"Before you can search for truth, you must be interested in finding it." -Miroslav Volf

Friday, December 24, 2010

Top Ten Favorite Christmas Traditions

Here are some of the things I meant to share in my last post—some of my most cherished traditions. Hopefully my nostalgia stirs some comforting and uplifting remembrance among others. I’ll list them in the form of a top ten list, because, well, I have a strong affinity for top ten lists. The order here doesn’t really mean much, I don’t think.

10) Christmas morning pancakes. My mom has long made me pancakes in the “shapes” of things I was most interested in for that particular Christmas morning breakfast. And it really doesn’t take much to make three round, connected blobs look like Mickey Mouse. Then it was T-Rex, then a basketball, then a skateboard, then Ken Griffey Jr.’s head, then a guitar. I think this year I’ll ask for “trickle-down economics” and see what she comes up with.

9) The Grotto. I love going to this outdoor Catholic sanctuary in NE Portland every Christmas, something I’ve done as far back as I can remember. They have live music in a large cathedral, puppet shows, Christmas carolers, llamas, some live actors, carnival-style treats, and colorful lights all around. Some of us went the other night, and I was grateful to sit in the sanctuary for a while, looking at the images and being reminded of the wondrous and profound significance of the Christmas story. The Grotto is also a great place to simply stand in the middle of the courtyard and enjoy the festive atmosphere all around. Standing closer to the hot cocoa and popcorn and farther from the llama area helps this atmosphere, too.

8) Singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” with my now-wife Joann. This is actually only a two-year tradition. Last Christmas, when Joann flew to the other side of the world to see me, her not-so-sure-about-marriage-yet-boyfriend, we had the opportunity to perform for the mayor and city council of Xiaogan. I gave a speech about my appreciation of the city (which was so flattering to the mayor that my words made the next day’s newspaper) and Joann and I sang the abovementioned Christmas song. I love the song, and Joann and I seem to blend well when we sing it. Singing it this year (and in years to come, I imagine) brings back warm memories of my China experience and my wife who traveled so far to see me.

7) The Pomander. Before I was born, my mom acquired some sort of scented, wax “thing” in the shape of three Christmas carolers. Me and my sensitive nose grow weak in the knees for a good smell, and I was enamored with this particular smell—kind of a pine-spice scent—and have been ever since. The thing—or “pomander”—is at least thirty years old and still has retained its smell. I love walking by and catching a subtle whiff of its scent. Nobody else—friend or family—seems to quite enjoy the smell as much as me. That’s fine…this is one thing for which I truly need no outside validation to feel justified in how I feel.

6) Opening presents with Snickers, the family beagle. Sadly, Snickers is on his last legs. Actually we said that a few years ago…he’s now over 18 years old—about 130 in dog years (though I don’t really believe “dog years” are actually a thing). My mom always makes a point to buy him some treats/toys, wrapped for him to open. In his younger days, he got pretty excited and was able to mostly open them on his own. With age came a little less enthusiasm and the need for a bit more help from me. Fun tradition for me/us. He actually might just be humoring me, thoughtful old thing.

5) Uno and an inflatable reindeer. This tradition actually died long ago, though I remember it as a highlight from my younger days. Typically, after spending Christmas Eve with some extended family, we’d venture over to another, slightly more distant part of the family (great uncles, second cousins, etc) to visit. And I remember being six or so and playing Uno with “the guys”—an array of men who I am still not totally sure exactly how I’m related to them (I’d have to have my mother explain it to me again). I specifically made a point every year to sit next to “Norm,” an older guy (slightly larger man with a nice mustache, if I recall), who I could attack with a barrage of “Draw-Fours” and witty six-year-old jabs. That tradition seemed to die, as more of that side of the family became a bit more geographically scattered, I believe (and age caught up with a few too, I think). A dead tradition I still remember with fondness. Oh, and the inflatable reindeer. I actually don’t totally remember the deal with this—I think it was another thing Norm and I fought over.

4) Christmas Eve Service. My childhood church in Woodland—Woodland Presbyterian Church—closes their annual Christmas Eve service by passing out candles to everyone, which are then methodically lit and held while “Silent Night” is sung by the church body. We then blow out our candles in unison. It’s a very beautiful, sublime, peaceful moment I enjoy every year, one of the more sacred parts of the Christmas season for me. I also think the simplicity of candles and a cappella voices is a nice contrast to the busyness and chaos and consumerist spirit that can overwhelm us at Christmas and distract us from the more hope-filled message of Christmas.

3) Egg Nog Lattes. A semi-recent tradition discovered soon after I made the leap from “coffee-is-gross” to “I-need-coffee-to-avoid-headaches.” The Christmas season used to begin after Thanksgiving for me; now it begins when Starbucks starts putting out its holiday drinks. Amazing how this is likely not just true for me, and how much Starbucks has come to be a part of the Christmas experience for so many. Also, more recently, I discovered a late-night alternative to egg nog lattes—egg nog with rum. I think that’s probably more egg nog as egg nog was meant to be experienced.

2) Christmas presents. From the giving end of things, the only real steady giving tradition I still have is getting my Grandma an Egyptian-style perfume bottle…I believe this year marks the 13th year of this tradition. As for receiving presents, I am an only child, and my mom loves to give gifts. A good combination, if you like “stuff.” Thinking back to Christmas presents over the years from my mom is kind of a fun gauge of where I’m at in life and what’s important to me. Last year the best gifts were a number of theology/ethics/culture books that I quickly devoured over the next several weeks. In the years previous, highlights included a subscription to “Beckett Baseball Card Monthly,” a street hockey goal, Super Nintendo, and perhaps the prize—a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sewer/lair for my turtle (and villain) collection.

1) Christmas lights and “Ooooo.” My mom and I used to drive around looking at lights. The rule (don’t know who enacted it) was to point at lights, kind of waving your fingers, and saying “oooooooo!” One of my family-favorite “cute kid comments” (we all have them) from the Christmas season was shortly after Christmas, when most of the lights had been taken down. Apparently it dawned on three-year-old-me that the season was past, as I uttered at some point in the car: “Lights gone…pits.” I don’t remember saying it, but I don’t think my Dad is lying to me.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Christmas break! Joann and I both have two weeks off from teaching. How’d we celebrate last night? Netflix reruns of “Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman” and rummy and screwdrivers. This has actually become a fairly regular thing for us (minus the screwdrivers), an early tradition or ritual in our marriage.

A couple times a week, we put on the old episodes, and play a few hands of rummy. We actually have an ongoing game, which we began on our honeymoon. I’ve currently been leading for several weeks now, currently 17,330 to 16,770. But she had a lead for most of September and October. As for "Lois and Clark," well…it’s much more cheeseball than I remember it as a kid. The writing isn’t great, Dean Cain is not much of an actor, really, and the Lois-almost-dies-nearly-every-episode-shtick is getting a bit tiresome…but it makes for some good entertainment and heckling.

On the note of “traditions,” I’ve been thinking in the past couple days about Christmas traditions. As I write, the fire is going, tree is lit, Christmas music is playing…making for a very cozy, nostalgic mood. Good time to remember a bit of my own cherished traditions.

I think it’s significant to even acknowledge that I have valued traditions. I say that because it seems many in my generation and young people in general don’t seem to have as good a grasp on traditions as older generations (maybe this itself is as traditional as anything throughout history...the disdain of the young for tradition). At least this seems the case when it comes to the Church (though I think many of us are getting better). A lot of arguments in church and theology seem to involve some element of over-appreciation or under-appreciation for tradition.

In the context of music wars and other church conflicts, it seems the older folks, if they are at fault, are at fault for being a bit unwilling to abandon what they hold dear, failing to see the need for the Christian experience, the language we use, the way we worship, the way we minister, all to be continually evolving and adjusting to remain relevant to an ever-changing culture.

On the other hand, people like me who are younger and pushing for new expressions of worship and ministry can fail to see the value of long-held and long-practiced traditions, thinking we possess the right way to do things, and thinking that what is old is irrelevant and no longer useful. We can forget the fact that we are a part of an historic tradition, passed down by Jesus himself two millennia ago and kept alive—to some extent—by a devotion to ritual and tradition.

And beyond that, we can just be plain rude to those older than us, writing off their opinions. Young and old always need to take care to really pay attention to what the other is saying, lest we choose argument and defeat of the other as our method and goal, rather than dialogue and consensus (or at least respectful concession).

The same is the case for those who do theology, I think, in terms of reactivity. With some of the authors I’ve been reading more lately, I’ve also been making a point to read critiques of those authors/books from the other side. For example, I’m currently reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History,” parts of which I read in college. And there are certainly some historians who think Zinn is unscholarly, misguided, insanely liberal, wrong, whatever. That’s fair.

Or reading critiques of leaders in the church today whose theology is at odds with some other prominent leaders on the other side of the spectrum. It’s fine to disagree. Though, one thing I've noticed in these critiques seems to be a bit of fear of those who seem to be diverging from “tradition.” Now, you can easily make a case that there’s nothing new under the sun. For example, a lot of evangelical leaders seem to be afraid of Rob Bell, who they’d claim is diverging from tradition.

But if you trace back Bell’s influence, he’s not really original, other than that he’s reframing some old theology to a new audience. He doesn’t seem all the different from people like Barth, or even further back, Origen, in many ways. It’s hard to get more traditional than Origen, one of the first (maybe the first?) theologians of the church (though our evangelical theology seems more in line with Augustine than Origen, from what I can tell).

But I wonder about the motivations of those who critique someone like Bell. Perhaps it’s a sincere desire to condemn “false teaching” and keep the Christian tradition pure and sacred and true. But I also wonder if some of these leaders feel threatened, and are critiquing from a place of feeling insecure. Perhaps they feel their ministry or livelihood is put at risk. I don’t know for sure.

Same with the critiques of Zinn. Zinn paints a portrait of American history that is very different from how it was framed and presented to me as a child in school. People like Columbus and, later, the Founding Fathers, are not exactly revealed to be heroes. Maybe such historians who would critique a perspective like Zinn's fear the demise of the "noble American tradition" and what the implications might be, for their own jobs as teachers/writers and for the health or "success" of our country. I don’t know—I’m not really a history buff (though I’d like to be), and am probably speaking out of my element here.

It's obvious to me that traditions are very important to us, not something we are easily willing to part with. That’s true in the sense of Christmas traditions; I know I’m always eager to do the same thing every year, reliving what I’ve been doing since I was a child, and even making new traditions, now that I’m married. And it seems true in the sense of traditions beyond the Christmas season.

And I think there are both valuable and dangerous aspects to those traditions. Traditions seem to show what we value, give us a sense of who we are as individuals and as a community, give us some stability, maybe, and hold for us a great deal of meaning in how they connect us to God, or each other, or beauty, or truth, or maybe something else I haven’t named.

But they can blind us as well, or be something we cling to out of fear, when we begin to realize that our traditions need to be questioned and tested. The long-held, traditional belief that the sun revolved around the earth eventually had to be thrown out in light of new insights and discovery and reflection (though I think it took the Church a while to concur with this one). But there are other traditions we are a bit more stubbornly unwilling to reconsider or give up when such abandonment might be called for.

I say all this simply to point out the tension and the need for discernment, and for young and old to be willing to discern together what aspects of tradition should be carried on and what should be reformulated for a new context and era. I have probably made more mistakes in line with the “young”—being too quick to disregard the old; though I think more recently in my life I’ve come to love and be eager to know what is traditional and ancient.

And look at that. I was going to share some of my own cherished Christmas traditions, and I didn’t make it there. Since it’s time to go make dinner, I’ll save that for another post in the near future.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Imagine" and Listening Well

It’s probably obvious to many who know me and who also read my blog that “listening” is an important theme and goal for me. Figuring out how to listen well and to help others listen well—for the sake of understanding, reconciliation, discovering beauty and truth and God, and learning—is a goal, probably one that will remain the focus of my studies and writing as I ultimately head toward a PhD in the not-too-distant future.

Driving to work this morning, I was listening to a discussion on NPR about the significance and influence of John Lennon, who died 30 years ago today (missed the event by a couple years). They were playing snippets of “Imagine” and discussing the profundity of the song and how accessible it has been for many, in that people seem to find some aspect or lyric of the song that touches them and their situation in some way.

They were also talking about how reactive the Church was when the song came out and in the years following. They talked primarily of the Catholic Church, but I think the points being made were applicable to a multitude of Christians and Christian denominations. Apparently many Christian leaders were outspoken back then (and likely in the years since) about their discomfort with the song, citing primarily its opening line (“imagine there’s no heaven”). One church considered playing the song on its bells the day of Lennon’s death, only to meet an outcry from churchgoers.

I think I groaned aloud in the car. My thoughts were something like: “Yet again, we’ve missed the point. Yet again, we’ve overreacted. Yet again, we’ve chosen the wrong things to throw a hissy-fit about.” I know it was thirty years ago, but my discovery of this reactivity was new, so it felt like a step backwards for my "tribe"—the Church—even if it happened long ago.

Yes, maybe Lennon saw religion as a problem (don’t really know). But I don’t think he was critiquing the kind of “true” and “pure” religion talked about in James’ Epistle. I’m guessing he was a critic of the kind of a religion that causes war, that is a barrier to peace, that makes entire people groups hate each other, that causes in-groups and out-groups. Or maybe he was just honestly expressing his questions about life and meaning and God, and in so doing, gave words to the questions of many.

And, to be fair, I imagine he wasn’t a saint—maybe he just didn’t like the inherent call in most religions to, in some form, “repent” and change your comfortable habits (though I kind of doubt this to be the root of his questioning of religion/heaven, if that's in fact what he was doing).

But instead of coming alongside Lennon, listening to the root of his concerns and questions and maybe even challenges, it sounds like many Christians just got scared. Asking questions about heaven and hell? Questioning the value of religion for the well-being of the human race? Yikes! We must resist! We must speak out violently against it, respond in ways that show we are 100% certain about everything we believe, eliminate dissenting voices among us that have the potential to deconstruct our belief system and leave us feeling out of control! I don’t think it’s too much of a caricature to say that this is often a general reaction among many.

So what does this have to do with listening? Good listening isn’t defensive and argumentative, I don’t think. Listening hears not just the words and the way those words threaten the hearer, but the humanity and truth behind the words being spoken.

Perhaps those who reacted to this famous song’s existential questions might have been better off to have heard the cry for peace, the desire for a more unified human community, the challenge to the way nations often default to violence in their conflicts with others, the portrait of hope painted, and—dare I say—a perhaps unintentional challenge to the Church to lessen its focus on the afterlife and more fully discover Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God on earth, a message that challenges us to “live for today” in many ways so that we can, by the way we live our lives, anticipate the day when God will restore all things and “the world will be as one,” as Lennon put it.

I’m not saying Lennon intended this interpretation. But depending on your attitude, “Imagine” could be taken either as a borderline credo and mission statement for the Church (with a couple of tricky lines), or could be taken as something to be condemned for the way it might lead people astray or rob the Church’s teaching of its credibility or diminish church attendance.

For me personally, I believe listening well means I should be open to receive from others. Be ready to hear the words beyond the words. Be ready to find common ground between myself and others rather than only identify differences. Be secure enough to not feel threatened by people and ideas that conflict with my views. Be led in conversation by the other without jumping to premature conclusions or making assumptions. Wow. I’m genuinely feeling a bit of remorse right now has I’m feeling a bit of the weight of all the instances where I’ve failed as a listener. I certainly haven’t mastered the art of listening.

I think being a good listener also means being ready to connect my understanding of something with another’s, only after having truly heard their message—such as the Church recognizing those goals and dreams in common with Lennon, or such as me listening to my friend well enough that when I give my opinion, it’s not on a completely different topic but is actually relevant to what he’s saying, shows that I haven’t completely missed the point. I’m smiling…too many great (or tragic?) moments from English class when a student and I will be talking about two completely different things and really just talking past each other.

But then again, I guess even in more common situations, when two people or two communities do actually speak the same language, we still often have this problem of not really having any idea what our conversation partner is saying, because we’re unable or unwilling—for whatever reason, be it pride, ignorance, naïveté, laziness, or fear—to really hear them.

Imagine the possible outcomes that would result from people becoming better listeners. Imagine also how much money Fox News would lose, how Middle East conflicts might change, how many Chinese youth (or others in similar situations) would feel more validated by their parents in their opinions and dreams for their lives, how the dialogue about environmental issues might benefit, how the gay community might feel more valued and understood, how American attitudes toward immigration might change, how the divorce rate might decrease, how internal church conflicts might lessen. And, more importantly, how a personal pet peeve might completely fade away for me…people wrongly guessing my point and incorrectly finishing my sentences. Am I right? :)

Meh. I probably do that to others too. Rats. We all have room for improvement...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Few Who Give the Many a Bad Name

This post might be an unnecessary plea, but I’m going to make it anyway.

Joann and I were in Portland last Friday evening for the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. We arrived a little late, around 6pm or so (the ceremony began around 5:30pm), so we missed the lighting of the tree. It sounds like we also missed the makings of a future movie.

I’m sure everyone’s aware of the foiled Jihad attempt by a young Somalian Muslim student. I am still stunned by the whole thing; not necessarily the “holy” rage of the extremist (nothing new), but the elaborate workings of the FBI to seemingly allow this man to go forth with his plan (I'm trusting without coercion) believing he had a host of supporters were actually agents waiting to snatch him up at the coup de grace moment of his plan. It seems those downtown were never in any danger. Unless, of course, something had gone wrong or been misplaced, and the FBI’s attempted sting had gone awry. But, I’m trusting it was a flawless plan.

I wanted to use this space to remind everyone who reads my blog of what you probably already know. And that is this: we should take care to guard our hearts against the temptation to judge a community by its “exceptions.”

When I heard the news about the bomber, my heart immediately went to my Muslim students. Our school has several Saudi students, seven of whom are in my class. All are very kind, respectful, and I would even use the word “good” people. Granted I don’t know them intimately, and there’s a few who are a bit hard to figure out. But from those I’ve talked to the most, I have mostly experienced warmth, kindness, and gratitude.

I felt for them because I know that for many of us, seeing an Arab in America can often evoke a visceral response. We may even know in our heads that we shouldn’t judge, shouldn’t fear. But there is often an aura of mystery around those Muslims we encounter here, and I think where there is mystery there can often be fear. We sometimes fear what we don’t know, I believe, as I’ve recently said here.

I am trying to build bridges in my job, trying to be a reconciler in whatever way I can. During a class break on Monday, I approached four Muslim students, asking them if they’d heard the news. Two of them had, and were very sorry and clearly frustrated. I told them that I wanted them to know that I respect them and their faith, and that I refused to let one radical be a representative of the whole. They were very grateful.

I told them that I face the same challenge as a Christian. That is, there are radicals who do things in the name of Jesus that do more harm than good in the world and so dishonor the Author of our faith. They understand this, and do not judge me, just as I am seeking to avoid judgment of them.

It was a simple gesture, I suppose, but I felt it was worthwhile, as a means of making a connection as well as growing in my understanding of this religion, filled with very godly, devout people who respect and admire Jesus and even have a place for him in their faith (despite not understanding Jesus’ significance and centrality in the same way I do) and who are seeking as best as they know how to live a life honoring to God.

So take this as a reminder of what you most likely already know but could benefit from hearing again: don’t fear Muslims. Perhaps you can even join me on my new journey to gain a deeper understanding of Islam and the way its adherents express their faith. Fight that innate feeling of suspicion that arises when you encounter something foreign, unfamiliar. Don't shut out what seemingly opposes your views and way of life. Fight the temptation to generalize and stereotype. Try to remember that the news gives us the sensational, not the day-to-day goodness of the faithful and devout. And try to think of ways that common ground can be found, that respect can be shown, and that love can be shared through placing a high value on the kind of thoughts and words and actions that build relationships rather than destroy them.

I’m mostly speaking to myself, though perhaps in “overhearing” me here, there is something to be gained for you as well.