Category Archives: Living Faith

Heaven Is For Real: Reflections on the Movie

There is something about the spring that brings out religious themed movies.  This year (2014) we’ve seen three released in quick order; Noah, God is Not Dead, & Heaven is For Real.  One of the things I like least about being a pastor is that I’m expected to see these movies.  They stir up a lot of questions and if I’ve not seen them, I will be clueless about how to respond.  I’m able to duck most of them.  This year’s crop is harder.  Having said all that, I attended a matinee showing of Heaven is For Real particularly because I’ve heard that so many people I know are interested in it.

The movie is based on the very popular book (Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back) by Todd Burpo, published in 2010.  It is described as a true story.  I have no idea how closely the movie follows the book, and frankly, I don’t intend to find out.  Maybe the movie follows the book very closely and the book follows the experience of the Burpo family accurately.  If so, then some of the comments below take on a different meaning.  I’ll simply assume that like most movies, liberties are taken.

I’m not a movie reviewer.  This post will not focus on the performances or the other things common to movie reviews.  Others can do that much better.  What I will do is make observations and ask questions that come out of theological reflection.  In that way, I hope this is a useful tool, and relatively unique.  You see, movies like this shape our theological understanding of the world, often more than scripture does.  Without good questions, we are likely to simply take these at face value.

An aside: I thought taking notes in a dark movie theatre would be a lot easier than it was.

Why is this “event” described as “a trip to heaven and back”? 

Colton Burpo (age 4) nearly dies as the result of a burst appendix and has an “out of body” experience during his operation.  It is made quite clear that he does not die at any point during that operation.  He later has at least 2 (maybe 3) other experiences of “heaven” that most people would easily call, “visions”.  These visions serve to reinforce his original experience.  Why wasn’t this simply called a “vision of heaven”?  That’s what it was.  I’d be able to defend a vision of heaven very easily with the evidence presented.  An actual visit to heaven has too many other problems.

 What does this description suggest about who we are?

To say that Colton visited heaven is to subscribe to a type of dualism of body and soul that is not scripturally sound.  The distinctions between flesh and spirit we see especially in Paul’s writings describe “passions” or impulses rather than our identity.  The body spirit/soul distinction is dismissed out of hand in our creedal confessions of bodily resurrection despite what our culture might confess.  I’ll simply suggest again, this is a problem with calling Colton’s experience as a “visit” rather than a vision.

 What does this description suggest about heaven?

Popular culture describes heaven as a place where the dead person’s “soul” lives on with God.  It describes heaven as a place existing now separate from the earth.  The movie and the described experience reinforces popular culture’s description, not scripture’s description of heaven.  (I’d be more willing to trust that this was a “visit” if it conformed to scripture’s description than popular culture’s.)  I’m just going to leave that there, because scripture’s description of heaven is much more complicated and nuanced than I can do justice with here.  Suffice it to say, the book of The Revelation does not describe the kind of heaven Colton describes.

 Does God really control each and every event on earth?

The movie wrestles with God’s justice and mercy as a sub-plot.  To its credit, it doesn’t resolve this question.  God is seen as the cause for death and suffering (testing) but this is challenged appropriately.

 Why does Jesus have to wear a robe and be a blue-eyed European?

How long will we continue to make God/Jesus into our own image?  The movie presents a blue-eyed, brown-haired Jesus as fact.  That’s how Colton saw him.  That’s how the girl in the opening scene who has had similar experiences draws him.  The overarching conviction of the movie is that this is exactly what Jesus looks like.  That’s idolatry.  Had I been at home watching a DVD of this movie my vocal chords would have been engaged pretty loudly.

 Why the potshots at Universities, professors, secularists, and women?

As Todd Burpo wrestles with whether or not Colton’s visit was real, he goes to a University professor to get an idea about any alternative explanations.  When he gets what he is seeking, he dismisses it completely, presumably because the person he asks is associated with a secular university, is still in grief over her husband’s death, is a non-believer, and, it seems, is a woman to boot.  The whole University scene is cast in dark hues and the scene is full of elements that cause discomfort in the viewer of the movie.  Clearly Todd Burpo has wandered into “enemy territory”.  Women are the prominent purveyors of doubt and alternative explanations in this movie.  Todd’s wife gives a reasonable, logical explanation of Colton’s vision, opposes telling anyone of the vision, and is only finally convinced of Colton’s vision when he tells her something she has never told him.  Nancy Rawling is the first to suggest that they dismiss Pastor Todd from the church and that no one wants to hear what Todd preaches anymore. (Yeah, that’s right, Todd is a pastor.  That gets left out of the promotional material I’ve seen for the movie.)

 Why does the conclusion drawn by Todd Burpo in the movie’s final sermon dismisses his son’s experience?

 For a book/movie about visiting heaven, the conclusion doesn’t fit if the purpose is to declare that heaven is a real place.  In fact, the resolution that Todd comes to is that all of us have the ability to see heaven around us.  It was very anti-climactic.  I felt cheated by the ending, especially as Todd defends Colton’s visit to heaven throughout the story.  One has to remember that the story is about Todd and his struggle with his son’s experience.  It is not about his son’s experience.

 What does this film say about the nature of the church?

The congregation is a key part of this story, but it is not a healthy congregation.  In comparison, the volunteer fire department seems to be healthier.  The congregation is quick to disappear as the pastor struggles.  It seems that Todd is popular and attendance is tied to that popularity.  Todd is not compensated properly, this is never resolved in the movie.  There is some good person to person care demonstrated.  The Board consisted of two strong personalities and one silent member.  The church itself was never presented in a favorable light except as the location of a vision and the place where Todd redeemed himself.

Other quick observations

I was surprised by the references to intimacy between Todd and his wife, although it was portrayed as her power over him.

I appreciated the landscape scenes of rural Kansas.

So, do I recommend this film?  No.

If you see it though, I’d recommend talking about the questions raised here, and those you might have from your own reflections.

 

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Ash Wednesday & Lent 2011

Ash Wednesday – March 9, 2011

Our Shepherd Lutheran Church – Severna Park, MD

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.  You didn’t expect me to say that did you?  Let me say it again.  For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters.

You received a reminder of your mortality on your forehead just minutes ago.  You heard the words, “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  As I see it, you have a couple of choices.  Live your life as if your mortality is a far off into the future slight possibility.  Or, live your life as if your life matters, precisely because you are mortal.

What people want me to do today is to be a cheerleader.  You are giving up chocolate for Lent?  Great!  You can do it for 40 days.  It will be hard.  Hang in there.  You can do it.  It is only 40 days.  Think of the reward at the end!  It will be worth it.

I can’t do that.  I’d rather turn in my pastor card.

Let me tell you something else you might not expect me to say.  What we do during Lent is never meant to be temporary.  That’s right.  If you are living this season as it is intended and you are giving up, oh let’s say chocolate for Lent, then when Easter arrives, there will be no chocolate Easter bunnies for you.  Why play like Lent means nothing?  Why decide to ignore the call Jesus issues to obedience?

Live your life as if your life matters.  Lent is a time for renewal.  Lent is a time to take on some spiritual disciplines that make sense 24/7/52/lifetime.  Lent is a time for making sure the “whenevers” of Matthew’s Gospel are part of who we are.

Whenever you give alms.  Whenever you pray.  Whenever you fast.

Jesus doesn’t say, if you give alms, if you pray, if you fast.  He doesn’t say when you take the time to give alms, pray, or fast.  The expectation is that these three are all done, all the time, unnoticed by others, because this is what people of faith do when they are living their lives as if their life matters.

Whenever you care for the needs of others … just do it without fanfare or recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you pray to align yourself with God … just do it without any need for recognition.  It’s what people of God do.

Whenever you deny the temptations that draw you away from God … just do it without needing to draw attention to yourself.  It’s what people of God do.

If you give alms, pray, and fast only during Lent, isn’t that really drawing attention to these practices and that you are something special during Lent?

Sorry if what I’m saying is messing up your plans for Lent.  I simply want you to live your life as if your life matters.  Why trivialize it?  Why make this 40 day time mean so little?

The church I served in Johnstown invites people to use self-denial envelopes during Lent.  I think they are asking either 25 cents or $1 per day as a means of self-denial.  Horse feathers!  You want to give alms, or to use this as self-denial … what about giving a full tithe during Lent if you’ve never done this before?  More than a tithe if you already tithe.  Maybe an even amount … say $80-100 a week.  A quarter a week?  Nonsense.  Live as if your life matters.

Pull out a 1 minute devotion and pray daily during Lent?  Ok, I suppose that’s a start.  Phfff.  Write a devotion daily, pray each hour on the hour for 5 minutes, memorize scripture … maybe a couple of chapters, read 20 pages of scripture a day, read a Gospel book a week and cycle through them twice during Lent.  All of this is prayer.  All of this addresses a whenever.  Live as if your life matters.

Don’t eat meat on Fridays, but instead go to some fish fry or seafood place?  When did that ever get to be equated with fasting?  Stop pretending!  Do you really need more than 1500-2000 calories a day, ever?  Have you ever considered eating a restricted calorie diet because it is the right thing to do, because over-consumption of everything is an American anti-Christian attitude?  Does our gluttony say something about how we see ourselves as entitled?  Is entitlement a Christian virtue?  Live your life as if it matters.

There are a lot more examples.  You can use Lent as a trivial venture into pretending that we are mortal.  Or you can use Lent as if you really get your mortality and live as if your life matters.  What you do has an impact on the world, on the people around you, on you, and on your relationship with God.

For the next 40 days, you are invited to live your life as if your life matters … and then …

Amen

Christmas Wars

I think it is worse this year.

More and more “Christian” groups are stridently demanding that Christmas be celebrated as the remembrance of the birth of Jesus Christ and are opposing what I refer to as “secular Christmas” celebrations.  One group, “Repent Amarillo”, has gone so far as posting a video of the execution of Santa Claus.

I observe that as a group loses influence within a culture, they often become more strident and work hard at regaining lost influence.  This is what I think is happening to religious conservatives.

I operate with the assumption that there are two Christmas celebrations.  One is firmly rooted in the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.  The other is a secular winter holiday with the same name.  When someone wishes me “Happy Holidays”, they are in fact being considerate because they don’t know which one (or ones) I celebrate.

Here is the kicker.  I celebrate both.  I don’t find that to be a problem at all.

What religious conservatives and Christmas “purists” don’t seem to recognize is that they continue to drive a wedge between Christians and non-Christians with their strident rhetoric.  When it gets to be an either/or situation, evangelism suffers.  Far better to use Paul’s example in Corinth when faced with the monument to the “unknown god”.  He shared with the people of Corinth what he knew about that unknown god … Jesus Christ rather than beating them over the head with their paganism.

The way Christians can claim Christmas is through that interpretive maneuver.  After all, it is a short step from the secular Christmas celebrations to the Christian celebrations, and when approached reasonably, most who observe the secular holiday are open to Christian interpretation.

Movie Recommendation

This past weekend, Netflix delivered “God Grew Tired of Us”, a documentary about the “Lost Boys of Sudan” and the story of their integration into U.S. society (New York state & Pennsylvania).  I was riveted.

I met one of the “Lost Boys” a year and a half ago, and was moved by his story.  We were partners in an exercise to get to know one another at a Mission Developer Training session sponsored by the ELCA.  When I saw this documentary on the Netflix list, I had to watch.

The cultural contrast between the Sudan of their childhood and the U.S. of  their adulthood is frankly embarrassing.  The high level of learning necessary to adapt to our culture is astonishing.  I’m sure it would be the same for me to move into the culture from which they came.

My wife was not as impressed.  She had recently read “What is the What” and so most of the themes were more familiar to her.

I’ll recommend either the documentary or the book.  These “Lost Boys” are going to continue to have a significant impact on our culture and the communities in which they live.

 

The importance of a blessing

Many secretly believe that children really don’t belong in worship, especially if they are “disruptive”. We’ve worked hard to nurture the participation of children in worship, including simple things like a simple laminated order of service in every pew rack, children’s Bibles in every pew, and ways for children to participate in worship leadership.  Disruptions occur, but they are not usually very long.  The pastors do a good job ignoring them and parents do a pretty good job at making proper adjustments.

We invite parents to help determine when their children are ready to begin to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion and offer age-appropriate education prior to first communion.  We offer a simple blessing accompanied by a hand on the head for those who do not receive communion. (I say, “May God bless, protect, and keep you all the days of your life.”)

Yesterday in worship, a young girl of about 4 came forward to the altar, and was prepared for the blessing.  For at least 30 seconds, she pulled her bangs up to expose her forehead, and waited patiently for the blessing.  I think only her mother and I noticed, and we were both moved.

Pondering Pastor

Secularizing the 10 Commandments

It was just once too many times.  I caught part of an interview with Glenn Beck last evening where he was advocating that the 10 Commandments were a good set of “rules” for our country and that even atheists could support them.  He joins a very long list of people who somehow believe that the 10 Commandments are easily secularized.  But let’s look at the first 3 Commandments (as Lutherans count them).

  1. You shall have no other Gods.
  2. You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain.
  3. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

How do you secularize that?  How do atheists accept those?  These first 3 Commandments have to do with our relationship with God!  Now I know that Glenn Beck wants to restore the place of religion in our society but this naturally leads to some questions for me.

  1. Which god?  People in this nation worship any number of deities.  I’ll refuse to worship Glenn Beck’s god.
  2. A “generic god” is not God.  Generic prayer is not prayer.  How does this proposal reconcile the multiple deities worshiped in this country without resorting either to “establishment of religion” or so watering down the witness of God’s self-revelation that we simply become a culture that worships a generic god.

Even the last 7 Commandments are problematic if they are not addressed to a specific people with other “commentary” in sacred scripture.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.
  6. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house.
  7. You shall not covet anything that is your neighbor’s.

Much of the advertising in this country uses coveting as a means to encourage us to purchase products, essential for the market economy we live in.  Without coveting, our economy collapses.  Of course, with unbridled covetousness, our economy  has a “bubble” then collapses.

I’d like those who advocate for the secularization of the 10 Commandments to be honest.  They really believe that the 5 Commandments are worthy of attention.

  1. Honor your father and mother.
  2. You shall not kill.
  3. You shall not commit adultery.
  4. You shall not steal.
  5. You shall not bear false witness.

Oh, except that much advertising relies on false witness.  Large profits require “theft”.  Many fathers are unknown or absent.  We encourage killing in self-defense and war.  Pre-marital sexual activity is the norm.  Porn fuels an economy that influences technology.

What is our society to do?  If we were to follow the 10 Commandments, our economy would falter even more, especially if these 10 Commandments are divorced from the context in which they were given to God’s own people.

Don’t get me wrong.  I believe the 10 Commandments are valuable … within the context of a faith community.  God didn’t give these commandments to the Egyptians or any other power of the day.  God gave these commandments to the small band of people God claimed as God’s own.  These commandments set God’s people apart from the other peoples/nations.  They were/are a gift.

God’s people have shared this gift to the cultures in which we live, and where it made sense, those cultures have adopted them.  Let’s not secularize the 10 Commandments however.  Let’s let our culture borrow from many religious traditions to order society for the common good … and let our culture borrow from secular traditions to order society for the common good.  Let’s stop using religious language as if our culture and the religious tradition are one in the same.  That will only turn out poorly.

Bound Conscience: Why do some have a problem with it?

The term “bound conscience” has been permanently linked by some to interpretations of Scripture many find objectionable, counter to the plain reading of Scripture, and contrary to predominant traditional Biblical interpretation.  In a different circumstance, the phrase may have been given greater opportunity for consideration.  In fact, “bound conscience” has been a part of our life together as Christians since the very beginning.  More will be said about that later.

The term “bound conscience” for some has the implication that tolerance of all views (right or wrong) becomes the new norm for Biblical interpretation.  This is often seen as taking Scripture’s role of communicating God’s truth and replacing it with far less valuable human relativism.  If this is true, then Scripture loses its authority, and the result is that there is doubt about everything Scripture says.  The entire role of Scripture ordering our lives, our society, and our future is therefore called into question.  This is a very serious concern.

There is a third consideration which impacts on our understanding of bound conscience.  The term is only to be used when I am attempting to address someone else’s honest engagement with scripture, and we draw very different conclusions.  It is not to be used to insist that someone agree with me or respect my conclusions about scripture.  The reasons for that should become clearer as we explore the scriptural basis for bound conscience.

Pondering Pastor

What is Bound Conscience?

Where does the term come from?

Why is reference to Bound Conscience considered by some to be a problem?

What is the Scriptural Basis for “Bound Conscience”?

Doesn’t Scripture argue against Bound Conscience?

How does Martin Luther contribute to our understanding of Bound Conscience?

Bound Conscience as we presently live it.

Challenges from those opposing Bound Conscience

Bound Conscience and the current controversy

On a Personal Note