Growing the Joy Muscle.

Some families unbuckle their belts and nap.  Others watch football. Thanksgiving intermission for my family always involves perpetrating a yearly misdemeanor.  In my family, the price for a piece of pumpkin pie is the moral burden that comes from willfully suppressing one’s conscience, and engaging in a little Thanksgiving lawlessness.

The nieces and nephews are getting older now, but for many years, our crime syndicate included four-year-olds, grade-schoolers, middle-schoolers, teen-agers, twenty-somethings, and adults spanning the upper limits of the age spectrum.  The caper has always invoved bundling up, stealing through the cold, soggy park, and winding our way through neighborhood streets, to the barely noticeable, human-sized gap between fence and hedges that surrounds the private, “No Trespassing” allowed, golf course.  One-by-one, we manage to wiggle through the semi-permeable membrane meant to keep riff-raff like us out.  

Once on the other side, there is running, laughing, Frisbie throwing, and of course, my yearly Civil War ghost-story at the old stone tunnel, under the train trestle at the edge of the golf course.  One year, I channeled the ghost of asoldier.  In my best Southern drawl, I had him relate his experience of hiding with his displaced unit under the trestle throughout a cold, hard winter.  The story was peppered with provocative statements like, “…I alone survived…” and, “…I’m not sayin’ I’m proud of what I done to stay alive….”  At one point, I got a little carried away, and had the main character occupy the shelter of the warm carcass of his newly slain horse like Luke Skywalker in, The Empire Strikes Back.

For the ending, I switched back into my own voice.  “Some say, you can still hear the ghost of that soldier playing his harmonica as he patrols the streets of this old neighborhood at night.”  With that, I took out my own mouth harp and slowly played a few notes from a Civil War era song.  You could have heard a pin drop.  I knew that I hit the right narrative notes when I heard the debate that ensued among the younger cousins.  Some were convinced that, in addition to sacrificing his horse, that my main character engaged in cannibalism to keep himself alive.  Awesome!

There’s more to our Thanksgiving hijinks than trespassingon private property.  Some years ago, Lisa began to request that all of our guests identify their favorite song of the year.  This new tradition involves compiling those songs into a play list for the night’s dinner music.  Some years, that greatest hits album has spanned 76 years of musical tastes! We’ve had everything from Yivis (“What does the Fox Say?”) to Dean Martin (“Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime”).  With a play list like that, spontaneous dancing and sing-a-longs spontaneously break out at various points in the evening.   

Most years, the Thanksgiving meal prayer has wound one-person-at-a-time around the table.  A few years ago, rather than expressing their thanks in words, meal companions danced their thanks to one of our guest’s favorite songs (Michael Franti’s, “Hey, I Love You”).  I couldn’t help but think of King David, dancing before the Ark of the Covenant.  

One year, politics made a cameo appearance.  When it came his to turn for gratitude, my brother-in-law, Scott, prayed in gratitude for President Trump.  Two people later, a different brother-in-law, Nick, prayed in appreciation for impeachment.  Laughter broke out just before the Lord’s Prayer.  It occurred to me, in that moment, that another blessing had just taken place.  In that humorous back-and-forth, a meta-message was communicated:  there’s room for a wide spectrum of people at our table.     

So why, you might be wondering, am I looking backwards towards Thanksgiving when everyone else is marching forward, inexorably, toward Christmas?  I suppose it’s because I believe that the core experience of giving thanks has everything to do with the focus of this Sunday in the liturgical year.  The Third Sunday of Advent has traditionally been known as, “Gaudete Sunday,” or “Joy” Sunday.  More and more researchers and clinicians from my profession (i.e. counseling psychology) have been reporting on the integral connection between gratitude and a sense of well-being.  I don’t believe it’s too much of a stretch to make the same connection between gratitude and joy.  Consciously setting aside time to notice the good in one’s life diminishes the space for depression, and creates space for joy. 

As busy as lives are these days, what doesn’t get planned will probably not happen.  For adults, spontaneity will rarely occur without some degree of conscious effort on someone’s part.  The spontaneous dancing and singing of Thanksgiving would not be possible without my wife’s research and legwork.  Without tucking a harmonica into my pocket, there would have been no spontaneous Civil War era song.  This Sunday’s message is that Joy is a constituative dimension of human living.  It is not something to be left to chance.   

In the spirit of consciously making space for joy in your life, I offer you a “Gaudete Meditation” guaranteed to enhance your sense of joy and gratitude.  


Set aside no more than ten to twenty minutes, and ask God to lift into your consciousness experiences of joy from the last day, year, or decade.  As one of these scenes appears on the screen of your imagination, I invite you to step into the scene with all of your senses.  Isolate each sense, and re-experience that moment in the current time zone.  See every bit of the scene from the up close objects, to those far away.  With eyes closed in the scene, hear nearby things, and things at a distance.  With that most primal sense, savor the scent of that place.  Above all, take time to feel with your internal senses the warmth, connection, sense of well-being, achievement in your scene.  At the end of your time, voice a heartfelt prayer of gratitude.  If you have any extra time left over, see if another scene shows up yet again.  If it does, repeat the process.  Ignatius of Loyola would invite you to journal what showed up during this process.  I would invite you to share what showed up for you with another human being.

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