I was 14 years old when I went with my father to visit Haiti where he had served as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. While there, my understanding of the world shifted. I began to wrestle with the excesses I saw in my life and church community. The seeds were planted for the Worthwhile Adventure that Alisha and I have been on for nearly 10 years.
In February, Mennonite Mission Network offered me the opportunity to film a project at La Casa Grande, a children's home in Benin. This small West African country has historical ties to Haiti and the slave trade. Of course, I accepted.
Despite the professional nature of the visit, my experience quickly became very personal and meaningful. The many similarities to my time in Haiti touched me on a deep level where earlier memories live, while my adult eyes saw things more profoundly. For one, it was a great reminder that joy and physical poverty are not directly connected. I noticed that despite the relatively poor surroundings, the Christians I spent time with were straight up joyful!
Beninese church communities with little earthly wealth overflowed with jubilation. This stood out to me because Comunidad Evangélica Menonita, our community in Barcelona, has much more wealth by comparison. And yet, the effusive joy I experienced in Benin does not as readily bubble up in our Barcelona context.
I started reading Galatians 5, which describes the Fruit of the Spirit, in hopes of finding a connection to what I experienced in Benin. To my surprise, I discovered the passage's context is a direct response to a community and their relationship with the law. Legalism.
"So, Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don't get tied up again in slavery to the law. Listen! I, Paul, tell you this: If you are counting on circumcision to make you right with God, then Christ will be of no benefit to you." Galatians 5:1-2 (NLT)
The law was created to help Jewish folks understand how to honor God and to unite them as a people. However, at some point, serving the law became synonymous with serving God. Jesus repeatedly rejected this tendency with his teachings about "You have heard it said ____, but I tell you ____."
In Galatians 5:13-15, Paul observes that when legalism becomes a community's focus, it can tend to lead to the "biting and devouring of one another." This is ironic considering how the law exists to support one command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."
The author continues in verses 22-26 to give the solution. Instead of looking to the law to guide our lives, we consult the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we are marked by the production of what Paul describes as fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
"There is no law against these things!"
The Beninese Christians I met wrapped Anabaptist theology in a Pentecostal understanding of how we encounter and interact with God. They seemed attuned to how the Holy Spirit is moving and prepared to respond boldly when necessary.
In many European and North American churches, we tend to become most passionate and opinionated when discussing issues regarding governing statutes and finances. Those things are not unimportant. But when we spend more time talking about the systems that give structure to our community than talking about where the Holy Spirit is guiding us (and how to respond), the focus has shifted.
How can churches in Europe and North America embrace the joy I witnessed in Benin, the joy of serving God and walking with Christ?
A good place to start is to answer these questions individually and communally: Where do I/we find our joy? What keeps me/us from feeling joy? Can I/we name specific things and address them?