March 3, 2009

Children, Church, and Joy

Last week, in chapel, a little boy I know was sitting across the aisle with his mother. He is about three years old and has been in worship his whole life. From his infancy, his mother has carried him in her arms to communion, held him while she sang, and encouraged him to greet people in surrounding pews. Church is a comfortable place for him.

At the worship service last week, he stood on a chair so he could see his friend preaching; he looked at the bulletin; he snuggled with his mother; and he went with her to the Table. At the end of the service, the choir sang a beautiful spiritual, music that was lively, joyful, and hopeful. And my young friend smiled and began clapping his little hand against his mother’s. Then he hopped down from his chair so he could stamp his feet with the music and dance around. It was a holy moment, filled with love and joy and a full response to the Word sung out in the chapel. Those of us who saw smiled. But we did not dance around and stamp our feet – and that was our loss.

J. Barrie Shepherd writes, in one of his Lenten reflections:

Rejoicing has long been problem for Christians of the mainstream variety. Ask us to educate, legislate, officiate, even to ameliorate, and we respond quite well; but rejoicing doesn’t seem to be our thing. Add to all this the reality of Lent – and the call [to rejoice in one of the lectionary texts] seems out of place. … Jesus was accused because he refused to suppress his clear delight in the people and things of creation. He set his life against all who turned religion into a list of crushing duties, obligations, rules that squeezed the juice from life like a steamroller crushing an orange. Why has Christ’s church since then deserted the poor orange and hopped aboard the steamroller? (A Pilgrim’s Way: Meditations for Lent and Easter, page 26-27)

Maybe it is how we think of joy – as the same as happiness. And in these troubled times, there is not a lot to be happy about, and therefore, joy must also be in short supply. But joy and happiness are not the same. Happiness floats on the surface of our lives. It is easily disturbed, even destroyed, by the storms of life, the rough seas that threaten to overwhelm us. But joy lies deep down, far beneath the surface. No matter what is happening, joy remains constant. The challenge is not to create the joy or even to “feel” it. It is only to remember that it is always there, and then to live out of that place where joy – and God – dwell.

If you were able to ask churches for a one-word description of their worship service, I wonder how many would respond with joy? And I also wonder how many of those serious steamroller churches intentionally welcome little children, teach them about worship by letting them experience it, and learn joy and spontaneity from them? Not very many, I’m afraid.

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