Stories of Toys

A photo of my daughters' Toy Story collection.

Last weekend, we celebrated our youngest daughter’s birthday. I’m still slightly amazed at how old she is, but I think that’s a fairly universal experience among parents. When we asked what kind of party she wanted, she immediately decided that she wanted a Toy Story party. This wasn’t really a surprise given that it’s become her recent Disney + binge (don’t judge us…pandemic…). So, we ordered the supplies and scheduled a (very small and family-only, given the circumstances) birthday party. The party was delayed, though, because of New England weather that tends to mock such plans, and so we actually celebrated twice: the original date was just us, some cake and gifts from grandparents who were diligently on FaceTime to observe, and then the girls, of course, wanted to watch Toy Story. Because Forky was the subject of the day, they wanted to watch Toy Story 4, in which this character is introduced. So, we had some cake, and sat down to watch.

Permit me to pause here and describe what I know about Toy Story. I knew that it’s been around for a while, because I remember seeing the first move in theatres not long after I had finished undergrad. I didn’t appreciate how long ago until I looked this up and did the math. The original Toy Story was released nearly 25 years ago. So, first off, it’s enduring, and secondly….I’m old.

When my daughters began collecting toys from the movie, I knew there had been more than one, but figured it was one of those things in which Disney was just making more to continue to cash in on the first movie’s success. When Karen and the girls were visiting family out of state a couple of summers ago and she called to say they were headed out to see Toy Story 4, I remember replying something to the effect of, “Sheesh, there are 4 of those? What else can they do with that plot?” And that was the extent of my knowledge of the franchise.

Watching the fourth film, and then later that afternoon others in the series, with the kids, made me realize why. Sort of like Star Wars if you’ve ever tried to catch up on that universe, there’s a lot to Toy Story. And it’s actually really interesting. They’ve developed these characters over the course of the films, but there’s more there than just that.

I recently watched some of the documentary series The Toys That Made Us, which was like re-living childhood to me. Those toys…Transformers, G.I. Joe, He-Man, Star Wars…so much of that defined my childhood in so many ways. At first blush, it was that I was a collector, just as my daughters are becoming collectors now, but it’s more than that. When I think of those toys, and playing with them and opening some as Christmas and birthday gifts, I don’t so much think of the toys themselves. I think of my childhood, of the blessed journey that I had through my early years, the way that I was loved by my family and learned what family is about. I think of my parents, and what they did for me through those years. I’m motivated to give that love and support to my children, to provide for them as my parents did for me, to give them the most amazing childhood that’s within my power to give.

I ended the day of that small birthday party wistful. A lot of those toys that I grew up with as a child are still with me, either in storage or on display in my office. Many of them are invaluable to me, but not necessarily as objects…as symbols. When I think about those toys, or go through my old collection of them, I feel love. And I want to give love to my children. Love, not just stuff. These toys are serving as a symbol, in that they point to something larger than themselves, participating in that larger reality.

Part of what makes me enjoy Toy Story so much now is that it’s really a sort of love letter to those toys from my childhood, and all that they represent to me in adulthood. They manage to capture this experience that I’m having as an adult looking back, while looking at the present of my children. There’s a genius in the writing. I can’t help but think that these toys will be with my girls when they’re my age, perhaps sitting on a shelf on display, and that they will remember the loving home in which they spent their childhood.

That is my prayer.

To infinity, and beyond.

In Search of a Christmas Tradition

A Christmas basket created by a former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.
A Christmas basket created by a former colleague and gifted to my parents years ago.

No, this isn’t a late Christmas post. There are, after all, 12 days of Christmas. In fact, we usually celebrate (in the sense that we’re still playing Christmas music and enjoying decorations) all the way through Epiphany, so…this isn’t a late post. It’s right in the middle.

That’s not to say that we’re not beginning to unwind a bit from the holiday. Even though it wasn’t as much of a scramble this year in our pandemic-broken world (although, to be honest, I sort of missed that), and even though we didn’t travel and celebrated only at home for the same reasons, we’re still only now finishing the last of the Christmas cookies and have reached the point where nothing else will fit into the recycling bin for this week.

Just before we settled into our end-of-year vacation, I was out doing the small smattering of errands that were still pressing for the year, and someone asked me what Christmas traditions we have. The question stopped me short, because I have to say….not many.

And that’s not for lack of effort. Karen and I have tried to formulate traditions that would be meaningful to our family but, in our defense, the odds were against us in a few ways. First, both of our childhoods had sparse Christmas traditions. Karen’s family opened a gift on Christmas Eve, but mine did not. When I was older, my family lit candles and read the Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke after returning from Christmas Eve services, but we didn’t do this when I was a child. Karen’s family observed Advent, coming from an Evangelical Free background. Mine did not, coming from a Baptist background (which I later eschewed). Secondly, until our oldest daughter was four, we travelled every year for Christmas. There were no real traditions because we were always with one side of the family or other, and usually quite tired from having a flight arrive in the nick of time on Christmas eve.

So, for the last few years, we’ve dug for traditions. Advent has been consistent for us, but one could argue that’s not really a Christmas tradition, especially if you’re a liturgical purist. One year we drove around to see Christmas lights in our area, and the kiddos loved it and we said we would do it again, but we didn’t. One year we staggered tree decorations to observe events such as St. Nicholas Day. That didn’t stick, either. The only thing that’s been consistent is that Santa (or Father Christmas, as the kiddos call him) only leaves small gifts in their stockings, an attempt for us to avoid the rampant consumerism and materialism of the holiday. Again, though, that’s hardly a tradition.

I have moments in which this leaves me with guilty-parent syndrome. Karen and I feel that traditions are healthy for the major observances of our faith, but we’re terrible at them. I’ve just never cared for routines, and we’re both the products of a post-modern mishmash of histories in which the tradition just wasn’t there. So, finding meaning in a tradition that you’re trying to start, rather than one that you’ve inhabited for some time, is difficult. Apparently, it’s insurmountably difficult. I suppose it’s one of those things in which I just wish we could have done better.

Ultimately, I want our children to appreciate Christmas for what it is, not just as an avalanche of gifts. I want them grow into loving God with all of their hearts, and loving their neighbors as themselves. That is more important than any tradition, and I certainly don’t believe that a tradition is necessary for this growth. I only hope that, inasmuch as a tradition can be a vehicle for that growth, we can manage to make it happen.

I hope that your traditions, as much as they could be, were meaningful in this turbulent year. Merry Christmas.

My Middle School Life: A Retrospective

Glasses lying on top of an open book

Over the Spring, when we, like most everyone else in the world, were under stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic, I was doing a lot more reading along with my “quarantine projects.” I was actively digging for new books, sometimes random books that would pop up from my memory and of which I no longer owned a copy for whatever reason. During one of these digging expeditions, I dug up the Books of Swords trilogy from Fred Saberhagan on Audible. Wow, did these take me back.

I remember discussing this series in depth with my best friend. I was in middle school, he in high school. The mythology of Saberhagen’s world was prominent in my imagination for more than a year during that time. I went through the series quickly this Spring, loving every moment of its fantasy adventures. There were times that I felt I was in my middle school bedroom again, devouring the fantastical tales.

This, of course, led to me remembering and searching for other authors that I had originally discovered during that period of my life: Isaac Asimov, Piers Anthony, Robert Henlein. I wanted to be talking to my best friend again (I have, to my discredit, no idea where he is these days), to be rattling on to my parents about these amazing books that I was reading, somehow oblivious to their facial expressions as they stood before the firehose of my mental landscape.


I make a trip to my local comic shop every weekend to collect my pull list for the week. Last weekend, I was on my way there, listening to an 80’s hair band station on Pandora that I’ve been carefully curating over the course of several years. I was always sort of conflicted about life goals, but these two things have always been true: I wanted to write books for a living, and I wanted to be a drummer in a rock band. And, honestly, I’ve done a bit of both, but life has taken strange and unexpected turns with me, as it does with everyone else.

In grad school, there was a point in which I found myself missing my college theatre days. A lot of the books that I read…and searched for at local bookshops then…were driven by that desire to regain something that had been, not lost, but misplaced. I phased out of this for a bit, no longer looking for Beth Henley plays…but now, lately, I have been drifting back to high school (in music) and middle school (in books). In an odd way, I’m sort of being selective about the time period of my nostalgia. Maybe this has been more pronounced because of the stress in the world…we all just want to escape. However, after going through a period of near-asceticism in seminary, I remember what hit me in the face when I was reading Donald Miller, an extremely popular author amongst students of religion at the time. In Blue Like Jazz, he writes:

“Something got crossed in the wires, and I became the person I should be and not the person I am. It feels like I should go back and get the person I am and bring him here to the person I should be.”

Donald Miller, “Blue Like Jazz,” p. 98

I don’t want to regress to childhood, or to my teenage years. However, it is important to recognize that all of these “phases” that I went through made me, laid the foundation for who I am today. Some of that is better, some of that is worse, because I, like everyone else, have made really good and really bad decisions at various points in my life. All of this, however, can be providentially woven together for the good, and walking away from it, as I initially did in my early seminary days, carries the risk of idolizing the present and rejecting the past. The past needs to be remembered, including our personal pasts. Where there was bad, we learn from it, and where there was good, we embrace it. There is a wisdom gained from a life lived. In additional to reading some really good books, this recent internal retrospective has taught me that.

A Review of “Bonhoeffer” by Eric Metaxas

A photo of my copy of Bonhoeffer by Eric Metaxas.Ever since seminary, I generally read something either by or about Dietrich Bonhoeffer at least once annually. Bonhoeffer remains one of the most influential theologians to my thought and spiritual life, and, as most know, the story of his life and martyrdom is compelling and powerful. After a few years, I’ve read almost all of his work, as well as a good deal of work about Bonhoeffer. I had always avoided Metaxas’ biography, though. I’ve always wanted to read it, as it’s recognized as the authoritative biography on Bonhoeffer’s life. To be honest, the sheer weight of the volume is off-putting. I’m not sure I’ve read something that long and that dense sense (ironically) reading Barth’s Church Dogmatics in seminary (the running joke was that not even Barth had read all of those volumes).

And that comparison is not altogether trivial, because Metaxas does his share of theology in this book. There was some controversy, as I recall, when this biography was initially published, because Metaxas was said to have asserted, against traditional perspective, that Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist. That alone is compelling reason to read the book, but, as I said, just hefting it from the shelf in the bookstore is enough to give one pause unless you have a magnitude of free time on your hands.

Of course, a lot of us have more free time than usual on our hands due to world events lately, so I decided that it was time. I am so, so very glad that I did.

Let me say up front, if you haven’t assumed this already: this is not an easy read. The difficulty lies not in the writing style…Metaxas avoids being overly academic and I found his style to be very approachable, although he is given to a strange change of voices at times. The difficulty lies in the subject matter. You can’t study Bonhoeffer’s life and thought separate from the historical context, and WWII Germany is not an easy historical period to study. This is also one of the gifts of this book, though. I have learned more about this period of history, as well as the events that lead to it, by studying Bonhoeffer’s life than I did in any history class, but Metaxas takes this a step further. The reader walks away with a historical education as an added bonus for their time.

This speaks to the strength of the biography, and what ultimately makes any biography great: the depth of the research. Metaxas’ research is meticulous. He has obviously spent time with primary sources and studying the available material to an extent that most academics would envy, and it shows in the nuances of his record. One of the reasons that this is a heavy read is because you don’t just move through it at a normal pace, but rather you frequently need to stop to really digest what you’ve just read, to begin putting together disparate pieces of the puzzle of a man’s life into a cohesive whole. You begin to see how all of the pieces fit together, to truly see a portrait of Bonhoeffer’s life. Metaxas walks us through minute details of Bonhoeffer’s childhood and family background, through his experiences in traveling the world, to the best sources we have of his last moments before he was martyred. The depth of the image we have of Dietrich Bonhoeffer after reading this book is why it is considered the primary biography on this influential theologian.

I truly appreciate that Metaxas pauses regularly to unpack Bonhoeffer’s theology. All examination of Bonhoeffer’s thought is given to some speculation, because he didn’t live long enough to fully formulate his theology. His thoughts as we have them, though, are nothing short of prophetic, especially within their historical reference, and the reader gets to spend time with them here. Metaxas specifically walks through Bonhoeffer’s popular concept of “Religionless Christianity,” what he is convinced that it meant in its context, and how it has been so drastically misinterpreted by modern theologians (I happen to agree fully with his assessment).

I think that the only place in which this amazing book didn’t do what it says on the tin is to convince us that Bonhoeffer’s label as a pacifist was inaccurate. Metaxas actually works against his own assertion here by quoting one of Bonhoeffer’s colleagues from his time at Union Theological Seminary, in which his colleague identified the moment in which he realized Bonhoeffer had become a pacifist. Metaxas moves forward seeming to provide the support for his claim to the contrary as he puts together Bonhoeffer’s life, but ultimately makes an assertion late in the book that feels to not be supported by evidence. In short, Metaxas says Bonhoeffer was not a pacifist, because he was a spy willing to commit assassination. I’m not convinced. What we do see is what is to be seen from thoughtfully scrutinizing Bonhoeffer’s life, and that is a man struggling with the weight of an incomprehensible evil and how to reconcile the abhorrent actions that he concluded must be taken with his faith, concluding that not acting for fear of doing wrong is the greater sin. The depth of the struggle is felt by the reader in all of its weight, and this is a great credit to Metaxas’ work.

Placing “Bonhoeffer” on my shelf was one my top accomplishments this year. I think that it goes without saying that I would recommend this book for anyone, not just those who have previously found Bonhoeffer’s life inspiring. Yes, it is intimidating, but it is also very much worth whatever time it takes to complete this book. Your spiritual life will be better for the effort, just as all of our lives are better for Bonhoeffer’s thought.

Getting to Know You

Photo of green Monopoly houses. Used under Creative Commons.

The last time that we travelled feels like forever ago, even though it was only March. During our two-week visit to help my parents though a medical procedure, I got into the habit of going for walks in the morning before starting my day. I was working remotely from there, and helping with chores, and the fresh air in between the time when one ended and the other began helped to frame the daily rhythm. I think that it was driven by memory at the time…I enjoyed surveying the back yard of my childhood and thinking through how it has changed through the decades, experiencing that odd virtual reality of the mind when reflections of the way it looked then overlay the way it looks now. The habit of going for a walk I found to be unexpectedly healthy. It was a time for reflection, for prayer, a time to focus before the day’s responsibilities truly took hold.

As we arrived home from that trip, just as the pandemic was gripping the Northeast in earnest and just before life ground to a forced halt, I kept this routine. Unable to go the gym, this also became my exercise and workout. I found that, if I woke just 30 minutes earlier than usual, I could work a healthy walk or run around the neighborhood into my morning, before it would have been time for me to leave for my normal commute (even though my commute was already a thing of memory). So, the habit stays. Karen has began referring to this as my morning and evening “constitutional.”

A funny thing happens when several other people are doing this very thing. You start to pass neighbors on the street regularly. You begin speaking to them. You pause for conversation.

This process is painful, though. I didn’t want it. The change was an interruption to our life, to my plans for the spring and summer. I was frustrated and angry, and resented getting to see these people so regularly. Frequently, though, personal and spiritual growth requires this sort of discomfort.

A few weeks ago, five of us gathered in a driveway while our children rode bikes up and down the street. We talked, learned of each others’ lives, what we do for a living…learned each others’ names. And, while this may sound trivial, it is not, because it is not commonplace in our individualistic society. We pass each other, not knowing or wanting to know each other, until we are all forced to slow down. When we do let each other into our lives, though, even at a surface level, the act quickly reveals itself to be a beautiful thing. We feel safer with our children playing outside. We’re more quickly aware of someone’s needs. We’re disabused of the illusion that any of us are islands, and we realize that we share a distinct place and time, that our lives are connected, a part of each other. A shared humanity is realized.

The pandemic that is injecting chaos into our lives is a horrific thing. There is good, however, if we look deeply. Knowing your neighborhood and those living next to you is a good thing, and a very rare thing. We just had to be made to slow down to realize it.

Image attribution: woodleywonderworks under Creative Commons.