Walk Together—and Teach: Advent Words 1, 2, and 3

Ecce Ancilla Domini (Behold the handmaiden of the Lord) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1849)

Brief reflections on my own 26 Advents
I first experienced the Anglican liturgy and its repository, the Book of Common Prayer—where I found a home for my rootless soul—on the first Sunday of Advent 1996. Can there be a more perfect story than that of a 43-year-old woman, broken in spirit, whose life changed when she walked through a door that invited “Enter Here in Peace” on the first Sunday of the liturgical year?

But that is an old and oft-told story.  [If you’re interested in former, fuller tellings, take a gander at the three previous—and somewhat random—links.] I mention it only because since that first Advent entered the mythos of my life, the season of hope, waiting, and expectation that we enter today has become a spiritual sanctuary for me, always a dependable source of renewal and redirection and recalibration. And reawakening, I might add.

And because writing has been my most reliable way of approaching the Truths in my life, I have been writing about Advent since 1999 or so. For a few years recently, I have taken part in #AdventWord, an online Advent calendar through which people around the globe and in several languages share their daily thoughts and images about words pre-assigned for each day of Advent. In 2017, I even chose as my Advent discipline to write a blog post every day in which I meditated on the assigned word (you can find all these posts by typing “Advent Word” in the search field to the right; but I digress with self-promotion!).

This year, I once again signed up for #AdventWord, but I didn’t approach the assignment with such intentional rigor. However, when I opened the first daily email this morning, I knew I had to take at least the first step of the journey. For today’s word is WALK. Honestly, I had previously pondered how to write about this word and realized that the thousands of steps I took (with photographs) in the last few years might provide some fodder for contemplation. But then the past week happened, and plans have changed drastically—because the life of someone I hold very dear has changed drastically.

Time to share my Advent miracle
As a result of those changes, I feel it is imperative that I write about this year’s first three words in one post because when I saw them, I discovered a serendipitous theme.

Just a week ago at about this time (late Sunday afternoon, after church and a  nap and Wordle and Quordle), I sent a text message asking after the health of a dear friend and colleague who had been sick with a respiratory virus the previous week. Uncharacteristically, he had put a sign on his office door—Gradingpalooza | Please Knock (we teach English, after all, and end-of-semester research papers have been pouring in). Even more uncharacteristically, he stayed home from work on Thursday. But by Sunday when we exchanged text messages, he said he was “feeling some better but . . . not [my] best yet.” I asked if he would be at school on Monday, but we started joking about a parking ticket I received in the faculty lot, and he didn’t respond. His last message in the thread was 😝.

Vicki Derka and Kevin Barham before the FTCC graduation ceremony, May 2021

[Before proceeding, it is incumbent that I correct my shorthand description “dear friend and colleague.” Kevin is a modest and unassuming young man. He teaches freshman composition and English literature (John Donne, Christopher Marlowe, and Alexander Pope; you get the picture) and formerly taught high-school Latin. He is in his second term as the head of the faculty council. He is an accomplished musician who plays the organ and the piano and is music director at the fairly large Baptist Church he has attended his entire life. Although he is 29 years my junior, he is a quiet but strong man of intelligence and faith who has  provided me with support and guidance professionally, personally, and spiritually almost since he took residence in the office across the hall from me in 2016. And in the intervals between all these counseling sessions, we have also laughed. A lot. I have a great deal invested in this relationship, as you can imagine.]

At 2:29 a.m., only hours after receiving the 😝 emoji, I received another text message: “I wanted to update you. I’m in hospital. . . .  Bad foot infection that escalated quickly – apparently I’m diabetic, could need major surgery. On fluids and antibiotics , , , not sure what will happen. . . . Update when I can.” I promised to pray for him, and then, never a stranger to the faux pas, I had a sudden thought and sent another text: “The Lord will make you whole.”

By early Monday he was in surgery, and when he next corresponded, he had had his right big toe amputated—and we in the department were thanking God that it had been only his toe. But as we quickly learned,  removal of a toe often portends more extensive amputation, and the prognosis in Kevin’s case has been uncertain since the surgery.

I have attempted to provide support of strength and value reciprocal to what he has offered me over the years, but after my clumsy text message came Thanksgiving—and what could I offer but platitudes about how much we still have to be grateful for?

I visited Kevin in the hospital on Friday. With his tray of uneaten food and both arms stuck with multiple IVs, he was clearly a very sick man—and a very depressed one. He talked openly if haltingly about the prospect for still more surgery, long months of healing and rehabilitation, uncertainty when he would be able to return to work and what he would do in the meanwhile. He wondered if he would even be able to walk. He said he could play the bass pedals on the organ with automatic controls, but not the damper pedal on the piano. He even said, “I hope they don’t give away my office.”  And then plaintively indeed he continued, “There go Advent and Christmas.” Lifelong Baptist though he may be, Kevin has introduced elements of liturgical worship to his congregation, and they obviously mean a great deal to him.

I listened and tried however I could to show my love and concern. It was a good visit for both of us, I believe, even though I knew that I could offer little but clichés, words empty from overuse. But I could at least kiss his forehead and hold his hand and pray for him.

Prescient words for Advent—and for Kevin
I received a text message from Kevin after sending my subdued Advent greetings this morning, along with a video of the sermon I heard at my own parish, St. Mary  Magdalene: “Thank you Vicki. I’m perplexed and uplifted that with all I’m going through this first Advent Sunday just happens to be about hope.”  And it was with that hope in mind that I vowed to write this post that had been gelling in my mind since I previewed the list of Advent Words this morning. The first three are for you, Kevin:

Yes, incredible though it may seem, the #AdventWord lexicographers at Forward Movement, the Episcopal Church publishing Company, chose exactly these three words because the Lord knew Kevin would need them and I would see them and understand how to proceed. And I do.

My clumsy statement about wholeness bothered me so much that I even incorporated it into the prayer I shared with Kevin on Friday: Wholeness has nothing to do with feet. In fact, I happen to know that the Greek word soµteµria, used in the New Testament for salvation, is related specifically to healing, which leads to wholeness.

And although walking isn’t so neatly explained away by etymology, I also know that we use walk metaphorically to suggest traveling through life by whatever conveyance we can manage. And I know even more surely that we can do so together. We are indeed our brothers’ keepers, and I for one am ready for the side-by-side journey. And since I am sure that many besides me have been beneficiaries of Kevin’s munificence, I know that they too will be eager to express their gratitude for his gifts by returning them in small measure. Finally, I know that Kevin will always be a teacher. In fact, I have no doubts that the English Department will keep the office across the hall from me spick and span in readiness for his return to the vocation he heard and answered long ago. More significantly, though, each moment of his life, Kevin will continue to teach those around him, always sotto voce but always with the great power of the respect and love he has for each of his companions in the journey.

I end this post and this very unexpected first day of Advent by asking that you pray for healing and wholeness for my friend Kevin—and for each of us as we make our Advent journey, walking together, teaching and learning from one other. And it is my special prayer that each of us embrace the possibility of being taught once again that God can use the large and small adversities we face to strengthen us and give us the will and the courage to be blessings to others. Amen.

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One Response to Walk Together—and Teach: Advent Words 1, 2, and 3

  1. Boz says:

    On the afternoon of the second day of Advent, the surgeons amputated Kevin’s leg midcalf to prevent further spread of the infection and to ensure quicker healing and more successful prosthesis.

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