FIRST-PERSON: Michael Jackson & Mrs. Burns
After becoming a childhood star with the Jackson Five, he achieved more fame as a solo act. His choreography in early music videos set the pattern for the music industry in the coming decades.
His costumes and the moonwalk became icons. Jackson had numerous No. 1 and Top 10 hits on the Billboard singles chart. His Thriller album, with more than 100 million copies sold, is the top-selling album of all time.
Jackson clearly achieved fame and fortune in this life, but it was not enough to buy him happiness.
When his life ended, he was more than $400 million in debt, his appearance was ghoulish, he was hounded by accusations of child molestation, and his addiction to prescription medications is speculated to have caused his death.
Although admired by many, Jackson became a rather pathetic figure the last two decades of his life, the punch line of unkind jokes on late night talk shows.
Like much of his life, Jackson's religious commitments were ambiguous. He was raised as a Jehovah's Witness. Later he expressed interest in Islam and other religious traditions. Gospel singers Andrae and Sandra Crouch visited with him a few weeks before his death and talked about spiritual issues, but they denied reports that Jackson had converted to Christianity.
Pop singer Stevie Wonder claimed at Jackson's memorial service that Jackson died because God needed him more than we did. Such a statement is kind but does not conform to God's Word.
Furthermore, there is no evidence from a public profession of faith or the fruit of his life that Jackson ever made a commitment to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. There are prerequisites for being in the presence of God. Jesus said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me" (John 14:6).
Only God can ultimately judge Jackson, but from appearances, Jackson didn't meet the criteria to be with God in heaven.
Jackson's relationships with children have received much attention in the media. His three children loved him, as his daughter voiced emotionally at the memorial service. But according to reports, Jackson's children may not have been genetically related to him, and may have been obtained or purchased as commodities through donated sperm and surrogate mothers.
He can hardly be counted a model father. In one famous incident, Jackson dangled his infant son out the fourth floor window of a luxury hotel to display the child for adoring fans below.
One expression of Jackson's unusual attraction to children was the building of the Neverland Ranch amusement park 150 miles northwest of Los Angeles at an initial cost of $40 million and $4 million in annual maintenance. Neverland in Peter Pan was the place where no one grew old, and Jackson evidently wanted to return to childhood.
He joined the Jackson Five when he was 8 years old, and the meteoric popularity of the group essentially robbed him of his childhood. In later interviews, Jackson claimed that his childhood was miserable, including verbal and physical abuse by his father. Perhaps much of Jackson's attraction to children and childish things was an effort to regain his lost years.
It was Neverland Ranch that led to some of Jackson's unusual experiences with children as he hosted hundreds of them for day visits and overnight stays. The front gate of Neverland featured a haunting lithograph of Jackson as the Pied Piper of Hamlin, leading children away from their homes and parents.
Jackson was accused at least three times of sexual molestation during some of the visits. He was not convicted in a well-publicized trial, but he did give large settlements to two of the alleged victims. Whatever the reason for Jackson's unusual attraction to children, it appeared to arise more from his own needs than from the needs of the children involved.
By contrast, the woman I knew as Mrs. Burns was not a world-renowned celebrity like Jackson. She was an unpretentious older woman in my hometown church in North Louisiana whom I knew during the late 1960s and early 1970s. She lived in a modest white frame house in a lower middle class area of town.
Mrs. Burns saw the children in her neighborhood and loved them. They were of various races, but most of them were African American. She didn't have an amusement park to offer them, but she offered something better.
Mrs. Burns began a Backyard Bible Club at her house. She hosted the meeting every week, providing Bible studies and refreshments for children packed into her living room. Nobody asked her to start the club. She did it simply out of love for the Lord and for the children.
Frankly, during those days of the civil rights movement, not many churches in the South -- and especially people in Mrs. Burns' generation -- reached out to African American youth in their local communities. But Mrs. Burns believed that God loved the children, and so did she. She didn't love them because of her own needs. She gave of her time and possessions selflessly and sacrificially.
Mrs. Burns went to be with her Lord years ago. I'm pretty sure that I know God's opinion about her. I think He would say, "Well done, good and faithful servant; you were faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things. Enter into the joy of your Lord" (Matthew 25:23).
Jackson, with questionable motives, offered children a day of amusement. Mrs. Burns, out of the love of God, offered them eternal life. More people know Jackson's name, but God knew Mrs. Burns'. From an eternal perspective, it will be Mrs. Burns who made the more lasting contribution.
Steve Lemke is provost and professor of philosophy and ethics at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.