Since my birthday, when I received the first book in the series, I've been delighting in the adventures of Brother Cadfael. I had made it through almost half of the series when my reading threatened to grind to a halt, because I could not get the next book through either of our libraries (one here, one in Connecticut). I have a spreadsheet showing where and in what form (physical or digital) the books are available, and alas, three of them have a sad, red "0" entry.
Then I had a flash of inspiration. We were about to spend some time in another city! And indeed, the tiny Fuller Public Library, which I had been so rude as to denigrate on occasion because of its size, had everything I needed. What a clever solution! I returned home, confident in my ability to complete the works, since the rest were available at our local library.
Or so I thought. (Something about pride, and falls....) Yes, they are among the library's holdings, but only at the East Branch. Not to worry—the library happily moves books from one branch to another. Except for the slight problem that the East Branch is now closed for renovations, re-opening date unknown but likely March at the earliest, and the books are trapped inside.
That was probably a good thing, since I still had Gonzalez's The Story of Christianity, Volume 2 to complete before the end our our Church History class. But I enjoy lighter reading, too, especially in so busy a time as Advent, so I decided it was time to re-read my Green Ember collection, having just acquired the latest (The First Fowler) and anticipating the release of Ember's End in the spring. But I stopped after reading six of them, saving Ember Rising for closer to when I'll be able to follow it immediately with the next book. So, stuck again.
No problem! Christmas brought, depending on how you count, between 11 and 13 new books into the house, including three by David McCullough. So, no lack of reading materials (light and decidedly not so). Having devoured Nathan W. Pyle's Strange Planet, I'm now enjoying Innovation on Tap by my Occasional CEO friend, Eric B. Schultz. I had been waiting for this book for years (as had he, no doubt!) and will save my review for after I've finished it, but the very first chapter has inspired a genealogical blog post (still in progress).
I have great riches in reading material—not to mention the other 2000+ books standing at my service on our bookshelves and Kindles—so I can afford to wait for Cadfael and Green Ember, however reluctantly.
Time to read, of course, is another matter!
Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold by C. S. Lewis (Harcourt Brace, 1956)
Of his re-telling of the Cupid and Psyche myth, C. S. Lewis said, "That book, which I consider far and away the best I have written, has been my one big failure both with the critics and with the public." The first time I read Till We Have Faces, I will admit, my sympathies were with those who did not appreciate it.
My ignorance of mythological history was a problem of course. Cupid I knew, but that was about it; how much less could I have told anything about their story as written in Apuleius's Metamorphoses, which was Lewis's inspiration. More than that, however, this novel is written in a different style from Lewis's other works; it is much like George MacDonald's Phantastes and Lilith. Lewis considered those two books among MacDonalds's best writing. I did not care much for either on first reading, but I love them now.
What he does best is fantasy—fantasy that hovers between the allegorical and the mythopoeic. And this, in my opinion, he does better than any man. (From the preface to Lewis's George MacDonald: An Anthology.)
Till We Have Faces is just such a book, and Lewis crafted it very, very well. It's no wonder he was pleased with his efforts. My second reading found me loving it for what it is, instead of being frustrated that it is not at all like Lewis's other fiction. That this is not a genre everyone likes is evident from its initial reception, though Walter Hooper, in his mammoth compendium, C. S. Lewis: A Companion and Guide, reports that later years have been kinder.
The main charge against the novel when it first appeared was obscurity. "What is he trying to say?" However, in recent years there has been a serious re-assessment of the book, almost an about-face in criticism, and it is generally regarded, not only as Lewis's best book, but as a very great book.
I found Hooper's analysis to be helpful in understanding both the Cupid and Psyche myth and what Lewis made of it in Till We Have Faces. It's also useful to have read the Biblical Book of Job. However, I think I would have enjoyed it nearly as much this time around simply because of having been schooled in the style by George MacDonald. Some people—our daughter for one—were blessed to love the book on first reading, but if you aren't, you may find it worthwhile to give it a second chance.
Nothing is more pleasing and engaging than the sense of having conferred benefits. Not even the gratification of receiving them.
— Brother Cadfael
(Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest)
Having now read Justo Gonzalez' The Story of Christianity, I am condemned to remember the following every time I hear the phrase, "Be reasonable!" This event seems to have been sanitized from everything I previously learned about the French Revolution.
The French Revolution created its own religion, called first the Cult of Reason, and later the Cult of the Supreme Being. ... The revolution wished to have nothing to do with the church. Even the calendar was changed, giving way to a more “reasonable” one in which weeks had ten days and months were named after conditions of nature in each season—“Thermidor,” “Germinal,” “Fructidor,” and so forth. Great ceremonies were also developed to take the place of religious festivals—beginning with the solemn procession taking Voltaire’s remains to the Pantheon of the Republic. Then temples to Reason were built, and an official list of saints was issued—which included Jesus, Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, and Rousseau. Other rites were prescribed for weddings, the dedication of children to Freedom, and funerals. All this would have been merely ridiculous, were it not for its cost in suffering and bloodshed. The promoters of the new religion made use of the guillotine with cruel liberality.
Religions that grow over time, out of human need and experience, have all been afflicted by great cruelty. However, I also see in them sincere efforts by people to reach out to something transcendent and superior to themselves, and often evidence of God's efforts to reveal His own nature. But attempts by human beings to create new religions all at once out of whole cloth always seem disassociated from reality, hence ridiculous, and man-centered, hence selfish.
The Story of Christianity, Volume 2: The Reformation to the Present Day by Justo L. Gonzalez (HarperOne, 2010)
The second half of my Church History class, naturally, is using the second book in Gonzalez's series. Gonzalez is a liberal Cuban Methodist who favors Liberation Theology, and as I suspected from the end of the first volume (my review is here), his biases are frustratingly clear. That's okay though—it's an unavoidable failing of those who write books, especially history books—but it means I especially appreciate the class format that allows for questions, explanations, clarifications, and corrections by someone I trust. I take the fact that these books are recommended by someone whose biases must be radically different (Keith Mathison on the Ligonier Ministries site) as confirmation of Fr. Trey's opinion that these are among the best available, and most accessible, for the topic. I'm sure I could get a different perspective from the author who has Mathison's top recommendation, but Nick Needham's 2000 Years of Christ’s Power is four huge volumes and growing (at $20 each for Kindle), and I'm not sure I know I couldn't stomach that much of a Reformed Theology bias at the moment, so let's be realistic. I'll stick with Gonzalez and trust Fr. Trey to provide the necessary balance.
The trouble comes when the book tackles material that I actually know something about. It reminds me of my problem with media coverage: There have been many times in my life when I've seen reported (in mainstream, reputable media) stories of which I have known directly the intimate details, and every one of them has contained significant errors. Why I continue to believe news stories of which I otherwise know nothing is both amazing and shaming to me. Out of charity (and, to be honest, laziness/busy-ness) I won't say that what Gonzalez says is out-and-out wrong, but I will say that his words do not seem to be those of a historian who understands the times and the people of Colonial America, neither of the time and place in which I grew up. It makes me wonder about the accuracy of the other parts of his books.
Take just for one small example Gonzalez's statement, "At first, colonials were not even allowed to own land." The implication is that this is something unusual and shocking, as if those who came over had all been landowners back home. Plus, anyone who has done even minor genealogical research in early New England finds maps indicating the allocation of property among various families. Possibly this was not "ownership" as we understand it today, but very soon in history the people were subdividing, selling, trading, and willing it to their children—which sounds a lot like ownership to me. It's clear that Gonzalez has a particular story to tell, and is picking and choosing his facts accordingly.
Here are a few other random things that struck me, some important, some trivial. Italics indicates quotations from the book.
- Gonzalez's take on Salem in 1692 seems bizarre, and I'm not happy with the mocking tone in which he discusses people who believe that witches might be real. I speak as one whose innocent ancestors really suffered on the wrong end of the New England witch hunt—but who also believes that modern-day America takes the idea of witchcraft much too lightly.
- I know one must condense and condense to cover so many years in two volumes, but how on earth can you talk about Jonathan Edwards without mentioning "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"?
- By the 1950s, television had become a common household feature in most of the industrialized world. Really? My family, solidly middle class North Americans living in a prosperous New York town, did not own a television set until 1959. Gonzalez was born in Cuba, and stayed there at least long enough to graduate from seminary, so perhaps that's what life in the United States looked like to him as a child. But it does not square with what I know of the times.
- The very idea of liberalism implied freedom to think as one saw fit—as long as one did not fall into what liberals called superstition. I won't go into the shifting definitions of "liberal" and "conservative" that Gonzalez uses; it's complex, because the definitions have been as fluid in real life as they are in the book. But this statement struck me because it is my complaint about many who call themselves Liberals today: They insist that you can believe, say, and do anything you want—but that's only true as long as it conforms to their own standards.
- For [John Wesley], as for most of the church through the centuries, the center of worship was communion. This he took and expected his followers to take as frequently as possible, in the official services of the Church of England. Would any modern Methodist recognize this stance?
- Western Christians—particularly Protestants—may have underestimated the power of liturgy and tradition, that allowed [Orthodox] churches to continue their life, and even to flourish, in the most adverse of circumstances.
- Hegel demolishes mathematics: "What is rational exists, and what exists is rational." Take that, pi and the square root of 2!
- Gonzalez insists on framing everything in terms of white vs. non-white slavery and racism; at first it's annoying, then it's almost funny to see how far he can stretch it.
- He labels as "Fundamentalist" nearly everyone and everything not in line with liberal theology, especially anyone in the much-broader category known as Evangelical. Both Fundamentalists and Evangelicals should be insulted. :)
- Some ... even declared that Christians ought to be thankful for Adolf Hitler because he was halting the advance of socialism in Europe. Huh? What part of "National Socialism" don't they (or Gonzalez?) understand?
- Gonzalez manages to distort his coverage of the Vietnam War to imply that Richard Nixon was responsible for the Gulf of Tonkin misinformation, instead of Lyndon Johnson. He doesn't say that directly, but since Nixon is the only president mentioned in connection with the war, what other impression would a casual reader, ignorant of history, receive?
- Cool story from China that I didn't know: While many Chinese Christians capitulated before pressure and persecution, many did not. In some major cities where churches were closed and worship gatherings were prohibited, believers would make it a point to walk in front of the church at the times formerly appointed for worship, nod at one another, and keep on walking.
- How can you write a book about the Church in the 20th and 21st centuries and leave out important factors like these?
- Denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and others that formed in reaction to what they viewed as heresy on the part of the "mainline" Presbyterian churches
- The various Anglican churches formed in reaction to the same problem in the American Episcopal Church. I especially expected Gonzalez to mention this in his section on how the center of gravity of Christianity is shifting from the Northern Hemisphere to the Southern, since many of the new Anglican churches are under the leadership of bishops in Africa. But he doesn't.
- Abortion. One of the biggest issues dividing the modern Church, and the sole mention is in this statement: Under [Pope John Paul II's] leadership, Roman Catholicism throughout the world reaffirmed its condemnation of abortion, at a time when several traditionally Catholic nations were legalizing it—as if the massive opposition to abortion among Protestants didn't even exist.
- Widespread campus Christian movements such as Campus Crusade for Christ (now Cru), Intervarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), and Asian Christian Fellowship; Wycliffe Bible Translators; international aid organizations such as World Vision, Compassion, and the International Justice Mission; and the many other Christian groups (the Gideons, Youth With A Mission, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Prison Fellowship—to name just a few) that do the work of the Church across denominational boundaries. A history of modern Christianity without them makes no sense.
- Gonzalez keeps talking about cultural and theological creativity, and that makes me nervous. Creativity is great in certain problem-solving situations, such as figuring out how best to express an idea in terms someone from a different cultural background can understand. But in theology? No thanks. It is the standard Bible translation task: fit the words to the truth, not the truth to the words.
That last point sums up the overall impression I have gained from these two books. For all the flaws of the pre-modern Church, its institutions, and its leaders, they were seeking to determine the truth about God and mankind's relationship with Him—to fit society to the truth. But as we neared modern times—perhaps around the time of the French Revolution, certainly by the 19th century—that changed, and efforts shifted to defining truth to fit society. The result? To my mind, a dust-and-ashes faith, with churches barely discernible from social clubs or secular service organizations. Chaotic and ugly philosophies that remind me of the chaos and ugliness that pass for "serious" art and music in our time. A faith hardly worth living for, unrecognizable by the martyrs who thought theirs worth dying for.
The Story of Christianity is a good introduction to church history, as long as one is aware that it is in large measure the truth, but it is not the whole truth, nor is it nothing but the truth. That accepted, I can recommend it highly. The last chapters were certainly depressing, but Gonzalez has hope for the future, and so do I—though perhaps not for the same reasons. Even though the Church abandons God with distressing frequency, God will never abandon His Church. There are always pockets of beauty in the ashes.
There's a passage in the book God's Smuggler where Brother Andrew, who smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, describes his astonishment at the revival that took place in an old, dead, state-sponsored church in Bulgaria during one of his visits. Night after night the priest encouraged Andrew to preach the clearest, most vibrant Gospel-centered sermons anyone could want. They carried on that way for many days before the government finally stopped them—the priest had been such a reliable puppet they couldn't believe he didn't have some "good" motive for what he was doing. Andrew learned through that experience never to call a church dead. It is God's church, called by his name, and at any moment his Spirit may blow through and ignite fires of faith that will never be extinguished.
We spent a week in Rome this September, including a day in Vatican City. We saw fountains and pines, museums and monuments, art and history in overwhelming quality and quantity. But we did not see the Pope. Strangely, he never invited us to a private audience!
I don't consider that much of a loss, although we'd have been thrilled if he had, just as we would have been thrilled to be invited to visit almost any head of state. But seek him out? Never occurred to us.
The strange thing is how many people asked, after we returned, "Did you see the Pope?" When I visited England, no one asked me, "Did you see the Queen?" nor "Did you see the Emperor?" when we went to Japan.
It's a slightly more reasonable question with respect to the Pope, since we did go to St. Peter's Square, and the Pope has been known to address audiences there. But if he had done so when we were in Rome, we would most certainly not have been at the Vatican during that time, any more than we would be anywhere near Times Square on New Year's Eve. Not even for Pope Benedict—for whom I had a great deal of respect until he abdicated—would I brave such crowds. Certainly not for the man who might be a nice enough person but makes me rethink those exchanges that end with, "Is the Pope Catholic?"
On the other hand, Your Holiness, if you really want to meet with us, we'll be happy to consider a return visit to Rome. I still have an unused bus ticket as my version of throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain.
Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray by Sabine Hossenfelder (Basic Books, 2018)
This is my son-in-law's book, which I started perusing during our recent visit, to see if I might be interested. I found it both more interesting and slower to read than I had expected, so I'm borrowing it.
Sabine Hossenfelder, a German theoretical physicist, is worried about the state of her field. I'm not even going to try to summarize the book, which is an entertaining, if worrisome and frequently confusing, series of interviews with her colleagues. Let's just say that it is getting more and more difficult to test theories in particle physics by the time-honored means of experimentation in the real world; CERN's Large Hadron Collider has not provided the results many people were expecting and indeed counting on; and physicists are beginning to sound more like philosophers than scientists.
I can't believe what this once-venerable profession has become. Theoretical physicists used to explain what was observed. Now they try to explain why they can't explain what was not observed. And they're not even good at that. (p 108)
In case I left you with the impression that [physicists] understand the theories we work with, I am sorry, we don't. (p 193)
Physics professor and popular science author Chad Orzel* explains to her,
"As I understand it, there's a divide between the epistemological and the ontological camps. In the ontological camp the wave function is a real thing that exists and changes, and in the epistemological camp the wave function really just describes what we know—it's just quantifying our ignorance about the world. And you can put everybody on a continuum between these two interpretations." (p 135)
That sounds more like theologians than scientists.
Interviewed by the author, cosmologist and mathematician George Ellis looks at the big picture and doesn't like what he sees.
"There are physicists now saying we don't have to test their ideas because they are such good ideas ... They're saying—explicitly or implicitly—that they want to weaken the requirement that theories have to be tested. ... To my mind that's a step backwards by a thousand years. ... Science is having a difficult time out there, with all the talk about vaccination, climate change, GMO crops, nuclear energy, and all of that demonstrating skepticism about science. Theoretical physics is supposed to be the bedrock, the hardest rock, of the sciences, showing how it can be completely trusted. And if we start loosening the requirements over here, I think the implications are very serious for the others." (p 213)
"[A lot] of the reasons people are rejecting science is that scientists like Stephen Hawking and Lawrence Krauss and others say that science proves God doesn't exist, and so on—which science cannot prove, but it results in a hostility against science, particularly in the United States. If you're in the Middle West USA, and your whole life and your community is built around the church, and a scientist comes along and says 'Get rid of this,' then they better have a very solidly based argument for what they say. But David Hume already said 250 years ago that science cannot either prove or disprove the existence of God. He was a very careful philosopher, and nothing has changed since then in this regard. These scientists are sloppy philosophers." (p 214)
What's wrong with physics research today? Here are a few problems: universities no longer provide an atmosphere conducive to creative thinking; research decisions—and possibly results—are driven by funding; and peer pressure is a major unholy influence.
Division of labor hasn't yet arrived in academia. While scientists specialize in research topics, they are expected to be all-rounders in terms of tasks: they have to teach, mentor, head labs, lead groups, sit on countless committees, speak at conferences, organize conferences, and—most important—bring in grants to keep the wheels turning. And all the while doing research and producing papers. (p 155)
The fraction of academics holding tenured faculty positions is on the decline, while an increasing percentage of researchers are employed on non-tenured and part-time contracts. From 1974 to 2014 the fraction of full-time tenured faculty in the United States decreased from 29 percent to 21.5 percent. At the same time, the share of part-time faculty increased from 24 percent to more than 40 percent. Surveys by the American Association of University Professors reveal that the lack of continuous support discourages long-term commitment and risk-taking when choosing research topics. (p 155)
Another consequence of the attempt to measure research impact is that it washes out national, regional, and institutional differences because measures for scientific success are largely the same everywhere. This means that academics all over the globe now march to the same drum. (p 156)
You have to get over the idea that all science can be done by postdocs on two-year fellowships. Tenure was institutionalized for a reason, and that reason is still valid. If that means fewer people, then so be it. You can either produce loads of papers that nobody will care about ten years from now, or you can be the seed of ideas that will still be talked about in a thousand years. Take your pick. Short-term funding means short-term thinking. (p 247)
It's well known that such short-term thinking has already been disastrous for American businesses, as the leaders of corporations focus their efforts on the next quarter's results at the expense of long-term success and the health of the company. Politicians focus on winning the next election instead of building relationships and working together to serve the needs of the country. It's hardly surprising that academic research is suffering a similar problem.
In 2010, [theoretical physicist Garret Lisi] wrote an article for Scientific American about his E8 theory. He calls it "an interesting experience" and remembers: "When it came out that the article would appear, Jaques Distler, this string theorist, got a bunch of people together, saying that they would boycott SciAm if they published my article. The editors considered this threat, and asked them to point out what in the article was incorrect. There is nothing incorrect in it. I spent a lot of time on it—there was absolutely nothing incorrect in it. Still, they held on to their threat. In the end, Scientific American decided to publish my article anyway. As far as I know, there weren't any repercussions." (p 166)
Science is sometimes called the "marketplace of ideas," but it differs from a market economy most importantly in the customers we cater to. In science, experts only cater to other experts and we judge each other's products. The final call is based on our success at explaining observation. But absent observational tests, the most important property a theory must have is to find approval by our peers.
For us theoreticians, peer approval more often than not decides whether our theories will ever be put to a test. Leaving aside a lucky few showered with prize money, in modern academia the fate of an idea depends on anonymous reviewers picked from among our colleagues. Without their approval, research funding is hard to come by. An unpopular theory whose development requires a greater commitment of time than a financially unsupported researcher can afford is likely to die quickly. (pp 195-196, emphasis mine)
You'd think that scientists, with the professional task of being objective, would protect their creative freedom and rebel against the need to please colleagues in order to secure continued funding. They don't. (p 197)
You're used to asking about conflicts of interest due to funding from industry. But you should also ask about conflicts of interest due to short-term grants or employment. Does the scientists' future funding depend on producing the results they just told you about? Likewise, you should ask if the scientists' chance of continuing their research depends on their work being popular among their colleagues. ... And finally ... you should also ask whether the scientists have taken steps to address their cognitive biases. Have they provided a balanced account of pros and cons or have they just advertised their own research? (p 248)
If you believe smart people work best when freely following their interests, then you should make sure they can freely follow their interests. (p 197)
That last quote is hardly limited in its application to academia. Teachers, writers, musicians, mothers ... anyone in a creative field knows the frustration of being required by their jobs to do unrelated work that hinders the creative process. We need to recognize that and free them to do what they do best...
...but maybe not completely. Sometimes the interruptions that keep us from our "proper work" can be the key that pushes our work forward. We all want unlimited time to be immersed in our own narrow interests, but that may not be for the best. Still, I think we can all agree that researchers and missionaries are spending too much time fundraising, teachers are spending too much time on cafeteria duty, and church musicians are spending too much time in meetings.
How patently absurd it must appear to someone who last had contact with physics in eleventh grade that people get paid for ideas like that. But then, I think, people also get paid for throwing balls through hoops. (p 192)
Finally, this quote about the problems of peer pressure and insular communities has much broader implications and needs to be emphasized:
Research shows we consider a statement more likely to be true the more often we hear of it. It's called "attention bias" or "mere exposure effect." ... This is the case even if a statement is repeated by the same person. (p 157)
Oh, one more thing: What does beauty, the subject of the subtitle, have to do with all this, since I've left out all references to it? Just that, absent sufficient experimental data, theories are being promoted for their aesthetic properties. Hossenfelder has nothing against aesthetics, but fears that physics is losing its grounding in physical reality in favor of philosophical speculations.
*A few of my readers will be interested to know that Professor Orzel lives in Niskayuna, New York—the town in which I was born, and where Porter lived for much of his life. He teaches at Union College, the school from which my father received his master's degree in physics, albeit long before Orzel was born.
I wrote this in 2011 and it seems no less appropriate now. If you're curious, you can click on this link to see the comments made to the original post. I present no universal solutions to the problems of Christmas stress, just a few thoughts about what helped and hindered us, particularly when our children were young.
A Facebook discussion set me to pondering what I have learned through the years about necessary and unnecessary stress at Christmastime. Yes, I think there is such a thing as necessary stress. The discussion was prompted by this quotation from Ann Voskamp: Whenever Christmas begins to burden, it’s a sign that I’ve taken on something of the world and not of Christ. Any weight in Christmas has to be of this world.
I appreciate the point, but I beg to differ, slightly.
The Christmas season, like all other seasons, has its own burdens and blessings. The work that goes into it, like the work that goes into life, can be delightful and can be stressful. I don't think it's a sign that we're doing something not of Christ just because it's stressful or burdensome. Good things take work. Labor, as in the birth of a baby. The more effortless a work of art looks, and the more joy it brings to others (inspiring musical performance; smoothly-running household; creative, confident, well-behaved children), the more labor you can assume went into it. Yet there's no denying that we can get so caught up in the effort that we miss the point, be it Christmas, or a wedding, or life itself.
Here are some things we've done, or not done, over the years, that made a difference to our Christmas stress level. Your mileage may vary.
Media exposure. One of the best decisions we ever made was to severely limit the presence of television in our home. This included—for good reason—videos and public television, but it was the lack of commercial TV that made the greatest difference at Christmastime. Our children didn't beg for toys they didn't know existed and certainly didn't know they "needed." That wasn't our motivation for banishing children's television programs from our lives, but it was an especially helpful benefit.
Santa Claus. I grew up with the excitement of the jolly ol' guy, but we decided to tell our children from the beginning that honoring the real St. Nicholas had evolved into a fun, but fictional, Christmas story. I won't say that Santa never delivered gifts to our house—there were grandparents' wishes to consider—but we never, ever, stood in a long line, or paid ridiculous prices, or fought over the last Tickle Me Elmo just because our children had asked Santa, and Santa was expected to deliver. (That line never worked in my childhood, but somehow expectations have grown over the years.)
Loss of anticipation. Despite the absence of a too-generous Santa, our children did not lack for presents and other reasons for looking forward to Christmas. But they never experienced the long period of anticipation I remember. In my childhood, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Chistmas j-u-s-t d-r-a-g-g-e-d. Life is busier now, and children feel time flying in a way that was once only an adult curse. Holiday stress has no age limits. [Note from 2019: If you read the comments in the original post, you'll see that our children disagree—they still thought time dragged.]
Christmas parties. Every organization or activity we or our children were involved in felt it necessary to have a Christmas party, complete with gift exchange, during the busiest and most expensive season of the year. I don't know why: the secular organizations had no need to celebrate Christmas, and the churches should have realized that Advent / Christmas Eve / Christmas / Epiphany worship services are a much better excuse for a celebration than "we have to have parties because everyone else does." I realize that some people are energized by such events, but I could have drastically reduced my stress level by declining at least half of the Christmas events we were invited to. I would much, much rather have baked and decorated cookies at home than attended parties, yet more often than not the latter squeezed out the better.
Christmas traditions. Frankly, I don't have any answers here. I still grieve over not having established our own family's holiday traditions, and for letting some treasures from my past fall by the wayside. For years we celebrated Thanksgiving with my in-laws; after that, we joined my family's gathering at my sister's house. Our children have wonderful memories of time spent with our extended families, which is of infinite value ... but no memories of Thanksgiving at home. Christmastime was usually spent at our house, but always with company, usually my in-laws. This was a great treasure, and I wouldn't trade it. But it was also stressful, as we accommodated their desires (e.g. Santa Claus), and in the time crunch I dropped some of my own cherished Christmas traditions. Why stress ourselves with making and decorating cookies (precious memories from my childhood) when we knew Grandma would bring piles of wonderful food with her? This was one of the "if only I were more organized" stresses: couldn't I have fit it all in, somehow? Without a doubt, family is far more important (and fun) than a particular cookie tradition. But there's still a loss, and a stress to deal with. [Note from 2019: Here's grace for you: Our children apparently picked up and passed on a number of family traditions, including those from my own childhood, despite my feelings that I mangled that rather badly.]
We've been part of our church's Christmas services for nearly as long as our kids have been alive, in some combination of childen's choir, adult choir, Christmas musicals, Scripture reading, and/or setup and takedown. Overall this is a great thing, and I find it hard to "do congregation," especially in churches where congregations don't do all that much. Active involvement is both educational and inspirational. But it also has its losses and stresses, from missing the neighborhood Santa drive-by (small loss, I think, but the kids loved getting the candy he tosses); to staying up into the wee hours of Christmas morning finishing tasks, having returned from church well after midnight; to burdening our guests with the choice of (1) be at church with us for a long time, sometimes attending multiple services, (2) providing their own transportation (difficult when the church was a complicated 40-minute drive from home), or (3) staying home without us, whom they had come long distances to be with. On the plus side, what with the exhuastion and staying up late, we rarely had to deal with early-rising children on Christmas morn. [Note from 2019: In 2011 we were new at a church that is only an eight-minute drive away from home. Eight years later, I can heartily recommend that situation. What a difference it makes in the stress levels.]
Gift giving. This deserves a post to itself, but I'll try to keep it short. A gift, whether inexpensive or costly, can be a precious expression of love, or at least appreciation. But there's no question gift giving can be a problem, even without Santa in the picture.
- For a long time I was embarrased about the number of gifts under our tree, but I've gotten over that. Even though we had only two children, we always had visitors for Christmas to swell the present pile, and we have many generous relatives. We also made a point of wrapping as gifts things most families probably just buy as a matter of course, such as clothing (yes, even underwear), educational materials, and other necessities of life, just because it's so much fun to watch people unwrap presents—and they were never ungrateful, not even for the underwear. Most of the generous relatives were good about sending useful presents, too.
- The number of presents wasn't the only reason it took us all morning and most of the afternoon to open our gifts. It was important to us to treasure each gift (even the underwear), so we opened gifts slowly, and two gifts were never opened at the same time, no matter how many people were in the room. All attention was focused on one person, one gift. I can't say strongly enough how wonderful this custom was for us. Every gift was treasured, every giver thanked in person (or the gift carefully noted down if the giver was not present). The ungrateful do not deserve gifts. Thankfully, we never had to enforce this.
- Unfortunately, we were pretty bad about thank-you notes. We almost always got them out, but much later than we should have. I don't know why it was so difficult. The children were truly thankful, but getting them (or, to be honest, myself) to put pen to paper was a battle. But, really, how hard can it be? If I were doing it over, I'd include under the tree a special box of notecards for each child, and make a point of sitting down at the beginning of each subsequent day and writing one thank-you note. Even with our generous family, they'd have been finished before Epiphany. Let me add that, in these days of multiple means of communication, I wouldn't insist on hand-written, need-a-stamp notes, although those are always lovely to get. But whether expressed through letter, e-mail, phone, Skype, SMS, IM, or Facebook, what the giver wants to know is: Did the gift arrive? Was it broken or defective in any way? What do you like about it? What don't you like about it? Here is a great opportunity for a lesson in basic courtesy: how to thank someone for his thoughtfulness and generosity while letting him know that at age 12 you really don't want any more pink elephant slippers. Trust me, the giver has better things to do with his money than to give you presents you don't want. And please, mention gifts individually. "Thank you for the presents" meets the bare minimum requirements, but does not satisfy a loving and generous heart.
- If I were doing it again, I'd fret less about some of the gifts our children received that didn't fit well with our priorities and values. There was never anything truly awful—though in my opinion, a Barbie doll comes close—but I don't think they were scarred for life by being given stick-on plastic earrings and play nail polish. Relatives are good for expanding one's horizons.
- Charity gift catalogues (e.g. World Vision, Compassion, Heifer Project) are a gimmick, I know, but nonetheless a very effective and educational way to involve children in contributing to those in need. And I think the donation of a goat, or a bicycle, or an anti-malaria bed net would be just perfect for those otherwise meaningless Christmas party gift exchanges. I wouldn't go as far as this family (the same Ann Voskamp mentioned above) and have no gifts at all under the tree: receiving gifts is not only a joy for children but also a lesson in thankfulness. And anyway, what would we do without underwear? But the basic concept is worth working into our gift-giving, one way or another. Buy a few extra items to keep on hand during the year, too. They won't spoil (you get a card; the gift has already been given) and you'll have an easy present to pull out when needed.
- When I read, years ago, about a woman who had all her Christmas shopping done before Thanksgiving, I knew I could never be so efficient. Deadlines inspire me, but they must be real deadlines: I'm no good at mentally determining to be done by a certain time if my gut knows I really have another two weeks. But for the past several years, Thanksgiving has been a real deadline, because that's when our family gets together, and we all like to save on postage. True, it's a soft deadline—I can and do still shop in December—but it's solid enough to spur me into action a month early. It's an awesome feeling to go into December (and Advent) with much of the labor completed!
- What I really want to do is gather Christmas gifts slowly, all year 'round. This is harder to do for children of a certain age, whose interest in a particular item may not be sustained from February to December, or for things that people might buy for themeselves in the interim. But that still leaves a number of possibilities, from consumables (food, sandpaper, crayons) to items you know someone would love but would not treat himself to.
- We need to get over our embarrassment about homemade gifts. Few things say love like something that takes time and effort rather than a credit card. Homemade jam and hand-knit sweaters were always big hits at our house. Just don't take anything homemade to a Christmas party gift exchange, where for reasons I still don't understand, mockery is frequently mistaken for humor.
What has helped—or hindered—your celebration of Christmas?
A phrase from George McDonald sums up how I'd like to approach this season of blessing and stressing. Labor without perturbation, readiness without hurry, no haste and no hesitation. For the visual thinkers and chart-minded among us, I've created a graph that I find helpful in determining whether or not a particular Christmas activity is worthwhile for me.
The y-axis, Duty, represents the importance of a project or activity, whether in my own mind or imposed by others; the x-axis, Delight, is a measure of the joy received as a result of my participation. There is nothing mathematical about the placement of the adjectives within a quadrant; they are merely suggestive.
A given type of event may fit into any of the four quadrants. For example, the Christmas party.
The first quadrant is all positive; this is where you want to be. For me, it would be a small gathering of good friends, where we take our voices and various instruments on a carolling tour of the neighborhood, preferably on a still, quiet night with a few snowflakes falling. Then we'd repatriate and warm up by a cheerful fire with cups of steaming cocoa and an assortment of snacks and cookies. (Yes, I'm aware that I live in Florida.)
Quadrant Two might be your office Christmas party, which you dread, but you know that if you don't show up—with a smile and a gag gift—your boss will consign you to the "not a team player" abyss. Grit your teeth, take a good attitude with you, and please try to stay out of trouble.
The third quadrant is bad all around: no fun and no good reason to be there. Perhaps it's your church's production of The Young Messiah, served with Crystal Light lemonade and peanut butter cookies, which you know will distress your ears, your brain, your stomach, and your musical sensibilities. You like to support church activities, but they're expecting an enthusiastic crowd of three hundred and you will not be missed. Cross this one off your list with gratitude and a sigh of relief.
Quadrant Four is where you'll find the chocolate cake of life: Not good for you, but not harmful in limited quantities. Perhaps your neighbors are staging a back-to-back showing of your favorite Christmas television specials. No one will be offended if you stay home, and you don't anticipate any benefit, not even a chance for conversation—no one but you appreciates pausing a show to discuss the philosophical implications of the Ghost of Christmas Present, or the symbolic significance of the Island of Misfit Toys—but you would love to see A Charlie Brown Christmas again. The greatest danger with activities from this quadrant is that it is too easy to let them accumulate until they've multiplied stress by crowding out Quadrants One and Two.
I see the Ann Voskamp quotation as unrealistically one-dimensional: Anything that is not in Quadrant One must be in Quadrant Three. I suggest that the Christmas season, like life, cannot be reduced so neatly—not even to my two-dimensional analysis. But in any case, a reasoned consideration of what contributes to a joyful celebration and what detracts should lead us in the direction of a
Which is an appropriate activity for Advent.