Note: I began this meditation on November 28, the first Sunday of Advent. Some of the frenzy described herein actually prevented me from finishing it until a full week and another day of relative rest later. Given that context, it seemed appropriate to finish and post today, the second Sunday of Advent. Coincidentally, the photo below was taken only last night–the final day to light only one Advent candle–because we didn’t find the Advent wreath until Friday.
Twenty-five years and a few weeks ago, I threw myself down on my knees and cried out in desperation, “Teach me how to live!” I was fumbling my way through a difficult marriage, searching for a job, and rearing a hyperactive four-year-old step-grandchild who had been deposited on my doorstep—a doorstep no child had ever crossed before.
God knew the depths of my need, and his answer was quick and sure. Soon I found myself walking with that child across another doorstep through a red door with its own set of instructions: “Enter Here in Peace.” We were at the tiny Episcopal mission of St. Christopher’s in Garner, North Carolina. Because of my non-liturgical upbringing, I had to be told it was the first Sunday of Advent, 1996. Nor did I have any intention of becoming spiritually involved in church; I wanted only a moral compass for the child in my care.
However, God had different plans for us. I heard sermons about waiting in quiet contemplation, preparing the way for Jesus into our hearts, and being ready for miracles. The small but ardent group of worshippers immediately accepted Victoria and me as part of their tight-knit family. The plaintive strains of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” that we sang verse by verse over the four weeks of Advent took root in my seeking heart. And by the time Christmas Eve arrived and our little family of three attended the festive Eucharist, my soul had found its home in the Anglican liturgy, and I had opened that soul to the miracles happening all around me.
A few months less than twenty-five years later, I found myself praying, only slightly more calmly, perhaps with more faith because of the previous sure response, but still with a gnawing sense of desperation, the same humble prayer: “Teach me how to live.” We had to find another home because the house we had rented for twelve years was being sold—and we had two dogs, each over 50 pounds and one a “restricted breed,” anathema in the rental market. My vocation as a teacher was in jeopardy because I forgot to wear a mask and used capital letters in an email. My husband’s lab tests suggested that his successful cancer treatments were no longer working—and were possibly causing more harm than good. And I had not been to church since the COVID-19 restrictions prohibited in-person worship, and the overly cautious Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina decided on minimal faith and maximal caution.
Thus, the first response to my plea was the clear prompting to return to weekly worship. I went to St. Paul’s, a parish I attended for about two years more than a decade ago until the rector revealed what I considered such un-Christian doctrines as the belief that Jesus didn’t really mean it when he said “no one comes to the Father but by me” and that penitence is an outmoded medieval concept. Although no one spoke to me, welcomed me, or invited me to return, following the guidance of the Spirit was otherwise unreservedly a blessing. The interim priest gave powerful sermons, and simply singing hymns and receiving the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist provided my only sense of momentary peace and comfort in that frenzied time.
It seems self evident in retrospect, but that first whispered bit of guidance was the linchpin of all the other responses to my desperate prayer. Returning to church inspired me to resume daily prayer, which became the calming start of each challenging new day. I even found that when I awoke in the middle of the night, heart pounding and throat dry from anxiety, I was immediately praying for calm and peace. I might not know the words, but the faint melody of prayer was there. Pavel’s PET scan revealed no active cancer, so he was able to resume partial treatments even though his labs remain concerning. After calling and emailing countless rental properties, receiving responses from few and being turned down by several, we finally found a dog-friendly home with no breed or size restrictions, a large fenced back yard, and even a dog park! We had to sign the lease on faith because we were not even allowed to see the inside until our move-in day of November 19, but doing so provided us with exactly what we needed.
The last load of “stuff” is still in my car from yesterday, several items of furniture are still in storage, and everything else seems to be in mostly unlabeled boxes lining all the walls. But the dogs love their new back yard, we managed to have Thanksgiving dinner only a day late, and . . . well, the most cherished blessings deserve a paragraph all to themselves.
In the midst of the sudden news that upended our lives almost overnight in late summer, I realized that the financial uncertainties of the upcoming months were going to make it impossible for me to attend the long-anticipated 50th reunion of the Globe High School class of 1971–my first. In those times of uncertainty and doubt, I forgot the scriptural promise, but I soon learned anew that “with God [and a very special old/new friend who allowed herself to be used by Him] all things are possible.” Earlier in the year, one of my classmates had reached out via email seeking reconciliation, feeling she had wronged me in high school and wanting to create/renew our relationship this half a century later. Feeling on the contrary that I had been the one in the wrong, I was delighted to develop this new friendship, and Pam Park and I began to form our special if belated bond. And when this dear, dear woman learned that I could not afford to attend the reunion, she and her husband immediately and generously offered to pay my way. The tremendous blessing of the reunion deserves not a paragraph, but several posts, of its own–soon to come. Here, I will say only that this special meeting with my new friend and my reunion with other dear, dear friends were only the most precious of the abundant wonders that enveloped me those five days in Globe, Arizona, as I made peace with my home, my past, and the wonderful people who have filled my life.
Equally wondrous blessings have come in the form of my new relationship with my husband, Pavel. We have known since we met that we are opposites in almost every way possible–he of the right brain and I of the left. Through this period in the refiner’s fire, however, we have learned not only to value the other for the very different things we bring to the relationship, but also not to expect the other to exhibit our own strengths–or to resent the inevitable times when that expectation is dashed. Part of my fervent prayer has been to learn how to view my marriage as the sacrament that it is, and God has done his part; I am now seeing in previously unimaginable ways the fulfillment of the promise inherent in the catechistic definition: “The Sacraments are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace” (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 857).
And then came Sunday, November 30, 25 years to the day after the first Sunday of my first Advent. I spent Saturday night at our old house in Selma, so I would logically have attended St. Paul’s, only five miles away. But it seemed essential to me that I worship at my new home church on the first Sunday of Advent–like that miraculous Sunday when I walked through the doors and found a home at St. Christopher’s. So I drove the 60 miles to St. John’s in Fayetteville. The organist played the haunting melody line of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” and then we joined in, singing just the melody as well. But the chords swelled as we made our way through the O Antiphons, and when we repeated the first verse at the end, the sound of trumpets from the choir loft filled the air. As my voice rang out “Rejoice! Rejoice!” with each chorus, I was indeed rejoicing through my tears. The priest reminded us that these concentric circles of increasing joy are possible only on calm and peaceful waters. And it was with that renewed sense of peace that I understood I was once again at home, waiting for Jesus to come in new and unexpected ways into my life, just one of the many Advent lessons I needed to learn this year.
As you wait and hope in Advent contemplation, may you too learn the lessons you need.