Friday Link Love

How much is too much?

Three Christmas Gifts — Faith and Leadership

I dug this up from the Friday Link Love archives, since I’ve started thinking about the kids’ Christmas gifts:

At a retreat on Christian life, I heard Susan V. Vogt describe a wonderful tradition suggested in her book “Raising Kids Who Will Make a Difference: Helping Your Family Live with Integrity, Value, Simplicity, and Care for Others.” A parent of four kids herself and a counselor and family life educator, she had tried her own experiments with gift giving, eventually settling on a simple yet elegant plan: she and her husband give each of their children only three gifts for Christmas — a “heart’s desire,” a piece of clothing and “something to grow on.”

I liked her idea immediately. Giving these gifts would ensure that the needs and wants of each child would be met, that each would receive an equal number of gifts, and that we would have a structure to help us resist the cultural message to run out and buy.

My friend Sherry gives her kids three gifts because “It was good enough for Jesus.” We’ve been doing that for some time, but I think we’ll try this approach too and see what happens.

Stay tuned: I think Caroline’s heart’s desire is a guinea pig.


An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Physics Education — Brain Pickings

Apparently we’re not teaching modern physics in high school (like, anything after 1865). Is that true? Yeesh:


Why You’re Never Failing as a Mother — Pregnant Chicken

This is making the rounds, and rightfully so:

As for the past generations that like to tell you that they raised six kids on their own and did it without a washing machine? Well, sort of. Keep in mind child rearing was viewed pretty differently not that long ago and you could stick a toddler on the front lawn with just the dog watching and nobody would bat an eye at it – I used to walk to the store in my bare feet to buy my father’s cigarettes when I was a kid. As a mother, you cooked, you cleaned, but nobody expected you to do anything much more than keep your kids fed and tidy.

So much more awesomeness at the link.


Mark Kelly Speaks to Jared Loughner — Huffington Post

Loughner was sentenced to seven life terms plus 140 years in prison for shooting Gabby Giffords and killing several others. Her husband Mark spoke to him, and to us as well:

Mr. Loughner, by making death and producing tragedy, you sought to extinguish the beauty of life. To diminish potential. To strain love. And to cancel ideas. You tried to create for all of us a world as dark
 and evil as your own.

 But know this, and remember it always: You failed.

Your decision to commit cold-blooded mass murder also begs of us to look in the mirror. This horrific act warns us to hold our leaders and ourselves responsible for coming up short when we do, for not having the courage to act when it’s hard, even for possessing the wrong values.

We are a people who can watch a young man like you spiral into murderous rampage without choosing to intervene before it is too late.

We have a political class that is afraid to do something as simple as have a meaningful debate about our gun laws and how they are being enforced. We have representatives who look at gun violence,
 not as a problem to solve, but as the white elephant in the room to ignore. As a nation we have repeatedly passed up the opportunity to address this issue. After Columbine; after Virginia Tech; after Tucson and after Aurora we have done nothing.


How to Use If-Then Planning to Achieve Any Goal — 99U

One study looked at people who had the goal of becoming regular exercisers. Half the participants were asked to plan where and when they would exercise each week (e.g., “If it is Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, then I will hit the gym for an hour before work.”) The results were dramatic: months later, 91% of if-then planners were still exercising regularly, compared to only 39% of non-planners!

Why are [if/then] plans so effective? Because they are written in the language of your brain – the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our awareness.


Motoi Yamamoto’s Saltscapes — Colossal

Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto travels to the salt flats of Utah to discuss life, death, rebirth, and his labyrinthine poured salt installations. These are stunning:

Motoi Yamamoto – Saltscapes from The Avant/Garde Diaries on Vimeo.

He began this process to help process the grief of losing his sister. Salt as an element in healing? That’ll preach.


Let’s Argue about Advent/Christmas Music Again

(Prepare away, but a little "Away in the Manger" never hurt anybody either.)

I got a comment yesterday on a post I wrote a year ago defending Christmas carols in Advent. Wow! These posts really do hang around forever.

I looked at them again and mostly stand by what I wrote. Here is the whole string of posts:

First, I detected a genuine longing for Christmas, beyond some grabby-greedy-gimme kind of consumerist thing, and wondered if other people were feeling that too. (For what it’s worth, I don’t feel that same urgency for the Christmas message that I did last year at this time… you?)

Next, I unpacked some of the tensions between Advent and Christmas hymns and mounted a theological defense for singing Christmas carols in December.

Finally, I looked at some non-theological reasons for the same… some of them more substantive than others.


Actually, you guys argue—I have a book to finish.

And if you’d like a soundtrack for your discussion, may I recommend Peter Mayer’s Midwinter—beautiful Adventy stuff there, with a bit of Christmas thrown in. These are all original songs—no chestnuts roasting on an open fire here.

Indeed, his song “Where is the Light?” is a perfect example of an Adventish song that has a celebratory, upbeat tone—which is something I talk about in my second post.

Santa Lives! Plus Video

A couple of years ago, I read a blog entry by a woman whose son had just “figured out” Santa. I can’t find it now, but the post was a lovely letter to her son in which she explained that he had learned something very important: You now know that magic can come from other people—that each of us and all of us can be bringers of magic to one another. I don’t resonate with magic language, but I think she’s right: it’s not that magic has ceased to exist. Instead, we are the creators of it. Something like that, anyway.

We don’t make a big deal out of Santa in our house. Santa brings a gift or two and fills stockings on Christmas morning, but we don’t write letters to him or visit him or anything like that. He’s everywhere this time of year, so they get plenty of indoctrination without our help.

When Caroline started inquiring seriously about Santa, I explained it to her in terms of Story. (Not a big surprise if you know me.) I told her the story of Saint Nicholas, and how Santa is a character that was inspired by a real person and has lasted all these years because it is such a powerful and beautiful story. Then I said that now she is in a different part of the story. She used to be one of the people who received gifts and joy from Santa, but now she gets to both receive that joy and give it to other people, most notably her siblings. So she helped pick out stocking stuffers for James, for example.

(I have no idea whether she got that, of course. I think there is some wistfulness there. But wistfulness is not enough to convince me that Santa is some pernicious lie that we tell our children. She doesn’t feel deceived, just nostalgic.)

This year both girls wanted American Girl dolls. We had already planned to buy new bikes for James and Margaret this year, and Caroline is still angling for a telescope, and for a variety of reasons, new AG dolls just weren’t going to happen. But a friend of mine found out about this and offered us her college-age daughter’s dolls—one for each of my girls, plus accessories. A few days before Christmas, we received two big boxes full of Felicity and Kaya and a wood table and chairs and a tea set and a horse and a tepee and books and more.

It really was overwhelmingly wonderful, and that was just my reaction!

This is a perfect example of what I tried to explain to Caroline—that the Santa story is a story we participate in—and we participate in different ways as we age. My friend chose to give some joy to two little girls rather than mothball her daughter’s toys, or sell them on eBay. And because Caroline knows the full story of Santa, I was able to share with her the origins of this year’s Christmas gift. Someday I will share the story with Margaret too.

On Christmas evening, I asked if they wanted to say thank you to Santa (or in Caroline’s case, “Santa.”) Since I know Santa reads this blog, I will include their video here. [One note of explanation: Margaret is going on about the Bitty Baby high chair because that’s what Kaya sat in when the dolls had tea together. The other chair that Santa sent needs some repairs.]

I also want to say Thank You to Santa.


Several years ago I wrote a series of poems inspired by verses of Christmas carols. Since I won’t be blogging this weekend, I’ve set these to post every so often instead. Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

This one was inspired by The First Nowell, verse 2. It was actually the first one I wrote that year.

they looked up, and saw a star shining
in the east
beyond them
it hung fat in the sky
and taunted them for days.
when they moved, it slid alongside,
when they stopped and turned, it halted too
and winked like an idiot.

in its message: approach.

in their response: buzz off,
swatting it;

but a few sighed:
all right.
we’ll go that way,
just to get you
off our backs.

so they turned, faced off with the light,
and walked a lingering day and night,
but the further they traveled, the more the beckoning star
remained far,
far beyond them.

Day Break

Several years ago I wrote a series of poems inspired by verses of Christmas carols. Since I won’t be blogging this weekend, I’ve set these to post every so often instead. Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

This one is inspired by “Silent Night” and a VERY early morning with baby Margaret. I say this long bright streak of light in the sky and could not for the life of me figure out what it was. The sun had come up behind a cloud that was not visible in the pre-dawn sky.

Silent night, holy night,
Son of God, love’s pure light;
Radiant beams from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

daybreak is a blue receiving blanket
edged in baby pink, tucked tight
under the chin of a world that was
up half the night, wailing.
all is calm, tender and mild,
damp, glittering.

then out of nothing
a silver thread appears, streaks the sky
and hangs for a long piercing moment.
an airplane’s hasty journey?
or a lightning strike, frozen on film?
(I can almost believe we are standing so still)

I’ve never had to decipher the dawn.

I’m disappointed to see
the rest of the cloud come into view,
edged in light, because
if this is the dawn of redemption,
then that sliver is the sky torn in two,
not like a garment rent in anguish,
but like a peek beyond the curtain
where truly, all is bright.


Several years ago I wrote a series of poems inspired by verses of Christmas carols. Since I won’t be blogging this weekend, I’ve set these to post every so often instead. Merry Christmas! Season’s Greetings!

This one was inspired by the line from “In the Bleak Midwinter” that says, “worship the beloved with a kiss.” Margaret was about a year old when I wrote this.

though it’s embarrassing,
like talking in one’s sleep
or feeling milk chortle out the nose.
it is unseemly, the amnesia of the self,
the adoration unto death, the testimony,
against the evidence, that there is

the beloved
addressing her:
be loved,
as i am.
you cradle me, but it is i who will
save you, gather you back
from the

with a
pair of eyes studying her face, with
her palm cooling the fevered brow,
with humming, light as angels; with her arm,
taut beneath a small body; with an ever-deepening night,
with all the time in the world,
with a

So Be Good for Goodness’ Sake

A member of the church sent me this article as a response to some of the themes we’ve been discussing in our Advent Conspiracy study. I was especially interested in this 1984 experiment:

The children were asked to tell stories about Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny or their pets. They were then given nine pieces of gum and “encouraged to donate any amount of their gum to handicapped children.”

The kindergartners, who were clearly not yet into sharing, tended to hold onto their gum. But the first-graders were far more generous, and those who had been discussing Santa were the most giving of all. They gave up an average of 3.63 pieces of gum, compared to 1.3 pieces for those who talked about the Easter Bunny and 1.63 for those who discussed their pets.

The study’s authors surmise that the “Santa kids” display the most generous behavior because “children perceive Santa Claus — but not the Easter Bunny — as a contingent gift-giver, assessing the quality of a child’s behavior before determining the nature of gifts… Alternately, children may see Santa Claus as more generally vigilant than the Easter Bunny.”

That seems very likely, especially since many parents use Santa Claus as a carrot and a stick at Christmastime. I suspect this was even more true in the 1980s than now.

However, it is also possible that the story of Santa’s giving inspires giving. I’d like to think that is a factor; in fact, I have read studies that strongly suggest this. People learn and exhibit empathy when they are intentionally exposed to people in need and to stories of extravagant generosity. To be frank, this idea is pretty foundational for me as a Christian minister—that the epic story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection effects a transformation in the lives and hearts of its listeners, such that they are moved to “go and do likewise.”

But if that were the case—that stories of generosity inspire generosity—how do we understand the discrepancy between the “Santa children” and the “Easter Bunny children”? There are all sorts of possible reasons:

  • The quality of the stories. The Santa story is much more deeply resonant with children than the Easter Bunny.
  • Along those same lines, the Santa myth is grounded in a historical person, Saint Nicholas, Bishop of Myra. And I think the myth carries the weight of that historicity, even when the listeners don’t know the source material. Stories are powerful and mysterious that way.
  • The Easter Bunny is an animal, giving the story much less of an aspirational quality. What, I’m supposed to emulate a rabbit?
  • Generally speaking, Santa displays an abundance of generosity (toys, candy and stocking stuffers) that the Easter Bunny does not (a basket of candy).

What do you think?

By the way, I never realized until I typed the title how contradictory that verse of the song. “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good.” Then comes the line in the title.

But wait—is it contradictory? I think it all comes down to the punctuation. When viewed like this:

So be good, for goodness sake!

It’s totally in keeping with the song. It’s a threat—be good, or else. (And how many folks do we know who still cling to that view of God?)

But when viewed like this, it’s totally different:

So be good for goodness’ sake.

Be good… for the sake of goodness. Not because you get anything in return. It’s like a little glimmer of good news and a faithful bit of ethics right in the middle of “Boogeyman gonna get ya” theology. I’ll take the glimmers and bits where I can get them.