Faith, Media & Culture

Faith, Media & Culture

Valerie Harper on her health, her thoughts on faith and her role on Hallmark Channel’s “Signed, Sealed, Delivered”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

Taking life one day at a time. Valerie Harper guest stars on the first two episodes of Signed, Sealed, Delivered, the humorous drama series debuting on Hallmark Channel this Sunday night (4/20) at 8:00 PM (ET). The show, created by Martha Williamson (Touched by an Angel) follows a team of postal investigators (led by Eric Mabius of Ugly Betty) as they work to unite lost letters with their rightful recipients. Valerie plays a colorful post office supervisor with a surprising personal story that helps sets the tone for the series going forward.

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That premiere date, BTW, marks the second Easter since the actress was diagnosed with a terminal cancer involving the lining of her brain. She was given an estimated three months to live. All this time later she is still going strong — though a recent media report pronouncing that she is now cancer-free is not quite accurate. “In response to a recent erroneous quote concerning my health,” Harper says, “I am not ‘absolutely cancer-free.’ I wish I were. Right now what I am is cautiously optimistic about my present condition and I have hope for the future.”

The good news is that her cancer has remained contained — a fact to which she credits the prayers and good wishes of her friends and fans, along with the dedicated work of her doctor and medical caregivers. She remains active her. Since her diagnoses, she’s also been seen in the UP TV movie The Town That Came A-Courtin’ and an episode of TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland that reunited her with fellow MTM alums Mary Tyler Moore, Georgia Engel and Cloris Leachman.

I am pleased to report that when I met her in New York City earlier this week at a Mastermedia luncheon (featuring Martha Williamson as the speaker), she looked great, had a fantastic attitude — and a hearty appetite to match. She was there with her devoted husband (since 1987), former personal trainer to the stars Tony Cacciotti. We were joined in our conversation by Marcie Gold, the executive vice president of Moon Water Productions (Martha Williamson’s production company).

JWK: What made you decide that you wanted to do this particular show?

VALERIE HARPER: Well, I’ve known Martha so long…Actually, we were at Thanksgiving dinner together, the families. She said would you want to do a guest shot in a show I’m thinking of writing? I said “Absolutely!” She said “Well, let me tell you (about) the character.” She said “She’s bigger than life! She’s very, kind of, ebullient!” She saw me in a play about Tallulah Bankhead. It had a lot of bad language because that’s how Tallulah talked…She said “(I want you to) do a character like that — over-the-top, dramatic and loving show business.” She made her a supervisor in a post office. She goes around and evaluates everyone’s work. So, she goes from place to place. I said “Absolutely! It sounds like fun!” She wrote wonderful lines. She call and say “Listen to this line. What do you think of this?” I’d says “Wonderful! Wonderful!” We had a (blast)! That’s how it happened.

JWK: So, you and Martha go back a long time.

VH: Oh, yeah — (all the way back to) Touched by an Angel. Martha’s husband Jon directed. I loved it. I loved working with them. So, that was 1997. Then we did (another Martha Williamson show called) Promised Land. Promised Land was a wonderful show.

JWK: The TV shows you’ve been involved with have I think, generally, been somewhat gentle in tone. They were very smart and extremely funny but I don’t think The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Rhoda wouldn’t be considered particularly edgy by today’s standards.

VH: That’s correct. There are no nude scenes in my career!

JWK: But more than that there was a kind streak running through them that I think audiences miss in much of today’s programming.

VH: Ah, that’s sweet. That’s lovely. Kind — that’s the word we need to get.

JWK: How are you feeling?

VH: Good.

JWK: You’re looking great!

VH: I’m much improved. It’s not anything real curable. They say “We can’t cure this.” They say this is incurable but day after goes by and I’m thriving.

JWK: Thank God!

VH: Thank God indeed! Yeah!

MARCIE GOLD: I will go on record, I have found Valerie — and Tony, her husband — to be the most generous people I’ve ever met! Anybody can say they don’t believe in the laws of generosity — you know, that if you give it comes back to you — and yet I see it in action. That’s what I see. The energy that I feel when I’m with people like Val and Tony is that love and that generosity and that care for people. It’s the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen.

VH: It’s interesting — because you’re saying that in such a sweet and complimentary way (but) it’s really natural (for you), knowing who you are as a human being. It’s a natural outcrying of just appreciating others and then you can come face to face with yourself…It’s (not about) denomination necessarily. That’s what I love about Martha. She’s highly spiritual…as a Christian, (she has) a wonderful deep (faith) — but never finger-wagging, never using it as a way to put others down…She’s operating above politics. It’s wonderful.

MG: It’s the laws of love. We weren’t commanded to hit anybody over the head. We were commanded to love people. That’s all — and I think when it gets it be more than that, a lot of times it’s people’s interpretation.

VH: It’s a misuse of Jesus and God — the whole concept of us as a family, a human family.

MG: Yes.

JWK: Is there anything you’d like to add?

VH: Just that I love the show and I really implore people to watch it. (Martha) is a genius…and she’s continually excellent. It’s not like she got lucky.

Next Week: Martha Williamson

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Comparing “Heaven is for Real” with “God’s Not Dead” + an interview with “Heaven” writer/director Randall Wallace

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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Heaven is for Real arrives. the highly-anticipated based on the New York Time #1 bestselling book by Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent opens in theaters nationwide today (4/16)

Synopsis: Heaven if for Real tells the true story of Todd Burpo (Greg Kinnear), a small-town church pastor who must confront his own true beliefs about God and the afterlife when his four-year-old son Colton (Connor Corum) nearly dies during emergency surgery, after recovering, begins recounting a near-death experience includes a journey to Heaven, an encounter Jesus and details about his family’s history that he could not have known. How Todd and his family (which includes his wife Sonja [Kelly Reilly] and Colton’s older sister Cassie [Lane Styles]) and their church community deal with a situation that both supports what they purport to believe yet challenges it at the same time drives the drama forward. Cast: Greg Kinnear (Rake, The Kennedys), Kelly Reilly (Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows), Thomas Haden Church (We Bought a Zoo, Wings), Connor Corum, Lane Styles and Margo Martindale (The Americans, The Millers, Justified). Directed by Randall Wallace (Secretariat). Screenplay by Randall Wallace (Braveheart) and Christopher Parker. Produced by Joe Roth and T.D. Jakes.

My review: With Heaven is for Real sharing marquis space with God’s Not Dead (already a box office hit), it wouldn’t be too surprising if someone got drunk and mistook their local theater for their local church and the movie titles for sermon subjects.

If they were sermons, God’s Not Dead would be more apt to be described as being of the fire-and-brimstone variety. Heaven is for Real, on the other hand, strikes a much less condescending stance toward those who may be skeptical toward its central premise and even believers who may, nonetheless, doubt Colton’s experience.  I criticized God’s Not Dead as a missed opportunity to engage those outside the choir in a film dealing with a big question involving faith, the makers of Heaven is for Real seize the opportunity by offering a judgment-free story that tackles the question (or, more accurately, answer) put forth in its title.

God’s Not Dead deals with a college debate over the existence of God and, therefore, may have, in my view, benefited from a title that is less-weighted toward a conclusion (even though I agree with that conclusion. The declarative title works for Heaven is for Real though because the story is about four-year-old boy’s innocent and matter-of-fact recollection of what happened to him as he hovered on the brink of death — literally hovered as, at one point, we see his POV from above the operating table.

While the movie definitely tilts toward belief in Colton’s story, skeptics are given due respect which is one reason the film will likely outdraw its predecessor at the box office. Of course, having a Sony-sized marketing budget won’t hurt on that score either.

Another difference, of course, is the fact that Heaven is for Real is based on true events — but it also conveys a far truer tone than the somewhat strident and manipulative God’s Not Dead is fiction. It’s portrayal of the life of a small turn church congregation rings true as we witness how Colton’s story is viewed by different people. While there is some taunting (i.e. in the school playground), believers and skeptics (inside and outside the church) are all thoroughly believable with not a cartoon cutout to be found.

In terms of performances, Greg Kinnear (who has certainly come a long way since Talk Soup) is perfectly cast as the well-intentioned pastor and father who is thrown off his game by his son’s experience. While his edgy lawyer series Rake flounders on Fox, this may well prove to be his defining role of 2014.  Kelly Reilly is equally good as his supportive wife who, at the same time, aches for their family to resume their normal lives.  Thomas Haden Church is fine as the kindly town banker (which certainly plays against some current stereotypes) and Margo Martindale gives a standout performance as a congregant concerned that the media attention given to Colton’s story threatens to turn their little church into something resembling a circus exhibit. Probably the most memorable though performance is probably given by newcomer Connor Corum who is so natural in front of the camera. He reminds of (an even younger version of) Ricky Schroder in The Champ.

The script by Randall Wallace and Christopher Parker is a bit slow-paced at the start but picks up as we come to know the characters and definitely held my interest to the very end — which, BTW, included a really nice performance of a song called Compass, written by Diane Warren and performed by Rascal Flatts. I dare say, the faith-filled song (heard in the trailer above) is good enough to have its Best Song Oscar nomination rescinded by the Academy next year.

Heaven is for Real is highly-recommended.

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Bringing Heaven to HollywoodRandall Wallace won an Oscar nomination for writing the screenplay o Braveheart, the 1995 blockbuster that propelled him unto Hollywood’s A-list. Since then his writing and/or directing credits have included such noteworthy films as The Man in the Iron Mask (a personal favorite of mine), Pearl Harbor, We Were Soldiers, The Rookie and Secretariat. His films have always been faith-friendly, reflecting his personal beliefs, and Heaven is for Real certainly is consistent with that.

JWK: Why did you choose to do Heaven is for Real? How did it come to you?

RANDALL WALLACE: This movie came to me through Sony and Joe Roth, the producer. I worked with Joe before on Pearl Harbor and respect him tremendously. I read the book and was both excited and moved by it. When I’m choosing projects I look for something that has the power to excite my imagination and move my heart and this did that.

JWK: Why did it do that?

RW: Well, I’m a father myself and I also, at one point, studied for the ministry. So, I can relate to Todd powerfully and I could also relate to Colton — to the story of a boy. I was going to church my whole life and I would stare at the pictures (on) the stained-glass windows and the pictures on the walls of the church, pictures in my Bible and hear the sermons about Heaven. I could really connect with the thought of what it would be like if one day your son walked in and said that “I’ve been to Heaven.” It was the stuff of great drama.

JWK: How has being involved in this project — and talking with the Burpos — affected your own faith?

RW: I think it’s two-fold. One is that it’s connected me more with the beauty of what we have here — Heaven on Earth. With the Lord’s Prayer — “on Earth as it is in Heaven” — which is a big part of the movie. That phrase becomes powerful. To be able to look at the beauty of this Earth and to think that God has hinted at Heaven with what we see here and, especially with the love that we feel with each other. In knowing love we get a sense of knowing God.

The other thing is that ethereal hope — that sense of a Heaven beyond time that is glorious and full of grace. As I’ve had different people from my parents’ generation pass on — many of them fairly recently, including my own mother — I have had a sense of comfort having looked at the issue of this movie.

JWK: You studied to be a minister. Of what denomination?

RW: I grew up a Baptist and went to seminary at Methodist school, Duke University, but I also don’t worry too much about denominations. I love what John Wesley said — “If our hearts are together, let’s not worry about whether our heads are together. If our hearts are together, then let’s joins hands.” So, I try to do that regardless of denominations.

JWK: How did you move from seminary into show business? How did that transition come about?

RW: I majored in religion for my entire undergraduate career at Duke University and then I went to seminary for a year unsure whether or not I really had the call to be a minister. I spoke with a pastor of my home church and told him I was going to seminary. He said “Do you feel the call to be a minister?” and I said “Honestly, I don’t. I know it’s the greatest call you could have but I’m not feeling that call myself. He said “Well, you know, you’re wrong. It’s not the greatest call. The greatest call is whatever calling God has for you.” That was a wonderful piece of pastoring that he did for me because he let me know that God would find a way to let me know what I should be doing.”

And I love writing. I’ve always been drawn to that and felt a particular joy in it — like the phrase in Chariots of Fire: “God made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.” God gave me a love of writing and (I knew) to do it I would feel God’s pleasure.

I first went to Nashville. After a couple of years, I kept going west and ended up in Los Angeles. I began to write stories. Braveheart was my first feature film.

JWK: You also worked in television — with writer/producer Stephen J. Cannell (Hunter, Broken Badges).

RW: Yeah, Steve Cannell was my mentor, one of my main ones. A great man. A great teacher, as well. I worked in television and began to work in features.

JWK: Was working in episodic television good training for features?

RW: I think so. I think it’s fantastic training. It teaches you to focus on story and that’s certainly what this was about. This (Heaven is for Real) is a fantastic story that plays like a mystery. It draws you into the emotion of the story. That’s the greatest thing. It’s not an intellectual exercise. I found the story powerfully entertaining but best of all it was a story that connected to your emotions.

JWK: What is your relationship with Todd and Colton like?

RW: I know Todd best of all. I would call Todd and get to know him. I found him to be really down to earth and also comforting — and a real friend. Every time I would call and talk before we got off the phone he would always want to pray for me. I found that quite moving.

JWK: So, you could feel that his faith was quite real.

RW: Absolutely.

JWK: Did you personally feel like it was perhaps the Hand of God moving you to this project?

RW: I do feel that. I believe that God is carrying us whether we know it or not and is always present. I love what C.S. Lewis said — “You don’t have a soul, you are a soul. You have a body.” I’ve always wanted my life and my work to be something that was letting my soul participate with the souls of others. I have really felt that process (with) this picture.

JWK: Do you see a higher value in storytelling than just captivating an audience in an interesting and enthralling tale? Is there a purpose beyond the entertainment?

RW: I do. I think storytelling is the greatest activity of any culture. Storytelling is how you build a family, how you pass along identity. As I wrote in the dedication in the book for Braveheart, it’s the tales we tell ourselves that make us who we are. Jesus told stories. Rather than trying to argue intellectual points and theology, he would tell a story and the power of that story was that it went beyond intellectualization. It went beyond argument. It told an example of life that everyone could recognize was true. That’s what movies do at their best. They give us a story and let us decide how to connect that story with the rest of our lives.

That’s what I loved about Heaven is for Real. The book was just a great story and then we have to ask ourselves how do we feel about this story? What do we think of it? What do we do about it? How does it connect us with the rest of our lives?

JWK: What do you have coming up after Heaven is for Real? I know you’re working on a film called Conscientious Objector about America’s first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.

RW: Yes. That is a story that I worked on with Walden, a wonderful company…I’ve been working on some projects of my own that I’ve been working on for a long time. One called Love and Honor and I’m also working on some television projects that may prove to be really exciting — one involving the Civil War. So, it could be an interesting year.

JWK: Television has been rather dark over the past decade or so. Do you think the pendulum is starting to swing toward heartfelt storytelling on the small screen as well as the big screen?

RW: I think that television lately has been extremely dark and, in some ways, cynical but I also think that people who are writing those shows probably feel exactly as I do — that sometimes the darkness of a story can highlight the light in a story. There’s a lot of cynical stuff but I think it may be even more in movies now where you see so many movies about cynical and corrupted characters. That’s the state of many movies right now but movies, television, all of culture, there’s always going to be a battle between the stories that are cynical and stories that are hopeful.

JWK: Is there anything you like to add about Heaven is for Real that I haven’t asked you about?

RW: Thank you. I think the biggest thing is that it’s a story that Christian audiences will feel a lot of comfort and joy in. An exciting aspect of it has been people who seem themselves as outside the faith have also responded powerfully to the emotions and the hope of the story. So, this is a movie that everyone can go to see — believer, non-believer and of any age and of both sexes. It’s a movie the whole family can see together. That’s something I’m really excited about.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

Fantastic voyage: Colton Burpo talks about seeing his awesome experience portrayed on film in “Heaven is for Real”

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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To Heaven and back. Yesterday, I posted my conversation with Todd Burpo, the Nebraska pastor whose book Heaven is for Real chronicling his son Colton’s apparent visit to Heaven during a near-death experience when he was only four has become the subject of a new movie from Randall Wallace (Braveheart, Secretariat) opening in theaters tomorrow (4/16).

Now, ten years later on the eve of the film’s premiere, Colton is fourteen years old and talks about what it’s like to see his experience portrayed on film.

JWK: It must be incredible for you to see your story on the screen. How close has the movie come to showing what you actually saw?

COLTON BURPO: It is difficult to depict something that you’ve never seen or experienced before, so the Heaven scene, I think is good but is just not what I experienced.

JWK: How was it different?

CB: It’s hard to describe how it was different because you never feel the same way that you do when you’re down here on Earth and some of the things you can’t experience down here on Earth.

JWK: To the best that words can allow, what was the experience like?

CB: It was very fun (and) awesome…Mainly, I got to do a bunch of stuff that I wouldn’t be able to do here. I got to play with lions. I got to fly.

JWK: So, how real does that experience seem to you after all these years? Do you still feel it? Is it still fresh in your memory?

CB: My Heaven experience, yes, I remember that very vividly and it is very fresh. Now, some memories have faded from that — like I used to be able to name names of kids that I played with in Heaven but now I can’t. So, a lot of things still stick out to me. Some things have faded but it’s still very clear.

JWK: What has your experience given you that you’d like to share with others?

CB: Well, one thing that I enjoy sharing is that God really does love you. He wants you in Heaven. The problem is we’re too attached to some things on this world that aren’t okay for Heaven. But when we love Jesus, it’s a true, pure love. When we love Jesus then we can let go of those things and we are able to experience and enjoy Heaven.

JWK: From your experience, how do the things we argue about here on Earth — including religion — appear from the point of view of Heaven — and of God?

CB: Heaven is just such an amazing place to begin with. There’s no sin there. That’s the big divider between Heaven and Earth. Since there’s no sin there, everybody doesn’t have to argue all the time. Everybody doesn’t have to cram their belief down someone else’s throat. Everybody’s out there and they enjoy just being around each other.

JWK: How is sin defined in Heaven?

CB: Sin causes a lot of problems. It cause most of the world’s problems — like jealousy. A country is jealous of another country so they invade it and (kill) innocent people. Guilt. Feeling guilty for something wrong that you did when you (should) know “I’m forgiven of that.” Just getting into a simple car crash, you still feel guilt. Just a bunch of other stuff (that) really ruin your mood or just ruin people’s lives.

JWK: Going forward, do you plan to follow in your father’s footsteps as a minister?

CB: I do feel that God does wants me to continue sharing the story…I’m probably going to keep continuing what I’m doing in this world with Heaven is for Real Ministries. What we do is we go around and we have a live band travel with us. We go around and we do an event. The band plays…There may be a little message in there as well. At those events is where we can touch people’s live because we even get to talk to them afterwards and (for) a lot of people, it just really helps them.

JWK: You’re father tells me you have musical talent of your own.

CB: Yes. I do sing.

JWK: Do you sing at these events?

CB: Yes. I sing the Heaven song, as well. That song was written by the leader of the Read You and Me band that travels with us. He wrote it mainly out of the words from our kids book Heaven is for Real for Kids.

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JWK: You have siblings.

CB: I have an older sister and a younger brother.

JWK: How do they — and the kids you know at school — feel about all this?

CB: Well, there have been a few jokes at my expense but, otherwise, they’ve been hearing this story since I was young, since my friends were young, since Cassidy (my sister) was young, since Colby (my brother) was young. This story has been around for a very long time so everybody in our town if they don’t believe in (my story) they can’t deny that (my recovery) was a miracle.

JWK: What did Heaven look like?

CB: What I saw in Heaven was people, angels, animals, trees, water.

JWK: Were you able to see God?

CB: Yes, I able to see God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit — and the archangels, Michael and Gabriel. I was also able to see King David, Samson, Mary the mother of Jesus and the apostles Peter and John. So, there are a bunch of people up there.

JWK: And, I understand, you were able to see your own deceased relatives.

CB: I was. I saw my grandpa pop and my sister (who died in a miscarriage).

JWK: It seems like you saw, basically, all of time laid out before you?

CB: God operates outside of time…I was able to see my dad’s past, I was able to see the future, I was able to see Satan being thrown out of Heaven.

JWK: You saw the future?

CB: Well, I was able to see the battle of Armageddon. I was able to see part of it. Now, the women and the children have to stand on the side but Jesus, the angels and the good people fight Satan, the monsters and the bad people.

JWK: Do you have any idea when this happens?

CB: I honestly couldn’t tell you. All I know is I saw my dad fighting in there.

JWK: So, good overcomes evil. All in all, you’re experience seems to have made you happy and hopeful about the future.

CB: Yes — and also, because of my experience, I enjoy helping people prevail (against their) hurts because, being able to see someone overcome something that’s been keeping them down for thirty years, it’s really nice to see that.

JWK: What do you hope people take from this movie?

CB: That God really does love you. He wants you to go to Heaven.

Note: For more information about Heaven is for Real Ministries click here.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

“Heaven is for Real” dad tells his story

posted by John W. Kennedy

Here’s today’s dispatch from the crossroads of faith, media and culture.

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A family’s journey of faith. As pastor of Crossroads Wesleyan Church in Imperial, Nebraska (Population: 1,762), it’s not surprising that Todd Burpo believes in Jesus and Heaven. But even he admits that he was unprepared when, in 2003, his then four-year-old son Colton began recounting details of his own apparent journey to Heaven (and meeting with Jesus) during a near-death experience while undergoing emergency surgery.

His son’s amazing story reportedly included facts about the Burpo family that young Colton could not have known. His son’s experience led Todd to share the story through the bestselling book Heaven is for Real which has been turned into a movie starring Greg Kinnear. In advance of the film’s opening on Wednesday (4/16), Todd spoke with me about what it’s like being the father of a boy who went to Heaven.

JWK: I know you’ve told this story numerous times before but can you describe to me what happened that day when your son was on the operating table?

TODD BURPO: My son had been diagnosed with a flu virus, kind of a stomach bug, but in reality he had an appendix rupture…For five days he just got sicker and sicker. The doctors were treating him for the wrong thing. So, basically, we could just tell our son was dying in front of us. By the time they operated on him, his appendix had been ruptured for about five days. His body was completely septic. Even the surgeon doing the operation, I asked him “Is my son gonna be okay?” He said nothing. I mean it was a bad day. We were definitely afraid after five days of watching him suffer and now going into surgery, we knew that this could be it.

It was in that first surgery that later on after he got better, and this is quite a bit later on, (that) we finally clued in (on his experience). He said “I closed my eyes, I opened my eyes again and there was Jesus and I was sitting on His lap.” He talked about how he saw angels singing to him. He could tell me where we were (and) what we were doing while he was in surgery — things that no one could have been able to tell us, things that a kid just can’t make up with the details and have all the information correct.

That’s where the story began for us — but then it carried on about people he met and what saw in Heaven. Jesus took him to Heaven. And family members. He talked to us about a sister he met there. We never told him we miscarried a child. He talks about meeting my grandfather.  He can recognize my grandfather in a picture taken back in the 1940′s as a young man — even though he never ever, obviously, met my grandfather on this side of Heaven — things that are just impossible to invent. This convinced us that, whatever experience he had, it was a real legitimate thing.

JWK: How long after his surgery did he begin telling you these things?

TB: He tried to tell me the day he woke up from surgery but…I dismissed it very quickly.  I remember going to his room and he looked at me and he said “Dad, I almost died.” And, boy, that scared me to death. I mean he’s not even four and he wants to talk to me about the fact that he almost died. For days I had been begging him to keep fighting — because I didn’t want him to die. So, I changed the subject. But when he talked about the angels singing to him in the hospital later — and that was a conversation about four months after that — then we finally cued in and (said) “Okay, wait a minute.” He’d been making comments to us for months but we never tuned in (and realized) that we had missed something. It took that comment — him talking about angels singing to him in the hospital that caused us — both his mom and I — to wake up and ask him more pointed questions.

JWK: What was the reaction of the doctors?

TB: Dr. O’Holleran, he was kind of funny as I talked to him about the events and so forth and started sharing with him about things that Colton was sharing with me…When I told him what Colton shared about being able to see things, his first response was “Oh, I’ve had that before. Working in emergency rooms, I’ve had to bring people back that have coded and they could tell me where I was in the room.” He goes “This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this at all.” He not only has seen Colton and talked to Colton — but, if you read the book, you will see that he endorsed the front of the book. That’s how much he believes in everything that happened.

JWK: How did this affect your own faith — and your idea of Heaven?

TB: You know, being a pastor, of course, obviously people would say it (shouldn’t) have done much but, boy, it sure gave me a peace I never had before. I think we struggle in life. Even people of faith struggle when things don’t work out quite the way we think they should. John the Baptist, he struggled when he was in prison with Herod before he was killed. So, I think sometimes we think faith is about having all the answers. It isn’t. But (it’s) the thing that keeps you steady and in peace in the midst of storms. And the peace that I’ve gotten from Colton — especially when he describes his sister and how my daughter’s fine and she knows me and can’t wait to meet me when I get there, that’s given me such a peace that has really caused me to be bolder and it’s caused me to be more unrelenting in my message and I think, in some ways, to be less argumentative too.

When we talk about Heaven, we’re not out to get in a fight with anyone but we’re not going to apologize either. It’s one of those things where Colton handles adults much like adults handle children. If a child comes up to you and says “Hey, I know four plus four equals five,” (you) don’t get mad or we don’t get upset with him. (You) just sit there and say “Well, you’re close but the answer is four.” That’s how Colton handles adults. When they try to talk to him about Heaven, he looks at them and goes “Well, that’s kinda right but this is what I saw.” And he handles them with such a more gentle, respectful (way) than I ever did. I’m learning to be more like Colton.

JWK: So, his experience has affected how you conduct your ministry.

TB: It has just because when God does a miracle like that somehow you have to respond. When God does things for you — maybe we don’t deserve them and we can never really repay God but God really wants us to respond to them. He doesn’t want us to stay the same. So, for us to respond to what God has done in our lives is probably the same way he would want anyone to do — “Just tell people what I’ve done for you and what you’ve seen and heard.” That’s what we’re doing.

JWK: How old is Colton now?

TB: He’s fourteen.

JWK: And this experience is still real to him? It hasn’t faded?

TB: Oh, very real. Now, he’s forgotten a few things. Some memories have faded. When he was little, he used to tell us the names of some of the other kids he played with in Heaven and he’s forgotten some of that. But a lot of the things he still remembers very vividly and goes into great detail to explain to people.

JWK: What does he want to be when he grows up? Does he want to be a minister himself?

TB: Well, you know, he’s very much drawn to music, loves to sing. He loves to play music (so) a musician is high on his list.

But (there’s) another thing too that he enjoys to do — and he’s starting to step out. I remember when he was younger he said “Dad, it scares me to speak in front of a lot of people but I don’t mind singing. I’ve seen him sing in front of thousands and not even flinch. Me, I’d be shaking in my boots. Now, he’s getting to the point where he starting to talk a little bit and answer questions and he’s starting to say “Well, Dad, you know, I really like encouraging people this way and talking about what God did for me. I think I want to keep doing this.”

So, when we go out and do Heaven is for Real events, and we share, he’s really finding that this is something that he enjoys to do and so he’s leaning more towards “How do I continue encouraging people here?” And I think that’s kinda where God’s directing him now.

JWK: What was it like, as co-author of the book, to recount your story and then to see it portrayed on screen?

TB: Well, you know, we’ve always talked about our story and working with Lynn (Vincent) was a very good experience. I would sit down and talk the story. I wanted the book to be very conversational. So, as I would talk she would write and then she’d get back to me and say “Well, this is what you said” and I’d edit it.  As far as the writing process, I think God brought not only the right person to work with me but we had a very, clear cohesive vision as to what we needed to put in the book and what we needed to leave out. That went just very, very well.

In the movie process, you have to trust so many more people. You’re not near as hands-on. And so we’ve offered a lot of prayers. We really had to depend on God way more for the movie than I did for the book. And now, as we’re coming close to the movie being released, we can just say that God has answered so many of our prayers! Not only the people he’s brought, but just the quality of what they’ve done is impressive.

JWK: Did you talk with Greg Kinnear who plays you in the film?

TB: We skyped for a while — for a couple of hours one day. I got to meet him on the set and so forth. One thing that’s really interesting is (that) he came to the story because his wife told him to. You know, for a movie actor it’s happy wife, happy life — just like the rest of us. He didn’t know it at the time — from what I understand — but they already had a copy of Heaven is for Read. I got to talk to his, like, nine-year-old daughter who said “It’s like my favorite book.” When his wife saw that he was being asked to (consider this movie), she told him “Do it! We already have this book!” And she pulled the book out and said “See, you’re gonna do this movie!” So, it is kind of amazing how God had prepared the way — not only for him but even the other people that He brought to this project.

JWK: Did you talk with the boy who played Colton (Connor Corum)?

TB: I did. I got to eat lunch with him and his parents one day and, while we’re sitting at the table watching him play with his toys…he acted so much like (Colton). I have two boys — Colton and Colby. They’re a lot alike and you would sure mistake Connor as one of my kids. It was amazing, the resemblance…(He plays) Colton so well. I think casting for Colton was probably going to be the most difficult — and maybe the most crucial — role to be cast in the movie, next to Greg Kinnear. They just knocked it out of the park with Connor. When Colton met Connor, he was like “Boy, it was like meeting Mini-Me.” I mean, that’s how he described it.

JWK: Is Colton’s brother Colby older or younger than he is.

TB: He’s younger. He’s nine.

JWK: How does he feel about all of this?

TB: Well, you know, it’s kinda funny as we’ve seen the scenes and he’s watched. Colby’s…incredibly intelligent. He’s also my most comical. He’s my entertainer. So far, he’s thrilled by it. He’s very much concerned that they get it right. “Dad they better get it right!” This is my nine year old. He’s like “Boy, dad, that’s gonna be good, yeah!”

JWK: You have a daughter as well?

TB: Yeah, I have a daughter. She’s 17. That’s Cassie.

JWK: You’re book was on the New York Times bestseller list for a very long time. Are you surprised by the public’s embrace of your family’s story?

TB: I am because I think the first reaction to our book from Christian bookstores was really kind of negative. They didn’t really want to handle the book and then, all of a sudden, Walmart, Costco and all these other stores loved it. As a matter of fact, if you go back and look at history, we were number one on the New York Times list I think almost months before we were number on the CBA list. And yet we never thought we’d be number one on anything. We wrote the book thinking — this is how God has brought us so much peace, maybe it will help someone. We’ll take the risk and we’ll put it out there. I remember my first contract was for 15,000 books and I’m like “Oh, my word!” I come from a town of two-thousand. I thought “How am I going to get rid of 15,000 books?! Now, Heaven is for Real has already passed eight million. It’s just amazing. God has totally surprised us.

JWK: Obviously most people seem to like the book. Have you received any negative reaction?

TB: Lots of it…If you stand for anything you’re going to have critics but when you talk about faith — and especially talk about Jesus Christ — Colton says that’s who he met…We’ve been accused of doing this for money…You know, how convenient it is for my son to be a Christian pastor’s son and we’re making all this up, just about any accusation you can find. But you can go to BarnesandNoble.com. Last time I looked we had close to 9,000 reviews — which is absolutely unheard of for a book — and yet we get ten five stars for every one one star. So, we just tell people that, in spite of all the preposterous accusations people are making against us at times, we just focus on all the people we’re helping. God’s really made it easy for us. When you get ten times the praise that you do the complaints, that sure helps you out.

JWK: What do you hope people take from your story — particularly as presented in the movie?

TB: This movie is going to ask people what do you really believe? And should you? I think, hopefully, when (they) hear Colton’s story, those questions will be questions they’ll ask (and) they”ll really want to seek the answers too.

Tomorrow: Colton Burpo tells his story.

Encourage one another and build each other up – 1 Thessalonians 5:11

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