Dr. R.B. McFee
“I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”
Can you remember the joy you experienced when Jesus first became real to you? When you went from ‘knowing about’ to ‘personally knowing’ the Lord? It was an experience I never wanted to end; I felt so at peace that I wanted time to stand still. It transported me to another dimension as I felt God’s Presence personally. And, if you’re like me, you want to reclaim that experience every day.
Especially at Lent we hope for heightened spiritual experiences with Jesus, yet sometimes struggle with the journey, the message of forgiveness, the love His Cross reveals, and the reminder sacrifice is expected of us when we commit to the Lord.
Moreover, if ever we needed such experiences, especially this Easter, in the midst of a pandemic, it is now. But then I suspect God’s children have always lived in times where we need to feel and celebrate His Presence.
Let me share a memory of an experience that helped me reclaim those powerful ‘Presence of Jesus moments.’ Perhaps it can help you recapture your ‘meet Jesus moment,’ too. Come take a ride with me….
Several years ago, just before Easter, dining at a favored hangout, I discovered there was a local performance of Godspell. Reminiscing about seeing it on Broadway, happy memories filled my head like sugarplums; I had to see it again! Amazingly I purchased the last ticket for the last performance. A God-wink for sure!
Taking my seat, looking at the set, waiting in anticipation for “John the Baptist” to introduce “Jesus” reminded me Jesus’ presence was now a part of my life.
In case you may be unfamiliar with Godspell, let me share a bit of background….
Godspell the Musical was conceived by John Michael Tebelak while he was in graduate school. Based upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, Godspell is a celebration of the life and times of Jesus, imagining what it must have been like hanging out with the Son of God as contemporary mortals, and friends.
Godspell is the Gospels set in contemporary society, opening with John the Baptist calling a group of young urbanites from their daily lives to follow Jesus. They become a sort of acting troupe that performs the parables using songs, dance, comedy, and pantomime. Jesus' ministry ends with a last supper, his Crucifixion in a junkyard, and, the following morning, his body being carried by the Disciples into the world.
Although some may think the setting a radical departure from Scripture, one could argue there is real beauty placing Christ where we could relate to Him. After all, wasn’t that God’s purpose in allowing His Son to be born among humans, as a human?
For me, and I suspect the millions of people who have experienced it, Godspell gives flight to our inner desires to have known Jesus, and what it must have been like to travel with, and learn from this remarkable man. Seeing Jesus in a contemporary setting reminds me He is in our midst, too.
Godspell makes Jesus more accessible, relatable, dare I suggest more human, and in the process, even more remarkable for the sacrifices and miracles He did.
The soundtrack provides songs that are celebratory, poignant, and powerful. Perhaps that is why several of us performed a few at CCUMC Sunday service a few years ago, to share the blessings we found in them.
But as important as describing what the musical is, and the celebration of Jesus’ life that Godspell conveys, I think for Christians, and people of faith, it is the back story, and how it came about that may provide insights to help renew the sense of celebration in our Savior that we all seek.
John Michael Tebelak was interviewed in Dramatics Magazine (January 1975), just a few years after Godspell debuted.
Question: How did Godspell come to be?
JM Tebelak “Finally, I turned toward the Gospels and sat one afternoon and read the whole thing through. Afterwards, I became terribly excited because I found what I wanted to portray on stage. I wanted to convey joy! I found a great joy, a simplicity—some rather comforting words in the Gospel itself—in these four books. I began immediately to adapt it. I decided to go to Easter sunrise service to experience, again, the story that I had gotten from the Gospel.
As I went, it began to snow which is rather strange for Easter. When I went into the cathedral, everyone there was sitting, grumbling about the snow, and the fact that they had already changed their tires. They weren't going to be able to take pictures that afternoon. Snow was upsetting their plans. As the service began, I thought it might be a little different. Instead, an old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left. Instead of "healing" the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb. They had refused to let Him come out that day.”
Tebelak continues. “….I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the Gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and recreate the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service. I went to my teachers at Carnegie and asked if I could work at my own special project for my masters' degree, and they agreed. That following fall, in October, we began rehearsals at Carnegie.”
And the rest, they say, is “history!” Godspell took the theatre world by storm. It was an inspiring time. Jesus was making a come-back in contemporary society – well at least in the minds of young people, as Godspell and Jesus Christ Super Star came on the scene.
Godspell is a joyous, powerful, and, dare I suggest, transformative experience, which is why, over forty years later, it continues to be performed across the country in musical theatre, college and high school productions, and church plays.
“You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!”
Watching Godspell reminds us of that reality.
Throughout the play, watching the actor portray our loving Lord, I imagined what it might be like to sit by the fire with Jesus, having His friendship, His wisdom readily available to me in a very personal, human, tangible way. And then I realized – He is…..
“Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen.”
Matthew 28:20 KJV
Sometimes He reminds us of this with the gift of actually feeling His Presence in near mortal fashion, as I did once again that night.
That sense of His Presence can also happen when we devote the time to Him, to have deeper conversation. Often God will provide a sound, an aroma, a sight that warms us, as a form of hug, and acknowledging we matter to Him.
I wonder how often God wonders, does He matter to us?
“Day by day – oh dear Lord three things I pray…to see Thee more clearly, love Thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”