As I sat in the airport alone, waiting for my delayed flight, I wandered into a bookstore. I browsed through several titles until my eyes fell on a chirpy yellow cover and an even chirpier image of a little boy smiling brightly at me.
The title read “Heaven Is for Real” and beneath it, an explanatory caption—“A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back.”
A part of me loves books like this. I mean, who doesn’t want to know more about what really happens after the lights go off?
But I get a little nervous reading such things because sometimes, they can get pretty scary with the way they describe heaven, hell and everything in between!
However, my curiosity got the better of me. I had to get the book.
The story is told by Todd Burpo, a pastor from Imperial, Nebraska. He narrates the stories of his then 3-year-old son, Colton, so effectively that you feel as if you’re sitting in front of Colton yourself.
But as the title suggests, these are no ordinary stories. While they come out during random conversations between father and son, they are certainly far from random or normal.
The first few pages are about the night Todd pulls over his SUV to the nearest parking lot, to contain his shock and properly talk to his son. His son has just told him how he remembered the hospital because “that’s where the angels sang to me!”
The story begins about a year or so before that.
I’m surprised to discover that the book isn’t all about heaven and Jesus. It is a detailed account of the ordeal the Burpo family went through and how they overcame it. The worst was the time they almost lost Colton due to ruptured appendix.
It began with chills, a fever and bad stomach. These symptoms disappeared within 24 hours, so that the hospital Emergency dismissed it as stomach flu.
However, a day later, the symptoms were back with a vengeance and poor Colton was throwing up almost every hour. The Burpos had to rush back to the hospital.
Todd and wife Sonja said it could be appendicitis but the doctors didn’t think so and offered no solutions, just more tests.
For three days, the Burpos followed the doctors’ instructions and hoped for the best.
On the third day, however, they decided to bring their son to another hospital as his condition was noticeably getting serious.
As a parent, I couldn’t help but be struck by what Todd says as they rush their son to the next hospital, three hours away— “We had tried to do the right thing at each step… At each turning point, we had tried to make the right call, but we had made the wrong ones, and now Colton was paying for it. A helpless child was suffering the consequences of our mistakes.”
Don’t we all just want to do the right thing for our children in every situation? And yet, sometimes, despite our best intentions, things go wrong and the one person we want to protect the most, ends up a victim.
In the next hospital, the doctor immediately diagnosed the condition as ruptured appendix. The doctors proceeded to do surgery—without offering hope or encouragement because the ugly truth was —poison has been filling [their] little boy’s belly for five days.”
At this point we get a glimpse of how the Burpos deal with their frustration and anxiety. They blame themselves for not trusting their instincts enough.
“We waited too long. I might never see my son alive again”—the thought almost drives Todd crazy.
A pastor, he is not above losing his faith in God and rages against Him in private.
Sonja tries to keep busy and asks for prayers. But her pain is different from that of her husband.
The couple have two children, Cassie and Colton. Before Colton, Sonja suffered a miscarriage—it not only “seared her heart with grief but also felt like a personal failure.”
A part of her always blamed herself, and the loss of an unborn baby created “an empty space where there was none before.”
Now, Colton, the little bundle of joy that she had prayed so earnestly for, was about to be taken away as well.
I don’t think anyone can go through this part of the book without shedding tears.
Fortunately, Colton makes it through surgery but his condition remains critical. A freak snowstorm keeps them from seeking additional medical assistance in a bigger hospital—his doctors essentially give up, saying there is nothing more they can do for him.
And then, the miracle of prayers takes place as over 80 members of Pastor Todd’s congregation gather in an overnight vigil begging God to spare the life of a beloved child.
What follows is another tearful portion—Colton’s overnight recovery.
The real miracle, however, begins as Colton begins to talk about his experience during surgery. The angels, he recalls, came and sang to him to allay his fears, upon the order of Jesus, who happened to be holding him on His lap! His first description of Jesus—He has “red markers.”
At first, Todd can’t make sense of those “markers.” Then he realizes that Colton is describing the marks of crucifixion on the palms and feet of Jesus.
Catholics grow up surrounded by the crucifix showing Jesus with His wounds. Todd says that in his church, however, as Protestants, their children grow up with a more general concept of Jesus on the cross. The details come much later. How could his 3-year-old son know about the wounds of Christ?
Colton goes on with more descriptions of Jesus and heaven. Many of them are accurate representations of what is written in the Bible, such as the blinding whiteness of Jesus’ cloak and His purple sash. He talks about angels and the thrones of God and Jesus and seeing Mary before them.
He includes his own observations, “It was big, Dad… really really big, because God is the biggest one there is. And he really, really loves us, Dad. You can’t belieeeeve how much He loves us!” as well as his constant message that, “Jesus really, really loves the children!”
Departed family members and other biblical characters also come to life for Colton during his short stay in heaven.
He meets Todd’s grandfather, “Pops,” but doesn’t recognize his photo at the time of his death at 61 years old. But Colton’s eyes light up the moment he’s shown a photo of Pops at 29 years old. Colton was never shown this photo before his near-death experience.
My favorite part is when Colton suddenly tells his mother that he has two sisters; one at home and one in heaven, adopted by Jesus’ Father after “she died in your tummy.”
Finally, Sonja’s wounds can begin to heal as she realizes that her unborn child is with Someone whose love for her baby is far greater than her own.
Perhaps the biggest revelation for Todd is when his son shares the fact the he and Jesus saw him in that small room where his faith almost left him. Todd is filled with shame and remorse, especially when Colton tells him that he came back because Jesus said He was granting Todd’s prayers at a time when Todd felt he was most undeserving of Jesus’ love.
Over dinner one night, a friend of mine asked, Could it be possible that the dad just made it all up?”
I hadn’t thought of that and admittedly, I suppose he could. But I don’t want to be so cynical. And if he did, well, that would be the burden of his conscience, not ours.
There are a few portions in the book that are different from what my own faith has taught me, but this is not about who is right or wrong. For me, it’s simply about being reminded that there is something greater out there waiting for us. We let this knowledge inspire our daily words and actions.