Surprised by Joy

One night this past summer, much like most nights, I laid in bed and instead of sleep, I found emptiness to be my embrace. As I stared at the popcorn texture on the ceiling of my bedroom, I wondered how I ever ended up in this place. I didn’t mean my apartment but in the state of emptiness that I now felt consumed by.

Michala, Mary Grace, and I had recently visited my childhood home of Pawleys Island, SC. While we stuffed ourselves on ribs and boiled peanuts, our sense of awe was also filled with the breath-taking beauty of the South Carolina lowcountry. Some folks think us South Carolinians are arrogant (and they are probably right) but it is hard not to have a pride of life living in a place with such a sense of mystique.

Located a few miles north of Pawleys is an old plantation that has been reinvented as an enormous sculpture garden called Brookgreen Gardens. Leaving Mary Grace with her Papa Johnny, Michala and I set out to continue our gluttonous consumption of beauty, and we were not disappointed. Brookgreen is larger than life, spanning 9,000 acres and several miles of coast upon the Waccamaw River. Michala and I forgot about the 90 plus degree weather coupled with an almost surreal level of humidity as we walked beneath the limbs of 300 year-old, moss draped live oak trees. We felt like kids again in this wonderful place, as if we had walked through a wardrobe to get to this Narnia.

Yet the one thing that most struck me, seared my soul even, was the sculpture entitled “Frog Baby” (pictured above, click to enlarge). In this artist’s depiction of young boy’s reaction after he has snared two frogs, the frog baby gazes heavenward with a smile that leaves the viewer both inwardly renewed and yet haunted to the core. Most of the people in our group produced similar outward reaction, that of laughter mixed with a hint of scoff. Yet the boy’s face has not failed to leave me alone in the time since we met. In fact it is more of a haunting than anything, the way it stays with me.

I have been left to ponder why would this expression of sheer joy would be so haunting.

I saw that same face again later upon my daughter. As we were preparing for church one morning, I took it upon my self to dance with Mary Grace. I dipped and dunked as she held on to me, curious as to what brought on such silliness and then I spun her around. At first her face only knew shock, but that was quickly wiped away by joy, leaving me looking into the smile of the frog baby.

The feeling I felt at that moment can best be described as mourning. I saw a ghost of myself reflected in her pure joy. That afternoon, I weaped, thankful for my daughter’s innocence but also despairing the death of my childhood. After choosing to follow Jesus just over 5 years prior, I was told that one of the core markings of His followers would be joy, and yet not only did joy seem like a distant memory, I feared I would never again taste its sweetness.

Not content to accept my joyless fate, I began to ask myself and God some hard questions. What is Joy? Where does Joy come from? How can I be happy in the midst of so much suffering in the world? Will I ever feel Joy again? And to my surprise, I began to find answers and even a bit of joy as well. The next four Mondays, I will be exploring the questions I asked and the answers I found. Join me in asking the hard questions for which only silence in the presence of God can bring relief. Join me in the joy of discovering ourselves surprised at just how good the answers and our God can be.

Michael is a student at Denver Seminary. His wife Michala, is the Director of Children’s Ministry at The Neighborhood Church.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Surprised by Joy

  1. Michael:

    Can’t wait to hear your questions and answers. Wonderful description of a part of the world I’ve never seen and know nothing of.

    I know one of the moments I have felt the deepest joy, I did not and could not smile because I was surrounded by such pain. But I did look up and thank God I was in that moment and that God chose me to walk with someone and love them even in the hardest of times. It was not happiness but satisfaction, peace, purpose, joy.

    I wonder if the Frog Boy represents two parts of joy. The smile–which may not always be present–and the looking up–which must always be present to differentiate it from simple fleeting happiness.

    Anyway, great blog. Thanks.

  2. Georgie-ann

    C.S. Lewis wrote a book later in his life called “Surprised by Joy,” and was it also a movie?

    When we visited SC last fall, we also “took in” the same sculpture gardens & had a wonderful guide & a wonderful experience! Very magical in a good way! I would have to check back, but I might have even photographed Frog Boy myself, as I took endless pictures while on the walking tour,…

    I was struck by the feeling of art and values, (expressed in poems), preserved with great respect from another era,…so much more idealistic,…so much easier to enjoy beauty for its own essence,…so uncluttered with “downers” and complicated philosophies,…Being southern myself, I feel sure that these are some of the things my very well-intentioned parents were trying to implant in their children to cultivate a positive outlook on life,…

    Never mind that life doesn’t always seem to be able to co-operate with the ideals, they live within us very beneficially anyway. I was simply never able to “settle” for less,…I had to always go the “extra mile” to find (or create!) the “more” that I was looking for.

    And part of that journey brought me very close to God, an encounter with no regrets!

    With Eugene, I am awaiting your follow-up observations with great interest!

    God Bless!

    • I am aware of Lewis’ book and the duplicate title is in honor of that book. While the content is different, the title fit so perfectly with how I began to experince joy in the midst of my depression: suprise!

      Thanks for reading, as always.

      • Georgie-ann

        can’t wait to hear more, but i’ll have to!,…sounds like a spiritual “breakthrough!”,…nothing better than that!,…g (-:

      • Georgie-ann

        I just checked my photos & found a cute little guy who must have been Frog Boy’s cousin. He has the same joyous expression, looking up, but he is riding on the back of a fish — havin’ a good old time!

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