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

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.

Strength and Weakness

When Jason Gray photobombs your selfie!

I had the pleasure of bumping into my friend, singer-songwriter Jason Gray, last week. It was quite a fun coincidence. I knew he was coming to my town of Salem, OR for a concert on Sunday and we were actually hosting him in our home on Sunday night. Lorie and I were flying back from Dallas, TX on Friday and guess who was seated behind us?

I got to know Jason, before he became “famous.” We were both partners in a child sponsorship ministry several years ago and traveled together to Africa on a mission trip.

If you are a fan of his music, you know that one of the themes that Jason writes and sings about so eloquently is “weakness.” He makes the case better than anyone I know that God’s strength is experienced in our weakness. He uses his own handicap as an example. Jason is a stutterer. You don’t have to be around him very long to discover this.  Yet, Jason is one of the best communicators that I know. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? He doesn’t try to hide it. He even makes jokes about it from the stage.

In addition to being an amazing musician, Jason is also a terrific storyteller. His stories reinforce his theme of weakness, as he shares openly and transparently about his own life. He makes the point that when we share our weaknesses and our failings with others, we are able to truly get to know each other better, like each other more and relate to each other honestly. He even quips from the stage about his stuttering, “now that you know that about me… I bet you like me just a little bit more.”

Oh how I need to be reminded of that. It is okay to have weakness, it is alright to share our weakness. In this age of social media, we spend way too much time trying to make ourselves “look good.” Through Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, we put our lives under a microscope, yet work furiously to make sure people only see our best side.

I am inspired by people like Jason. I want to be more like him when it comes to being honest and transparent about my life. It is one of the reasons my newer presentations have been personal stories from my life. It has been freeing to tell my stories and to hear people afterwards thank me for being transparent and talking openly about my struggles and failures. Through that process they see that they we are not alone. (Check out Truth be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up and Go Ask Your Mother…a Father’s Story)

Take a listen to one of my favorites of Jason’s. I think it is one of his strongest pieces and it is called “Weak.”

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!

Honesty in Church?

young man wearing a mask of himself

“You know, I find that one of the hardest places to be honest, as an artist, is in the church.”

Whoa! Say what? The statement took me aback a bit.

Then another voice chimed in, “Oh, I totally agree. There are a lot of audiences much more accepting of honesty in our culture. The church is one of the hardest places to speak the truth.”

Wham again! I mean of all places for honesty and truth, shouldn’t the church be at the top of the list?

The conversation was at an intimate gathering of Christian artists in a retreat setting—oddly enough, in a church. Most of the people in attendance were professional performers with a focus on ministry. For most, their audience was the church.

Among the attributes of an artist, speaking the truth is at the top of the list. And yet…

“Oh, you can be honest about some things—the ‘approved topics’ that the tribe accepts. Of course, you can talk about ‘Gospel’ truth. You can even talk about certain failings, certain areas of brokenness; the ‘acceptable sins.’ But there are lots of areas that you can’t touch.”

As the conversation continued I began to understand. There was much brokenness and hurt gathered in this room; divorce, betrayal, addictions, and other issues that are not easily dismissed. Stuff that real people deal with on a daily basis.

And they were saying that both personally and as artists they found it difficult and even impossible to speak about these things in the one place where issues of brokenness should be welcome.

I recalled a conversation with a friend who is a well-known Christian recording artist. He had echoed some of the same sentiment. His passion was to write songs about brokenness but was hitting a wall of resistance. He was told the songs he wanted to write would not be “marketable” to the church audience he was playing to. Only positive and uplifting music was desired and would be commercially acceptable.

In recent years I have been sharing personal stories from my life in my performances. One of the things I have found encouraging is that people are overwhelmingly affirming about the “honesty” and “transparency” I share in my stories… but to be even more honest and transparent, I filtered those stories to stay away from the taboo topics, that I knew deep down inside I couldn’t share. I knew my audiences wouldn’t accept those stories in the context of a church setting. I have to admit it would be very easy to be “more honest” about some of the issues if I were not playing to the church.

I am in a lot of churches… virtually a different one or two every weekend. A lot of churches advertise “come as you are” and try really hard to project an image of being a place where the broken are welcome. But are they being honest?

I don’t have an answer.

I do know that, for the most part, the group of artists gathered in this room are exceptionally qualified to speak honesty and truth, but are not feeling the freedom to do that for the audience they feel called to serve.

Thoughts?

Full of Beans and $20

Full of Beans

“That guy is full of beans!”

I noticed the man as I took the stage for my presentation of Truth be Told…from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up. He sat in a pew all to himself three rows from the front.

Being in theater and in the field of communication, I’ve learned to home in on body language and this man was demonstrating the classic closed position. Body angled away—if he could have found a way to sit sideways in the pew he would have. The few stolen glances I had from him were what I would classify as scowls.

For the most part, church audiences have been pretty safe for me. The audiences are generally polite and welcoming. Nothing like what I experienced years ago when doing the school assembly circuit and performing for a gymnasium full of hostile junior high schoolers. Those audiences you had to win over, and if you didn’t, they could eat you alive. I have often said performing in school assemblies was like being fed to the lions. This gentleman, though a senior citizen, was displaying the same “prove it to me” attitude that I experienced in those junior high schools. I registered it in my brain and moved on. I had an audience to play to and I wasn’t going to let one man’s negativity keep me from doing my job. I would ignore him. The show must go on!

Ignore him I did, and aside from this man, felt I had a good connection with the rest of my audience.

After the service I ventured into the fellowship hall for refreshments. As I headed for the table the man approached me with his hand outstretched.

“I have to tell you that when you started your presentation I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t think you were going to be doing the entire service. I decided shortly after you started that ‘That guy is full of beans!’ I almost walked out. But then the more I listened I got pulled in to your story. Then I realized I was being an #$%^&*~!” That was really good what you did.”

Rarely do I get such honest feedback from an audience member. I don’t think an audience member has ever said I was “full of beans” to my face before (and I am pretty sure he only said “beans” because he didn’t want to say another more common word associated with that phrase).   And yet he didn’t hold back on his language when describing himself with an expletive. I am sure he is voicing what many others have thought over the years but never would have expressed to my face.

And yet, in talking to him he affirmed that it was in connecting with my story that his defenses went down. Whether it was some of the humor that he identified with or an episode from my life that mirrored his, I don’t know. But somewhere in the course of hearing my story he connected—he began to listen and engage and in the end he felt a bond with me, because of my story.

Many places receive a freewill offering for my ministry after the performance. As my visit with the gentleman came to a close he said: “I’m not a rich man, don’t have much, but I want you to have this.” He pressed a $20 bill into my hand.

What a great reminder of the power of story. Each of us has a story to tell. May we learn to share it knowing that in the sharing there is great power to connect, challenge and encourage others.

As one of my friends said to me: “Full of beans and $20, not bad!”

So what’s your story?

When Transparency and Authenticity become TMI! –

I Wish You Hadn’t Told Me That!

“I really liked your transparency in the sharing of your story.”

I appreciated the compliment. I had just finished sharing my presentation of “Go Ask Your Mother… A Father’s Story.”  In the presentation I share some of my personal struggles as a father in raising my three boys, as well as some reflections on my own father.

The compliment affirmed my goal and belief that telling honest stories based on real life experience would connect and communicate with my audience. Yes, I had been transparent… up to a point… but I didn’t really tell the whole story. There were parts that I purposely didn’t share. Parts that I held back because I didn’t want the whole truth about me to be revealed. Parts that I felt would have been TMI–too much information!

When sharing about my Dad, I didn’t share the details of the angry thoughts I had when I felt he was being too hard on me.

When sharing about my sons, I didn’t share about the times my temper got the best of me and I said some things I regret and came close to striking them in anger.

There were thoughts and actions in some of those stories that I left out because to reveal them could have caused my audience to turn against me… to not like me. I am all for honesty and transparency until it goes to a place that is too dark and makes me look bad. Especially if the story doesn’t redeem those thoughts and actions.

Is it possible to be too honest? Too transparent? Where does one draw the line?

Have you ever been watching a good movie and then have to turn your head away in disgust because the images on the screen were too disturbing? It’s a good story but why did the have to show that?! Sometimes the details of our stories can have that same effect on our audience.

I remember a sermon where the pastor shared some of his personal story. It was great up until he shared some of his thoughts that went a little too far. As we left the church my wife said “I wish I hadn’t heard that part.” The part he shared was a little too dark and now her feelings about that pastor will be forever changed because he shared too much information. It would have been fine if he had alluded to his dark thoughts, but in sharing them in detail, he crossed a boundary. He created a distraction that caused some in the audience to miss the point of the story.

Who among us hasn’t had those dark thoughts? Who among us hasn’t done things we regret? It’s part of being human. We get angry, we get greedy, we get tempted, we lust, we sin.  When it comes to casting the first stone, I would be one of the first to walk away.

It is good to share some of these stories with others. Some of my favorite stories are stories where the teller reveals their humanity, their weakness, their faults. It is what makes it relatable. I identify and it feels good to know that I am not alone. It helps me to realize that I’m not the only one who struggles, who fails, and who gets back up again after being knocked down.

But sometimes in the public telling we can go too far.

Authenticity is a cherished virtue in our culture today. Look at reality TV, the Internet and social media. We have a constant stream of “reality” hitting us from every angle. Sometimes this can be a good thing. But it can also distract us from the main point. Like watching that gory scene in the movie it’s TMI! Too much information!

Some stories are best served with some details left out. They are better for confessing to a close friend, a doctor… or to God. You don’t want your audience to walk away with things they can’t un-see or un-hear!

Too Much Information!

I confess… I do enjoy reality television.  There is something about seeing the unrehearsed, unplanned and spontaneous responses of people that makes for some great entertainment. I am a big fan of Survivor, American Idol and The Apprentice. And I am not naive. I also know that with most of these shows, others are filtering, manipulating and editing what we, the viewing audience, see.

It makes me wonder what goes on in the minds of some people, especially celebrities, when they choose to go on some of these shows.  Some have clearly not done their image any favors.  I never really knew all that much about Dionne Warwick, apart from her music, until watching Celebrity Apprentice.  After watching her on this show I have to say I am less of a fan.  She is a difficult person with a massive ego, which shouldn’t surprise me, but maybe ignorance is bliss… I don’t think I can listen to her music without recalling some of the unpleasantness she exuded on the TV show.  Then there is Academy Award winner, Marlee Matlin. She is doing a good job on Celebrity Apprentice and I have always liked her… until the other day… I was switching channels and came across Comedy Central’s Roast of Donald Trump. Back in the day of Johnny Carson, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra, the Celebrity Roast was entertaining and good natured teasing… now it has denigrated into nothing but obscene sexual humor and crude insults.  And there was Marlee Matlin stooping to the level of the other most obscene entertainers that Hollywood has to offer.  I am no longer a fan. It has happened for me over and over again when celebrities and other public figures reveal too much about themselves, crossing the line and giving me too much information! TMI!

Authenticity has become a prized value in our culture and in the church.  We like to know that people are real… that what you see is what you get.  We value transparency from our leaders, our pastors, our entertainers… to a point.  Yet even with authenticity I think we need to set boundaries.  Even in the closest of families I think we all know there are areas in life that need privacy. My kids know that in order for them to have been born my wife and I had to have had sex… yet if it is ever alluded to in front of our kids, there is a look of revulsion  on their faces—“TMI” they shout.  I like it when pastors will share a personal story from their life during a sermon. It helps to remind us that they are human and we can all relate to the message better when we see that example.  But it is risky. Too much detail and I might lose respect for the pastor.  If the pastor confesses that he was angry at his wife and said some unkind things… I can accept that.  If he actually tells me some of the words he used I might shout “TMI.”

Jesus was God and yet also fully human. We have great examples of his humanity in scripture, but we don’t need to know every little example of his humanity; his hygiene, bodily functions, his every temptation, in order to understand and accept that he was who he said he was.  It is possible that even with Jesus we would shout “TMI!”

My newest presentation, Truth Be Told… from a Guy Who Makes Stuff Up,  is perhaps the most honest and authentic of all my shows. The stories are true stories from my own life.  It is my hope that it will encourage and inspire people as they look at their own stories.  I share some reality from my own life, and include information about my wife, my kids, and my parents… but hopefully never to the point where any of them or the audience will cry out “TMI.”  Sometimes a little restraint is called for… and I certainly have some stories I don’t want anybody to hear!

What about you? Where do you draw the line between authentic sharing, and too much information?


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