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Sunday Centennial Celebration

Sunday was such a beautiful day and will always be a highlight of my life. I was asked a couple weeks ago to speak at the Centennial Celebration at the Rowland Theatre in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania not far from where I grew up.

I have been preparing a speech and working on it for sometime. I had prepared to memorize the fourth draft in the week leading up to the event. The days before, I was a little concerned that I didn’t feel comfortable reciting the 10 to 12 minute speech.

The days leading up to the Rowland were influential on what I would eventually share from my heart. Ever since I got into Pennsylvania it was a whirlwind of an experience and a trip. I flew in Friday, and on my way here I found out that one of my high school classmates ended his own life. It shocked me and really unsettled my soul. I could feel empathy and also indignation that his life ended on such an incomprehensible note. Being someone who has wrestled with severe depression in the past, it reminded me how helpless and how bleak this world could look.

After I finally got home after a long cross country trip, I was ready to go to bed and preparing to attend the funeral the next day. I was unexpectedly invited to a bonfire and given the opportunity to reconnect with old friends. These classmates and I had been friends since kindergarten. Getting together with these men and talking until the sun practically came up and the last embers died out, we had the opportunity to discuss the weightiness of life and what we can do to purify the church, ourselves, and witness to a dying world that hope is available.

The next day I woke up late, still in my West Coast biological clock. I was up in time to get ready and prepare myself for this tragic funeral. The event resonated with our class and so many showed up to support and to honor the life and the person we had all lost. It was such a strange context in which to see classmates I hadn’t seen since high school graduation almost 10 years ago. Even though we had all aged and gained weight in peculiar places, it still didn’t seem that we should be filling a funeral home for a young man that left much too soon. Some people hadn’t yet gained the capability or depth of understanding to be able to express their grief at such a tragedy. Others of us spoke with tears in with trembling frames as we whispered shaking encouragement in solemn and reverent tongues.

This was an event that was difficult to leave behind, and an event that will never and should never truly leave our minds, hearts, or memories. This was a sincerely difficult loss of a friend, one that I had lost contact with, and I was left recollecting happy memories for the uniqueness of his being and soul.

In moments like these — life is so real. I truly feel like these are not, unfortunately, unique moments or occasions, but sadly an all too common experience or event that is far too rarely spoken about. How many more, O Lord, are in a similar desperate place and feeling isolated, beyond redemption or help. It saddens me and also angers me to think how rarely we deal with the real world.

Late that night, after having dinner with the family and going to the drive-in theater and seeing friendly faces from one of our sets of last summer, I was again reminded that despite circumstances or frayed emotions, I had a duty to memorize and to prepare my speech in less than 12 hours. Before I even read it to my parents I knew just how fabricated, sterile, and worst of all regurgitated my safe speech was. I could barely get through one reading of it and felt embarrassed to say the words out loud. It’s not that the words were fake, but in light of my recent conversations and realizing the greater picture of what God has been doing and been showing me in my life, what I had intended originally to say felt very irrelevant and maybe worse, irreverent.

I realized there wasn’t a way to easily fix this issue. I hadn’t memorized lines or given a public speech in almost nine years, since the last play I was in. I wasn’t going to be able to write a new speech and memorize it in time. So after staying up an additional couple hours and only managing to steal away a couple hours of sleep once again… I succumbed to facing the predicament I was in. I realized I was paralyzed to speak the truth that was laid on my heart so strongly a few years ago.

I knew what I had to do, the only thing I could do. I needed to let go of my fear of man and just say what I felt was on my heart. In doing so, maybe I could inspire others to give hope a second, or third, or ninetieth try.

I was more than tempted to skip church and use what little time was left to continue preparing for the lost speech. But thank God, despite all of my excuses to skip God and to skip the opportunity to worship in public and with my hometown community, I attended church and I let my fears and anxieties at the door.

God was abundantly and ridiculously good to me in the message that was preached, in the songs that were sung, and then in the conversations and fellowship that I got to drink in in this incredibly productive hour or so. There was one parishioner who came up to me and asked me about my upcoming movie and when it would come out. I was slightly nervous, even after a sermon about not being afraid of man and caring more about God and his mission than the stupid bullshit of this world that distracts us from eternity… One parishioner came up to me and I was nervous that she was going to ask me, like so many Internet trolls, had why I felt the need to include coarse language in my films when talking about Jesus. But this little woman, not without life experience, told me that she was so thankful that people would make movies about the real world and redemption. Again Jesus brought me to living waters and filled my cup to overflowing, and I was again encouraged to speak the truth and love to whoever showed up at the theater today.

We drove to the theater in the pouring rain, and I moved through the lobby and greeted the board members and familiar faces who were in attendance that day. The lights dimmed and the program started. I was second to speak and had difficulty appreciating the very informative and interesting first presentation about the history of the theater. I was trying to read my printed notes in the dark that consisted of a journal entry, a few bullet points, and a quote.

After what seemed like seconds and yet hours passed, my name was called, the audience clapped, and I got one final reaffirming look from my family. I started walking towards the front of the theater and up the stairs to the podium.

The lights were shining brightly and I could not really see the audience and still couldn’t comprehend or count how big it was. There’s always a thick air at the beginning of a speech, especially one that was introduced as, “A young man who grew up in the local area, went to West Branch, and today traveled all the way from Hollywood California to make this speech today.”

I broke the ice with an awkward “Hello,” and then repeated with proper pronunciation my name and what I do for a living. I tried to regain my thoughts and composure and not think about how my hands, no matter what I told myself, wouldn’t stop shaking while I was on stage.

I started into the talk with a quote and some personal information about myself. I alluded to a journal entry that I had written two years ago while I was living and dying in Seattle, more miserable and defeated than I had felt in my entire life. Finally, I could catch my breath, and I could start talking freely and look around the theater and see friendly faces in the crowd. As I became more comfortable, I reminded myself that I had a mission to tell people about eternity and about the experience of hope.

At last, I was getting into my groove. I was speaking freely and wasn’t speaking to man or for man, but finally I was speaking the truth in love. I felt the responsibility to reveal to others what God had revealed to me, and to encourage people that “the feeling of being alive” in our lives, and in movies, and in this theater was and is still possible for all of us.

I was getting close to the end of the speech. I said I was thankful that this theatre was here to inspire my love of good stories as a kid growing up in a small town, and that I was thankful it would be around to inspire future generations. People clapped generously.

I felt a great sense of relief as I returned to my seat. Now I was able to return to the audience and join the community, to once again enjoy the rest of what proved to be a very entertaining and enriching centennial celebration of this local theater. The two hour program went by fast and there are many heartfelt and memorable moments as politicians passed out awards and everyone was recognized for keeping this great establishment alive for these past hundred years, and gave hope that another hundred years could be around the corner for this grand theater.

As soon the program ended, I was thankful for the opportunity to talk to so many people who had questions and kind words to say. Strangers as well as familiar faces came up and supported me. There is so much love and support in this little town in Central Pennsylvania.

As people trailed away and they were a few of us remaining, I was informed that there was one surprise left: an overwhelming blessing to receive on top of an already great day. I was led outside and there was a group of people who were taking pictures. One of the Rowland board members used a putty knife to lift out an old brick and to replace it with the permanent brick that had my name engraved on it. I don’t think I’ve ever had my name on anything like this before.

I really can’t tell you how much this honor meant to me, and how I will never ever forget this beautiful day in this abundantly generous community who continues to support me even though I live so very far away.

Here is the speech I gave at the Centennial Celebration: