Trust the Gut

Went to a garden party to reminisce with my old friends
A chance to share old memories and play our songs again
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same

But it’s all right now, I learned my lesson well
You see, ya can’t please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

-From Garden Party by Ricky Nelson-

Well, okay, it wasn’t a garden party. It was my high school’s 45th reunion. My first high school reunion. It was a fun evening…a little surreal. So many unfamiliar faces. Thankfully name tags were provided with our high school yearbook picture attached. But even then…there were so many names and faces I didn’t remember. Our class was a big one, over 450 graduates, so there were a lot a classmates I didn’t even know then, let alone 45 years later.

A few in our class have gone on to make a living in the arts. Several good musicians from our class would be providing a steady stream of 70’s rock ’n’ roll through out the evening. I was asked in advance to share a monologue, since I am a professional actor/storyteller. I declined, feeling that the venue would not have been conducive for what I do. Live music can work in a party atmosphere; a dramatic or even comedic monologue, not so much. A second request was made for me to share a story. I stewed about it a bit, tried to imagine it going well…I finally agreed. I should have trusted my first instinct and stuck to the “no thank you.”

I picked a short story from my life that I thought might connect. I spent some time reworking it and even including a few references to classmates and events from 45 years ago. As a performer you try to envision the best possible scenario but also prepare yourself for the worst.

As I visited around the room that night, several acknowledged that they heard I was an actor and would love to see me perform sometime. I let them know that I would be doing a short monologue later in the evening.

There are several bits of advice and wisdom that run through your mind that apply to this kind of situation.

– Trust your gut

– Read the room and adjust

– Remember that the home crowd is always the toughest audience

I should have paid more attention to that last one. I know from performing at my childhood church over the years that the response is never what you expect or hope for. You want to impress, to show them what you can do and what you have become. They, on the other hand, can’t see past the kid they knew way back when. You know the feeling if you have ever gone back to your childhood home as an adult and suddenly feel like the kid you once were.

The reunion was in a fellowship hall of a church. About 70 alumni showed up. For the first couple of hours there was no program to speak of. People visited, ate food and there was a constant din of noise, laughter and good vibes in the room. I was asked if I wanted to go on early and thought, sure why not. The emcee made a few announcements and it was at the moment I realized my mistake in accepting this “gig.”  Few people were listening. Most people were still standing. The noise level in the room did not change in spite of the fact that someone with a microphone was asking for their attention. Nothing changed as I was introduced to tell my story.

I am sure it was not as bad as the experience Ricky Nelson talks about in “Garden Party.” His was a performance in Madison Square Garden where he was actually booed by the audience. I wasn’t booed. But one of the most difficult things to do as an artist is to plow through a performance when you perceive no one is listening. This was “Show ’n’ Tell” gone bad.

In my early years as a touring performer we would occasionally be asked to do guerrilla theater—street theater. We would set up a makeshift performing area in the street or on a college campus. The goal was to command attention and capture an audience. Often that audience didn’t want to be “captured,” especially in a college cafeteria. I hated doing it, but did it anyway, it was part of the job. This reminded me of that.

There were a few who listened, or tried to listen. I found the eyes of those who were focused on me and played to them. If they were going to listen then I would tell them my story and try to shut out the noise and distraction filling the rest of the room. I’m quite sure many of them were thinking “who is that guy with the microphone…I wish he would shut up.”

I plowed through and couldn’t wait to get back to my seat. I’m guessing that about 75% of the room didn’t even realize they had missed it.

But a few people did listen. Because my work as an artist is faith-based, a few classmates sought me out to let me know that they too were people of faith. Nice to know.

I’m not angry. Not hurt. A little disappointed perhaps. It was what it was. I don’t blame people for not listening… hey, if the shoe were on the other foot, I am not sure I would have been one of those listening either. It was just not the right place and time for what I do. But next time… if there is a next time… I will be sure to ‘trust my gut!”

When the Story Really Hits Home

In my world as a itinerant artist, you often wonder if what you are doing really makes a difference. You get a lot of “good job,” “how do you remember all those lines?” and “thanks for sharing” comments. But rarely do you get to hear a real story of a life truly impacted or changed through the ministry/art that you present. But every once in a while you get a glimpse, a story comes back to let you know that something tangible happened.  Such was the case at a performance of In His Steps in Arizona earlier this year. Writer, Tarina Lovegrove wrote about a performance she attended that was featured in Hometown Christian Magazine. I have included a portion of the article as a guest blog. Thanks Tarina!

Are we at church or at a grand theater?  It was truly hard to tell.  I was so blessed the day Chuck Neighbors visited my church and performed a one-man show entitled In His Steps for our small congregation.

Chuck Neighbors as Henry MaxwellFor so many of you who were not at the service that day, you really should visit www.mastersimage.com and try to catch the amazing performance that was showcased that fine Sunday morn.  If you’re like me, you’ll be blessed beyond measure with his example of the impact of having Jesus in your heart and what it can do for your life, your community and our world.

The first scene opens with Mr. Neighbors singing “I Can Hear My Savior Calling” as he begins his narrative in a role as Pastor Henry Maxwell.  Neighbors establishes a solid foundation that sets the scene for the spectacular presentation that followed.

Shortly thereafter, he remarkably remains in character, not missing a beat, adds a wooly red scarf, scruffy jacket and old worn out hat to his wardrobe and literally transforms personas to now represent the second character on set, a homeless man named Jack Manning.

Now, Jack Manning appeared on stage and inherently in front of what was personified as the front of a church, which really hit home for me, as it ironically was exactly where I was seated at the time.

Jack Manning who was poor and quite ill, asked Pastor Maxwell in front of the entire congregation, exactly what did he mean when he said it was important to follow in the steps of Jesus.

The moment was quite fascinating because unbeknownst to me, my attendance at church that day literally transported me to another place and time.  I was not only attending church, I actually became part of the cast of the play without even knowing it.  It was brilliant!

And then it happened… Jack Manning began speaking to the congregation too.  See, his character was a printer by trade who lost his job several months ago and had been brutally struggling ever since.  His wife had died, his little girl was living in someone else’s home for survival and very few people cared enough to provide compassion, kindness or understanding toward the matter.  Life for them it seemed carried on… business as usual.

The insightful Mr. Manning repeated that he was “just stating facts” when he asks his question about what Christians mean by following Jesus.  Through his monologue, Jack Manning revealed there were nearly “500 men, many with families,” in this city in the same situation.

In his heart of hearts, he wasn’t begging for money or support, he was merely trying to understand how Christian people with homes, incomes, money, resources and security could fathom praising the Lord, singing mighty hymns of worship, living lives of luxury and then choosing to turn their heads and hearts when faced with the homelessness and needy population in their very own backyards.

The light bulb illuminated itself even brighter for me when Mr. Manning referenced there might not be as much trouble in our world today if the people who sang these songs also took action to proactively make efforts to eliminate the devastation.

There I sat… dumbfounded, with my heart in my stomach.  Guilty as charged.

There are so many great lessons to learn from this astoundingly heartbreaking yet truthful showcase.   I just don’t know where to begin.

In retrospect, I look at my life and I see the could-ah, should-ah, would-ahs… but that’s not going to get any of us anywhere.  Each of us has the same opportunity, in this very moment, to make a difference.  What will you do?  Make a change or business as usual?

I know what Pastor Henry Maxwell chose to do in the play.  I won’t ruin it for you, I promise.  Watch the play… it’s incredible!  It’s a drama just exploding with a tremendous message that could lead to fantastic impact across our great country, if truly taken to heart.

I know I was completely touched and will not soon forget Mr. Jack Manning, Mr. Henry Maxwell or the real man who brought them and several other great characters to life that day… Mr. Chuck Neighbors.

For details on upcoming events or how you can book Chuck Neighbors for your church or community event, please visit his website at mastersimage.com.  He’s a phenomenal actor, director, storyteller and writer who has traveled across North America as well as 17 other countries around the world, providing thought-provoking material that shares the gospel, touches the heart and with your help, will create a ripple effect of kindness throughout neighboring communities around the world.

Thank you, Chuck Neighbors… for sharing the Word of Jesus Christ!  God bless you, your journey and ministry.

You can read the rest of the feature article here: Hometown Christian Magazine

I’ll Take “Christianese” for $500, Alex

I am in a different church almost every weekend. Being in itinerant ministry for nearly 45 years I figure I have been in no less than 2500 different churches, participating in their worship services. I like to observe these services and imagine what a visitor, an outsider not familiar with church culture, might be experiencing. I like to try to view the service through their eyes.

On this Sunday, as I sat in the front pew waiting to take to the platform for my performance, I was treated to the litany of announcements coming from the pastor. There was the need for volunteers to help with the Children’s Ministry. The Hospitality Ministry was looking for someone to bring donuts to the service next Sunday. And the Parking Lot Ministry wanted to let us all know about the resurfacing of the parking lot happening next week, advising anyone coming to the Women’s Ministry luncheon on Saturday to park in the street.

So many ministries! When I was a kid growing up in the church, the word “ministry” was not thrown around so casually. If someone was in ministry, the assumption was that they were the pastor of a church or a missionary. The word “calling” was frequently used in connection to “ministry.” As in being called into the ministry. If you look up ministry in the dictionary you see this definition: “the office, duties, or work of a religious minister.” Clearly the word is used more in line with a vocation than with a simple act of service.

Today the word is used for almost any activity, service, group or project in the church. I am a little conflicted about the use of the word. I use it too, of course. I tell people I am in full-time ministry as a professional actor/storyteller. For me it is tied to the vocation and the calling that I have on my life. The main purpose of my work is to spread the Gospel.

The current use of the word seems to imply that anything you do as related to church life is a ministry. There is great emphasis in a number of churches on “finding your gift” and using that gift in service to the church. Acts of service can certainly be a ministry. Whatever your gift, talent, or ability, you can now have a ministry. I have no problem with that. But I wonder if using the word “ministry,” for many, is a way of letting ourselves off the hook. Does matching my abilities, talents and passions automatically make it a ministry?  If I like to play the drums and play in the worship band, is that a ministry?  If I like sports and play in the church softball league is that a ministry? If I pass the donut shop on my way to church and pick up a couple dozen donuts to take to the church coffee hour, is that my ministry? Perhaps the answers to these questions are more a matter of the heart of the individual doing the service.

On the other side of the coin, if we volunteer at a local school, bake a cake for a non-church related-fundraiser, or help the senior citizen next door with their yard work, is that a ministry? Because a lot of people do those things that don’t claim to be Christian or a part of a church.

I wonder what the church visitor is thinking. What does he or she think ministry means in the context of this worship service? Something to ponder as I take the stage to share my ministry. I look forward to being served by the donut ministry in the lobby after the service.

Donuts

So, I was at this church and they were having what they called a “Ministry Fair.” All the different ministries of the church set up tables in the lobby. The idea was for you, the church member, to see all the possibilities and then sign up to be a part of a ministry of the church. There were all the usual suspects: women’s ministry, men’s ministry, youth and children and nursery, and various mission outreaches. But I knew which ministry I would want. It was the first thing that caught my eye when I walked into the church. Donuts. If I attended this church, I would want to be a part of the donut ministry.

If God called me to this church and gave me a ministry here I am pretty sure it would be someplace near this little stand in the corner where they were brewing fresh coffee and serving up donuts. Now here is a church that is practicing for heaven!

Has it ever bothered you that for all the stances the church takes on living the Christian life, the one area that many seem to overlook is healthy living when it comes to diet? I mean the church may have a Celebrate Recovery ministry, and even a health and fitness ministry, I was at a church recently that had a Pastor of Sports. Yet on Sunday morning they serve up donuts, alongside a healthy dose of caffeine. I grew up in the era of the church potluck. Fried chicken and casseroles, and lots of cake and pie! As one church lady righteously defended, “but there are no calories, I followed the recipe exactly, calories were not on the list of ingredients.” The church potluck, how I miss it. It doesn’t seem to be a thing, like it was when I was younger. Maybe that is a good thing. With so many states now making cannabis legal, the potluck might need to be redefined.

But hey, I am not here to judge…I think I read somewhere that that is a sin.

But donuts! I walked by the donut booth and took a peek at the signup list. Looks like this ministry might be overbooked. I grabbed a maple bar and chatted with Scott who was overseeing the signups. Scott heads up this ministry and it turns out is in law enforcement. Why am I not surprised?

Man, this maple bar is especially good; suddenly I know why, it’s the bacon. Yes, this is no ordinary donut (I should have noticed the pink box when I approached the table). This is a Bacon Maple Bar. I am in Portland, Oregon after all and the donut I am eating is a Voodoo Donut. Voodoo Donuts is one of the things that put Portland on the map. I fly a lot and it seems on every flight someone is carrying that signature “pink box” full of donuts home with them.

I am pleased that I selected this maple bar. At least I can now say that I had a healthy breakfast. I have grains, I have protein. Maybe there is more to this ministry than I previously thought.

I wonder if anyone is bothered by a church knowingly serving up something named Voodoo. I mean I am all for various elements of the faith community learning to get along with each other, but embracing Voodoo is stretching it a bit. I wonder if there is an aspect to this I am not seeing. I suddenly envision people with little dolls representing the pastor, hiding in their pockets and purses. If the sermon gets too long and people are craving their donuts, the pins come out.

There may be more to the donut ministry than I ever realized before.

The Tooth be Told

The truth is I didn’t like the guy.

He was a bully with a big mouth. The kind of guy that hung out with the jocks and the cool kids—wanting to be one, but wasn’t. Looking back, I can see that he was insecure and like everyone else in junior high, trying to find a way to fit in. His way to was to put down those he perceived as lesser than himself. His name was Miller, I don’t recall his first name. In junior high everyone was called by their last name.

I was Neighbors, and for some I was also called “Farmer.” It wasn’t a compliment. I acquired the name because of my shoes. My parents didn’t care about fashion or the latest styles in 1968. My clothes were practical, not stylish and were bought at K-mart. We lived on a farm and the shoes they bought me also doubled as work boots. Perfect for the farm, not so perfect for school. One day one of the cool kids noticed my shoes and called me Farmer. It stuck.

I was quiet, definitely not a jock, didn’t have many friends—I was not one of the “cool kids.” If Miller was looking for a way to prove himself a tough guy, then I was perfect prey.

The lunch routine in junior high was to gather in the gym and then, at regular intervals, we would line up single file to go to the cafeteria when it was our turn to eat. I took my place in line on this day, as I had on so many other days. Miller would often “take cuts” as we called it—jumping into line in front of others to go first and/or to be near the other “cool kids.” He had taken cuts in front of me before and it angered me, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I knew that simply tattling would not accomplish anything and only make things worse.

I hated being bullied. I played by the rules. Growing up with two older brothers, I quickly learned my place when it came to getting along with others. I was not the assertive one. We were taught that fighting was wrong. My brothers would tell you that I was quick to yell for mom and dad to come to my rescue when we had scraps at home. But I also recall some fatherly advice my dad had given me about fighting. “Sometimes you have to stand up for yourself. If people know you you’ll stand up for yourself, they won’t bother you anymore.” My dad was a short man, and somehow I got the feeling he had personally applied that wisdom somewhere in his history.

So Miller cut in front of me. I don’t know what made this day different from all the other times he had taken cuts, but I snapped. I wasn’t having it today. I yelled “No cuts!” and shoved him hard out of line. Miller was momentarily stunned; he wasn’t expecting this. He spun around and  charged at me.

Now, one thing you need to understand is that while I was not a jock, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t have physical ability. I had never had a real fight before. But I had had countless “fights” in my make believe world. I was a fan of old action movies. I had pretend fights galore, emulating fights I had seen in countless movies. And I don’t know where they came from, but we had old boxing gloves in our house. While I had never taken a lesson, I had watched Mohammad Ali on TV.  I had had numerous boxing matches with my brothers and cousins in the basement of our house (we almost always pulled our punches—almost always). I had the physique of a toothpick, which meant I was not very strong, but I could move pretty fast and was a small target.

When Miller charged me I immediately adopted a boxer stance and began to dance around just like the boxers I had seen on TV. All of the sudden I was Muhammad Ali. I was “floating like a butterfly.” I quickly dodged his charge and then went on the attack, jabbing with my fists. The word “fight” was chanted from my fellow students as they backed up forming a ring and giving us space. I recall a few snickers at my fighting style. This was not what was typical of a school fight, which usually resembled more a wrestling match than a boxing match.

I peppered Miller with several blows. Mostly to the head. I was pumped on pure adrenaline. He was hardly fighting back and mostly trying to cover his head to protect himself. Then from out of nowhere he mustered a wild punch. It connected. Right square in my mouth. Okay a point for Miller. I backed away stunned for a moment and then started another advance.

“He’s bleeding!” “Look at his tooth!” “Hey Neighbors, you lost your tooth!”

What? I hadn’t realized it.

One of my front teeth was knocked clean out of my mouth and was lying on the floor at my feet.

Suddenly the fight stopped.  A missing tooth and the blood dripping from my mouth brought everything to a momentary halt. Then adults were on the scene. Somebody picked up my tooth off the floor and Miller and I were being whisked down to the principal’s office.

As we walked down the hall Miller was in a panic and said to me. “I can’t be in trouble for a fight. I’m already in enough trouble. I’ll get kicked out of school. Tell them you accidentally tripped and fell into the bleachers, okay?”

I tried to respond, “I uhhh woon oooh ahh”

I couldn’t talk, I had a hanky in my mouth and I was bleeding profusely.

When we got to the office. Miller told his side of the story, while I sucked on a handkerchief and waited for my dad to come and pick me up. Miller’s story was the official story of the incident. I tripped and fell into the bleachers and knocked out a tooth.

I was taken immediately to the dentist, whole tooth in hand. They attempted to implant the tooth back into my mouth. I took a few weeks before we realized the tooth didn’t survive. I would live most of the rest of my life with a “flipper,” a false tooth on a partial denture in the roof of my mouth. A false tooth as a permanent reminder of this infamous day.

I’d like to say that I won the fight. I hit Miller numerous times and gave him a slight black eye. He only hit me once…but what a hit. Miller and I would see each other again from time to time, but we kept our distance from each other. He did the most damage in the fight. I’m sure he thinks he won.

My Dad was right, however. Throughout the rest of my junior high and high school years the bullies never bothered me again.

Miller’s lie stuck. If there is one thing that bothers me most about this story, it is that I never corrected the lie. Oh, the students that witnessed the fight know what really happened. But for some reason I kept my mouth shut. I had to when the lie was being told. I couldn’t talk and was just a little in shock. By the time I could tell my version of the story, my parents and the principal had all accepted the other version. I tripped, fell into the bleachers and knocked out my tooth. I perpetrated the lie to those who knew my parents because it was easier than telling the truth, or so I thought. My parents went to their graves not knowing the truth of what happened, and I regret that.

And the ironic thing is that I actually prefer the true version of the story. Me standing up for myself. And I did offer up a great defense…except for that one lucky punch. I think my dad would have been proud.

A little late perhaps, but the truth must be told, and I feel better for telling, even if a bit late!

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