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GUEST COLUMN: Do we recognize joy in the moment?

After another week of multiple mass shootings, uncontrolled algal blooms, and surprisingly good jobs numbers, I thought I would write about something a little off-topic – joy.

Of all the Christian concepts, I would suspect that joy is one of the most underestimated and reliably misunderstood notions of the Christian faith. You may all have your own opinion. Most people seem to prefer original sin or the Ten Commandments, or that lawless feeling attributed to the coveting of thy neighbor’s two-car garage. I prefer, if I must, to stay on the enjoyable side of the Judeo/Christian fence. Thus the word – in joy.

My first notion to write about joy came after a conversation with my visiting brother. He had driven from southern Arizona to central Indiana in order to pick up a mobile home that would incorporate both my sister-in-law and his omnipresent motorcycle. On his return, he camped his trailer at Pleasant Creek, outside of Oglesby, where we were able to spend a long afternoon catching up. As different as my brother and I are, we have always enjoyed long, meandering conversations about everything under the sun – politics, travelling, world and family histories, the uncontainable universe.

On this particular afternoon, the discussion somehow turned to religious belief. We both share a Methodist upbringing but have long-since abandoned the Protestant cause. Some say I adopted the pagan route through my love of the great outdoors, while my brother, a lifelong martial artist, has disciplined himself with more eastern notions of meditative, deliberate action. During our conversation I asked what he considered himself. He responded, “An agnostic Zen Buddhist Christian.” It was obvious he’d been asked this question before. We laughed as I shortened his response to “A.Z.B.C.” (I foresee a T-shirt).

I understood the “Zen/Buddhist” part but had to ask where the “Christian” fit in. He said he still adhered to the teachings of Jesus Christ as valuable doctrine. He followed by saying, “You can really throw out the whole Old Testament. That has nothing to do with anything Jesus had to say. I’m sure Christ would much rather preferred being remembered for his Sermon on the Mount than being nailed to a cross. I mean, in the end, it’s all about joy.”

The conversation came to an abrupt halt. I had to confess I too had always thought “joy” was really the whole point. I mean, you may or may not heal the world, you may or may not feed the masses, but if you can find the true pinpoint of that thing called “joy” and share it, you’ve probably grasped 95% of what Christ was trying to say. I suppose that’s why I’ve always enjoyed working with kids so much. Children have an inclination to joy. It comes to them naturally. It has not been diffused by notions of adulthood, or chronic societal expectations. They respond to the beauty of a floating bubble, or the authentic glory of a fallen autumn leaf. To quote a T-shirt my brother often wears, “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”

For the record, the word “joy” appears 163 times in the King James Version of our Bible. It is generally associated with terms such as “happiness” or “contentment,” or my own personal favorite, “delight.” Take your pick. Yet, the idea itself goes far deeper. It really speaks to that innate ability to see and feel the “unending” in the “here and now.” To witness “the forest through the trees.” To behold “the ocean in a simple cup.” Of course, I may not have the slightest idea what I’m talking about. That is often the case. But like my brother, I enjoy following an idea to its illogical end. Bear with me.

Many years ago, I traveled to Tampa to visit one of my very favorite partners-in-crime. We had shared unmentionable adventures while living in Colorado and he promised me a memorable time if ever I came to visit. After picking me up at the airport dressed in his full-length monkey suit (there is nothing more gratifying than a congested elevator ride with a friend in a monkey suit and four terrified co-passengers), we traveled to Crystal River to snorkel in the spring-fed bay that was its namesake. The spring connects to open ocean and is also attended by manatees at certain times of the year.

That afternoon we snorkeled in a part of the spring nicknamed “The Hole.” It’s a deep cavern pool with crystal-clear water reaching 60 feet down. In its depths, schools of foot-long fish swarmed through the waters. For over two hours we swam among them, following them inches away, content to travel as part of their darting herds. We gave up our human nature and became fish for a few short hours.

If anyone were to ask me right now what “joy” is, that experience would be my explanation. We have all had those moments, those larger-than-life experiences that seem to always stay with us. Do we recognize them as “joy” at that moment? Probably not. Given these times of culturally sanctioned slaughter, maybe we should.

PAUL WHEELER, a former member of The Write Team, resides in Ottawa. "The River at Both Ends," Wheeler's most recent book of poetry, is available at Prairie Fox Books in Ottawa. He can be reached via newsroom@mywebtimes.com.

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