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Heaven's LessonsTen Things I Learned About God When I Died
By Steve Sjogren
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 Steven R. Sjogren a/k/a Steve Sjogren
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWe Live in a Spiritual World
When I opened my eyes, the people around my bed didn't look familiar. They didn't look like any people I had ever seen before. They were transparent. No words were spoken, but I knew in an instant what they were up to. They were present to support me, to urge me on—to not give up my desperate fight for life.
A few days before, I had gone into the hospital for a planned, forty-five-minute "simple surgery." I no longer use "simple" and "surgery" in the same sentence—anytime medical staff put you under with anesthesia, it isn't simple. I did not go home that night as scheduled. In fact, it feels as though I have been in the recovery room for more than twelve years since that procedure.
The plan was routine enough. Surgeons were to locate and remove my gallbladder—a procedure tens of thousands go through each year in the United States alone. In my case things went haywire during the first few minutes of the surgery.
Leading up to surgery, I had been having painful attacks centered in my midsection that caused me to double over in pain. I'm the sort of person who is quick to go to the doctor when I'm in pain, so after two of those attacks, I went in to see my family physician. His initial take was that my gallbladder was inflamed, so he referred me to a "great surgeon" at a nearby, medium-sized, suburban hospital. A week later I was in the office of a highly recommended but youngish local surgeon. I instantly liked this guy. He was into a lot of things that I, too, liked– target shooting and tropical fish. He was also a voracious nonfiction reader. I felt a connection with him.
After looking me over, he sent me in for a series of preliminary tests to guarantee that my gallbladder was indeed the problem. I had a CT scan, an MRI, and an ultrasound, but none of those showed the presence of gallstones—or a gallbladder. Later, when I spoke with the surgeon, he expressed his surprise that none of the tests revealed my gallbladder but commented that since "everybody has a gallbladder," mine must be diseased and had apparently shrunk significantly. That's why it wasn't showing up on the tests. It was even more in need of surgery.
I mentioned to him that I travel extensively, often out of the country. He said that might be a problem, since the surgical standards of other countries leave a lot to be desired. Was I willing to risk emergency surgery on the fly outside the country? he asked. The answer was obvious—clearly I needed surgery sooner rather than later. That was around Thanksgiving, heading into Christmas, a rather slow time for me workwise, thus a good time to face a surgery. I'm a little embarrassed to admit it now, but in a way, I almost looked forward to the surgery. It seemed like a bit of a vacation from the torrid schedule I had been keeping around that time. A week of downtime sounded as good as going to Florida for a week.
I later learned that about one person in every thirty thousand or so is born without a gallbladder. Doctors soon discovered I am one of those rare people.
In other words, on the day of the surgery, they were trying to remove a nonexistent gallbladder.
As with any laparoscopic surgery, the surgeons made three small, shallow, lateral incisions along my right side to insert equipment inside me. A final small incision was made just below my belly button, where the cutting instrument was to enter. The problem, for whatever reason—it was never determined how it happened—was that this final cut went far too deep, as in inches too deep. The razor-sharp blade hit the front of my descending aorta and then continued through to the back side of it. The aorta at that point is about the diameter of one's thumb. It is the largest artery and carries oxygenated blood from the heart "south," where it branches into smaller arteries that continue on to the legs. As I gushed blood internally, my blood pressure plummeted to 30 over 10. Normal is around 120 over 80. How low is that? Brain damage and all sorts of neurological problems predictably occur at that pressure if it remains there for any length of time. In the words of one doctor, "That's the blood pressure of a sponge, not a human." I was at that level for an hour and fifteen minutes.
Though I bled like a sieve, the doctors couldn't see the blood, since it was pooling behind my central organs, by my spine. When the team finally did notice the injury, they went to work instantly, but it was too late—I had almost completely bled out. There wasn't enough blood for my heart to continue to pump.
That's when it happened. I "coded" for seven minutes—that is, my heart stopped.
It would have stayed that way if it hadn't been for the valiant actions of my team of surgeons. They began to pump blood product into me as quickly as I could take it in.
Under duress, if there is not enough blood or circulation to go around, our bodies automatically shift into preservation mode to protect the brain and heart. All else is considered less important. Soon, due to my low blood pressure, other parts of my body began to be blood neglected, such as my liver, my colon, and my external extremities. My fingers, toes, and other, unmentionable parts began to turn blue. If something didn't change quickly, I was in danger of losing some or all of these to necrosis. In fact, my liver and colon had already begun to become necrotic (later, parts of each had to be removed, to halt the spread of gangrene), and both of my lungs filled with liquid.
Extremely low blood pressure does untold spinal damage, and that, in turn, causes all sorts of neurological problems. The damage is not obvious up front but is discovered gradually, later on. After surgery, I knew I had lost muscle control over my legs to a large degree but had no idea until time had passed that there were other, more subtle problems. More recently I've discovered that I have lost depth perception (my insurance company can vouch for that with my several wrecks). Doctors not too long ago discovered that long-term abdominal problems I have had are the result of nerve damage to my stomach from the surgical accident years ago. This often causes difficulty with sleeping. It never occurred to me that low blood pressure could be linked to digestive issues.
At times I've wondered if the repercussions of this accident at every level—physical, emotional, spiritual—will follow me through to the end of life when I die ... and stay dead this time.
I went through the wringer—almost more than a soul can bear, but I think God sent encouragement my way in the form of certain "visitors." For a time I was afraid to talk much about what I'd seen. I thought some might think I had lost it. Who ever heard of such a thing! I stopped worrying when I ran across a character named John Cassian, an early church historian who recorded the experiences of many who'd had near-death experiences, or NDEs, during which they saw others who had preceded them in death. Considering Cassian's favorable reputation in his day, apparently NDEs were considered fairly common occurrences nearly two thousand years ago.
When I opened my eyes in the ICU, these people were gathered around my bed in a circle, holding hands. I knew in an instant these mysterious-looking folks had passed away in the rooms around me at this hospital. Their eyes were partially closed, and their heads were bowed as if they were praying in agreement. Though I had never seen them before, I felt an instant and profound bond with each of them, as though I knew them well. In my heart I understood each of their life stories—what they had stood for, what they had accomplished in life, what they had devoted themselves to, where they were from, and the details of the trauma around their passing. The only parts that were withheld were the negatives. Maybe the greatest surprise was the love factor: a great emotion stirred in me toward each of them—almost equal to what I feel about my own children—a love bond beyond measure.
As I see it, the connection I felt for them must be the norm of heaven—the way we'll all know and be known when we get there. We'll know all about others with a mere, momentary glance—and we'll be connected with them forever. They'll be in our hearts, and we in theirs, at a depth that a lifetime of knowing one another on earth couldn't even accomplish.
Reports like mine may be rare these days, but perhaps that's only because many who've been through NDEs are fearful to report the details of what they've seen, or perhaps they lack a grid for understanding the spiritual world around them. But regardless of any speculations others may make about stories such as mine, reality doesn't change. What I'd felt for much of my life was confirmed when I died that day: we really do live in a spiritual world.
A group who understands well our spiritual world is the monks of Mount Athos in northern Greece. The CBS show 60 Minutes did a story about them that showed how these men make a lifelong commitment to literally "pray without ceasing" as Scripture encourages. They never leave the confines of their property, but stay to work and pray there all their days. Their operation is self-sustaining, so there are lots of chores to tend to, yet they pray all day, every day, while they work and throughout their waking hours. In the interview, as the cameras rolled, they went about their normal chores, like trimming fruit trees, all the while mumbling prayers under their breath.
For them, to pray without ceasing is a literal act, not a metaphor. They simultaneously live in both the physical world and the even more real and lasting spiritual world.
Most Americans struggle with the idea of a spiritual realm. They tend to see it as something that is possible but still remains to be proved, so there is a measure of skepticism. The majority of the other billions of earth's inhabitants see it differently. They believe, and live with sensitivity to, the spiritual dimension. To them it is just as real as the physical dimension.
The spiritual world is not confined to our waking moments—it touches our subconscious minds as well.
Everyone dreams. Most of those dreams are nonsense, but some are meaningful. Just as God often spoke to people in the Bible through dreams, he continues to speak today through the dream realm. The missing link is someone to help us interpret the not-so-obvious dreams.
I've seldom been so aware of the spiritual nature of the world as when, after the accident, a few pastor friends and I attended the Burning Man Festival (a kind of New Age art and self-expression event/experience) in the desert, north of Reno, Nevada, to show God's love to the fifty thousand "Burners" during the week preceding Labor Day. We did a couple of projects to reach out—first we gave away bottled water, along with cards directing attendees to our website, Kindness.com. Each card bore a simple message explaining not just that God is love, but that he is practical in his love. It was no surprise that our water outreach was a big hit!
Second, we did what we called "biblical dream interpretations." When people asked what we meant by that, we'd say, "We're practicing giving interpretations ... but we're not very good yet!" Our team was trained by people who had studied the dreams recorded throughout Scripture, which consistently meant certain things, and connected them with modern dreams. We didn't know how we'd be received, but the outreach was incredibly popular! Sometimes the line to see us was a block long.
There were two common dreams out of the hundreds we helped people with. First, many had dreams about being chased by zombies. The professional dream interpreters who trained us felt that these were not so much negative scenarios but signs that those running were moving toward their destinies in God—toward what God had called them to pursue in following after him.
In the second dream, which popped up time and again, dreamers saw a man standing before them. He had shoulder-length hair and dazzling, pure white clothes. As he stretched out his arms, he said, "Come to me, and I will give you rest." Person after person told us that this man, saying these words, appeared night after night, but they had no idea what it all meant. Can you imagine their surprise when we showed them the passage in Matthew where Jesus makes that very promise? They were shocked! (Even we were shocked the first time we heard that dream!)
Some began to cry. Others stood in stunned silence. And for many, the natural question was, "What do I do now?" We suggested they pray what was on their hearts to pray. Many prayed what I prayed when I first connected with God and became aware of his greatness—"Here I am."
God goes out of his way to connect with people, including giving them dreams about Jesus. We live in a spiritual world.
There's also a dark side that makes that clear. Over my years as a pastor, I've expelled demons out of dozens of people. The dynamics of these encounters have pretty much resembled those that happened with Jesus and the apostles in the Scriptures.
Though I'm a pastor, I've spent nearly my entire career starting new churches from scratch. My wife, Janie, and I will typically meet a few people, and then get to know them and their friends. As we start caring for those in need and serving them, in time, momentum grows, and more people show up. Some of those who come have spiritual problems, or "visitors," as we call them. As leaders, our job is to help rid them of spiritual hang-ups.
Once I was in the Los Angeles area, at the Venice Beach boardwalk, with a couple of church-planter friends. Church planters tend to deal with powers of darkness more frequently than conventional pastors do. As we walked in front of the hundreds of booths, we came across two spiritualists about fifty feet apart. As we strolled past, the first, a woman, called out in a male voice, "These are men of God who walk in power." We thought that was odd. We hadn't stopped to talk. We didn't even make eye contact, but her masculine words were impossible to miss. As we continued to walk, the other spiritualist chimed in unprompted: "... have come to cast us out?"
Recently, I spoke on a Sunday morning about an encounter Jesus had with a man who was demon possessed. Afterward a man came up, smiling, and said, "I'm really glad those things only happen in places like Asia and Africa, and not in America. It's good to be in a modern country where we don't see those sorts of things." I didn't have the heart to tell him differently that day, but I did tell him we'd have to grab a cup of coffee and talk.
An Ear to Hear
In the past several years, books like my previous one, The Day I Died, have been widely circulated because they touch on a subject that intrigues Westerners—the Great Beyond. These books present a hopeful story indicating that there is something real "out there," beyond what our physical eyes can see. Their stories have sparked hope in many hearts—hope for the eternity that our super-rational training has drained out of us. The truth of the Scripture remains: "He has put eternity in their hearts." There is a longing in all of us to live forever.
Like a lot of folks, as a child I was naturally inclined to see the world as being spiritual. Though I didn't understand it very well, I assumed there was a supernatural world around us. I remember, at age nine, praying and hoping there was a God who could help me. I had lost the special Swiss Army knife that my grandfather Emil had given to me. I was sick at the thought that I might have lost it forever, so I prayed, "God, show me where to find that knife."
Immediately, an image popped into my head of exactly where to look. Out of all the areas of the house and garage where the knife could have been, I went right to the place I had seen in my head. I opened the drawer, moved one thing aside, and there it was, exactly as I had seen it in my mind's eye. It would have taken me hours to go through each room and drawer in my own ability. But with help from the Spirit of God, I knew precisely where to go. As the Spirit empowers us, we are able to live effectively.
I don't remember praying again until I was eleven, when I lost one of my best aluminum arrows somewhere in more than an acre of thick Bermuda grass next to our house. It had glanced off my target, but as dusk approached, I had no idea which direction it had gone. The mowing guys were coming the next day with heavy equipment to care for the lawn, so the arrow would be bent if I didn't find it then and there. I was desperate, so I prayed, "Please, God, help me find the arrow!" And defying reason, again an image came to mind as to where it was. By faith, I walked over to that spot, ran my finger under the thick grass, and bam! There it was. I thought, I should remember to pray more often!
But I forgot. As I grew older, my experiences of connecting with God receded to the far back of my mind. In spite of those childhood times of seeing God prove himself in simple but real ways, I lived with a hyperrational perspective for the next couple of decades. Another way to put it—I lived in my head.
I became a believer a number of years later, in college. Yet even after my spiritual conversion, when I turned my life over to the leadership of Christ, my perspective was skewed. The prevalent thinking in my circles was that we should be suspicious of anything claiming to be "supernatural." Those things happened back in "Bible times," not in the past two thousand years. I had placed God in a predictable, measurable, contained box. I didn't realize it then, but God was about to annihilate the box.
A few years into my spiritual journey of following Christ, I grew hungry for a deeper, more authentic relationship with God. I began to sense once again that God wanted to speak to me, but in matters more important than lost arrows. He wanted to connect with discouraged people who needed to hear from him, so now he was asking me to be available to listen to him for their sake.
Excerpted from Heaven's Lessons by Steve Sjogren Copyright © 2013 by Steven R. Sjogren a/k/a Steve Sjogren. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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