“For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. “ Ephesians 2:10 (New Living Translation)
Do you remember when you first found “your people?” The people whose presence allowed you to really exhale for what seemed like the first time in your life?
As a young person, I was bored a millisecond after kickoff at the ball games. This was inconvenient, since I was born into a sports family in a sports town (think Friday Night Lights.) I never knew where I fit in, that is, until The Opera House.
The first thing you notice when you walk into the old brick building is the smell. It’s kind of musty, but woody and clean. Beneath all the red carpet the hard wood whines with reassurance; the whole place alive with a music of memory. The fact that such a gem of a theater existed in my small southern town was a miracle, a gift from God. You can read more about the history of the Abbeville Opera House here.
There was this one show, a musical, called “The Fantasticks.” I saw the entire run, ushered every show. It had only a few actors and a minimal set, and to a twelve-year-old girl seated all the way in the back, it was just the most amazing thing ever. The longing and the humor, the world they were creating—that was a world I wanted to be in; a world I felt, even at that age, I belonged in. I wanted to make art and be around creative people. I wanted to sing, to make music, to be on stage. There is this line that one of the characters screams in the show, I’ll never forget it: “Please God, please! Don’t let me be normal!”
Once I started acting in plays myself, I was in awe of the wildness of the actors, their unapologetic boldness, the complete disregard for what other people thought of them. I had no idea there were people like that in the world. I had no idea you could have a life in the arts until that moment. These were my people. The passion I didn’t feel at the smell of the boiled peanuts at Hite Stadium, I felt for the musty, creaky-floored brick building on the end of the town square, where all my dreams were given life. It was there that I found my way to myself.
The Bible Belt was a pretty safe place for a upper middle class, cis-gendered, straight, white girl to grow up. I never worried about being persecuted for my sexual orientation or skin color. I was never kicked out of a church for any reason, and felt comfortable and welcome pretty much everywhere I went. Even with the prejudices against women that permeate our patriarchal society, I had advocates who fought for me throughout my schooling and now.
Yet there was an anxiety I see now in myself as I look back on those adolescent years: a fear that if I wasn’t like everyone else, there would be consequences. My connection to The Opera House felt thrilling and different than what I thought people expected, and it worried me.
And yet, I felt God’s presence there. In the darkness of backstage as I waited in the wings, my heart pulsed with hope. I hadn’t felt that excitement or joy from any other place in my world. The openness and freedom there, I see now, was the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit, reassuring me that I was loved by God, just as God had made me. That stage was a gateway to the rest of my life, the door to the good things God had planned for me.
This week the leadership in the church I’ve been invested in since my youth doubled down on their restrictions of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriages, and it got me thinking about what we artists can teach the church.
There’s this thing people say in theater (improv specifically) called the “yes, and” principle. It’s a rule that whatever your improv partner suggests, instead of taking it in your own direction, you say “Yes, and...” and build a scene together. There is nothing more hopeful and inclusive than “yes, and.”
What if instead of “no, but” the church could say “yes, and” to all those who have felt excluded, judged, and discarded in the name of Jesus?
Let us not forget this aspect of God’s character that Paul reminds of in Ephesians: God is an artist and we are God’s masterpiece. Regardless of sexual orientation, gender presentation, skin color, marital status, likes or dislikes, God has stamped us each with God’s image and labeled it Masterpiece.
Artists know a masterpiece when they see it.
Church should make us feel like little Meri Hite watching the “The Fantasticks.” Seeing that story come to life made me want to change mine, to dedicate myself to the practice of whatever that joy was behind that curtain. Church should be the kind of place where we all find our way to ourselves, where we are loved and affirmed for who we are. Church should have us exhaling with relief that we fit in: not because we are perfect or all the same, but because being loved and safe allows us to begin to see the ways we could all stand to change, how we are all being made new.
If God’s church be more like a community theater, let us not forget that we have a text far greater than any Shakespeare play or Rodgers and Hammerstein musical to enact. This text requires scholarly inquiry, context, meditation, and prayer to understand. These are things we dare not do alone. The Bible is not a figment of a master playwright’s imagination but the truth about who we are and whose we are. We certainly cannot do that discernment of Scripture and the acting out of its wisdom with only a roomful of people who look and act just like us. The living word of God, Christ himself, calls us to be a church of diversity, inclusion, and affirmation: a church of “yes, and.”
So, let all God’s people say, “yes, and” to our siblings in the faith, unique and irreplaceable members of the company of God’s creation, who need Jesus’ radical hospitality now more than ever.
Please God, please, don’t let us be normal.