The man was a shell of what he once was. Hardly recognizable, his emaciated frame slumped forward as he struggled to speak to his long time co-worker and friend who happens to be my son, Justin. Finding it hard to believe his eyes as he entered the hospital room, Justin was intent upon paying his very sick friend a visit. What he would witness during that brief encounter shook my son to his core. His retelling of the events to follow had me shaking my head. There was something profoundly different about the man Justin visited. A difference Justin found impossible to explain.
Gone was the banter that co-workers often toss back and forth at one another. Gone was the youthful energy that he often marveled at. Gone was the sense of humor. Gone was the man he remembered. Throat cancer had stolen the vibrancy that Justin had loved so much about this man who now struggled to even speak.
The two managed to small talk, though the tracheotomy had left his once strong voice a weak whisper. They talked about the company they worked for, the people they worked with and life in general. The small talk made their meeting seem wonderfully mundane, a way to avoid facing the horror of the moment that was screaming for attention. Justin, who is mature beyond his years and can always find ways to lighten a difficult situation, found himself lost in the tiny hospital room, as if he had been diminished to a voiceless spot on the wall, a helpless shadow of himself and all God had made him to be. He looked at his dying friend and did not know what to say.
Suddenly, Justin realized his friend was struggling. He noticed his breathing become more difficult as he seemed to want to say something to Justin but did not know how. Finally, the man managed to say, “Justin, I have something to tell you.” Justin welcomed his friend to tell him anything he wanted. The man seemed to grow very nervous, almost anxious as he struggled to speak the words. Again, Justin encouraged him to say whatever was on his mind. Finally, he turned to Justin and with conviction like Justin had never witnessed in his life said “God is real!”
It was a statement of such simple meaning and bumper sticker overuse that in any other setting it would hardly register in a conversation. But, this – this was much different. The powerful look of certainty that was expressed in his friends face startled Justin. Justin responded, “I know!” He and his friend had occasional talks about God and Justin’s Christian faith. The man struggling to speak knew Justin’s faith was real which made his statement all the more unusual. Again, with even greater seriousness, he turned to Justin and said, “No Justin, I’m serious! God is real!” Again Justin assured his friend that he believed him.
Finally, after the initial shock of his dramatic proclamation, the friend told Justin an amazing story.
A few days earlier, the man had coded while in the hospital and according to his doctors, came very close to dying. There are so many stories as told in books and movies of people experiencing near death episodes and living to report seeing the beauty of the afterlife. I, like Justin, have never disputed those claims, however, I have also never been interested in them. I believe in heaven and a God who has prepared a place for me, but, I get a little uncomfortable hearing details about the ever-after. But, this was different. Here was a man who Justin knew and knew well. A good man and a man familiar with the Christian faith but not one to talk about it. He worked hard, cared about people, kept to himself and lived his life. This was so out of character for him, Justin had to keep reminding himself who he was talking to. Hearing him tell this story with such passion and certainty had Justin reeling. He continued. “While I was unconscious, I had a dream that I was surrounded by hundreds of smiling faces. People I seemed to know and seeing them made me very happy. I felt incredible peace.”, he explained. “When I woke I remembered the dream clearly but did not know who the people were.” Justin kept listening.
“After that”, he continued, ” I kept having that same dream and kept seeing all these people that I seemed to know standing around me, smiling, hundreds of them” He began to get emotional and Justin recognized that he was weeping as he told the story. Justin hardly knew what to say. And then he told Justin that when he goes to sleep at night, he is scared of dying. “But then I have that dream and I see those people and I have never felt happier in my life.” And then he turned to Justin and said with what Justin described as the greatest conviction and certainty he had ever heard from anyone, “Justin, heaven is real! God is real!”
Before he left from his friend’s hospital room, Justin offered a prayer for him then gave him a hug and finally left for home. But, before he walked out he heard his friend say, “If I make it out of this hospital, I will be in church every Sunday.”
I am not sure what God is up to. There have been times that Justin has questioned what he should do in his life. Lisa and I always try to encourage both our children but, truthfully, we don’t always know what to tell them. But, we always, always leave them with our belief that God is sovereign and in control. God knows what He is doing even if we don’t.
And after hearing Justin’s story, I have to conclude that this has been in His plan all along. As God created his life, as he knit him together in Lisa’s womb – God determined that one day he would hear from the most unlikely person that “God is real” and he will remember that forever.