Planned, Spontaneous, Intentional, Decisive Joy

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Some families unbuckle their belts and nap. Others watch football. Thanksgiving intermission for my family always involves perpetrating a yearly misdemeanor. That’s right. 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.

Through the years, the age of the crime syndicate has fluctuated: four-year-olders, grade and middle-schoolers, teen-agers, and twenty-somethings, and ten or so adults who progressively are crossing the threshold of fifty. Together, we bundle up, steal through the park, and wind through neighborhood streets, until we locate a human-sized hole in the hedges that surrounds the private, “no trespasser’s allowed,” golf course. One-by-one, we always 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. My favorite was the year I channeled the ghost of a runaway slave/Union soldier. In a semi-believable 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 everything 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 Union 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 is usually more to our Thanksgiving hijinks than trespassing on private property. In the last several years, Lisa e-mails each of our thirty guests, requesting their favorite songs. With this list in hand, she sets about compiling those songs into a medley for the night’s dinner music. The yearly Thanksgiving greatest hits album regularly spans 75 years of musical tastes. Everything from “What does the Fox Say?” Yivis) to “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime” (Dean Martin) has accompanied our dinner prep, meal, and dishes. With a play list like that, spontaneous dancing usually breaks out at various points in the evening.

Last year, the Thanksgiving rituals unfolded a little differently than usual. The night before the feast usually involves knocking out the various side dishes that would otherwise take up prized oven space on the next day. In the midst of chopping the carrots for dressing, I looked out the kitchen window and caught sight of the whirring lights of an emergency vehicle speeding down our neighborhood’s main street. I thought nothing of it until I heard a nephew say that it had stopped out front of our house. The next thing I heard from the other room was, “Grandma’s down.”

When I ran outside, I saw several concentric circles of people gathered at the end of our driveway. Neighbors on the outer perimeter formed a loose circle around my sisters-in-law, father-in-law, and the EMS professionals. At the center was my wife kneeling beside her unconscious mother, whose head wound was illuminated by the glow of ambulance lights. What followed over the next thirty-six hours were some of the most tragic and treasured memories of my life: *an 80 year old father-in-law telling eleven of his grandchildren that his wife of over fifty years was dying, followed by those grandchildren encircling him in a minutes long hug; *sitting vigil in an intensive care room crammed with nearly twenty people watching my Wisconsin mother-in-law’s last Greenbay Packer’s game… decked out in her Packer-ware…while Englebert Humperdink endlessly sang the looping song, “After the Loving, I’m Still in Love with You;” *my kids holding and hugging their mother while she cried as if they were the parents, and she were the child; *holding my six-foot-two boy as he cried until he fell asleep in my arms; *sitting with my family on an urban hospital’s roof holding one another, while looking out over the lights of an oblivious city; *singing lullabyes to my mother-in-law with my little family’s alotted portion of time just before they removed life support thirty-six hours after her fall.

Around this time of year, our culture engages in an inexorable march toward Christmas. Those who are grieving tend to fall out of step with the cadence of that march. The quid pro quos of cards and gifts received and given, the adreneline rush of amazing bargains…all these lose their attraction. The more substantial things have a way of taking up more intellectual and imaginative space in consciousness. I suppose that’s why I keep looking back over my shoulder at the Ghosts of Thanksgivings Past, rather than the impending Ghost of Christmas Future.

Whether grieving or not, 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 do not believe it is 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.

What I am noticing these days is that joy is not so much a pheonomenon of fleeting emotions as it is a conscious decision. For adults, spontaneity will rarely occur without some degree of conscious effort on someone’s part. The spontaneous dancing and singing of our typical Thanksgivings would never be possible without my wife’s research and legwork. Without tucking a harmonica into my pocket, and preparing a story, there would never be any spontaneous Civil War era song or Union soldier ghosts in my neighborhood. Without someone’s foresight, Mr. Humperdink would have been exluded from the ICU, along with Aaron Roger’s Greenbay Packers, and the games of Majong that my mother-in-law taught my kids to play. Without conscious effort, my memory of last year’s Thanksgiving could stay stuck on the traumatic, and gory end of my driveway. This Sunday’s message is that Joy is a constituative dimension of human living. It is not something to be left to chance, or the fickle whims of fleeting emotion. It is important to develop the capacity to savor the joy even in the midst of life’s sorrowful mysteries…even in the midst of life’s seemingly banal/daily mysteries.

In the spirit of consciously making space for joy in your life, I offer you a “Gadete Meditation” guaranteed to enhance your sense of joy and gratitude no matter what is going on in your life these days.


I would like to invite you and/or your family (or community, or discussion group) to engage in a little Gaudete Sunday exercise. Set aside no more than ten to twenty minutes. Spend just a few moments shifting your consciousness from thoughts to an awareness of your here-and-now experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, and breathing. Next, 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, don’t judge it. Step into the scene with all of your senses. Go ahead and see, hear, smell, and feel that scene all over again. Stay with the experience until you smile. Choose to smile if one doesn’t spontaneously arrive. Hold it until it becomes spontaneous. 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. Saint 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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