1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3 The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. 4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. 5 May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. 6 Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
A Harvest of Joy
by Angela Gorrell, Ph.D.
In early 2016, I was hired to study joy at Yale. For real. My job was to read about, think about, and investigate joy. Then, eight months into the joy project, three of my family members died in four weeks: One of my family members, Dustin, died at 30 by suicide. My nephew, Mason, died suddenly at age 22 of a previously unknown heart condition, and my dad died after years of opioid use.
I did my fair share of weeping. I grieved hard.
My book, The Gravity of Joy, chronicles my journey—the months that followed these deaths and what I learned about joy amid suffering. It was released in March of this year, a year into the pandemic and in the midst of further and deeper complex grief in my life.
Sharing this book meant constantly talking about joy on podcasts, in sermons and lectures, and during interviews, while navigating yet more loss in my life. I remember wondering, would my research hold? During a pandemic? In the midst of more grief?
I sat on the back porch of my house last night watching fireflies. Initially, I saw one light up when I went into the backyard to latch my gate, again (the pesky gate that never closes correctly). I wondered for a moment if I had actually seen a firefly or if I had imagined it. But then I saw three more.
Light. Light. Light. Glimmers of light that pierced through dusk.
A chemical reaction inside the bodies of fireflies causes them to light up. Strangely, researchers discovered chemical reactions also happen in human beings that cause us to literally glow too, but it is not visible to the naked human eye.
I sat down on the steps of my back porch and waited for more light. Each time, my heart filled up, as if the shimmers of light were not simply lightning bugs as we called them growing up in Appalachia, but metaphors for my life.
For your life.
As I came to understand in the months following the deaths of my family members and my research, joy can be a companion in our pain because joy has grit. It does not break easily. Joy can stare life’s most brutal moments down and live, because it is made and sustained by those things that always remain, even when we cannot see them—truth, meaning, beauty, goodness, connection, God.
Since joy is the very being and presence of God ministering to us, it can always, always find us.
Next time you notice a glimmer—a firefly, a full moon, a child laughing uncontrollably, a table surrounded by people you love, a pet that greets you warmly, a song that has meaning for you, a spontaneous kind gesture, a reunion at the airport…as Mary Oliver encourages, “Give into it.” Allow joy to wash over you. Allow God to minister to you.
You are not betraying your grief this Christmas season if you let joy in. God made our hearts brilliantly. Mysteriously, they can hold sorrow and joy at the same time. I know, because joy has continued to find me, to heal me, to sustain me, even and especially in grief.
So I invite you to sit in the dusk of night and watch for the light. Live open to joy. Live expectantly.
And be sure to look at people around you for the glimmer. They are glowing.
In fact, you are too.
Learn More About Our Guest Writer
Angela Gorrell, Ph.D.
Dr. Angela Williams Gorrell joined Baylor's George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Fall 2019 as assistant professor of Practical Theology. Prior to joining the faculty at Baylor University, she was an Associate Research Scholar at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture, working on the Theology of Joy and the Good Life Project, and a lecturer in Divinity and Humanities at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. She is an ordained pastor with 14 years of ministry experience.
Dr. Gorrell is passionate about finding issues that matter to people and shining the light of the Gospel on them. She is the author of Always On: Practicing Faith in a New Media Landscape and a new book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found, which shares findings of the joy project while addressing America’s opioid and suicide crises. Dr. Gorrell’s expertise is in the areas of theology and contemporary culture, education and formation, meaning-making, joy, new media and youth and emerging adults. Dr. Gorrell regularly consults, speaks, and leads workshops and retreats on her research and areas of expertise.