“We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We write this to make our joy complete.” (1 John 1:3-4)
I took a trip to Uganda this summer that jarred me in all the right ways.
In a little farming village just outside Namayemba, Mama Fayce, a vibrant woman in her 70s, welcomed us into her home; honored guests for the Sunday afternoon feast.
Sunday – the entire day – is an event of massive importance for the believers of Namayemba. The day kicks off with the doors of the church swinging wide at 9 am as the worshipers gather from the surrounding villages.
Our group arrived just after it began. We walked into a handful of folks, thirty or forty maybe, edging their way into the Presence, singing and dancing and throwing the doors of their hearts open to the mystery of God-with-us.
As the minutes and then the hours ticked by, I was astonished to see that not only had not a single person left; more in fact had gathered. Communal strength was rising. As 9 o’clock rolled into 10 and then 11, the building swelled to capacity – one hundred and fifty worshipers packed densely into this church built of mud and steel and love.
For three and a half hours, inside its walls, we ate and drank joy.
The Ugandan believers, at least as I experienced them, are a happy people. Which is astounding, considering their circumstances. Corruption in government, a broken national infrastructure, and widespread crime and poverty make life in places like Namayemba a daily struggle for survival.
And yet they are happy. Very happy.
Multiple choirs and dance troops graced the stage that morning, lifting high the Name, rejoicing in the warm light of God’s love, spinning and stomping about like children (and many of them were), as though they didn’t have a care in the world.
At one point a member of the troop jumped down off the platform and grabbed the arm of a “muzungu” (white person) – my arm – and brought me up on the stage to join the celebration. I felt awkward and foolish and very white as my hips and legs struggled to catch the rhythm…
…and then finally euphoric, as I eventually got out of my own head and allowed the music to course through my body in a surge of Spirit, carrying me away on an ebb-tide of joy.
I left the service wondering, what is it about these Ugandan believers?
We went from there to Mama Fayce’s feast – typical (and delicious!) Ugandan fare: rice, noodles, mashed plantains, and stewed meat cooked in pots outdoors over open flame, all of it seasoned to perfection. It was unbelievably tasty. As several dozen of us – Americans and Ugandans – loaded our plates and sat outside in the hot sun eating and drinking, telling stories, hugging Mama Fayce, and laughing and playing with her grandkids, I think I saw it.
The poet Mary Oliver, ever-insightful, writes:
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy, don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty of lives and whole towns destroyed or about to be. We are not wise, and not very often kind. And much can never be redeemed. Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this is its way of fighting back, that sometimes something happens better than all the riches or power in the world. It could be anything, but very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case. Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.1
I am struck by this line of Oliver’s: “…very likely you notice it in the instant when love begins.”
That is because love and joy are bedfellows. Or better – two sides of the same coin. No, no – better still: joy is the fruit of love as love is the root of joy. You cannot have joy without love. And you cannot have love without relationship, for there is no such thing as love in the abstract. Love implies one who loves and one that is loved, the beloved.
And therefore you cannot have joy without relationship. And the richer the relationship, the more robust the joy.
I’ve been reflecting on this, I think, in one way or another, for most of my adult life. The Bible tells us that these things are so – the fruit of the Spirit, after all, is first of all love, then joy, and then all the other good things (Galatians 5:22-23). And our theology teaches us that God – the eternally joyful being that he is – is so precisely because he is none other than a community of loving relations…God and God and God again; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who exist in an unbroken and extravagantly happy relationship. Ergo, according to John (in the passage quoted above), when we enter into fellowship with one another and with the thrice-happy God, we also become happy. We have joy.
And now neuroscientists and sociologists are adding their voices to the biblical chorus. Study after study shows that our brains and bodies are literally wired for integration with “others” – that apart from a network of loving, joyful relationships, we are shells of ourselves. Our minds will not function as they ought. Our bodies will crumble.
But inside such relationships, we thrive.
Love and joy are bedfellows. Or better – two sides of the same coin. No, no – better still: joy is the fruit of love as love is the root of joy. You cannot have joy without love. (1/3) Click To Tweet And you cannot have love without relationship, for there is no such thing as love in the abstract. Love implies one who loves and one that is loved, the beloved. And therefore you cannot have joy without relationship. (2/3) Click To Tweet And the richer the relationship, the more robust the joy. When we enter into fellowship with one another and with the thrice-happy God, we also become happy. We have joy. (3/3) Click To Tweet
The Ugandan believers model this. And after a week with them, I must say, I felt embarrassed – deeply embarrassed.
Embarrassed at our way of life here in the U.S.
Embarrassed at how paltry our version of “church” is compared to theirs.
Embarrassed that I ever said relationships were my first priority when I clearly had very little idea what I was talking about.
It occurred to me while I was with my Ugandan friends: in America – whether we are believers or not – we tend to move at the speed of our ambitions. And our ambitions are very great. And so we are wealthy and accomplished and drive nice cars and live in big (mostly vacant) houses; and we are also stressed and chronically anxious and deeply depressed without so much as even a vague sense of why that might be. We are terrified even to ask this question, so that instead of getting down to real, deep structural reasons for our warped and diminished psychological state, we medicate with alcohol and drugs and sex and plastic surgery and more ambition and shopping and wanderlust.
But that is not our only option. We do not have to move at the speed of our ambitions. We can, if we choose, move at the speed of relationship.
Which is the speed of love.
Which is the speed of joy.
Which is not fast at all.
I am wondering these days what it might look like to inhabit our culture in a way that is keen to the slowness of love, to the life-giving ebb and flow of presence.
More and more I am convinced that it is the small things – what James Clear called “atomic habits” – that make all the difference. What are the micro-actions that might begin to shift the playing field?
Let me suggest a few that have been helpful to me of late.
- We can recognize the value of small talk. Too many of us – leaders especially – are so driven by our agendas that we have come to dismiss small talk as unimportant. Yes, yes, we think: the weather and how you slept last night and the new recipe you tried at dinner and how your folks and your spouse and your kids are doing and the new workout program you’re on and blah blah blah – isn’t it all just so much trivia? Can we just get this over so we can move on to the real thing?
But this is the real thing. The trivia is the real thing. For it’s in the trivia that our actual lives actually exist. To be dismissive of it is to be dismissive of our actual humanity, of the “one wild and precious life”2 (Mary Oliver yet again) that the Lord our God has given us for our pleasure and enjoyment. God is in the details.
When people tell you these things, they are telling you about themselves. They are giving you a chance to know them. And love them. And vice versa.
Despise not the trivia. Recognize the big value of small talk.
- We can prefer “live” communication. Do you remember back in the old days when, if the person you needed to talk to wasn’t right next to you or right down the hall, how you picked up a telephone and called them? And how when you did that, you’d exchange a few pleasantries (see #1) and then get down to the thing you needed to talk about? And how not only was the thing (usually) wrapped up by the time that one conversation was over, but your sense of connection to the other person was strengthened as well?
Live communication did that. But those days are largely over. We have come to prefer “dead” communication: texts or emails or Marco Polos. By the time it arrives, the presence behind it has gone away, moved on. Ichabod.
We do it for convenience’ sake. But so much is lost. It is one of the wild ironies of our day that the devices and platforms that purport to connect us more with one another in fact as often as not leave us feeling disconnected, distant.
We can change this. We can use our cell phones to do what they were (at least at first) designed to do. We can call each other.
- We can reclaim the lost art of the “visit.” The comedian Sebastian Maniscalco has a hilarious bit on how much our society has changed in the last 20 years. Do you remember when you were a kid, and the doorbell rang, and you were excited about it, because there was a good chance that someone you loved was popping over for a “visit?”
What in the world has happened to those days?
I want to suggest that part of the reason the “visit” is so unheard of now is because we don’t do #1 and #2 very well. And so we are isolated and paranoid of each other–and scared to death of the doorbell.
In America – whether we are believers or not – we tend to move at the speed of our ambitions. And our ambitions are very great. But that is not our only option. We do not have to move at the speed of our ambitions. (1/3) Click To Tweet We can, if we choose, move at the speed of relationship. Which is the speed of love. Which is the speed of joy. Which is not fast at all. But slow. Very slow. (2/3) Click To Tweet I am wondering these days what it might look like to inhabit our culture in a way that is keen to the slowness of love, to the life-giving ebb and flow of presence. (3/3) Click To Tweet
But it need not be. Not if we learn to move at the speed of relationship.
Which is the speed of love.
Which is the speed of joy.
Which is slow.
I’ve been learning to reclaim this lost art. And I have to tell you, it has been deeply satisfying. I’m popping into my colleague’s offices at work with no agenda other than to say hi and see how they are doing. I’m wandering into my teenagers’ rooms at night and plopping down on their beds to “bug” them with fatherly interest and affection. I’m calling my friends and people in my church at random to tell them that I was thinking of them and wanted them to know that I love them.
And it’s making a difference. Somehow the world feels warmer. More joyful.
It is deeply instructive to me that when the Apostle Paul begins to outline what love looks like in 1 Corinthians 13, the very first quality he describes is patience. “Love is patient” (1 Corinthians 13:4).
Love takes time.
Love makes time.
Love is slow.
He can say this, of course, because God is love (1 John 4:8). And God is slow, for God has taken a nearly unthinkable length of time to work out his salvation – ages upon ages of generous patience, a long and deeply relational salvation in the same direction by which the whole cosmos is led into the joy of the Lord.
And we are most like him when we do the same.
So let us be. God is slow, for God has taken an unthinkable length of time to work out his salvation – ages upon ages of generous patience, a long and deeply relational salvation in the same direction by which the whole cosmos is led into joy. Click To Tweet
Andrew Arndt is the lead pastor of New Life East, one of seven congregations of New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Prior to joining New Life’s team, he served as lead pastor of Bloom Church: a neo-monastic, charismatic, liturgical, justice-driven network of house churches in Denver. He is the host of the Essential Church podcast, a weekly conversation designed to strengthen the thinking of church and ministry leaders. Andrew received his MDiv from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is a Leading Voice for Missio Alliance. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Mandi, & their four kids. Andrew’s latest book, Streams in the Wasteland: Finding Spiritual Renewal with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, released in September 2022. His first book, All Flame, released in 2020.
1 Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate,” in Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York: Penguin RandomHouse, 2020), 61.
2 Ibid., Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” 316.