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.

When Doing Something is Just Making Noise

Photo of The Scream, by Edvard Munch. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot of noise in the world. Could we agree on that for a moment? Yes? Good.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, either…the useless, background throbbing that becomes simultaneously non-sensical and remarkably intrusive into our subconscious. Aside from the occasional podcast, I’ve never been overly given to that. I wasn’t the one who would have the television on in my dorm room while I was doing homework. It just didn’t take.

I don’t just mean whitenoise, I mean an overwhelming onslaught of real things that simultaneously demand our attention while leaving us powerless to do anything about them, at least anything substantive. So far, the start to our new decade has been full of these sorts of events. A pandemic, blood in the streets, political farce, the growing uselessness of social media. And, partially because we care about these things (because they impact us even if they’re not knocking on our door directly), and partially because so many people have been shut inside for so long and are going crazy with the need to have something to do…we jump onto a cause. We want to do something, not just let it go by. Haven’t we all been told at some point, after all, to be part of the solution and not the problem?

The issue with this is that, more often than not, these issues are of such a huge, national or global scale, that we really can’t do anything about them. We can’t do anything that would really make a difference, in any case, no matter what the pundits would have you to believe. This isn’t like the family problem that just caused chaos in your living room. There’s generally something that you can do to impact that directly and positively. These are things that have spun up outside of our control. They were never in our control. They exceed our control by definition.

Sometimes, we’re told there are things that we can do to “do our part.” These things range from the practical to the completely useless, from washing your hands to yelling about something on Twitter to draw awareness. Sometimes those things are valid, and more often they are completely devoid of effectiveness. Still, though, we have to do something, right?

This is when the mob mentality begins, and most of our society, having never been educated in the ability to think critically, runs like lemmings off of the cliff in a desire to exert some control, to right a wrong, to correct the evil, whether that evil is perceived or actual. And, generally, that’s when well-intentioned gestures that are in actuality quite futile begin to happen. We’ve see a lot of these lately. Removals or the vandalizing of statues, changing flags, changing logos, fleeing one social media platform for another in order to further exist in a silo. None of these actions do anything to actually contribute to a solution to the very real problems to which they are reactions. Often, in particularly insidious examples, these are the moves of marketing departments wanting to draw customers by appearing to take a stand when their company, like most, actually couldn’t care less.

The vast majority of the tweet storms, riots, monument removals, and social media shifts do absolutely nothing constructive. They are sound and fury, signifying nothing.

And that’s not even me being cynical. When I’m feeling particularly cynical, in fact, I don’t attribute these gestures to groupthink and desperation borne of feelings of powerlessness. I attribute them instead to the fact that we do these lesser things because the work of making actual change…of loving our neighbor as ourselves, of listening to and respecting opposing points of view, of considering all life as beautiful, and recognizing that we have more in common than we do different…that this work is just too hard, or something in which we actually have no interest.

That worries me the most, because that is a disease from which a society cannot recover.

Image of “The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893, taken from Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain.