Chapter OneTHE ACCIDENT
That is why we can say with confidence,
"The Lord is my helper,
so I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?"
The Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) holds
annual statewide conferences. In January 1989, they
chose the north shore of Lake Livingston where the
Union Baptist Association, composed of all Baptist churches
in the greater Houston area, operates a large conference center
called Trinity Pines. The conference focused on church growth,
and I went because I was seriously considering starting a new
The conference started on Monday and was scheduled to end
with lunch on Wednesday. On Tuesday night, I joined a BGCT
executive and friend named J. V. Thomas for a long walk. J. V.
had become a walker after his heart attack, so we exercised
together the last night of the conference.
Months earlier, I had begun thinking that it was time for me
to start a new congregation. Before embarking on such a
venture, I wanted as much information as I could get. I knew that
J. V. had as much experience and knowledge about new church
development as anyone in the BGCT. Because he had started
many successful churches in the state, most of us recognized him
as the expert. As we walked together that night, we talked about
my starting a new church, when to do it, and where to plant it.
I wanted to know the hardships as well as the pitfalls to avoid.
He answered my seemingly endless questions and raised issues
I hadn't thought about.
We walked and talked for about an hour. Despite the cold,
rainy weather, we had a wonderful time together. J. V.
remembers that time well.
So do I, but for a different reason: It would be the last time
I would ever walk normally.
* * *
On Wednesday morning the weather worsened. A steady rain
fell. Had the temperature been only a few degrees colder, we couldn't
have traveled, because everything would have been frozen.
The morning meetings started on time. The final speaker did
something Baptist preachers almost never do-he finished early.
Instead of lunch, the staff at Trinity Pines served us brunch at
about ten thirty. I had packed the night before, so everything
was stowed in my red 1986 Ford Escort.
As soon as we finished brunch, I said good-bye to all my
friends and got into my car to drive back to the church where
I was on staff, South Park Baptist Church in Alvin, a Houston
When I started the engine, I remembered that only three weeks
earlier I had received a traffic ticket for not wearing a seat belt. I
had been on my way to preach for a pastor friend who was going
to have throat surgery. A Texas trooper had caught me. That ticket
still lay on the passenger seat, reminding me to pay it as soon as
I returned to Alvin. Until I received the ticket, I had not usually
worn a seat belt, but after that I changed my ways.
When I looked at that ticket I thought, I don't want to be
stopped again. So I carefully fastened my seat belt. That small
act would be a crucial decision.
There were two ways to get back to Houston and on to Alvin.
As soon as I reached the gates of Trinity Pines, I had to choose
either to drive through Livingston and down Highway 59 or
to head west to Huntsville and hit I-45, often called the Gulf
Freeway. Each choice is probably about the same distance. Every
other time to and from Trinity Pines I had driven Highway 59.
That morning I decided to take the Gulf Freeway.
I was relieved that we had been able to leave early. It was only
a few minutes after 11:00, so I could get back to the church by
2:00. The senior minister had led a group to the Holy Land
and left me responsible for our midweek service at South Park
Church. He had also asked me to preach for the next two
Sundays. That night was a prayer meeting, which required
little preparation, but I needed to work on my sermon for the
following Sunday morning.
Before I left Alvin, I had written a draft for the first sermon
titled "I Believe in a Great God." As I drove, I planned to glance
over the sermon and evaluate what I had written so far.
Many times since then I've thought about my decision to
take the Gulf Freeway. It's amazing how we pay no attention to
simple decisions at the time they're made. Yet I would remind
myself that even the smallest decisions often hold significant
consequences. This was one of those choices.
I pulled out of Trinity Pines, turned right, and headed down
Texas Highway 19. That would take me to Huntsville and intersect
with I-45, leading to Houston. I didn't have to drive far
before I reached Lake Livingston, a man-made lake, created by
damming the Trinity River. What was once a riverbed is now
a large, beautiful lake. Spanning Lake Livingston is a two-lane
highway whose roadbed has been built up above the level of the
lake. The road has no shoulders, making it extremely narrow. I
would have to drive across a long expanse of water on that narrow
road until I reached the other side. I had no premonitions about
the trip, although I was aware of the road's lack of shoulders.
At the end of the highway across the lake is the original bridge
over the Trinity River. Immediately after the bridge, the road
rises sharply, climbing the bluff above the Trinity's riverbed.
This sharp upturn makes visibility a problem for drivers in both
This was my first time to see the bridge, and it looked
curiously out of place. I have no idea of the span, but the bridge is
quite long. It's an old bridge with a massive, rusty steel super-structure.
Other than the immediate road ahead, I could see
little, and I certainly didn't glimpse any other traffic. It was a
dangerous bridge, and as I would learn later, several accidents
had occurred on it. (Although no longer used, the bridge is still
there. The state built another one beside it.)
I drove at about fifty miles an hour because it was, for me,
uncharted territory. I braced my shoulders against the chill inside
the car. The wind made the morning seem even colder than it
was. The steady rain had turned into a cloudburst. I would be
happy to finally reach Alvin again. About 11:45 A.M., just before
I cleared the east end of the bridge, an eighteen-wheeler driven
by an inmate, a trustee at the Texas Department of Corrections,
weaved across the center line and hit my car head-on. The truck
sandwiched my small car between the bridge railing and the
driver's side of the truck. All those wheels went right on top of
my car and smashed it.
I remember parts of the accident, but most of my information
came from the accident report and people at the scene.
From the description I've received from witnesses, the truck
then veered off to the other side of the narrow bridge and
side-swiped two other cars. They were in front of the truck and had
already passed me going in the opposite direction. The police
record says that the truck was driving fast-at least sixty miles an
hour-when it struck my car. The inexperienced driver finally
brought the truck to a stop almost at the end of the bridge.
A young Vietnamese man was in one vehicle that was hit, and
an elderly Caucasian man was in the other. Although shaken
up, both drivers suffered only minor cuts and bruises. They
refused help, so the paramedics transported neither man to the
Because of the truck's speed, the accident report states that the
impact was about 110 miles an hour. That is, the truck struck
me while going sixty miles an hour, and I was carefully cruising
along at fifty. The inmate received a citation for failure to control
his vehicle and speeding. Information later came out that the
inmate wasn't licensed to drive the truck. At the prison, supervisors
had asked for volunteers to drive their truck to pick up food
items and bring them back. Because he was the only volunteer,
they let him drive their supply truck. Two guards followed close
behind him in another state-owned pickup.
After the accident, the truck driver didn't have a scratch on
him. The prison truck received little damage. However, the heavy
vehicle had crushed my Ford and pushed it from the narrow
road. Only the bridge railing stopped my car from going into
According to those who were at the scene, the guards called for
medical backup from the prison, and they arrived a few minutes
later. Someone examined me, found no pulse, and declared that
I had been killed instantly.
I have no recollection of the impact or anything that
In one powerful, overwhelming second, I died.
Chapter TwoMY TIME IN HEAVEN
He was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none
other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven."
When I died, I didn't flow through a long, dark tunnel.
I had no sense of fading away or of coming back. I
never felt my body being transported into the light.
I heard no voices calling to me or anything else. Simultaneous
with my last recollection of seeing the bridge and the rain, a light
enveloped me, with a brilliance beyond earthly comprehension
or description. Only that.
In my next moment of awareness, I was standing in heaven.
* * *
Joy pulsated through me as I looked around, and at that
moment I became aware of a large crowd of people. They stood
in front of a brilliant, ornate gate. I have no idea how far away
they were; such things as distance didn't matter. As the crowd
rushed toward me, I didn't see Jesus, but I did see people I had
known. As they, surged toward me, I knew instantly that all
of them had died during my lifetime. Their presence seemed
They rushed toward me, and every person was smiling,
shouting, and praising God. Although no one said so, intuitively I
knew they were my celestial welcoming committee. It was as
if they had all gathered just outside heaven's gate, waiting for
The first person I recognized was Joe Kulbeth, my
grandfather. He looked exactly as I remembered him, with his shock
of white hair and what I called a big banana nose. He stopped
momentarily and stood in front of me. A grin covered his face.
I may have called his name, but I'm not sure.
"Donnie!" (That's what my grandfather always called me.)
His eyes lit up, and he held out his arms as he took the last
steps toward me. He embraced me, holding me tightly. He was
once again the robust, strong grandfather I had remembered
as a child.
I'd been with him when he suffered a heart attack at home
and had ridden with him in the ambulance. I had been
standing just outside the emergency room at the hospital when the
doctor walked out and faced me. He shook his head and said
softly, "We did everything we could."
My grandfather released me, and as I stared into his face,
an ecstatic bliss overwhelmed me. I didn't think about his
heart attack or his death, because I couldn't get past the joy
of our reunion. How either of us reached heaven seemed
I have no idea why my grandfather was the first person I
saw. Perhaps it had something to do with my being there when
he died. He wasn't one of the great spiritual guides of my life,
although he certainly influenced me positively in that way.
After being hugged by my grandfather, I don't remember who
was second or third. The crowd surrounded me. Some bugged
me and a few kissed my check, while others pumped my hand.
Never had I felt more loved.
One person in that greeting committee was Mike Wood,
my childhood friend. Mike was special because he invited me
to Sunday school and was influential in my becoming a
Christian. Mike was the most devoted young Christian I knew. He
was also a popular kid and had lettered four years in football,
basketball, and track and field, an amazing feat. He also became
a hero to me, because he lived the Christian lifestyle he often
talked about. After high school, Mike received a full scholarship
to Louisiana State University. When he was nineteen, Mike was
killed in a car wreck. It broke my heart when I heard about his
death, and it took me a long time to get over it. His death was
the biggest shock and most painful experience I'd had up to that
time in my life.
When I attended his funeral, I wondered if I would ever stop
crying. I couldn't understand why God had taken such a dedicated
disciple. Through the years since then, I had never been
able to forget the pain and sense of loss. Not that I thought of
him all the time, but when I did, sadness came over me.
Now I saw Mike in heaven. As he slipped his arm around my
shoulder, my pain and grief vanished. Never had I seen Mike
smile so brightly. I still didn't know why, but the joyousness of
the place wiped away any questions. Everything felt blissful.
More and more people reached for me and called me by name.
I felt overwhelmed by the number of people who had come to
welcome me to heaven. There were so many of them, and I had
never imagined anyone being as happy as they all were. Their
faces radiated a serenity I had never seen on earth. All were full
of life and expressed radiant joy.
Time had no meaning. However, for clarity, I'll relate this
experience in terms that refer to time.
I saw my great-grandfather, heard his voice, and felt his
embrace as he told me how excited he was that I had come to join
them. I saw Barry Wilson, who had been my classmate in high
school but later drowned in a lake. Barry hugged me, and his
smile radiated a happiness I didn't know was possible. He and
everyone that followed praised God and told me how excited
they were to see me and to welcome me to heaven and to the
fellowship they enjoyed.
Just then, I spotted two teachers who had loved me and often
talked to me about Jesus Christ. As I walked among them, I
became aware of the wide variety of ages-old and young and
every age in-between. Many of them hadn't known each other
on earth, but each had influenced my life in some way. Even
though they hadn't met on earth, they seemed to know each
As I try to explain this, my words seem weak and hardly
adequate, because I have to use earthly terms to refer to
unimaginable joy, excitement, warmth, and total happiness. Everyone
continually embraced me, touched me, spoke to me, laughed,
and praised God. This seemed to go on for a long time, but I
didn't tire of it.
My father is one of eleven children. Some of his brothers and
sisters had as many as thirteen children. When I was a kid, our
family reunions were so huge we rented an entire city park in
Monticello, Arkansas. We Pipers are affectionate, with a lot of
hugging and kissing whenever we come together. None of those
earthly family reunions, however, prepared me for the sublime
gathering of saints I experienced at the gates of heaven.
Those who had gathered at Monticello were some of the same
people waiting for me at the gates of heaven. Heaven was many
things, but without a doubt, it was the greatest family reunion
Everything I experienced was like a first-class buffet for the
senses. I had never felt such powerful embraces or feasted my
eyes on such beauty. Heaven's light and texture defy earthly eyes
or explanation. Warm, radiant light engulfed me. As I looked
around, I could hardly grasp the vivid, dazzling colors. Every
hue and tone surpassed anything I had ever seen.
With all the heightened awareness of my senses, I felt as if
I had never seen, heard, or felt anything so real before. I don't
recall that I tasted anything, yet I knew that if I had, that too
would have been more glorious than anything I had eaten or
drunk on earth. The best way I can explain it is to say that I felt
as if I were in another dimension. Never, even in my happiest
moments, had I ever felt so fully alive. I stood speechless in front
of the crowd of loved ones, still trying to take in everything.
Over and over I heard how overjoyed they were to see me and
how excited they were to have me among them. I'm not sure if
they actually said the words or not, but I knew they had been
waiting and expecting me, yet I also knew that in heaven there
is no sense of time passing.