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  • Writer's pictureJeff Conway

Stairway To Heaven: I See Dead People

In Jerusalem at the Hadassah-Hebrew University Synagogue, Marc Chagall designed and created twelve windows, streaming bright color and light into the interior. They overwhelmed me during my first trip to Israel. The windows depict the sons of Jacob: the twelve tribes of Israel. A Jewish Russian, Chagall wrote about his windows completed in 1962, “This is my modest gift to the Jewish people who have always dreamt of Biblical love, friendship, and peace among all peoples. This is my gift to that people which lived here thousands of years among other Semitic people.” He more intimately stated, “All the time I was working, I felt my mother and father looking over my shoulder; and behind them were Jews, millions of other vanished Jews – of yesterday and a thousand years ago.”

One of my favorite Chagall works is a painting of Jacob’s ladder. The story of Jacob’s ladder comes from the account in Genesis, chapter 28. It is the story of Jacob fleeing the wrath of his brother, Esau, after stealing Esau’s birthright from their father, Isaac. Jacob is fleeing to an unknown place. He is not just an escapee; he is a refugee. When darkness comes, he lays down and uses a rock as a pillow. In his sleep a vision enlightens him. He sees a ladder touching the earth, directed toward heaven. He sees angels descending and ascending between heaven and earth.

In Chagall’s painting of Jacob’s ladder, we see Jacob sleeping in the foreground enveloped in darkness. Touching the darkness is the base of the ladder. The angels of white, yellow, blue, and black lines, gently float on and around the ladder which reaches up to a bright yellow-orange heaven with an illuminating yellow sun at the top center of the painting, bringing life to the heavenly vision. It’s stunning. I smiled when I first saw it, probably because of the vision of heaven that I received as a nineteen-year-old.

The vision God gave me was not of a ladder, yet it was just as brilliant as Chagall’s painting. My vision included a grassy slope, with the color so vibrant each individual blade of grass could be seen. The grassy slope dropped down to a deep blue pond with a sky the color of the ocean water off the white sand beach of a tropical island. I then saw who I knew to be Jesus. Never seeing his face, the vision quickly centered on his beckoning hand as I heard the words, “Follow me.” The vision was powerful, but I did not fully understand what I had seen until much later.

I have held the hands of five people as they took their last breath. Early in my ministry, working with youth, I never imagined this would be a part of my ministry, but I also had no idea how beautiful and precious those experiences would be and that they would carry me through my pastoral ministry. For two of those deaths, I was seated in my office when I was overwhelmed with Spirit-filled intuition to put down what I was doing and head to the hospital. On other occasions I was not present for the death but present near the end. A number of those people had been talking openly to previously deceased loved ones. Some even asked if we could see those loved ones. For other people there was a reaching out of an arm; no words spoken, but facial expressions of knowing. And traveling was also a common theme in the last stages of death. There would be people who talked about a journey they were about to take. I remember one woman asking a family member to please go get her suitcases. One man spent his last day of consciousness traveling the paths in the courtyard of the hospice facility in his electric wheelchair, circling for over an hour. There are many signs a pastor becomes aware of as we journey with people on their way to heaven.

After Patti and I returned home from a vacation to Mexico, we received a call from the family in Boston that Patti’s dad had been moved from his nursing home to the hospital. At age 94, he was fighting pneumonia. We were told that he was lying in bed singing, “Soon, and very soon, we are going to see the Lord.” When Patti told me this, I said, “You need to get in the car and drive to Boston immediately.” Our bags were still filled with Mexican vacation clothes, but we were present with all of the siblings and spouses when her dad died a few days later, surrounded by much love.

I don’t take death lightly. It can be excruciatingly painful. It can be a time of great fear. Facing death and experiencing the death of a loved one can bring anger, confusion, and doubt. Death and the journey to death can be brutal, ugly and hard, even for the most faithful. I have a sense of the other side, but this side of death can be challenging.

For me, reading the works and thoughts of others, the generations of church mothers and fathers—like St. Columba, Teresa of Avila, Henri Nouwen, C. S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, Richard Rohr, Mother Teresa, and numerous others—helped me to understand my vision of the other side as they wrote and shared about similar visions. I’ve come to understand that it’s as if a gift was given to each where the veil between God and humanity becomes thin. It is the gift of fully knowing that God is closer than the air we breathe. Not in a way that could make you feel claustrophobic, but a sweet, awe-inspiring communion. It is what God wants all humanity to experience: that sweet communion. In the New Testament of the Bible, in Acts 17, the apostle Paul spoke to the people of Athens and said, “… [God] allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God, and perhaps grope for [God] and find [God] - though indeed [God] is not far from each one of us.” God is present, closer, intimately closer than we can fully comprehend.

I write to you as one with a failing body. The pain, the cramps, the swallowing issues, the eyelid and sight issues are all a part of my daily life. Some days are not fun in any way. But I move slowly towards death with joy and confidence—I realize that is strange to some. My journey to death, each journey to death, is filled with bold and ethereal moments. At times we celebrate the bright colors of God’s love and presence. Other moments may be darker, more shadowy. I enjoy art. I think my wonderment at the works of Chagall comes from his ability to move from concrete to surrealistic. Living well is learning how to move through both the clear parts and the blurry parts of our journey.

I pray for each of you—by name for those who send comments and requests. I desire for each of you to walk with Jesus in a relationship filled with confidence, love, and transformation. Initially, Israel was called to be the pulpit to the world: a message of presence, truth and redemption. That mantle has now been passed on to all of us who recognized that we are loved by God, a love fully expressed through God’s personal presence in the world: Jesus. So, speak with confidence to all that they may live well with God—to those who are walking with healthy bodies and those who travel with failing bodies.

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About Jeff


I've always been a fish out of water (and I love fish). From being an artist in a sports family, to a Christian who leans into the mystery of God while still trained in a Word-centered mainline tradition, and now a person in a wheelchair amongst able-bodied hikers, my life has perpetually been outside the box (or bowl). 

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