Editor's Note: This is the second installment of Presbyterian pastor Mark Sandlin's blog series "Church No More," chronicling his three-month sabbatical from church-going. Follow the links below to read his previous installments, beginning in June.
I lost my joy.
I suspect there are a few of you who feel the same way. Not that you aren't happy, but there is this deep place of celebratory joy which you once knew that really doesn't come around much anymore.
There was a time when I was a pretty joyful guy. Not “blind to the world's problems” kind of joyful, just “blessed to be blessed in the midst of this mess” kind of joyful. Lately though, I've found joy to be an increasingly difficult thing to come by.
The thing is, I have every reason to be joyful. I'm lucky enough to be married to an amazing woman — truly amazing. I couldn't be prouder of my kids who, in an age of “be different just like us” are very much their own kind of different simply because they aren't afraid of being themselves. My personal interests, like my blog, just keep getting better. I have some of the best friends in the world. Yet, I'm not the generally joyful person I once was.
It's a dull malaise that I just can't quite shake. I don't like it. Not one bit.
Recently though, I've been catching little glimpses of my joy making cameo appearances in the storyline of my life. I like it. A lot.
The question is, why now? Why not back then?
I can't say that I have the complete answer yet, but I am beginning to have some insights to it. The first glimpse happened at the Wild Goose Festival in Shakori Hills, NC. Frankly, given the setting, I did not believe for one moment that it was where I'd start sorting out my joy.
It was on a piece of tick-infested farm land with temperatures and relative humidity in the nineties. I'd gathered with a bunch of strangers under an oversized, white tent that was purportedly meant to provide a venue for musicians and speakers to present their gifts, but it seemed to be equally adept at trapping the heat and humidity pouring off of all those gathered. Joyful, right? Admittedly, I wasn't so certain.
I was there to see David Wimbish and the Collection. In their own words they “play music that sounds a little like a train-hopping vagabond tripped over a drum-set and fell into the orchestra pit. Their live show feels a mix between Charlie Brown’s band and a live game of Tetris, but in some kind of wild multiplayer mode where everyone can participate in whatever way they’d like.” Having now seen them, I concur. They are sort of like Mumford and Sons to the fourth power being forced to play random instruments. You know — really, unusually good.
The concert started with an empty stage. The guy two seats over from me starts in on his mandolin. (Why I didn't notice that the guy two seats over from me had a mandolin is beyond me — lets chalk it up to the dull malaise). The next thing I know folks scattered throughout the crowd are standing up and singing as they make their way toward the stage. It was like we, the crowd, were the band. Little did I know how important that was.
Let's cut to half-way into the show. The Collection was good — ridiculously good and they had more energy that a five year old on a sugar high. Lead singer and primary composer David Wimbish was singing/wailing lyrics like, “I think God's eyes must be the rainbow. Somehow, when he looks at me he thinks that I am pretty,” that just hit you right between the eyes and take your soul to a place it can just barely remember. And when he goes falsetto/upper range? I'm convinced it's as close to flying as I'm going to get with my feet in the dirt.
There is a good-natured mosh pit of bouncing twenty-ish somethings with a few of we more stately folks mixed in physically expressing their appreciation for the music and the show. But it is more than that. They are free. Maybe it would be more descriptive to say their souls were freer than I'd managed to let mine be. Either they were already there or the music was giving them permission. Either way, it was beautiful.
So, with a mesmerized smile on my face and in my eyes, I sat at my table in the middle of that oversized, white tent watching this celebration of life break out. And that's when my joy remembered who it was and made a brief, but (not surprisingly) joyful appearance.
It is more than difficult to describe what it felt like, but I do think it is ultimately related to why they call the gathering the Wild Goose Festival. There's something very natural, common and every day about it and at the same time it soars.
Have you ever lost your car keys and did that less-than-clever little exercise of going back to the last time you remember having them as a way to figure out where you lost them? Well, after being reintroduced to my joy (not everyday pleasure, but spiritual joy), I did that with my joy. I decided to figure out where I lost my joy.
Here's the thing folks, while there were certainly lots of contributing factors, I think I lost it in church. All the rules and regulations (formal and informal); the right way and the wrong way to worship, sing, dress, act; the constant judging and gossiping; the hypocrisy of spending massive amounts of money on keeping the church running rather than on keeping folks off the street; the justifying of excluding certain people all in the name of a loving God – well, all that stuff, it took my joy. Maybe all that stuff just overwhelmed it. Either way, the church stole my joy.
The rest of my time at the Wild Goose gave me more sightings of my joy and, since then, I've been slowly nurturing the little guy back to health. This time I plan to keep a little closer eye on it and I'm not willing to lose it again. So, something has got to give. I'm already thinking about what The Church That Doesn't Steal Your Joy will look like.
In many ways, I think I saw it in that oversized, white tent in the tick-infested fields of Shakori Hills, NC as the band rose up from the midst of the crowd and pulled us to the stage with them. As we danced and sang together, without judgment about each other and lost for the moment in the joy of the moment, with help and encouragement from The Collection — we were the band. We were the joy-makers.
Mark Sandlin currently serves as the minister at Vandalia Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, NC. He received his M. Div. from Wake Forest University's School of Divinity and has undergraduate degrees in Business Administration and English with a minor in Computer Science. He's an ordained minister in the PC(USA) and a self-described progressive.
Image: Man walking away, by igor.stevanovic/Shutterstock.