The college students I work with have all left down for "winter break." The College of William and Mary has two weeks of exams, and the College Room in our church building comes to look something like the encampment at Valley Forge during those weeks -- as students are studying, writing papers, working on projects, eating, sleeping, at all hours of the day and night. I feel great privilege to be welcomed by the students, as I pop in and out of the room, reminding them of God's presence with them during days of stress.
"Pastor B-tine, What will you do during winter break?" asked Will. "Well," I replied, "this is actually one of my busiest times of the year, getting ready for Christmas." "Oh. Yeah," he said, "Well, happy 'winter work!'" I said, "Actually, you know, we can use the word 'Christmas': as in, 'Christmas break!'" With a mischievous grin, another student said, "Aren't you afraid you'll offend someone if you say that?"
That's been part of our conversations this fall: how to be openly Christian in a university setting without being offensive to those who value diversity and tolerance. Some students and campus ministers are not concerned with who they might offend, because they are so sure they are right. Some of our Lutheran students have wanted to talk about such encounters. Some of our Lutheran students have felt judged by other Christian students and campus ministers because they don't believe correctly. We do not think that such judgmentalism is the way of Jesus. "We're not that kind of church!" Marit said one time, and that's become a catch-phrase in our campus ministry. I am pleased to see how our College Room has become a safe space for students across the spectrum of sexual, political, and religious diversity, how often our students bring friends and how welcome those friends feel.
The question of how to be openly Lutheran Christians in a university setting actually becomes quite complex. That's because, even though our students are challenged from others who do not think they are Christian enough, they also interact with students who think all Christians are indeed judgmental, and quick to exclude others from the chosen few. How do we live into a Lutheran tradition of grace and gentle invitation? Do we even use the word, "Christian," knowing that it's become a pejorative label to many? We do engage in conversations about belief, as the students are making the transition from childhood to adulthood, and claiming Christian beliefs for themselves. Perhaps more importantly, though, we talk a lot about practicing the faith, trying out practices such as sabbath-keeping, and paying attention to the themes in the liturgical year.
I've been pushing the latter practice with our students, particularly during these weeks of Advent. One night, before our Sunday evening dinner, Abigail asked the question for that week's gathering conversation. "What is your favorite Christmas activity?" she asked. "Christmas?!" I responded, in mock horror. "It's still Advent!!" Abigail let out a sigh. She looked me evenly in the eyes. She looked around the room and said, "Alright. What is your favorite Advent or Christmas activity?" That's when Owen spoke: "My favorite Advent activity is sitting around, feeling resentful about how commercial Christmas is!"
My favorite Advent experience happened a few days later. Two of the students came in. Brittany held up a red Starbucks cup. She said, "The is so offensive to me! This cup should be blue!" Luke student said, "Yeah! It's the war on Advent!"
I love it! And I miss the students. The College Room is empty these days. But I'm very glad that the students are getting a break. At the College of William and Mary most are so hard on themselves! I pray that the members of the Lutheran Student Association are settling into a joyful homecoming with their families, and preparing for joyful celebrations of Christmas.