There is a tale told of a missionary in a dark corner of Africa where the men had a habit of filing their teath to sharp points. He was hard at work trying to convert a native chief. Now the chief was very old, and the missionary was very Old Testament – his version of Christianity leaned heavily on thou-shalt-nots. The chief listened patiently.
“I do not understand,” he said at last. “You tell me that I must not take my neighbor’s wife.”
“That’s right,” said the missionary.
“Or his ivory or his oxen.”
“And I must not dance the war dance and then ambush him on the trail and kill him.”
“But I cannot do any of these things!” said the chief respectfully. “I am too old. To be old and to be Christian, they are the same thing!”
Not a very funny story, perhaps; there is too bitter a point in the laugh. For, if all the truth were told, how many of us in our hearts, share the chief’s confusion?
How many thousands picture Christianity as something old, sapless, joyless, mumbling in the chimney corner and casting sour looks at the young people’s fun? How many think of religion as the enemy of life and the flesh and the pleasures of the flesh; a foe to all love and all delight? How many unconsciously conceive of God as rather like that famous lady who said, “Find out what the baby’s doing and make him stop”?
That is, how many of us both inside the Church and out have reduced the good news out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shalt-nots?
We are in danger of forgetting that God is not only a comfort but a joy. He is the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him. Otherwise our Christianity is no better than [the chief’s impression of it].
God is "the source of all pleasure; he is fun and laughter, and we are meant to enjoy him." Or as the Westminster Shorter Catechism I learned as a youth puts it:
Q. 1. What is the chief end of man?
A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
Our hope as Christians is that it all ends in joy. But, too often we come across as insecure, cramped moralists, and political scolds. There are "conservative" and "liberal" versions of this rather joyless presentation. But, the Good News we have received is "of a great joy which will come to all people." And our Lord's message was given that "my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full".
We are meant to be agents of that joy in the world around us. The mission of the Church is to live in expectation of, and enact in anticipation of, the joy of God's kingdom. Our mission is to smuggle some of that joy into a world that is often rather joyless. Here are two videos that might serve as metaphors for the Church in mission.
What if Christians acted in the world such that those who heard our words and witnessed our behavior looked on with the surprise, wonderment, and joy of the onlookers in these videos? Jesus came singing the song and dancing the steps of the joy of the kingdom of God. He gave us his Holy Spirit to choreogragh and direct our efforts. When we act as peacemakers, offer forgiveness and mercy, when we seek reconciliation, offer a word of kindness and understanding, speak the truth in love, serve the poor or work for justice, create beauty, etc. we are anticipating the joy of God's kingdom. Everytime we make a defense of the hope that is in us with reverence and gentleness or tell others about the joy we know in Jesus we are bearing witness to the Good News.
That doesn't mean we should live in "blissed out" denial of the difficult realities of our lives and those of others. Nor does it mean that we never ask difficult or awkward questions, that we do not persist in resisting evil or renouncing the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. But, even then, if it is not clear that our words and actions are born of and lead to joy, we will appear to those around us like the missionary appears in Joy Davidman's story and risk reducing the Good News out of Nazareth to a list of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. If God is indeed the source of all pleasure; if he is fun and laughter, and if we are meant to enjoy him; should we not be first and foremost, smugglers of that joy into the world around us?