“Gethsemane” has always been my favorite song from “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In fact, I’d have to say it ranks as one of my top ten favorite all-time songs, period. Today is pretty much the day of the year to remember it. No better time than Maundy Thursday.
I first encountered the song, and JCS, as a college student at UT Austin. It was already dated then. The film was already a decade old then. But Austin was still pretty hippy-dippy, even in the mid-80s, and there was something about it that didn’t seem too anachronistic to me.
This first love for Gethsemane came right at the time when I was struggled with a “call to ministry.” I’d take long walks, late at night, around the UT Austin campus. Thinking. Meditating. Praying. And, truth be told, considering what it might be like to go to seminary and become a minister.
That still seemed like one of the strangest things anyone could do with their lives. Besides a few people like Ben Marshall, John Odgen, and Gary Mueller (Yes. Bishop Mueller, now) It felt like I didn’t really know any clergy.
Looking back, I realize now that I knew far more than the average person did. John and Gary, I saw from afar…across the large congregation at FUMC, Richardson growing up. Ben, I knew much better. Ben was a minister, but he was also a person.
He seemed comfortable in his skin. He not only led Bible studies with us, but he helped us change the spark plugs in our cars. (Who does that?!). He was a holy man. But he was a human-man too.
As I got to college and considered a “call,” it was clear to me that if I was going to do this ministry gig, it would have to be some sense of both the divine and the human. Too many Jesus-followers, it seemed to me then (and now) have, as Judas says in the film “too much heaven on their mind.”
“Gethsemane” was a part of that interior conversation. Because the Jesus in Gethsemane? That was a Jesus I could believe in. He was the kind of guy that might help you change the plugs in your car.
He was brutally and honestly human in ways it seemed the Church rarely talked about. He was angry with God. Angry!
Who got angry with God? Well, now I know that several key stories in the Bible feature characters who are angry with God, and express it openly. Now I know that Jesus was, indeed, far much more human and far much more complex than the Sunday School Jesus of the culture.
This Jesus also seemed like he had choice. It seemed like he had real free will. But, hours before his arrest, by that point he realized what the final outcome would be. That also squared with my theology too.
But the human Jesus in Gethsemane? The one willing to admit his fear, doubt, and anger? That was new for me as I first encountered the song. And it became crucial to my faith.
Far too seldom in the Church, do we really allow people to express their feelings of doubt, fear, and anger… even though these things are a part of faith.
Perhaps if we were able (as clergy) to admit our doubts, fears, vulnerabilities, people would be more attracted to Church? I know that’s how it worked for me. The “too much heaven on their mind” believers give me the heebie-jeebies, even today. If Jesus was truly divine, truly human, we’ve got to not give the human the short stick.
So, in a much less dramatic way that the film, I would walk around the UT Campus, praying the kinds of things Jesus prays in Gethsemane.
What I am supposed to DO with my life?
Ministry? Is that it?
The final lines of the song, the swell to the finish, always bring tears to my eyes.
“Take me now, before I change my mind…”
Such a strange thing, to study God. To devote your life to the Church. Even now, into my third decade of doing this gig, if you sit back and think about it for too long, it seems patently absurd.
That I could say anything of value about the Reality of Reality. That my mere human words could possibly describe the infinite and indescribable being of God. The audacity of it. Not because it’s a sham or fraud. But because it’s more real than anything else. But completely impossible to do with anything close to what the Creator of the Universe deserves.
As Karl Barth said, “Everything we say about God is a lie.”
And that dude said a lot of words about God.
Even so, do it anyway.
We use our frail, human words. We use our few years of training. We use what natural gifts and talents we seem to have been given. We gird our loins and we step into the pulpit, the classroom, the ICU suite, the office. Somehow, having the audacity to believe we have something do say to folks about God….and that it will be enough.
All the while, like Jesus in Gethsemane, we pray that we might have some sign, some assurance, that it will all be worthwhile, that it will not be forgotten. That we will not be forgotten. We have our inner doubts, torments, failures, that we get to express to far to few people.
So, all this rattles around in my head every year during this week. And every year, on Maundy Thursday, I pull out “Gethsemane” and play it again. I sing along…I pray along with the words.
Along with praying the “Wesleyan Covenant Prayer” every year at New Years, it’s become a very personal, annual ritual of renewal for me. A way to “reup” my own commitment.
Yesterday, I played it in the car, coming back from a Memorial Service for a 60-year friend of my Dad’s. Dad did a part of the “remembrance” so I went to the service, mostly to support him.
The worship service left me reflective on how he’s getting older How I’m getting older. How all of that sucks, really. So I was being reflective on the passage of time, and the literal passage of so many soul-mentors, and I was a feeling my age.
Then, these lines came on:
“Then, I was inspired…
Now, I’m sad and tired…”
I burst into tears. I’ve never had quite that reaction before. After twenty-plus years, I was no longer just singing those lines, I was living them. I was no longer the young man, struggling with a call. I was the middle-aged man, who’s lived it, felt the weight of it, the reality of its pains and losses.
Stay in this gig long enough, and not only will it bring you great joy, but now and then it will also break your heart too.
And yet, we follow the one who says “Not my will, but thine be done.”
And also, “thy will is hard…but you hold every card.”
And we hope and trust that Easter comes soon, bringing renewal and New Life to us all.