The box office hit could be considered a “chick flick,” but that would be wrong. It’s a man’s movie: a movie for good men.
Based on a New York Times best selling book, Heaven is For Real is a dramatization of a true story about Todd Burpo (played with subtle grace by Greg Kinnear), a small-town minister, father, husband, wrestling coach, garage-door repairman, volunteer fireman, and friend to everyone. He is confronted by numerous challenges: health issues, a deteriorating economy, financial problems, a community in need of his ministry, and raising his children in the best way possible.
The story focuses on his four year-old son’s near death experience, including a visit to Heaven while laying on the operating table. The boy’s visionary visit, which he shares innocently (including having seen “Jesus and his horse”), causes trouble among the faithful and unfaithful alike. Todd confronts these strange reports coming from his son, and it shakes the reality he’s grown up with. He brings these conflicts to his sermons, with great vulnerability and honesty. This causes church parishioners to drift away, since they came to church for answers, not more questions.
A good and loving man at heart, he confronts each challenge squarely, with integrity, honesty, and love. If we wanted to paint a picture of the ideal good man, Todd Burpo would be an excellent model. He does the best he can in each circumstance. He suffers his own pain without making anyone else suffer. He loves his wife and children in such a powerful way that it’s palpable. He has faith, yet he’s willing to have it challenged, and he faces his doubts and opened doors with aplomb, without slamming them closed. He doesn’t make anyone else wrong for their beliefs or their behavior. He sees the good in everyone.
Although he’s deeply in debt, and things are getting worse financially, he refuses to accept what he considers charity. He’s sure that he can work it out. This may be the deepest flaw in his character: faith that shows up as naivete. (If I were his coach, I would have focused his attention on his financial situation much sooner, and more aggressively.) Todd takes pride in what he does, whether it’s repairing a garage door, coaching the local wrestling team, helping put out a fire, or visiting those who are dying in the hospital. But he doesn’t suffer the sin of Pride. He remains a humble servant, and displays no sign of narcissism or egotism. His attention is focused almost exclusively outside himself.
This good man shares his thoughts and feelings vulnerably and openly with his wife, his children, and his friends. When he shares his personal experiences in church, he points to the Bible as a source of healing and inspiration, rather than a source of control through fear. He’s not afraid to argue with God, however. He’s comfortable in his faith, yet he’s also willing to confront uncomfortable truths.
Todd Burpo is open to love. He accepts love from his wife (played by Kelly Reilly) and his two children, and he delights in them, learning and growing along with them. The theme of the film could be “Love will get you through pretty much anything.”
Although the story is ostensibly about a child’s visit to heaven, for me it’s about character. Our character is built over time by our actions and attitude as we confront the challenges before us. Much of our behavior and reactions are automatic, because of our patterns and programmed reactions. It sometimes appears that world, or our circumstances, causes us to respond in a certain way. But it’s always, ultimately, a choice. Do I respond with frustration and anger? Judging others as wrong or bad? Or with love and compassion?
What you choose, moment by moment, year after year, establishes your character. We can look to Todd Burpo, and the way he lived this part of his life, as a model of excellence. See the movie. Get inspired. Live your life, each precious moment, as a good man.