Back in the 1950s, Dale Evans Rogers wrote a best-seller titled Angel Unaware about her Down syndrome daughter who died before she was 3. I remember it making quite an impression on my young self: The little girl tells her own story while sitting on God's lap (as if He didn't already know it). She ends by asking, "And now, can I go out and try my wings?"
Angle Unaware, still in print, is sentimental by any account. But it's also a touching reminder of the value of every human life and the way our heartaches can bring us closer to God. I have to remind myself that my natural cringe-response is due in part to pride in "sophistication," that my recoil from sentimentality can be just a disguise for hard-heartedness, and that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the humble who tear up at little angel stories. But still . . .
There's something unsettling about the tale of a heartland preacher's kid who supposedly is taken to heaven during a near-death experience, then returns to recount details that convince his parents he must have really sat on Jesus' lap and patted Jesus' rainbow-colored horse. When the book rockets to the top of the Amazon.com best-seller list, with a children's edition due in November and Sony snapping up film rights, that's even more unsettling.
The story, as told by Pastor Todd Burpo, is that 4-year-old Colton was almost dead from appendicitis before anyone was aware he had it. While surgeons fought to save him, Colton slipped out of this life and saw the wonders he would later describe to his dad. Among those wonders: The Holy Spirit ("He's kind of blue"), angels with swords keeping Satan out of heaven, people flying about with wings while Jesus went up and down "like an elevator," the angel Gabriel at God's left hand ("He's really nice"), gates of gold with pearls on them, heavenly homework ("Jesus was my teacher"), and-most astoundingly-Colton's great-grandfather, whom he never knew, and a sister who was lost to a miscarriage before he was born.
Pastor Burpo and his wife insist that Colton couldn't have known about his sister or his great-grandfather, and that his descriptions of Jesus and the heavenly host correspond with biblical details he hadn't learned. Therefore, he must have been telling the truth. Therefore: Heaven Is For Real!
I remain skeptical-not that the Burpos don't sincerely believe it, but that Colton's memories accord too easily with an imaginative little boy who loves staging battles with intergalactic action figures, and who absorbed more at church than either he or his parents realized.
But even if everything the boy recalled is true, the question remains: Why does the testimony of a little child twang more heartstrings than God's authoritative Word? I'm sure that Todd Burpo wouldn't hold his son's story up for comparison to the Bible, but the sensational nature of the story has that effect, whether he wants it to or not. He writes about Colton telling him how Jesus explained his death: "Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his dad." Pastor Burpo thinks about that, and the complex theologies and doctrines we tangle ourselves in, and "decided I liked Colton's way better [better than Romans 3-5?] . . . Then I turned to him and smiled. 'Hey, do you wanna preach on Sunday?'"
That's when I start looking for the exits. "Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be adults" (1 Corinthian 14:20). Yes, I know the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these, and I also know we are to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He goes as deep as we do, meets us wherever we are in our spiritual walk. The thing is, we have to keep walking. "A little child shall lead them" is often misapplied. Elsewhere in Isaiah, juvenile leadership is a curse: "I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them" (3:4).
Colton Burpo, excuse the bluntness, is a little sinner destined to grow into a big sinner like the rest of us. It probably doesn't hurt to read about his journey. What hurts is staying there.