Best-Selling Book and Movie Heaven Is For Real
Heaven Is For Real Screenwriter/Director and The Burpo Family
Written by Kelli Gillespie
The exceedingly popular book Heaven is for Real, which spent more than 180 consecutive weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list, with roughly 70 of those weeks holding the number one spot, is now on the big screen. The story is about the Burpo family and their son Colton, who narrowly survives a surgery and then several months later, begins sharing his experiences about making a trip to Heaven. Risen sat down with the family; Colton, now thirteen, his father Todd, who is a pastor and volunteer firefighter and also wrote the book, as well as Sonja, who is a children’s minister, wife and busy mom to Colton and the couples’ other two children Cassie and Colby. Plus Randall Wallace (Braveheart and We Were Soldiers) wrote and directed the movie and shares his perspective on faith in film and maintaining conviction as a sought-after, Oscar-nominated, filmmaker in Hollywood.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in Beverly Hills, California
Risen Magazine: In Heaven is for Real, you incorporated worship music, prayer chains and even sermons; something not usually seen in a mainstream, studio-driven release. How did you navigate the production to showcase faith on-screen in a very real and authentic way?
Randall Wallace: It’s a natural human tendency to portray everyone who is different as being odd and even negative. The reality is that very few people in Hollywood have the experience of growing up in a church in a small town. And it’s not just the Christian background I’m talking about; it’s the world background and values. It was vital to me that we show these people honestly – and for me honestly means, as loving and as the kind of community you would love to live in. I wanted to show the richness of their [characters’] lives and love, and to portray a church [service]. I got to actually include one of my favorite hymns, Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and the [action of] standing and singing Amazing Grace, all done lovingly, [showing] that Heaven is right in front of us if we can just open our eyes and see it.
Risen Magazine: In your own upbringing you went to Duke, majored in religion as just one of your many majors, went to Seminary school and then turned into one of the most sought after Hollywood filmmakers. How do you maintain conviction and values in the industry without being swayed by how others think you should be operating?
Randall Wallace: In my personal experience, I understand from the outside the world, and I don’t just mean Hollywood, I mean everywhere, that [nothing] cared a thing about my soul, or my health, or my happiness. And that ultimately I was measured only in the eyes of God. I believed that then; I believe that still. When young people ask me, “How do you hold onto your faith in a place like Hollywood?” I particularly like to tell them that I don’t think you hold on, I think you let go. You don’t try to defend, or become afraid to handle a question. You grow, and trust God.
You’ve got to trust God every minute, not just once in awhile when you can no longer control a situation, as if you ever could. You think, “I’ll let God do this now since I can’t.” It’s not like that; God’s always got it. So you just say, “Well, I’ll talk with this person and I’ll actually listen, rather than just try to convince them of what I believe. I’ll listen to what they believe.” There was this rabbi that said, “If we don’t see God in other people, they’ll never see God in us.” So I try to look for God in other people.
Risen Magazine: Interesting to see Greg Kinnear’s character, who is a pastor, struggle with the fact that while he preaches from the pulpit every Sunday, he’s questioning whether he believes his son had an actual encounter with God.
Randall Wallace: For me faith isn’t an idea; it’s an experience. If you’re trying to tell somebody something to convince them of, then that becomes a certain kind of battle. But if you are sharing with them something that moves you, the chances are it will move them, and that is what movies are all about – having a wonderful experience. I think that is the way you convey faith; you open the possibility of faith.
Something I hope the movie will cause us to do is have some compassion for pastors. We just get so critical – I certainly do – and expect them to be perfect, and expect them to always be solid and be there for us. But they need us to be there for them too. They are in the difficult place of having people call them when they are at their darkest and I don’t know how they do it except for they have to have faith every minute too.
I think as people of faith, we need to bring up our faith. We need to talk about God who interrupts our lives every week and every day.
Risen Magazine: Todd, three years after publishing, your book is still on the New York Times Best Seller list and is now a movie too. When you look back and think how you might not have shared this experience, what do you think of the success and where God has taken it?
Todd Burpo: Every step of the way we prayed and we just made a choice to say, “Who are we God to do this?” I think when I look at the Bible, Moses struggled at the burning bush and there are all these people [in the Bible] that ask, “God, why did you pick me?” I’ve learned their struggle of faith wasn’t really with who God was; it was with who they were. “God, there has got to be someone better than me to do this.” We have that struggle all the time. If Hollywood were to come to you and say, “We are going to make a movie of your life.” Would you be ready for that? My first thought would be, “I’m boring. Why would anyone want to watch a movie about me?” Yet, we might look today and say, “God had this all planned out,” and He did. But we sure didn’t see this coming.
Risen Magazine: Miracles happen all the time and if you are a believer you acknowledge God’s hand in it, and if you’re not, then you chalk it up to luck or coincidence. Going through this experience, do you recognize miracles around you more? And how have you seen others respond to seeing the hand of God at work?
Todd Burpo: I think as people of faith, we need to bring up our faith. We need to talk about God who interrupts our lives every week and every day. When I was growing up, they [my church] used to have what we would call a “testimony service.” People would get up and they would talk about what God did for them 30 years ago – but what about last week? What did He do for you right now? We live in a world that needs to know God is alive and well right now.
Risen Magazine: Colton, getting the opportunity to go to Heaven to meet Jesus, how does that shape what your relationship with the Lord is like today?
Colton Burpo: Since it happened at such an early age it really guided my faith. I’ve just been able to picture someone whenever I pray, or whenever I ask for help because I know who is on the other end.
Risen Magazine: We see in the film that your character visits sick children in the hospital and provides them with hope. Is that something that you currently do, and how are kids interacting with you?
Colton Burpo: Yes. The majority of the time now it’s over Skype. Through technology I’m able to connect with a lot of people and help them that way.
Sonia Burpo: Actually, we [currently] have one kid in the hospital very sick and another kid at [Colton’s] school that is terminally ill and he can’t see – he is Colton’s age and has become his best friend. He listens to Colton read him the story every night and now, with the 17 minute interview they did together, he listens to that also. We use technology for good, not evil. We really take advantage of him being able to reach out to kids. Colton also speaks at schools.
Risen Magazine: Todd, as a Christian and a pastor, I think it’s so important to see your struggle on screen and the reminder that you don’t have it all figured out; no one does.
Todd Burpo: The movie is very honest and I appreciate that about it, because when you read your Bible [you find that] everyone struggled with their faith – even Jesus Christ. He was without sin, but he struggled with his dad so much that he sweat drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. What happens when God doesn’t do what you prayed for and He does something different? Everyone has to deal with that. I think this movie has the courage to be honest and show that faith is really worked out when you pray and God doesn’t do what you prayed for. All of a sudden something else happens; now how is your faith? I think a lot of people have this misconstrued, messed up idea that if I just had enough faith everything would go perfect; and that’s not faith.
Risen Magazine: Has the experience your family went through changed the way you preach? Does it change the way you deliver sermons?
Todd Burpo: Not so much my delivery, but probably my confidence. When you know that you know, and God reminds you that you are right again – that doesn’t hurt anything. I think people want to say, “I believe,” and that’s really nothing. What I believe is no more important than what you believe – but rather, what did God say? And when you know what God said, that is what we better be counting on.
Risen Magazine: Colton, because you were so very young when you went to Heaven, when you watch the movie, does it feel like your life? Or how do you view watching it?
Colton Burpo: Because I don’t remember the hospital and the events leading up to it, it’s easy for me to just blend in with the audience and watch the movie. What hits me sometimes is that no matter how many times I watch it, I think, “That really happened to me.” Because you would think, “Oh Colton got to go to Heaven and it was all happy.” For me, yes; for them [my parents], no.
Risen Magazine: I bet it was very interesting, Colton, to see the emotional rollercoaster your parents were on at the time. Sonia, talk to me about your husband leading the church, you running the household, and how were you putting all the pieces together?
Sonia Burpo: As a pastor’s wife we go through all the emotions – we have to give up our husband at any time, any place, anywhere. Todd’s on-call 24/7 doing ministry, then he’s on-call 24/7 volunteering as a firefighter… he has even left a birthday party and family events to go on a fire call. I’m pretty strong-willed and independent, but at the same time, Todd is still the head of the household. He listens to my opinion, but if he is going to do something, I’m going to follow him because I picked him.
Todd Burpo: She’s regretted it several times. [Laughter]
Sonia Burpo: And then coming to terms with what Colton experienced… How does that impact us? How does that help us do life later? A lot of times I think what gets missed about what has really changed our lives since Colton went to Heaven, is that we wouldn’t have Colby. We wouldn’t have [child] number three. Todd was done having kids at two, but I wanted a third one. But I’m a really bad, bad, horrible pregnant person, and so Todd said, “I’m not going through round three.” And I will remember the day – it was in August – he came down the hallway and said, “I want to have another kid.” I looked at him like, “Where is my husband and who are you in my house?” So we got pregnant with Colby and I don’t know how we would do life without him now. He’s the balance to our [rest of the family’s] seriousness. God knew that. I think we pray and we know what we want the answer to be, and God goes, “No, I’ve got something way better. That will be fine for now, but I know the big picture and this will be much better.”
But even with Colton going to Heaven, it healed our wounds with the [prior] miscarriage, because we would’ve never known [details] without going through the part of him [Colton] maybe not making it through the surgery. Because when he got wheeled back [into surgery,] we thought that was it. Which also makes the movie hard to watch at times. But God doesn’t waste a hurt, and the lie that Satan tells us is that you are the only one that has ever been through this. Somebody else has been through [whatever you are going through] and if you can share it, then at least you can have a support group praying with you and helping you journey through.
I think a lot of people have this misconstrued, messed up idea that if I just had enough faith everything would go perfect; and that’s not Faith.
Risen Magazine: Speaking of a support group, I thought it was so powerful to see the immediate prayer chain sent into effect once Colton was in the hospital. Talk to me about the importance of prayer.
Sonia Burpo: I’m a very strong proponent of prayer. You have got to talk to God. Just like us as parents, we want our kids to ask us for things, it is the same thing with our Heavenly Father; He wants us to ask for things. And I knew we were at a point where, as a mom, I couldn’t take care of Colton, and the only person that could, was God. So I reached out to where our strength and our source is – God. And no matter what happened we were going to pray. And we still pray for stuff. We didn’t start at the movie and we didn’t stop after the movie; we’ve been praying [about] things our whole lives. And specifically, don’t just pray over your meals, you have to pray over your kids, pray over everything – and also be thankful.
Exclusive Interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Summer 2014
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