“I can’t believe he stood me up,” I muttered to myself. After all these years of weekly coffee why would my friend not show up for our regular Thursday afternoon coffee? Dale and I were kindred spirits. Once a week we would commune to drink warm coffee, share our dreams, speak of the challenges we face and tell of what God was showing us. I called him, maybe 10 times over the course of an hour. As my coffee grew cold and the coldness of the outdoor metal chair began to make certain parts of my body numb, I grew concerned.
Finally he called, “Craig,” he spoke in almost a whisper like fashion. “I’m in the hospital. Sorry I missed our time together. The doctors tell me that I have cancer. They also told me that I don’t have long to live.” Although I knew that stunned silence wouldn’t be the best way to support my friend, my emotions had locked my jaw and the only sound that escaped my sealed my lips was a pathetic sound, “Huuummmm.” I still don’t know why the topic of death is so startling to our senses. If death is a natural part of living in this broken world, if it happens to everyone, why is it a surprise?
Dale’s shortened life was matched by an even shorter departure. Like a warrior, he battled against this disease for three months until he lost his fight. As his body began to shut down and he was confined to his bed, people would offer to bring him lunch or dinner. To all offers, he would tell them the same thing, “Sure. You can bring me cheeseburger, fries, and a small chocolate shake.” I sat on a vinyl chair talking to Dale when the smell of cheeseburger and fries wafted into the room. He graciously thanked his visitors for the food. As they got ready to leave, they approached his bed with trepidation, patted him on the hand, and said a solemn, head cocked good-bye.
After they left the room, he shared in a hushed voice about strange phenomenon he had observed, “I’ve never received a small chocolate shake. For some reason, people always bring me a large. I guess they figure, ‘He’s dying, why not go out with a large shake instead of a small one?’”
Sometimes we try to deal with death by “biggie-sizing” the end of our lives. Maybe a large chocolate shake is our way of denying death’s inevitable arrival or at least a last attempt to fight it off.
Dale’s death brought a sting into my soul that I had never felt before. The counterbalance to this great loss was the incredible blessing of seeing him die well. It is common to see people living well. But, when death comes knocking, it is uncommon to see someone look death in the face, not wince, and full of peace in their heart and joy on their face boldly declare, “I’m ready to go Home.”
His memorial service was a great snapshot of his life–short, simple and spectacular. Standing on the dew dripped grass next to the fresh dirt of a newly dug gravesite, we watched four of his pilot friends fly across the cloudless sky in their small airplanes. Suddenly, one plane peeled out of formation to burst high into the bright blue sky in the “Missing Man Formation.” I cried. The tears on my face were a small percentage of the tears in my heart. When Dale died, I think a little piece of my heart went with him.
Wearily, I returned home that night to my energetic kids. They could tell that I wasn’t my normal happy and playful self. One of my daughters asked, “What’s wrong daddy? Is everything ok?”
“Sweetheart, today I had to say my last goodbye to a good friend.” I decided this would be a good time to them about Dale. “My good friend Dale died and we had his funeral services today. Dale’s is now in Heaven with Jesus.”
After a long pause, my sweet little 4-year-old Alexa asked, “Daddy, is Heaven going to be like a big party?”
“Yes it is sweetie.” Tears began to well up in my eyes. I tried to rally some excitement and with a forced smile I continued, “Yes, it’s going to be a huge party! There will probably be more balloons up there than you can possibly imagine.”
Alexa paused, looked up into the sky and said, “That’s right! Lots of people have lost their balloons up there!”
I can learn from my four-year old daughter’s excited and eager expectation for Heaven. When I reflect on the amazing nature of the next world, of unhindered access to and enjoyment of God it helps me to fight against the message I’ve heard and have been tempted to believe for most of my life that this is all there is. When I consider the party in Heaven, I live lighter and with greater purpose in this world. God, thank you for sending me a tiny messenger as a reminder that you love me enough to create a wonderful world for me, in this life and the next – and thanks for the balloons!
The promised Heavenly Party
“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade. This inheritance is kept in heaven for you, who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.” I Peter 1:3-5
Q: What is your picture of heaven like?
Q: Are you looking forward to Heaven? Is your expectation of Heaven enough to motivate you to move towards it with energy?
Q: If Heaven has already begun for those who have a genuine relationship with God, how is it going for you so far?