I was recently asked by The Barnabas Center, a local Christian counseling center in Charlotte, to write an article for their newsletter on joy. Here’s what I came up with:
I am driving to a counseling appointment one day in the spring, reflecting on the chaos of my life, and wondering what I am going to share today with Roger. How to sum up the collective mess my life has become.
Roger has a picture on the wall of his counseling office. It’s of a boat in a raging sea. In this boat are several panicking disciples. Wondering if their boat is going to capsize, thinking they are likely dead, doing everything they could do to see the ship through the storm.
Jesus is in that boat too, sleeping away.
Finally they wake him, begging him to do something. Jesus sits up, stretches his arms, and promptly tells the storm to stop.
As I drive and my mind wanders, I see two scenes from another boat. In the first, my wife Susan, our three kids, and I, are cruising along in a boat, on a perfect, sun-filled day. We are laughing, playing, enjoying each other. We are together.
In the next image, the boat is no more. The only evidence of it, in fact, is a few stray pieces, floating in chaotic waters. I am holding onto a piece of wreckage, frantically looking for the rest of my family. I see the kids, and I help them grab onto other pieces of broken wood.
My eyes dart across the surface of the water as I call out, searching for her. But she’s nowhere to be found. She is gone.
One minute she was there, and the next, she disappeared. While the rest of us hold on for dear life.
In my mind at the time, I think about the two distinct pictures. Jesus on the boat, and the boat of our life, floating in pieces. How do they relate? Jesus says he can calm the storm.
But I just want to know if he can put our boat back together.
–Journal Entry, June 2011
My immediate reaction to writing this article is that I want to re-title it to something like “Joy Recover-ING”. “Recovered” sounds like the end of a destination – and I am still very much on a journey. There are days where joy is there, and I feel it bursting inside me, like a spark has been set to crumpled newspaper, in turn lighting the kindling, yellow flames licking the wood, beginning to ignite. Causing the dry old wood in this heart to glow once again.
Other days – many other days, if I’m honest – the process of recovering joy is more like grasping at wisps of smoke.
The process…this is what it is for me. A journey I am taking, meandering along a curvy, sometimes treacherous road, unable to see too far ahead. Let me be clear – I didn’t choose to be on this road trip. I wasn’t planning on making a journey at all. I found myself on this road one day, looking behind me and then ahead, and then back again, slightly dazed, wondering how I got here.
My wife of fifteen years, Susan, died on January 1, 2011. She battled breast cancer for three years with equal amounts of courage and grace. In the end, the awful disease had taken its toll, and she couldn’t overcome it. And in those final moments, it seemed as though half of me disappeared with her.
Our daughter, who is now twelve, and our two boys, ten and seven, are learning to live a new life. One they didn’t choose either. How do you live without a mother to hold you, hug you, encourage and advise? There are days where this question wrecks me.
And yet…they do. Often to my total amazement, they arise every day, and laugh, and play, and work, and read, and go to school, and play piano, and…live.
Susan kept a blog during the last two years of her life. In one of her entries, the day after receiving word that what we feared had come true – she indeed had a recurrence of the cancer – she wrote words inspired by Psalm 30, which gives us this amazing phrase…”joy comes in the morning”. She wrote of how, as she awoke that day, the day after devastating news, her joy had been renewed.
This too, to my utter amazement.
I don’t understand joy. I can’t speak in this article to “how to attain it”, “eight easy steps to finding joy”, or “how to name and claim the joy that is rightfully yours”. You’ve perhaps seen those articles, or know those books. What I can tell you is that somehow, in some way, it comes. Out of pain, hope. Out of death, life. It came to my wife when she knew she was probably going to die. It comes to my children when all logic would say that there is no reason for it.
It comes to me. In the most unlikely of places.
The kids attended a camp this spring in Virginia for kids who have lost someone significant in their lives. Most of these kids have lost a mother or a father, to illness or some other awful tragedy. 150 stories of unimaginable pain and hurt gathered together one glorious spring weekend. 150 examples of a world gone wrong. 150 stories of loss that would cause you to weep if you sat down with each one face-to-face and just listened.
Into this craziness I drop my kids off. Is this a good idea? How can this possibly go well? I think to myself as I drive back out of the dusty gravel road.
But they spend the weekend together, zip-lining, canoeing, and campfires, interspersed with meaningful small group sessions led by counselors pouring themselves selflessly into these children. They forge bonds with others who have lost. It’s like a secret club, of sorts. The one that no one wanted to join, and yet, now that they’re here…it is powerful. And somehow, despite everything stacked against them, there is something else that emerges. Something quite unexpected.
Loved ones are invited to the final session, a camp memorial service, led by the kids, for the one they have lost. They get up and play a song or read a poem or share something they did with their mom or dad or sibling. One of my sons, to my surprise, is called forward. He’s a rough, tough seven-year old boy. He speaks softly into the microphone. “This is what my mommy and I used to do together.” In his hands he holds a basketball, and he begins to dribble, in front of 200 utterly silent people.
Bounce, bounce, bounce.
This is a holy moment.
As he is about to finish, someone whoops and begins to clap. Others join in, shouting his name. A huge grin crosses his face, and soon the entire camp hall is raucously cheering for this boy, and in those cheers telling him “We love you!” and “Your mom is incredible!” and “You are never alone!” and “You’re going to make it!”
And in me, tears and joy. Tears and joy. These two things aren’t as far apart as we think, you know.
Another boy gets up and dances. Hilariously, to some hip-hop song. And he is really, really good. Everyone thinks the same thing – his dad must have been a great dancer. The crowd goes wild.
More tears. Even more joy.
Celebrating what was still there, the things that cannot be lost.
Pete, the camp director, gets up and says something wise beyond his years. “What people don’t understand about grief,” he says, “is that within it there can be so much joy.”
As a pastor, I have spoken about joy many times. Defined and redefined it, backed it up with Bible verses, ad nauseum. Probably killing it while at the same time trying to explain it. Death by dissection.
But as I see the faces of these kids who are brave enough to step boldly around the unknown corners of life; as I look into the faces of my own courageous kids, who dribble basketballs and grin in the face of death; as I think about how I have felt God’s grace and peace on long walks up Crowder’s Mountain alone, how His love and strength – (and sometimes, this oddly familiar feeling that I think I used to call excitement) – are returning to me, I’ve been reflecting on this thing called joy.
What I’ve decided is that maybe more than anything, joy is the ability to laugh in the face of utter defeat. Michael Card, in a song about the difficult, painful relationship he had with his father, sings this –
“Our wounds are part of who we are, and there is nothing left to chance
And pain’s the pen that writes the songs, and they call us forth…to dance.”
My budding theory (untested, as of yet – ask me in 10 years) is that out of deep pain can come deeper, more profound joy. Because those of us who have experienced shipwrecks in our lives, and are clinging to the pieces, those who have survived the journey to hell and back, have experienced a very, very important truth – that pain and sorrow are not forever. They will not have the final word. And to my amazement and God’s delight, He can take our despair, and use it to write a song in our hearts and our lives.
A song that calls us forth to dance.
“Weeping may last through the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Psalm 30:5 (NLT)
Jerel is senior pastor at Lake Norman Community Church, and author of the just-released tween action/adventure novel, “Spirit Fighter”. He lives in Huntersville with his three children.