Voice of grace

Actor brings music, comedy and storytelling to conversation about sexuality, faith and family

Nov 3, 2014 by and

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HARRISONBURG, Va. — Three is a magic number, says veteran actor and playwright Ted Swartz.

Ted Swartz, center, converses on themes of sexuality, faith and family in Listening for Grace, a play that invites the audience to listen to diverse voices speaking about same-sex relationships. Also pictured are cellist Justin Yoder and pianist Phillip Martin. — Ted & Company

Ted Swartz, center, converses on themes of sexuality, faith and family in Listening for Grace, a play that invites the audience to listen to diverse voices speaking about same-sex relationships. Also pictured are cellist Justin Yoder and pianist Phillip Martin. — Ted & Company

“That’s true in baseball, theater and comedy,” he said. “I generally listen when things come in threes.”

The adage has served him well for more than 20 years, as the Eastern Mennonite University alumnus has engaged with the unlikely trio of theology, comedy and issues of faith. First with Lee Eshleman in Ted & Lee and now with Ted & Company, he has written and produced more than a dozen plays, performing extensively worldwide.

When three similarly focused suggestions came to his drawing board, he took notice.

“About two years ago I was asked to consider writing something about same-sex issues and sexuality in the context of the church, and I was busy at the time,” he said. “But then six months later, on two other occasions, people asked the same question, and I took it a bit more seriously.”

This dialogue resulted in Listening for Grace, a play that invites the audience to listen just as Swartz did to the diverse voices speaking about the challenging topic of same-sex relationships.

EMU hosted a performance of the show Nov. 2 in Lehman Auditorium.

Variety of perspectives

The main character of Listening for Grace is Daryl, a widower who learns his son is gay. During the 70-minute performance, Daryl shares the stories of five other characters, each with a different perspective on same-sex relationships and faith. One voice is that of his deceased wife, Grace.

“The audience is continuously listening throughout this play, for Grace as a character who speaks truth to the main character in a way he can’t hear otherwise,” Swartz said. “They are listening for Grace, but they are also listening to hear themselves in someone else’s story.”

In shaping the play as an extended dialogue, Swartz invites the audience to honor their own viewpoints and those of others, and then to re-engage in discussion with respect and empathy.

Recent performances at Mennonite churches and other locations around the country have often sparked the scheduling of conversation circles and small-group discussion, “sometimes even a few days later to allow people to process it, depending on how the community or congregation wants to handle it,” Swartz said.

Pastor Brian Martin Burkholder, director of campus ministries, said the play offers an opportunity for continued dialogue.

“I expect that most people will find their voice, or voices, represented by one or more of the characters in this play such that continued reflection and conversation with others might be prompted,” he said. “Ideally, this performance will offer a shared experience that encourages ongoing dialogue.”

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  • David Gingerich

    I recently attended this performance here on the west coast. I was moved to empathy for the pain experienced by LGBTQ persons who are seeking Jesus. In a real wonderful and light-hearted way, it humanized the struggle, rather than treating people as “an issue”. I applaud Ted for his writing in that regard. The music was wonderful as well!

    At the same time, I felt a rather obvious bias for the inclusive position. I saw this performance as one that aims for middle ground, but also exposed a leaning. The presentation of a more “biblicist” or traditional view was perhaps over used in the insertion of “comic relief” for it to be given a fare hearing, and in many ways oversimplified in terms of argument. When that happens, it seems to serve the inclusive position’s purpose.

    I accept though that this is not something that can be avoided by any of us in our conversations. We can not easily divorce ourselves from our leanings. If this is the case, might EMU consider that equal time be given in their public events to hearing also from those who may also be aiming for the middle, but who’s bias is toward biblicism/traditional view points? Has EMU sought out people like Christopher Yuan or others who may have a different perspective?

    I see Ted’s performance as having a real valuable and positive contribution to the conversation in MCUSA currently. However, are we listening equally as well to those who are also earnestly seeking to follow Jesus who’s bias leans toward the more traditional view. I believe there are many who hold this view and yet also desire to hear and learn from the LGBTQ community, and be called to confession for the ways in which the LGBTQ persons in our churches have been marginalized and even demonized. Are those people being given a voice in the public sphere, or are we just hearing from the zealous hardliners? I challenge EMU and other MCUSA institutions to find ways to give voice to folks from both biases, but who aim for the center as much as they can as Ted and Co. has.

    • Erwin Warkentin

      Thanks for this, David. Ted is in Winnipeg even as I type this, and we look forward to his production of “Listening for Grace” here on November 11. It will also be interesting to get Ted’s comments about the differences between the American situation and the Canadian context. We have significant differences across the border!

      I am curious about your comment that you note a bias for the inclusive position. From what I have heard from my more inclusivist friends who have seen the play, the bias is against inclusion. I’m wondering if perhaps what you observe in Ted’s “middle ground” approach, doesn’t reflect the biases of those on either side of the middle. In other words, it’s not Ted who is biased.

      Or is it more the idea that, once you start seriously thinking and talking about what it might look like to have an inclusive stance in the Church, the argument is already over? Because really, the argument is not about sexuality. The argument is about how we read and understand our scriptures — the issue now is sexuality, but in the past it has been about slavery, about women in leadership, about divorce and remarriage, and so many other issues. It always seems to boil down to how we read the Bible. And once we acknowledge that the Bible can legitimately be read from differing perspectives, then the issue, whatever it may be, tends to fade away.

      • David Gingerich

        Thanks for your question Erwin. Interesting that your “inclusivist” friends perceived an opposite bias. After I posted my comment, many of those from my congregation who attended the performance had a time of listening to one another’s impressions of the performance. There were folks who would self describe as bias toward the “inclusivist” position. I was surprised to hear them say that they too perceived the bias toward inclusion. One even commented that although she appreciated the bias, she was disappointed that she didn’t really get a good sense of the other bias. I was pleased to hear that there was indeed that intense and open listening going on even from those who recognize their own bias.

        As for your last paragraph, I confess I don’t know. I do tend to agree with you that the argument really isn’t about sexuality. I am not sure we have a complete picture of what it is really about, which is why I am frustrated to see individuals, congregations and conferences entertaining ideas if not deciding to leave MCUSA at this point. I would urge all to stay in the conversation. I concede there may be a point at which a decision to leave is necessary for matters of conscience. I just fear that if we don’t define what it is that separates us, reconciliation will be rather impossible. And I think reconciliation is crucial to our walk as disciples.

        You named quite a few historical issues that we have wrestled with in the past i.e. slavery, women in leadership, divorce and remarriage. Are you implying that if one reads the scriptures in such a way as to interpret same-sex intercourse as sinful then one would also bind ones-self to defending slavery, the subjection of women, and a rigid and ungracious position on divorce and remarriage? Or vice versa? My guess is that there are very scholarly and learned people who don’t see those issues to be equal.

        One question I have is, can we look at those issues above that we have wrestled with and made decisions about and think critically about what was right about those decisions and what might have been lacking in them? Or perhaps better said, that the decisions were good, but there may have been failures in what areas the church needed to strengthen in light of those decisions? I think particularly of the issue of divorce and remarriage and the significant increase in divorce rates and wonder. Where is it that we have failed as a church in building up and strengthening marriage? Is the reason homosexual marriage is such a volatile discussion among us because we see that from the best of intentions to act with love, grace and acceptance toward those who have suffered divorce, there seems to be an ambivalence toward divorce, remarriage, premarital cohabitation, etc.?

        In no way do I want to imply with the question that I know the answers. I don’t. I am just wondering. It is not something I hear talked about. Is it possible that we tend to think that the decisions we have made in the past were without error?

  • Berry Friesen

    I saw this production last spring and enjoyed it. Through the character of the widowed father, it gives us “loss” as the frame in which to dialogue about same-sex orientation/relationships. This
    way of framing the matter can help us find a positive path forward.

    The drama also gives us the frame of “sin” and shows us how the frames of “loss” and “sin” can be reconciled. Indeed, we have a long history of such work and know it can be successful.

    Absent from the drama is the “equality” frame of reference. This is unfortunate because that is the leading frame among those seeking change. It sees the church’s traditional position as bigotry, hate and heterosexism.

    Can the frames of “equality” and “loss” be reconciled? How about the frames of “equality” and “sin?” This is where we face the prospect of failure, and this is where the drama doesn’t help us.

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