One of the books I’ve been reading lately is Gary Shockley’s The Meandering Way: Leading by Following the Spirit. In it the author looks at some of the challenges facing the church today and suggests some ways we might need to change to address those challenges. At one point, Shockley writes:
“Many people in our society still picture the church as a time machine that warps everyone back to the 1950s with a predictable worship style – somber-looking people all facing forward, droning on in monotone voices, and having little tolerance for expressions of spontaneity or joy… I have come to believe that thriving congregations in this century will ultimately be the ones that focus on becoming authentic faith communities that genuinely care for others, are graceful and unconditionally loving of people from all walks of life, see themselves as living laboratories for discovering new ways of doing ministry, and are characterized by uncommon joy.”
I am thrilled to be able to say that this second kind of church – the thriving congregation full of uncommon joy – is what I experience here at First Church. Life here is never dull…in large part because we help each other allow for the spontaneous, the surprising, the delight-full experiences of God’s gracious presence.
It is interesting how often visitors are surprised by this sense of open expectancy, and how newcomers react to the possibilities of unconditional love and authentic faith. For some it can be scary to enter into a community where individuals are encouraged to think about their faith and to share their spirituality without worry about conforming to one particular norm. For others, it is like finally finding a breath of fresh air!
So while we are not yet perfect (and never will be); while we still have many challenges and much work to do as a congregation… we can have high hopes. Because we are a community characterized by uncommon joy. So it might be good to remind ourselves of these words by Mary Oliver (one of my favorite poets):
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate.
Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns
destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something
happens better than all the riches or power in the world.
It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in
the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.