Heaven Is For Real by Todd Burpo is a short and sweet book that was gifted to me recently (well. semi-recently) by one of my girlfriends. She read it herself and knowing that I enjoy reading about first hand experiences with heaven - particularly since we lost Henry - thought it would bring me some comfort... and she was right.
For starters, I loved the book. I loved the story and the experience, and the fact that this family did not have to go through the experience of losing a child. Praise God for that! I enjoyed reading Colton's account of his visit to heaven and the comical way in which his dad related the stories as bits and pieces of the experience was revealed to them.
The struggle I have with this book (and others like it) is that it leans heavily on the fact that God answered their prayers and saved their child. While I am eternally grateful that He did that for ANY family, there is a part of me that always asks... why not mine? The book talks about how the family was prayerful and the church held special prayer vigils and so on and so forth and that collectively their voices reached God and their prayers were answered. Well, we prayed, too. When Henry was in the emergency room and I was kneeling at his bedside beside his little head because it was the only space in the room that was not occupied by a doctor, nurse, priest, or some other support staff, I prayed until I was on the verge of a black out from exhaustion, and then I was moved to my own bed where I lay with the hospital chaplain at my bedside and prayed some more. Our friends were praying, our families were praying, churches, strangers, even an entire village in Vietnam (true story) and many others we don't even know were holding prayer vigils for my boy.... but he still died. Our prayers weren't answered. As I read, I struggled more wondering why not. Because he (Todd Burpo) is a pastor? A better Christian? The right denomination? Does he know some secret way to pray that I don't? It's a slippery slope down this road, but it is hard to avoid in situations like this.
Of course the answer to those question is no. I am every bit the Christian that the Burpo's are, and Jesus loves me as equally as any other parent loves his children. He has no desire to hurt me or seek vengence on me or punish me in that way. He knows the prayers on my heart that haven't even reached my lips yet. He knows the future and the past and has a plan that ensures eternity for me - for us - for all His children. And part of that plan, for whatever reason, included taking Henry to heaven before I was ready to offer him up. I don't understand why, and maybe I never will, but I have faith in Jesus Christ and I have faith in the works of our Heavenly Father, and I hold those faiths close to my heart and they lift me when nothing else will. Afterall, faith isn't faith unless it's all you're holding on to.
Our family situation was unique in that both of our boys could have died without us ever knowing what killed them. My husband and I often speculate that if it had been Jack and not Henry who died, we may have never followed through with an autopsy. Babies die. It's an unfortunate reality, but it happens. Would we have been as alarmed if a baby had died as we were when a preschooler did? Or would it have been explained away as "one of those things" that happens but here is no explanation for. There is a very real possibility that we would have lost both of our boys if any one detail of our story had been different. Had the surgeon at Children's Hospital not persuaded us to have an autopsy done - something we were hesitant to do (he's been through enough, he was cut into enough when he was alive, no more...) we would have never diagnosed the XLA... never gotten Jack tested and diagnosed. Without a diagnosis and his monthly treatments, it was only a matter of time until Jack would have contracted a virus his little body couldn't fight off and in a matter of days he would have been gone, too. In taking Henry, we believe that God spared Jack. Would I love for Him to have spared both boys? Obviously. It goes without saying. But after having lost one child, I can't even imagine the horror of life that would have come had we lost both.
In the weeks before Henry's death, some interesting things happened with him. Nothing on the level of what happened to Colton, but interesting just the same. He started to speak of a man who was in the house at night who wasn't Papa. My husband thought it had been a friend of mine, or perhaps a repairman, but no males had been to the house. Henry was adament that the man had been there in his bedroom several times though. At the time, I chalked it up to an over active childhood imagination. After his death, I started to wonder if Jesus had visited my son. I don't know - I never will - but the thought brings me comfort, and it is not outside the realm of possibility for me. In the month or so before his death, I would open Henry's door most mornings to find a good share of his clothes - two dressers worth - strewn across his bedroom floor. The only explanation he had was that "the man" told him he needed to get ready, because he would be going on a trip. I also vividly remember one day, walking into his bedroom in the morning to wake him - it was quiet, so I assumed he must have still been sleeping - only to find him sitting in the rocking chair with his children's Bible open on his lap, studying every picture. What three year old does that voluntarily in a room full of his favorite toys? I sat down with him and told him the story of Noah and about Jesus and then we started our day. We always said that our kids assumed the personalities of the people they were named after and waking early to read the Bible only solidified that notion, as my Grandpa Hank (Henry's namesake) did it daily when he was alive.
Again, I'm not making any grand claims here - the book just brought a lot of thoughts, feelings, and memories to the foreground.
In regards to the book itself, what a wonderful depiction of Heaven! I wonder now who Henry met when he first got to heaven (besides Jesus, of course). I remember sitting in the hospital room with him at Childrens Hospital that Monday morning. In my heart, I believed he had died the night before and was no longer in that body. Everything was being kept "alive" artificially, but I knew he wasn't there and wasn't coming back. I still caressed him as if he was there and whispered his stories into his ear (he asked for the same three stories every night for over a year - by then I had them all memorized), kneeling again at his bedside, but I couldn't shake the feeling that he was somehow above us in the room, at peace, and looking down on us with love.
It was something I'd never felt before and never did again until this past May when my grandma was in the ICU after surgery to remove a small tumor on her lung. When it started to become apparent that she may not recover after the surgery, there was one night that I sat with her and distinctly felt the presence of someone else in the room and I couldn't shake the feeling that it was Henry. To make matters even more interesting, the following day my mom told me that grandma asked if my mom could see "that misty cloud" over grandma's bed. Was it Henry? Grandpa? Or a drug induced hallucination? I prefer to believe the former.
I've rambled quite a bit here and not really talked about the book much at all. Remember how I said I am not much of a book reviewer? Yeah. Now you know why. I am plagued by tangents. I get off on a stream of thought and the original topic is lost in the dust. I guess my best advice at this point would be to just read the book. It's an awesome story, and an awesome account of one child's brush with Christ. You will be moved, I guarantee it.
In closing I'll share this picture, a picture of Jesus. After his experience, Colton's parents shared pictures of Jesus with the boy, asking if that particular image was an accurate depiction of what Jesus looked like. They shared hundreds of different prints and paintings with the boy over the span of a few years and each time they did, Colton would tell them what was wrong with the picture. The hair was too long, or the nose wasn't right, or what have you. What it was about that particular painting or sculpture that didn't match the Jesus he saw in heaven. And then one day, his father showed him this painting titled Prince of Peace by Akiane Kramarik:
Colton replied (after a long moment of stunned silence), "that one's right." What makes it even more amazing is that this painting was done by a (then) 8 year old girl who also had visions of Heaven. A girl Colton had never met or even knew existed. You can read more about her story here.
Things that make you go hmmmmm....