Archives for the month of: December, 2013

Christmas is a downer for me. I have such high expectations drilled into my head of what it should be — thank you, Norman Rockwell. Well, I don’t want to blame it all on his renderings of apple-cheeked children in front of roaring fires. I’ve probably seen It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Miracle on 34th Street, and Love Actually (someone referred to this as a classic Christmas movie — really?) too many times. And then there are all those greeting cards I’ve received over the years: I have never gotten one that conveyed the reality of the birth of Jesus, in a smelly, dirty barn full of animals and poop. And then there are the Christmases of my early childhood, when my father could actually figure out what I wanted (a Cabbage Patch Kid, a My Little Pony, a Strawberry Shortcake doll, etc.) and then surprised me with these wonderful gifts on Xmas morning. Now he just gives me cash, which, from an economist’s viewpoint, maximizes my utility, but it really feels so anticlimactic and overly pragmatic. I just can’t help thinking on Christmas day, This is it? Where is all the hoopla?

So how to manage Christmas and the weighty expectations attached to it? The problem is that it’s a tale of two Christmases. Some people talk about the tale of two cities, Washington and the District of Columbia, so I draw a parallel to Christmas. As portrayed in an all-time favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas (notice that I did not include it in the list above of Christmas movies that have perpetuated the warm fuzzies about this holiday), there is the secular, commercialized Christmas which is all about gift-giving, shopping, and aluminum trees (sadly, retailers have noticed that there is an increase in people just buying gifts for themselves so the holiday is growing increasingly inwardly focused), and then there is the faith-filled celebration and anticipation of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, which is what Advent is all about. Of course, Advent has been reduced to a calendar full of goodies, so counting down the days to Christmas is really about stuffing our faces with chocolate.

Thanks to inspiration from my spiritual director, I started thinking about following the liturgical calendar as a means of getting back to the true spirit of Christmas. I didn’t grow up with that background, so I don’t really pay much attention to the liturgical calendar, but I wonder if absorbing the meaning of each day leading up to Christmas, and then the Twelve Days of Christmas themselves (also known as Twelvetide or Christmastide), culminating in the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6th), would be one way to rediscover the meaning of Christmas.  So I looked up the Twelve Days of Xmas in Wikipedia, ( and here’s what I found:

Day 1, 25 December: Christmas Day.
Day 2, 26 December: St. Stephen’s Day. This day is mentioned in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”. Boxing Day, a non-religious banking holiday occurs on the first day following Christmas.
Day 3, 27 December: Feast of saint John the Evangelist and Apostle.
Day 4, 28 December: The Feast of the Holy Innocents, the young male children ordered murdered in Bethlehem by King Herod, according to the Gospel of Matthew. The traditional Christmas song “The Coventry Carol” describes this event.
Day 5, 29 December: The feast day of Saint Thomas Becket.
Day 6, 30 December: The feast of the Holy Family.
Day 7, 31 December: The feast of Saint Sylvester.
Day 8, 1 January: The Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God. Before the Second Vatican Council, it was also observed as the Feast of the Holy Circumcision of Jesus.
Day 9, 2 January: Octave day of St. Stephen or the feast day of St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory Nazianzen. In England, the Lichfield Martyrs are also celebrated on this day.
Day 10, 3 January: Feast of Saint Genevieve or the most holy name of Jesus.
Day 11, 4 January: The octave day of the feast of the Holy Innocents or the feast of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American saint. In medieval times this was The feast of Saint Simon Stylites.
Day 12, 5 January: In the UK this was the Feast of St. Edward the Confessor, King of England. The rest of Europe feasted St. Julian the Hospitaller on this day. The modern church recognizes this as the feast day of St. John Neumann. The evening of the 5 January is also Twelfth Night.

I can’t tell you right now what significance each day has, since I haven’t done the research yet, but I like the idea of celebrating the Twelve Days of Christmas because it diffuses the penultimate meaning we attach to the one singular day, December 25th. If I had a family, it would be fun to have different little rituals for each of the twelve days. Also, spreading out gift giving over the twelve days would be a good idea (or not having any gift giving at all?) –but, I know, it’s hard to imagine not having children sitting in piles of gift wrap and boxes on Christmas morning, like in A Christmas Story.  However, I really think this would relieve the feeling that, when we wake up on December 25th, we’d awaken to something truly amazing and special, when in reality, for most of us, it’s just another day, which is a gift and a grace in and of itself, but seems insipid and pale when compared to what Norman Rockwell has conditioned us to expect. So let’s distribute the weight of these expectations so that it can be spread out across twelve days… and then Twelvetide culminates in the Feast of the Epipihany, which is the celebration of the revelation of God the Son as a human being in Jesus Christ. I’d say that is a big deal. On this day, January 6th, Western Christians [used to] commemorate the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus, and thus Jesus’ physical manifestation to the Gentiles. (

Anyhow, since everyone likes fun little acronyms, I vote we abbreviate the Twelve Days of Christmas as “12dXmas”, then people can tweet about it using #12dXmas, and we can be cool like that.


Now on to the matter of Boxing Day, December 26th. Boxing Day isn’t a religious holiday, but I really like what it stood for — basically it was about charity for those in need (however, in modern days in the British Commonwealth, it is now a day of shopping frenzy with post-Xmas sales rivaling Black Friday.)

The European tradition, which has long included giving money and other gifts to those who were needy and in service positions, has been dated to the Middle Ages, but the exact origin is unknown. It is believed to be in reference to the Alms Box placed in places of worship in order to collect donations to the poor…

In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year… This custom is linked to an older English tradition: since they would have to wait on their masters on Christmas Day, the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts and bonuses, and sometimes leftover food.


I do contend that returning to the original ethos of Boxing Day would help remove the focus from ourselves and make it more outwardly focused, more noble, more virtuous, more in line with what Christ would want the celebration of his birth to be about (maybe the truest gift to Christ is to honor Him through our giving to those in need).

So these are my thoughts on how to redeem Christmas. Happy Christmas to you, on this third day of Christmas, marking the Feast of St. John the Evangelist and Apostle!

(P.S. I unabashedly love Wikipedia, and I do confess that in grad school, I wrote a paper on the capital gains tax citing Wikipedia once or twice, and had the naive gall to submit it to Alice Rivlin, former Vice Chair of the Federal Reserve, MacArthur Fellow, and founding director of the Congressional Budget Office.)

This is a 3 minute animated short with Brene Brown narrating on the key differences between empathy and sympathy, and I teared up at the end!  The animation is credited to Katy Davis from the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts). #RSABear

4 qualities of empathy (based on research by Theresa Wiseman):

1. Perspective taking (being able to take the perspective of another person)

2. Staying out of judgment

3. Recognizing emotion in other people

4. Communicating that.

Empathy = Feeling with people

Rarely does an empathic response start with, “At least…” — this is us trying to make things better (which also invalidates what the other person is feeling). (e.g., “My marriage is falling apart.” Response: “Well at least you have a marriage.”)

Rather, empathy may say, “I don’t know what to say right now, but I’m so glad you told me.”

Rarely can a response make something better, but what makes something better is connection.

I also think of the word “compassion” which means to suffer with — to enter into someone else’s suffering is a frightening thing that can only be done if we are unafraid of pain and suffering ourselves. Empathy and compassion require courage to face our own brokenness.

Father Cavanaugh says to Rudy in the great football movie of the same name:

Son, in 35 years of religious study, I have only come up with two hard incontrovertible facts: there is a God, and I’m not Him.

This is probably the most profound (and concise) statement I have ever heard about God and how much we can reliably pin down about how He operates.

However, we often have these little formulae of how God works, even though we don’t explicitly realize; we say that it’s all about “relationship” with God and that He’s not a cosmic vending machine where we can just insert some coins and get whatever treat we want. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard, “Well
IF you just try <fill in the blank: walking by faith, memorizing Scripture, listening to praise music, getting healing prayer, rebuking those lies, reading this prayer card, reading this book, going to this retreat center, going to this conference, praying to God like this, anointing your home, getting a spiritual director, going to this counselor, trying this technique, meditating like this, being content, eating this food, trying that medication, going on this pilgrimage, finding a hobby, pursuing your passion, etc.>,
THEN God will <fill in the blank: give you peace and joy, bring you healing/ husband/ job/ pregnancy, unleash His blessings on you, etc.>.”

Basically, if A, then B.

Or, if you prefer more scientific notation, A -> B.

And conversely, if you don’t do A, then B won’t happen.

That’s a formula. And we live and breathe by them. Because they seem to imply some kind of order, certainty, and control. And I’m super guilty of propagating some formulae myself. It’s really comforting to rest in them, thinking that if I’m following these rules of living, then I must be doing something right and things will work out for me, and if things aren’t working out for someone else, it simply must be because they are too <fill in the blank: lazy, prideful, ignorant, unwilling, etc.> to take these actions themselves.

And in reality, for every single piece of advice that I’ve received like this (and often this type of advice is delivered in a knowing, certain, authoritative tone of voice, which I admit has also come out of my own mouth regularly!), I can think of several counterexamples to disprove all of these formulae. There are so many exceptions to the rule that it shows that the rule can’t even really be considered a rule. Because, thank God, He is so much bigger than these ridiculous limitations we place on Him. In fact He’s quite unpredictable. And that unpredictability, that total lack of certainty of outcomes, is terrifying, if we can admit it to ourselves.

Think of the healing of the blind man in John 9:

As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.

It’s obvious the formula that was at play here was that, IF someone is sick, THEN it was because either he and/or his parents sinned. (Underlying hope is that, if I don’t sin, then I won’t get sick.) Jesus is saying, no, no, that’s not a good formula at all; don’t assume that because someone is suffering, God is against them; in fact it might very well be the opposite — that God wants to glorify Himself through their suffering. But ask yourself, when you see someone undergo great suffering, and bad thing after bad thing happens to them, do you secretly wonder if they are blighted in some way by God and therefore it is better to shun them for fear that the same blight would rub off on you? These thoughts have definitely crossed my mind.

I also think of the woman who bled for 12 years in Mark 5. It’s an uncomfortable story of longsuffering. She tried everything, she went bankrupt doing so, and still wasn’t healed. And there was so much shame because she had suffered for so long, and I’m sure her friends and family avoided her because they didn’t want to be cursed in the same way she seemed to be. So she was probably very, very lonely. And perhaps that is why, when she was healed by touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak, He felt the need to restore her publicly — by “outing” her so that this healing wasn’t secret, He was actually validating her to the community, showing them His great love, care and compassion for her, that she wasn’t blighted by God.  This woman is exactly the type of person Jesus wanted to reach.

So, if we’re going to create “formulae” to live life, I’d say the more correct “formulae” are:

Sometimes, if A, then B. Other times, if A, then C and not B. Or if D, then B. Or if nothing, then B still happens anyways. God only knows.

I am coming to realize that these formulae are based on what seemed to work for that person. It’s very possible that the actions that the person took in his/her own story are what God wanted them to undertake and there was a certain progression that had to unfold in a particular order — but that was for THEIR story, and as such, cannot and should not be imputed for other people’s stories. But that’s what we tend to do — we tend to implicitly assume that everyone else’s experience is like our own. But it’s this type of thinking which leads us to form superstitions — if something fantastic happens to me while I’m wearing a bright pink dress, I might be inclined to think that it’s because I was wearing that dress, and then every time I want something good to happen, I’ll put on that dress. Instead of a dress, some people have a lucky charm, bracelet, keychain, whatever.

But then take this type of thinking into a faith context: if I am frantically looking for a job, and am totally freaking out.. and then after awhile, come to a place where I am at peace about it and trusting God, and then all of a sudden, I get a job, I may develop a formula of, “if I’m at peace and trusting God, then He’ll give me what I want.” Maybe that was true for me in that particular situation and time, but doesn’t hold true always for me and others. (Not that desiring peace is a bad thing, but just because we achieve it does not mean we will get our heart’s desire.) I’ve known God to deliver people jobs, spouses, babies, and much desired blessings without them coming to a place of acceptance, peace and surrender… Probably because God is a whole lot more empathetic and compassionate than we are, can see the depth of pain these people are experiencing, and knows how much they can handle.

Think of the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel — she really, really wanted a child, to the point where even having a husband didn’t satisfy her (her husband says, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?”). The priest even thought she was drunk when she was praying desperately for God to grant her one. BUT God saw her great anguish and then granted her one child (Samuel) whom she dedicated back to Him… and then gave her five more children to boot! I think that if we were God, we’d be like, “Nope, Hannah, I’m not even going to listen to you till you stop your whining and become grateful for all that I’ve already blessed you with.” Thank God that we are not God — as Father Cavanaugh pointed out. It would almost seem like mercy and grace defy the whole notion of a formula — because a formula implies some kind of performance (if I perform A, then I will get B).

A pastor I had taught that we should distill principles about God (overarching general truths that are biblical and transcend situations/contexts), rather than rules/formulae for living, and I wholeheartedly agree with him. The problem is, I’ve noticed that we often mistake rules for principles.

So what to do? In the context of giving/receiving advice and resisting formulae, here are some thoughts.

For me, if I’m on the side of giving advice: I’d like to be careful of giving advice and projecting my experiences onto someone else. I would hope to frame my advice in a lighter way, “One thing I found helpful for me in a similar situation was XYZ, but I’m just putting that out there; different things work for different people. I’d be happy to share more about it whenever you wish.” I have to humbly acknowledge that my advice might be wrong, or I might not have listened to them carefully and am just throwing something at them that may not be useful (go back to my blog entries on the book Being Wrong). Or actually, take a step back and ask that person’s permission to give them a suggestion. Or take a step back before that and just listen to the person share what’s going on — it’s rare that anyone has ever been lambasted for being an empathetic listener. I think of Job’s friends as the counterexample of how to walk with someone through a trial.

If I’m on the side of receiving advice:  if I don’t want any advice, I could just make that explicit and set a boundary: “I have been overloaded with advice, and I’d just prefer that you listen to me right now.” Or if that person does give me advice, I could take it in with a grain of salt, no matter how expert the person is, and realize that they are human, so I need to spit out the bones and eat the meat. And I could acknowledge that they are trying to be helpful and offer what they have, which is derived from their own experiences, just as I have tried to be helpful when I was in their position. But it would be OK too to share with that person how their (usually unsolicited) advice made me feel because constructive feedback would also help them to be better advice-givers/listeners/friends. And I could also be really careful in who I talk to about stuff, picking people who are long-time trusted friends, who know my story, who are going to be safe and empathetic, because you sort of have a gut feeling about who is going to give you gratuitous advice without really listening.

Bottom line what works for one person may or may not work for another. And ultimately God is so much bigger than all these little rules, formulae and whatnot we’ve developed to try to gain some semblance of certainty. He’s not tame. And Father Cavanaugh (or whoever wrote his line in the movie Rudy) is probably the wisest person I know of.

I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. I really, really like it. In fact I heard that in the act of writing this book, Gladwell’s interest in the Christian faith was re-ignited. The gospel truly is all about becoming strong in our weakness and the inversion of power.

Choosing Forgiveness

In one chapter, Gladwell describes the stories of two families who tragically lose their daughters to brutal crimes, but they choose different paths, and it really struck me:

A man employs the full power of the state in his grief and ends up plunging his government into a fruitless and costly experiment [i.e., Three Strikes law in California; and he lives in perpetual grief over her death; who says that time blindly heals all wounds?],  A woman who walks away from the promise of power finds the strength to forgive — and saves her friendship, her marriage, and her sanity. The world is turned upside down. [This woman is a Mennonite and living out those values.]

Choosing Lovingkindness

Also in another chapter, he writes about the police in a crime-ridden neighborhood in NYC, Brownsville, and what they do to re-establish their legitimacy.  The police wanted to crack down on juvenile crime, and decided to start an intensive program to target and help these youth, Juvenile Robbery Intervention Program (J-RIP). So what was atypical about this intervention is that the police chief, Joanne Jaffe, first carefully chose officers to serve on the task force:

“I couldn’t put just any cop in there,” she said, sounding more like a social worker than a police chief. I had to have a cop that loves kids. I had to have a cop that didn’t have an ounce of negativity about them, and who had the ability to help sway kids and push them in the right direction.”

She also insisted on meeting the families of the youth she had identified as targets. This was very challenging.

“We ended up going to each family, one hundred and six kids,” she said. “They would say, ‘F**k you. Don’t come into my house.'”

But here’s where their breakthrough came and it’s pretty cool:

“[Johnnie Jones] was a bad kid…. Even the mother hated us. There was no one for us to reach out to. So now, November of the first year, 2007, Dave Glassberg comes to my office, Wednesday before Thanksgiving. He says, ‘All the guys, all the people on the team, chipped in and we bought Johnnie Jones and his family Thanksgiving dinner tonight.’

“And I said, ‘You’re kidding.'” This was a  bad kid.

“And he goes, ‘You know why we did it? This is a kid that we’re gonna lose but there are seven other kids in that family. We had to do something for them.’

“I had tears in my eyes. Then he said, ‘Well, we have all these other families. What are we going to do?’ It’s ten a.m., day before Thanksgiving, and I said, ‘Dave, what if I go to the police commissioner and see if I can get two thousand bucks and see if we can buy a turkey for every family? Could we do it?'”

The police commissioner said yes to the request for $2,000. The task force bought turkeys and went door-to-door that night on overtime to deliver them.

“We’d knock,” she continued. “Momma or Grandma would open the door and say, ‘Johnnie, the police are here’ — just like that. I’d say, ‘Hi, Mrs. Smith, I’m Chief Jaffe. We have something for you for Thanksgiving. We just want to wish you a happy Thanksgiving.’ And they’d be, ‘What is this?’ And they’d say, ‘Come in, come in,’ and they would drag you in, and the apartments were so hot, I mean, and then, ‘Johnnie, come here, the police are here!’ And there’s all these people running around, hugging and crying. Every family — I did five — there was hugging and crying. And I always said the same thing: ‘I know sometimes you can hate the police. I understand all that. But I just want you to know, as much as it seems that we’re harassing you by knocking on your door, we really do care, and we really want you to have a happy Thanksgiving.'”

This was her plea for legitimacy — her attempt to get these families to see that the law could be on their side, even if they had been on the wrong side of the law for generations. After this success, the task force also did Christmas-toy giveaways, and they’d also play basketball, go out to dinner with, and help these youth find jobs. They also held a Christmas dinner where they invited the youth and their families.

“You know what I do at the Christmas dinner with my J-RIP kids?” Jaffe said. “They act all tough in front of their friends. So I hug each one of them. It’s always ‘Come on. Let’s hug.'”

This sounds like something out of a bad Hollywood movie, doesn’t it? Turkeys on Thanksgiving! Hugging and crying! The reason most police departments around the world haven’t followed Jaffe’s lead is that what she did doesn’t seem right. Johnnie Jones was a bad kid. Buying food and toys for people like him seems like the worst form of liberal indulgence….

But Malcolm Gladwell shows the results through two graphs. The number of robberies in Brownsville drop from over 120 in 2006 to under 40 in 2011. The number of robbery arrests of J-RIP youth drops from over 350 in the year prior to the program, to under 25 after three years in the program. You could argue that it’s just a coincidence and there’s no direct proof of causation, but I hope that this story is true!

This is a great example of kindness leading to repentance.