“Sir, can you please close that!”
This was the second time the usher rebuked me for being on my computer (though technically the service had not yet started.)
“Oh… sorry… I am actually typing out some old sermon notes…”
“Yes, but you are still in church.” She sharply interjected.
I didn’t know what to say. But it would be wrong to get into a fight with a little old lady in the house of God… right? So, I bit my tongue, stopped typing mid-sentence, and obeyed. I closed my laptop, tucked it safely away in my bag, and then I folded my hands. I was waiting for Kevin, a fellow actor friend of mine, to join me.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to go down. Kevin hadn’t been to church in years (maybe he too encountered the wrath of the laptop police). But we had a few good spiritual conversations under our belts, so I was excited that he was coming just the same... excited… but also a bit uneasy. Sometimes inviting friends to church is like taking them to a movie that you yourself have not yet seen; or like bringing a guest to a family reunion where you know it’s possible a crazy uncle or two is going to be lurking. It’s a gamble. You don’t know what the content is going to be, so you feel responsible for the overall experience. But at least I could blame whatever happened in church on Jesus… right?
“Are these seats taken?”
A middle-aged couple that seemed nice enough gestured towards the two empty seats to my left.
“No… go for it.” I smiled (I like smiling).
“Where are you from?” The husband canon-balled right into the conversation pool.
“Los Angeles. But I live and work here in New York.” I replied.
“Oh ok… Where do you work?”
I was excited to answer this question, as it was the reason I moved to the city in January of 2005…
“I actually work here in the theater district. I am in a Broadway show at the moment… Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” I was on an 8-show a week schedule, so it was more than convenient to find a church that met in an old Broadway house only a few blocks away. I could come in for the Sunday AM service, and bolt out in time for the matinee show.
“Oh…” They both looked surprised. I interpreted their reaction to be rooted in excitement for me… “Are you gay?”
As I pumped my boundary breaks, I could literally hear the sound of tires screeching; screaming; scrubbing the road of our conversation with the burning rubber of awkward. I laughed uncomfortably. Then I realized that Mr. and Mrs. Invasive had both frozen their curious expressions, as if to hold me accountable to an answer.
“No. I am not gay.” I saw their stereotype balloons pop over their heads.
“Well… how are you serving the Lord?” The interrogation continued.
“How are YOU serving the Lord?!?” I really wanted to fire this question back at them. Instead, I replied calmly… “Well, I am serving the Lord by pursuing the opportunities and utilizing the talents He has given me.” This was the only thing I could think of to say. But I didn’t completely understand the implications of my answer…
“Hey bro.” Kevin rescued me from their mini-inquisition. Slightly relieved, I turned to greet him. I smiled at the couple, and indicated my need to tend to my guest, just in time for the curtain to open to a multi-racial Gospel choir.
When the live music kicked in, and the choir began to lead us in worship, my heart could do nothing else but be swooned by the excitement in the atmosphere (gospel will do that to you). Initially, it was hard to engage, as my new friends to my left were hollering at the top of their lungs just slightly off key (that can be like nails to a chalkboard to anyone who is musical). But I was sure that God was moved by their passion, so I got over it, and I raised my hands in song with hundreds of others gathered.
At the end of the service, I felt refreshed. I had almost forgotten that I was accosted an hour-and-a-half before. I looked over at Kevin (subtle enough that he didn’t notice me, or feel pressure to respond.) He seemed to have been moved. I did not want to disrupt whatever was going on in his heart. When someone encounters the presence of God, it is a delicate moment that should not be disturbed. It is like walking in on a baby who has just been put down, and fallen asleep to the soothing touch of a mother’s palm. I purposely sat in silence until both of us were ready to… “SO WHAT DID YOU THINK?” (insert record scratch here). The question was launched meticulously, like a heat-seeking missile, up over my head, destined to fall upon the ears of my friend. I wanted to bat it away before it was too late, but in my mind, I had already taken cover. “Oh no!!!” I screamed in my head. “It’s THEM!” Mr. and Mrs. Pharisee struck again…
… “I loved it.” Though their forthrightness was jarring, Kevin’s response was honest. He didn’t seem to be too bothered by their religious zeal. But I wanted to get him far away from THEM… because I could sense it coming... and sooner than I expected… “HAVE YOU EVER ACCEPTED JESUS CHRIST BEFORE?” I don’t think they had even asked for his name (of course they never asked for mine). Silence. “Uh… no… I have never ac-” “WOULD YOU LIKE TO?” I was stunned as I found the top of my head now nestled under this man’s armpit. He had already assumed the position: hand on Kevin’s shoulder; head bowed; and I could see the tally marks of new converts, behind the agenda spewing out from his eyes. I’m sure he meant well… “Uh… yes… I would… (question mark)…” Kevin went along with it. I didn’t want to stop this significant moment if it was real. But I could feel Kevin’s discomfort as he was bulldozed into repeating a formula of words that left him more confused than anything. It’s a shame that religion can blind us from recognizing that God is a master at meeting us where we are.
We didn’t talk much about “the incident” afterwards. But he also never came to church with me again. It is a funny position to be in: a follower of Jesus protecting my friends from some Christians. But unfortunately, I have found myself in that place often. And as an artist, I have felt, all the more, a void in the presence of vicious religiosity. Nothing brings death more swiftly than a religious debate. Nothing brings life more swiftly than the presence of God.
I remember listening to a pastor speak once. He shared that there are five major cities in the United States that have essentially been condemned by the Church: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and New York (all the fun ones!). These cities have been marked with a giant scarlet letter “A” because of their rebellion against God. Subsequently, His wrath will soon fall upon each of them. In response to a skewed point of view, this man stressed the importance of recognizing the power of life that rests on our tongues; that we have a choice to love and bless instead of judge and curse. I began to think about the many times I have heard the great city of Los Angeles and the entertainment industry spoken against; the first time a religious Christian told me I was going to hell without knowing or perceiving even a stitch of my spiritual journey; every time I stepped into a space where I felt restricted to express the love of God through every part of me, namely my God-given Creativity. My heart began to burn violently within me. And at the top of a Q&A following the message, I jumped up…
“I am from Los Angeles, born and raised, and I see the glory of God everywhere I go. I am also an artist in the entertainment industry, and there are names and faces of people that are friends of mine, that are ‘the condemned’. I am so tired of ‘church folk’ speaking death against cities that they neither live in, nor carry any authority over, and I don’t think it’s very wise for them to speak against cities that influence the world through arts and culture in the first place. What would you recommend to people who are in my position?”
I was moved by his answer… “Never get caught up in religious debates. Just show people Heaven.” (Bill Johnson) I felt empowered by this. But a big “HOW?!?” in a bubble began dancing over my head…