Get me to the church on time

Does being religious demand seriousness, solemnity and no jokes?

This is the impression I get whenever I attend a place of worship or a gathering of worshippers. Since my experience has predominantly been that of the Christian church, I will refer to that more frequently than to other places of worship.

It appears to me that there is almost an expectation that the congregation in a church should be of a solemn disposition. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact it should be so, given the reverence with which we approach our worship. My problem is that this solemnity is taken to an extreme when natural tendencies of humans are subjugated. What this does is to give the impression that any expression of joy and laughter are frowned upon as not befitting the presence of our Lord. What we forget is that joy and laughter are indeed what we have been blessed with through our creation by the Lord.

I remember the time in my youth, when I used to attend church. My friend Dennis and I would sit together towards the back of the church. Isn’t that what Anglicans do anyway?

Now Dennis is an extremely funny person. I mean he has a great sense of humour and it is infectious. His comments on whatever was going on at that particular moment in time, invariably tickled my funny bones. It was a battle and a half, trying to contain my expression of it. In other words, I could barely hold back the laughter that would spontaneously erupt from me. My sniggering, which sounded extremely loud in the quiet confines of a church full of pious worshippers, was not appreciated. Rightly so. After all, who wants to be disturbed in their devotions by two silly uncontrolled youth who didn’t appear to have any regard and respect for the Lord?

Yet it was not a lack of respect for the Lord on our part. It was just happiness that was given to us by our Lord. If however our entire time in church was filled with uncontrolled sniggering, that would be a problem. But sporadic interruptions with expressions of joy I think should be welcome. Just as much as the sound of children’s laughter and playfulness, though sometimes disturbing, especially in the middle of a sermon, need to be enjoyed. In fact, such a diversion should be welcome if it does arrive, particularly in the middle of a boring delivery of a sermon. For it is never the subject of a sermon that is boring, but the delivery of it.

Our current disposition, has in fact led people away from church rather than drawing them closer. To some degree, the charismatic forms of service at some of the newer churches have tried to address this drawback. But I still find the tunes to be ‘less than joyful’. While they have tried to jazz things up, the only new thing appears to be the clapping.

My mind is frequently drawn to something Bill Cosby (that comedian who was much loved some years ago and is not so loved now) said as part of one of his shows.

When you look at people entering an ice cream parlour, there is generally a smile on their faces. There is an expectancy of joy that is evident in the way they talk and the way they walk. Their cares are far behind them and that cool sweet foretaste of the special flavour of ice cream is all that matters. Children may be skipping their way in whilst the adults are indulgent of their children’s misdemeanours and they themselves are looking forward to tasteful happiness in the immediate future.

On the other hand, if you look at people entering and exiting a health food shop. I am yet to see children skipping their way in. In fact, I hardly see children entering one of them. The adults go in as though they are afraid of being caught in the act of entering such an establishment. There is a solemnity inside that is stifling and even the helpers in these shops are serious when they extol the benefits of this pill or that powder. There is sombreness in the way your bill is handed over to you, along with the reverently packaged goods of pills and powders and roots. People exit these shops with a look that seems to say, ‘I’m trying to be healthier than you. But I’m not really looking forward to taking this stuff in this package!’

So what is the point?

People are happy when their expectations are of satisfaction rather than undertaking a turn of duty. That is to say that if people go to church because they feel it is their duty to do so, they become much like the customer in the health food shop. Alternatively, if they go to church with an expectation of experiencing joy and peace of mind and camaraderie and laughter in the presence of our Lord, then they become more like those skipping their way into the ice cream parlour.

Surely therefore, if we believe that being gathered together in the presence of our Lord is an experience to be savoured and enjoyed, then it is up to us to create that environment in the church.

Picture this.

As you approach the doors of the church, you hear the organ playing “Get me to the church on time.” You smile because you recognise the tune and it brings happy memories of a very enjoyable feel good film. The rhythm of the song gets into you. Your head starts nodding and your body starts bobbing, as you sway your way into your pew seat. You smile and greet your seat neighbour, who smiles whilst also nodding and bobbing. You strike up a conversation with your nodding and bobbing neighbour and say something like, “Isn’t this wonderful? It makes me feel so alive.” Your neighbour smiles and acknowledges saying, “Yes, it’s a refreshing change to listening to some doleful music. I love it.”

The mood is set and the church bells ring. There is a moment of silence. The organ, with all stops open introduces the hymn, “Stand up, stand up for Jesus.” The choir is full of voice and leads the rendition. The congregation is feeling good and joins in the singing with gusto. The church is filled with praises to God. That would surely get His ear. 3 verses, 4 verses and the congregation is awake and full of energy.

The priest reaches the altar, turns around to the congregation, raises his arms and proclaims, “Jesus is risen.” The congregation bellows, “He is risen indeed.” The service is up and running. The people are in the ice cream parlour.

God is happy because we are happy. The stage is set for a period of wholesome worship.

So what is it to be?

Joyful expectancy in being gathered together to worship our Lord or the meek attendance at church, to satisfy a sense of duty?

The choice is ours.