Angela Williams Gorrell on the Gravity of Joy for Young People
Practical theologian Angela Williams Gorrell shares how experiencing life's challenges and sorrows is also an opportunity to share in its joy.
Host [00:00:02] Welcome to Public Worship and the Christian Life, a podcast by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship that explores connections between the public worship practices of congregations and the dynamics of Christian life and witness in a variety of contexts. Our conversation partners represent many areas of expertise and a range of Christian traditions offering insights to challenge us as we discern the shape of faith for worship and witness in our own communities. In season three, we focus on ministry alongside youth by exploring five themes: youth agency, theological questions, the role of families and parents, intergenerational community, and multiple pathways for youth.
Kristen Verhulst [00:00:56] My conversation partner today is Angela Williams Gorrell, assistant professor of practical theology at Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University. She's an ordained minister in the Mennonite Church USA and for many years served as a youth pastor. Today I'm very pleased to talk with Angela about her brand-new book The Gravity of Joy. Angela, it's great to have you with me today. Thanks for joining.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:01:30] Thank you for having me. I'm delighted to be with you and with everyone who's listening with us today.
Kristen Verhulst [00:01:35] Thanks. So, Angela, for those who don't know, tell us the story behind your book. Why did you write it?
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:01:44] That is a long story. I'm going to tell it as quickly as possible so that we can jump into more of the content and what I learned. But essentially, I was hired in March 2016 at Yale University to study joy. It was my first job after getting a PhD, and that was just a remarkable thing. I remember finishing up my PhD work at Fuller Theological Seminary in Los Angeles and just thinking, “Oh my goodness, my job is to study joy, and I get to go do it at Yale with other scholars that I have such immense respect for. What a joy in itself, the work, the job!” Eight months into the job, I had four weeks that are what I describe in my book as four weeks of hell. I lost three family members back to back. The first family member died by suicide at 30 years old. It was shocking. It was a punch in the gut. I say in the book it was nauseating; it's what nightmares are made of. The following week after his death . . . until after that was the hardest week of my life, and maybe today, even to this day. It was the hardest week of being with others in the midst of pain that I've ever experienced. Just really, really hard for my entire family. And then two weeks later, my nephew died suddenly at 22. And that brought its own kind of grief. Just the senseless death of a young person that to this day it's just really hard to wrap our minds around the fact that he had this unknown heart condition that took him away from us very suddenly as well. So they were both very, very surprising deaths, and each just very tragic in their own ways. And then my dad died five days after my nephew's funeral. I spent the last five hours of his life with him, and I'm very grateful for that. But his death was a long, slow tragedy in its own way. He used opioids for twelve years and over time they took over his entire life. It went from just a medical need being met to, as the story of so many people in the United States that are a part of the opioid crisis, just really [taking] over his whole life, and his addiction became everything. After I got back to Yale, I mean, my job was to study joy in the midst of profound grief and in the midst of trying to make sense of the senseless death of a young person, of suicide rates in America, the opioid crisis. And so for a year and five months, I really felt like our work was irrelevant. I went into this really dark place in myself where I wondered why we were doing what we were doing, feeling like there were much worthier tasks that we could take up. And it wasn't until I became a chaplain, a volunteer chaplain at a women's prison, that God began to teach me about the work of joy in the midst of suffering. And that's what this book is about.
Kristen Verhulst [00:05:03] Thank you so much for the willingness, the courage, the vulnerability in sharing your story. It really is so gripping. And the book just opens up everyone to consider too those areas of pain in their own life as we learn your story and go through your pain. What are you hearing back from those who have read your book? What are your readers opening up about or sharing with you?
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:05:32] Oh my goodness. My favorite—the biggest gift that you get after writing a book like this is that people . . . I say in the book that I had two major hopes for readers, and one is that you finish the book wanting to be more open to joy in your own life even if you're in the midst of pain or if you've experienced really tremendous grief and suffering and you're still trying to heal from it. So anyone who just is like, “I want to become more open to joy in my life,” I hope that that's what they walk away [with] when they read the book. And secondly, I really wanted people who have a similar story of pain, or . . . of struggling with faith in the midst of pain, struggling to get out of bed after grief or during grief, that they'll feel less alone in the world, and they'll feel like in telling my story, that they have permission to tell theirs. And so that's been an incredible gift, that almost every week for the last year, somebody messages me, emails me, tells me through Instagram or any number of other avenues, “I read your book, and this is my story, and this is how it related to me or touched me.”
For example, I had a comedian who runs a major podcast, or two of them, for Spotify who—we had no connection, but somebody gave her my book, and during the week that her dog died and a family member died she just really connected with my honesty about the grief process. . . . It's just been all different sorts of people. There's been people who have said, “I also know someone who died by suicide” [or] “I also know someone struggling with addiction” or “Me, myself, I'm struggling with addiction”—different natures—“and your book really is helping me think through these things in my own life and helping me to get to the sources of pain that are at the roots of my suicidal thinking or my addiction or my struggle with wondering if my life is worth living.” And then . . . someone messaged me that they'd been given my book after their twins had been born stillborn. People have messaged me after just being diagnosed with something. It's just been really interesting, like all sorts of pain. But the theme of the book is that all of us experience pain of some sort or another, and pain can give way to despair if we're not careful because pain is a parasite. And so how do we not allow that to happen? How do we not fall into the crisis of despair that is really easy to fall into, especially in a pandemic? How is joy a work of resistance against despair? And so I've heard from a lot of different people who are like, “I needed that message. Joy is a work of resistance against despair. What does it take to become more open to joy? I needed that in my life.”
Kristen Verhulst [00:08:42] Yes. And you just opened up the nice segue to our topic along with the book, but it's really working with youth, pastoral ministry with youth. And in our work here at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, we're looking at public worship, but also youth participation, faith formation. And these for us are all interlocking themes and are never separate things. And so we're so grateful for your book and how you look at pain and suffering. But then joy is also being a companion alongside of that. So I wonder, especially too as you think about your own study and work with young people, how can we prepare them in our roles in church life for those times when they are going to have pain in the Christian life? It's not a matter of if, but really when they will experience deep, deep despair and deep pain.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:09:46] Yeah, absolutely. I love this because I think that it's a really important point that it's not a matter of if, but really when for everyone. And that's similar to deconstruction or doubt in our faith. Instead of saying, “Oh, you could . . .” or just kind of avoiding it or trying to keep them from it, instead, preparing them. There could be times in your life when the truth of your life experience rubs up against a truth that you've held for a long time in relationship to your faith, and you might feel like you have to choose between the truth of your life experience and your faith, and you don't. There's actually another way of thinking about these things. Similarly, it's about preparing young people that you don't have to choose. There will be times in your life when your life experience will make you question things about the goodness of God, about the sovereignty of God, about your own holiness and the fact that you're trying to be a good person and yet difficult things are happening. And so when that happens to you, what do you do? That's a conversation we have to have with young people because it really is going to happen at some point. Like, you will have these things that you believe to be true about the nature of God, about the nature of other people and yourself. And then life will happen, and it will create cognitive dissonance and frustration and sadness and anger and many other things for you. And so how do we prepare for that? That's what we're trying to do. We're saying we're going to be Christians, we're going to be young people who are prepared for moments in life when we experience grief, anger, frustration, fear, and when we question the nature of the goodness of other people in the world and God.
So first, I think, we say it like that. We just say, “Let's prepare for a day when this will happen, because it will likely happen to all of you and to me and to us.” So how do we prepare for that? And then I think it's about creating spaces, where there are spaces that are really shame-less, places where we say, “In this space we can be honest. And we don't have to have shame about hard feelings, about difficult things that come up in us. And so when you're angry, this is a space where you can share your anger, and we're going to walk alongside you and help you constructively work through that. When you're fearful, this is a place where we welcome you to talk about it and we're going to help you to work through it,” so that difficult feelings don't become—because I think we tend to call them good emotions or bad emotions, [but] I think all emotions are good in the sense that all of them are teachers; . . . there's wisdom there if we allow it to be engaged with and grappled with. And so instead of saying to young people, “Don't be angry; don't let the sun go down on your anger; . . . just shut it down. . . . And don't be afraid. Just trust in the Lord”—instead of just shutting people down and saying, “Don't feel this way,” I think our thing that we need to do is like, “Okay, let's explore this with you. What is this signaling to you?” Usually if we're fearful or we're angry or we're frustrated, it's signaling to us that something is wrong and we need to pay attention to it. So how might God be showing up in the way that we're feeling and teaching us something and helping us to work through it? You know, we look at the life of Jesus; he got angry sometimes. He got really disappointed. He got frustrated. And so we can also help young people to see even in the life of Jesus, this person, the Son of God we're longing to imitate, he had these feelings, and he worked through them. These things are all obstacles to joy. So I think we have to, one, set them up that this is going to happen. Two, we have to say this is a space where we don't want people to experience shame. Three, every feeling is welcome here, and the feelings that are obstacles to joy, like fear and anger, are going to be worked through in this space. We're going to create constructive ways of working through them. And then finally, it's about nurturing what I call “gateways to joy.”
Kristen Verhulst [00:14:09] This just reminded me of a . . . memory going way back to sixth grade of a friend, a classmate of mine whose grandparent died, and I just remember very much at that moment when I learned that her grandparent had died, I wanted to give her comfort, but I didn't even know what to say. And I thought all those years of going to church or Sunday school, but nobody prepared me for this moment when there was pain in my friend's life. . . . It was like I didn't have the right words to know what to say to offer comfort, and even just those kinds of examples of how we can talk to our young people about offering comfort or being empathetic to others who are going through pain.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:14:56] Right. I mean, yeah, that's a whole other thing, too, is how do we help people work through grief? Well, I think it really starts with creating space for grief and lament. And so we can say, “In this community there are times that we take time to lament with each other. Sometimes it's prompted by the life experience of someone in the room. Sometimes it's prompted by a major news headline. But we grieve in this community. We regularly take time to lament and to name our laments with God and to God and with one another.” I talk about in The Gravity of Joy that at the heart of the testimony about God's response to suffering is witness and with-ness. And so in the midst of suffering, what people need are witnesses to their pain. They need people who say, like, “Kristen, I see you. I see your pain. And it is real. I see it. I acknowledge it. I lament with you. That is a sad thing.” Sometimes we just need someone to say, “Yes, that is really sad. That is really hard.” Full stop.
Kristen Verhulst [00:16:00] Right. Period.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:16:01] And then with-ness, which is like, “And I am with you in this thing. I am with you in this hard thing. I am with you in this very sad thing.” And I think part of that then is opening up to their experience of grief. My friend circle, we have a thing in our texting thread [that] whenever something happens to people—my friend Michaela started it; she's brilliant. And she says—and now we all do it—“Three feeling words?”. . . So when somebody says something that's hard or something that's amazing or anything in between, we’ll often just say, “Three feeling words?” Because, one, that doesn't assume that I understand, because just because something hard happened doesn't mean that it's only sadness that they feel. They can feel any number of things. For example, when someone dies, you don't know the relationship that they had with them. So even a teenager who has a parent die or grandparent die or something like that, we can't assume that that relationship was nurturing, for example, and loving. It can be sad for them, but for totally different reasons than we can imagine. But when we say to them, “What are three feelings that you're feeling right now in relationship to this death? When you think about your grandparent dying, what feeling comes up for you?”
And then the other thing I think that is really helpful is when we realize that it was a loving, nurturing relationship, is we can ask them, “You know, Kristen, what was your mom like? Tell me. What was she like? Because that creates space for memories, for stories. Because oftentimes with death, we think, “I don't know what to say, so I'll say nothing.” But you don't have to say a lot. You can allow them to say what they want to say and to just be like, “Well, they were really funny. . . . They were so light-hearted.” So then in that moment, like, “What made them funny? What did they do? Can you tell me a story about a time when you all laughed uncontrollably together?” Because the thing about it is, when someone we love dies, what we want most of all is for us to be able to keep talking about them, because that's how they stay alive. And when people stop talking about them or giving us space to talk about them, that's when they really die.
Kristen Verhulst [00:18:23] Right. Thanks.
Host [00:18:27] You are listening to Public Worship and the Christian Life: Conversations for the Journey, a podcast produced by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Check out our website at worship.calvin.edu for resources related to this topic and many other aspects of public worship.
Kristen Verhulst [00:18:53] We touched on families here, and parents, and sometimes in regards to youth and church life, there are relationships that are not so healthy with parents. But for those where families and parents are good support structures, a lot of times you hear parents say, “Oh, I just want my kids to be happy.” So what can we do in the context of church life, of working with youth? How do we cultivate hope in the Christian life rather than this idea of I just need them to be happy?
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:19:31] No, I know what you're saying, because happiness is the most sought after thing, probably. Even Laurie Santos, who is the professor of the happiness course at Yale, which is the most popular course that's ever been at Yale, even she would say that there is this insatiable thirst for happiness. And the thing about happiness, the reason why it's elusive, the reason why it might not be the thing to want for your children above all else, is because it's elusive and we have no ceiling for it. Researchers can actually tell you [that] you don't have a ceiling for happiness. However happy you are, you can always feel happier. And also, it oftentimes takes . . . more happiness the next time to feel as good as you do or whatever. And the thing about happiness, I think we just need really good working definitions of happiness versus joy. And I think if parents can understand and the other caregivers of youth can understand the difference between happiness and joy, they'll get what you and I are trying to talk about, I think, which is: happiness is generally the evaluation of our circumstances. We look around at our life, the conditions of our life—how much money we're making, what kind of work we're doing, whether we have the kind of romantic relationship that we want, how fit we are—and we think, “I'm happy with the health that I am. I'm happy with my romantic relationship. I'm happy with my group of friends. I'm happy with how big my house is,” or my car, or my work, or whatever. And I think that it makes sense that a lot of caregivers of young people want them to be happy. They want them to have a good life in the sense of they want them to have circumstances that are like good cars, good houses, good jobs, good relationships. But the thing is, is that we're trying with joy to get at, I think, what is worthier than happiness, which is this deeper sense that the sorts of things that we're naming, what's beneath all of that?
Kristen Verhulst [00:21:52] Giving you roots. Grounding you.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:21:57] I would say that whereas happiness is like the evaluation of circumstances, point blank, I would say that joy is a more profound emotion because it's the recognition and connection we feel to meaning, to truth, to beauty, to goodness and to one another. And so it's deeper than just the surface level of like, do I have this stuff, and is it enough? It's about finding the meaning in our relationships and in our work and the truth behind how we're living. It's about finding goodness in the world and in ourselves and in one another. So it's more than being fit. It's more than being . . . It's about finding beauty that is more than just looking good and stuff like that. It's teaching our young people that it's okay to want good circumstances in your life overall, but there's more to life than just feeling good about your circumstances. There is goodness, meaning true beauty, connection with others that's deeper. So I would say that joy is the ability to see beyond to something more. Joy is an illumination, and that's what we really want, I think, for our kids at the end of the day. And then joy is also the very being and presence of God ministering to us. Andy Root, who's written numerous books on youth ministry, that's what he would say. Joy is the very being and presence of God ministering to us, and that is stronger than our conditions of our life. So then if joy is God ministering to us, it's God's presence being recognized by us, then whether we're in the midst of great circumstances or in the midst of really hard circumstances, joy can find us.
Kristen Verhulst [00:23:48] Yeah, that's great. Another theme that we look at in youth ministry and the role of youth participation in the life of the church are intergenerational relationships. And I think that just leads so nicely from what you just said, is how can we encourage getting to know others outside of your age bracket so that you can learn these experiences of testimony of God's goodness and sustaining presence in lives of believers?
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:24:30] I heard about a program last fall; the name of it is escaping me right this second. But it was actually started by a woman who's Jewish. But the program could be used, she said, by people of any religious tradition and also people who would associate more with humanism or something like that. But basically the idea behind it, I think, is just really wonderful for listeners who work with youth and who want to do intergenerational ministry more. What she does is she gets older people and younger people, groups of them, to commit to being in a mentoring relationship with each other for seven weeks. And so she looks for young people who would really like some wisdom and some help discerning something in their life or making a transition. So sometimes they're seniors who are picking the college they’re going to go to, or they're young people who are struggling with loneliness. There's just any number of reasons why a young person might say, “You know what? I could really use somebody who has lived longer than me and who just has more insight and more perspective than I do to help me think through this thing.” And then she finds older adults, many of them living in assisted living facilities, or maybe they're part of the deacon group at church, or they've been longtime members or something like that, and they're retired, and they have a lot of stories to tell and wisdom to pass on and would really benefit from being around the energy and vitality of some young people; that would just give them a lot of joy. . . . Every Christian community, we need young people and older people because young people bring vitality and energy and enthusiasm and naivete—that's very important; they're not as political as we are. And then older people bring wisdom and discernment and lived experience that's so valuable and important. . . . So what she does is she has them on the first day, they do like speed dating, basically, and they all go around in a circle for several minutes and they have different questions that are guiding them in their conversation with each other. And they keep notes. And basically it's similar to the show Love Is Blind that's on Netflix right now where they keep notes on each other and then they tell at the end of the time who they felt like they really resonated with, kind of their top three people that they would love to continue having conversations with. And then she matches them, a mentor and a mentee, and for seven weeks they meet together and they give them topics and stuff to do together so you can have an activity and a topic, and they nurture these relationships. And they just sign up for seven weeks, and that makes it easier, I think, especially for a young person to say yes. And what she finds is that a good percentage of them continue to have relationships long after the experiment is over, long after their time together is done, and they just do it on their own and continue. So that's like one way of having a mentoring program that really is about these deeper things in life. I think being open to feeling connected to and recognizing meaning, truth, beauty, goodness, feeling connected to other people—these are the things that bring life joy and make it worth living.
Kristen Verhulst [00:28:03] Certainly build up strong bonds and connections in a community. There are so many avenues, activities that are pulling at young people today. I mean, they're busy with schoolwork, but all kinds of other activities, and then also church and church life. Are there ways that you have seen or that even in your own, as you look back in your years of leading in youth ministry, we can tap into these varied interests of our young people to help them see that there's not just sort of this one pathway into the life of the church, but it's in all of our variety and all the gifts that God has given to us that we might find a particular way that we can really feel connected to the church and to the life of the faith? So this idea that there are just many, many ways into a life of joy, a life that can be hopeful, that we don't have to find one single path and hope we get it right.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:29:13] Yeah. I mean, I really think that that takes youth leaders who have that imagination. As long as it's presented that way, that there are lots of ways to be connected to our community, and there's not just one size fits all. I think that's going to be the hardest work that we do in the next decade of youth ministry is figuring out how does youth ministry happen across time and space so that it's not all hinged on like one specific gathering every week with a bunch of youth in chairs listening to one person and singing together. I think we have to have an imagination for youth ministry that's like it happens across the span of a week in different ways. And sometimes it's connecting with these youth in pastoral care one on one; sometimes it looks like meeting in this digital space with these youth this way; sometimes it's meeting in person with these youth and doing a Bible study in this way. We have to first imagine that youth ministry [doesn’t] all hinge on one or two events that happen each week that we give our whole selves to, but that there are several things that our youth ministry is for. So first that has to be determined. Going back to Andy, actually, in his book The End of Youth Ministry, he's saying we have to first really understand what youth ministry is for. . . . And not just “making disciples of Jesus,” [but] what does that mean to you? Like, what sort of disciples, what sort of characters and virtues are you trying to develop in young people? How are you doing that? Like, it is for connecting youth with their community in this way, being as specific in concrete as possible, and then saying, what are the variety of ways that youth can participate in achieving, in doing, in being a part of this youth ministry and what it's for? And sometimes that looks like digital discipleship, sometimes it looks like an in-person small group, sometimes it looks like one-on-one stuff, any number of things. And then we put on our website [that] these are the different ways to be involved in our community. And you can do all of them, you can do one of them, and you're a part of our community.
Kristen Verhulst [00:31:27] And it could be that COVID was very disruptive in so many ways. Maybe that is shaking up a few things around how we do church life and ministry work. So maybe there will be some good pieces that come from that disruptive time.
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:31:47] Yeah, I think in many ways it can be seen as a holy disruption if we allow it to, and we can allow it to shape our imagination. I've been thinking a lot about the pandemic and I wrote about this, about how it's Paul when he . . . like the man in Macedonia that ended up being Lydia, a woman. I think that sometimes we think God is taking us to one place and instead it's to another, and God is taking us to one person and instead it's somebody else. And that's the kind of moment I think we're in, in youth ministry and in the larger church. We thought we were going somewhere and we were reaching someone in a particular way. And perhaps we need a new imagination, like a new ecclesial imagination, I think.
Kristen Verhulst [00:32:29] Angela, it's been wonderful talking with you. I wonder as we close out here, do you have any words of wisdom or a parting blessing to any young person that might pick up your book or to someone who mentors and leads young people?
Angela Williams Gorrell [00:32:47] Yes. Anyone who's listening right now, I'd love for you to just know that your story is still being told, and it's a story worth telling, and that no matter what you're experiencing today, you won't always feel this way. And no matter how much pain or suffering that you've witnessed in the last couple of years or that you're in right now, that there is no imprisoned mind, nowhere in space, no darkened feeling that joy cannot break through because joy is the very being and presence of God loving on you and being present to you. Joy can always, always find you.
Host [00:33:34] Thanks for listening. We invite you to visit our website at worship.calvin.edu to learn more about the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, an interdisciplinary study and ministry center dedicated to the scholarly study of the theology, history, and practice of Christian worship and the renewal of worship in worshiping communities across North America and beyond.