I came away from Heaven Is for Real thinking that either Colton Burpo was carried in an out-of-body experience to a biblical wax museum or he's been channeling images from his father's sermons back to his credulous parents.
With surprising swiftness and dramatic results, a significant segment of American Christians has over the past 50 years abandoned previously established funeral customs in favor of an entirely new pattern of memorializing the dead. Generally included in the pattern is a brief, customized memorial service (instead of a funeral), a focus on the life of the deceased, an emphasis on joy rather than sadness, and a private disposition of the deceased.
This little scene in which James takes us into a worship service for a
lesson on favoritism is perhaps the epistle’s best-known passage. The
imagery is crisp and irresistible, the moral lesson so chronically
needed. A worshiper who arrives in minks and gold rings is promptly
ushered to a choice pew, but a poor person who shows up in rags is
relegated to the bleachers.
John Ames, 76-year-old Congregationalist minister and narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s stunning novel Gilead, keeps his old sermons in boxes in the attic. “Pretty nearly my whole life’s work is in those boxes,” he says.
A student in one of my preaching courses was struggling terribly. The sermons he preached in class were plodding, disorganized and weakly supported exegetically and theologically. He was aware that he was not meeting expectations, and was frustrated and embarrassed. But then, in his final opportunity to redeem himself in the course, he surprised us all by preaching a stunning sermon, profound and lyrical. It was good—too good.
As Jesus was about to descend the Mount of Olives to enter Jerusalem, Mark reports, he dispatched two of his disciples to fetch a colt. A seemingly minor matter of transportation it would seem, but surprisingly, over half of Mark’s story of Jesus’ entry into the city is occupied with mundane details about acquiring this animal—where to go to find it, what kind of colt to seek, what to do, what to say.
Most New Testament scholars say that the Gospel of Mark originally ended with the story of the women who go to the cemetery, only to encounter a mysterious young man pointing to Jesus’ empty tomb and announcing the resurrection. One of the challenges of this view is that if Mark truly ended his narrative here, he seems to have concluded by deliberately not concluding, by dangling something incomplete and unsatisfying before the reader in the final verse.
In 2005, just in time for Easter, Mel Gibson released an edited version of his controversial film The Passion of the Christ. A few brutal scenes had been cut and camera angles had been changed, all in an attempt to soften the graphic violence of the original. Gibson said that the new edition of the film would appeal to people who “want to take your Aunt Martha or Uncle Harry” to see it but who would find the first version too intense.
On Larry King Live the other night, a well-known Christian musician was telling his life story, and it was exactly the kind of story I prefer not to hear from the pulpit. As King peered at him through his owlish glasses, the musician told of being raised in a warm and loving Christian family and of discovering in high school that he was blessed both with a vibrant faith and with a rare musical gift. Eventually shaking off the dust of his little town, he took his faith and his keyboard and headed off toward the bright lights of Nashville, aiming at a career in gospel music.
Something’s missing in the current culture war over the Ten Commandments. I knew about Judge Roy Moore, the now-removed chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who waged and lost a stubborn fight to keep a Ten Commandments monument in his courthouse. What slipped past me is just how much this monument of his weighs: 5,280 pounds, or just over 500 pounds per commandment.
Not far from where I live is a geological oddity. Stone Mountain is a bald and rounded mass of granite a mile and a half long and nearly a thousand feet high. Eons ago, molten rock pushed up from the earth’s core to the surface, then bubbled out and hardened into a monolith. Given the flat landscape around it, what one notices first about Stone Mountain is how unexpected it is. This isolated mass of stone stands all alone, sticking out like a blister on a thumb. It is as if an unneeded chunk of the Rockies was carelessly tossed over the shoulder of the Creator and landed improbably in a Georgia pasture.
When the longtime professor of preaching at Bethsaida Theological Seminary retired, no one at the school could have predicted the ordeal that lay ahead. A search committee was appointed, and a position description crafted. The candidate needed to have a Ph.D., an appreciation for Bethsaida’s theological tradition and at least some experience as a pastor and as a teacher of preaching.
On December 6, 1876, in the tiny village of Washington, Pennsylvania, an Austrian-born immigrant named Baron Joseph Henry Louis Charles De Palm became the recipient of what is described as the first cremation in modern America. It was not a pretty sight.
On a Sunday morning in a certain city church, the Gospel lesson had been read and the minister was about to begin the sermon. Suddenly a stranger seated in the balcony stood up and interrupted the service. “I have a word from the Lord!” he shouted. Heads whipped around, and ushers bounded up the balcony stairs like gazelles.
One Saturday afternoon, my wife and I escaped to the movies. We had barely slipped into our seats and positioned the bucket of popcorn between us when a gaggle of teenagers jostled into the row behind us. They were having a great time together, noisily talking and teasing and laughing.