90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death & Life
by Don Piper
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 church.
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 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 bedroom community.
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 ha 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.