When pastor Todd Burpo and his wife, Sonja, asked their 4-year-old son Colton a simple question, they never expected his extraordinary response: Colton recounted an experience that reinforced their faith forever. Here's an excerpt from "Heaven is For Real," now also available in a fully illustrated chidlren's version.
Angels at Arby’s
The Fourth of July holiday calls up memories of patriotic parades, the savory scents of smoky barbecue, sweet corn, and night skies bursting with showers of light. But for my family, the July Fourth weekend of 2003 was a big deal for other reasons.
My wife, Sonja, and I had planned to take the kids to visit Sonja’s brother, Steve, and his family in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It would be our first chance to meet our nephew, Bennett, born two months earlier. Plus, our kids, Cassie and Colton, had never been to the falls before. (Yes, there really is a Sioux Falls in Sioux Falls.) But the biggest deal of all was this: this trip would be the first time we’d left our hometown of Imperial, Nebraska, since a family trip to Greeley, Colorado, in March had turned into the worst nightmare of our lives.
To put it bluntly, the last time we had taken a family trip, one of our children almost died. Call us crazy, but we were a little apprehensive this time, almost to the point of not wanting to go. Now, as a pastor, I’m not a believer in superstition. Still, some weird, unsettled part of me felt that if we just hunkered down close to home, we’d be safe. Finally, though, reason —and the lure of meeting little Bennett, whom Steve had told us was the world’s cutest baby — won out. So we packed up a weekend’s worth of paraphernalia in our blue Ford Expedition and got our family ready to head north.
Sonja and I decided the best plan would be to get most of the driving done at night. That way, even though Colton would be strapped into his car seat against his four-year-old, I’m-a-big-kid will, at least he’d sleep for most of the trip. So it was a little after 8 p.m. when I backed the Expedition out of our driveway, steered past Crossroads Wesleyan Church, my pastorate, and hit Highway 61.
The night spread clear and bright across the plains, a half moon white against a velvet sky. Imperial is a small farming town tucked just inside the western border of Nebraska. With only two thousand souls and zero traffic lights, it’s the kind of town with more churches than banks, where farmers stream straight off the fields into the family-owned café at lunchtime, wearing Wolverine work boots, John Deere ball caps, and a pair of pliers for fence-mending hanging off their hips. So Cassie, age six, and Colton were excited to be on the road to the “big city” of Sioux Falls to meet their newborn cousin.
The kids chattered for ninety miles to the city of North Platte, with Colton fighting action-figure superhero battles and saving the world several times on the way. It wasn’t quite 10 p.m. when we pulled into the town of about twenty-four thousand, whose greatest claim to fame is that it was the hometown of the famous Wild West showman, Buffalo Bill Cody. North Platte would be about the last civilized stop — or at least the last open stop — we’d pass that night as we headed northeast across vast stretches of cornfields empty of everything but deer, pheasant, and an occasional farmhouse. We had planned in advance to stop there to top off both the gas tank and our bellies.
After a fill-up at a Sinclair gas station, we pulled out onto Jeffers Street, and I noticed we were passing through the traffic light where, if we turned left, we’d wind up at the Great Plains Regional Medical Center. That was where we’d spent fifteen nightmarish days in March, much of it on our knees, praying for God to spare Colton’s life. God did, but Sonja and I joke that the experience shaved years off our own lives.
Sometimes laughter is the only way to process tough times, so as we passed the turnoff, I decided to rib Colton a little.
“Hey, Colton, if we turn here, we can go back to the hospital,” I said. “Do you wanna go back to the hospital?”
Our preschooler giggled in the dark. “No, Daddy, don’t send me! Send Cassie ... Cassie can go to the hospital!”
Sitting next to him, his sister laughed. “Nuh-uh! I don’t wanna go either!”
In the passenger seat, Sonja turned so that she could see our son, whose car seat was parked behind mine. I pictured his blond crew cut and his sky-blue eyes shining in the dark.
“Do you remember the hospital, Colton?” Sonja said.
“Yes, Mommy, I remember,” he said. “That’s where the angels sang to me.”
Inside the Expedition, time froze. Sonja and I looked at each other, passing a silent message: Did he just say what I think he said?
Sonja leaned over and whispered, “Has he talked to you about angels before?”
I shook my head. “You?”
She shook her head.
I spotted an Arby’s, pulled into the parking lot, and switched off the engine. White light from a street lamp filtered into the Expedition. Twisting in my seat, I peered back at Colton. In that moment, I was struck by his smallness, his little boyness. He was really just a little guy who still spoke with an endearing (and sometimes embarrassing) call-it-like-you-see-it innocence. If you’re a parent, you know what I mean: the age where a kid might point to a pregnant woman and ask (very loudly), “Daddy, why is that lady so fat?” Colton was in that narrow window of life where he hadn’t yet learned either tact or guile.
All these thoughts flashed through my mind as I tried to figure how to respond to my four-year-old’s simple proclamation that angels had sung to him. Finally, I plunged in: “Colton, you said that angels sang to you while you were at the hospital?”
He nodded his head vigorously.
“What did they sing to you?”
Colton turned his eyes up and to the right, the attitude of remembering. “Well, they sang ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Joshua Fought the Battle of Jericho,’” he said earnestly. “I asked them to sing ‘We Will, We Will Rock You,’ but they wouldn’t sing that.”
As Cassie giggled softly, I noticed that Colton’s answer had been quick and matter-of-fact, without a hint of hesitation.
Sonja and I exchanged glances again. What’s going on? Did he have a dream in the hospital?
And one more unspoken question: What do we say now?
A natural question popped into my head: “Colton, what did the angels look like?”
He chuckled at what seemed to be a memory. “Well, one of them looked like Grandpa Dennis, but it wasn’t him, ’cause Grandpa Dennis has glasses.”
Then he grew serious. “Dad, Jesus had the angels sing to me because I was so scared. They made me feel better.”
I glanced at Sonja again and saw that her mouth had dropped open. I turned back to Colton. “You mean Jesus was there?”
My little boy nodded as though reporting nothing more remarkable than seeing a ladybug in the front yard. “Yeah, Jesus was there.”
“Well, where was Jesus?”
Colton looked me right in the eye. “I was sitting in Jesus’ lap.”
If there are Stop buttons on conversations, that was one of them right there. Astonished into speechlessness, Sonja and I looked at each other and passed another silent telegram: Okay, we really need to talk about this.
We all piled out of the Expedition and trooped into Arby’s, emerging a few minutes later with a bag of grub. In between, Sonja and I exchanged whispers.
“Do you think he really saw angels?”
“I don’t know.”
“Was it a dream?”
“I don’t know — he seems so sure.”
Back in the SUV, Sonja passed out roast beef sandwiches and potato cakes, and I ventured another question.
“Colton, where were you when you saw Jesus?”
He looked at me as if to say, Didn’t we just talk about this?
“At the hospital. You know, when Dr. O’Holleran was working on me.”
“Well, Dr. O’Holleran worked on you a couple of times, remember?” I said. Colton had both an emergency appendectomy and then an abdominal clean-out in the hospital, and later we had taken Colton to have some keloid scarring removed, but that was at Dr. O’Holleran’s office. “Are you sure it was at the hospital?”
Colton nodded. “Yeah, at the hospital. When I was with Jesus, you were praying, and Mommy was talking on the phone.”
That definitely meant he was talking about the hospital. But how in the world did he know where we had been?
“But you were in the operating room, Colton,” I said. “How could you know what we were doing?”
“’Cause I could see you,” Colton said matter-of-factly. “I went up out of my body and I was looking down and I could see the doctor working on my body. And I saw you and Mommy. 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.”
Colton’s words rocked me to my core. Sonja’s eyes were wider than ever, but she said nothing, just stared at me and absently bit into her sandwich.
That was all the information I could handle at that point. I started the engine, steered the Expedition back onto the street, and pointed us toward South Dakota. As I hit I-80, pasturelands unrolled on either side, dotted here and there with duck ponds that glinted in the moonlight. By then, it was very late, and soon everyone else was snoozing as planned.
As the road hummed underneath me, I marveled at the things I had just heard. Our little boy had said some pretty incredible stuff — and he had backed it up with credible information, things there was no way he could have known. We had not told him what we were doing while he was in surgery, under anesthesia, apparently unconscious.
Over and over, I kept asking myself, How could he have known? But by the time we rolled across the South Dakota state line, I had another question: Could this be real?
From "Heaven Is for Real" by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent. Copyright © 2010. Reprinted by permission of Thomas Nelson.