I have never been one to worry or really even think all that much about what Heaven is going to be like. I trust that Jesus’ death and resurrection has taken care of getting me (and the rest of humanity) in the gates, and that is where my concerns really stop. As a hospital chaplain, I was asked a number of times, and never really offered an answer satisfactory to patients. I mused about it being filled with love, focusing more on abstract feelings and about heaven breaking in little by little on earth, rather than concrete facts. The Bible offers us a couple of suggestions, but does not include a step-by-step experience guide. We also have had many painting, stories, movies, and jokes offer up their two cents, but to me it never really mattered all that much about what St. Peter does at the pearly gates or what our bodies will look like. That is… until I read Todd Burpo’s book Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.
The book chronicles the heart-wrenching ordeal that the Burpo family went through that led to their very young son have emergency surgery and ultimately a years-long piece-meal story about Colton’s visit to heaven while under anesthesia. The story highlights the power of faith, prayer, and personal witness (even when you are only three years old).
I cannot say that I am 100% convinced that heaven will be for me exactly as Colton describes, but the book did reset my focus on the future part of eternal life. I tend to focus on the now part; that is doing God’s work to in-break the kingdom of heaven here and now – overcoming poverty, homelessness, suffering, discrimination, and hate. But to do so, to only pay attention to “half” of the promise of eternal life, is to discount God’s love and Jesus’ sacrifice.
The book also has a great focus of the power and purity of the faith of children. The simple ways that Colton is able to express, normally thought to be complex, theological principles for which I spent years of seminary trying to find adequate words is amazing. Todd suggests that “childlike humility is not the lack of intelligence, but the lack of guile. The lack of agenda. It’s that precious fleeting time before we have accumulated enough pride or position to care what other people might think […] it is intellectual honesty: to be willing to accept reality and to call things what they are even when it is hard” (74-5).
Throughout the book, I struggled with how Todd talked about prayers being answered. I do trust that God hears our prayers, but I get nervous when someone claims that things turned out well because their prayers were answered, because what does that mean for the person who prays, but does not get the requested outcome. This simply brings up too many questions that I cannot answer. However, he does make a great point of God’s ability to handle our anger, confusion, and yelling – “And Jesus answered my prayers? Personally? After I had yelled at God, chastising him, questioning his wisdom and his faithfulness? Why would God even answer a prayer like that? And how did I deserve his mercy?” (81) Exactly! We do not deserve or earn God’s mercy, it is a free gift, and that is why I do not concern myself with too many of the specifics.
God is “really, really big”: the Father loves us, Jesus “died on the cross so we could go see his Dad,” the Spirit empowers us, our prayers are heard, and heaven is for real (100 & 111)! Amen!