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