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.



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, 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

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!"

Monday, December 1, 2014


Yesterday's #AdventWord was "look." The picture I chose for the day is a moment I captured during family game night Saturday evening: my cousin looking at the game and my father looking at my cousin. It was a great evening and a beautiful moment.

And then I read the background for the prompt. "Advent is a time to look for 'desert places': the place of solitude, the place of true silence." The rowdiness of game night last night was the exact opposite of a desert place. Solitude and preparation were the farthest things from my mind.

Isn't that what we do during Advent? It's at least what I do during Advent. I'm so often looking ahead during this season. I look to spring, first of all. I look towards the next time the streets and sidewalks are clear, the next holiday event, the next time there are cookies on the work table of doom, celebrating Christmas with my extended family, checking that last gift off my shopping list. Children are taught to look for Santa coming, their behavior regulated by this future event. Silence? Anyone who enters the mall can tell you that doesn't exist after Thanksgiving. It's filled by that terrible Bono Christmas song.

In many ways, it seems as though the church encourages this existence out of time during Advent. Sunday's gospel is Mark's "mini apocalypse," Jesus coming in clouds with great power and glory, promising his elect to be gathered from the ends of earth to the ends of heaven. Jesus seems to be saying, "look to this great future event when everyone you know and love will be gathered together." It's a great thought, and similar to what we often think about when we think about Christmas. The sudden shift from the norm, the gathering together.

But, just like that holiday to-do list, this gospel demands preparation. "Beware, keep alert," Jesus says. It's so easy to be in the zone, anticipating the next thing that needs done or will happen during this season. Even Saturday night, when I was at my parents' house waiting for my cousins to arrive, I could not relax and wait. The problem was--I wasn't preparing. I was just hovering.

It's so easy, I find, to look like I'm preparing when instead I am just hovering, marking time, waiting. The church season, with its focus on counter-cultural introspection and Christmas with its business, both seem to demand a level of preparation I often have trouble turning in. This is in some ways a great season for people like me, who can look busy without actually connecting.

The downfall, though, is that when I'm in the moment, when family has actually arrived, when we're sitting down to dinner or games or presents, I find myself thinking about how stressed I was waiting for the event--and why? I wasn't even really doing anything.

And that's the difference, I find. Beware, keep alert. It's not for that future moment, when Jesus comes in glory, when the food is cooked and the family arrives. It's for who I am in the hovering, in the moments that I'm frantically flipping the car radio away from the eleven billionth rendition of "Santa, Baby." It's being fully present during game night knowing that the joy and family time there is just as holy as a desert place and the time I spent waiting for my cousins to arrive. It's knowing that silence can happen in the midst of a rowdy dinner--the silence of that worrying, planning voice. Here's to the hovering and the looking--not ahead, but around and in.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Obligatory Consumerism Post

As I say in the introduction to this blog, I have always attributed my dislike of Christmas (and consequently the time leading up to Christmas, known variously as Advent or retail hell) to the consumerist culture in which I find myself. I'm not the first person to say that, of course. Almost anything on the internet in December is either how people are being creative with the Elf on the Shelf or why Christmas and too many presents are the worst thing ever. But why?

In my experience, just about every time I have seen an excess of Christmas commercialism, it has come paired with unhealthy relationships. I have too often seen the material stand in for the relational. For a holiday that is based on relationship--Jesus coming into a human family to make all of humanity one family--that seems to me like a fundamental misunderstanding of why one is celebrating at all. The context of Christmas is lacking.

One event I experienced as a young child (young enough to still believe in Santa, in fact) crystallized that correlation for me. I was at a friend's house a few weeks prior to Christmas. I walked into the living room and saw the tree already half-deep in presents. I must have looked shocked, because my friend's mother said to me, "does it look like Santa has already been here?" It did, in fact, look like Santa had already been there. There were more packages under that tree than there ever were for my sister and I combined--and my friend was an only child. I was not envious of the pile of presents, though. I wondered how much fun Christmas could be for my friend, because clearly Christmas morning couldn't be the moment of magic and wonder it was for my sister and I. All the presents were already there. I knew even as a small child (although clearly not in those words) that my friend's parents were providing gifts out of their abundance while mine were providing gifts out of their scarcity--that my parents' gifts were sacrificial. Our Christmas would be joyful and hectic; theirs would be dutiful and decorator-perfect.I knew that my family was in many ways healthier than theirs and for me, that meant that a consumerist Christmas was an unhealthy Christmas.

Which leads me, of course, to Black Friday. I am starting this Advent blog today because today is the day the world really gears up into the swing of Christmas (or, for many people, at 6:00 pm on Thanksgiving day). (Also, the liturgical week starts on Thursday, so it's legit.) Curiously, as I am giving thanks that I am not working retail again this holiday season and waiting for my husband to come home from his Black Friday shift, much of the antipathy I've held against the day in previous years has abated. Although it's hectic and insane and the music is terrible, Black Friday isn't a terrible day to work. People are viewing it as an adventure, often looking at retail employees as safari guides. Black Friday (when it starts on Friday) doesn't even necessarily cut into time with family--most people I know who go shopping today go with family or friends.

The problem comes, it seems to me, when a shopper loses touch of the context of their shopping. When the purchases become just a check off a list rather than an emblem of the relationship one has with the recipient. When the gift is chosen because it's a door buster, or it is what the person wants but you don't even understand what it does, or it's a gift card that will just happen to give you double gas points. When a group of people are standing in line on Black Friday and a mother says to her daughter, "do you know who I am buying this sweater for? I have no idea." (True story.)

Or, even, when someone has such an affinity for counter-cultural Christmas practices that they do all their shopping at fair trade retailers even when they are finding gifts recipients might not even like--just because it adheres to what the purchaser believes. (Not that I've ever done that myself....)

Today's gospel in the daily office is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Jesus tells his disciples, "go into the village and find the colt. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'what are you doing?' you shall say, 'the Lord has need of it.'" There is no context to that statement. In other gospels, there is the promise to return the colt and the fact that it fulfills prophecies about the Messiah. Luke was written to the gentiles who would have had little use for the Jewish messianic prophecy. There this statement sits, then, a bit of of material changing hands with no context or feeling behind it. How much is that like much of the shopping taking place today and over the next month?

I mentioned in the introduction to this blog that I lost a friend over a flippant facebook post. My friend didn't stick around long enough to read the context. Over this Advent, my challenge to myself (and you, if you want to come along), is to look at the context. Look at the context of the gifts I buy (or make). Look at the context of my friends' Christmases. Look at the context of the gospel in my Bible and in my world. Look at the virtual Advent calendar ( Look at the context of Christmas, which starts now.