It was not the time of life called public school when you have to be on-time to class or they give you a detention. It was the time of life after that, called college, where you get to leave in the middle of class if you have to pee. You might draw a scowl or two, but no one cares too much. As for being on-time, that was just my overachieving personality revealing itself yet again. This also could have been because I had entered the insecure world of beginner volleyball, a place I had no right to enter. As an elective, I thought that my chances at success were somewhat elevated, and being on time certainly couldn't hurt.
Up the stairs I went, swooshing powerfully through the double doors and half-jogging towards the hollow, hallowed hardwood floors.
That's when I heard a very jubilant "hello!" from my right.
I turned abruptly, slowing my pace, and said, "Hello" back, almost before I saw who I was speaking to.
Sitting with his back against the wall and his legs and knee socks stretched out in front of him, an older man smiled at me. A brown lunch bag stood at attention in front of him and he was slowly peeling an orange, carefully placing the discarded peel inside the bag.
"How are you?" I asked good-naturedly, and a bit curiously.
"Good," he answered gravelly, his mouth encumbered by a long blade of grass he had hanging out of the side.
"How do you eat an orange with that hay in your mouth?" I blurted with a smile.
He laughed like that was the funniest joke he had heard in a long time.
But he didn't answer me. He just looked me in the eye and asked, "Can you read me Revelation 21?"
I was surprised to say the least.
"Well, I don't have my Bible with me," I answered lamely.
He was not put off. "Can I take your picture?" He grabbed his backpack, pulled out a plastic camera, and snapped a shot before I had the nerve to say, "Ew, you creep, No!" He used his thumb to wind the old-fashioned camera.
He stood up, lunch crumbs falling from his baggy shorts onto the ground of the gym foyer.
"I'm David. David Peterson," he said. "In Heaven, people aren't gonna be mean to me."
I understood, in that instant, that David was special...in many ways.
"Are you gonna be mean to me?" he prodded.
I knew better than to chuckle, knowing this question had prickly roots. "No, David, I'm not gonna be mean to you." I meant it too.
"And in heaven, I'm gonna be smart. I'm won't be sixty-three either." His excitement was contagious and I found myself smiling yet again.
I leaned in towards him. "It's going to be perfect, David."
This was the right answer, I guess, because he asked me if I would come back next week when he was eating his lunch.
"Probably, I'll be here," I answered.
Right then, the life coach came to collect David and the rest of his group who were doing manual labor on our campus. David quickly collected his trash and his backpack, mumbling under his breath about weeds and fresh air and how he liked his work when no one picked on him.
"Do you promise to come and bring your Bible too?" He demanded.
I hesitated. "I can't promise, David. What if I get sick? Or my teacher gets sick and we don't have class?"
"In heaven, we won't get sick," David interjected.
"Yeah. Exactly. So, I won't promise, but I'll do my best to be here next week."
And I did make it the following week. This time, about fifteen minutes early to class, I peeked around the corner of the gym doors and spotted David sitting in the same spot.
"You came!" He was obviously happy.
I was too. How can you not be happy with a greeting like that.
"Did you bring that Bible?"
I nodded and shrugged out of my backpack.
"Will you read to me?"
"Yup," I answered enthusiastically. "Let me just get my breath."
"I always have to catch my breath," David replied. "'Cuz I eat too many french fries and I'm fat."
He looked at me sideways. "You're not fat though? Do you ride a bike? I like to ride a bike except when people flip me off and yell *!$%#@*! at me."
I tried not to show my surprise by his yelling cuss words. On a Christian college campus.
"That doesn't sound like very much fun to me either, David," I replied, flipping my Bible to the very back. To the book that I least understood, and was most intimidated by. This did not seem to be David's response to Revelations.
"21 is the best," he said excitedly and I turned to that chapter.
I read it slowly, sometimes not even sure he was listening to the dream-like writing of John. David's always-present blade of grass twisted in his fingers, then twisted in his mouth, then back to his fingers in a quiet, OCD way. At one point, he even pulled out his camera and took my picture while I was reading. I gave him my best future teacher stare and he sheepishly wound the camera and put it back in his bag. Then, out of nowhere he shouted - startling me worse than the cussing moment - "This is my favorite part!"
I nodded and continued reading:
"Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away."
"I'm gonna see my parents!" he interrupted. "I'm not gonna be old and God's gonna be there too."
I closed the Book, his palpable excitement contagious. "You are, David!"
"No one's gonna be mean to me...And I'm going to read and talk right...and I'm going to pull weeds in Heaven...And swim."
David rambled on and on. Sometimes I understood what he was saying and other things made little sense.
One thing was for sure though: heaven was real. For David Peterson, it was as real as the chair I sit in, writing these words, a little smile crossing my face as I recall.
It was a place of hope - where his sixty-three year old body and his six-year old brain would no longer fail him, where there would be no pain or sorrow. Heaven was a place of comfort - where he would finally understand social cues and read the words to the worship songs we sang at church and never cry again. Heaven was a place to belong - where he would not be mistakenly ushered out of church (I had to intervene and explain that he was with me - not accosting me!), where family resided together with God Himself.
If David could have put his jumbled thoughts into coherent words, I think they'd resemble another David's words: By You I have been upheld from birth; You are He who took me out of my mother's womb. My praise shall be continually of You. I have become as a wonder to many, But You are my strong refuge. (Psalm 71:6-7)
Here I was, a born-again Christian at a respected, expensive Christian college full of words and definitions and new ideas. Yet, it was this uneducated, untrained, and full-fledged child of God who challenged me most with his simplicity of faith. Next to him, my ambitious aspirations and long philosophical exercises looked laughable. His citizenship - and mine - was in Heaven, but David already had his passport stamped, ready to relocate.
Is it any wonder that Jesus challenged the Pharisees, saying, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (Mark 10:14-15)
I don't think Jesus was saying we had to become children to go to Heaven, nor was he saying that only children go to heaven. Jesus was challenging all humanity to come to God with a need for Him, a hunger and a humility and a dependence on Him. No achievements, no virtues, no titles, no aspirations, no talents - nothing was needed, except faith. That's why it is so easy for David Peterson and children in general - they know they don't have much else to give. It's us adults who think we have to bring an appetizer to the Ultimate Dinner Party.
For the next seven years or so, David Peterson would talk to me regularly - first in person, while I attended college, and then, over the phone, when I moved away and married Real Gil. I readily admit that there were times when he would call, and I would roll my eyes, remembering all the "important" things I needed to get done at that moment. Usually, though, after a few minutes of talking with David - repeating the same conversations each time with very few variations, I would hang up smiling. How could you not smile in the face of such hope? His hope was contagious too. Before long, Real Gil became one of David Peterson's favorite people, possibly because Gil went to his house and looked at the shelves and shelves of photo albums lining each empty wall in his group home.
"Who's this, David?" Gil would ask, pointing to a random photo - one of thousands in his collection.
"I don't know," David would answer in confusion - not confused by his inability to place the face, but by the very question, as if you were supposed to know someone's name before you took their picture.
After our marriage, Gil and I moved away. Surprisingly, this wasn't as difficult a transition for David as it was for me. I shouldn't have been surprised. David had long ago gotten used to people leaving him. Perhaps just another reason why Heaven looked so good to him.
When I told him we were moving away, he shrugged and patted my shoulder, telling me that I had his address and I could mail him pictures regularly. And he could call us "all the time!" he comforted me. (Gulp!)
Indeed, David did call us regularly. I would read Revelations 21 out loud, the phone cradled on my shoulder. David would listen very quietly until he could no longer hold his excitement at bay and would interrupt my reading with his exclamations. Sometimes, I would drop the phone or if I could anticipate what was coming, I'd move the phone a few inches away from my ear before he started shouting. One time I told him he should become Pentecostal and he laughed like he completely understood what I was saying. Perhaps he did. Perhaps he was.
When I moved away, I remember David reminding both him and I that we would see each other again, that in Heaven I wouldn't go away and forget all about him.
Funny though - I did move away, but I've never forgotten David. Somewhere in the midst of a cross-country move, I lost David's phone number. His address was on the same piece of paper. As far as I know, this illiterate 70+ man probably isn't savvy on Facebook. But I have been trying to find him. I would like to know that David is okay.
But I'm pretty sure he is.
In the margin of my Bible on page 2022, next to Revelations 21, are the scribbled words: David Peterson.
I can't help but smile when I stumble across that note, this passage.
If God could snap His fingers (yes, He can) and restore David Peterson to a healthy, intellectually sound human being (yes, He could), I think I would weep with sorrow for what would be lost.
Then, I think of David's mother, a woman who wanted the best for her son. So much so that she and her husband left everything for him when they died - which happened to be a lot - so that David and his entire group of mentally disabled children of God might enjoy comfort and security for many years to come. Did she ever pray that God might restore her son to what "could have been"? If so, as always, God answered, but the answer was "No." And I'm so thankful for the lessons I've learned because of David, because of the "No." I didn't have to struggle with the day-to-day challenges of raising and loving David Peterson, I only reaped the blessings of knowing him and his simple faith. Maybe some day I will meet her and tell her that it was all worth it. I'm pretty sure she knows this already.
Gordon Adams uses an analogy about life: he says that life is like staying in a hotel. Sometimes, the hotel is beautiful, pristine, right down to the mints on the pillow. And sometimes, the hotel is disgustingly inadequate to our taste. But either way, since we know it is not our home, we don't change the wallpaper, paint the walls, or replace the sink. Similarly, in these bodies of ours, on this Earth of ours, we can live and move and breathe (and even renovate the homes we live in!), but all of it is to be done with our eyes looking upwards. We don't have to control and manipulate our environment or our children or our spouses. We rest in Him who does the work - even in us - and we diligently pursue Him with our hearts, our eyes on the prize.
While Heaven might seem vague and distant, I know it is not. David Peterson would shake me by the shoulders and say (a bit too loudly), "I'm going there! You are too!"
I would smile, somewhat dazed by his delight, and nod. Though I can't see heaven, I trust in Him who created it.
So, today as I move and live, I hope "for what [I] do not see, with perseverance [I] wait eagerly for it" (Romans 8:24-25). Although I don't have David Peterson to remind me of the reality of Heaven and the jubilant anticipation with which we can go through our days, I do have three little ones who daily remind me of things not seen - God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, faith, miracles, Heaven. I'm savoring them today for selfish reasons - because they remind me, like David did, of that which I might not be able to see.
Resting in Him Who Will Dwell Amongst Us Forever,
Now, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.