I made a friend today. His name is Russ. Actually, I almost ran him over in the parking lot, as he was pushing a long line of carts into the grocery store. Our paths crossed again just past the checkout. I had struck up a lively exchange with the teenagers swiping and bagging my Greek yogurt and chewing gum. The Tae Kwon Do uniform I was wearing made a great conversation starter.
“So are you like a black belt?” asked the one kid.
“Yes, I am like a black belt,” I replied cheerily.
“So you could probably beat me up, right?” he asked.
I eyed him. He was slight, with a goofy grin. “Probably,” I thought, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
“I don’t know, are you a black belt?” I hedged.
He laughed. “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” He pointed over my shoulder.
“But he’s a Vietnam vet,” the kid announced. “What about him?”
I turned. It was Russ — at least, so his nametag said. Russ was about 6′ 2″, straight as an oak, despite his white hair. He carried a slight paunch, but he bore a certain air about him, in the twinkle in his eye and the ready smile under his handlebar mustache.
“Probably not,” I said.
So I met Russ. Turned out I was right. He wasn’t the sort of guy a person would want to cross.
“I’ve been shot and stabbed. I had my finger sewn back on,” he grinned. He pointed to his side. “The one who stabbed me … well … he’s not around any more.”
I didn’t doubt it, and I told him so. We became instant friends.
“These kids don’t appreciate life the way they should,” Russ said, gesturing up the row of cash registers. “They don’t appreciate the simple things. Like breathing and walking.”
I know what you mean,” I agreed. “I thank God every morning for another day of life.”
My new friend beamed, nodded, and wished me a hearty goodnight. And as I sailed into the parking lot, anchored down by plastic bags, my brain started to whir. I knew I had just met an unusual person. Russ, I thought, is a man who understands joy.
It is important to understand joy. As all of us Christians know, the Bible exhorts us to “rejoice in the Lord always, and then again I say, rejoice.” Most evangelical scholars also quickly point out that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is a mere ephemeral emotion, fleeting and unsatisfying. Joy is … something else.
So, what is it?
“The secret of joy in work is contained in one word — excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it,” claimed Pearl S. Buck, an American who spent her life writing in China and who established the first international, interracial adoption agency. Helen Keller said, “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” And Mother Teresa wrote, “Joy is love. Joy is a net of love by which you can catch souls.”
Excellence. A holy gift. Love.
Joy is so difficult to understand because it involves all those things, and more. In the end, I give it the name “Second Sight” — the ability to comprehend the seen and unseen together in a single reality. It is the holy gift of Jesus Christ, whom we see with this second sight of faith, who allows us to love, to live with excellence.
If Jesus did not die for us and open the way to eternity, the most logical thing would be to live for one’s own gain. But He did.
Jesus Christ could see the unseen, and so “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). We walk by faith that Jesus knew where He was going, and that He rose again. So we “faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory. While we look not at the things that are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal” (II Cor. 4:16-18).
We experience the complicated sensation of joy, which sustained Jesus on the cross, whenever we live as though we comprehend the unseen things that lie beside the seen. In those moments, we become a bit more of the selves we will be for all eternity, and we live excellently.
Athletes talk about an experience called “the zone,” a “lofty, almost mystical state” when time slows, they feel invulnerable, and they accomplish superhuman feats. They call it a “type of euphoria,” and are often unable to explain what happened. A 1989 article in The New York Times on the topic explained that “if there’s any theme that dominates the reports of zone experience it is this subtle freedom from intervention – from volition and thought and finally consciousness itself.”
The athletes lose themselves … and they find themselves. Sound familiar?
Some coaches, according to the article, pinpointed certain techniques to help their athletes achieve “the zone.” Coach Tim Strickland found especial success with champion archer Denise Parker:
“Another thing Strickland rails against is also a function of consciousness: concern with the target or the score,” the article continues. “Nothing, he declares, interferes with performance like concentrating on the goal, rather than on the process of one’s game. ‘An archer who worries about his score will try to make his arrows go in instead of letting them go in,’ Strickland says. ‘If your technique is correct, the target never enters your mind. It’s just there to catch your arrows.'”
Athletes playing in the zone, apparently, are able to free their minds from conscious worries about achievement and enter with wholehearted abandon into the moment in front of them. They simply are, and they are magnificent.
Plenty of self-help manuals talk about achieving this state of “flow” in daily experience, improving job performance and reducing stress. One wonders: Is it possible to become similarly excellent simply at living? Can we walk through mundane reality with such grace, poise — and, yes, joy?
Like the young archer who practiced hitting the target so much that she managed to forget it entirely, the more we exercise our minds toward our eternal destination, the more peace we feel now, and the freer our minds become to navigate daily life.
This is why, I think, Solomon states in Ecclesiastes that “it is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart” (7:2). And then he repeats several times, “I know that there is no good in [every thing], but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labor, it is the gift of God” (3:12-13).
Like my new friend Russ, we are all soldiers in the spiritual realm, the world of second sight. Every soldier must find a way to deal with death.
I think of the television miniseries Band of Brothers. This 10-part series follows the actual adventures of E Company (“Easy Company”), a small piece of the 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army during World War II. We get to know the men as they train for war and survive at least one incompetent officer.
Finally, they parachute into combat. While the others take cover and collect themselves one by one, one soldier from Easy Company is found standing still in the middle of an open field. Shell-shocked. It’s frightening, really. He stares in front of himself, totally unresponsive.
Later, in a relatively safe spot, he struggles out of his brain fog and apologizes to his commanding officer. Then comes the next skirmish. Under heavy fire, his comrades work together. This soldier, however, shakes in terror. At last, he manages to snap off a few shots. Then an explosion lifts him off his feet, and he lands on his back with eyes frozen in a feverish stare. Again, his own mind swallows him up, this time, we suspect, for good.
Earlier, the soldier and a lieutenant wait together in a foxhole. The lieutenant lights a cigarette and swallows from his hip flask. With a few cynical words, he pinpoints the problem.
“I know what’s wrong with you,” he states. “You still think you’re getting out of this alive.” He vaults out without waiting for an answer. We all know he’s right. This man’s fear of death has killed him by locking him inside himself.
Thing is, I know that paralysis of fear. The fact that I will, in fact, die did not hit me with its full force until the year I graduated from college and suffered significant health problems for the first time. Call it a quarterlife crisis, a disillusionment. But also call it God’s mercy for opening my eyes to second sight, to see that the roots of death lie inside me, in all my sin and selfishness.
This darkness opened me up to the light of gratitude and joy for salvation, breath, and life.
Death is an awful thing that everyone recognizes. Every religion has to make sense of it somehow, yet only Christ has the answers that satisfy. As the apostle Peter told his Messiah, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of life” (John 6:68). The incarnate life of Jesus opens up more than the world to us. It opens up eternity.
The key Jesus gives to eternity is love. The Bible says that “perfect love casteth out fear” (I John 4:18). More than that, “greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). So, to live in fullness of joy, we live as those who are not afraid to die. We prove this by dying daily in the sacrifices of love, both small and large. We are still alive in this world so that we can love — no other reason.
Grocery store Russ, the Vietnam vet, must have counted himself a loss a long time ago, in order to survive mentally during the horrors of war. Every day he lives now is an unexpected gift, fresh and new. He is free to live excellently, and to love. His enviable clarity of mind and optimism makes him a pleasure to know.
Russ was right. Breathing feels really good.
Copyright 2010 Sarah Pride. All rights reserved.