Today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23:43).
This week for Lent, I was overwhelmed with hope, and it wasn’t a feeling I was expecting to have when I started reading the second chapter of my Lenten study. I figured that this sort of hope would come later – as in closer to Easter. When I read the specific last words of Jesus for the second chapter, which Adam Hamilton covers in Final Words from the Cross, I expected simply a discussion of the afterlife. Instead, I received much, much more. I was led to experience a great deal of hope by way of God’s mercy as evidenced by these words of Jesus, spoken to a lowly criminal, as well as its connection to my own personal, spiritual experiences, which I had never truly realized were connected to the cross. Sounds pretty big, huh?
As Jesus spoke these words from the cross while undoubtedly experiencing excruciating physical pain and mockery, he showed mercy to the criminal beside him who simply asked Jesus to remember him. And right there, without hesitation, Jesus showed mercy and offered salvation. He did not say, “Well, let me ask you a few questions first.” He simply offered his grace.
It is significant that the very first person to be offered salvation through Jesus was a criminal – a lost outcast who had done terrible deeds. It is significant because this means that if a criminal can be offered salvation, then we are all offered salvation. It is also significant because Jesus showed this sort of grace throughout his ministry and sought out the lost. This is what he expects of us as his followers as well.
Additionally, I had never stopped to consider Jesus’s use of “Today” in this passage. It just never occurred to me until I read this chapter. There are a few beliefs out there about what happens to us when we die. Among Christians, the two main beliefs are that there is one judgment day for all and the other belief is that we will immediately meet Christ when we die. I have always believed the latter. Hamilton spells out why he, too, believes it will be immediately, and I was reminded of numerous experiences of my own that explain why I have always believed this. It was a true gift for me to be led to biblical passages that support this, including this very significant passage from Jesus’s final words.
I’d like to tell you a little bit about those stories of my own here, about why I believe we will meet Christ immediately when we die. It isn’t just the near death experiences that we have all heard about from those who have been brought back to life, although that is indeed significant. But I would like to take you back to a story about your great grandmother. Many years ago before your grandmother was born, your great grandmother lost a little girl named Elizabeth during birth. It was very sad, and she grieved for the rest of her life for that loss. About forty years after the loss, when your great grandmother was dying, she sat up, smiled a peaceful smile and said, “Oh, my precious Elizabeth!” and died soon after.
I hope you don’t mind if I tell another story. When I was about 4, I became very ill and had grown worse and worse over the course of a few months. I had a doctor’s appointment scheduled for tests, and things were not looking good, and my doctor and parents had grown very concerned. I remember the morning of the appointment well. I was sleeping on the floor of my parents’ room. I remember having an out of body experience as an angel came to me. I was in the dark, and the angel was so bright and loving and kind. She said to me, “I am going to put oil on your head and it is going to make you feel all better.”
I do not recall anything else she said to me other than that. I remember feeling the oil on my head with my hand when she was finished and getting up to tell my mom all about it. My mom looked at me surprised as I grabbed her hand to make her feel the oil on my head, which of course, to her, was not there. However, she knew immediately that something huge had just happened. Of course, at the age of 4, I had never heard about the ancient practice of using oil for healing. In fact, I didn’t really even know I was gravely ill. My mother tells me that when we went to the appointment that day, there was no sign at all of any illness, which baffled the doctors.
Now, I don’t know why this happened and why it doesn’t happen for all other precious children who suffer from serious illness. This is something with which I struggle spiritually. I want to ask God, “Why me and not all others?” This is something I will always ask and plan to ask when I meet Him. But it happened to me. I remember it like it was yesterday, and no one can convince me otherwise. In fact, I would even go as far as to say that it has been the basis of much of my faith because it showed me from an early age that there is indeed something beyond us that we cannot physically see day-to-day, and it is a natural part of us as human beings to seek a connection to that which is beyond us. I believe our Maker put that there because we are meant to find it.
I could tell you many other stories of visits from my dad since he passed away twenty years ago. I remember the time during a special family event when I felt a cool breeze over my face, smelled his unique scent, and felt his hand on mine while he whispered he loves me — just to let me know he was there. There was also a time when he visited me in a dream. I had and have continued to dream about him, but this time was different. He came to me and was very excited and adamant that I pay attention. He pulled me in with him, and we were flying above the most beautiful place I had ever seen. The dream was in perfect, vibrant color. It was the most amazing garden surrounding a gorgeous white monument. He just wanted me to see it. It was just like him to be excited and to want to share something huge with me. I woke up and knew I had been with him. It was yet another reassurance of my faith.
The word “Paradise” as Jesus spoke about can be translated to mean “the king’s garden.” When I read that reminder this week, I thought about that garden my dad showed me in his visit with me since he passed away. What a gift he gave to me!
It was a few years after that when I saw an interview on television with a young girl named Akiane, who was an art prodigy. She would see visions and paint the most amazingly beautiful paintings. One of the images this show displayed was exactly the garden that my dad showed me that early morning, and I was so surprised to see it as I recognized the place immediately. It is called “Supreme Sanctuary” and Akiane painted it at age 11. It is unique, vibrant, and amazing:
Boys, I doubt. I think it is a normal part of our growth in our faith. But my love for you and the miracles you are to me and your dad, as well as my faith community, my prayer life, and my reminders like the ones I’ve mentioned in this post bring me back to hope, and my faith continues to grow, despite my moments of doubt.
I am so grateful for a God of love and mercy who comes to me – who comes to all of us – to offer his grace through Jesus to join him in Paradise.
I pray that as you read this in 2030, you are opening yourselves up to the source of love and grace.
All my love,