Ok. So. Let’s play a game. A pretending game.
Let’s pretend that unbeknownst to you, someone has been following you around for say, the past 10 or 15 years.
Let’s say they’ve been listening and watching and well, spying.
And taking notes.
Yes. In this pretend story, it’s like a film crew for the Kardashians only you don’t know you’re on film and they aren’t actually filming you, they are writing about you.
They are watching, writing, composing and singing.
A friend of my sister’s jokes that she’s going to make a musical about my family, about our lives but she is late to the party.
It’s already been written. Only not about my family.
Only what if we are not pretending. What if this really happened and one day, all spruced up to see a friend you haven’t seen in more than 20 years—well, spruced up would be a stretch given that you were running so late you didn’t even have time to shower and you were hungry so you did what any self-respecting southerner would do upon arrival into the motherland and you grab a whataburger and you spill mustard on your white shell and you forget to say “no onions” and while you could remove them, you really like the said onions so you eat them and then stop for gum. Yes. All gussied up.
For a night at the theatre.
About 5 minutes before I sat down, I noticed a message from my friend. “Are you familiar with the show?”
No. No I was not.
The show was being presented in what’s called a black box theatre. Small and extremely intimidate; “connecting people with performers in a purposeful and uninterrupted way.”
In other words, you can’t leave.
Not that I would’ve.
Well, I totally would’ve, but I couldn’t.
So I didn’t.
We are no longer pretending here, in case you’re confused.
I have mustard on my shirt. I have onion on my breath and I’m sitting next to one of my closest friends for the past 25 years getting ready to watch another of my closest friends and bar none, the most talented man I’ve ever known.
He walks out on stage and begins to sing. I think, I might cry a little bit. It’s emotional hearing this voice that I love.
Scene 1, 2, 3….I forget. Little weird. Little awkward. Little funny.
My friend leans over, “did you know what this show was about?”
Uhm, no. The only thing that matters is that I get to hear my friend.
Scenes 4, 5, 6. Little weirder. Little awkwarder. Less funny.
My friend leans over, “you didn’t read the playbill did you?”
I laughed. Like a nervous laugh. Like that laugh that’s followed by a little gulping sound and then I begin to cry. I think it’s going to be fast and precious and a little dab will do you but, no.
I was wrong.
Oh. So. Wrong.
I close my eyes. This is not real. This is just my friend. He’s singing to me. I love to hear him sing.
My friend leans over, “this is going to be the longest two hours ever.”
The man to my left looks at me with both concern and secondary embarrassment.
I’ve managed to embarrass a complete stranger.
This woman gets up and sings a song that I wrote. Dang plagiarist. This composer even won a tony.
My tony, thank you very much.
And I become un.freakin.done.
So. so. so un-done.
She sings and I can’t catch my breath. I know that if I can just catch my breath this will be fine. All fine. Even funny perhaps. But I can’t catch my breath.
I ask my friend for a tissue. She hands me a suede glass case.
We are far beyond dabbing. I blow.
At one point the story becomes someone else’s. At some point the story becomes different. The woman who sang the song that I wrote that someone plagiarized and won a tony for, doesn’t get divorced. So at that point our stories diverge.
Her husband, the character played by my friend, has had all that he can endure and stands in front of a bus and takes his own life.
Outside the theatre, waiting for my friend, I notice that he is deeply emerged in a very serious conversation and I’m annoyed and impatient and still crying uncontrollably.
No-one could possibly need him as much as I do at this point. I will first hug him. I will then chew his you-know-what for not giving me a little heads up to the story-line. He looks at me, “I’m so sorry!”, his first words.
We walked to a local pub, my two friends and I and we shared and we laughed and we loved and we cried and it was all-shades of wonderful. At one point my actor-friend said, “I don’t want to one-up you or anything, but that couple I was talking to you before you walked up?”
“Yeah, 20 years ago, her mother stood in front of a bus. I forgot to tell her the story line too.”
By now, my tears are all dried up and I’m left with this crying-hangover-headache.
We talked about college, marriages and divorces. We talked about passions and dreams and I showed everyone, even strangers, my book cover. My actor-friend is gay and toward the wee hours of what would soon be new morning, we talk about scripture and faith and religion and pig-skins and fat people and the gays.
Jen Hatmaker says in her new book that people will sometimes hate us because of Jesus, but they should never hate Jesus because of us. That our sanctuaries should be a place of grace and refuge and that our faith, and the sharing of our faith, should never leave those hurting, more hurt. Those wanting to be loved, less loved. Those wanting to be heard, less heard.
We want these gifts. These gifts of beauty and theatre and song and dance and we want there to be beauty. But so often we don’t want to acknowledge the package that delivers these gifts. These graces. I want to hear you sing, my friend, but please don’t tell me about your life.
I want to see the beauty of your dance but I don’t nothing else, thank you very much.
Y’all! What is wrong with us? What is wrong with Christians if we turn more people away than we welcome in. What if we want the gifts but nothing of the person who shares them.
Their talents, but not their friendships.
Their hearts (which they lay bare) but not their souls.
I left that night feeling hopeful and grateful and a little bit like, “Really, Lord?”
My friend, in her beautiful way said right after the show, “At first, I thought. Wow. This is going to pick a scab. Then I thought, no, this is like harvesting organs when the person is still alive.”
I felt like my insides had turned inside out. And I had the headache to match. I wondered as I drove back home that night what in the Hell the Lord had been thinking to send me to this particular show. I mean, it’s not like he was surprised. You probably aren’t supposed to say things like to God, but we have a special understanding.
So what’s the lesson, Lord?
To show me that the forgiving and the healing and the hoping are not over? To remind me that while all is well and all will be well, there is this rippling, this pulling of the thread that just won’t tear and ravels on?
Or was this not about me at all? Was this about seeing my friend and hearing my friend and being reminded that Jesus came because God loves us. To be reminded that the “greatest of these” is not judgement or correction or denial but love.
To love God. To love others.
The first time I heard my friend sing was in a pasture somewhere in Arkansas during and outdoor pageant. He sang:
“There were bells on the hill, but I never heard them ringing, no I never heard them at all, ’till there was you. There was love all around but I never heard it singing, No I never heard it at all ’till there was you!”
Of course, I thought he was singing just to me; straight to me and only for me.
Turns out I was wrong. Occasionally this happens.
I think maybe, in the middle of the third row of that tiny black-box theatre. In the middle of the third row that I could in no way escape with the embarrassed man to my left and my “no longer owns a suede glass case” friend to my right, I heard the bells.
Ringing of understanding. Ringing of forgiveness. Ringing of hope.
Perhaps it wasn’t the crying that gave me the headache. Perhaps it was the all the ringing.
I love my actor-friend. I love that he chased dreams I forgot about. I love his kind heart and his generous spirit and his humor. And I love that after so many years and so many memories that it was him, God chose him, to tell and explain and love hard on the story that was my life.
This wasn’t a night of Oklahoma. This wasn’t the Music Man.
But it was real. And hard. And good.