by Liv Thomas
Maybe not a conventional opener for a reflection on joy in nature, but I’m not sure one can actually experience joy in nature.
At least, not outright. I’ve come to believe that nature uncovers joy in innumerable ways but can’t deliver us joy like a small wrapped gift floating on a lily pad that we happen to stumble upon. Is this making any sense? I’ll try my best to explain.
As I’ve been considering the idea of Joy in Nature, I’ve been led to consider the nature of joy. I agree with most folks, there’s something radically different about joy and happiness. I think that while happiness is an internal emotional response to external stimuli and sort of comes and goes as we move from one set of circumstances to another, joy is an experience that principally begins within. Put another way, I think happiness moves from large-scale to small-scale. We each experience and process information outside of our bodies (that incredible chocolate cake from yesterday, the thoughtful text from your far-away friend, the hilariously misspelled headline), and sometimes these things reduce to a feeling of happiness within.
When it comes to joy, our awareness of it moves from small-scale to large-scale, its inception springing forth from within and then moving us toward a sense of those things larger than us.
Most simply put, joy is the experience of our central fulfillment.
Joy is present when we feel our complete wholeness, when we experience our undeniable interconnectedness to one another, and when we are delivered to wonder at what is before us and the possibility of what may come next.
And, in this way, the unexpected, almost always temporal, and frequently unimaginable way, our natural world reveals joy and thus makes us aware of God within each other.
A few weeks ago, I took part in an unlikely kickball game that uncovered joy for me.
This kickball game took place on one of the last bright and sunny Saturday afternoons of the fall in a public park located in a city neighborhood hurting from the effects of redlining and poverty. It was just cold enough to need a jacket during the team dividing but warm enough to shed a layer after running the bases a couple of times. The athlete roster was a holy mix: adult staff from a nearby non-profit, neighborhood kids, youth from a church hundreds of miles away, and middle-aged and older members of a nearby suburban church. And while some of us were on the kickball field, another group of new friends was sitting at the park’s tables doing some coloring and getting to know each other.
As I ran and played and enjoyed the warm sun and still crisp air, I was equally struck by the beauty of the day and how unexpected and ephemeral this moment was. Innings would end, winter would soon arrive, the leaves would fall, this temporary community would disperse, and we’d each return to our home. This moment revealed for me such a sense of joy. I deeply understood my connection with these people I’d just met. Now, weeks later, I remain convinced that heaven looks something like an unlikely kickball game on a beautifully sunny day. Surely, the presence of our Creator was in that place.
As we notice joy arise within us during this advent season, may we especially take time to notice and mark the ways that your creation holds, clarifies, and guides us to an awareness in which joy is uncovered. Accompany us as joy is revealed through these unexpected, perhaps temporal, sometimes unbelievable glimpses of you, The One whom we turn to and remember when a great joy is felt. Renew in us the curiosity to notice joy. Amen.
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