It’s been at least twenty-five years since I walked onto a job site one day in a pair of shorts and a Walters & Marietta Construction t-shirt, my work uniform for that time of year and phase of my life. We were building a house and had hired Dan Orcutt to install the cellulose insulation, which was the latest thing back then. A mischievous grin spread across his face when he saw me and said, “Have you ever been arrested?”
I bit. “Arrested for what?”
“No visible means of support.”
It’s possible that I remember this otherwise forgettable exchange because, even as I approached 30, I hadn’t entirely grown out of my boyish self-consciousness about my skinny legs. I wasn’t nearly self-conscious enough to smother them with long pants in the summertime, but Dan’s joke was well delivered and still apropos to pretty much everything.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Ardelle and I visited my father in Silver Spring, Maryland. Over this past weekend, our kids did too. Alden and his partner Hannah flew out from San Diego to see him, and Kate flew down from New York, understanding we may not have many more chances to do so.
Those of you who know Dad from Calvary know that it’s been increasingly difficult for him to get around over the past few years. But at Thanksgiving, when I saw his caregivers move him from his recliner to his wheelchair with no apparent help from the legs that have carried him through this life, his weakness startled and saddened me.
Dad would very much approve of the fact that a groan-worthy old joke was what returned to me as I reflected on this experience, although he’d be happier if it had involved a pun. But what brought it to mind was the realization that it didn’t actually apply to him. His legs were weak, but there were visible means of support all around him.
In addition to the two women offering their help with such clear affection for him, there were family photographs on the wall, including a stunning one of my mother in her wedding dress, and one in which she’s leaning over my brother Kirk as an infant, smiling the smile that first made Dad’s knees go weak in a different way almost 60 years ago. There were flowers in a vase on the windowsill and an afghan draped across the club chair I sat in. Dad’s favorite C.S. Lewis books were on the shelf at his elbow, as was a photo of him with me greeting Bishop Phoebe when she preached at the Lenten Preaching Series. None other than Barbara Brown Taylor is looking over his right shoulder. All of this had been lovingly arranged by my sister-in-law Randi, with a little help from Kirk. There was also a substantial pile of handwritten notes from Calvary’s pastoral care team on the old red secretary, as well as cards from colleagues, former students, and neighbors. Visible means and markers of a lifetime’s accumulation of love and support.
Advent and Christmas can be a time of love and of loss. A time of great joy and of heartbreak. And, for all I’ve described above, our extended family is as complicated as anyone else’s, with its share of hurts and failures as well. So, I’m not proposing we pretend things are other than they are. I do believe the promise of Emmanuel, God with us, is sufficient to hold all of us and to hold all of our lives. But there might be grounding wisdom for us all in setting aside a few moments this Advent to notice and give thanks for the visible means of support in our lives. Maybe especially for the invisible and overlooked ones as well.
In fact, as I type these last few lines of this little blog post one Friday in Memphis, I’m suddenly aware that someone like you will be reading it, bringing a little of your life into conversation with it. And that simple connection, in itself — which is to say you, in yourself — is no small part of what holds me up, whether I notice it or not. A means of support made visible to my mind in this moment. One for which I am just now giving thanks to God.