expression, too, because he quickly came to the birdeaters defense. The Goliath is from South America, he said in a friendly, educational tone that said, Theyre not as yucky as you think. Tarantulas from North and South America are very docile. You can even hold one right over there. He pointed to where another zookeeper was holding a smaller tarantula in his palm so that a group of kids could take a closer look.
Cassie darted across the room to see what all the fuss was about, with Sonja, Colton, and me bringing up the rear. In a corner of the room decorated to look like a bamboo hut, the keeper was displaying the undisputed star of the Crawl-A-See-Um, Rosie the Spider. A rose-haired tarantula from South America, Rosie was a furry arachnid with a plum-size body and legs six inches long, thick as pencils. But the best thing about Rosie from a kids point of view was that if you were brave enough to hold her, even for a moment, the zookeeper would award you with a sticker.
Now, if you have little kids, you already know that there are times theyd rather have a good sticker than a handful of cash. And this sticker was special: white with a picture of a tarantula stamped in yellow, it read, I held Rosie!
This wasnt just any old sticker; this was a badge of courage!
Cassie bent low over the keepers hand. Colton looked up at me, blue eyes wide. Can I have a sticker, Daddy?
You have to hold Rosie to get a sticker, buddy.
At that age, Colton had this precious way of talking, part-serious, part-breathless, golly-gee wonder. He was a smart, funny little guy with a black-and-white way of looking at life. Something was either fun (LEGOs) or it wasnt (Barbies). He either liked food (steak) or hated it (green beans). There were good guys and bad guys, and his favorite toys were good-guy action figures. Superheroes were a big deal to Colton. He took his Spider-Man, Batman, and Buzz Lightyear action figures with him everywhere he went. That way, whether he was stuck in the backseat of the SUV, in a waiting room, or on the floor at the church, he could still create scenes in which the good guys saved the world. This usually involved swords, Coltons favorite weapon for banishing evil. At home, he could be the superhero. Id often walk into the house and find Colton armed to the teeth, a toy sword tucked through each side of his belt and one in each hand: Im playing Zorro, Daddy! Wanna play?