I’d just spent six years in a church feeling wounded. The environment was one where you were never really supposed to be honest about yourself, about life, about anything.
So we all went around denying we were hurt, wounded, dysfunctional messes. Oh, and sin was everywhere in the church. Sexual licentiousness, adultery, and personal dishonesty were rampant. Integrity was rare.
In spite of all this, the favorite game was acting holy and judging others. It was rampant there more than anywhere else I’d ever served. In the midst of it all, I tried to keep my head down and not play along.
But I soon learned if you don’t play along with those spiritual “reindeer games,” you quickly find yourself on the outside.
So I stayed in that church for six years, feeling desperately alone. I longed for a group of people where I could be myself and not be constantly judged. That’s when I auditioned at the local community theatre.
That audition may have not only saved my life, but my ministry as a pastor as well.
I auditioned one December for “Hello, Dolly!”—a fun lightweight show set in the early 1900s. You’ve probably heard several of the songs. I was terrified at the audition, since I’d never gone out for anything since high school. I was almost 50, and I knew no one in the audition room I’d just entered.
The professional staff (director, music director, choreographer and others) sat behind a table, smiling helpfully. I went for the high note at the end of my audition song. My voice cracked. I immediately regretted coming.
As I left the room, the music director followed me out. He was a big guy, serious but kind.
“I really wish you’d consider taking a part in the ensemble. There are so few speaking roles for men in this show, but we could really use you there.”
The fact that anyone would follow me out of the audition surprised me. I was frankly shocked they’d care enough to want to include me.
So when they called with a minor speaking role and a place in that ensemble, I said yes before I knew what I was doing.
But then I had to talk to my boss.
When I talked to the church pastor about what I was trying to do, to reach out into a part of the community our church wasn’t touching, he wasn’t impressed.
“You really think you’re going to reach those people for Christ?”
Well, yes. I actually did believe that through working along side of them, I’d build relationships and help some of them know Jesus the way I do. But to be honest, it was also selfish. On a personal level, I was desperately looking for a group of people where I’d not be constantly judged.
More than anything, I just wanted friends who didn’t go to my church.
Eventually, the church leadership forbade me to do the show. They said it would be a “bad testimony” for me to be onstage with the kinds of people who do theatre. While I was disappointed, I wasn’t totally surprised. They were experts at judging. They were just doing what they did best.
Long story short, three months later I walked away from that church. Literally put my resignation on the desk and walked out. Started a little church, struggled along as best we could. But as quickly as possible, I went back to that theater.
“Hello, Dolly” was now about to open, but I found a job backstage changing microphone batteries. It wasn’t exciting, but at least I was part of the team.
I remember talking to one of the actors during the production in the Green Room—that was sort of a holding room where the actors would eat or wait before going on stage. The man was about my age, and I was sure he was probably gay. The fact I was even sitting with him on the couch would’ve raised the eyebrows of my former church members.
He asked, “So why did you step out of your role in our production? You were at rehearsal one day, then you were gone.”
I explained in general terms about the church, my former job, and all that had happened.
As I talked, I watched his countenance change markedly. I can only describe his eyes as having a “knowing quality” about them. It was as if I were telling him a story he’d heard before. But, in fact, I was telling him a story he’d probably lived himself several times over, only with different names and places attached.
From that point on, I participated in multiple productions there. Sometimes helping in rehearsals at the piano, often in the orchestra pit, and eventually in lead roles. I was loved and accepted, even respected by most everyone, regardless of what they thought of my calling as a pastor. I had truly found a home there.
While the people were far from perfect, I rarely ever felt judged for what I believed, even when it conflicted with other’s beliefs. There was a “live and let live” attitude that spanned social and political barriers.
I often sat in the men’s dressing room between acts, watching an older staunch conservative trading shots with a younger progressive. They were literally on the extreme opposite ends of the political spectrum, and both were openly making fun of their opposing candidates. And yet, they both clearly loved each other. They smiled, poked and prodded, and had a wonderful time.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but I’ve probably found more love and acceptance in that theatre than in any church I’ve served. I’m deeply sad about that, because it shouldn’t be that way. Church is where people have more reason to be joyful and accepting than any other.
Though we’re sinners, God has forgiven us through Christ Jesus. Spiritually, the church has won the lottery! So it’s amazing we keep those winnings to ourselves so often.
Theatre taught me accepting others doesn’t mean we have to agree. In fact, we may disagree strongly. But it acknowledged the worth of each person, and refused to judge them as worthless in spite of their shortcomings.
While my former church focused on people’s weaknesses, in theatre we focused on people’s strengths and minimized their weaknesses. I guess it’s a bit of the old razzle dazzle, distracting from the unlovely by adding a few sequins and magenta lights. But how forgiving those distractions can be!
Oh, how often they used that razzle dazzle to help me. In one show, the choreographer/director crafted a dance routine for me working around my weaknesses. You see, I’m a lousy dancer. Though as a musician I know rhythm, I have no technique and resemble a large dancing bear. But thanks to her artistry and “mercy,” my dance number literally stopped the show! The applause just went on and on, as I stood there sweating, panting…and amazed. But it was all because she majored on my strengths, while forgiving my glaring weaknesses.
That’s what I wished the church would do more. I wish we stopped looking for the parts of people we disliked, and focused on the worth God has placed in them. I wish we’d leave all the judging to God. I wish we’d open our arms and love people, even when we don’t agree with them about everything.
We’re so afraid if we love them, they won’t realize they’re sinners. But we so quickly forget we should love them because we are sinners, too!
Loving and accepting them doesn’t mean accepting their sin. We see the best in them, in spite of their sin. You know… just like God did with us.
I also wish our society right now would learn a lesson from that theatre as well. I’m seeing a level of judgment and shaming over politics today that rivals most anything I ever saw in the church. The new “church ladies” today who smirk at sin are doing so based on political dogmas, not religious ones.
We’re becoming experts on judging and labeling people based on political ideology. If they don’t agree with our “creed”, they’re branded as sinners and cast into darkness. I fear as this year marches along, the world around me is becoming more and more like that church I walked out of.
I miss my theater right now. I moved far away a year ago, and they’re opening another great production this week without me. One reason I’m writing this is I so miss their friendship and the fun I had with people who were often so different from me.
But if the world is becoming more hateful like that church, maybe there’s a chance the church can become more like my old theatre. Maybe we’ll finally decide to be the place where people go to be loved and embraced. Maybe our pews can feel more like that couch in the theater green room, where we lay bare our hurts knowing others will understand.
Maybe all we need is a bit of the old razzle dazzle. In fact, God has something in common with my theatre directors, I believe. He sees my sin all too clearly, just as they saw my weaknesses. But in spite of that, he’s teaching me, shoring up those weaknesses while putting his own “costume” of righteousness over my filthy rags.
Thanks to his showmanship, I feel gifted, worthy and loved, in spite of what this world may see in me. After all…with all that glitter he places around me, they’ll never notice the junk I’m hiding. How can they see with sequins in their eyes?
Thanks to my friend Kevin Buja for his terrific photo…