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
Colton must have heard Sonja and me discussing the upcoming service because he walked into the front room one morning and tugged on my shirttail. Daddy, whats a funeral?
I had done several funerals at church since Colton was born, but he was at that age where he was starting to become more interested in how and why things work.
Well, buddy, a funeral happens when someone dies. A man here in town died, and his family is coming to the church to say good-bye to him.
Instantly, Coltons demeanor changed. His face fell into serious lines, and he stared fiercely into my eyes. Did the man have Jesus in his heart?
My son was asking me whether the man who had died was a Christian who had accepted Christ as his Savior. But his intensity caught me off guard. Im not sure, Colton, I said. I didnt know him very well.
Coltons face bunched up in a terrible twist of worry. He had to have Jesus in his heart! He had to know Jesus or he cant get into heaven!
Again, his intensity surprised me, especially since he didnt even know this man. I tried to comfort him as best I could. Ive talked to some of the family members, and they told me he did, I said.
Colton didnt seem entirely convinced, but his face relaxed a bit. Well . . . okay, he said and walked away.
For the second time in a couple of weeks, I thought, Man, those Sunday school teachers sure are doing a good job!
That weekend, Sonja dressed Cassie and Colton in their Sunday best, and we headed the half block down to the church to get ready for the funeral. As we pulled up in the SUV, I saw the Liewer Funeral Home hearse parked outside. Inside, we found the burnished oak casket standing off to one side of the foyer.
Two sets of open doorways led from the foyer into the sanctuary where the family was gathering for the flower service. Before moving to Imperial, Id never heard of a flower service, but now I think its a really nice idea. The family gathers before the funeral service, and the funeral director points out each plant, wreath, and flower arrangement, explains who sent it, and reads aloud any message of sympathy attached. (These beautiful purple azaleas come to you in loving memory from the Smith family.)
The pastor is supposed to be in the flower service. I peeked into the sanctuary and caught the funeral directors eye. He nodded, indicating they were ready to begin. I turned to gather Colton and Cassie, when Colton pointed to the casket. Whats that, Daddy?
I tried to keep it simple. Thats the casket. The man who died is inside it.
Suddenly, Coltons face gathered into that same knot of intense concern. He slammed his fists on his thighs, then pointed one finger at the casket and said in a near shout, Did that man have Jesus?!
Sonjas eyes popped wide, and we both glanced at the sanctuary doorway, terrified the family inside could hear our son.
He had to! He had to! Colton went on. He cant get into heaven if he didnt have Jesus in his heart!
Sonja grabbed Colton by the shoulders and tried to shush him. But he was not shushable. Now nearly in tears, Colton twisted in her arms and yelled at me, He had to know Jesus, Dad!
Sonja steered him away from the sanctuary, hustling him toward the front doors of the church, with Cassie following. Through the glass doors, I could see Sonja bent down talking to Cassie and Colton outside. Then Cassie took her still-struggling brother by the hand and started walking the half block toward home.
I didnt know what to think. Where was this sudden concern over whether a stranger was saved, whether he had Jesus in his heart, as Colton put it, coming from?
TWELVE EYEWITNESS TO HEAVEN
It wasnt until four months after Coltons surgery, during our Fourth of July trip to meet our new nephew, that Sonja and I finally got a clue that something extraordinary had happened to our son. Sure, there had been a string of quirky things Colton had said and done since the hospital. Coltons insisting we pay Dr. OHolleran because Jesus used the doctor to help fix him. His statement that Jesus told him he had to be good. And his strenuous, almost vehement funeral performance. But rushing by as brief scenes in the busyness of family life, those things just seemed . . . well, kind of cute. Except for the funeral thing, which was just plain weird.
But not supernatural weird. It wasnt until we were driving through North Platte on the way to South Dakota that the lights came on. Youll remember I was teasing Colton a little as we drove through town.
Hey, Colton, if we turn here, we can go back to the hospital, I said. Do you wanna go back to the hospital?
It was that conversation in which Colton said that he went up out of his body, that he had spoken with angels, and had sat in Jesus lap. And the way we knew he wasnt making it up was that he was able to tell us what we were doing in another part of the hospital: 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.
Not even Sonja had seen me in that little room, having my meltdown with God.
Suddenly, there in the Expedition on our holiday trip, the incidents of the past few months clicked into place like the last few quick twists in a Rubiks Cube solution: Sonja and I realized that this was not the first time Colton had let us know something amazing had happened to him; it was only the most clear-cut.
By the time we got to Sioux Falls, we were so busy getting to know our cute baby nephew, catching up on family news, and visiting the waterfall that we didnt have a lot of time to discuss Coltons strange revelations. But during the quiet moments before sleep, a flood of images tumbled through my mindespecially those horrible moments Id spent in that tiny room at the hospital, raging against God. I thought I had been alone, pouring out my anger and grief in private. Staying strong for Sonja. But my son said he had seen me . . .
Our mini-vacation passed without any new disasters, and we returned to Imperial in time for me to preach on Sunday. The following week, Sonja and her friend Sherri Schoenholz headed to Colorado Springs for the Pikes Peak Worship Festival, a conference on church music ministry. That left just me and the kids at home.
Like any prudent tornado-belt family, we have a basement below our one-story home. Ours is semifinished, with a small office and a bathroom that lead off a large, multipurpose, rumpus room area. Colton and I were down there one evening, as I worked on a sermon against the comforting background of my preschoolers action-figure war.
Colton was three years and ten months old at the time of his surgery, but in May we had celebrated his birthday, so he was now officially four. A big boy. The little party we had thrown was all the more special since wed nearly lost him.
I dont remember exactly what day of the week it was when Colton and I were hanging out in the basement. But I do remember that it was evening and that Cassie wasnt there, so she mustve been spending the night with a friend. As Colton played nearby, my attention drifted to our Arbys conversation about Jesus and the angels. I wanted to probe deeper, get him talking again. At that age, little boys dont exactly come up and offer you long, detailed histories. But they will answer direct questions, usually with direct answers. If Colton really had a supernatural encounter, I certainly didnt want to ask him leading questions. We had taught Colton about our faith all his life. But if he had really seen Jesus and the angels, I wanted to become the student, not the teacher!
Sitting at my makeshift desk, I looked over at my son as he brought Spider-Man pouncing down on some nasty-looking creature from Star Wars. Hey, Colton, I said. Remember when we were in the car and you talked about sitting on Jesus lap?
Still on his knees, he looked up at me. Yeah.
Well, did anything else happen?
He nodded, eyes bright. Did you know that Jesus has a cousin? Jesus told me his cousin baptized him.
Yes, youre right, I said. The Bible says Jesus cousins name is John.
Mentally, I scolded myself: Dont offer information. Just let him talk . . .
I dont remember his name, Colton said happily, but he was really nice.
Just as I was processing the implications of my sons statementthat he had met John the BaptistColton spied a plastic horse among his toys and held it up for me to look at. Hey, Dad, did you know Jesus has a horse?
Yeah, a rainbow horse. I got to pet him. Theres lots of colors.
Lots of colors? What was he talking about?
Where are there lots of colors, Colton?
In heaven, Dad. Thats where all the rainbow colors are.
That set my head spinning. Suddenly I realized that up until that point, Id been toying with the idea that maybe Colton had had some sort of divine visitation. Maybe Jesus and the angels had appeared to him in the hospital. Id heard of similar phenomena many times when people were as near death as Colton had been. Now it was dawning on me that not only was my son saying he had left his body; he was saying he had left the hospital!
You were in heaven? I managed to ask.
Well, yeah, Dad, he said, as if that fact should have been perfectly obvious.
I had to take a break. I stood and bounded up the stairs, picked up the phone, and dialed Sonjas cell. She picked up and I could hear music and singing in the background. Do you know what your son just said to me?!
What? she shouted over the noise.
He told me he met John the Baptist!
I summarized the rest for her and could hear the amazement in her voice on the other end of the line.
She tried to press me for details, but the worship conference hall was too loud. Finally we had to give up. Call me tonight after dinner, okay? Sonja said. I want to know everything!
I hung up and leaned against the kitchen counter, processing. Slowly, I began to wrap my mind around the possibility that this was real. Had our son died and come back? The medical staff never gave any indication of that. But clearly, something had happened to Colton. He had authenticated that by telling us things he couldnt have known. It dawned on me that maybe wed been given a gift and that our job now was to unwrap it, slowly, carefully, and see what was inside.
Back downstairs, Colton was still on his knees, bombing aliens. I sat down beside him.
Hey, Colton, can I ask you something else about Jesus?
He nodded but didnt look up from his devastating attack on a little pile of X-Men.
Abruptly, Colton put down his toys and looked up at me. Jesus has markers.
Markers, Daddy . . . Jesus has markers. And he has brown hair and he has hair on his face, he said, running his tiny palm around on his chin. I guessed that he didnt yet know the word beard. And his eyes . . . oh, Dad, his eyes are so pretty!
As he said this, Coltons face grew dreamy and far away, as if enjoying a particularly sweet memory.
What about his clothes?
Colton snapped back into the room and smiled at me. He had purple on. As he said this, Colton put his hand on his left shoulder, moved it across his body down to his right hip then repeated the motion. His clothes were white, but it was purple from here to here.
Another word he didnt know: sash.
Jesus was the only one in heaven who had purple on, Dad. Did you know that?
In Scripture, purple is the color of kings. A verse from the gospel of Mark flashed through my mind: His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them.1
And he had this gold thing on his head . . . Colton chirped on enthusiastically. He put both hands on top of his head in the shape of a circle.
Like a crown?
Yeah, a crown, and it had this . . . this diamond thing in the middle of it and it was kind of pink. And he has markers, Dad.
My mind reeled. Here Id thought I was leading my child gently down this conversational path but instead, hed grabbed the reins and galloped away. Images from Scripture tumbled through my mind. The Christophany, or manifestation of Christ, in the book of Daniel, the appearance of the King of kings in Revelation. I was amazed that my son was describing Jesus in pretty much human termsthen amazed that I was amazed, since our whole faith revolves around the idea that man is made in Gods image and Jesus both came to earth and returned to heaven as a man.
I knew by heart all the Bible stories wed read him over the years, many from the Arch series, Bible storybooks Id had as a child. And I knew our churchs Sunday school lessons and how simplified they are in the preschool years: Jesus loves you. Be kind to others. God is good. If you could get a preschooler to take away just one three- or four-word concept on Sunday mornings, that was a huge accomplishment.
Now here was my kid, in his matter-of-fact, preschooler voice, telling me things that were not only astonishing on their face, but that also matched Scripture in every detail, right down to the rainbow colors described in the book of Revelation,2 which is hardly preschool material. And as he babbled, Colton asked me, his pastor-dad, every so often, Did you know that?
And Im thinking, Yeah, but how do you know it?
I sat in silence for a few moments as Colton resumed his bombing campaign. As would become a pattern for the next couple of years, I sat there and tried to figure out what to ask him next. I thought through what he had said so far . . . John the Baptist, Jesus and his clothes, rainbows, horses. I got all that. But what about the markers? What did Colton mean when he said Jesus has markers?
What are markers to a little kid?
Suddenly, I had it. Colton, you said Jesus had markers. You mean like markers that you color with?
Like when you color a page?
Well, what color are Jesus markers?
Red, Daddy. Jesus has red markers on him.
At that moment, my throat nearly closed with tears as I suddenly understood what Colton was trying to say. Quietly, carefully, I said, Colton, where are Jesus markers?
Without hesitation, he stood to his feet. He held out his right hand, palm up and pointed to the center of it with his left. Then he held out his left palm and pointed with his right hand. Finally, Colton bent over and pointed to the tops of both his feet.
Thats where Jesus markers are, Daddy, he said.
I drew in a sharp breath. He saw this. He had to have.
We know where the nails were driven when Jesus was crucified, but you dont spend a lot of time going over those gruesome facts with toddlers and preschoolers. In fact, I didnt know if my son had ever seen a crucifix. Catholic kids grow up with that image, but Protestant kids, especially young ones, just grow up with a general concept: Jesus died on the cross.
I was also struck by how quickly Colton answered my questions. He spoke with the simple conviction of an eyewitness, not the carefulness of someone remembering the right answers learned in Sunday school or from a book.
Colton, Im going up to get some water, I said, really only wanting to exit the conversation. Whether or not he was done, I was done. I had enough information to chew on.
Okay, Daddy, Colton said and bent to his toys.
Upstairs, in the kitchen, I leaned against the counter and sipped from a water bottle. How could my little boy know this stuff?
I knew he wasnt making it up. I was pretty sure neither Sonja nor I had ever talked to Colton about what Jesus wore at all, much less what he might be wearing in heaven. Could he have picked up such a detail from the Bible stories we read to the kids? More of Coltons knowledge about our faith came from that than from a month of Sundays. But again, the stories in the Bible storybooks we read to him were very narrative-oriented, and just a couple of hundred words each. Not at all heavy on details, like Jesus wearing white (yet Scripture says he did). And no details on what heaven might be like.
I took another sip of water and racked my brain about the cousin thing and the markers. He didnt get that stuff from us. But even on the details I didnt understand at first, like the markers, Colton was insistent. And there was another thing about the markers that nagged at me. When I asked Colton what Jesus looked like, that was the first detail he popped out with. Not the purple sash, the crown, or even Jesus eyes, with which Colton was clearly enchanted. Hed said, right off the bat, Jesus has markers.
Id once heard a spiritual riddle that went like this: Whats the only thing in heaven thats the same as it was on earth?
The answer: the wounds in Jesus hands and feet.
Maybe it was true.
THIRTEEN LIGHTS AND WINGS