Today, as a parent of two children, I can appreciate the calm restraint my teacher exhibited in that unremarkable moment; calm and restraint I am not certain I would have been able to manage had I been standing in her shoes. She looked at me with a beaming smile and said, calmly, "Thank you, Jonathan. Next time, don't be so joyful."
With her words, I felt my heart at the same time pierced and freed to leave the chains of self-pity and the judgment of my peers. I felt my heart return to me. Of course, she was right but, more than that, I was real again. I lifted my head, matched her smile, and told her I would be happy to do it.
I tell this story because I find myself wondering if showing up without joy isn't killing the Church. How is it possible to share in the life of the risen Jesus - even at a church finance meeting or a lawn clean-upday - without joy? Why are we here, without joy?
For sure, there's always the temptation to fake a plastic happiness. That's not what I'm talking about or hoping for. Christians need (and have received) the freedom to be real with one another. But we are told Christians gather in response to the call of the One who came to give abundant life. The joy of abundant life is far richer than plastic smiles.
I listen to a lot of sermons, and one of my favorite preachers is the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, of North Carolina. Recently, he's made a habit of telling the flock of whatever church he's visiting on a given Sunday what a joy it is to be with them. And then, he adds, "I hope you're glad to be here, too. Go on: turn and tell a neighbor, 'I'm glad to be here.'"
Turn and tell a neighbor, "I'm glad to be here."
But maybe we're not. And that's the rub, isn't it? On a given Sunday, each of us is there for any number of reasons ranging from habit to guilt and resentment to shame to earnest seeking to a friend's invitation to dumb luck. And some of these reasons have been engrained in folks by the Church for so long - I'm looking at you, guilt, shame, and resentment - that it will take the Church's vocal permission to excuse them from the room.
That's why my hope for the Church - universal and local - is that the Church gives you permission to leave. Because showing up without joy is killing the Church. Because you don't have to know why you're there or why it's important - you don't have to agree with everything that's said in that place - but you should find joy there, even if it's richer than happiness and doesn't look like the plastic cliche. You should find life here. You should be able to turn and tell a neighbor without crossing your fingers - on some, basic level - "I'm glad to be here."
So I hope the Church gives you permission to leave here because what I hope more than anything is that the Church gives you permission to fall in love deeply.
I was interviewing for a position once and the interview team asked me, "Show us that you understand that the life of faith is not just a head thing, but a real, nitty-gritty, shaping-your-life thing." And I said, "Do you think I wear this clergy shirt for fun? I'm betting my life on the claims God makes on his people. I'm all in. I'm in love."
I want the Church to give you permission to fall in love with the living God and to live lives that look silly apart from the joy of Jesus. By silly, I mean, being glad-to-be-here silly. I mean reordering-your-life silly. I mean opening-your-future silly.
As a priest, I am betting my life not just on the God that makes claims on our lives but also on the presence of this God in the Episcopal Church. Now that's silly! By that, I don't mean that God is an Episcopalian, but that I have met the living God richly in this tradition of Word and Sacrament and holy friendships. I have wrestled with God in the space of this tradition, and the wrestling has left me walking with a limp I wouldn't trade for anything. The work I share with the students at St. Francis House and the university community here in Madison is the work of living joy.
The Church - God's holy people - is about living joy. I pray you find friends and Christ-centered community who help you live your joy with God.