“COMMUNITAS AND COLLECTIVE effervescence describe aspects or moments of communal excitement; there is no word for the love — or force or need — that leads individuals to seek ecstatic merger with the group.” - Barbara Ehrenreich
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My first memorable experience with joy came about during my sophomore year of high school. It was at a church retreat. Yes, if you’re seeing a bunch of crying teenagers in a small mountain cabin with a subpar guitarist strumming emotional chords, that was the exact scene. Like many during such times, I was a strange kid trying to carve my place in the evolving dynamics of youth culture.
I was experimenting with my identity: a Korean American kid finding some solace in the flashy archetypes of 90s K-Pop alongside the grimy attitudes of G-Funk. Industrialized innocence and a detached machismo — a weird cocktail, indeed. But I drank it up. Highlighted hair, long bangs, tagged up backpacks with “Korean Pride” insignia, and those wretched JNCO jeans, with leg sleeves big enough to fit a bike.
This constructed image was of course a symbol. It represented a fictional community whose story I could buy into. Yet it spoke of this infectious need to belong. But belong for what reason? Collective, mutual submission. Such images offered me a place, perhaps a role in its hierarchy. Yet on that mountain, there was something to be said about encountering the One who lives beyond image.
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To be transparent, I have been battling with this identity of “Christian” for some time now. So much of the archetype of what being “Christian” looks like today runs counter to my values. I first encountered Jesus in a way that defied expectation, categorical assumptions, and even predetermined notions of love. This initial meeting — and even subsequent encounters since — dissolved barriers, helping blend my humanity with Another into a unified experience. But Christianity has since become a fixed identity, often promoting a clinging traditionalism rather than a radical fluidity.
I understand these are fighting words. But please give me a moment.
Faith is a compass, not a map. Maps designate conquest, territories. Compasses aid discovery. A compass tells you not whose mountain is whose. A compass simply signifies direction, whereas a map posits efficiency. Faith is a compass precisely because the path to joy is one marked by perseverance, upholding direction as supreme over the pace at which we arrive. For direction offers openness as a gift. And if there’s anything Jesus has shown us, it’s that joy is met with surprise. Joy is beyond a confirmation of expectations. Joy is transcendental.
Faith is a compass precisely because the path to joy is one marked by perseverance, upholding direction as supreme over the pace at which we arrive.
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There is a scene of joy, in the profoundly social sense, that never ceases to capture my imagination. It’s the final scene in Revelations 21: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and He will dwell with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.”
This notion of oneness, of joy, is inextricably linked with communion. In a spatial sense, there is no distance-between. Identity, here, is expressed as relational. No more is self an isolated assertion, but rather an expression of creative love. The scene evolves further: “I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple.”
Identity, here, is expressed as relational. No more is self an isolated assertion, but rather an expression of creative love.
Here, what does it mean to have a Kingdom — an entity conventionally characterized by geography — marked by movement instead? That what once centralized a nation — a temple — now walks among people — spirit?
In the face of joy, there is an undoing of boundaries. Between self and other. Between tribe and nation. Between God and movement.
“People don’t want to change unless they’re having fun.” -Chris Iijima
I still remember Ethan. He was a shy 12-year-old boy, walking the side aisle wearing an oversized hoodie. I couldn’t make out his face, other than the large glasses he wore. He walked up the stage to receive his raffle grand prize: directing the band.
The night before, the band was in a 14-hour rehearsal preparing for the benefit show. There were four different artist groups, and one live band to thread the set together. We were coming up with creative ways to reward the raffle grand prize winner, and a particular idea was sticky. As a group, we loved freestyling. Jazz, rhymes, speeches ... improvisation was a binding core of our artistic community.
So we dreamed a bit, “What if the raffle winner got to direct us?” We devised some principles. There would be a core groove progression we all followed, and whoever the winner pointed to would have to solo. If two were pointed to, then they would have to battle.
Our great hope, of course, was that a kid would win. Imagining a kid fabulously leading a band was an infectious thought.
And inevitably — because I think that’s how God works — Ethan won.
Without even listening to the directions, Ethan started pointing away. Igniting solos, cutting them, directing improvised melodies between instruments. This shy boy came alive. The hood dropped back, and a bright smile emerged. He eventually concluded, took a bow, and walked off stage.
We later found out that as Ethan walked back to his seat, one of the event volunteers noticed his parents weeping. Upon further investigation, it was uncovered that Ethan is a leukemia survivor. For a past two years, Ethan had been suffering from severe depression: separating himself from others, never making eye contact, and never leaving his room. And yet here he was now, shining.
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I believe today we are in the midst of a radical undoing. It comes to us clothed in great strife, both domestically and abroad. An extremity of opposites has risen, perhaps the birth of a polarized era we have yet to see historically.
Yet for all the anxiety and fear it may provoke, may we also remember that these are marvelous times. An opportunity for radical disruption, of practicing love in profoundly innovative ways that move us beyond boundaries, and a great hope for new communities of creative love to address the great social divisions upon us.
Ego builds temples. Ego seeks to center itself firmly as the source for spirit. But spirit unveils. Spirit moves freely, binding all together in a way that woos our hearts to look away from the tower reaching the sky and inward at joy. In recovering such joy, submit to such joy. It is the great social cause of our time.
Spirit moves freely, binding all together in a way that woos our hearts to look away from the tower reaching the sky and inward at joy.