Author Archives: Seth Ben-Ezra

A review of Kodama: The Tree Spirits

Introduction

In 2014, Daniel Solis released another of his POD card games. I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. It had the aesthetic feel I like, both in game design and actual graphic design. In this game, you are all using cards to create little ink drawings of trees and scoring points based on the flowers, dragonflies, and the like that inhabit the various branches.

It’s called Kigi.

So, when I heard that Action Phase Games was planning on redeveloping Kigi into a new game, I was intrigued. I won’t lie; I was debating what my interest level was. Did I really need a mere variant of Kigi if I already owned Kigi?

But then, as I saw the game art, I realized that my daughter Hope (who turns 7 today!) would love it. And as I heard about the changes that Action Phase made to the gameplay, I became more interested. So I backed the Kickstarter for Kodama.

I’m really glad that I did.

Gameplay

In Kodama, you’re trying to grow the best tree for the little tree spirits to inhabit. You each start with a trunk with one of six features on it: a caterpillar, a star, a cloud, a mushroom, a firefly, or a flower. Then, on your turn, you take a branch card from a display of four cards and adding it to your tree. The end of the branch must touch the bark on a previous card, and you can only touch one other card. However, to be clear, you do not have to play on a grid or anything. So your tree tends to grow in semi-organic ways.

These branches have one or more of the same features that are on the trunks, and those control how you score points. For each feature on the branch you just played, score one point for each matching feature in a contiguous line down the branch until you reach a branch without that feature or you reach the trunk. You’re not allowed to play a branch card that scores more than ten points, which also encourages you to diversify your branches, spreading out in a few directions. This might sound complicated, but it’s actually pretty simple once you see it. Again, Hope has this figured out, so it can’t be that tricky.

Four turns comprises a season, of which there are three in a game. (There’s no winter, because trees don’t grow in winter. Savvy?) At the end of each season, each player plays one of the four Kodama cards that they were dealt at the beginning of the game. These represent the tree spirits judging your work and are essentially special scoring cards, such as “Score two points for each feature on branch cards that touch your trunk card” or “Score four points for each branch card with your trunk’s feature that is within two cards of your trunk card” or “Score two points for each cloud or flower on your tree, whichever is fewer”.

Oh yes, there are also the Decrees. These are special laws dictated by the spirits for the duration of a season. Each season has its own deck of Decrees. In the basic game, each season has five possible Decrees, of which you’ll only use one per game. (That’s 125 possible combinations, for those keeping track.) My deluxe Kickstarter version actually includes nine of each, which is 729 possible combinations. These are little effects like “After placing a branch card that touches your trunk card, gain three points”, “At the end of this season, choose an end branch card on your tree and score it again”, or “Score one point when placing a branch card with a firefly or a star on it”. These provide additional opportunities to be considered while playing the game while keeping gameplay fresh.

After three seasons (aka 12 turns) the game is over. Whoever has the most points wins!

Some Clever Marketing

Here I must discuss briefly the genius of the winner card. I don’t know if the winner card exists in the base game, but it was certainly included in my Kickstarter edition. Here’s how this works: whoever wins gets the winner card. That means they get to decorate their finished tree with the little cardboard Kodama that came with the game. Then, you’re supposed to take a picture of the winner with the winning tree and post it on social media with the hashtag #kodama.

In other words, this game provides a built-in victory ceremony which naturally turns into free advertising for the game.

As I say: genius. Really, I tip my hat to Action Phase Games for coming up with this idea. It feels like such a natural part of the game while improving the marketing of the game at the same time. Everyone wins!

Playing with Hope

Daniel Solis, the designer of Kodama, has commented that he has stumbled into designing a number of games that gamer parents can play with their children. Kodama is no exception. As I mentioned, I primarily backed Kodama to have a game to play especially with Hope, and that seems to have worked out well.

There are a few reasons for this. The graphic design and basic gameplay certainly help. There’s something satisfying about growing a little tree, even if you don’t win. Also, the math that the game requires is essentially just counting, which makes it easier for Hope to engage with. The Decrees are also pretty simple to get, and in our last game Hope was considering the bonuses from Decrees and reminding me to score them.

The only area that could be difficult is the actual Kodama cards. And this is where Action Phase Games had their other stroke of genius in developing the game. They included three sets of special Kodama cards called Sprouts which are specifically intended to be used by children. Each set is comprised of three little Kodama, each labeled for the season they are intended for. Taken together, each set of Sprouts essentially rewards collecting two features. For example, one set has these scoring conditions: “Score five points for each branch card with a firefly or flower on it that touches your trunk” for Spring, “Score 3 points for each branch card on your tree with a firefly or flower on it” for Summer, and “Score 1 point for each firefly or flower on your tree” for Fall. So, when Hope has this set of Sprouts, all she needs to focus on is collecting lots of fireflies and flowers. That’s a much simpler initial heuristic than trying to understand a hand of Kodama cards.

Oh, and last game, she scored about 20 points per Kodama card, which gave her the game in a five-player game.

In essence, the Sprouts represent an elegant handicapping system allowing young children to play Kodama with older children or parents and actually be competitive. I won’t lie; this might be my favorite part of the game.

Differences from Kigi

For those of you curious, here are some of the ways that Kigi is different from Kodama.

First, in Kigi, you can play on anyone’s tree to score points, not just your own. In addition, instead of there being a rule against branch placements that score more than ten points, in Kigi this triggers a pruning that cuts that entire branch back to the trunk, thus resetting that scoring opportunity.

Also, In Kigi, the bonus scoring cards are shuffled into the deck with the branch cards and must be chosen from the display instead of taking a branch card. These bonus cards (called Commissions) represent end game goals that can now be scored by anyone, like “have the fewest flowers on your tree” or “have the most pruned cards” or the like. At the end of the game, each Commission is worth ten points to the player who fulfills it. If you took the action to choose the Commission, you win ties. If the display ever fills up with Commissions, then it clears and refills from the deck. So, it’s not a given that any particular Commission with end up in play. Unless, you know, you make sure that it enters play.

These factors aren’t the only differences, but they are probably the most significant. They make Kigi a potentially more confrontational game, as players can sabotage other players’ trees through triggering pruning or by adjusting feature count to skew Commission scoring.

Conclusion

I was really happy with Kigi when it came out. It slotted into a neat place in my collection, being able to play with a wide range of players, including relatively young players like Hope.

But I can’t lie. I think that Kodama has fired Kigi. Here’s why.

First, removing the competitive card play and, therefore, the pruning, allows the game to be about building up. At the end of a game of Kigi, you’d frequently have several players with only stumps of trees, due to particularly brutal pruning. Kodama fulfills the promise of Kigi by giving each player a beautiful, unique tree at the end of each game. Win or lose, you walk away being able to feel proud of yourself for having accomplished something, which also fits the comtemplative feel that Kigi presented but didn’t necessarily provide.

Also, being dealt a hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game provides strategic direction beyond merely lining up the most features. Ideally, you want to consider your hand of Kodama at the beginning of the game and plan which one will be played in which season–and therefore which one will not be played–and grow your tree accordingly. Kigi was purely tactical, but Kodama actually introduces strategy into the gameplay.

The Decrees are another pleasant addition that further diversify gameplay, which should help keep the game fresh for many plays.

And, I have to admit, the Kodama are all so darned cute!

Kodama should be available from your local gaming store starting April 24. Pick yourself up a copy!

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Quote of the moment

From “The Return to the Bible” by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones:

From the moment that philosophy was given the place of revelation in our studies and in our pulpits, things really began to go wrong. Of course, for a time, people continued to attend church and chapel in fairly large numbers, partly out of mere habit and custom, without realizing exactly what was happening, but we can be perfectly certain that the Church lost her authority and power from the moment that she ceased to believe firmly in the authority of the Word of God, and when she became doubtful and hesitant in her presentation of its doctrines to the people.

From the moment that the idea began to gain currency that the Bible was the history of the quest of mankind for God, rather than God’s revelation of Himself and the only way of salvation to mankind, the Church began to decline and to wane in her influence and in her power. From the time the Church threw overboard the great evangelical doctrines, and substituted for them a belief in the moral and spiritual evolution of mankind, and began to preach a social gospel rather than a personal salvation — from that moment church attendance really became a mere matter of form, or a merely pleasant way of gratifying one’s appetite for ceremony, ritual, oratory, and music.

HT: John D. (though he doesn’t know it yet)


Unknown Armies 3e and loving people

The third edition of Unknown Armies is currently on Kickstarter. This was one of the more significant roleplaying games in my past, so I was positively required to back this one. This got me access to the Gamma edition of the rules, so I’ve been reading.

Oh my.

The second edition of Unknown Armies came out in 2002, which means that it’s been 14 years since it was published. In the interim, there’s been both a lot of history and a lot of development in RPG game mechanics. Both of these have been rolled into this new edition.

Last time I was rhapsodizing about Unknown Armies on this blog, I talked a lot about the Madness Meters. Now they are called Shock Gauges, and Greg Stolze has doubled down on their inclusion. Without going into too many details, the Shock Gauges are now the mechanical core of your character. Not only do they define your psychological profile, they set your core skills, which are the basis for the relationships and identities (e.g. player-defined skill sets). Everything radiates from your core psychological state.

Add to this rules to manage a sandbox approach to play (the Objective system), collaborative character creation, and GM advice which seems like the MC advice from Apocalypse World filtered through UA glasses (a really good thing, from my perspective), and you are left with a modernized version of a classic. Folks, I want to play this so hard.

But that’s not what I want to talk about. Instead, I want to talk about how Unknown Armies loves people.

That’s kind of a weird assertion to make. After all, Unknown Armies is known for horrible things happening to–and being done by–its characters. How could a game like this be accused of actually being warm towards humanity?

Unknown Armies has always been humanocentric horror. It’s almost the exact opposite of Lovecraftian horror, in fact. Lovecraftian horror is all about the cold, uncaring cosmos and the lack of human meaning. In the Unknown Armies universe, everything is humanity’s fault: the good and the bad alike. The world is a cosmic democracy; we make it what it is. Thus the “you did it” slogan from bygone days.

This edition of Unknown Armies does the best job of all the editions of capturing this humanocentric approach within its mechanics. You’re not creating a power fantasy with which you will be awesome. Rather, the rules guide you into making an emotionally real character who is still obsessed enough to chase something and pay the price. And you will pay the price. Both the rules text and the game mechanics enforce this. First, obviously, there are the Shock Gauges that will track the mental and emotional impact of what you have done and what has been done to you. Also, violence is brutal. In Unknown Armies, the characters’ “hit points” are tracked by the GM. The player isn’t allowed to track them or know what they are. Instead, they have to rely on the narrative description of their injuries provided by the GM. Gimmicky? Not really. Instead, by introducing uncertainty, the players respond towards the violence in more reasonable ways. They don’t know how hard they can push without suddenly dying. Combat in Unknown Armies tends to involve a lot of taking cover and scurrying from one location to another. Even magickal adepts can go down to a gunshot to the head.

The rules text amps this up, too. Here’s the quote from the beginning of the combat chapter in both the second and third editions:

Somewhere out there is someone who had loving parents, watched clouds on a summer’s day, fell in love, lost a friend, is kind to small animals, and knows how to say “please” and “thank you,” and yet somehow the two of you are going to end up in a dirty little room with one knife between you and you are going to have to kill that human being.

It’s a terrible thing. Not just because he’s come to the same realization and wants to survive just as much as you do, meaning he’s going to try and puncture your internal organs to set off a cascading trauma effect that ends with you voiding your bowels dying alone and removed from everything you’ve ever loved. No, it’s a terrible thing because somewhere along the way you could have made a different choice. You could have avoided that knife, that room, and maybe even found some kind of common ground between the two of you. Or at least, you might have divvied up some turf and left each other alone. That would have been a lot smarter, wouldn’t it? Even dogs are smart enough to do that. Now you’re staring into the eyes of a fellow human and in a couple minutes one of you is going to be vomiting blood to the rhythm of a fading heartbeat. The survivor is going to remember this night for the rest of his or her life.

Then the text proceeds to discuss ways to avoid a fight. The game treats violence as horrible because humans–real humans with loves and fears and dreams–are destroyed by it.

And, maybe even these things are justified. After all, the brutality of the combat doesn’t stop it from being a tool. So apparently, at least this time, what you wanted was worth inflicting that kind of harm on someone…or receiving that harm yourself.

This approach makes the horror of Unknown Armies work. It’s not about cosmically horrific monsters, as much as I love that sort of thing. No, in Unknown Armies, the horror is that the worst things being done in the world are being done by people. Real people, with real loves and desires and history. People who are understandable. Maybe even you.

That’s what I love about Unknown Armies: the intersection of real people, real desires, and real price. The magick and everything is just the setting.

Sound interesting to you? Consider backing the Kickstarter campaign!


For Further Comment: BATMAN V SUPERMAN Review: Zack Snyder’s Doomsday

A few days ago, I posted a link to this article about the new Batman vs. Superman movie. Based on a response or two, I wrote about the connection between Superman, father hunger, and the rise of American demagoguery. I was pleased with how it turned out, so I’m posting it here, slightly edited.

First, a disclaimer: I haven’t seen the movie Batman vs. Superman, never intended on seeing it, and probably never will. Also, Christopher Nolan’s run on Batman has spoiled me for any other Batman.

That said, I posted this review because it seemed well-written, especially regarding our ongoing inability to “get” Superman. I’ll totally allow that I find Superman to be a boring character, but trying to make him into a brooding character seems like a symptom of our cynical age. It’s like we can’t believe that someone that powerful could genuinely be good. Power must corrupt, right?

I would connect all of this with father hunger. So many of us learned early on that their dad couldn’t be trusted. And why should he be trusted? After all, he was a brute, or violent, or gone. That void festers in the soul, leading us to a fundamental distrust (or even active violence) against authority figures of any sort.

This seems to be what happened in Man of Steel (another movie I’ll admit I’ve not seen). Rather than Superman being a loving authority figure (i.e. not one of us), he’s remade into a wandering orphan (i.e. one of us). I think this is why a lot of the Superman fans I saw online really hated this movie; they understand that Superman is supposed to fill the void of father hunger, not be afflicted by it.

(As an aside, if you want to understand what Superman fans like about him, this comic seems like a good thing to check out.)

This whole issue spills over into our relationship with government and church. Sure, let’s allow that both institutions have managed in various ways to earn that reputation. Yet still, our adolescent kicking against any authority leaves us vulnerable to predators and demagogues, who fill that void in ways that are dangerous to us.

(Did I just draw a line from our handling of Superman to Trump and Sanders? I think so!)

Deep down, I think that we all struggle with two warring impulses. The first is the savage howl of victory, as we cast off our fathers in triumph, asserting that we will stand alone. The second is the plaintive cry of a child, wondering if Daddy is ever coming home. For some of us, the abandonment came first. For others, the bitter anger. But these two emotions swirl in our hearts, and they rush out at the oddest times.

Like, say, the release of a superhero film.


On the occasion of my grandmother’s birthday

For those of you who don’t know, today is my Grandma Anderson’s birthday. She would have been 91 today, but she died last summer.

When you’re a child, you don’t really realize the awesomeness of the adults in your life. It’s only sometimes, when you can look back on your memories, that you begin to recognize what was always in front of you. It’s been that way with my grandmother. As I reflect on the commonplace memories of her, I begin to realize what an amazing person she was.

Honestly, I feel a bit like I missed out on interacting with my grandmother as an adult. We moved to Peoria when I was 25, and soon thereafter she moved to Pittsburgh to be closer to her daughter (my Aunt Laurie). Because of this, I rarely saw her. One of our visits back to Erie, we planned to travel down to Pittsburgh and see her. Instead, Crystal and I both were violently ill. I recovered enough to travel, but she shivered in the back of the van with a fever as we headed back to Peoria, bypassing Pittsburgh. We didn’t want my grandmother to catch whatever we had.

And so this last summer, we made plans to drive out to Erie and Pittsburgh, specifically to visit her.

We were just a couple weeks too late.

But, you know what….

My grandmother was my first inspiration to write. She was the first published author that I knew. I remember reading articles by her in various magazines. Even more so, she was the first independent author that I knew to self-publish her own work. She wrote a book called Through a Parsonage Window which was a memoir of her time being a pastor’s wife. For me, it was a window into my family’s history. My birth even figured in part of the book! Nowadays, with print-on-demand technology and the like, this is relatively easy. In her day, this was a significant undertaking.

Now, as I write and publish, I find a part of her in what I do.

My grandmother was also a resilient woman. She was married and had three daughters. She also buried her husband and two of her daughters. Yet I never heard her complain. Instead, I saw her constantly entrusting herself to your beloved Lord. And, even at the end of her life, while she may have been fading, she still had the firm faithfulness that she had at the beginning. She finished strong, and now she is with her Lord Whom she loved. Also, she is with her husband and two of her daughters, never to be separated again. Her faithfulness has been rewarded, a hundredfold.

That’s who I want to be. I want to have been the kind of man who loves his grandchildren liked she loved us. I want to be resilient, like she was. I want to finish strong, like she did.

When I grow up, I want to be like my grandmother.


O Come, O Come Emmanuel (redux)

From http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0374.html:

According to Professor Robert Greenberg of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the Benedictine monks arranged these antiphons with a definite purpose. If one starts with the last title and takes the first letter of each one – Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia – the Latin words ero cras are formed, meaning, “Tomorrow, I will come.” Therefore, the Lord Jesus, whose coming we have prepared for in Advent and whom we have addressed in these seven Messianic titles, now speaks to us, “Tomorrow, I will come.” So the “O Antiphons” not only bring intensity to our Advent preparation, but bring it to a joyful conclusion.

Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. (Revelation 22:12)

Even so, come Lord Jesus.

Amen.


O Antiphon (December 23)—O Emmanuel

O Emmanuel, God with us,
Our King and Lawgiver,
the expected of the nations and their Saviour:

Come

to save us, O Lord our God. Amen.

O Emmanuel,
Rex et legisfer noster,
expectatio gentium, et Salvator erum:

veni

ad salvandum nos, Domine Deus noster.


Kaldolmar night

This post is dedicated to my Aunt Laurie, for reasons that I hope will become clear.

“Food should be prepared with butter and love.”— Swedish Proverb

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.

***

Kaldolmar aren’t particularly easy to make. It’s rather a process. First, you need cabbages, which you boil to convince the leaves to release from their tight grip around the cabbage head. Or, honestly, at least to cooperate once you cut them free from the central stem of the cabbage. Those large leaves become the outer wrapping of the kaldolmar.

Then you need a mix of rice and meat. Apparently the traditional meat is pork, but we usually use beef. Well, this year we’re including the leftover meat from making korv, but you get the idea. The rice is cooked. The beef is cooked. Mix. Then add allspice and salt until it tastes right.

What you do then is wrap the rice and meat mixture in the cabbage leaves. They won’t stay shut by themselves, so you tie them shut with string. Then you fry them in butter. Then you put them in a baking pan, cover them in brown sugar and more butter, and bake them until they are hot. Then you serve them. If you’re compassionate, you’ll cut the string first. Otherwise, the person eating one is on his own.

My grandmother once commented that she liked kaldolmar so much that she didn’t know why we didn’t have them more than once a year. Then she made them again and remembered why. They are a lot of work.

***

I don’t remember a Christmas without kaldolmar.

No, really. I’m thirty-eight years old, and I cannot remember a single Christmas Eve that wasn’t our traditional Swedish dinner. Kaldolmar. Korv. Fruktsoppa. Lingonberry. Sill, if you must, though I’ll admit that this is an aspect of the tradition that has conveniently slipped out of our observance.

It’s entirely possible that my memory is faulty, but, in my mind, this is what Christmas Eve looks like. This is what Christmas Eve has always looked like. A church service, carols sung, a fancy meal by candlelight.

It wouldn’t be Christmas without these things.

***

My grandfather’s favorite carol was “O Come O Come Emmanuel”. I guess I got it from him, really. It’s part of what was handed down to me. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember the year that my grandfather blessed Christmas Eve dinner in Swedish. It was a simple prayer, which he translated for us. But there was an air of tradition about it that I still remember.

I remember when he played one of the wise men in the living Nativity scene that closed out the Journey to Bethlehem event at the church that he was pastoring.

I remember when he stepped down, because the cancer was going to make him too sick to be able to continue.

I remember the first Christmas season after he was gone, when singing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” somehow was an act of deep grieving and yet, somehow, of hope. The words of this verse suddenly meant so much more:

O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

***

At first, my grandmother made Christmas Eve dinner. But life and age began to intervene, and my mother took over.

As I’ve said, making kaldolmar is hard. In particular, when you have to wrap the cabbage roll and tie it shut, it can be more than a single pair of hands can accomplish. And so, one Christmas season, my mother asked for my help. She needed my finger to hold the thread tight long enough for her to tie it.

Traditions have been forged from less.

And so, due to this accident of history, I became Mom’s official kaldolmar helper. Each year I would donate my finger to the cause, helping to tie the silly cabbage rolls shut. Then, one fateful year, I was promoted to the role of frying the kaldolmar.

***

My grandmother’s favorite carol was “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. I won’t lie and say that this has become one of my favorite carols, though I do love how it can be sung to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”. But it was her carol. So, every Christmas Eve, it would be one of the carols that we’d sing.

I remember her cookies, with the chocolate chips and the nuts.

I remember her as the first writer that I knew, who actually wrote her own book and self-published it.

I remember her quiet perseverance after Grandpa died, and her ongoing cheer and flexibility and devotion to God, when others might have become embittered.

I remember wanting to visit her once more this last summer, and being just a couple weeks too late.

And so, when I sing these words, I remember her:

O holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born to us today
We hear the Christmas angels
The great glad tidings tell
O come to us, abide with us
Our Lord Emmanuel

***

Frying anything is actually fairly hazardous. Oil splashes are a big deal, especially if they get in your eyes. I’m pretty sure that’s where the tradition of safety goggles started. Wearing gloves on my feet…I don’t even remember. I’m pretty sure that it started before the tradition of drinking wine during kaldolmar night, but I can’t be positive.

The point is that there’s proper garb for kaldolmar night. It’s tradition. That means it’s required. And so, every year, I gear up by wearing safety goggles on my face and gloves on my feet. Because it wouldn’t be kaldolmar night without them. And then, together, Mom and I would make the kaldolmar.

***

I don’t remember my mother’s favorite carol. Part of me feels like I should remember, somehow, but none of them really stand out. But that’s okay, because I know that she believed them all.

I remember her insistence that tradition needed to be humanized, that tradition needed to serve the people and not the other way around.

I remember her love of celebration and fierce insistence that all be included.

I remember her being hit in the eye with a marshmallow one Christmas Eve night, as a food fight broke out.

I remember the phone ringing on a bright summer morning, and a burial in summer rain.

***

When Crystal and I moved our family out to Illinois, Christmas Eve changed again. We were far from family, and so we needed to pick up the traditions and carry them. In particular, Crystal embraced this dinner as her own. Especially after Mom died only a year after we moved, she felt the weight of obligation to ensure that this tradition be carried on. And so she set herself to learning how to make all the traditional food. It’s entirely possible that she knows more about the history and tradition of these foods than me. I have the oral tradition of my family, but she’s done all the research.

And now, we make the kaldolmar together.

Over the thirteen years that we’ve been making kaldolmar together, additional traditions have emerged. There is, of course, the consumption of alcoholic beverages. There are traditional pictures that we take. There’s traditional music that we play, like “The 12 Pains of Christmas”, “I am Santa Claus”, “Fruitcakes for Christmas”, and others. I still assist in wrapping the kaldolmar by giving Crystal the finger, and then I fry the kaldolmar in butter, all the while wearing the appropriate gear.

It’s part of how I know who I am.

***

A couple of months ago, my Aunt Laurie mailed me an old Christmas letter that my mother had written. When I say “old”, I mean “written in 1977, written a few months after I was born.” In this letter was a picture of me at one week old.

When I got this letter, I stared at this picture of myself, fascinated by who I once was.

It’s not been an easy year for me. For various reasons, I feel like I’ve struggled with deep questions of identity. Who am I? Why am I even here? What’s the shape of my life supposed to be?

Have I even accomplished anything at all? What’s it all been about?

And as I looked at this picture of myself, I could feel the entirety of my life so far, measured in how far I’ve come from that little baby, staring out at the camera. And, in some small way that I can’t totally enunciate, I could see that, yes, I’ve actually made forward progress. Somehow.

I feel like I’m rediscovering who I am. It’s a slow process, coming in bits and pieces. And, honestly, some of it is rediscovering the new me, if that makes sense. A new me, built out of the best of what the person I once was had to offer and the bits that I’m still becoming.

But a lot of it is returning to my past, to remember who I used to be, who God made me to be. There feels like much I’ve lost along the way, and maybe I’m supposed to pick up those things again, to find myself again in what I have received from those who came before me.

***

I had a crisis of faith earlier this year.

I can tell you exactly when it was. October 30, 2015. All day long, I was being pulled down by voices questioning the faith that I had received. And I was starting to slip. “What if I’ve been wrong all these years?” I found myself saying. “What if I’ve believed all these things about God and Jesus and the Bible in vain?” The crushing weight of despair pressed down on my shoulders. Have I been a fool? Have I sacrificed so much in vain?

We were going to a Halloween costume party at a friend’s house, though we knew very few of the people there. And so, as I often do, I looked at the books on display in the living room.

And look! A book by Ken Gentry, a professor of mine from college. And I thought, “Ken Gentry believes the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And then I saw a book by Thomas Watson, a Puritan from the 17th century. And I thought, “Thomas Watson believed the same things as I do about God and Jesus and the Bible.” And I had Greg Bahnsen’s voice echoing in my head, speaking about a belief in God rooted in the impossibility of the contrary.

That night, the past saved me. The hands of my forerunners in the faith reached out to me. They grabbed hold of me as I was sinking.

They held me upright.

***

It would be inappropriate to say that our Christmas Eve dinner is haunted. I didn’t write about the beloved dead to summon their spirits to overshadow our joy with grief.

No, rather, I wanted to commemorate some of those who have gone before me, who trod the pathway of faith even when it grew dark, who honored their God even in dire straits. And it’s in traditions like this that they still speak.

They remind me that I am part of something larger than myself, a lineage of faith handed down, one generation at a time.

They remind me that our Father is honest and trustworthy, and that His revelation is sure.

They remind me that what I have been handed is worth preserving and protecting.

They remind me of the core of the faith that was handed down to us: our Lord Jesus Christ, come into this world to save sinners like me.

They remind me that there’s further to go, but that, if I’m faithful to Jesus, He will be faithful in return.

They remind me that I haven’t wasted my life.

***

Tonight was kaldolmar night. This is the night that Crystal and I make the main dish of our Christmas Eve dinner: Swedish cabbage rolls. It’s an event, with its own traditions and weirdnesses. And tonight, I felt like I needed to write about it.


O Antiphon (December 22)—O Rex Gentium

O King of the Gentiles and their desired One,
the Cornerstone that makes both one:

Come,

and deliver man,
whom you formed out of the dust of the earth. Amen.

O Rex gentium, et desideratus earum,
lapisque angularis, qui facis utraque unem:

veni,

et salva hominem,
quem de limo formasti.


O Antiphon (December 21)—O Oriens

O Dawn of the East,
Brightness of light eternal,
And Sun of Justice:

Come,

And enlighten those who sit in darkness
And in the shadow of death. Amen.

O Oriens,
splendor lucis aeternae,
et sol justitiae:

veni,

et illumina sedentis in tenebris,
et umbra mortis.