For God’s Sake, Should There Be Joy in Faith?
Last evening was “Movie Night” at the church. Pastor Josh is a movie afficionado, and shows films which have possibilities for appropriate discussion. At times, this is a great bloody bore, viz., last month’s painfully turgid rendition of Wizard of Oz. (Everyone else found it enthralling. It was the newly color-enhanced, sound-enhanced version, and provided joy to all-but-one present. Me, I was in a garbage mood, and the movie didn’t have a thing to do with it. So my opinion on that movie is not worthy of much weight.) Other times, the movie is schmaltzy, which tickles my impropriety genes, and sometimes the movie is genuinely thought-prodding. Last night, the movie was Say Amen, Somebody, a 1982 documentary about Gospel music in the black churches mostly in the Midwest. It focused on a key founder and composer, Thomas A. Dorsey, and one of the most prominent singers, Willa Mae Ford Smith, both now deceased.
Gospel music is distinct and, indeed, there are many sub-genres which are vastly different from one another. There’s a bit of distance between Mahalia Jackson and The Statler Brothers, but the idea and (as nearly as I can tell) the motivation is the same: Tell the story, spread the word and experience the joy. It’s that last which has me puzzled. Take 18 church members at random, me included, and I’ll be a solid 17th in confidence that I know what’s going on and why. I must be missing something. There are times of reflection and sorrow where religion and faith and God are not happy things – the beginning of the Easter observances are the best example I can come up with in the faith world. And that’s OK, that’s a reflection of our human reality. “Life’s a bitch and then you die” is how the most cynical among us put it. I’m not sure that the faith community always disagrees with that, maybe it just builds on it. But at other times, does the focus on “proper & dignified” behavior suppress the expression of joy or, worse, suppress the formation of really pleasing and smiling and grateful feelings?
I have no formula here. I don’t know what is “proper” for the expression of a happy faith. In our tradition, rolling in the aisles speaking in tongues is definitely over-the-top. But singing with gusto even if you’re a touch off key? Laughing? Letting your heart fill with froth without feeling ashamed, is that OK?
I’ve heard it said by a few old people that it’s a “world of trash.” How stupid is it to turn our backs on opportunities to expand our essence?
Harry Shaw Didn’t Anticipate Speaking Through a Blog
I “collect” all things “Fairmont.” When I’ve a bit of extra scratch, I’ll go on eBay, enter “Fairmont,” and winnow through auto parts and references to Fairmont, Minnesota, and the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco to find Friendly City references. Some months ago, a letter came up for auction, really cheap. It was a handwritten letter from August, 1944, from Fairmont lawyer Harry Shaw to a lady with whom he was acquainted in Pennsylvania. I particularly pay attention to things regarding the Marion County Bar, so I bought the letter (I think it was $5). Things that strike me:
- Mr. Shaw makes a very casual and natural reference to God: "With your good health and good children, God has certainly been good to you, too." Sixty years later, we either strictly avoid any such reference, or make it so boldly and loudly that we’re auditioning for a guest spot on The 700 Club. (Assuming that’s still on-the-air.) This was, to Mr. Shaw, a natural part of his life.
- The latter didn’t have any urgent point. It was friendly. It said, how are you, I’m thinking of you and your family, I extend you good wishes. It doesn’t have the least hint of “I need something from you.”
- It’s handwritten. That is still a world more personal than any printed or electronic medium. I keep a couple of boxes of cards & envelopes behind my desk and have good intentions to send at least one out every day. (That means that three a week or so actually make it out.) And the best thing of all is to send them to people who can do nothing for you.