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At 35, and barely holding on to my hair, I reasoned it was my last chance to become a movie star, so I quit my day job and moved to Hollywood.

Filled with the promise that L.A. could do for my fledgling acting career all that NYC had not, I enjoyed a wonderful cross-country drive, including an intoxicating 24 hours in Yellowstone. Easily lining up an apartment with a couple other actors, I believed a higher power was guiding every detail of my move.

My first week in Los Angeles, I booked background work on two TV shows, one about ghosts and the other about witches.  It seemed I was to specialize in occult entertainment.  Being on set, as I had experienced a few times in New York, was cool—gorging myself on craft services, learning from the professionalism of cast and crew, sitting so close to one of television’s loveliest leading ladies I could have touched her hair and asked her to marry me.  (Reader, I did not.)

But after those first two gigs, I spent the next few weeks making hundreds of calls, trying, to no avail, to get more work.  In the mean time, I applied for several real jobs, got only one interview, and didn’t get hired.  So, with my paltry savings depleted by the end of my first month there, I decided to admit defeat and return East.

It was a strange thing to do—talk incessantly about moving to Cali for seven years and then stay only seven weeks.  I wouldn’t blame people for wondering exactly what happened.  But the truth is, nothing happened.  And that’s the point.  In the midst of recession, I had left a decent job and an affordable Manhattan apartment for a strange city with virtually no prospects.  I had taken a gamble on my ability to make something happen once I got there, but it turned out I could not.

I recognize that, compared with acquaintances who have found some success on Broadway or in Hollywood, my attempt at a career was a joke.  I don’t just mean I was too fat or am too plain-looking or will never be talented enough, though all that may be true.  The main difference between them (people I’ve known who’ve become featured performers or series regulars) and me (who never joined Actors’ Equity or showed up on IMDb) is that, whereas they know exactly what they want and figure out how to get it, I can’t seem to go 48 hours knowing who I am.  They are the Gallants who received proper training and continually tweak their craft.  I am the Goofus who cobbled together an eclectic semblance of technique through liberal arts classes and semi-professional experience.  They are the disciplined go-getters who were pounding the pavement in Midtown six hours before I was eating a breakfast sandwich in Hell’s Kitchen.  And they’re the hungry types who were slating their names up in WeHo while I was down in NoHo buying nachos with a credit card.

I’m not sure what I was thinking when I decided to go West.  Maybe because, ten years before, I had moved to London without an apartment and found one within days or because, three years after that, I moved to New York without a job and found a good one within weeks, maybe, because those experiences worked out, I figured, mid-thirties, that I had one more risky move in me.  So I set my GPS toward Sunset and wished for the best.  But soon after my Hollywood adventure became a debacle, I vowed never to make the mistake of believing in myself again.

I emailed some friends describing my emotional state during those dark weeks of the soul:  I have never had less confidence in myself than I do now.  One minister replied with concern regarding this slump in my self-esteem.  I appreciated her sympathy.  I need friends like that, good folk of any belief or none who help me see my natural strength when I feel overwhelmed by weakness, people who remind me that most clouds pass and things will probably get better soon.  That helps some, hearing others’ optimism in the midst of my cynicism.  But, ultimately, I need something more.

For when I wrote that my confidence was shaken to the core, I actually meant that not just as a prayer request but also as a praise report:  stranded in L.A., watching the mirage of my own potential give way to the reality of my own mediocrity, there were moments when I took my eyes off myself and saw Jesus.

Though I’ve called myself a Christian since childhood, I can count on one hand my own seasons of spiritual renewal.  Most of the faith walk, mine anyway, is slow and somewhat mundane, but there have been a few times, unplanned weeks or months, when the energy of the Divine has been especially potent, and the result was, instead of the usual stumbling toward Calvary, during these times I’ve sprinted.

October 2009 in the San Fernando Valley was such a time as that.  But unlike 1988 when I felt immersed in the Spirit, 1991 when I learned to cultivate the Presence through prayer, 1996 when my thoughts were haunted by the unparalleled excellency of Christ, or 2006 when my bible came back to life, my mystical time in the desert of North Hollywood was not pleasant.  I hurt in ways I had never hurt before.  But as life and the Lord conspired to show me what a cowardly slug of a dreamer I have always been, I came nearer the end of myself, stared deeper into the abyss of my own nature and, facing a few more demons, perhaps literal ones, I had no alternative but to trust in God more than I ever had.  And He was there.  Not as a soft comforter or sugar on my lips but like a rock where I could rest the night until the sun came out.

I sometimes hear people using the words soul, God, and the universe interchangeably.  Fifteen years ago when Dharma or her hippie parents co-opted a hybrid of Eastern religions to pepper their conversation with clauses like “The universe must be trying to tell me something,” Greg and the Montgomerys and we Middle Americans watching those crazy Californians on our ginormous televisions, we all laughed at the silliness of such New Age sentiments.  Now, in a post-Oprah age, such phraseology is mainstream.  Christians lapse into similar language.  Heart’s desires are assumed messages from a God, who, apparently, is most interested in helping affluent Westerners achieve success—everything happens for a reason and works out in the end if you do right (as if anyone frequently does) and just believe (in what—yourself?  A benevolent cosmos?)  Makes me wonder about all those naughty orphans starving to death in developing countries.  And what about those believers in many times and places who have been persecuted, some to death, with no happy ending in this life?  Is there some formula for victorious living that kidnapped sex slaves haven’t heard about?  A secret mantra that tsunami victims should have been repeating, some law to follow that would have attracted better things than a decimated village?

Or maybe a perfect God made the earth good and humans very good, but by our sin we’ve destroyed it and us so badly that this planet and the people in it bear only a slight resemblance to His image.  Perhaps, in our personal lives as well as our cultural struggles for a just and happy world, we would be better equipped for the fight if we stopped congratulating our own greatness long enough to notice a Creator who has become our Redeemer and will one day make all things new, full, and fun.  I do not say this to imply that true religion is just tarrying in this miserable world until Jesus comes to take us to a “de-luxe apartment in the sky.”  Yes, if I die today, I will immediately rest in paradise.  And, yes, one day, maybe tonight or tomorrow or in a thousand years or so, the Sun of Righteousness will return to infuse and remake this earth.  The physical will become superphysical.  And when that happens, we who have longed for His appearing will get everything we ever really wanted.

That’s what I want to say to prosperity proselytizers:  You have a point.  God does want to bless us with unimaginable riches.  But your timing stinks.  You focus on the present, trying to wrest goodies from God’s hand by the manipulation of pious deeds done with dirty motives, like squirming brats who endure the hug of a homecoming dad only to ensure their receipt of whatever gift shop trinket might be in his suitcase.  How can you be so stuck in the present when there’s so much to adore about the past and future?  Christian redemptive chronology knows the glorious bookends of a past when Christ chose to die for us—how incredibly romantic—and a future when, our courtship with Him consummated, we will literally sense God—see, touch, smell, taste, hear Him.

But back to me.  How does such knowledge of past and future affect my present?  How did it do so winding through Laurel Canyon with tears streaming down my face and later, giving up and leaving the Golden State, bypassing Vegas, and speeding by the Grand Canyon to reach New Mexico that first night eastward, slack-jawed with wonder about what had just happened, or, rather, all that had not:  I could not get my head out of the smog long enough to translate my myth of California—easygoing success amidst sun-drenched nature preserves—into any useful reality.  What good was a past/future faith when my present was peanut butter and jelly and, that second night, a $29 motel room in Godforsaken, Texas?  Amidst professional and personal failure, how did I mentally survive the third night when I arrived at a friend’s house in Kansas City to accept his dinner and breakfast invitations, knowing that he knew I couldn’t afford to pay my fair share?  Humiliated by such headshaking loss of pride, I wondered if all my friends and family, when they found out I was packing it in before I had fully unpacked, wanted to ask what my cousin had on the phone:  “Are you done with your mid-life crisis?”

It helped when my Kansan buddy, some time between the burgers and The Mentalist, counseled, “Running into a brick wall is not a mistake; it’s just a road you’ve discovered is a dead end.”  Helpful also was the note from a former coworker suggesting I needn’t over-explain myself to people:  “Just say you got to L.A., decided you didn’t like it, and left.”

Kind words from a supportive community, certainly part of my daily bread.  But what blessed me the most during those days was that, although I could not see any useful reason for believing in God—there were innumerable petitions He was not granting, there was no immediate deliverance from flakiness, no prophetic word of wisdom, no eleventh hour reversal of plot; life was simply a burden to endure—nonetheless, I believed.

I used to get discouraged when I observed people who, years after being converted, still could not sustain any measurable happiness, bogged down as they were by depression, family squabbles, money troubles, or worse.  But my journey in and out of the La Brea tar pits provided a new perspective on these unbubbly souls, the ones whose testimonies will never grace the promotional materials of a parachurch organization promising a better life through Christ.  Because, if that’s the case, if we’re just following principles to make God bless us with the life of our dreams, we will think, when those dreams come true, that we deserve every good thing we got.  As it turns out, we never really loved God at all; we just wanted His stuff.

No, I want to stand with my brothers and sisters in failure, recognize that false gospel, and cry Bull!  I want to look back and picture the Lover of my soul dying for me because He knows I don’t have the right stuff to follow His rules or even my own.  And I want to look forward and imagine Him waiting for me with who knows what up His sleeves.  Because here’s the great irony:  when we’re willing to live now for nothing but Him and with only what He decides we need, then, in the great forever, we will, along with Him, also get everything–the great haul:  we become co-inheritors with Christ.

Those are the kinds of realizations that kept me alive, on a leaky air mattress, in a grungy room off Magnolia Street, when I looked out my window at the mountains in the distance and realized they were the backside of the Hollywood Hills:  the glitterati were mooning me.

It took a few weeks until I could get someone to take over my spot on the apartment lease.  And so while I waited for that security deposit to pay for gas all the way home, and since I couldn’t even get a temp agency to hire me, I watched reruns of Friday Night Lights with my roommates, and I read.  I read what I always read when trauma disables my left brain:  the Psalms.  And I read all the epistles and went to the Coffee Bean and re-read a favorite book about God as the real source of pleasure.  I say this to point out there was no contradiction between the theological and the existential.  The Word of God and the God of the Word—He was the One who was with me.  The growth I experienced at that time was theological.  But it was not merely so.

The last night of my trip back, I stayed in Ohio with a gracious couple whose Greenwich Village bible study I had once led.  Now, for a doctoral program, he and she had traded in that groovy walk-up for a ranch house by a cornfield.  It was she who asked, over smoked almonds and Cabernet, “What were you reading that made you experience the profound renewal you discussed in your email?”  And I thought, yeah, good question, because the disciplines matter—the meditation, the prayer, etc.  But sometimes, as in the case of those precious and painful hours on my face—God just shows up and you watch Him breathe.


@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York. 

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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Bait and Switch

In New York, image is everything.  All transplants to the City (like me 10 years ago) quickly feel the pressure to market a persona that prospective employers and “friends” will buy.  As a youngish single guy living in Manhattan, I donned my share of masks.  When I first arrived, moving from a rural Western New York town that, at Population: 3800, is 7 hours and a world away, I imagined my recent graduate degree from a British institution would be my key to fame, so I presented myself as anglophile smarty pants, until I discovered that nobody here thinks I’m smart and landed my first job as an assistant making $10 an hour.

Next, I became the aspiring actor who, if truth be told, rarely made it to auditions, performed miserably at them most of the time, and, if I was lucky enough to get a gig, vacillated between potentially adequate and just plain awful.  Briefly, I was a hipster wannabe, until I decided that staying in really was the new going out and being in by 9 pm was best.  I even attempted the metrosexual thing (you remember—straight boy, well-groomed), but a preference for Pepsi over Pilates, a tendency toward bad hair days, and a mountain of student loans snowcapped by credit card debt soon overshadowed my desire to be the svelte, product-pampered, cool-clothes-buying hottie who gets the girl.  (Incidentally, an old girlfriend did once call me hottie, but I’m sure she was flattering and, anyways, she’s since married someone else—a fat lot of good that did me.)

So, while my type, as my former acting teachers would call it, is still unclear (I’m hoping before it’s too late to be Young Daddy, the nothing guy who marries the beautiful woman who bears children who take after their mother), I’m nonetheless certain of who I am.  I am, forgive the apparent non sequitur, a Christian.  Not necessarily a very good one, and, because I’m a bit of a weenie, not always a public one, but a believer in Christ all the same.

“Christian in the City” may seem like a novelty or even an oxymoron to some, but my sense, be it perceived or real, is that I am not alone here.  There seem to be, all around me on this wonderful island of concrete and steel, a growing number of others who confess Christian theism as their dominant worldview.  And these are not your father’s Jesus people or your grandfather’s holy rollers.  I’m talking about orthodox believers who, while they may have been Bible-thumping Jesus freaks or bong-toting preachers’ kids in the high schools of middle America, have somehow ended up thriving in NYC not just as a religious subculture but as likeable, grown-up members of society.

I don’t mean to overstate the case or frighten happily agnostic Gothamites with predictions of a Christian invasion, but I suspect you already know of whom I speak.  The copywriter in the cubicle next to you, though up for a pint on Thursday night, left the pub after one round for a meeting he eventually admitted was a Bible study.  The lead actress in the Broadway show you see thanks her “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” in her Playbill bio.  Tacky sentiment, you think, but, no worries, it’s probably a southern thing, and, besides, she’s damn good.  And the young Wharton grad renting the apartment next door?  Though he can be as cocky as all kids close to making their first million, don’t be surprised if, when you break your ankle next week and he brings you a meal, the card attached suggests he is “praying for you,” and you get the sense he means not just “thinking of you” but literally getting down on his Brooks Brothered knees and mentioning you by name to a divine Person who, he believes, is listening and wanting to aid your recovery.

These Christians I speak of, your co-workers, acquaintances, neighbors, may not be packaged the way you’re used to thinking of their ilk.  They may not bear the image of the anti-intellectual, bigoted, politically-driven prudes obsessed with waging a culture war against the “liberal media” and Britney Spears’ belly button.  They might be regular folks who have, some against their best intentions to the contrary, fallen in love with a Man they believe to be love personified.  Yes, evangelicals are, by definition, evangelistic.  From time to time they may want to talk about their faith, just as all people tend to discuss things that are most important to them.  Humor them and listen if you want.  Or nicely tell them to cork it.  Perhaps they’ll understand, as an old jock-turned-youth-pastor once explained, that Christians are called to love all people, not just to manipulate them into our kingdom, but because we posit a God who loves all people—even average-IQ dilettantes, overweight metrosexuals, ex-hipsters, out-of-work actors, and juvenile Christian writers.

@LScottEkstrom is a freelance writer living in New York.

Article and photo credit:  Copyright 2013, L. Scott Ekstrom.  All rights reserved.

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