The urgency of untidy joy

Deeper Communion

July 3, 2024 | Opinion | Volume 28 Issue 9
Cindy Wallace, Justin Sun, Anika Reynar, Ryan Dueck |


I’ve been thinking again about joy.


I know this theme is counterintuitive. The scope of violence and injustice in the world is crushing right now, both far away and close to home, and it’s proving chronic in ways that undermine efforts to be “joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer” (Romans 12:12). We need urgent action on so many fronts, and instead we find ourselves learning to live in long-scale uncertainty. It wears us down.


We’re tempted to become so focused on everything that’s wrong that we fumble around in a fog of sorrowful frustration, or to block it out with distractions.


In this setting, joy can seem almost obscene. But I think we need it now more than ever.


I know this is a risky claim, so I should clarify. I don’t mean that we should pressure each other to perform cheerfulness or hide our struggles. In fact, I think we need more room in our lives, and especially our churches, for lament. I’m learning about this practice from my friend Liz Digitale Anderson, who leads song circles in the Twin Cities that offer a container for grief. (Do you have containers for your grief, my friends?)


I also don’t mean joy in a way that spiritually bypasses the here and now. I don’t mean the old distinction between joy and happiness, where happiness is fleeting and joy is eternal. This distinction makes for a tidy sermon, but it misses a fulsome theology of creation and incarnation. Our delight doesn’t have to transcend the here and now to be holy.


No, what I’m thinking about is joy experienced in our bodies, joy experienced together, joy as a counterweight to our sorrow, joy as a ballast. I’m thinking about joy that reminds us why life is so precious, why peace is so precious, why we shouldn’t give up the struggle for a world in which all can flourish.


I’m thinking about the joy of a new baby or a 70th birthday, 90 days of sobriety, a completed cancer treatment, or the green haze of carrot sproutlings in the garden. I’m thinking about ice cream at a funeral reception, an eight-year-old’s sense of humour, the wind in the trees, and the sound of rain on the roof. I’m thinking about a party I plan to host this summer, the only purpose of which will be to eat pie in the yard.


I need to “taste and see that the LORD is good” as the Psalmist puts it. As a person living in a chronically ill body that soaks up all the world’s sorrows and turns them into pain, I need to remember with all my senses that “every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). I need to embrace the earth’s goodness so I have the strength to hope and pray and work for the earth’s goodness.


Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of references to joy alongside struggle, which is wild if you think about first-century life and all the more reason to take his calls seriously. We are not the first humans who need reminding to “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). It can feel so wrong, on a Sunday, to share good news right after someone else has shared a diagnosis, but we need to open our hearts to both. We need to walk with each other through both.


I know all this (I’ve even written about it before), but I forget. I need reminding. Do you need reminding too, dear fellow columnists and readers? Where are you finding joy these days?


– Cindy Wallace is professor of English at St.Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan.




You never forget your first.


It arrives—a molten-hot basket is placed at your table. You stare at it with questioning eyes until someone flips open the lid. A plain-looking group of oval fireballs stare back at you.


“Allow me,” someone at the table offers. So they pick up your bowl and serve you. “Be careful,” they say. “It’s hot.” But of course, you don’t listen and you pop the whole thing into your mouth.


An explosion. Pain. Your soul cries out. People laugh.


But after the agony of these Chinese steamed buns subsides, it hits—the ecstasy. Then, the questions: How can anything in a world this troublesome be this singularly good? How did it take this long to know this joy with your own body?


I’d like to believe everyone’s life is changed after their first … .


The suffering in this world weighs heavy every day, and I struggle to experience joy without a voice in my head telling me it’s wrong to know joy when others do not. But today, I am grateful, firstly, for Cindy’s reminder to be open to both the good and difficult, and, secondly, for xiao long bao’s reminder of goodness and goodness shared—what we strive for, ultimately. 


– Justin Sun, youth pastor at Peace Mennonite Church, Richmond, B.C.



I recently joined two friends on a patio where folks from my neighbourhood like to gather. In the early summer, these sorts of evenings come as a surprise, a delight. Air warm but not yet weighted by the mid-summer humidity. The smell of lilacs drifting in the air.


“What’s a question you wish people would ask you more often?” my friend said. I considered for a moment, and answered, “I wish people would ask me more often about moments where I experienced joy.”


“Well then, where have you experienced joy recently?” my friend asked.


I recalled a day a few weeks prior that felt particularly heavy with grief. Leaving a vigil for Palestine, I biked to an urban farm, where friends gathered to share a meal. As people began to leave, I heard shrieks of laughter behind me. Turning around, I saw two friends, alive in their adult bodies, somersaulting and rolling down a hill. Despite myself, I laughed, too. A deep, belly sort of laugh. Joy!


I am grateful for Cindy’s reminder to practice sharing and asking one another about these moments.


– Anika Reynar, recent graduate, Yale University



American poet Christian Wiman wrote an article a few years ago probing the idea that good art requires “friction.” “Light writes white,” the saying goes—if you’re happy, the page stays blank.


Wiman, who has lived with cancer for years, knows a thing or two about suffering producing good art. His poems and prose have never shied away from the gritty, painful parts of reality. And yet, Wiman’s article was a plea to not forget joy—that joy, too, tells the story of our world and ourselves.


I love Cindy’s image of joy as a “ballast.” I, too, need to taste and see that the Lord is good. Yes, there is a kind of wilful head-in-the-sand naïveté that pretends all is well, that ignores the hard truths of existence and only focuses on the saccharine and the cheaply uplifting. But there is a kind of joy that is more like a “defiant nevertheless.” A happiness that persists, even though all the facts have been considered, to borrow from Wendell Berry. Or, as Wiman summarizes: “Praise, too, is part of any whole artistic and existential vision. Joy is one kind of courage.” 


Ryan Dueck, pastor, Lethbridge (Alberta) Mennonite Church

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