But then again, these things never are. These things that cause us to stop mid-sentence, hold our heads, and cry.
I was going to do fun today. Interactive. I don’t want to be too reflective, too serious, all the time. Wears people out – I know. It wears me out sometimes.
But then something happened today. So if you’re not in for serious, it’s time to stop reading now. My apologies…
When I got to work this morning there was an email from a list I belong to that sends out news about Ted and Lee Theater Works. It’s a team of two men, Ted Swartz and Lee Eshleman, who write and act together. They tour, mostly churches and church-type events, and perform their stuff, which is largely Biblically based. Their most well-known show is called “Fish-Eyes,” and looks at the life of Jesus through the eyes of Peter and Andrew, who were brothers and also disciples.
That paragraph – the one I just wrote – sums up many of the reasons why I can’t stand telling people what I do for a living. When I tell people that I work with drama, with theater, that I write, direct, and act; well, that’s enough for many nice people to start looking at me sideways. “Oh, really? Well…that’s interesting…” they say. But when I throw in the little fact that I do all this as part of a church staff, I can watch the big Religious Wacko Cornball Warning Light go off in their head. They’re thinking Biblical costumes, bad writing, directing, acting – bad everything – and they try to control the impulse to either laugh out loud or pity me directly to my face. And why wouldn’t they? Who hasn’t been in a few too many Christmas pageants in their life? As I see their face change, ever so slightly, I’m almost tripping over myself to explain… “no, you see, my church uses drama regularly, you know – real life situations – like something that probably just happened to you, and then it ties into the sermon, and, I mean, it’s all right now, not like Bible stories or anything…REALLY, I’M NORMAL. REALLY!”
See what I mean? Some of you have quit reading already – just at the retelling of my poor explanatory skills. What I mean to say is that life, truth, grace, love – are often best understood in the context of story. That we are stories. That if I can somehow speak to your heart, you will open yourself to more – and what greater gift could I give you?
Ted Swartz and Lee Eshleman would agree. Granted, we often come at it differently. They have no problem with Biblical characters, stories, and costumes. As we have seen, I have a bit of an inherent paranoia about it all. But we agree that art done in the church ought to be every bit as excellent as art done anywhere else, if not more so. That acting, done well, is worth so much to the audience and to the performer that it’s worth pushing through all the misconceptions. That stories, even Bible stories, are the gateway to our souls.
Knowing all of this makes it all the sadder that Lee is gone.
The email I got this morning was not their usual bits of news, tour schedule, etc, but a short, sad statement:
It is with deep sadness that we send this email to you, our friends. If you have not yet heard, Lee Eshleman died on May 17, 2007. Lee took his own life after succumbing to a long battle with depression. We have heard from so many of you already, and are grateful for the prayers you’ve offered up for Lee’s family, Ted, and the rest of the people who loved him dearly. You can find out more at www.TedandLee.com, and you can also post your own messages or memories about Lee in the Guestbook.
I sat at my computer – oh no, no no no… My heart has grieved today.
It’s sad for so many reasons. Lee was a great writer, a gifted actor, a genuinely funny person. The characters he played were open-hearted, full of warmth, Gracie to Ted’s George. He had a great smile, a lifelong writing and acting partner, a wife and three kids, a church he loved. People all over the country have been touched by his work – both in live performances and by others performing his scripts. And somehow, in spite of it all, he lost to a depression that he could not overcome.
I emailed them once, just hitting the “contact” link on their site, and Lee was the one who answered. We ended up going back and forth a little, having a conversation of sorts, and I felt that somehow, I had met a friend – you know, in that crazy internet sort of way, when someone writes you back and says what you were trying to say in exactly the way you wish you could have said it.
And that’s the feeling I kept having this spring, when we decided to use scenes from the play about Peter and Andrew, “Fish-Eyes,” on Sunday mornings this spring. Yes, their stuff, their Bible story stuff, is that good – good enough that we would do the very thing we have avoided for so long. Each time we came back to those brothers, each time we heard a story that we’ve heard a million times before – it was new, and it felt like real people, like you just know that’s how those guys were, not these flat feltboard cutouts we learned about in Sunday school. And oh yeah, now that’s the way I wish I could have written it.
My husband played Andrew, Lee’s part in the show. Just weeks ago I directed him and another dear friend in the final scene of the play, in which Andrew has the final line. Today, reading this tribute to Lee, I came across those lines again. It all feels so very close, the losing of this faraway friend.