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Letters to Heaven
Reaching Beyond the Great Divide
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How shall I finish up the unfinished business of earth?
Letters, I think.
Each of you who will receive these letters is dead—
at least in this realm—
and I am counting on some courier
whose form of delivery I do not know,
to get these words through to you.
Most of you I knew well;
some few of you only a little;
and some of you I never met at all.
But all of you caused me either solace or pain,
and I want to be sure that when we meet,
all of our yesterdays are in a better state of repair
than they were when you went home.
Heaven. What’s to be done with it? We must have it; otherwise, the end of life is too abrupt to be dealt with and the rest of life too pointless to matter much.
Most every world religion puts some kind of heaven at the end of life. It’s a place to get back all we once held and then lost. It’s a place to see Grandma again. A chance to make sense of graveyards. It is a place to say with the apostle, “O death, where is your sting?” To Christians, it’s a dream of a cup of coffee with the real Jesus we have so long served but never seen.
If I tried to define heaven, I would likely fall into the same trap as people who write serious theological works on the subject. I have read a few of these books, but I almost always get the feeling that the authors are taking their celestial pictures with weak cameras and cheap film, ultimately producing only vague images of God’s wondrously vast reality. Apart from the glimpses of heaven that one finds in the Bible, how much more can we know for now? I think Isaiah 55:9 says it best for me, in the Lord’s own words: “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.”
So in this book I have not set out to define heaven. Probably when we are actually there, lost in the wonder of the place, we won’t much care to define it anyway. Neither is Letters to Heaven my determination of any person’s final destination. That is a matter best left to an all-knowing God and his private work in each individual heart. Instead, this book is about seeing heaven as a place for wrapping up the unfinished business of earth. Beyond the grand gates, everything is resolved. Nothing is ragged at the edge; all the loose threads are tied up.
Clocks and calendars are banned in glory, so no conversation will have deadlines. For as long as we want, we can talk with Jesus. With the patriarchs. With lovers we left in the cemeteries; with friends we haven’t seen in years; and yes, with Grandma.
So come with me beyond the Great Divide, where the real glory awaits. Let others chase the metaphors of crystal palaces, pearly gates, and golden streets. The heaven I give you in this book is about people—starting with Jesus, of course. And beyond him, a blessed reunion with mentors, friends, loved ones.
Go ahead and eavesdrop on my conversations with these departed ones; after all, heaven is an eavesdropper’s paradise—a completely open, utterly healing land with no secrets. Walk with me where none of us have ever been, and let’s pray for each other—that we may live and love well now, on our way to finishing up the unfinished business of earth.
MEETING MAMA’S GOD
Mama loved . . . the God on whom a desperate
mother might call when she was out of
ideas on how to hold her world together.
Life Is Mostly Edges
Who can tell all the reasons mothers love their sons? Maybe it was because I was the little boy bewildered by your divorce in 1941. Or perhaps because a child gives his mother an important reason to be when the world caves in and she finds herself all alone facing an uncertain future.
There is no question; I have always been a mama’s boy. It was hard not to magnify your role in the survival of our family of nine, especially during the World War II years. By the end of those years, I was a convert to Christianity as a nine-year-old boy. And then came junior high and high school, college and then graduate school, and then the Christian ministry as a pastor of a very large church. Somewhere in this mini-history of my life, I found your undeserved esteem for me one of the most rewarding assets of my being.
But I was never much at ease with the way I felt your pride in my education and career. It might have been that I was the first of your children to earn a college degree. It might have been the fact that I became the pastor of a relatively large church. But at each successive milestone and each new step of my career, I found you quietly proud of me as though I had arrived at each of those plateaus on my own, a self-made man.
The truth is, I am not. I never told you—at least not often enough to make you believe it—that there were only two forces behind any excellence I ever attained. The first was Jesus! I am not just saying this to sound humble or religious. From the time I was little, my own insecurity in the world caused me to want to trust in God. I was not a brave teenager. I was not a forthright athlete, confident I could achieve anything. Somehow I felt that unless I could become a partner with God, I would never make it. I lacked the strength to believe in myself, and as a result I increasingly turned to God for strength and confidence. With Christ, I managed to keep my eye on the ball; my desire to please him with my life, I am sure, pushed me into any arena of esteem I ever received.
The second force, Mama, was you. I have a feeling that mothers get so used to serving their families in their workaday worlds that they never see the power of their influence. The best teaching isn’t done in formal classes that begin and end with the flow of terms and semesters. There are no credit courses that start with diapers and culminate in high-school diplomas. It’s the steadiness of motherhood that makes the point: the lullabies that mothers rarely see as music or the endless washing of little faces that the best of mothers never call hygiene. The Q-and-A proceeding from “Why?” and “But why?” that mothers never call Education 101. The correction for bad language that mothers rarely call ethics. All these things are the most important part of our education.
Mama, when you read A Christmas Carol to us, you never called it English Lit. It was just together time. When you read the paper, it was never Current Events. When you explained why you were a Democrat, we never called it American Government. When you went to vote, you never called it Civics. But bit by bit we were putting together a worldview, all under the most careful eye of a great moralist and Christian—only it never came across that way.
Now I can see that my life for these past seventy-some years was the product of that special relationship I found in Jesus and yourself. And what I liked best about it was that you never resented Jesus for the special place he held as Master of my life.
I will never forget the time I came home from that pentecostal revival and announced, “I’ve been saved!” My exuberance must have amused you, and yet you saw the moment as the most important of my life. I was never casual about Jesus. I wanted to know what he thought about me, about my moral choices, about the ultimate direction of my life.
The same went for you, Mama. I cared about what you thought about where I wanted to go, what I wanted to be. When I told you I was going to a Baptist college in Oklahoma, you seemed excited about the dream. It was one of the most expensive private schools in the state, yet you seemed pleased that I had the dream, and you knew that it emanated from the Christ who occupied the center of my intention.
Well, you’ve been in heaven with Christ for thirty-three years now, and I can see that I am on my way there too. But I wanted to send this letter on ahead to set up our coming reunion. I want to begin heaven a little more realistically than I lived things out down here. I don’t see how Jesus will have the kind of time I want to spend with the both of you. Still, if you can arrange for the three of us to meet, it would make a great beginning of our time together.
I wrote a good bit of poetry on your mentoring life, but alas, only after you were gone. One poem comes to mind even now.
To Mama and Jesus,
You and He,
You gave me life and He extended it.
You saved me from the cold and He from sin.
You taught me hope and He defended it.
From you I once was born . . . from Him again.
You let me skip in fields that He had made.
He bid me bless the loaves you baked for me.
You ordered me to gaze where once He lay.
He bid me kneel in your Gethsemane.
I owe you both the treasure of my art.
I myself am so saddled with this debt
That I cannot fail in paying every part
Lest I should leave this pair with one regret.
You, Mother, taught me how to love a King.
In both of you was hidden everything.
Mama, you live in a higher realm of poetry than I could ever write. But if you will, please show that poem to Jesus. I think he’d be as interested in it as you. You both seemed to love me so.
TO A MAN WHOSE GOD WAS ON THE GRIDIRON
The gods assemble on the gridiron
To sanctify Sunday for men grown weary of church.
“The Football Game”
You went to heaven from a ringside seat, close up, at the fifty-yard line.
At least I hope you went to heaven. The only reason I have my doubts is that you never had much of an appetite for heaven. And frankly, Ed, I have long wondered if anyone who has not the slightest desire to go to heaven can ever end up there. But I am hoping you get this letter because I know if you do, then (by this time) you will have changed your mind about the place.
I will never forget the day you died. Your family wanted me to visit you in the hospital and talk to you about making a last confession and, as we evangelicals are wont to say, to accept Christ as your Savior. It was a great attempt, the last hurrah, the hope of your family that in your final moments of life you might declare yourself for God and make some kind of confession that you were embracing the faith. It was not my only time to seek this confession from you. I had done so many times, always at your family’s prodding, but all to no avail.
In every seminar I ever attended on how to lead someone to Christ—and in every one I ever taught—I was always told to get to know the prospective Christian and then press upon him or her the good confession. But I had talked with you so often that I felt I already had really gotten to know you. I knew you had one great love in life, and it wasn’t God. It was Nebraska football! You knew the names and numbers of all the players as well as I knew the name of all the apostles.
Obviously, we came at life from two different priority points. Coach Tom Osborne was your infallible guide to meaning. I picked Jesus of Nazareth.
From the very first, we each considered the other a dull conversationalist. You probably didn’t answer the door when I stopped by because you saw me as a pushy Baptist who was gonna “talk Jesus” at you. Meanwhile, I didn’t really want to come by because I thought you were the most off-the-track, football-fanatical cancer victim that ever existed. You couldn’t understand why anyone could actually love God so much if he forbade them any real interest in sports. You were much more fluent in profanity than I was, and I think you heaped up your argument with four-letter words that you knew would nettle me—perhaps to the extent I would quit coming by. And I would have, except that your family was so anxious for you to become a Christian before you died, no matter that you had no real interest in Jesus.
During your final week of life, they asked me to make one more attempt. I understood that their greatest desire was a goal of your least interest. Yet as I had before, I geared myself up and went to the hospital where you would remain until your death.
As usual, you greeted me with contempt.
I would have preferred you saying hello when we met, rather than “Oh #*~#, not you again!”
“Hello, my good friend, how are you?”
“Now why would you say that, #*~#? I’m not your good friend. I don’t even like you.”
“The doc says you’re not doing well,” I said. “Thought we might have a little talk.”
“I know what you want to talk about! My kids think I’m on the way to hell! And I probably am, but I’d sure like a little peace and quiet along the way. I know I could never talk you out of it, seeing you are determined to carve another notch in your Bible. So I’m gonna shut up and listen. I haven’t got the strength to do anything more, but I’d like to walk out of here and just avoid the conversation.”
“Is it okay, then, if I walk you through some pretty important verses? Your family wants me to do this.”
“I’ll shut up, and you talk,” was all you said.
I can’t tell you how much I struggled to find the desire to talk to you. I’ve seen a lot of men on the brink of hell, but none as seemingly pleased with being in that position as you. In some ways, Ed, you knew you were going to hell, and you knew what hell was all about. Still, you were defiant to the end.
What I knew that you didn’t guess was the strength of the love of God. But I couldn’t make that real to you.
God is indeed love, and he is so committed to saving the human race that he hangs between heaven and hell and throws up a million roadblocks to keep anyone from dying outside of his all-compelling love. Still, he is so big on individual liberty that he forces no one’s hand. God is not willing “that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But the unrepentant still hold the upper hand. More than that, God hangs about the precipice of death and weeps when men and women of self walk over it.
Years ago, in The Singer, I imagined a conversation in which an obstinate person, perhaps as obstinate as Ed, asked God to mercifully decide the matter—send him off to hell and lock him up forever.
In that imagined conversation, God refused the sinner’s request. “I have never desired to send anyone to hell,” said God, “but if you insist on going there, I would never lock you out.”1
Perhaps because you were losing your vitality, you grew quiet. I said all that is most important to hear when one is balanced on the edge of life. You listened. In fact, it seemed you really listened, maybe for the first time, maybe thanks to the lateness of the hour and that awful corridor of weakened blood pressure that was threatening you with common sense. You were in that valley of the shadow where the oscilloscope is zigzagging its way across your electrocardiogram. I hate that horrible flat-line moment that stops the zigzag as the oxygen ceases its wheezing inside the plastic mask.
When I had finished telling the old, old story, I somehow felt for a moment that I was about to witness the miracle for which your whole family had been praying. You were too weak to talk, but it appeared that you were lifting your hand. It was a palsied and very shaky movement, but you were actually using your last bit of strength to raise your hand. It looked as if you were smiling through the plastic oxygen mask. I could all but hear the angels singing.
Then you laid your unsure hand on the TV control unit. I was sure you were going to say, “I believe!”
Instead what you said was, “Big Red!”—the colloquial name of the Cornhusker football team.
I was so stupid as to forget that it was two o’clock on Saturday—kickoff time at the stadium in Lincoln. You were only raising your hand to turn on the football game.
I mumbled a final prayer for you, but it was too quiet to be heard above the roar of the television.
“Big Red!” were the last words I ever heard you say in this world. But then I have always believed that deathbed conversion attempts have too much going against them to ever be consistently effective. People die pretty much as they have lived.
Ironically, Tom Osborne, the Nebraska coach, was well-known for being a Christian. I’ve always wondered what would have happened if he could have made that last call on you. If he, the centerpiece of your adulation, had told you how much Christ meant to him—and I know that was a great deal—you might have borrowed from his faith just enough to help you through the gates. But he was busy, over at the stadium in Lincoln. And you were too attached to your oxygen to be anywhere else except in a hospital bed.
Still, I have labored all these years, hoping that maybe, after the game—in your final moments of consciousness—you set the angels singing, and your weeping Father in heaven caught you by the shoulders as you passed the gates, and said to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many” (Matthew 25:21).
- On Sale
- Feb 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Worthy Books