Editor’s note: Joy is a central part of our attraction to sports. Our earliest memories with sports often involve the simple thrills of running, jumping, and throwing—using our God-given bodies to enter into a playful space with others. As we grow older, we might lose that childhood innocence. And yet there are still intense moments and sparks of joy that draw us towards athletic competition as athletes, coaches, and fans. These moments can feel almost transcendent, as if time itself has stopped for a moment. “Joyful play turns time into eternity,” theologian Rob Ellis writes. It’s no accident that one of the first books to offer serious and sustained theological reflection on sports took joy as a theme: Michal Novak’s The Joy of Sports (1976)

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell’s forthcoming book The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found.  As you’ll see from this passage, Gorrell believes that religious communities need to work on cultivating spaces that actively invite joy. And she believes sports provides one example of how this is done. 

Angela Williams Gorrell

Oddly, joy is an emotion that people often squelch. Joy is more likely to be a private matter. Like other powerful emotions, joy can be difficult for us, even terrifying, as researcher Brené Brown has discussed, because it requires vulnerability and courage. The moment we experience joy, we might wonder when we will lose it, or we might immediately anticipate that disappointment or disaster are sure to follow.

We also do not share our joy boldly lest we be seen as overly excited or too expressive. To display joy fully requires being “too demonstrative,” “too passionate”—or so we might imagine. We may be anxious about being “too much.”

Joy, like other emotions, longs to be shared though. This requires support. Not only do we need permission to be honest about emotions like sadness, anger, and fear, we need permission to be joy-filled. And we need this permission from other people and ourselves.

We can give one another and ourselves permission to experience joy in many ways. One is to create spaces of joy. We can organize spaces that are meant to invite and cultivate joy—spaces that suggest joy is both anticipated and welcomed.

When I was first invited to Shabbat at Yale’s Center for Jewish Life by a student in my class, entitled “Life Worth Living,” I had no idea what to expect. I went because in my experience saying yes to invitations like this has affected my life in profound ways and helped me to better understand other people and cultures.

“Shabbat” refers to the Jewish practice of keeping Sabbath for twenty-five hours from just before sundown on Friday evening until nightfall on Saturday. It is one thing to read about Sabbath- keeping and another to witness it.

I was astonished by the welcome I received and by the joy I entered into. I was moved by the way the entire evening was set up for joy.

Shabbat at the center began with a worship service where the Sabbath was welcomed joyfully. There was dancing in circles along with special prayers, all energetically inviting Sabbath rest and celebration. People acknowledged the Sabbath like a friend and rejoiced that it had arrived.

It was fascinating to witness a group of people receiving a day of the week like this, greeting it as one would a beloved houseguest.

After the worship service, we gathered in a dining hall that had been specially prepared for hours before sundown so that no work would be done during the dinner. The tables were set, the candles were lit, and the food had been cooked. Our only job was to eat course after course and talk about life as we enjoyed the meal and conversation with one another.

About an hour into the dinner, a man stood up on a chair and started clapping and singing loudly—no instruments, just his energy and voice and hands sounding together. He invited everyone in the room to join him.

We need other people to invite us to rejoice as much as we need other people to invite us to befriend anger and fear and openly lament.

In the Bible “calls to rejoice are addressed to the community as a whole,” as theologian Marianne Meye Thompson points out. So it’s all right that we need other people to help us recall, recognize, and reflect on the good. It makes sense that joy is a communal task. This is joy’s gift. It is abundant. There is always more than enough. And it is even better when shared.

Before I knew it, we were all singing and clapping at the Shabbat dinner and even more people were standing on chairs and yelling out in high-spirited celebration. We did not hesitate. We could not help but join in. We smiled excitedly, and I’m pretty sure no one felt self-conscious about doing so. We joined and rejoiced and lived into the freeness of the space.

We gave ourselves over to joy.

Unfortunately, experiences of intense joy like the one I was a part of at Shabbat are increasingly absent from American religious life. We tend to “convey the impression that joy should be the very last thing on our minds, or in our hearts, in our worship or in our relation to one another,” writes theologian Rowan Williams.

If indeed joy is “the tonality of Christianity,” as priest Alexander Schmemann contends, too many of us have forgotten.

There are telling reasons people flock to stadiums and arenas. These are venues where feelings can be fully engaged because they are loud, huge places where numerous people are openly exhibiting their emotions. Plus, sports set aside places and times for letting go and giving ourselves over to something that feels meaningful to us, to something that is bigger than we are.

Interestingly, sorrow and joy are often intermingled in sports, as they were in Ezra’s description of the temple being rebuilt (Ezra 3). Sports fields and courts are places where we don’t feel alone in our sorrow or our joy. Instead, during sports events, we recall what it is to feel truly connected to others, and thus more genuinely human, in the experience of what Brené Brown refers to as collective pain and collective joy.

Shared joy and pain are sacred experiences. “They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature,” Brown writes.

Human beings need physical and digital places where we feel we have the permission to openly lament—a gateway to joy—as well as places where we have the permission to openly rejoice over what is good, true, beautiful, and meaning-filled.

If we want more joy, we need more spaces that actively invite it.

About the author: Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell serves as Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. She is an ordained pastor with 14 years of ministry experience and is the author of always on: practicing faith in a new media landscape and a new book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found, which shares findings of the joy project while addressing America’s opioid and suicide crises. Dr. Gorrell’s expertise is in the areas of theology and contemporary culture, education and formation, meaning-making, joy, new media, and youth and emerging adults. For more check out her website: https://www.angelagorrell.com/.