Step by Step Journey: Writings of Richard Dahlstrom - because there's always a next step

“Godspell” – Musings on the power of Art in God’s World

Godspell_Ext_emailbannerI saw Taproot Theatre’s spectacular version of Godspell last night and wept through a couple of the songs because they took me back to the two  darkest years of my life, and remembrances of my first encounter with Stephen Schwartz’ inspired musical.  Back then, lonely, unhealthy, uncertain of the future, one song in particular stood out, and when I heard it last night I closed my eyes and was transported back in time…
I’m 19 and a good friend had landed the part of Jesus in Godspell, so he invites me to see him on opening night.  It’s been two years since my dad has died, and this winter of my 19th year is the winter of my discontent.  I’m lonely, because high school’s over and my cadre of friends have scattered.  My future’s radically uncertain as I’ve applied for admittance to architecture school, but only one in six students will get in.  Since my self confidence is in the toilet, I’m certain I won’t be accepted and there’s no plan B.  The stress of living at home, a choice a made to help walk through my mom’s grief with her, is taking it’s toll.  All of these elements together have conspired to make my unhappy, unhealthy, and uncertain about this God I grew up learning I was supposed to love and obey.  “For what reason?” was the question I’d asked countless times in that dark era… “so that God can kill my dad?”  I’d heard sermons about rejoicing and giving thanks, but lately they’d pretty much bounced off of me as pious nonsense – good for little kids maybe, but not for the real world.
And then the music of Godspell begins.  There’s something about the masterful interplay of text and music that draws me in, so that by the time she sings the “Day by Day” prayer, I’m not only humming along, I’m wishing I had the courage to pray that very prayer.  “What would it be like” I remember thinking, “to love God in a real way?”  When the song ended, I began to see the possibility of loving God because the Jesus on the stage was lovable, mostly because he loves.  The text between the songs was almost wholly drawn from the words of Jesus himself in the gospels, and yet the words took on new life, became almost believable, in spite of my doubts, fears, unhappiness.
Then it happened.  With a guitar and a recorder, as setup, a man sings a thanksgiving song called All Good Gifts.
We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
He sends us snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above.
So thank the Lord, O, thank the Lord for all his love.
[CHORUS]
We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life our health our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts,
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts.
[ALL]
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
So thank the Lord, thank the Lord for all his love..
I really wanna thank you Lord!
All good gifts around us
Are sent from Heaven above..
Then thank the Lord, oh thank the Lord for all his love..
Oh thank the Lord…….
By the end of the song, back in 1975, I’m in tears, struck as no sermon had ever struck me, nor Bible study, nor Young Life talk, nor words at any funeral, party, or dinner conversation, that God is good because God is the source of all that IS good.  With eyes closed, I’d see the snows of my nearby Yosemite, the ripe fruits of my central California Valley, the rich bounty of harvests in my little corner of the world.  And more.  I recalled the bounty of friendships.  The joy of the family into which I’d been adopted.  The reality that God had, in spite of my dad’s death, taken a rather inauspicious beginning and, like a grain of wheat, turned it into something good.  “Yes it’s winter.  Yes there are things I don’t understand.  Yes, when this musical ends, there’s still no plan B”  But in spite of it all, I found myself recalling previous blessings and singing along, “I really wanna thank you Lord”  because I really did want to back then in Fresno, 1975, in my emptiness and frustration.
The song ended.  I dried my tears, which flowed again with the lyrics of Psalm 137 about weeping by the rivers of Babylon.  I knew my Bible well enough to understand that this song was a reminder:  There are lots of things in life that you don’t really love and appreciate until they’re gone.  And of course, in that moment, that was my dad, who was there for me in sport, in challenging me to rise to my best effort in study, in exemplifying teaching and gentle leadership, and in exemplary suffering.  I don’t think I valued any of it deeply until he was gone, and by then it was too late.  During the song, Jesus is saying good bye, knowing what’s coming.  His disciples?  Clueless like the rest of us, until darkness covers the earth.
IMG_9132And then hope.  “Long Live God!”  Only last night, August 20, 2015, did I realize that I left the theater a changed young man in the winter of 1975.  I’m reminded of Jacob in Genesis 28, on the run from his brother; alone; afraid; sleeping in the desert.  It’s there that God meets him and gives him a boatload of promises, causing Jacob to say, “Surely the Lord was in the place and I didn’t even know it.”
Surely indeed.  The Lord was in a tiny theater in Fresno in 1975, and seeds were planted then that would germinate a year later while studying architecture.  By the fall of ’76 I’d change majors, change schools, and change states.  Little did I know that as a music major back then, I’d be playing percussion for a Seattle Pacific University musical about John Wesley called “Ride Ride” starring none other than Scott Nolte, who founded  Taproot Theatre Company with his wife Pam, both of whom are now some of my closest friends.
That’s why I wrote, during intermission last night, that Taproot had become a worship service for me, as I celebrated God’s relentless faithfulness in my life.  Seeds were no doubt planted last night that will sprout in a new generation.
And yes, “I really wanna thank the Lord”
 (tickets are still available for Saturday’s 2PM showing.  Worth.  Every.  Minute.)

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