I’ve never been shy. And I’m definitely not shy about my faith. I grew up in the Bible Belt, in Oklahoma. I’m a Christian and proud of it. I’ve sung about it, mentioned it on talk shows and it’s been an important part of some of the characters I’ve played.
In the new ABC show Good Christian Belles, about a group of women who grew up together in a Dallas church, I play Carlene. She’s a bit of a villain and stirs things up, which is certainly not me (it’s just acting, okay?).
But just because I’m frank about my faith doesn’t mean I’ve got everything all figured out. I struggle too. We all do. It’s kind of like developing your vocal range when you’re a singer. You’ve got to experience the highs and lows in life to develop your spiritual range and grow in your faith. Stick with me here and I’ll tell you what I mean.
Keep asking the questions.
My Grandma Chenoweth was one of the most fervent, loving Christians I’ve ever known. She had friends in every denomination. Or as we used to say back home, she was a Southern Baptist who played canasta with the Methodists and dominoes with the Church of Christ-ers. In every tough situation she’d do what I’d call a Jesus test to figure out what was the right thing to do. And this was years before WWJD came along.
When Grandma died, her friends kept bringing us food to comfort us, lemon bars and shoofly pie and every casserole known to man (church-lady cuisine is something I sure miss out in Hollywood). Later we went through her things: her jewelry, her hats, her purses, her handkerchiefs. But her Bible was the real treasure.
I’d always heard that you could tell how important the word of God was to a person by looking at their Bible. Grandma’s had a crocheted cover she made herself (it needed a cover because it had gotten so worn and dog-eared over the years) and had notes in her handwriting on practically every page.
“I don’t understand this verse and need some help,” Grandma would write or “I tried to do this and it’s hard for me” or “This is my cross to bear” or “I need to pray about this” or “I’m not sure I’m in 100 percent agreement here.” Sometimes she had questions for her minister, sometimes for God, and all of her questions and notes showed what a real relationship she had with the Lord. Nothing was taken for granted. Belief was something she worked at and lived.
I’ve got my own questions for God, everything from “Why is forgiveness so hard?” and “Why do people get cancer?” to “Where on earth do the mates to my socks disappear to?” Sure, I’d love to know the answers one day, but I learned from Grandma that what matters is to keep asking the questions. Write them down, talk to friends and to your minister, and pray your way through them.
I pray all the time. Sometimes I think I pray too much, if that’s possible. I pray for my mom and my dad, my brother and my sister-in-law. I pray if I have to travel (I have the worst travel luck and I just hate to fly). I pray for my friends. I pray for complete strangers.
Jesus said we’re supposed to pray for those who mistreat us. Not long ago I was feeling mighty mistreated by a flight attendant who bumped me from the seat I’d bought (I got delayed in security) and then wouldn’t help me get my bag in the overhead bin (hey, when you’re not even five feet tall, it’s hard to reach up there!). I told her I’d pray for her. Lord knows, we both needed it.
What’s really important is to make your prayers big, to ask for things that go deep and seem impossible. You might even get more than you ask for. I’ll tell you a story:
Some years ago in the town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, there was a young couple who had a son and longed for a daughter to round out their family. Then the wife was told she needed to have a hysterectomy and wouldn’t be able to conceive again. She and her husband put their names on every adoption list they could find but hadn’t gotten any calls. She knew the wait would be long, maybe forever. Still, she prayed and prayed for a little girl. The day came when she checked into the hospital for surgery.
At that very same hospital, a young unmarried flight attendant (no connection to the one I just mentioned, of course) was about to give birth to a baby she planned to give up for adoption. Her doctor had helped line up a loving couple to adopt and raise the baby. Then that wife discovered to her surprise that she was pregnant. “Please let the baby go to another couple,” she told her doctor. The ob-gyn consulted the young couple from Broken Arrow. “You mean we could have our new baby now?” they asked. Absolutely, they were told. And wouldn’t you know, that baby turned out to be a girl?
“I went into the hospital to have surgery,” my mother liked to tell me, “and I came home with you.” I marvel at how many people’s prayers were answered: my parents’, the couple who was originally going to adopt the baby, my birth mother’s.
Leave it up to God.
Remember I said I have trouble flying? Did I mention it’s partly because I get migraines and I have this disease with a big fancy name called Ménière’s that makes motion sickness seem like a walk in the park?
The first time it hit me was 15 years ago. I was in New York City, rehearsing a Broadway musical called Steel Pier. I woke up that morning with a ringing in my ears, got out of bed and landed on the floor. The ground was tilting at a 90-degree angle and the walls were coming at me. I crawled to the bathroom and got very sick. So sick I was convinced I had a brain tumor or a stroke.
I peeled myself off of the bathroom floor and called my mom. She came to New York and went with me to countless doctors’ appointments. I had all kinds of tests. Nothing showed up in a CT-scan. The doctors ruled out brain tumors and strokes, but they couldn’t quite figure out the diagnosis. They decided it was some sort of vertigo and it would go away. It did, but then it came back six months later. And again and again after that.
How could I go on performing with my ears ringing and the floor rolling like the deck of a storm-tossed boat? I prayed hard about it, and I recalled something my beloved voice teacher, Florence Birdwell, said to me back at Oklahoma City University when I had strep throat and wanted to back out of a competition.
“You can’t make excuses in the real world,” she said. “People will have more respect for you if you sing through it. Just do your best.” So that’s what I did in show after show like You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and the incredibly popular Wicked and as Miss Noodle on Sesame Street and in my own short-lived TV show, Kristin.
Finally I got a diagnosis: Ménière’s disease. According to the medical literature, it’s “an inner ear disturbance that causes vertigo,” which sounds so much milder than it is. There is no cure or relief with the possible exception of a surgical procedure called a cochleosacculotomy (another fancy word). I can’t risk that because it could cause hearing loss.
So I do what I can to control Ménière’s without surgery. I limit the sodium in my diet. I sleep on an incline (you can imagine how popular this makes me with hotel staffs). I take anti-nausea medication. When I’m feeling really sick, I call up my mom and my six aunts and ask them to pray for me, sometimes right there on the phone.
I’ve got a magnet on my fridge that says, “Good morning, this is God. You don’t need to worry about all your problems. I will be handling them today.” That’s what I do with the terrible brain-churning, room-spinning, think-you’re-gonna-die problem of Ménière’s. If the misery is on a scale of one to 10, I’ve discovered I can still perform at a six or seven.
Doctors have asked, “How do you do it?” How do you walk onstage, let alone dance, if the ground is swaying beneath you and you think you’re going to throw up? I’ll ask, “Why me?” a hundred times. I’ll say, “This is my cross to bear.” In the end, though, I leave the whole thing in God’s hands. I just hand it over and let it go.
One of my favorite Bible stories is when Jacob wrestles with the angel. He won’t let go until he gets the angel’s blessing. “You seem so happy” people say to me, and it’s true, I’m usually upbeat. Still, staying positive takes work. It doesn’t always come easy. I get depressed, I gripe, I get into a perfectionist’s funk.
And yet I’m thankful every day. For my family, my friends, my career, my voice, even for setbacks and struggles like this nasty disease that I wish would go away. I believe in wrestling that angel to the ground until I can claim my blessing.
Like my grandma, I have lots of questions, but I’ve never doubted that God is listening to me. I know I’ll get the answers to most of my questions someday—and maybe I’ll even find out where all of my missing socks are.
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