Updated: Jan 18
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.”
From the song Day by Day in Godspell
This song says it all!
If the Almighty is our spiritual True North and best friend – we need to remember to treat Him as such. You call your friends regularly, right? God likes that phone call, too! We need to live as if our life is a Godspell moment, inviting Him to our campfire!
It’s when I stay on track and in touch with God, clarity resumes, and peace ensues. I can feel God’s Presence better when setting aside the time, and make myself present in His life; communicating with the Almighty, and being open to His palpable, and personal visitations.
We celebrate Jesus’ Resurrection, and share the joy of Easter day by day beyond Lent. But to get there, as in our own journey in Christ, requires sacrifice.
There is no Easter without Good Friday. As such Godspell as ‘Holy Week in a musical,’ goes beyond the campfire moments, to the crucifixion. And like most people, we all tried to surreptitiously wipe away tears as we saw “Jesus’” crucified. Thankfully there’s a Resurrection scene; “Jesus” leading cast-members singing and dancing to the near iconic song “Day By Day,” before dispersing.
Have you hit a point in your life where you wonder if it is still possible to have a personal relationship with the Lord in spite of the fact He is no longer flesh, and we are? Do you need a Godspell moment?
Thankfully we don’t need to attend a musical to recapture those feelings.
We can spend time in prayer. We can listen to whatever Christian or faith based music inspires during devotion time. During these times sometimes I play the soundtrack. I find a quiet place and pray, asking God to be Present. I think back to my Godspell experience.
The musical “Godspell” has remained popular for over forty years, not just because the music is great – speak about songs that convey praise and worship! It is the imagery; being one of Jesus’ friends – hanging out with the Almighty.
Were that we could, too! Perhaps that is why Godspell and Superstar remain popular – our chance to see, hear and touch the Divine, even if just as portrayals.
Of course God knows we are tactile creatures who are still connected to the physical world, in spite of being imbued with a spiritual nature. This is precisely why God sent his Son Jesus to be within our midst, and put Him into a form we could relate; Jesus - the tangible, incarnate God.
Seeing “Jesus” looking lovingly at each follower was transformative, because though I cannot see Him, I know He looks at me the same way.
Now, 2000 years after the Resurrection, God relies upon you and me to be His representatives in the daily, mortal world – to create Godspell situations for those around us, to unburden others, caring for the sick, sharing in sorrow, and magnifying joy, to nurture, and encourage.
And, when someone looks in our eyes they see Jesus’ Love. I think that’s the power of Godspell, too; reminding what we can be if Jesus is in our heart. We can’t be God, but we can model His love, and give people Godspell moments.
At such a sacred time as Easter we expect the church – globally, and the one Tebelak attended – to convey a sense of joy at the Resurrection.
Thankfully God turns unfortunate experiences and disappointing encounters into something wonderful if we allow Him to guide us.
Tebelak went out and created a “church of the stage” and in the process allowed Godspell audiences for four decades to feel some of the joy he experienced when reading the story of Jesus, as told by the four Gospel writers. Tebelak recreated in the hearts and minds of millions of audience members a sense of the joyous in the presence of Jesus.
“Thou wilt show me the path of life: in thy presence [is] fullness of joy; at thy right hand [there are] pleasures for evermore.”
Psalms 16:11 KJV
As my sister in Christ – “SL” - put it the other day “it’s exciting what the Gospels show us.” She is right! And at this time of year especially, we turn to the Gospels, and revisit the life and teachings of Jesus. Perhaps in so doing, like Tebelak we, too, try to reclaim the exciting feeling when we first experienced Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, prayerfully inviting the powerful emotions we had from discovering the Lord in our life.
God wants a relationship with us, too. Moreover, it is in the periods between “Godspell moments” that we are reminded to appreciate our special times of Grace, and the role we can fill being available for others when they most need Christ’s Presence, and a Godspell moment, too.