A child who is the subject of a New York Times best-selling book made a quiet visit to Lexington on Sunday to talk about his experience with the afterlife.
Colton Burpo is like any normal 11-year-old but finds himself thrust into the national spotlight. Stiff and shy, he generally keeps his eyes low, speaking in short, excited bursts when a subject comes up in which he's well-versed, such as computers.
But when he was 3 years old, Colton had a near-death experience on an operating table in Nebraska during an emergency appendectomy. He pulled through, and during the ensuing months and years, his family said they came to realize that Colton's seemingly childlike observations about heaven and angels had more substance than they could have imagined.
What Colton calls his face-to-face meeting with Jesus is documented in the book Heaven Is for Real, written by his father, Pastor Todd Burpo, and published by Thomas Nelson, a Christian publishing company in Nashville.
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Since hitting shelves in November, Heaven Is for Real has found national recognition, mostly through word of mouth. The book is No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list in paperback non-fiction and has been for 10 weeks. Todd Burpo said his publisher has printed 1.5 million copies to meet demand.
The Burpos flew to Lexington from Imperial, Neb., on Sunday to speak at The Bridge Church, a congregation that worships in a former storefront on Dennis Drive.
Colton nervously sang an inspirational hymn before departing to the Sunday school class. His parents, Todd and Sonja, sat down with The Bridge's pastor, Lee Claypoole, for a roundtable discussion.
What has become the most inspirational moment in the family's lives began with one of their worst years, Todd Burpo said.
Burpo had broken his leg, suffered kidney stones and had a serious operation, preventing the self-described workaholic from working at his garage-door business.
Once he finally recovered, the family took a trip to Colorado to celebrate. It was there that Colton and his sister, Cassie, got sick. Doctors thought it was the flu.
"The problem is, his sister got better. He didn't," Burpo said.
Time and again, doctors diagnosed Colton with the flu. During the next two weeks, his condition worsened until doctors finally ran tests and discovered he had appendicitis. By that time, doctors estimated Colton's appendix had burst five days earlier.
"His little body was just full of poison," Burpo said.
In his role as a pastor, Burpo has held the hands of many dying people.
"You can see the organs start to shut down, their skin color start to change. You can see the dark circles under their eyes, and I was starting to watch that in my kid," he said, fighting tears.
Miraculously, Colton pulled through after an operation at Great Plains Regional Medical Center. Months later, as the family was driving by the hospital, they said they were surprised when, from his car seat, Colton, then 4, said, "That's where the angels saved me," Sonja Burpo recalled.
The family had noticed what appeared to be an increased spirituality from the boy since he recovered, but that was the first time they paid attention, Burpo said. She and her husband began asking more questions, pressing Colton for information.
"What happened to our son during those 17 days? What did he see, and what did he hear, and how does he know about angels and Jesus so close?" Sonja Burpo said.
Colton eventually revealed more details that the family couldn't explain. He said he had met his great-grandfather, who died long before he was born. He suddenly had knowledge of his sister, who died in the womb; his parents had never told him about the miscarriage, they said.
Colton told his father that he watched Dr. Timothy O'Holleran operating on him from Jesus' lap. He said he saw his father praying alone in a hospital room during the operation.
"My wife didn't know I prayed that prayer. She didn't know where I was, and here my son was telling me about it," Todd Burpo said.
He acknowledged there are many skeptics about the book.
"If you Google my name, you'll see the f-word beside it so many times," he said.
Burpo was skeptical, too, he said, until his son spoke of things he should have had no way of knowing.
"Sometimes you need the miracle-working God in your life," he said.
Throughout the presentation in Lexington, Burpo regularly spoke directly to the congregation about lessons he learned from the tragedy-turned-blessing and gave sermons that led many church members to cry and hold hands over their hearts.
The event drew about 150 new visitors to The Bridge Church. Some drove from West Virginia, Illinois and Tennessee to see the Burpo family speak, Claypoole said.
The church regularly has an attendance of about 300 people, a significant leap since Claypoole started the church in a hotel room with 18 members two years ago, he said.
After the discussion, Colton sat silently in Claypoole's office, waiting for his family. When asked if he felt blessed to be able to inspire so many people, he smiled, looked up briefly and nodded.