Jeepers, Creepers, Where’d Ya Get Those Peepers?

(Finally, after months of not being on stage in front of an audience, Steve Wilent has been able to perform a couple of times recently. He discovered things are a little different than  what he was used to before the pandemic.)

Guest blog by Steve Wilent

I was standing on stage about to start my one-man show According to John. I have performed this 45-minute version of the Gospel of John for over 30 years but this would be, thanks to COVID-19, the very first time that I have performed it to a congregation of masked people.

It was a bit jarring at first.  I was used to seeing full faces out there.  Faces that had mouths that would grin if I said something funny or would fully open if I said something really funny or perhaps droop in sadness to a character’s failure or lips that stretched thin during a stressful scene.  So many ways to know that the folks out there were connecting with me and in turn I with them.

But that was all gone now.  Now, due to the masks, all I had to go on, apart from a bit of body language and the muffled noises they made, was their eyes.  The biggest problem with having a sea of eyes to look at is that, regardless of the emotion, everything looks like a squint!  Happiness, sadness, stressfulness, nervousness, passion, hatred . . . it all comes across as a squint.

I remember an advanced acting class when I was in college.  I was in a short scene with a female classmate. We were portraying two young lovers experiencing their first argument.  I don’t remember the script. I don’t even remember my acting partner’s name, but what I do remember is that right at the height of the argument Jim Kirkman, the class instructor, suddenly yelled, “Stop!”

I remember freezing right there on stage and thinking, “What the heck?! We haven’t even got to the good part yet!” Kirkman then hopped up onto the stage and walked briskly past my acting partner and over to me. “Close your eyes,” he commanded. Ever the compliant, affable actor, I did so.  Mind you, I didn’t simply allow my eyelids to softly come together; no, I shut them with such force that you might have been able to audibly hear them slam together. There was a sprinkling of suppressed laughter coming from the other students, who in this moment were quite happy not to be the target of Kirkman’s coaching.

I heard him say, “Steve, relax.”  Again complying, I relaxed and for some reason decided that to fully relax I must also open my eyes.  Kirkman grabbed my shoulders and quickly spun me around so that my back was now to What’sherface. Kirkman gently squeezed my shoulders and said, “What color are her eyes?” Understandably nervous I said, “What color are whose eyes?” I heard titters of laughter coming from the cheap seats. Before Kirkman could say, “What’sherface’s eyes,” What’sherface, sounding annoyed said, “My eyes, you moron.” Calling me a moron, I thought, was just her way of letting me know how attracted to me she was. I thought.

Kirkman, gesturing with his thumb over his shoulder said, “Yes, Steve, what color are her eyes?”  Being put on the spot tends to do funny things to people.  My usual way of handling this kind of pressure was to try to say something funny.  So taking a cue from a popular Elton John song I said, “So . . . excuse me forgetting, but these things I do. You see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue . . .” Truthfully, I just wanted to say that, what I actually did say, in a moment of surprising self-awareness was, “I don’t know.”

Kirkman suddenly spun around to face the class and pointing back at me with a bony finger yelled, “Exactly!  You don’t know the color of her eyes because you were acting at her and not with her! When you act with a fellow human being you focus on their soul.  The eyes are the windows to the soul, people!  Use your eyes to see into their eyes!”

Back on stage in front of the masked and socially-distanced congregation, remembering Kirkman’s words helped me to link to a much wiser man’s words, “The eye is the lamp of the body . . .” Jesus said.  Suddenly the sea of squints out there became a sea of souls to me.  Precious souls, who now more than ever needed the hope and the courage to be able to thrive in this time of pandemic.

I have now made the decision that when things “get back to normal,” I will continue to focus on and minister to people’s souls, through their eyes.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, mine are blue!

The Things My Dad Said

Here is a little ditty I wrote for my “Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story” show. Thought it would be appropriate to share this for Father’s Day. (Sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music.)

THE THINGS MY DAD SAID

“Were you born in a barn?” and “For crying out loud”
“Because I said so” and “Don’t make a sound”
“You’ve got a roof over your head”
These are few of the things my dad said

“I’ll give you something to cry about”
“Let mom kiss it better” “You’ll live, don’t you pout”
“There are no monsters under your bed”
These are some more of the things my dad said

“Oh for Pete’s sake”
“Clean up your plate”
“Don’t wear stripes with plaid”
I find I’m repeating the things my dad said
And sometimes I think that’s sad

“Don’t make me come in there” “I’ve had it, bend over”
“I won’t say it again, I’ll pull this car over”
“Stop picking your nose, your brains will fall out”
These are the things I am talking about

“They jump off a cliff, would you do it too?”
“Say please, excuse me and don’t forget thank you”
“Go comb your hair” “don’t make a fuss”
“Close the barn door and remember to flush”

“Ask your mother”
“Pull my finger”
“You’re gonna make me mad”
I find I’m repeating the things my dad said
But I ask you is that so bad?

The Backstory to “I Am Lucy”

Some have asked why I wrote this book…so here is a little backstory: 

Lucy is the first child in my life to be in the “special needs” category. Oh sure, I had met other kids with special needs, but until Lucy, never really spent time getting to know them. The more I learned about Lucy and Kabuki Syndrome the more it became clear to me that she would be a child that would “stand-out” for her differences. The idea that her future would include being teased and treated cruelly by other kids began to sink in and frightened me. 

One day my wife, Lorie, took Lucy to the park. While swinging on the swings another little girl, (at the park with her father) was staring intently at Lucy. Finally, she said to her father “that girl looks funny.”

Thankfully that father said, “Oh honey, I don’t think she looks funny, I think she looks beautiful.”

The little girl shrugged accepting that answer and went on with her playtime. 

While this father handled the situation wonderfully, the fact is that there would not always be someone nearby to intervene at those teachable moments. I knew that this was just a glimpse of what would be a reality in Lucy’s future. 

Then last year Mallory, Lucy’s mother, posted on social media: 

“I have a rare syndrome,

I have a feeding tube,

I have a heart defect,

I have special needs,

But who I am is Lucy.”

And that was the inspiration. 

As an actor, I am accustomed to playing a role—getting inside another person’s head. I imagined what Lucy would want to say to those people that looked at her, and all they saw was her differences. They didn’t see her, they saw the scars and what they perceived as defects. I believe she would say, “Those things aren’t me—Who I am is Lucy!” 

While many people may consider this a good book for a child with special needs—and it is—the real target audience for the book is people like the little girl in the park and her father. And to be honest, people like me.

Available on Amazon: I AM LUCY

“I’m writing a book…I’ve got the page numbers done.”

– quote by Steven Wright

It’s been a while since I gave you an update on what I have been up to lately. As some of you know, I have purposely taken a break from my touring and performing life, and have been venturing more into writing. I published a book of faith-based limericks – Get Me to the Church in Rhyme: Limericks about God, Faith, and the Church – and revised and re-released my book called Drama Workshop: Teaching Drama to Beginning Actors. I am currently writing a book about being a Christian artist, tentatively titled “Church Pews, Potlucks, and a Tank of Gas: A Survival Guide for the Independent Christian Artist”

✍🏼

But one of the projects I am most excited to announce is that I have written a children’s book! The book is called “I Am Lucy,” and yes, it is about our beloved granddaughter, Lucy. The book will address her special needs as a child with Kabuki Syndrome.

✍🏼

I am excited to be working with Canadian artist Chris Kielesinski as my illustrator. He just sent me a few early drafts of some of the artwork. He is really capturing her personality and essence. 


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In the meantime, while I am not currently touring and performing, Steve Wilent and Marcia Whitehead are still trodding the boards and would be happy to bring one of their inspirational stories to you!

 

 

What’s In A Name?

I was teaching a break-out session at a Worship Conference. My topic was about making a living as a Christian artist.

I asked the group: “Name for me some famous Christian bands, go ahead and just call them out”

The big question: Are you related to Jim?  The answer—no!

“Newsboys”

“Casting Crowns”

“Jars of Clay”

“Mercy Me”

“DC Talk”

“Third Day”

“Gaither Vocal Band”

“Switchfoot”

“U2”

All of these and many more were called out.

Then I asked: “How about some famous Christian singers?”

“Amy Grant”

“Michael W. Smith”

“Chris Tomlin”

“Toby Mac”

“Lacrae”

“Sandi Patty”

“Johnny Cash”

Again just a sampling of some of the many names that were mentioned. (Note: this discussion happened before Kanye West and Lauren Daigle would have made the list)

I try another category: “How about Christian Comedians?” It takes a few seconds but then I hear:

“Chondra Pierce”

“Tim Hawkins”

“That lady that sings that thing about what Mom’s say to the tune of the William Tell Overture.” (Anita Renfroe)

“I think Stephen Colbert is a Catholic.”

There were a few other names tossed out but the list was definitely shorter.

“Okay let’s try one more… how about famous Christian actors?”

The silence is deafening. Then someone says.

“Oh that actor who played Doogie Howser… what’s his name?”

“Neil Patrick Harris?”

“No, you’re thinking of the actor from Growing Pains…uh…Kirk Cameron.”

“Oh yeah… he’s in those Christian movies, Left Behind and stuff.”

“That’s it?” I asked. “One actor?”

“Oh wait there is that guy that tour’s around doing C.S Lewis and Screwtape Letters… uh… Don McLean.”

I correct him. “That would Max McLean. Don McLean is the singer who wrote Bye Bye Miss American Pie. Anyone else?

“Denzel Washington? I saw this YouTube video where he talked about praying…”

From the back of the room I hear, “Chuck Neighbors”

I smile… “I said famous actors… and you only said that because the name on the handout for this class says: Chuck Neighbors, Actor”

(It is interesting to note that some of the names—U2 (Bono), Johnny Cash, Stephen Colbert, and Denzel Washington—are celebrities that have identified themselves as Christian, but their art is not typically what most people think of when we think of Christian artists.)

So there you have it, in a nutshell. While there is plenty of name recognition for Christian musicians, there is not much when it comes to being a “Christian actor.” I have often referred to myself as “that Christian actor guy” because for most people, even those who have seen me perform, “that Christian actor guy” is a close as they will get to remembering my name. (Although I have lost count of the number of times I have been introduced as Jim Nabors…aka Gomer Pyle).

Pastor Appreciation, Indeed!

Pastor Kyle was lamenting his job

As his head was starting to throb.

He was squeezing a sponge,

Had a toilet to plunge.

“I was hired to preach, not to swab!”

from Get Me To The Church In Rhyme
by Chuck Neighbors

 

October is pastor appreciation month.

The punchline to numerous jokes I have heard over the years is “the pastor only works one hour a week.”

Having worked in the world of the church for over 45 years, I can tell you that nothing is further from the truth. If the average pew-sitter could job-shadow a pastor they would quickly realize that the one hour a week is easily multiplied by 60 or 80 for most of the pastors I know.

As with my job as an actor, there is so much more that goes with the job beyond what the audience/congregation sees. A typical pastor, in addition to being a preacher, is also a: teacher, lesson planner, sermon writer, counselor, hospital chaplain, event planner, and board member with too many meetings.

Those are duties that one might anticipate as a part of the job and could account for the typical hours on the job for most vocations. But for so many pastors, their job also overlaps into other areas, forcing them to be an: administrator, secretary, bookkeeper, musician, deliveryman, cook, janitor, groundskeeper, handyman and plumber.

They probably didn’t sign up for those jobs.

Add to that the people skills need to deal with the various personalities in the church. Pastors are often caught in the middle of church politics, and shoulder the blame for anything that a church member might not like. Many pastors are lonely and feel isolated, often having no one to talk to about their problems. Having close friends within the congregation can be difficult causing more problems by sparking jealousy and envy among the members.

And don’t forget that pastors are often spouses with kids, and have a life beyond the four walls of the church building.  Like a doctor on call, congregation members call at all hours with real emergencies as well as a petty complaint. Way too many pastors are bi-vocational, unable to make a living on the salary paid to them by the church and forced to have a second job to pay the bills.

It’s a hard and often thankless job.

So take a moment to appreciate your pastor. Notice all the work they do beyond what you hear from the pulpit. Send a card, buy them a gift, take the broom out of their hands.

Pray for them.

Thank God for them.

A Night at the Opera

I almost walked out. This was not what I expected, not what I signed up for, and I was perturbed.

It was the annual conference of  Christians in Theater Arts, a networking conference for, as the name suggests, Christians involved in the theater arts. Most of the people in attendance were involved to some degree with theater in churches, schools, and universities or were performers in theater ranging from local church ministries all the way to Broadway. The one key distinctive we all took for granted was that we would see LIVE theater presented at our annual conferences.

So as I took my seat in the auditorium for the first evening of performances, I was taken aback to hear that we would be watching a film instead of a live performance. A film!?! We are inundated with film in our culture. I wanted live theater! This was a theater conference, for crying out loud! Then the subject… the film was about an opera singer. An OPERA SINGER—are you kidding me? Okay, I understand that opera is theater…but come on! This is not exactly an opera audience. I mean, really?

But there was no tactful way for me to get up and leave. People in the audience knew who I was, and my departure would be noticed. So I sat, arms crossed, and prepared to endure what I was certain would be the most boring and irrelevant evening of theater I had ever experienced.

I. Was. Wrong.

The film was fascinating. It was about a woman who had poured her life into becoming one of the best opera singers in her field—world class. It portrayed her struggle to make it in the very challenging and competitive world of opera. And it showed her rejection and disappointment at the end of a long, hard journey. I dare say that every person in the audience, myself included, could relate to that. Her story was common to all theater artists and, really, all people who have wanted something with all their soul only to see their dream evaporate in disappointment.

The film ended—very unsatisfactorily. There was no happy ending.

Then the most remarkable thing occurred. The filmmaker took the stage, shared about the making of the film and then introduced the subject of the film—Marcia Whitehead. What followed was profound and amazing. Marcia sang. The kind of singing that gives you goose bumps and makes your hair stand on end. The audience could not contain themselves, and a standing ovation followed every song she sang. And the story? The story in the film needed an ending, and Marcia gave it to us. It was a story that showed how God can take our disappointment and rejection and redeem it for His purpose. It was a great story and was truly an evening of wonderful LIVE theater!

On the night that I attended this performance, I didn’t know Marcia Whitehead. After returning home to Salem, I was sharing about the performance with my pastor. He was intrigued to know more about her, and asked me to locate her in hopes of perhaps inviting her to Salem.  So I did. I found out she lived in—are you ready for this—Salem, Oregon. Not only that, she had been attending our church! (hey it’s a big church!)

And that, friends, is the backstory on how Marcia Whitehead became a part of Master’s Image Productions.

It is a real joy to be able to follow Marcia’s ministry and hear the incredible stories that come out of her sharing her story. But I will also admit that booking Marcia has not been as easy as I had hoped. You see, many of the pastors and leaders of the churches we contact are too much like me. They have the same attitude I had when I walked into the auditorium that  night. They hear the world “opera” and they cover their ears and slam the door. If they would only take a moment to listen, they would see that Marcia’s story just might be their story. And I am willing to wager they, like myself, would not be able to stop the goose bumps.

Get Me To The Church In Rhyme

I have recently developed an obsession for writing limericks. In addition to being a fun bit of wordplay, I discovered that they are a great model for telling a short story. (I have shared on this blog in the past several tips about writing stories and one post specifically about writing really short stories.) Consider this one:

Mark tried the new church down the street,

Sat in back, wanting to be discreet,

But they liked to hug.

He came down with a bug

And vowed never again “Meet and Greet.”

Notice how the first line establishes a person and a place. The second line adds a plot point and rising action. The third and fourth lines establish a conflict and climax to the story. The fifth line contains the resolution. Voila’—a short story in five lines.

I started writing limericks on the subjects of God, faith, and the church and began posting a “Limerick a Day” on social media. People found them not only clever and humorous, but some of them actually started great conversations about the subject matter…something a good story is wont to do!

Then I began to get this comment over and over again — “Chuck, you should publish these!”

Hmmm?

So I wrote a few more, until I had over 50 and decided to explore options of publishing through Amazon…

And suddenly this is happening:

Get Me To The Church in Rhyme

Limericks about God, Faith,
and the Church
by Chuck Neighbors

“…so engaging and warm-hearted and downright funny. They’re close to being addictive—like those potato chips, there’s no way to read just one!” 
Chris Fabry—Author and host of Chris Fabry Live

They say “write what you know” and I guess I know a thing or two about churches. I have been in literally thousands of them in my 45-year career as a touring actor and storyteller. These are humorous, clean, and thought-provoking limericks on the Christian life. They are fun to read, quote, and share with others. This is a perfect gift for pastors and church leaders, and really anyone who as ever sat in a pew.

Get Me to the Church in Rhyme.
Limericks to read and pass time.
On God, faith, and church,
With a smidge of research,
And if you should laugh, that’d be fine!

Available as an ebook or paperback at amazon.com

On Age and Relevance in the Church

“Our church is shrinking,” they’d whine
Average age, seventy-one, a bad sign
To avert a disaster
A millennial pastor!
The average is now sixty-nine

The email from the pastor made me chuckle.

“We have a mostly older congregation, no children, but we do have one millennial couple!”

“One millennial couple” and it was almost as if it was a badge of honor.

But I understood. The church has changed drastically in the years that I have been involved in ministry. My friend, Pastor Jon, likes to remind me that “no one has been in more churches than Chuck Neighbors.”  I don’t know if that is exactly true, but I have been in a different church almost every weekend for the last 45 years. I have seen a lot of change over the years.

My generation of Baby Boomers, who once strived so hard to be “relevant” and “contemporary” in church now find themselves on the outside of church culture. To the younger church culture we are now, it seems, irrelevant and too traditional by their standards.

Indeed it is rare to find a church that appeals to all ages. Churches that promote a “contemporary” worship style seem locked into a new tradition they have created that is no longer contemporary. In striving to be relevant, contemporary has become tradition.

I recently did a series of performances for a church in Sun City, Arizona. Sun City is well known as a retirement community. There was a good turnout every night. People enjoyed the performances. I have a statement that is read when I am introduced, that “if babies get too noisy to please take them out of the room so as not to distract from the performance.”

The pastor read this and received a big laugh.

Babies? There was not even one millennial couple in the audience.

Mixed Messages

On Palm Sunday it was a privilege to perform to over 5,000 people in three services at a church in the Los Angeles area. It has been a while since I shared with an audience this large and I have to say it was both exhilarating  and exhausting. Three in a row of Encounters, with a lot of emotional characters, takes a toll on the body.

After each performance I was happy to hear some great comments from people that sought me out to compliment my performance. One comment came up more than once:

“I have never seen anything like that before.”

It gave me pause and made me ponder what exactly they were referring to. Did they mean they had never seen an actor do a one-man show? Perhaps. Or did they mean they had never seen a dramatic performance in the place of a sermon on a Sunday morning. That seems more likely to me.

Their comments were a blessing and a reminder to me of the great gift the arts can be to the church. These listeners heard familiar stories from the life of Jesus told in new and different ways and it impacted them deeply.

The church continues to struggle—or maybe doesn’t struggle enough would be more accurate—when it comes to making room for the arts in the church. The response this last weekend gives me hope that progress is being made in this struggle.

After such a great weekend I was stopped in my tracks when I returned home. A very different response from another church awaited me. A pastor was hoping to schedule a performance this summer; we had the date penciled on the calendar and I was awaiting the formality of an approval from the church board. Then I received this email:

“It is with deep regret and personal disappointment that the Board decided to decline the opportunity.”

I pushed back. Often these things don’t pass the Board because of budgetary reasons. I asked if it was about the money. His response:

“It had nothing to do with money. There was just an expressed apathy. I showed them the clip you sent which I felt was incredibly powerful but apparently they did not share my perspective. I am both puzzled and frustrated. I am sad and disappointed and believe we have missed a wonderful opportunity.”

I am especially bothered by the word “apathy” as the reason. I would be more understanding if it were about the money, or “not appropriate for worship” or even what is even more typical, “we have never done anything like that before.”

Notice how close the phrases are:

“I have never seen anything like that before”

“We have never done anything like that before”

The first was an open door that brought new insight and spirtual impact to the listener.

The second is a closed door that resists change and settles for the status quo.

One step forward, one step back I suppose. (Uh-oh, was that a subliminal message about dancing in the church?)

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