Sunday, December 9, 2012

When Community Fails...(or, one reason Christmas is so darn special)

Community. What comes to mind when you read that word? Necessary? Enriching? Elusive? Disappointing? In my experience, community has met each of those descriptors, and in this post I endeavor to explore why it is so elusive and what is to be done about that.

I want to focus my energy on the community which is built within the theatre, as that is perhaps some of the deepest yet most cyclical community I have experienced. For those of you reading this who are involved in the theatre, you understand what I mean almost immediately. For those of you not so involved, let me fill you in a bit.

In the process of putting together a show, a community is a natural by-product, and often this community is one that is very rich. Here you have several people coming together for a set period of time to pursue a common goal, passionately offering up their time, talent, and relational resources to give life to something which they all deem worthy of its stage time (limited stage time though that may be). From rehearsals to production meetings, those involved in a show can suddenly find themselves spending a lot of time with one another over consecutive periods in which a sense of family begins to emerge. Though roles vary, each participant is unified by the work. This sense of community and unification can become heightened when it is time to share the group's work with an audience, thereby inviting them, in a sense, into the community which the group has created.

But what happens when the work has ended, when the goal has been achieved? It seems that the community is slowly stripped away, first by the lessened time actors and production staff are spending with one another due to the lack of rehearsals or frequent production meetings once the show has gone up. At some point in the run, though the actors are still present to share the show each night (or day), the director no longer shows up each time, nor do all of the production team members. Finally, the last performance is at hand, actors and crew members are unified once again in the strike (destroying/putting away the set, costumes, and other materials that manifested the world of the show in the performance space), and suddenly, those actors are without the production and the community it provided.

At this point, you may protest, "Well, if it were real community, these people wouldn't need the show to continue in order for their relationships to keep growing,"
to which I might say, "Ah, good point."

Yet so often the community built over the course of a production feels authentic enough (yes, it varies in intensity and quality depending on the production, the people involved, and other factors). It feels authentic, the cause seems worthy, the passion and effort are there. So why does the community dissolve once the show has ended?

I have seen this happen in church settings as well, where everyone was unified over the course of weekly small group gatherings, praying for one another, studying the Bible, etc.---and when the group ended, some of those relationships were still in tact, but depth of community--the steady coming together of all of the unique parts--was no longer there.

Do we always need a cause, a format, an excuse to develop community together? Perhaps that's the problem; we feel we need an activity to justify the the sacrifice a community requires to exist. But what if the community is a valid enough reason in itself for such sacrifice? What if, in a theatre setting, church setting, or otherwise, the goal was just as much the community as the work which inspired it? What if, as a theatre endeavored to produce a show, it also endeavored to somehow sustain the sense of community that its play-making would inevitably create?

As I write, I realize that this topic is too broad to be contained in just one post. But I would like to offer up something that is lingering in the back of my mind as I write, a name and a concept that is perhaps a key in all of this (and quite fitting, given the Christmas season at hand).

In an ancient prophecy concerning the coming of the Messiah, as recorded in the Old Testament, Jesus is named as "Immanuel," which means "God with us." In a sense, one of the core things we are promised in the coming of God on earth Not just God over there, God on earth doing his own thing...but God--get this--with us. Hmm...

As the old carol goes, "O come, o come, Immanuel." If God is eternal, and eternal means unending, and we get an eternal God with us, then that must mean...eternal community. Starting when? It has already begun. Jesus, preparing his disciples for his imminent death, resurrection, and temporary departure, told them,

"... I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be[c] in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Before long, the world will not see me anymore, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you." -John 14:16-20

I don't claim to understand how all of this works, but one thing seems clear. Jesus and his Father make their presence available through their Spirit, and as we join with them, we are offered constant community. I haven't worked all of this out practically yet, but I would like to see more of this in my own life and in the life of the theatre.

Immanuel...God with community. I'll drink a chai to that.

Monday, November 12, 2012


Today I want to explore the very unpopular topic of WAITING. This is something that I am not too good at yet something I am still forced to do, given the fact that there are many desires that have yet to be fulfilled in my life. Our one-click-away, microwave-and-its-ready culture (here in America) has made it easier for me to resist the practice of waiting. But I am starting to wonder if NOT waiting requires one to wait even longer. Let's take a look.

In my last post, I talked about resource and looking to Jesus to satisfy the deeper needs behind our needs on the surface. But this kind of dependence implies the need to reliquish control of getting needs met ourselves and waiting on someone else to do it for us. That doesn't sound too inviting when experience all too often tells us that others take too long, that they can't be trusted to do things right, or that they may not come through at all. Better to trust yourself, do it yourself, and get it done right. Right?

There's this prophet named Isaiah who, by the Biblical account, was sent by God to the ancient Israelites to reset their destructive course. Many times, the Israelites looked to others or to themselves to get things done, and this almost always in a way that was contrary to God's way of doing things. Often the ways in which they would do things ended up in selfish behavior to the detriment of others, and ultimately themselves. They were caught in a cycle of self worship and idol worship, looking to themselves and other things to get their needs met. But the results were always deceiving or temporary at best. In this context, God provides glimpses of another way through the cries and declarations of Isaiah, such as this description of how God worked for his people before:

"For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him." -Isaiah 64:3-4

In this description of God, I am struck by the idea that he does things that his people do not expect, awesome things in fact. So often, I want to know what's coming and therefore try to act on my own so that I know what is happening. Control. But God here goes beyond and does things that we do NOT expect, awesome things at that. Many times, his surprises are much better than our pre-conceived plans of what will make us feel better.

I'm also struck by the last part that says that God is one who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. Is the converse then true, that he does not act for those who do not wait for him or trust him to come through?

Here's a description elsewhere of what it looks like when trusting in God as the ultimate resource:

Isaiah 30:15 : "In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it."

Israel was trusting in abnormal ways of getting their needs met: oppression, deceit, unhealthy alliances, and God said that all of that striving would get them nowhere. Rather, their solution would be in turning from those ways and in resting, in quiet trust. It seems that a solution was offered, but they denied the offer for help by their refusal to quiet their busy lives and stop their striving to take control.

Is the solution any different for us? In what ways are we trusting in things other than God and acting in ways that are harmful to ourselves and to others in order to get what we want? I'll tell you for my own part, it's not working. More and more I'm ready to try out this quiet trust, this restfulness that says, "Okay God, I'll wait. I'll do it your way. Show me what you're doing, and help me to follow in that, even if it takes longer."

Would you rather have home-brewed chai that may take a good while to make, or a few minute steep from a tepid tea bag? Or if God decides to act quickly with a good quality 5 minute tea bag, are you willing to wait the full 5 minutes for a proper steeping? The longer the wait, the greater the strength, the richer the taste, and better the chai.

God knows microwaved tea is an unsatisfying option. He'd rather we drink the good stuff.

Monday, November 5, 2012

What do you WANT? (With a bit of encouragement for Singles)

I want to muse a bit on resources for the next few moments. If you continue reading for very long, you will find this topic is almost the same that I wrote about in my last post about fountains, yet looking at it from another angle.

The word resource can tell us a lot about our needs and what we are trying to do in getting our needs filled. When we are lacking resources or looking for resources in our lives, we are desiring to re-source ourselves, to refill the supply that we once had or were drawing get to recharge our very core.

A question came to me the other night at a dinner and discussion group centered around the spiritual needs we have and ways in which Jesus modeled filling those needs. At one point after some group talk, we were asked to take a few moments to quiet ourselves and ask what it was that we were really needing deep down, in terms of resources for the soul. The second part of this was to ask God to provide those resources of soul. Th millon-dollar question that I felt God popped up for me during the first part of this exercise was, "What are the needs behind your needs?" In other words, "Go a little deeper, David. You are desiring, but what desires does A represent?"

I'll tell you what God did in a little bit, but first I want to explore this idea of God getting to the needs behind our needs. In Matthew's account of Jesus initial earthly ministry, there is a story of these two blind men who are calling out to Jesus as he passes along what sounds like a busy road, bustling with people. The men are crying out, "Jesus, son of David, have mercy on us!" Jesus' crew of disciples ignore the men and tell them to shut up (much like the world's response to our own needs at times, eh?). But these men keep crying out, and Jesus notices. He has the men brought to him and asks them a very key question, "What do you want me to do for you?" to which they reply that they want their sight back. Jesus then heals them, giving them their sight, and makes a key connection to their faith being what had saved them. (This is all from Matthew 20 in the Bible if you want to check it out.)

What I find interesting in that story is that Jesus asks these blind guys what they wanted. Why? Couldn't Jesus see that they were blind? Why would he ask such an obvious question? Perhaps it wasn't so obvious. Perhaps the daily traffic would simply hear these blind beggar's cries and assume that they wanted alms like so many other beggars they'd experienced. That wouldn't be a bad assumption, would it? But Jesus doesn't just assume. He asks, "What do you want?" He's getting to the deeper need. These beggars didn't just want a quick fix for the day, alms to get them by. They had the faith in this moment to ask for something BIG, something truly RESTORATIVE, namely, their sight! I wonder how many times we stop at the surface of our own needs, asking Jesus, life, or other resources to simply put a band-aid on the troubles of the day instead of restoring in a deeper, more substantial way.

I told you that I'd let you in on what God did later that evening at the discussion group during the quiet exercise examining our needs and how God may be able to resource us. After God asked me in essence, "What do you really want? What's behind these other things that you are initially wanting?" what I came to was the realization that I wanted to be noticed. "Noticed how?" you may ask? Well, I'll get a little more vulnerable with you, if you will read on.

As a single man approaching 30 in an American culture that equates being married or in a romantic relationship as "having made it" in the relational circus, it is easy to feel somewhat less-than at times. I, along with several other of my peers, would love to be in a relationship with someone such that cultural stigma of singleness no longer holds it finger-pointing power over me. So as I was thinking about my desire for deeper companionship and romantic relationship with a woman, God hinted that there was something even deeper that I was seeking. I didn't quite know what that was until the resource of the evening came.

Sitting quietly, waiting for Jesus to resource me with whatever he would provide for my soul in those few moments, I sensed him looking at me and saying, "Wow!" It was almost audible, as clear as it was. And in the depths of my spirit, I felt an immense peace, satisfaction and joy. I had just been validated by the God of the universe. Affirmation and validation were among those deeper needs I was longing for. And Jesus had them for me in some small yet significant way that evening. He noticed. I was noticed. Wow.

"The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing." -Psalm 34:10

What are you seeking? What do you want? He is resource for us all, bread, life, fountain, good chai. Won't you drink with me?

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Fountains of Chai

What is a fountain? Why is it that when you or I look at a fountain, we typically respond with joy or at least appreciate the beauty of what we're beholding? I want to talk about fountains today, particularly fountains of life, or in classic David imagery, fountains of chai. So, let us indulge together.

Drinking some home-brewed chai this morning and talking to God some (moreso reading his words and letting him talk to me), I was struck by some things that feel pivotal in terms of where I and others get our source of life, well-being and joy.

So...Fountains. What's with those bubbling bodies of water (or chocolate if we get lucky)? Other than the sheer beauty that fountains possess, I think that what makes fountains most alluring is that they are a source of constant flow, and typically a continual flow of that which we all need to survive: water (or once again, chocolate, for any of you chocoholics out there). Where so many other bodies of water have the potential to dry up, diminish, or become stagnant, a fountain, at its best, is ever flowing, majestic and beckoning onlookers to behold both its rootedness as a source and its ability to grow beyond gravity.

I find that these qualities also ring true for things or people in life that we look to for a source of joy. In my life, I have friends whose fellowship and presence at times represent grounded-ness, joy, and life. Or I look to artistic passions such as writing, acting, and producing theatre to fill my needs for excitement, beauty, joy, and rootedness. None of these are bad in themselves until I begin to look to them as my primary fountains. Why? Because there is only one fountain that is primary, and the rest can easily dry out at any moment, just like the chai ceased to flow at Borders years ago (my nightmare come true).

One of my fountains has felt very dry recently, and I found myself thirsty for fresh chai. Here's what I found:

"They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights." -Psalm 36:8.

There has been a time in history where people who claimed to know God also claimed to have an experience with him that one of their writers characterized as "abundant" and as if drinking from a "river of delights." That's some strong language! Is that still available? Why would anyone speak of such a river of delights with such confidence? The answer is perhaps in the next verse of this Psalm (which was actually a song in its original form):

"For with you is the fountain of life; in your light, we see light." -Psalm 36:9.

This Psalm is a song to God, and here in verse 9, the writer of the song is referring to God as the FOUNTAIN of life, or at least saying that it resides somewhere with this God. We also see the imagery of light, which during Chicago winters, many equate to hope and joy (or a lack thereof). So with this God is a fountain (source) of life, and light which helps us to see light. Interesting words, once again.

I will not list all of the references to the well-being of soul that I have recently come across in the Psalms, but suffice to say that there are PLENTY! In learning about the soul, it seems that the soul is that place where our bodies and hearts receive nourishment, where we desperately desire love, affection, meaning, and everything that a fountain of life could possibly provide. And God is acutely aware of our souls' deep needs:

"I will be glad and rejoice in your love, for you saw my affliction and knew the anguish of my soul. You have not handed me over to the enemy but have set my feet in a spacious place."-Psalm 31:7-8.

Moving from water to chai, a drink which caffeinates, awakens, and just plain makes me happy, So where can I get my chai that doesn't run out? What does it mean to feast on the abundance of God's house, to drink from his river of delights? If the fountain is with God, and in his light we can see light, where is that fountain and how do I get it? A woman from Samaria once had a similar conversation with God, and here's what Jesus had to say, regarding two kinds of water.

"Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. But whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."- John 4:13-14.

Hmm...Sounds kind of like a fountain to me. Elsewhere, Jesus says that he is the equivalent to bread, and the bread of life, as if we are to get our sustenance from him just like we would get our physical sustenance from one of the most basic of foods. And he goes onto say that the person who believes in him would never go thirsty. I have to believe he was speaking about more than just physical bread and water.

What are you thirsty for? What is your chai, the thing that caffeinates you and provides your soul with a sense of invigoration and well-being? Where are your fountains? And what might it be like to drink of Jesus as the primary fountain? If Jesus' claims are true and if the experiences of these Old Testament Jewish writers are true, then something is available that must be better and richer than any normal feast or fountain could provide. I've tasted it and want more....fountains of his chai*.

"Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and your soul will delight in the richest of fare." -Isaiah 55:2b

"Taste and see that the Lord is good. Blessed is the one who takes refuge in him." -Psalm 34:8

*A friend of mine once told me that the letters "chai" also make up a Hebrew word which means "life." Bring on the chai and lots of it!

Saturday, January 21, 2012

New Challenge, Old Mandate (or Theatre for the Poor)

I was challenged in the last 24 hours by something two artists mentioned about artists and poverty. Their words, ruminating in my mind, along with some others that have been swimming there for awhile and some words about the poor that I read in the book of Job today, provoked a new question in me:

What does it mean to CREATE THEATRE FOR THE POOR? More broadly, one could ask what it would take to create ART for the poor, but being a theatre artist myself, I would like to focus the question on the theatrical world. Before trying to answer the question of what it means or even how to create theatre for the poor, I would like to present some foundations for WHY this kind of theatre-making is necessary.

Much of what I am about to say is based on the teachings of Jesus and a Biblical worldview, but I welcome others to engage in this exploration who are not of that mindset, as this should be fairly universal. If you prefer to skip over the Bible verses related to the poor, you may scroll down a bit for further exploration.

So, WHY should we create theatre for the poor?

1. God cares about the poor. There are countless examples throughout history of God's deep concern and advocacy for the poor.

Psalm 82:3 says, "Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed."

Psalm 140:12 says, "I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor."

Isaiah 41:17 says, "The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst. I, the LORD, will answer them Myself, as the God of Israel I will not forsake them."

In Luke 6:20-21 Jesus says, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours in the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh."

There is so much more I could list here, but allow me to proceed to the next point.

2. Loving the Poor is at the very core of loving and living like God. It is one of his highest priorities.

"Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world." -James 1:27.

"Is this not the fast which I choose, to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?" -Is. 58:66

3. In loving Jesus, we are loving the poor. If we are excluding the poor from our theatre, are we not at some level excluding Jesus?

"The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’- Matthew 25:40

Look at his response to others in Matthew 25:44-45. “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
He will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’"

4. Jesus emptied himself of his riches to pour it out on all of us, the poor in spirit. And his mission had the poor and outcast its center.

Luke 4:16-21. And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read... "The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, because He appointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent Me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD... Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Rather than load you down with a barrage of Bible verses, I would like to unpack some of my thinking on this in the form of questions I am ruminating.

Given that live theatre is typically more expensive to go see than watching a movie, are we as theatre artists really making theatre accessible to the poor among us? Sure, we have industry tickets which help the poor amongst our own kind (other actors, designers, stage managers, etc.), but what of those outside of our artistic community who lack the means to pay the ticket prices often necessary for a decent show?

I think of Broadway, or Vegas shows from Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group. Or I think of local groups (specific theatres I will not mention here) who charge $20.00 or more to go see one of their productions. And I am not faulting them for this. It takes money to create good work. But then what does that mean for the patrons we are allowing to come see our work? The socio-economic factors automatically rule out a good deal of the community who is just deserving and perhaps even more in need of good theatre than the rest of us who typically get to see it. How do we solve this problem?

I was moved by a scene from the movie "Finding Neverland" years ago, in which Johnny Depp's character, J.M. Barry, asks one of his associates to find as many children as he can from off of the streets to fill the seats of his theatre for the opening of "Peter Pan." It seemed that Barry was purposely integrating these children, "the least of these" so to speak, with the well-to-do adult audience members in order to create a theatrical experience that would be richer for BOTH parties. The children were delighted by the story and an entertainment form that they might not have otherwise gotten to experience, and the adults in the room were likewise invited into an experience that they would not have enjoyed otherwise; the pure joy of being child-like. The children in this audience were actually helping to inform how the adults in the room could freely respond to the action taking place on stage. As a result of this genius combination, the well-to-do audience members got it. They were able to laugh and engage in the play along with their "lesser" counter-parts. And in those moments, they were able to find a common ground, whether conscious of it or not.

Now, I am not suggesting that we always put children and adults together in the audience as a way to create a magical theatrical experience (though you would be surprised at what this combination can do even in this day and age). Rather, I think the scene from "Finding Neverland" serves as a wonderful image of the benefit that can come in serving more than one audience type, the haves and the have-nots. And I dare to say that as we do so more and more, we will find that the have-nots are really the "haves" in some respect, offering so much more to the larger community than what we might expect.

So this begs the question. How are we to create theatre for the poor? Does this mean that we eliminate ticket prices altogether? Or make ticket prices so low that even the poorest of the poor will not have a hard time scrounging up the extra change needed to get a seat? How might this affect the production quality of the work being presented? Should theatre for the poor be limited to poor quality theatre? If the rich of the world (which I suggest are you and I reading this) are privy to stellar entertainment experiences, should the poor receive anything less? If we are accustomed to a nice Italian dinner every now and then, should the poor's experience be relegated to out-of-the-box Mac 'N Cheese, just because it's cheaper?

I don't know what the solution is. But I am committed to finding out. I hope to find others who are willing to explore this with me. I would love to create Cirque du Soleil quality work that anyone can access, poor or not. It will take something miraculous and radical, I am sure. Sounds to me like an adventure worth pursuing!