Faith, Media & Culture

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer – Romans 12:12

90 Minutes in Heaven arrives in theaters today (Friday, 9/11). I’ve previewed the film (based on a New York Times bestseller) which makes a point of testifying to the importance of the virtues expressed in the Scripture above. Besides its hopeful faith message about the reality of Heaven, the true story of how Pastor Don Piper and his wife Eva struggled with the aftermath of the temporarily fatal traffic accident that left his body unimaginably broken is riveting.  Highly Recommended. 

I recently had the opportunity to talk with the couple (played in the film by Hayden Christensen and Kate Bosworth). You can read the interview below the film’s synopsis.

Synopsis (from the movie’s website): Pastor Don Piper died January 18, 1989 when a semi-tractor truck crushed his car. Declared dead by the first rescue workers to arrive on the scene, Don’s body lay under a tarp for the next 90 minutes. Don’s soul, meanwhile, was experiencing love, joy, and life like he’d never known before. Don was in Heaven.

When another pastor’s prayers helped bring Don back to life, he became a living miracle! Yet this is one miracle Don wished never happened. Heaven’s bliss was replaced by excruciating pain and emotional turmoil. With the support and prayers of his beloved Eva, their three kids, and friends near and far, Don clings to his faith in God and fights to regain a semblance of his previous life. The Piper family’s incredible true story of perseverance and overcoming the challenges of life—and death—will bring hope and encouragement to all who see it.

A conversation with Don and Eva Piper
JWK: Can you tell me a little bit about that day and what you experienced?

DON PIPER: I was on my way to church. I had just pulled out of a conference center about 130 miles from my church, north of Houston. It was raining and cold and kind of a miserable day but I was on my way to church. I wasn’t thinking about that. I had some new sermons on the seat beside me that I was going to start preaching the next Sunday morning…I never did preach any of those sermons in my church. I don’t really have them anymore. They were destroyed in the accident.  Except one. I still got it because the state policeman found pages of it. You saw that in the film. It’s a sermon called I Believe in a Great God. I have it in this office where I’m sitting right now. It’s accompanied by my dried blood. It was an interesting beginning to what would be a very, very long ordeal.

I was on the bridge and the 18 wheeler crossed the center stripe and hit me head on. Of course, I was killed instantly.

The next memory I have of here was singing in the dark with that pastor behind me. I didn’t know who he was. We were singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus. I have various memories after that of being put on the gurney. Hours later, face up, I’m looking at the girders of the bridge and rain is falling on my face. I had no idea what had happened to me. I remember the emergency room, a doctor telling me they were going to do everything they could. I remember the ambulance ride which was one of the most horrifying experiences of my life. The shock had worn off by that time and I was feeling it.

I remember riding in Houston, six and a half hours after the wreck, and looking into the faces of Eva and a friend of ours who was standing there to welcome me. That’s it. I don’t really remember anything else after that point.

DP: Absolutely, yes. That’s the backdrop of my life…I remembered it but I was also very confused…It would take days if not weeks for the facts to unfold of what actually had happened here. I didn’t learn until the gentleman who prayed for me showed up at the hospital about two or three weeks later…to really find out what happened. He came upon the accident and he felt God speak to him…It took a long time for me to figure out what happened to me here. I had no doubt what had happened in Heaven. And, of course, that’s where I wanted to be. If you came back to what I came back to, it made Heaven even more vivid and real and desirable.

JWK: Briefly, as best you can, how would you describe what it was like in Heaven?

DP: It was the most real thing that’s ever happened to me. This (life on Earth) doesn’t seem real. Even all that pain and all those surgeries pale — as traumatic and painful as they were — to the joy, the excitement and the bliss that is Heaven because we’re with God. I was surrounded by all those people I knew and loved in life and who proceeded me in death. I don’t think that’s ironic. It may seem that way. I was trying to fight for life down here on Earth and these people were perfect in Heaven. That’s where I (really) wanted to be because I was perfect there. I had scars from head to two down here but in Heaven I didn’t have any scars. Nobody does, except Jesus.

It was an awesome thing– the colors, the aromas. Heaven is a sensory explosion of angels that were everywhere. I could even hear their wings — and music that was beyond comprehension, really, thousands of songs at the same time without chaos. The golden boulevard that was so pure you could see through it. And brilliant, brilliant light that we couldn’t see with earthly eyes because it would blind us.  So, I just wanted to climb the hill in the middle of the city and fall at His Feet and say “Thank you for letting me come!” Of course, I never got a chance to do that.

As I was proceeding to do that, that’s when the pastor was singing What a Friend We Have in Jesus back in the car and suddenly I found myself in darkness singing with him.

JWK: Why do you think God had you come back into this world?

DP: You can imagine how many times I asked that question! Lying in bed I had plenty of time to think about it for 13 months…flat on my back. I think the answer is very clear to me — and that is to tell people that Heaven is real and Jesus is The Way. I went to Heaven because I was ready to go. I wasn’t planning to die that day but I was ready. It’s a question of being ready. Heaven’s a prepared place for prepared people. I was ready.

The other compelling reason is because the people who greeted me at the gates were the ones who helped me to get there. The question I have now for everybody I meet is who are you going to greet at the gates of Heaven? Who’s going to be there because of you? I think that’s why we’re all still here. Believers are here to help everyone else get there — and we have much, much work to do.

So, I just want to encourage people. There are people who will be in Heaven because of your ministry, of your outreach, because of your care and compassion for them and your introducing them to Christ. That’s how they’ll get there. We have people we love here that we want to love there. So, what are we doing to help them get there?

JWK: Eva what was your experience during all this and when Don finally told you what happened?

EVA PIPER: Well, of course, I was thrown into being a caregiver. Our lives went from a pretty ordinary life (of a) minister and school teacher raising three children to five-minute increments where you’re wondering what was going to happen. It was very difficult during that time. We had to kind of learn to do things a new way…(I) was all of a sudden thrown into the role of being a caregiver which is a very difficult role. It’s one of the hardest roles I’ve ever had to fulfill because you’re never fully prepared for that. You can do some things (such as) make sure that your family bonds and your friend bonds are strong — and strengthen your faith — but you’re never fully prepared for all of the decisions and all of the different critical things that you will have to do, all the things that you will have to learn to do while your being a caregiver.

But when Don did tell me about the Heaven experience it was a sense of relief because I had really questioned his depression — why he did not seem to be happy to be back with our family. If you’ve seen the film, there’s that scene where Kate (Bosworth who plays Eva in the film) is asking that question. “Don’t you want to grow old with me?” “Don’t you want to see our children get married?” Those were legitimate questions that I was really struggling with. So, when Don did tell me about the Heaven experience it helped me understand that because it have been in the glory of Heaven no one would want to come back to Earth — even if you came back to a healthy body. Don came back to a body wracked with pain 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. So, I had a much better understanding of my husband at that point.

JWK: Dan, there’s that scene near the end of the film where you approach a young man who was experiencing physical suffering similar to what you had gone through. Did the experience help heighten your empathy toward the suffering of others?

DP: That’s exactly what happened. He was the first but there have been literally hundreds if not thousands since then. (They weren’t) always wearing an external fixator like he was wearing and like I wore. It goes beyond that. It’s bankruptcies, it’s divorces, it’s tragedies, it’s loss of loved ones, it’s hurricanes, tornadoes, you name it.

One of the beautiful things about the release of this movie on 9/11 is that it reminds us of just how painful and difficult life can be. How do we get through that? Yeah, that’s what I’m here for.

One of the experiences that certainly emerged out of my experience of being incapacitated and in such great pain for such a long time is the empathy and the sympathy that goes with that because I asked God in the hospital “Why can’t you send somebody who understands how I feel?” And there simply weren’t any people who understood the way I felt because that wasn’t anyone who had worn the same device in the same place that I had worn it. It was a whole new thing. It was experimental in the very true sense of the word.

So, as I called out to God and said “Why can’t you send somebody here to help me?” He said to me through some music in the hospital bed that night “I want you to help others. Look outside of yourself and get over your pity party and reach out to other people because you will now understand how they feel and you’ll be able to minister to them in ways that you never could before you were run over by the truck.”

So, that’s what happened. That is what I do now. I’m called upon and I seek out opportunities to hold the hands of people who are going through a long, dark night and help them through that dark night because I do understand how it feels to suffer and be in great pain.

JWK: So, one lesson of the film, and your story, is that we can use our suffering to help others.

EP: Yes.

DP: A man walked up to me the other day. He had lost his wife. He was in great, great emotional distress — understandably, he had been married for many years. He said “I don’t know why God took my wife and left me here.” I said “Well, you’re wife belongs to Him. She doesn’t belong to you.” You know, God just loans us to each other. We don’t belong to each other. We belong to Him whether we acknowledge it or not. Well, she had acknowledged God so she was with God — absent from the body, present in the Lord.

I said “Think of all the men and women out there who have lost their spouse who can benefit from your wisdom, knowledge and your care and compassion because who better than you to minister to people who have lost a spouse. You understand. You get it. A light came on. You could just see it in his eyes. He goes “Sure, I can help them because I know what this feels like.” I said “Of course, you can.”

And that really is what life is all about. You can either be bitter or better. You can either shake your fist at God or take the same hand and reach out to other people and say “Let me help you. I understand how you feel.” That, I think is the key to finding the “new normal” that I talk about.

JWK: Can you define that?

DP: The new normal?

JWK: Yes.

DP: That’s discovering that you’re never going to be the way you were before…It’s the decision to reach outside of yourself and use your circumstances, whatever they are, to bless other people — and then you’ll understand why you went through it (and) why you had to change.

JWK: How happy are you with the film? It seems very realistic to me. The dialogue, for instance, is very believable. Do you feel the film is an accurate depiction of what happened?

EP: That’s why we decided to go with Giving Films. They’re the ones producing this movie. Two reasons really.

A. They promised to do an accurate portrayal of the book — to hold to the truth of the book. They certainly kept their promise to do that.

And then, secondly, because they are a non-profit, all of the proceeds from this movie will go to charities — for orphans, for widows, for some of our veterans suffering from PTSD. For us, that was a win-win situation. The truth was going to be told from the book and all ticket sales will then go to help other people.

JWK: I’m curious. Did you ever meet Colton Burpo, the boy who a similar experience that was chronicled in the book and movie Heaven is For Real?

DP: Oh, sure. I’ve spent a long time with the Burpo family. We’ve actually done events together. He a tremendous young man. He’s fifteen now. He’s a singer. He performs. Colton’s kind of a quiet guy. He’s not the person who loves sitting down for interviews. What he experienced was…just part of the fabric of his life. He lived it.

We certainly identify with that. This is my life. This is something I tried to put behind me and God put it in front of me. I think the same thing applies to Colton.

It profoundly changes (you). I never met anyone who had an experience similar to ours, Colton’s (and) mine, who is not profoundly changed by it.  It just changes you. You’re not the same person.

I never met anybody who had an experience like this — whether they were a believer or not — who is not now a believer. There may be some but none have introduced themselves to me. It changes you that profoundly. You know that Heaven is real. You know that this life matters. What we’re doing now matters on the way to Heaven. That, of course, is our purpose. We’re trying to get people into Heaven and help them have a better trip on the way.

JWK: So, you’ve met other people who have had similar experiences.

DP: Most are unknown. They’re not people who have written books or that they made movies about or anything else. These are ordinary who walk up to a book table or stop me in a hallway or on the way to some event…and they’ll very quietly take me by the hand and say “I had a similar experience to you.”

And then I will look at them and say “And you’ve never been the same, have you?” They’ll shake their hands, usually. Tears will begin to roll down their face (and they’ll) say “No, I’ve never been the same after that. And I never told anybody before but I just have to tell you because I know you’ll understand what it’s like.” And I say “Yes.”

So, it’s a much more common experience than most people would acknowledge. I think people are uncomfortable with it. That’s why you have some doubters — several of which are just curious doubters. They’re interested but they just don’t think it could happen. And you have some fairly mean-spirited people who just want to attack you for whatever reasons that I don’t understand. It’s very judgmental.

But, beyond that, it’s real. I mean I wouldn’t set myself up for this if it wasn’t real. I wouldn’t talk about it if I wasn’t trying to get people interested in Heaven. It was a sacred secret to me, actually. It was something I wanted to put behind me and get over but God put it in front of me.

So, we press on. Heaven is real — and we’re trying to get people into it!

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus