Heaven is for Real.

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I remember going to the store to look for one thing and always seeing this bright, yellow, silly-looking book jumping out at me: Heaven in for Real by Todd Burpo.  It was actually on one of my long, hidden lists of books I wanted to read.  I only wanted to read it because I knew of people who were wanting to read it as well, and I wanted to know what everyone was raving (both positively and negatively) about so much.  I finally grabbed one of several copies from the library and found myself done with the thin book in no time.

First, I’ll explain the premise in brief: a dad sits down to write this book with an author after a few years of hearing his small son tell stories about heaven.  Little Colton became incredibly ill and, according to the book, was a miracle of survival.  Over time, he starts revealing more and more about an out-of-body experience, telling bits about heaven that sound like scripture he wouldn’t have been able to know by 3 yet told in the way a child tells things he doesn’t quite understand but has seen (“rainbows” to explain the jewels all over the kingdom, “red markers” on Jesus’s hands which would be his wounds, etc.).

When I first starting reading this book, all I did was scoff at it.  It seemed so stupid to me.  The book was mostly about the dad and his family’s financial struggles and connection with his church.  Every time Colton revealed something he had seen, I just dismissed them with things like “well it took him 2 years to say it” or “his dad is a preacher, he could have heard that from anywhere” or “maybe he just wants attention” or “maybe this dad is a total phony” or “his dad prompted him to answer the correct way” or “how convenient, that he didn’t write down the names of the kids Colton had met in heaven”………..

I’ll admit, I still have my doubts.  But there was one point during the book when some switch just flipped inside of me.  Things started to feel a little weird to me when Colton became very strongly expressive about Jesus and how Jesus just loves everyone.  I kind felt this melting feeling and began to realize I have never doubted Jesus’s existence or that he made sacrifices for what he believed in, I only doubted who is actually is/was.  To hear that someone so tied to worldly martyrdom would still be worshipping the innocence of children (which I value highly, too), it made me feel even better about standing up for goodness.  In that moment, I decided I really love Jesus, whether he is the son of a god or if he’s just a guy.  He is, if nothing else, a perfect role model, isn’t he?  With Colton’s description, I formed a very comforting image of Jesus in my head.

Then Colton starts talking about his dad’s grandpa.  I was a little dumbfounded when Colton seemed to legitimately recall his long-dead ancestor and even more impressed when Colton only recognized pictures of the man when he was in his prime.  He claims that, in Heaven, “no one is old and no one wears glasses” which is a cute kiddie way of saying we are in the best of health.  Yet I was still bouncing it back and forth, the idea that Colton could have overheard his dad talking, that he could have somehow imagined everything,… except for the visual recognition part, if that really happened as it was told.

But it gets weirder.  Colton’s mother had had a miscarriage, yet Colton hadn’t been told.  Sure, he could have overheard about “losing the baby” or something.  But for him to come out and say he met his sister in heaven that he didn’t know he had, and to describe him as looking like his mother unlike the other children who are like their father – those things just seemed to real to me.  I find it hard to believe that a young child could process those kinds of concepts unless he had some incredible dream that streamed those thoughts together with no assistance other than his own intelligence.

Yet the moment that I suddenly found doubt in everything I had come to believe came when Colton began identifying problems with paintings of Jesus.  The day then came when Colton was shown one image, one that I have since looked up and which looks exactly like I had pictured in my mind what Jesus is like since Colton’s description… Colton, for the first time in years, found nothing wrong with the painting and said that it was “right”.  Little did he supposedly know that the painting was made by young Akiane who claims to have had a similar experience, seeing visions of heaven.  I was like, what?

(Enter: Mixed feelings.  Feelings that there can’t not be heaven mixed with feelings that maybe this is all a scam.  But how can such a young girl paint so well?  Were her parents really atheists?  So much confusion…)

Regardless of what all of this really means to me, the book made something very clear to me: You can love Jesus and be religious and be “Christian” without being Christian at all.  That’s not saying that there isn’t one singular answer about the existence of a god and that you shouldn’t accept a god that controls your life and is the reason why life exists, it’s more like I began to see the family-ness of religion.  Too often it gets a bad rap and people who aren’t religious like to pin evilness to those who are because those people stand up for their beliefs.  Reading this book made me realize that religion is not meant to shut people out or hurt them, it’s more like fulfilling a duty to a god and to each other.  It’s using “community” as a vehicle for discovery, self-improvement, reflection – with or without religion being the inspiration.

I suddenly realized that all of those people who ever tried to help me follow my grandma’s footsteps or who feared for a non-Christian in my family or who wanted to “spread the word” were really, the whole time, doing nothing but trying to help.  I’ve seen enough non-Christians react to this help to know that they see it as sabotage, unaccepting, backwards, closed-minded…but, in reality, I think there is some hypocrisy in that interpretation.  This book made me realize that people who whole-heartedly believe in something feel like that they have the key to all the doors you need to open and here they are trying to hand you those keys.  It’s like they know something already that you don’t know but they’re helping lead you to it.  It’s not such an evil thing after all, if done kindly.

So, although I’m still not 100% sure where I stand with the book, I did order a used copy of it to keep as a reminder of how it made me think – and I want now to spend a moment on the mixed reviews I have read regarding Heaven is for Real.  These reviews are seriously split down the middle, between adamant Christians celebrating how god has touched the family and the son and aggressive atheists denouncing Todd Burpo and calling the whole thing a scam.  Well, isn’t it only pleasing when we hear only what we choose to hear?

To the Christians in love with the book, I wonder if they ever raise any doubts?  To the atheists who detest it, do they seriously read it with nothing but cold-hearted conviction?  It would be like a Christian reading an atheist book, insulting its ignorance while the atheists revels in its accuracy.  That’s why I prefer to sift through everything and, regardless of spiritual context, take away some sort of meaning that I can use to better myself.

For all of the people who complained about the Burpo family being like the Flanders family in the Simpsons, well how is that such a bad thing?  I don’t think it is at all.  A little funny and strange that people could be so happy all the time, but I wish the world was full of more Flanders.  There were also complaints about the author being the same author as Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue and how it was like Palin, too bubbly and sugar-coating or ignoring the bad stuff.  Again, what is so wrong with that?  (Although, I have to say I disagree with Burpo when he says, on page 84, that you might as well tell God what you’re thinking since he already knows what you’re thinking [when you’re angry, for example].  Yes, but what about filtering it to show him your control and respect?  That passage stuck out oddly to me…)

Regardless, I think the point of the book is something I can really agree with: that a child is innocent and pure due to “lack of guile” (74).  That’s why Colton’s Jesus loves the children, why Colton is so idolized in the story for his unfiltered thoughts, why this telling of heaven is so powerful – because it is meant to be pure visions retold by a guileless human.  So, if nothing else, that and my new appreciation for the concern of others is what I will take away from this book – and perhaps much more.

Actually Opening One’s Mind to Religion.

The idea of ever calling myself a certain “religion” type always gave me fear.  I too easily pictured “cults”.  I pictured these organized “cults” and then I remembered all of the negative history in the world that occurs under God’s “will”.  I’ve been trying to understand lately what it really is all about though, these pro- and anti-religious peoples vetting against one another.  I’m trying to see for myself what they’re about rather than spitting out words other people feed to me.

I got two books from the library: Knowing Scripture by R. C. Sproul, a tiny book that discusses what Scripture is really for, how to interpret it, and how people are spoiling it – and also The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  I thought, “Sproul will be so dry… but Dawkins should be pretty interesting, I think.”  That’s because his book was long and confident-looking.

Well, I have completed both books and I was completely wrong.

Reviews on GoodReads have, for the most part, coincided with my sentiments quite exactly.  Whilst Dawkins seems to give a much more modern and forceful view on religion, he does it in such a righteous, arrogant baby fit that I came to hate it more and more and more with each chapter.  It was also mind-numbing repetitious, dispelling numerous tests and experiments (which were highly interesting, but I don’t think possible to put scientific control on).  One such experiment supposedly proved that praying for an individual didn’t help them get better but, if anything, made them worse.  Well, okay, because they’re at a hospital so obviously ill, you ask them to be in an experiment, and it is likely that the more people who pray for them the sicker they are – and they know it.  Regardless, it was the style that got me the most.

Another thing that deeply disturbed me was the way Dawkins seemed to make so many radical claims, all the while demonstrating his lack of understanding religion.  I used to be like that.  When I tried opening my mind, I became less so.  After finishing some of my latest readings, however, I have gained an entirely new perspective for devout Christians and why they preach the things they preach and act the ways they do.  Dawkins clearly either hasn’t reached this point of understanding, or he denies it or just completely shuts it out.  On any conflicting issue, you have to meet in the middle before you can make a solid assessment.  I hate how he comes in from the flank and doesn’t take a moment to understand the people he is bashing, especially after I just finished the other book.

The other book, Knowing Scripture, helped me understand the “literary” and “literal” tidbits of the Bible.  I believe Sproul is the kind of man who would acknowledge that certain words have been mistranslated.  I really like his approach to how to read Scripture and the way he emphasizes the lessons taken from them as being the most important – which I agree.  Too much of the Bible is outdated, especially in the Old Testament.  Furthermore, I really enjoyed his section about people “tailoring” religion.  He calls them “sensual” Christians.  You can’t pick and choose the rules you think apply.  You have to pick a method of interpreting God’s word, and then you have to constantly apply that method regardless of the outcome.  You can’t by wishy-washy – and I’ve always felt that way about religion.  He calls these kinds of people “sensual” because he sees them as looking for that instant satisfaction of this generation.  He argues that this is the kind of difference that exists between love and lust – one desirable, one like a plague.

Comparing these two books just made me realize how many people might feel the same way about something, but they shut each other down if they don’t get to the same conclusions by walking the same paths.  In the end, what does it matter how you get there?  If you arrive at the same place, how you get there is just what personally defines you and makes you as unique as the mind you used to think yourself there.  I like to think that I have managed to open my mind pretty wide to be accepting and to form my own, non-intrusive opinions.  Sure, they might come off as forceful here time to time, but I’m never actually that way in conversation.

Then again, maybe my views are the reason why I’ve identified as UU the past couple of years.

The Meaning in Dreams.

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Growing up, my mom and my grandma would always ask me about my dreams. Whether they were good, bad, or just plain profound, I would tell them if something stood out to me the next day. There were days when my dreams were dictated by medication, including a series of horrifying nightmares I experienced during my few weeks in India when I switched to a different kind of malaria pill.

I was always amazed by how progressive my family seems to be, yet certain things stick in the mud like a stubborn twig. Things like my grandma’s insisting that owls are a sign of death, my dad yelling at me for speaking ill of my brother when I saw a raven, or the way my family dwells on dreams. I’ve always felt like dreams are just a subconscious moment of clear thinking, kind of like an innocent child creatively experiencing the world or like those moments when you can’t solve a math problem and walk away from it, only to solve it when you’re not thinking about it. But maybe there is something more to it? I do, after all, own an old, large book of palm reading, tarot cards, and dream interpretation.

I do listen to my thoughts and my dreams. I find myself convinced that it keeps me out of trouble, or even death. Like when I leave the house late and my mom says “It was for a reason; something would have happened if you were on time.” Well, once a drunk driver collided head-on going the wrong way down the Turnpike a few miles ahead of me. I think that really got me thinking from then on.

But dreams?

I know a lot of friends would reject my subconscious theory and rationale. They would say it is undoubtedly god speaking to us, showing us what he wants to see. I just have a hard time believing god really cares that much about the bajillions of people here that he sits with them every night and orchestrates their dreams within their respective time zones and sleeping schedules. Wouldn’t it be easier just to sit back and watch? I mean, most people probably forget their dreams anyway.

Last night I had an unusually frustrating dream. My family and I flew to London for a week. I had just gotten back from London (true story), but I was eager to go to the White Cliffs of Dover and also to the northern most point of Scotland. We sat around in this large, modern apartment, staring out at the glass windows for several days, not leaving, before I finally said something. My mom insisted it wasn’t a big deal, we could see London from the living room. I looked out and, sure enough, I could see the London Eye turning and Big Ben not far from that.

My brother was playing games on his computer. I’m not even sure what my dad was doing – if anything. Every time I tried to suggest leaving, they’d ignore me and say that my brother had stuff to get done. But then they’d let him keep playing games.

“Mom, let’s walk to the train station. I have London so well memorized around the Thames that I can get us to Dover in no time.” (true story)

“Okay, fine, we will get ready and go to Dover.”

I wait for a few hours and it is getting dark.

“Mom, if we don’t go now, it will be dark and we can’t see anything.”

“We can go tomorrow.”

“Then we can’t go to Scotland, too!”

“Calm down, it’s no big deal.”

“I didn’t pay for airfare to come to London for a week and sit inside this room!”

And we never went anywhere. It got dark, I could see the blue Eye, and I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t even run away.

I think I know what my dream was telling me.

First of all, my mom mentioned grandma talking about a trip to Australia. I was surprised yesterday that the flights are cheaper than the ones I’m buying to go back to West Africa in less than two months. That’s why I was dreaming about our family traveling. London was always on my mom’s list.

The apartment. I think that’s how I feel about a lot of people, that they’re just idling, watching the world through protective glass, never going outside of their comfort zones. Suffocating in their Bell Jars. Thinking this is as good as it gets, that text book pictures and stories come even close to representing the real thing. And that’s definitely not what it’s like.

The imprisonment. I think I feel imprisoned often by the restraints my parents have always placed on me, whether it is in my athletics or in my travels, whatever. They were shutting down my idea of going somewhere, doing something crazy. I always feel like, if I listened to them, I would be idle, I would be stuck living the same old, conventional, rural Pennsylvanian life. Maybe I want that, but not without leaving it first. They just never tried to leave it at all. And they try to lock me in their norms.

The computer. This is two-fold. One, I was surprised when my mom recently made the comment “I can’t believe you’re surviving without Wi-Fi”. I thought it was sarcastic. Since when did my mom rely on the Internet? She just got a laptop and an e-mail address not that long ago. It’s not like she ever needed it. I didn’t even know she understands half of what she tries to do on it. And, yes, work makes me dependent on Internet, but not like that. Two, this DEFINITELY reflected my attitude on my family’s treatment of me versus my brother. He is more important, he can do what he wants. I can only do what I want if I damn well do it myself. They’ll dish out the money for him to do something stupid and useless and which doesn’t help his career. Meanwhile I’m actually working and trying to live life. Give me a break.

So – let’s look at this two ways:

1. Subconscious, pure thoughts: Does this mean I truly feel this way? Or is this where the imagination part kicks in and starts making me dream up situations for self-pity? Could it be that my views from this dream are really what I’m facing in my daily life?

2. God’s thoughts in my head: If there’s a god putting these ideas there, what is he trying to tell me? I don’t see a way for me to appreciate anything from that dream, unless I’m supposed to appreciate being able to say “I’m in London” – I think not. Is he trying to make me realize the differences between me and my family? I have no idea.

But I enjoy dreams. They are stories I write without trying to write them, and look at all the symbolism I subconsciously conjure up!