Todd Burpo, left, next to Colton, and the rest of the Burpo family. Photos courtesy of Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc.

A son’s journey opens father’s eyes

  • May 1, 2014

Todd Burpo never expected his four-year-old son to test his faith. But that’s exactly what happened to the Nebraska pastor.

Burpo’s story has been turned into Heaven is for Real, a film based on his best-selling book (co-authored with Lynn Vincent) of the same name that focuses on his son’s supernatural experiences.

The film keys on the pastor and his son Colton, a boy back from the edge of death who unkowingly challenges the religious beliefs of his family and small town when he starts revealing an account of heaven.

“God crushed my pride, (and) opened my heart to love,” says actor Greg Kinnear, playing Burpo in the film.

Burpo agrees. He told The Catholic Register how his son’s illness brought him to more than his knees.

“For some of us, it is a lot easier to give than to receive, and for me it sure was,” said Burpo.

He didn’t mind serving or helping others, but had a hard time accepting the same kind of treatment in return, until he had little choice.

“I was at a point where I was so desperate, so tired, so spent when we got through that hospital, that when people offered me help, I had to really humble myself and say thank you. And today, I can do that. But back then I couldn’t, and it’s nothing more than spiritual pride. And even as pastor, that’s what I was living with and God had to break that in me and He did through this process,” he said.

This process started when Colton recovered from life-saving surgery and shared stories of having visited heaven. He doesn’t blurt them out right away, but reveals them throughout his daily life. The film challenges viewers — and the small-town pastor — with the question, “Is heaven a hope or as real as the earth and sky?”

Colton is transformed. In the film, this is clear when he is no longer afraid of spiders. But in the book his transformation is made more apparent. Burpo says Colton was no longer afraid of death.

“When he looks at death now, he knows where he’s going. And I think as people of faith, we need to make this decision for ourselves,” said Burpo. “When we die with Christ, are we leaving home or are we going home? Colton knows he’s going home.”

Colton begins to speak of angels, Jesus and visions of deceased relatives he had never known and events he shouldn’t have seen with an unwavering sense of faith that only a child seems truly capable of.

When trying to understand Colton and his visions, parishioners and the townspeople begin to place thought and emotion at odds with one another.

“When you’re going through tough times and experiences, I think sometimes we forget that faith… is a combination of thoughts, feelings, soul, emotion. You can’t just make a decision of faith based on just intellect alone. It’s a decision of the heart and vice versa. And people seem to go one of two directions when they’re at a crisis moment. And as a pastor, I’ve seen that many times,” Burpo said.

He couldn’t dismiss his son’s visions when Colton described to him a scene in the hospital chapel where Burpo yelled at God in frustration, a moment he was too ashamed to tell anyone about. When he was in the chapel, Colton was on the operating table.

“I was yelling at God. I didn’t tell anybody about that. I never told my wife about that. You don’t really brag about anything like that to anybody. You keep it to yourself. He said he saw me and could tell me where I was, and then also describe where his mother was at the same time,” said Burpo. “He wouldn’t have known that unless he had seen it, so that was one of the things I couldn’t dismiss with any earthy explanation. The only explanation that could matter or even come close was his.”

Burpo stayed silent when Colton spoke to him about heaven.

“I had to be careful that the information that was coming from him wasn’t being tainted by me,” Burpo said.

He was also careful when picking the right filmmakers for Colton’s story. At first, he said, he didn’t want anything to do with Hollywood and turned down many movie offers.

“Until God kind of said this is my decision,” he said. “But in prayer, I had to find people... that would really make a commitment to tell this story Colton’s way and not violate my relationship with my son. And that was the very heart of our whole negotiation.”

When his two sons and daughter saw the movie for the first time, they all supported it, he said.

“That was the discussion that was so important to me. The movie had to be right because I’m a dad. I want my kids to respect me.”

He adds that Hollywood is finally realizing the potential of making faith-based films.

“Hollywood is discovering if we tell stories about faith, and we don’t water them down and we tell them accurately, they see the box office numbers,” said Burpo, but “I think both you and I know God’s behind that.”

Heaven is for Real was filmed in Winnipeg and is currently playing in theatres.

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