01 October 2011

Conversations :: "Have you read Heaven is for Real?"

A new disclaimer: Time for a change of pace! This post is making it into the "Conversations" series not because I've had any awkward or strained conversations where this book is concerned, but because the topic has come up frequently in personal conversations since the book has gained popularity. I thought I'd answer it here and let you all know what my personal response was. The series will conclude tomorrow on  a more uplifting note with a post about the things people said and did right.

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This was a title that was recommended to me multiple times by friends and family members (and most of the time with great enthusiasm), and not without good cause! If you’re not familiar with this title, Heaven is For Real is the account of a boy named Colton who, as three-year old, was near death with appendicitis. As he was in surgery, he reports leaving his body and going to heaven. He meets Jesus, St. Peter, angels, a sister lost to miscarriage, and a great-grandfather who died years before he was born. In the months and years following his experience, he recounts his experience in detail to his parents.

I have, in fact, read the book. I picked it up at Costco one afternoon shortly before making the Florida-bound drive and a few days later, curled up on the couch and read it in a single sitting. I agree with many that it would be well nigh impossible for a three-year-old to concoct tales of heaven with the level of detail that he did. He never knew about a miscarried sibling (who he says is a sister), nor would he have been able later to pick out his great-grandfather (a man who had died years before he was born) out of a family photo where he is a man in younger middle-age. That being said, it is also the case that I do have a hard time accepting certain elements of the story as legitimate. Even so, it reminds me of how God often uses the small and weak things of this world to humble the wise.

While it is true that I’m glad I read it, and that I believe this little boy’s testimony has encouraged and inspired many people, it was not quite the runaway hit with me as it has been with others. It didn't grab me, and it didn’t give me a hope I didn’t already possess. It didn’t make me believe anything for the first time. Please allow me to explain.

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A son and his mama, confronting her hope in a dark place
(Photo by Mary Combs)

I’ve shared before that on the night Ewan died, I thought of the story in the Gospels where Jesus is speaking with Mary and Martha just before he raises Lazarus from the dead. He says pointedly to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe I can do this?” Martha answers in the affirmative. She believes Jesus has the power to raise her brother from the dead. It's one of those moments in the Gospels where, in the space of an instant, everything in the world pauses and everyone holds their breath waiting for the answer. I had a moment just like that in Ewan's hospital room.

After several hours of sitting in that quiet room with just James and my son, the machines barely making enough sound to be called a hum, I felt like Jesus was looking me in the eye and asking me the same question. Before all of this had happened, I had no reason to doubt that anything I had believed to be true was in fact true. I professed it every Sunday in the Creed.

In that moment, however, it was just me and Jesus, holding my hands and looking me straight and unblinking in the eyes and saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you, Kirsten – do you believe I can do this?”

The question was not if I would affirm it on a Sunday. The question was not if I could recount the correct Sunday School answer. The question was if I -- standing alone in this moment with my dying child in my arms -- believed that He could raise my son from the dead.

I looked at my son and shut my eyes tight for a second. I had no doubts before this moment, honestly -- but as I was staring death in the face and getting ready to see what happened to him when the last machine was shut off, I had to answer that question for me and I had to answer for real. This wasn't theoretical. This wasn’t just a statement, no mere string of words. This was life and death, and it was personal. This was my son, my firstborn. I had to know for certain that there was a place called heaven where Ewan would go, and a someday that nobody knows when, when the body will be raised to life perfected. I looked at my son and wondered what he might be like with a perfect body raised to life with that beautiful soul of his.

And in a moment of tremendous grace, I told Jesus, “Yes. Yes, I believe you can do this.”

The only reason I was able to let them shut off any of those machines in that moment is because even when I was faced with the possibility of losing my son, I could give him up with the faith that this was not really the end.

And so while this little boy’s testimony about heaven is one that I, on the whole, believe happened (and like I said earlier, some particular elements excepted), it didn’t give me a hope I didn’t already have. That hope and I -- whose foundation had been slowly built upon for months and years before that moment -- stared each other down in a quiet room in Seattle Children's Hospital nearly a year ago. I may not have seen heaven myself, but I think I touched the edge of it that night as Ewan passed from this life and into the next. And I know for real that Ewan is there.

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Conversation Time!

Given the diversity of backgrounds and experiences represented in the Team Ewan community on Facebook, I know there are going to be a variety of faith and personal beliefs represented. Feel free to answer without fear of discrimination or judgment. What I'd like to know from everyone is what has inspired you or given you hope in the face of personal catastrophe, loss, or ongoing challenges? What was that glimmer of light in a dark place for you? Whether or not it has to do with motherhood or your children is entirely up to you.