Sometimes, when the worst becomes reality, God turns theoretical musing into heavenly experience.
Al Hallene discovered his college-student son’s body after Alex hanged himself. While Al waited for the authorities to arrive, he had ten minutes alone with his son. During that wrenching time, God gave Al eight visions of heaven, where the father and son would someday reunite. As Al recounts those heartening and healing moments, readers are reminded of the affirming hope that Christians share even while asking the real questions tragedy raises: Will we see our lost loved ones again? Does God care about our pain? What does this mean for us now?
The Hope of Heaven is a very different kind of heaven book: rather than an argument for the existence of heaven or an account of an out-of-body experience, Alan Hallene gives readers a glimpse of life beyond the tragedies we endure.
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About the Author
Alan M. Hallene Jr., PhD. is the father of three grown sons, one whom he anticipates reuniting with someday in heaven. While working on The Hope of Heaven, Al was on leave from his teaching position at St. Ambrose University in Davenport, Iowa. He has also taught at the University of Illinois and the University of Iowa, and is President of NorthHill Consulting, LLC.
Read an Excerpt
The Hope of Heaven
God's Eight Messages of Assurance to a Grieving Father
By Alan M. Hallene Jr., Erin Keeley Marshall
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2015 Alan M. Hallene Jr.
All rights reserved.
One Day to Someday
But you, Lord, are a shield around me, my glory, the One who lifts my head high. I call out to the Lord, and he answers me from his holy mountain. Psalm 3:3–4
In the dark, early hours of October 2, 2008, my oldest son, Alex, left a message on my cell phone. So few words, but ones that changed my life forever.
I missed the call, his last to me, because my phone was charging in the living room.
He had left a message on my phone two days earlier, telling me how proud he was of me and that I was his hero. That one had seemed overly loving, but this one made me shiver as I listened to it later that morning.
"Dad, I love you. I'm sorry to let you and Mom down. Good-bye ..."
His words and tone set a host of fears churning in my heart. Frantic, I tried several times to reach him. I even called my other two sons, Bryan and Jimmy, but they hadn't heard from him. So I rushed to my car and drove the three hours from my home in Moline to our condominium in Champaign, where Alex was living while in his senior year at the University of Illinois.
I made the drive in two hours, barely able to breathe as I hurried to Alex's aid. It was a familiar journey. I'd traveled those roads countless times, many just in the previous months. Throughout that semester and the previous school year, I had made a habit of visiting Alex every other week or so to buy him groceries and fill up his Blazer with gas, really just to check on him. I knew he had been struggling with school pressures, but he seemed to be holding his own after a difficult time.
Never had the drive gone so quickly yet seemed so long. Even though I didn't actually know, I knew in my gut that he was gone. Everything in me wanted to get there, to see his smile and prove my instincts wrong, to listen to him laugh, to hear him say teasingly, "Relax, Al. What's bugging you?" This time, I promised myself, I wouldn't even get on him about the cigarette I imagined hanging from his mouth as he said it. Everything in me wanted to turn back the clock and demand a do-over, to shake off the tornado of dread inside.
Finally I turned in to the condominium complex, pulled in to the driveway, and ran up to the door. It was locked, but a note in Alex's handwriting was taped to it. Do not enter!! Call Al Hallene. He had added my cell number.
With a sinking heart I ran the stretch of front yards in the complex, then around the farthest one and through all the backyards to our unit. My emotions must have sent me into frantic confusion to sprint the length of a football field when I could have cut between two buildings.
Finally I stood looking into the rear picture window. The blinds were open, and my fears were confirmed. I was staring at my child's death scene. His body was hanging from a rope, obviously lifeless.
My knees buckled, and I went down.
I struggled to regain my footing and looked around for a planter or something heavy to shatter the window. But then I had a hunch that Alex had left the door unlocked for me. He had, so I ran inside and somehow lifted him up and removed the noose before we collapsed to the floor together.
As sobs wracked my body, I felt the stiffness of Alex's form. It was apparent from the rigor and the coolness of his skin that he was gone. Nonetheless, I tried a few rounds of CPR. He had been gone for hours, likely soon after leaving that late-night voice mail for me.
I held him and rocked him. It was all I could think to do right then. I bargained with God to let me trade places with my son, this young man with dark hair and features so like my own. His beautiful eyes that had gazed up at me in his first moments of life now saw nothing when I looked into them.
Minutes passed, then through my tears I noticed a small envelope on a nearby table. I managed to reach it and strained to read Alex's last words, scrawled in the familiar chicken-scratch handwriting family members had always joked to him about. I'm sorry to everyone, especially my family. You guys were great. Please try to forgive me. I love you all.
Those few poignant words reveal the essence of who Alex was: a great son and an excellent big brother who loved his family and cared so much for others that he regretted his act would cause us such grief.
To say that moment didn't make sense to me, well, the size of the understatement is sickly laughable. Nearly twenty-three years worth of learning and growing, laughing and disciplining, conversations about random happenings and big life issues, vacations and holidays, countless sporting events, tears and triumphs—all the things we enjoy with those we love, relationship minutiae we live without noticing—it was all gone. The pain of grief nearly choked me in those first minutes.
This son I cradled was the same fearless boy who had flipped over his bike handlebars, knocking out his two front teeth days before kindergarten began. He was the boy who fell headlong from atop the playground equipment and broke both his arms in second grade. Those arms had grown solid and muscular as he grew up; now they did not move.
Alex had battled on the football field, the tennis court, the golf course, the baseball field, and in the swimming pool—winning over and over again. He was supposed to win this one. He was born to win in life. He'd done it time after time, since his first moments out of the womb, with passion, grace, and laughter. Alex never gave up on anything and didn't back down from a challenge. His headlong rush through life made it seem all the more impossible that he was gone.
What I'd have given to see him sit up, to hear him toss attitude my way with a "Wassup, Al? "
He knew that would get a double take from me every time, and I'd respond, "Wait a minute, Alex! I'm your dad!"
Eventually grim reality set in, and I gathered myself to call my former Illini roommate and close friend Jim to help me by calling the authorities. I prayed that Jim, a successful businessman who traveled throughout the state, would be in town. As he has always been there for me at the moment I needed him most, he answered his phone.
I stammered into mine. "Jim, I'm at our condo. Alex had ... a terrible accident. He's dead, and ... I need you to call the authorities for me."
"I'll call them immediately. Jani and I will be right over." He must have known I couldn't handle questions right then.
I knew that shortly my private time with my son would be over. I had no clue how I was supposed to let go when the police arrived. How does one begin to let go of a child? Could I scream that question loudly enough to get an answer?
There aren't many singularly altering moments in my life, but this was one of them. Without warning, all my dreams for Alex felt lifeless. When he was tiny, I was his protector. To a large degree I, along with his mother—my former wife, Mindy—was in control of most things that affected him. The power of my influence on his life had been ripped from me, and I didn't know how to handle it. One act redefined so much. All I was capable of doing just then was to hold him and to grieve for all he, his family, his friends, the world, and I had lost because Alexander Montgomery Hallene was gone. Those thoughts rolled in chaotic waves.
All I really knew was how much I'd need God for my next breath, which came so hard beneath my weighted heart. I'd need him in the next hours as I sorted through how to tell Alex's mother and his brothers.
Then, in those ten minutes before Jim and the authorities arrived, a series of visuals unfolded in my mind that startled me with their clarity and power. They appeared in an orderly fashion despite the devastation. No doubt I was in shock, and yet I've always thought of myself as a levelheaded, boring engineer type, not prone to dramatic imaginings.
But on that worst day of my life, I experienced a series of miracles, or sensings, or feelings, all of them spiritual in nature, that have helped me to deal with the loss of my son. By nature I'm an outgoing person, but I don't tend to talk about something as personal as this experience. Still, since shortly after that day, I have felt compelled to do just that, even though dredging up the memories evokes great pain.
For a while I hesitated to share the eight messages I received in those ten minutes alone with Alex's body. I feared people might not take them seriously or might see them as mental fabrications induced by trauma. But ever since that afternoon, I have not changed my rock-solid certainty that Alex is happy and safe, and I want others to have that same assurance of what awaits them and their loved ones after death.
This writing of mine is not intended to be some kind of everyman's guide to handling personal loss. My purpose is simply to share God's confirmation to one normal, non-flashy guy of an actual heaven and a living, loving Savior.
Today, several years into this sorrow, I can look back and recognize how much I needed the Lord ever present, not in the far-off way I'd always envisioned the Creator of the universe.
Those eight messages are still vivid to me, still comfort me, and still remind me that we all long to embrace the hope of heaven for our loved ones and for ourselves.
Are eight visual images enough to console my heart? No. But they are enough to give me a glimpse of what God has prepared for each of us. They are enough for now.CHAPTER 2
Heaven in Minnesota
The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he refreshes my soul. Psalm 23:1–3
As grief and shock overtook me while I held my boy, a surprisingly real picture came to mind. As if a video were playing, I saw Alex and my late father ("Papa," to his grandchildren) in Dad's bass fishing boat at our summer home in Walker, Minnesota. They were wearing their safety vests and laughing and pushing off from the dock with their fishing gear, eager to catch "the big one."
I recognized the beautiful blue sky and voluminous clouds that sheltered our vacation cottage on Lake May. Over the decades, we'd spent countless days there together; it is still our family's heaven on earth.
As tears streamed down my face, I thought briefly that it was a fond memory of our happiest times together in what Dad had always called "God's country." He also liked to say, "No matter how bad things get, you can always go up to the lake, put a line in the water, and sort things out." I thought of how kind God was to give me that gift in my grief, until I realized that the scene was not a memory at all. It kept playing, as if in real time, with audio.
Gentle waves lapped at the boat, and I heard laughter from my father and son. I can't describe the magnitude of the warmth and happiness I felt. I do remember that it was more powerful than the grief for a brief time. And then, just as quickly as the image came to mind, it vanished.
But then another remarkable thing happened. Instead of lapsing back into despair, I understood that I had received a most unexpected and wonderful gift. I had been allowed to see and hear my two heroes again, happy and healthy, enjoying their favorite activity—fishing. I'd been given a glimpse into a current happening, right at that moment. But where was it happening?
I believe they were in heaven, not on top of giant clouds with harps playing, but acting as the vital, joyful people they had been during so much of their time on earth.
But as important as the message God sent was, I also believe he gave me the intelligence and faith to understand the certainty of it. It wouldn't have held such power without the ability to comprehend it. I'm not smart or creative enough to have thought this up, nor do I have special powers to come up with the only possible touchstone in my life that could, if only momentarily, blunt the tragic feelings I was experiencing. How vivid this scene still is for me years later. The clarity of my "video" remains amazing to me. It wasn't a dream or a conjured-up, hopeful happening. It happened. It was as if Jesus had given me a sneak preview of good things to come.
That scene at our lake home was the most effective one God could have chosen to communicate his peace to me. God had always blessed me with that Minnesota getaway, a place of thousands of happy family events over the years. It's our heritage, a place of ongoing life, of passing the legacy from generation to generation. My grandpa and grandma Hallene started going up there in the 1930s, and my mother told me I'd been there every year since I was a few months old. I'd continued that same tradition with my sons.
Alex and my father shared a special bond, which made seeing them together in that vision all the more meaningful. I remember one morning when Alex was a month old. We were living in Texas at the time, but we had traveled to the Quad Cities and were staying with my parents for Christmas. I woke up at six one morning to take my turn at feeding my boy. My father was up as well, and tears filled his eyes as he held his grandson. When I asked if anything was wrong, he proclaimed, "When your own child has a child, then you know life goes on."
Alex was the first grandson on that side of the family, and in honor of that position, my father gave him a red fishing boat that we all still refer to as "Alex's boat." In the image I received in the condo, Dad and Alex were in Dad's boat, but Alex's is still up at the cottage today.
Every year from the time Bryan and Jimmy were small until Dad passed away, they would ask him, "Papa, when are we gonna get a boat?" It became a family joke of sorts when they continued asking the question as teenagers.
Alex had a tender heart that grew ever larger as he did. After several hours of fishing one day, my dad brought his catch up to the house to clean. Little Alex was thrilled to be part of the action and sure that he could help prepare the flopping fish for eating. But as soon as Papa thumped the fish's head and made the first slice with the filet knife, Alex's brow furrowed, and he cocked his head. "Papa, do fishies cry?"
Papa had spent many hours helping all my boys learn to fish. One summer day he took Bryan out on the boat. Before long Bryan was working hard to reel in a whopper. He was hauling the big walleye up out of the water alongside the boat when it flopped one more flop, freed itself, and plopped back into the water. Bryan was crushed.
To add insult to injury, the next day my father went out and pulled up another whopper that, oddly enough, had a familiar lure and hook in its mouth. It was Bryan's fish that had gotten away. But Dad was the one to bring it home, so Dad's fish it was. It's mounted over the fireplace as his catch, a sight that hacks Bryan off every time he sees it. Pretty understandable; it is a beautiful fish.
No other place than Lake May holds such a sense of history and belonging for me. During tough times, I go up there and refuel and feel like myself, whole again.
As a family we celebrated many Fourth of July holidays there, which were a big deal in Walker. During the annual Independence Day parade, my sons and their cousins caught candy in our usual spot on the sidelines, kitty-corner from the Dairy Queen. My father often drove his 1931 Model A with the other antique cars along the parade route. Some one thousand people attended the festival of floats and exhibits, but the crowd seemed more like ten thousand.
My brother and two sisters often came to the lake with their families, and the atmosphere rang with fun, fishing, and golf at the nearby country club. The club owners even mowed a trail for us so we could drive our old 1960 Cushman golf cart from our cottage right up to the first tee.
Walker is a place of joy and family, of simple living where we avoid restaurants in lieu of grilling steaks or the day's catch right outside our back door while we watch the sun glisten on the waves as it bids us yet another good night.
Our final visit together at our summer home was a mere six weeks before Alex died. He and I and his good friend, also named Alex, traveled there together for one last fishing trip before cold weather and school stress set in. As had become my habit over the past months, during the trip I'd discreetly been watching for signs of how he seemed to be doing. He was laughing and appeared to be having a great time. The two of us even woke early one morning and fished alone together on Long Lake, a larger lake adjacent to May but one that we have many memories on as well. He was laughing and lighthearted. His friend Alex agreed with me later on that he saw no visible signs of distress in my Alex. I still wonder what was really going on in his heart, which he had become a master at masking.
Excerpted from The Hope of Heaven by Alan M. Hallene Jr., Erin Keeley Marshall. Copyright © 2015 Alan M. Hallene Jr.. 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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Table of Contents
Contents1. One Day to Someday, 1,
2. Heaven in Minnesota, 11,
3. Our Time ... His Time, 21,
4. The Gift of Life, 33,
5. Matters of Life, 55,
6. God Is a Dad Too, 73,
7. On the Bridge to the Other Side, 85,
8. Reason to Hope, 97,
9. Giving Alex Back, 109,
10. Hope Beyond Depression, 121,
11. Until We Meet Again, 139,
About the Authors, 163,