06/07/2017

Mission + Ministry: Trading one LA for another

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is John Sebastian, and I am the Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Loyola University New Orleans.

Actually, that statement isn’t quite correct, or at least it won’t be by the time you read this. That’s because I am writing these words on my last day as an employee of Loyola University. After a thirteen-year career as a faculty member, director of several programs, and vice president, I am trading one LA for another. On June 12, I become Vice President for Mission and Ministry at Loyola Marymount University, the Jesuit school in Los Angeles.

These last few weeks have been full of farewells, from the tearful to the joyful, as my wife and I have tried to make time to see all of our friends and family one last time and, this being New Orleans after all, to have one final meal at all of our favorite restaurants! But as the days remaining until the big move have dwindled to a very small number, I have come to appreciate that the idea of bringing this chapter of my life to some kind of satisfactory and ultimately final conclusion is a fantasy. (There just isn’t enough time amidst all this packing to consume every version of the roast beef po-boy that New Orleans has to offer before we hit the road!) It turns out that the boundary between the ending of one adventure and the start of a new one isn’t all that sharply drawn.

So as I prepare to load all of our worldly possessions into the back of a truck, I am also starting to appreciate that my desire for closure is a deception borne of my need for love that doesn’t entail suffering. I want my memories of New Orleans to be neat and happy and not in any way tinged with sadness for what and whom I’m leaving behind. I’ve been trying to convince myself that if I could just find the right parting words then the pain of not seeing a friend every day would somehow be bearable. The reality of love is that it almost always entails some kind of pain.

As I contend with—and try with little success to sort out—all the conflicting emotions that come with transition, I have been surprised to find comfort in the liturgical season. It happened to be that my last Sunday in New Orleans was May 28, when the Church celebrated the Feast of the Ascension. The Ascension is a quirky little event for us 21st-century Christians because our conception of Jesus’s departure from the world and return to the Father is very much rooted in premodern science. The myth of a “flat earth” is a nice story invented, in part, to valorize Christopher Columbus. Educated people at least since Eratosthenes in the third century before Christ knew that the earth was spherical. But they also maintained that Earth was at the center of the universe, a round rock—Columbus actually likened its shape to that of a pear or a woman’s breast—embedded within a series of spheres along the surface of which the plants traced their paths. Beyond these concentric spheres lay the heavens and God, who, according to this model, literally encompassed the entire Creation. Within such a cosmology, the road from earth to heaven was literally up, which is why those poor, puzzled men of Galilee find themselves in the opening chapters of Acts staring heavenward and wondering where Jesus went.

I can certainly appreciate the theological and ecclesiological significance of the Ascension: at some point Jesus’ followers needed to figure out how to live as Christians without Christ and the Church needed a beginning, which we celebrate a week later on the Feast of Pentecost. And so for me, the narrative of Jesus’ Ascension is less about Jesus’ itinerary and more about what it means for all of us to choose to follow a Christian path. “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed,” Jesus remarked to Thomas elsewhere. Up until these last few weeks I have primarily understood the Ascension as a feast about what it means to have faith.

Sitting in Ignatius Chapel, though, and hearing Luke’s description of Jesus’ leave-taking as recounted in Acts and mindful of my own imminent exit, I couldn’t help feeling a special closeness to Jesus. The poor apostles may have been busy tripping over themselves in confusion and fear following the rather spectacular departure of their teacher, but at least they still had each other! Jesus, meanwhile, is the one who actually does the leaving. And since he clearly loved the men and women who followed him, then it stands to reason that his human heart had to be breaking a little. The narrative in Acts clearly sets us up to identify with the stupefied and stupidly gawking apostles, but this Easter season, I couldn’t help responding to the story through my own anxiety and feeling sorry for Jesus as he separates from his friends. Did some part of him suddenly feel lonely as the cloud obscured his view of his friends below?

I’m no Scripture scholar, and my reading of the Ascension narrative from Acts is not intended to be authoritative in any way. But Ignatian spirituality invites us to pay attention to where Scripture tugs at both our head and our heart, and this Ascension I couldn’t help finding myself identifying with Jesus, even if doing so felt a little bit presumptuous! I’ve been finding comfort in Jesus’ decision to let go as I begin to consider more deeply what it means to choose the pain of continuing to love what and whom we can no longer see over the illusory comforts of closure. After all, the message of the angels to the apostles in the first chapter of Acts is really about Jesus’ future return, not his immediate departure. Jesus’ story isn’t over. Neither is mine.

It will probably take some time to figure out what it really means to miss New Orleans, and during those first few weeks of humidity-free SoCal living I suspect I’m mostly going to wonder what possessed me to live in a swamp all these years! All kidding aside, though, I’m already coming to terms with the fact that leaving is going to hurt a little and that’s okay, because no parting is truly permanent if we hold onto the love in our hearts. 

 - John Sebastian

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