Monday, December 21, 2015

Advent Reflection Night

As you may have noticed, I did not blog this Advent. Instead, I spent the time doing intentional work on personal relationships. I was asked by the leadership team at my church, St. Mark's Episcopal Church, to give an Advent reflection. My prompt was the final two verses of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel:"

"O come, Desire of nations, bind In one the hearts of all mankind; Bid Thou our sad divisions cease, And be Thyself our King of Peace.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear."

The evening also included the collects of the four weeks of Advent. The collect for the fourth week of Advent is also relevant here:

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

And now, the reflection:

My name is Sara Nesbitt. I am a member here at St. Mark’s and I work in the Center for Social Concerns at Gannon University. Though I myself am Episcopalian, my office is founded on Catholic Social Teaching and is charged with ensuring the University carries out the mission to which God calls us. This mission includes teaching and celebrating the dignity of all humanity, an option for the poor and vulnerable, and solidarity. My job is to inspire and equip students to work for social change - a collaborative effort to attack the root causes of injustice. We are sister offices with campus ministry to keep us grounded in our faith, but a distinctly different office to allow us more freedom to challenge existing power structures.


My work (and passion!) requires me to look at the world, at its current events, and help students and the University process these things and respond from a place of grace and faith. I cannot look at tonight’s hymn without also looking at the world in which we are singing it. I come to you tonight to help contextualize a response. I come to you tonight informed by my work at Gannon and my faith as nurtured in the Episcopal church, most recently at St. Mark’s - but speaking for myself and the way in which I am experiencing the world. I hope and pray that you find some value in it too.


“O come desire of nations.” One needs only to hear the news to know that Christ is not the desire of all nations. This is true when one looks at the rise of the Islamic State and their murdering those who have a different conception of God or Allah than they do. It is equally true when one sees western Christians turning away those in need of a safe space that will allow them to live their lives in peace - just as the Jewish people crying out about their oppression in earlier verses of tonight’s hymn are.



“Bind in one the hearts of mankind.” There are no lines of ethnicity, religion, or citizenship in this plea. It is simply individuals within the whole human family. It is easy to make broad generalizations about people you don’t know. Generalizations become harder - but truly binding hearts together becomes easier - when you get to know individuals like my friend Almedina, my work-study Malik, or my classmate Marwa.


“Bid thou our sad divisions cease.” In the wake of violence in Paris, the Central African Republic, and San Bernadino or Ferguson, Chicago, and Mizzou, it’s easy to see that the world’s divisions are as deep as they were when tonight’s hymn was written centuries ago and Isaiah was prophesying about the birth of the Messiah millennia ago.


I do not have professional theological training. I am not equipped to stand up here tonight and tell you what God’s salvific plan for all of humanity is. I do have some academic training and try to be faithful to what I hear God saying through scripture and through the world. I am equipped to tell you that I believe God’s arms are open wider than we can imagine. I cannot explain to you the nuances of the original Greek, but I can tell you that in Luke chapter 19, Jesus says that “today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”


What I do know is that in its purest form, this hymn is a prayer. It is not enumerating things that God is going to force on us. The incarnation is not a threat. Christ is not the Elf on the Shelf, disappearing from our homes every night to report back to God the Father to keep a tally board of good versus bad behavior so that we get exactly what we want on Christmas morning. This hymn is a prayer. We, along side the prophets who give us such beautiful, poetic language for God-made-human, the hymnodist who wrote the original Latin text at a point equidistant between the birth of Christ and our remembrance of it, the nineteenth century chorimaster of St. Mark’s college, Chelsea who put the hymn in its present form, and those of us here tonight - we are begging Christ our brother to bind in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind.


Binding in one the hearts of all [hu]mankind does not mean that we will all suddenly agree. I have no illusions that the students that I work with will suddenly start reporting their service hours appropriately - they have different priorities for the outcome of their service than I do. I have no illusions that we are going to wake up tomorrow with an ideal slate of candidates - we’ve had factions since before the constitution was written. And I have no illusions that we are all going to suddenly agree on what to do about gun control, the Syrian refugee crisis, or even if we should drink our coffee black or with cream and sugar. We come from different life stories and have unique experiences that shape our worldviews, and they all are valid.


I do pray that we all can come to a place where we can sing this hymn and wholeheartedly beg Christ to be the desire of nations, to bind in one the hearts of all humankind; to bid our sad divisions cease, and truly reign as king of peace. We might have different definitions of what that looks like based on our own experiences, and that’s okay.

But - it is not enough that we ask for these things. Clearly praying is important - please don’t misunderstand. But prayer is not simply a time of thanking God for what we have and asking God for what we don’t. Prayer is also a time in which we are listening for God’s call on our lives. How do we take what we learn from this quiet time with our creator and allow it to impact our life in the world? What does binding the hearts of [hu]mankind mean in our lives in the world? How can we effect the cessation of sad divisions?

I don’t mean that God has serious repercussions for us if we don’t go out and sign petitions or stand in picket lines. I will remind us that the collect for the fourth week of Advent that we just heard speaks of preparation. Amidst a worldly season in which we are so caught up in preparing celebrations and decorations and gifts for people we love - or that we feel an obligation to, this hymn asks us to prepare internally and let that preparation reflect externally.


I am not asking you to put one more thing on your to-do list in this exceptionally busy season. I’m not going to do the popular thing of asking you to take something off your to-do list either. Instead, I’m going to tell you what I’m working on and why - maybe you’ll find some wisdom in it.


Advent - especially this Advent - is for me about internal preparation and relationship. So far during this reflection I have focused on the seventh verse of the hymn. I’d like to bring your notice now to the last verse - which is also the first verse. It is a verse of seeking relationship - of asking Christ to make himself more fully known in the world. A time of looking around us at the people we know, the people we have some connection with, and the people we share the planet with, and asking Christ to be among us.


What does that relationship look like? That is up to you. What I can tell you is that an intentional internal preparation of spending time in relationship with Christ will lead us naturally to improved human relationship - of more effectively binding our hearts in one.


There will still be the divisions of opinion, still disagreement - but it will be founded out of a true desire to seek the best for all people.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Perfect Christmas?

"This isn't fair! You're ruining my son's perfect Christmas!" A woman told Steve this when Target did not have the video game her son wanted. There's clearly a problem with her statement, but it took me a while to fully unpack why.

I'm not saying there is something wrong with presents. I like getting presents. As I have alluded to before, however, gifts cannot be a substitute for real relationships. I'm curious how lacking one video game can ruin a perfect Christmas. What happens when someone doesn't get the one thing they need? As I thought about my childhood trying to find that answer, I kept coming back to one year when my sister had her heart set on something.

One year, Martha was begging Santa for a horse. Christmas morning, when we came out to the living room, she had the biggest box. There is a special kind of magic about the biggest box under the tree, and while there obviously wasn't a horse in the box in the living room, who knows what it held? It could have been a saddle for the horse that had to be in the backyard! Of course, that was the first box Martha went for. She unwrapped it and found... another wrapped box. She tore open that wrapping paper, ripped open the box, and found another box. Pulling that box out, she opened it and, well, you can guess the rest. After what seemed like a million boxes, but was probably only seven or so, she came to a jewelry box and a letter from Santa.

Dear Martha,

I know you really wanted a horse. I'm sorry I couldn't bring you one! He wouldn't fit on the sleigh, you know. And a horse wouldn't work for your family right now. You're big enough to understand that. I hope you enjoy this instead--you can take it with you everywhere! Thanks for being good.

Love,

Santa*

In the jewelry box was a beautiful rocking horse pendant with a green enamel saddle.

I think that by this point, I was aware that Mom and Dad had a hand in the whole Santa thing. That awareness meant that I could see the lengths they went to to make Martha as happy as possible (without actually saddling the family with a horse). They listened to her, respected her wishes, and responded appropriately.

I bet at the time Martha didn't think it was the perfect Christmas. She still wanted a horse, after all--one she could ride around the backyard and maybe to her best friend's house. And I'm not saying that woman in Target should get her eight-year-old son a Lego pendant instead of the new Lego video game.

But I can empathize. The Christmas story isn't the story of a perfect day. I don't want a God who is born in a smelly barn and laid in hay. I don't want a God born to an unwed, teenage mother. (And I'm betting Mary didn't want to road trip while nine months pregnant and give birth far away from her mother.) I don't want to think of a God destined to die. I certainly don't want to be responsible for the necessity of God dying. But sometimes a perfect Christmas and getting what we want for Christmas aren't the same thing.

Martha still has never had a horse--maybe when she gets her own place. I don't know if the Target woman's son will get his video game for Christmas--and to be fair, she was probably just stressed after a day of shopping. But we'll have a perfect Christmas, no matter what's under the tree.

And last I knew, Martha still had that rocking horse pendant.

*This isn't the actual text of the letter--it got recycled long ago. It is the actual spirit of the letter, however.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Holiday Parties

Everyone knows about Christmas parties. The December issue of women's magazines consist entirely of two articles--how to avoid over-eating (read: stay skinny) in the face of parties and what to make (usually based around cream cheese) for the parties. Holiday clothes ads are all about what to wear to your next holiday gathering, from kids to mom to grandma. The local news always reminds watchers to have a designated driver and that the police will be out doing sobriety checkpoints.

Until this year, I had never really been to many Christmas parties.

Maybe it's because it's not something my generation does as much as previous generations. Maybe it's because I have worked for companies and employers that did not value throwing Christmas parties. Maybe it's because I've spent a pretty significant portion of my adult life being a student or being married to a student, and they are too busy taking and recovering from finals to have a party (or if they do, it's not a Christmas party). My parents hosted a Christmas party for a few years, and there were always school parties, but beyond that, holiday parties just aren't something I had done, and I hadn't missed it. Because, really, why take someone who doesn't like Christmas, make her stand around in uncomfortable shoes, listen to Christmas music she doesn't like, eat all the terrible food, and make her chat awkwardly?

And then this year happened.

It hasn't been a whirlwind of parties--just four. In the grand scheme of what I read about in magazines or see on TV, that's not really that many parties. And a lot of the same people were at most of them. One of them didn't even have alcohol, which is a staple of holiday parties, apparently. I also haven't run across any eggnog.

What the parties have had--the true purpose and mark of a Christmas party--is love and caring.

I helped give a party for the students I work with, creating a comfortable, safe space for students in that tender space leading up to finals week. I learned from those students how to be at ease at a holiday party.

I attended a party with my colleagues in Mission and Ministry with some homemade soft pretzels. I am consistently learning from these men and women how to celebrate and enjoy both Advent and Christmas, how to navigate the tension of preparing one's heart while also going gung-ho Christmas with inflatables in one's yard. (I still don't like inflatables.)

I attended Gannon's Christmas party. (I should say I attended 4.5 holiday parties, because I went with a few colleagues to a local establishment for happy hour before the official party started. At happy hour, I made a couple new friends and learned that I have either somehow bluffed my way into being mistaken for one of the cool kids, that the cool kids have much lower standards about who they will hang out with, or simply being myself and not giving a fuck about being cool has somehow made me cool.) At the school-sponsored party, I was able to use the cool kid (and beer) buzz from happy hour to break out of my comfort zone, to spend time with colleagues that I don't normally have much of a chance to interact with. By being open and flexible, I was able to have a conversation with someone I have previously experienced as difficult, getting an inkling of what motivates this individual. I had conversations with some professors as a graduate and fellow employee rather than a student. witnessed multiple members of the administration truly caring about their employees.

I capped off my Christmas parties with a small but rocking house party. I learned that when your invitation criteria consists of "people I have experienced being thoughtful and trying to follow the promptings of the Holy Spirit," beautiful things can happen.

And I wouldn't have had any of these positive experiences if I had followed my normal Advent plan, which is pretty much bitching about Christmas. Being open to the beauty of the season has given me the opportunity to experience so much more than I thought I would have at the beginning of this project. Best Christmas gift ever.

Now wish me luck as I bust out my entire shopping list this afternoon....

Monday, December 15, 2014

Make straight the way of the Lord

Steve and I co-wrote a reflection for our parish based on Sunday's readings. Check it out below:

"Make straight the way of the Lord." It sounds like a beautiful plan: spending Advent preparing our home and hearts for the coming of Christ. The only problem is, it doesn't happen. It can't happen. We do not have the capacity to make straight the way of the Lord. Partially because of our own sinful nature, of course, but also because life happens. Sometimes we can't prepare because of a recent death in the family. Sometimes we can't prepare because we are facing the brokenness of our family. Maybe we don't like the pressures of the season to be joyful and outgoing when we are facing down our own depression.

It's okay. If you are a person who loves Christmas and is ready or hates Christmas and is never ready, it's okay. Whatever you are feeling this holiday season, it's okay and you are not alone.

Jesus is coming. Whether we are ready or not, whether we want it or not, Jesus is coming. Jesus is coming into the world to be with us at our joyful, boisterous family Christmas, and our solitary, painful Christmas. Whatever our feelings coming into this season are, Jesus meets us and loves us there. Not as we should be, but as we are. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

St. Nicholas

Christmas is a time for surprises--anyone can tell you that. From children being surprised that Santa brought them exactly what they wanted to someone being surprised by their spouse with a new Lexus in the driveway (with a big red bow, of course) to the Red M&M being surprised that Santa does exist, surprise abounds.

But, large expensive purchases one really shouldn't be making unilaterally aside, when was the last time you were surprised--truly surprised--at Christmas?

I'm guessing it's been a while.

To be clear, I'm not saying there are no surprises at Christmas. There is always the interest of seeing the largest box under the tree, the joy when that box has your name on it, and sometimes you're surprised by the contents. I was surprised that way with a big fluffy bathrobe one year--surprised by something I didn't know I needed but can't imagine life without now.

But it was Christmas Day and my parents have always been adept at finding gifts that are useful and wonderful. I was surprised by the direction the awesome took, but I was not surprised by the awesome.

So I ask again, when was the last time you were surprised at Christmastime?

I can tell you when the last time I was truly surprised at Christmas:  Monday. You see, Monday was the first day I was back at work after St. Nicholas day. I work at a Catholic university in the Mission and Ministry office. Many of my colleagues are very aware of and in tune with the saints of the church. Add that to the Catholic cultural celebration of St. Nicholas, and you get a yearly visit from St. Nicholas.

I was not raised with St. Nicholas. I knew that he was the saint behind the Santa Claus legend. My mother had some St. Nicholas ornaments--but we never celebrated the feast day. That means that when I walk into my office on December 6 (or the first work day thereafter), I am always surprised to find candy in my office mailbox (finding candy in your shoe at work is just weird). I am in no way expecting it. Every December 6 for the past 3 years, I will go to check my mail, find some candy, and be utterly confused for about 12 seconds. Now that the tradition has been explained to me, I figure it out pretty quickly, but there is always that surprise over candy without context.

Once I think about it, I am never surprised that St. Nicholas visits.. Besides the fact that my office is 80% Catholic and we're at a Catholic school, my office is full of people who care about and think about other people. Many of my colleagues are parents, plan to be parents, or have a metaphorically parental, caring heart. And they all like Christmas and are good at this whole Advent thing. In the moment, though, I am still suffused by surprise and quiet joy that there's candy in my mailbox and I work with one of St. Nicholas's best elves.

And that's how I'll take my surprise at Christmastime, thank you very much. I'm not okay with being surprised with a big-ticket item under the tree or in the driveway, because that's a violation of the planning and mutual decision making I have with my husband. I'm not expecting to run into talking M&M's meeting Santa on Christmas eve in my apartment (although if I do see that, I promise I'll share). I'm over running into the living room on Christmas morning to see if Santa brought me Totally Hair Barbie. But the grown-up surprise of candy in my mailbox as an indication of the caring of my colleagues makes my day and improves my season. Best grown-up Christmas surprise ever!

Monday, December 8, 2014

In which I almost eat that most Advent-y of foods, McDonald's.

I was early to my 2:00 meeting yesterday because the drive-through I planned to go through on my way was too busy to stop. That meant, that by the time I got home and made dinner, my total food intake for the day consisted of a doughnut, some coffee, some trail mix, and a banana.

The irony that this collection of food (or lack thereof) was on a day in which students were learning about food justice was not lost on me.

The meeting I was early to is preparation for a trip I am taking with work this spring. I am going with 10 undergraduates and a business professor to Detroit in March--jealous yet? While there, we are going to be learning about Detroit, the systemic injustice, the fiscal collapse, how those issues have manifested themselves in food access issues, and what our community partner is doing to alleviate some of these issues. Now you're legitimately jealous, I bet.

And what does a trip in March about food justice have to do with Advent?

Sunday's gospel tells us that John the Baptist ate locusts and wild honey and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

It's important to note that John's is a baptism of repentance. According to Merriam-Webster, repentance is from the Latin for regret. It's an event looking backwards, forgiving existing sins. John was preparing people for the coming of Christ to walk among them in a specific time and specific place. Advent is not a preparation for Christ to come among us in Erie or Detroit or Ashtabula on December 25, but a preparation for Christ to be fully present both throughout all time and outside time. When we consider preparation for Christ's presence, then, it can't be John's baptism of repentance, regretting. Instead, we need to look at the event just a few verses later, when Jesus is baptized by water and the Spirit. And, of course, to our baptism.

The rite for Baptism asks the candidate, possibly through his or her parents and godparents, to "renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God." When I look at this trip to Detroit, or Eric Garner, or global warming, it's hard not to consider the promises 7-month-old Sara made.

Advent preparation doesn't end on December 25. At the very least, Christmas lasts another 12 days, and the post-Christmas clearance lasts even longer. For me this year, Advent preparation is bound up in Detroit preparation, and I bet you have some long-range preparing you're doing, too.

This time I'm taking to be present this Advent will continue, I hope, to make straight the pathway to Detroit and beyond. As ridiculous as it has always sounded to me to keep the spirit of Christmas all year long, I'm starting to think there is benefit at least to keeping the Advent spirit pf preparation and readiness all year long--and I don't even have to decorate.

PS-If you'd like to learn more about the trip I'm taking with the students, you can read more about it on our blog, www.gannondetroit.blogspot.com. It not only will chronicle our trip, but you can read all about last year's trip, too.

PPS-If you'd like to support the students' ABST scholarship fund, you can do that at www.gannonalumni.org/abstdetroit.


Thursday, December 4, 2014

An Advent Silence

Has the hysterical laughter about me writing a blog post about silence abated yet? No? I'll give you another minute.

Silence is all over this time of year, except when it's not. "Silent Night," "the silent stars go by," "Mary pondered all these things silently in her heart," "but marveling at his answer they became silent." We are urged, through scripture and counter-cultural Advent practices, to be silent and to listen. It is more difficult this time of year to be silent, we are told, so we should seek it out more. We can prepare for Christmas externally by decorating a tree and wrapping presents or we can prepare internally by being silent and contemplative, but not at the same time.

This kind of dualistic thought bothers me. When is life so easy? When is making the best choice black or white, on or off? Pretty much never, and especially not when we are already trying to hold the tension of God and humanity in one, the all-powerful as a baby, the creator of all owning nothing. Why are we urged into silence as the antidote to the world's noise right now?

Especially when the justice the prophets speak of is so lacking in our world. When men can be killed for being at the wrong place at the wrong time while being the wrong color. When a young man I know can speak easily, almost lightheartedly, of his cousin's encounters with IEDs in Iraq. When I got a request for assistance in my inbox, not to make a family's Christmas easier by buying presents, but to make their life better by providing transportation, because public transit simply won't work for them and allow them to keep a job. Why hold a contemplative silence when there is so much to scream, or rant, or babble incoherently about?

I was inspired to think about silence because of yesterday's gospel reading. (Don't look it up yet, just hang with me for a minute.) I was structuring this post in my head before I put fingers to keyboard. When I did start typing, I went off to find the verse that says "Mary pondered all these things silently in her heart." Turns out it doesn't exist. She pondered all these things in her heart, to be sure, but Luke never tells us she does so silently. Can you imagine the processing and debriefing one would need to do after giving birth to God?

So that leaves us "marveling at his answer they became silent." Oops--turns out that's not part of the Christmas story either. That's from yesterday's gospel, after the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, shortly before the crucifixion. The people who became silent are spies sent by the chief priests to entrap Jesus. They become silent because Jesus pwns them.

And I started a blog for Advent.

I'm not keeping silent. I'm not arguing that there is no value in silence, but I think there may be too much weight put on silence during this season. It is given value in its opposition to worldly noise, not for its own merit.

That's not to say that what we can learn from silence is invaluable, of course. It's how we carry out what we learn that matters. I am trying to be more aware of what I say. When a facebook argument with someone I care about got heated, I withdrew, because I value the relationship. I'm thinking about what I post on social media before I do so. I'm checking myself before giving a flippant reply. I'm expressing myself to elected officials. I'm trying to talk less and listen more. (Trying.) I don't want to be silent. I want to keep lines of communication open, to have fruitful and meaningful conversations. I want to express love and caring and have it expressed back to me. At a time of year and a time of history when people are hurting because what they see is in direct contrast to Hallmark, why be silent? Why not reach out?

So keep your silent night. I'm going with, "hey! Unto you a child is born!"