I don’t know much about canoeing, but I do know this: when the rapids approach, our instinct is to lean away from what’s ahead rather than into it. Years ago, my husband Jeff and I were canoeing with friends on a lazy, meandering stream. The gentle water was the perfect setting for two novice canoers. For the majority of our time in the canoe, we allowed the current to move us slowly downstream. The stillness of the journey allowed us to take in the varied birds and trees all around us.
Toward the end of the trip, we rounded a bend and saw white water ahead of us. I panicked and leaned back in the boat. As I instinctively leaned away, the boat started to rock from side to side. I could not stop our canoe from going through the fast and rough water, but I could increase the likelihood that we would turn over the canoe. I took a deep breath and leaned my body toward what was ahead and fixed my feet on the floor of the canoe. Jeff and I worked together to keep the boat upright, and we used our paddles to keep ourselves pointed in the right direction.
When chaos descends upon us, our instinct is to recoil. We want to escape it, and we want to lean back into what is familiar. We want to cling to what we know because what we know is comfortable. The trouble is, in our longing for normalcy, we let go of the steadying hand of grace. In our struggle to hang onto what we used to have, we let joy slip through our fingertips.
This year has been a crash course in chaos navigation. Each change, each difficult decision, each loss, has accumulated to cause an avalanche of uncertainty and chaos in our lives. Over the course of this chaotic year, I have struggled to find joy. I have run short on grace for myself and others. I have dangled little carrots of hope in front of myself to help me put one foot in front of the other. And, even though I still struggle with the chaos and the grief, I have discovered a few things that are helping me keep joy bubbling up when I need it most.
Don’t try to make “now” into “then.” When chaos strikes, my first impulse is to fix it. As it became impossible to continue having meetings and gatherings in person, I rushed to move them all online. My goal was to preserve my routines (as well as relationships, of course). However, after a couple of months of multiple Zoom meetings a day, I found myself weary and sad. Some of my sadness was because seeing people virtually is not the same as being with them physically. But much of my exhaustion was from trying to cram a new reality into an old paradigm.
In Matthew 9, Jesus told two parables about the old and the new. You would never sew a patch of unshrunk cloth onto an old garment, nor would you put new wine into old wineskins. Why? The garment would tear and the wineskins would burst. The new way of life Jesus called the disciples—and the church—to embody simply wouldn’t fit into the way things used to be.
We do not find joy in chaotic times by trying to force what used to work into our present circumstances. Every virtual meeting I have is a fresh reminder of what I’ve lost. Some of these meetings and online gatherings have been necessary and continue to be part of my daily life. However, the longer I tried replacing what I used to have, the more I realized I couldn’t continue to live life that way.
Finding joy in the midst of chaos means being honest about what you’re facing, and sometimes that takes time. In this chaotic year, I have moved from trying to continue my routines and my habits no matter the cost, to evaluating what things need to stay and what things need to go as I adapt to a new way of life. We need to “lean into the discomfort of the work” as Brené Brown so wisely said in her TED Talk on vulnerability. We do not adapt in chaotic times by leaning away from what’s in front of us, but by moving with the current of our ever-changing reality.
Lean into grace. In Greek, the word “joy” (chara) is related to the word “grace” (charis). Joy is found as we become aware of grace. When we lean into the grace of God and we show grace to others and ourselves, we will find ourselves opened up to joy in ways we never imagined possible.
In times of chaos, we may make more mistakes than usual. We might have quicker tempers and a lower tolerance for stress and difficulties. During this past year, I have found everyday tasks to be a struggle. I haven’t had the attention span for reading, and I’ve had to ask for extensions on writing deadlines more often than ever before. My instinct when I make mistakes or have to ask for help is to condemn myself. This year has shown me on a scale I’ve never experienced before how soul-sucking it is to lean away from grace.
We are in need of grace daily, especially so in the midst of chaos. Finding joy in these difficult times means leaning into grace—for ourselves and for others. Mistakes will happen. We will try to cling to unhelpful things only to discover our self-defeating habits in painful ways. We will lose patience with ourselves and others. These things are always true, but they may arise more frequently when we are experiencing tumultuous times. Even when we mess things up, even when we let ourselves down, even when we are frustrated with the way others around us have handled the chaos in their own lives, we need to lean into grace.
In that canoe all those years ago, Jeff and I could not avoid the rapids, but we could navigate over them together. We steadied the canoe and helped each other as we bumped and jolted and jostled. And eventually, we made it through and got to a place where we could rest and look back at all we had overcome. As we face the challenges in the days to come, we must lean into the discomfort and find a new way of being together. We must share grace and compassion with each other as we inevitably get things wrong at times.
Then, when the dust settles, we can share with each other and remember both the tough stuff and the glimpses of joy we experienced along the way. May the moments of joy give us the courage to keep leaning forward and sharing grace as we navigate the chaos each and every day.