Heaven's gate: Timing is everything

Sunclouds_1When I first received a forward of this story, I thought for a second that it might be an urban legend. But no, it does seem to have been posted by the Associated Press. I have not seen it in any Florida media, however, and that surprises me. Rather than critique this simple story, let’s just read the heart of it.

OVIEDO, Fla. (AP) — A Presbyterian minister collapsed and died in mid-sentence of a sermon after saying “And when I go to heaven . . . ,” his colleague said Monday.

The Rev. Jack Arnold, 69, was nearing the end of his sermon Sunday at Covenant Presbyterian Church in this Orlando suburb when he grabbed the podium before falling to the floor, said the Rev. Michael S. Beates, associate pastor at Covenant Presbyterian.

Before collapsing, Arnold quoted the 18th century Bible scholar, John Wesley, who said, “Until my work on this earth is done, I am immortal. But when my work for Christ is done . . . I go to be with Jesus,” Beates said in a telephone interview.

Several members of the congregation with medical backgrounds tried to revive the minister and paramedics were called, but Arnold appeared to die instantly, Beates said.

Arnold had been the senior minister at the church until the late 1990s when he began traveling to Africa and the Middle East to teach pastors. The cause of death was believed to be cardiac arrest. He had bypass surgery five years earlier.

I have not been able to find a version that is much longer than this. I share it simply to ask this question: Is this a news story?

I guess over at Beliefnet this might lead to an interesting thread, asking readers how they would like to die, if they could choose the time and the place. From interviews, I know that friends of the Rev. Billy Graham have always said they thought he would like to die in the pulpit. If you ask Graham, he says such matters are up to God.

But, to repeat the question: Is this a news story? Human interest? Or is this the opening anecdote for a much bigger story, one that cuts into some thoughts and dreams and fears that people may not want to talk about? Just asking. And thinking.

UPDATED: A statement from the congregation involved, Covenant Presbyterian, can be found here with links to a Orlando coverage, etc.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jill

    I believe it’s real and I think it’s more than a simple, human interest story. What are the chances of a retired preacher dying in the pulpit having just said the words that Rev. Arnold did? Not as likely as someone who is still preaching every Sunday! And what kind of effect did it have on the listeners that morning — other than shock and sadness over losing him from their midst? Did anyone come to faith, or reaffirm their faith due to his message and sudden transfer to the “Church Triumphant?”

  • http://www.nhreligion.com/ Stephen A.

    It’s an interesting story for the human interest section of the newspaper, along with other short, cute stories, like the woman who finds a lottery ticket months after she lost it, or the guy who eats three thousand candy bars (both made-up examples, but you get my drift.)

    The story does read like an urban legend, though. I wonder if the AP reporter checked out those facts.

    The questions these kinds of stories raise are good ones, and are most likely handled on specialty blogs like this, where folks are prepared to give answers and debate their significance. Most other people just enjoy it as a brief break from the “bad” news in the rest of the paper.

  • http://pilgrimcafe.org/ mar

    I belive, provided it is not an urban legend, it is truly news. Its placement certainly wouldn’t be questioned if the preacher had not begun his sentence coincidentally with his final destination. Supposing the story were simply that a clergyman died of a heart attack in the middle of a sermon. That would certainly be news, especially to the persons in his/her particular community. The notion that he uttered “When I go to heaven” just before he died does lend a human interest / news of the weird aspect to it but does not lessen the value of newsworthiness that a [likely] prominent member of the community died.

  • David T.

    The story is not an urban legend. It happened pretty much as reported by the AP .

    I personally know several folks who attend that church (Covenant Presbyterian) who were present when this happened .

    Covenant Presbyterian has a statement on their website :


    The story was reported in the Orlando Sentinel the day after Rev. Arnold died.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    Not to be all off-topic or anything, but there was an interesting article in the opinion section of Sunday’s Seattle Times/P-I:


    You guys want to comment? I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a newspaper attempt to explain the fundamentalist/evangelical/mainline nuances, even if the article isn’t by a staff writer and is in the opinion section.

  • Cathy

    This article in the Seattle PI is a keeper for those times when friends want to discuss religion an some really have no clue as to who’s who in the christian land scape.