The well of joy

As a clinical psychologist, I spend much of my professional time helping make sense of what happens when things go wrong. Anxiety, depression and other struggles can dominate conversations with my clients.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where the same can be true for many of us. Wars are raging around the globe. Here, in one of the world’s richest countries, millions live in poverty. Our government seems to be in a perpetual state of chaos. It is easy to reside in a kind of existential dread that permeates our hearts, minds and souls.

While it is important to reckon with the reality of the suffering that exists in the world, it is also important for us not to become overwhelmed by it. Joy is an essential antidote in a suffering world.

Proverbs 17:22 (ESV) tells us, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” For believers, joy is not just a perk of the Christian life; it’s a spiritual resource that helps us carry out our work in the world.

A dictionary might define “joy” as a state of happiness in response to external circumstances. But our kind of joy is one that rests in the knowledge of what God has done and will continue to do. Our kind of joy is not dependent on what is happening in the world; it is a commitment to see good and recognize the presence of good in the world and in ourselves, regardless of our circumstances. Joy is the product of our ever-present knowledge of God’s movement and work in our lives.

I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that joy means we ignore all the bad. While some of us may have a tendency to use our faith to try to pretend our trials away (a process we mental health professionals call spiritual bypassing), the joy I’m suggesting does not negate the presence of evil or suffering in the world.

In fact, tapping into joy in our lives is what helps us fight injustice and work toward good for all. Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

As many cultures that have experienced historical violence and trauma can attest, joy is often the thing that helps us survive the unspeakable. As the proverb says, joy is a medicine and a healing balm, and when we lose it, our vitality dries up and disappears. It is no accident that we find moments of laughter at memorial celebrations, no accident that we spent the first few months of the pandemic lockdowns making jokes on the internet. Joy reminds us that we are alive when things feel perilous.

Because we live in a world that can exhaust and overwhelm us, we must be intentional about organizing our lives in a way that allows us access to the gift of joy. Ross Gay writes in “The Book of Delights” about his decision to find delights intentionally on a daily basis. He says of the process: “I felt my life to be more full of delight. Not without sorrow or fear or pain or loss. But more full of delight.” We must remember that joy and sorrow can, and will, coexist.

To be intentional about accessing joy is to make a practice of holding sacred time for the things that help us feel most content, at peace and close to God. For some, it may be physical exercise or spending time with our most beloved friends or family. For others, it might be time in nature, crafting or cooking. For others, it might be listening to music, committing to a devotional or other spiritual practice, or playing a game.

In her book “Rest Is Resistance: A Manifesto,” Tricia Hersey proclaims that resting is an explicit resistance to a capitalist society that demands we treat our bodies as dispensable and our souls as inconsequential. While joy and rest are not the same, joy can most certainly be found in rest. And rest can help us be more open to the joy in our lives.

There is no single right way. The point here is that to have joy as a resource, we must decide to make it a part of our lives. We must actively seek out joy rather than waiting for it to come to us.

When I am helping clients navigate depression or recover from burnout, I often ask them to identify the drains and wells in their lives. Drains are things that deplete and exhaust us. Wells are things that energize and excite us. Wells refill our proverbial cups, while drains cause them to empty.

Both are necessary parts of our lives. But when we are able to identify the wells, we can be intentional about having access to them all around our lives so that we never have to get empty. This is the power of joy! Our ability to access it regularly and often allows us to operate from a place of overflow rather than depletion. Simply put, joy sustains us for the journey.

For each of us, this is an individualized process. Ask yourself: What lights me up? What makes me feel most alive?

What would it be like to organize our lives around our joys, just as biblical cities were built around wells? What if those wells in our lives — those things that sustain and revitalize us — become nonnegotiables, so that all the mundane tasks of our lives have to fall into place in relation to them?

To organize ourselves around joy in this way is to participate in a reparative process, declining to sacrifice ourselves and our spirits to an unjust world, instead claiming a holy retention of our goodness and our “godness.” To recognize the reality of our goodness is to acknowledge that we are deserving of light, joyful, playful moments. Those moments can then become the home base from which we navigate the world.

Joy keeps us going when we want to give up and keeps us fueled for the journey ahead by reminding us that suffering is an experience and not a destination.

In the early days of the pandemic, a highlight each day at my house was pulling up John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” as dinnertime viewing. My laptop joined us at the table each evening to provide a few bright spots amid the dire headlines. The stories of COVID patients being discharged from the hospital to cheers and applause, Zoom singalongs with the cast of “Hamilton” — in the spring of 2020, these bits of brightness felt like a lifeline to me.

And I’m not alone: a recent study from psychologists in the U.K. dug deeper into the “why” behind the seemingly obvious phenomenon of the positive effects of good news on our well-being.

The implications of that “why” should spark our imaginations for the way we tell stories about our work in the world. Your ministry might be changing lives in all sorts of ways — but the stories you share about your ministry might be doing that, too.

Research has long confirmed the effects of seeing bad news on our minds and our health. On the one hand, it makes us feel worse — but on the other, thanks to evolution, we’re wired to pay attention to anything that might threaten us.

This particular study, though, looked at the effects of seeing good news stories after bad news stories, as a kind of counteractive antidote.

“The group that was shown negative news stories followed by positive ones fared far better than people who were only shown a negative news story,” writes one of the researchers on the study. “They reported less decline in mood — instead feeling uplifted. They also held more positive views of humanity generally.”

The good news that made the biggest difference for this group? Stories of kindness, of human beings showing up for each other.

The researchers tried out other kinds of positive news, seeing “how people exposed to a negative news story followed by an amusing one (such as swearing parrots, award-winning jokes or hapless American tourists) fared.” But when it came to overall uplifting effects on participants’ mood and hope for humanity, parrots and tourists were no match for acts of kindness — stories “such as acts of heroism, people providing free veterinary care for stray animals, or philanthropy towards unemployed and homeless people.”

The research pointed to several reasons why seeing stories of kindness may help counteract the doom and gloom of the 24-hour news cycle — for example, the writer notes, it can “remind us of our connection with others through shared values” and can act as a kind of “emotional reset button, replacing feelings of cynicism with hope, love and optimism.”

In the conclusion to her news piece on this study, the researcher writes, “Perhaps including more kindness-based content in news coverage could prevent ‘mean world syndrome’ — where people believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, leading to heightened fear, anxiety and pessimism.”

Of course, the world is incredibly dangerous for many, many people — and positive headlines are no match for the harsh reality some of our neighbors have to face each day. The simple act of reading good news is not, in itself, the way to a better world. I think, though, that the researcher’s article on this particular study intends to critique the way news coverage takes advantage of our threat-detection wiring. The researcher wants to push those working in news media to consider balancing their coverage and including true stories of kindness along with the bad news.

I think, too, that there is a challenge here for all of us who work in Christian institutions, whose job it is to share the good news we’ve been given.

“The Good News Jesus embodied was news. Something to share, to proclaim,” writes Debie Thomas in a piece for The Christian Century provocatively titled “Reclaiming the E word” (the “E,” in this case, being “evangelism”). “We’ve become so adept at articulating who we are not and what we reject. But can we also articulate who we are? What we affirm?” she asks.

Can we share the good news of how we strive to embody the good news?

Of course, we should be thinking about the logistics, the concrete results, the returns on investment, the actual tangible work that we are doing and the difference that we are making. There is something, though, that I don’t want us to lose sight of — the fact that the way we share about our ministries matters, because the effects on the people who see our stories might be greater than we can imagine.

I have the immense privilege and joy of getting to work with various teams here at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity and hear about the impact our grantees and partner organizations are having in the church and the world.

Seeing their inspiring stories, acknowledging the hope they give me, stirs up in me a greater urgency and a heightened awareness of the stakes in my communications work. How can I help get the word out about these incredible ministries, not to boost web traffic, but to help change hearts and lives?

The stories we tell about our ministries matter. We never know who might be listening, watching, hoping for the relief of seeing an act of love on a loveless day.

Here’s what I want to know: How do you share the stories of kindness and care that come out of your ministry? Send me a note — I always enjoy more good news.

“Shots fired and Michigan State’s campus is on lockdown.”

That horrifying text message came from my associate pastor at 8:38 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. Our community spent the next three hours waiting — and praying — for the active shooter crisis to end. My kitchen table became a makeshift workspace and altar as I began responding to students on campus by text, sending out emails and praying for God’s mercy.

At 11:49 p.m., it finally ended. We learned, first from police scanners and then from the local media, that the shooter had taken his own life 3 miles from campus. Four people were dead —three students and the perpetrator — and five others injured.

But really, the end of the immediate crisis was only the start of the hurting and weeping, serving and ministering for our community.

Our congregation, St. Luke Lutheran Church, has two campuses. One is just east of Michigan State University, and the other is just west. MSU is at the center of our ministry, not just geographically, but also in our hearts.

Our congregation has many undergrad and graduate students, faculty, staff and alumni — including me. I spent four years at MSU as a graduate student in digital rhetoric while also serving my parish. I learned to love rhetoric and technology in its classrooms. My children and I spend summer days playing tag in the shadows of Beaumont Tower. My wife and I cherish our leisurely strolls through the flowers of Beal Botanical Garden. This place is an extension of our backyard.

One of the very first things that our ministry staff did — even as the police still searched for the killer — was to compile a list of all the MSU students, faculty and staff in our congregation. This enabled us to reach out personally by text and social media.

Though it was late in the evening, our leaders crafted a message that went out by email that night:

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Sometimes there are no words, only tears. This is a moment where there are no words, but only tears. We weep for those who have died in the events at Michigan State University. We weep for those who were injured. We weep for those who were traumatized, distressed, and in harm’s way. We weep for the entire MSU community, their families, and all who are hurting this evening.

Jesus wept. However, Jesus did not only weep. In the midst of death and hurt and pain, Jesus brought life and peace, calm and healing. Jesus tells us …

  • Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
  • The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.
  • I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live …
  • Peace, be still.

It concluded with an invitation to a prayer vigil the next morning.

Those first hours were chaotic, but we knew we needed to be strategic. Thinking in terms of concentric circles, we developed a ministry strategy that placed our closest existing relationships in the center (congregation members who study, teach or work at MSU).

The next ring included people we might encounter through the people in the inner ring. For example, a faculty member in our congregation knew an international student in need of help while the campus was closed for a few days.

Finally, the outermost ring was the MSU and Lansing community in general. These concentric circles helped us triage our time and efforts appropriately in the midst of harried days.

With our strategy for ministry in place, we first devoted our attention to caring for our closest existing relationships at MSU. We organized two events. The first was a lament prayer service the day after the shooting. One of our associate pastors put together a service that included Scripture readings and prayer litanies, as well as time for silent prayer.

A few days after the shooting, we invited all of our MSU students, faculty and staff to a time for engaging in conversation and processing what had happened. In order to keep it casual and welcoming, we included a communal meal.

We ate Jimmy John’s (they are college kids, after all) and hung out on couches. There was pain, frustration and sadness, but also a feeling of togetherness and a palpable hope that healing would one day come.

Two texts helped guide our ministry in the days following the shooting. More often than I’d like, I have used a stark word from the Gospel of John to minister to people in times of profound hurt: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). We also took a cue from the book of Job, where it talks about Job’s three friends who “sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13 NRSVUE).

We wanted to listen and weep. We steered away from commenting on what had happened; I’ve found that times of acute crisis call for listening and being present, not speculating and explaining. Instead, we leaned heavily on Scripture, prayer and simply gathering to hurt together.

Our prayers emphasized the healing hope that we have in Jesus, our wounded Savior.

The morning after the shooting, I received a call from the CEO of Lutheran Church Charities. They wanted to know whether we could host several of their Comfort Dog Ministry teams — trained dogs and their handlers experienced in caring for communities after tragedy. We agreed.

And a few hours later, six golden retrievers from around the country descended upon us. As a result of their extensive training, these creatures were incredibly serene and gentle — just what one would want in a time of crisis such as this.

In a situation like a mass shooting, a deluge of outside help can overwhelm a community. However, in this situation, we were able to expedite caring for our folks by connecting people in the community with outside resources.

I spoke with congregation members working at MSU to see whether they wanted a visit from the dogs — an offer that many gladly accepted. Additionally, we used congregational connections at the regional hospital to orchestrate visits there with the golden retrievers.

The dogs, accompanied by their handlers and some of our pastors, visited staff at the hospital, including in the laboratory where victims’ blood types had been processed with extreme speed and precision to prepare for blood transfusions.

It has now been a little over a month since the shooting at MSU. While we are still hurting and processing all that has happened, our congregation has started planning for the future. Sadly, as the recent school shooting in Nashville shows, it’s necessary.

Our staff is preparing scenario planning exercises to think through how we would minister to our community if something similar happened at one of our high schools. We have already begun working with our local school district to serve as a reunification site if the need arises.

Though we are thinking about the future, we are still hurting in the present. Ministering through this pain is something that is measured in months and years, not hours and days. We are lingering with our people, together, to hurt and to heal.

We preach about this in sermons. We pray about this in worship. And we continue to meet in small groups to process the pain.

As we grieve, however, we do not “grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Instead, we are hurting and healing with our eyes on Jesus.

I came to rest through exhaustion.

I went to the doctor thinking I had some serious medical condition, but all the tests came back negative. It turned out I was just totally exhausted.

Around this time, I was given a book called “The Rest of God,” by Mark Buchanan, which reintroduces the virtue of stillness. Reading the book started me on a journey of rediscovering rest.

I first learned that there are different sorts of rest: physical, emotional, mental, social and spiritual. We can all feel exhausted and may recognize our need for rest, but do we know the sort of rest that we need? How good are we at recognizing the areas in which we are drained, where we need to be refreshed, restored and re-energized?

Physical exhaustion is perhaps the area that we are most familiar with, and it may be that we have only ever thought about rest in terms of our physical needs.

However, for many today, work is primarily emotional and mental rather than physical, and we are just as likely to be emotionally or mentally exhausted as we are to be physically tired.

During a year of living with a pandemic, we have all been doing a lot of extra emotional, mental and spiritual work and are probably more drained in these areas than we would be normally, even if our jobs are physically taxing.

When we are physically drained, we know that we might need to eat or drink, sit down for a while, have an early night, or even take a nap. Do we have the same awareness about what we are supposed to do when we are emotionally, mentally, socially or spiritually drained? What can restore us in these areas?

When I was suffering from exhaustion, I thought I needed to stop and just do very little, to physically rest. But in fact, I found that even though I was doing very little, I didn’t feel any more rested at the end of the day.

Eventually, I discovered that my primary exhaustion was emotional, not physical. Physical rest wasn’t what I needed. Actually, in some ways, it made things worse, because “doing nothing” just gave me more time to focus on my anxiety and worry.

I gradually learned my personal ways of emotional rest. I discovered that being in nature buoyed me emotionally — in particular, spending time with trees.

There was something about their solidity, their rootedness, their age. They had been here before I was and would still be standing long after I was not. I was comforted thinking about how they went through seasons and weathered the effects of those seasons.

The different and bigger perspective on my circumstances brought me back down to earth and out of my own head. I found it peaceful and regenerative. In fact, I found that being in nature refilled me in other ways as well, giving me mental, social and spiritual rest.

Rest need not be inactive. For me, doing physical activity that requires focus can be emotionally restful. I garden, cook or create something. If I occupy my hands, I find that my mind wanders away from my concerns.

Active rest may sound counterintuitive, but resting can simply be stopping ordinary work. Doing something that might be work to someone else may be restful for you.

If you’re feeling exhausted, noticing the areas in which you are weary is a good place to start. Is your exhaustion physical? Or is it actually emotional, mental, social or spiritual? Or is your tiredness a result of a combination of these types of exhaustion? Discovering what sort of rest you need is key.

However, it is one thing to know what sort of rest you need and quite another to actually find that rest.

Today, perhaps more than ever, rest is contested. Eliza Cortés Bast illustrates this beautifully in her essay “Rest can be hard work.” There are many factors that can keep us from resting, even when we know what we need.

But Jesus has given us an invitation to come to rest (Matthew 11:28). Rest was even listed among the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8) — yet when was the last time we asked for forgiveness for not resting?

People in every walk of life are exhausted, but we have a God who gives permission to rest, who invites anyone who is weary to come to rest.

Rest need not be inactive.