This past week I read two amazingly different books. As I thought about it last night it occurred to me that I don’t think I could have read two more opposite books. I started the week by reading The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, because it needed to be read before I saw the new film. It is a good book, but very predictable at times and slightly too formulaic. It is also gruesome and violent at both a physical and psychological level. The second book I read this week is Todd Burpo’s syrupy sweet tear inducing Heaven is For Real. My reading was distinctly bi-polar this week. I thought I would spend some digital ink with a brief review of Heaven is for Real.
The Great Stuff
- Disclaimer, I did not think I would like this book. In general I am not a big fan of books like this which involve dying and coming back to life , ala Don Piper. These kinds of books are not bad, it’s just that I don’t need them. I’m already convinced that heaven is real. But . . . this particular book has such a compelling story that it is interesting in spite of the fact you know from the very first page where this is headed. There are no surprises here; nevertheless it is fascinating. I do not know whether that is Burpo or his co-author Lynn Vincent.
The Good Stuff
- There are a lot of good, wholesome things about this book, but one which sticks out is that I think I would like this family. More than that, there is something about the way in which the story unwinds that feels familiar. At several points in the narrative I kept thinking, ‘Yeah, that is exactly how I would be,’ or ‘I’ve felt that way before.’
- A second bit of good stuff would be the way in which Todd Burpo, a pastor, uses Scripture as his guideline for interpreting what his son is telling him; not the other way around. It would be so tempting to take our experiences and then view Scripture through that lens, but Burpo works hard to rightly point out that Scripture is our guide and we must start there. I appreciated that aspect of the book very much.
The Bad Stuff
- There is not too much bad in the book, but I somewhat worry about this little boy as he grows up. His parents are going to need to make very certain that he is healthy and well-adjusted as he grows up in his small town. I can see where something like this–not the going to heaven business, mind you but the celebrity of being the boy who died and went to heaven–might eventually become a negative on him. I’m not saying it will, but I’m saying the possibility is there and those adults around him will need to help him process through it all.
In summary, I liked this book, and I recommend it. The read is quick, only 154 pages of text with a fairly large font (but not as quick as Don Piper’s book 90 Minutes in Heaven. He was in heaven longer than it took me to read his book.) Inevitably people ask me, “Do you believe the story is true?” Well, I suppose I have to now, don’t I? I have no reason not to and there is nothing in the book contrary to my theological construct of eternity. I can say that the narrative is persuasive and has the feel of authenticity. I hope its true. But whether Heaven is For Real is for real or not; I do know that heaven is for real.
Preaching is all about conviction. I have several convictions about preaching such as the worst sin a preacher can make is to be boring. The Bible is many things, but it is never boring. God is not boring either, but often preaching makes God sound boring. To that end one of my subsidiary convictions about preaching is that the style of the sermonizing I do should be varied. It is easy to get into a preaching rut and rely upon the same sermon schema week in and week out. Some preachers I’ve talked to say they don’t think the form matters. I disagree. The form matters a great deal. Choosing the form of the sermon is often the most important part of settling in on the sermon itself.
Tonight I worked on my series for October on finances and decided to use four different patterns of preaching for each of the four sermons.
- October 2. This is the launch of the series and I am covering Matthew 6:19-24 where Jesus says two powerful things about money. He says that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is and then he says we cannot serve both God and mammon. For this sermon I am going to use a method I learned from reading Fred Craddock. Craddock is a great storyteller preacher, but he is also an advocate of letting the form of the text dictate the sermon. So in this sermon, I am going to block it into groups of ideas and then finish with two or three summary concepts. To keep it interesting for me, I will weave into this another style of “narrative exposition” I learned from Calvin Miller, my preaching hero. Narrative exposition is my default style and I am most comfortable with it.
- October 9. For this sermon I’m going to go Hegelian. My concept is that there is a connection in the language of the Bible between debt and sin. This is most famously shown in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew. The Hegelian method follows a very strict form that cannot be toyed with too much. It has a thesis which is a positive statement, then that statement is balanced with an antithesis that is the opposite. Then the two are held in contrast with a relevant question. Then the sermon follows the course of answering how the thesis and antithesis work in the life of the believer. It is a very old form of preaching that still works very well.
- October 16. On this day I will preach about the ways we can work ourselves out of debt. It looks like an old fashioned list sermon because the title is “Five Steps to Getting out of Debt” but really it is my old friend the narrative exposition. For example, the first step to getting out of debt is to tithe, but the first step will be communicated by way of a story. I don’t know what that story will be yet, but I have an idea or two. Then each step will be the different aspects of a good narrative sermon which are biblical exegesis, supporting scripture, other stories, some statistics, probably a poem to quote, and then some real life application.
- October 23. This is the last sermon in the series and I intend to have real fun here. I will present various quotations in a “symposium” on money and finances. With each of the quotations I can interact and bring the biblical worldview into focus. Some of these quotations will be, of course, some Bible verses such as “silver and gold have I none.” I might play some more and add a piece of artwork to the symposium. I’ve preached this style a couple of times. The most successful attempt was about three years ago in a sermon about joy.
The more I work on these sermons, the most excited I get about preaching them because I love what I do.
I intended to blog about this on Monday, but worldwide events prompted my thoughts elsewhere. Now, back to the serious business of heaven. Sunday I preached about heaven from a skeptics perspective, not necessarily from a pastoral perspective. In that context there were several things I did not say which, I could certainly have included but for reasons of time or rhetorical arrangement I did not.
1. Anything else heaven might be, I do not think it will be a time when I will be justified in decisions or actions I’ve made on earth. My perception is that I will be vindicated as a follower of Christ, but not, for example, taking it on the chin when that loud mouth bully insulted me and I did not answer in kind. Part of it wants me to be the case, though. Part of me wants for Jesus to stand next to me and rip into someone and say, “Jamie was right all along and you are a moron for not listening to him.” It is a scenario I play in my head whenever I have had to endure other people’s troubling perspectives. The other part of me is glad this is not the situation in because I believe I would spend far more time having Jesus rip into me for all the people I wronged. It wouldn’t be heaven if I spent most of it avoiding Jesus to stay out of a tongue lashing. Heaven just can’t be a place of eternal “I told you so.”
2. Oddly, one of the most frequent questions I get asked about heaven is about pets. Those who love me the most know that this drives me insane because I hate pets. I like animals on my plate not on my chair. People often assume that in the resurrection Jesus will bring back to life our dear pets from the past and let them live in heaven too. Animals will be in heaven, that much I affirm, i.e. lion and the wolf frolicking together. But your pet kitty cat Tubby or beloved dog whom you named Mr. T will probably not be there. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. I push back with—if Heaven is really about being where Jesus is, does it matter whether your Tubby or Mr. T (the imaginary pet, not the actor, fool) are there? That is the real heart of the pet issue for me. Why do you want to go to heaven?
3. As a writer the Bible has such a beautiful denouement with the book of Revelation ending with a view from heaven. It brings everything full circle. Humanity started in an idyllic garden called Eden which was perfect until we messed it up. Humans have spent all of our history systematically destroying the rather gorgeous world and striking out at the image of God in each individual. But dramatically at the end of everything God puts us back in Eden. Heaven is best understood as a return to Eden. There are trees, picturesque waters, and beautiful natural wonders. Note that the “city” is made of natural products—not concrete, brick, or even planked wood. The Bible, as a piece of literature (although it is more than literature) begins by casting us as prodigals out of our home, and then winds us slowly through time until we, like a Hollywood ending, come home again to live happily ever after.
Last night I was searching for heaven.
To be more specific I was searching for heaven on my computer files. I am preparing for a series of sermons on DOUBT that begins on Easter Sunday. The second sermon is about heaven and I want to talk about doubts or questions people often have about heaven. I am actually very excited about the series. I want to start today, though, working on that second sermon—heaven.
One of the things I like to do before I preach something is find out what work I’ve done in the past on the subject or text before I boldly traipse off to work through the material. So that is why I was searching for heaven last night.
What I discovered shocked me. I don’t have a single sermon, in over 15 years of pastoral ministry and 20 years of preaching, on heaven as a topic or a singular text. Not one. I have to be careful as I write this because you might get the wrong idea. It is not that I don’t preach about heaven—I do, as part of other sermons or other ideas. It is not that I haven’t taught on heaven. I have a thick file folder in my study at work on the subject. But what I don’t have is even one sermon specifically dedicated to it. What a glaring omission that is. The same thing happened to me about five years ago. I was working through my preaching schedule and discovered that I had never preached a sermon just about King David. That was when I committed to preaching at least one a year, at least one sermon a year that was specifically fixed on the life of King David.
But back to heaven. As I drifted off to sleep last night I began to psychoanalyze myself and wonder if there was something going on that might have caused me to avoid preaching directly on heaven all these years. I came up with three possible answers. One, I might be avoiding it because I save all my good heaven stuff for funerals. Two, maybe I’ve heard so much preaching about heaven in my lifetime that I’m trying to balance the scale. Three, perhaps my pastoral focus is to lead people into how to live here rather than daydream about heaven.
This morning though, as I write with the sun coming up over majestic Puget Sound and the birds chirping outside in expectation of a spring day (cue music), I think I’ve found a better answer. For me, heaven is a major article of faith. I simply affirm that I believe in heaven but can’t ever grasp how great it will be. I take much of the language in the Bible about heaven to be metaphorical for “man, this is going to be great!” so that is all I’ve ever felt comfortable saying about it.
But as I get ready to preach it now, I’m forced to think about how people doubt the reality of heaven and how I need to approach the topic from a skeptic’s perspective. I don’t quite know how that is going to work out, but I think it will be fun. I know it will push me beyond where I am normally comfortable, and that is a good thing.