We look around the walls, as for some object to guide conversation. Jim coughs and says, “I can really get to crying in here.” My phone vibrates in my chest pocket. “Is someone texting you?” I reach to silence it and feel a crinkle and a crumble. It’s a leaf. I hold it to my lap when Jim turns and sees me. “That’s another leaf that got tracked in. Throw it over there.”
“No,” I say, “it was in my pocket. My son picked it up on our last hike. He can identify about every maple, oak, pine. He knows sweet gum leaves, tulip poplars. When he finds a leaf he doesn’t know, he tells me to put it in my pocket so he can identify it when we get home.”
Before I can tell Jim what tree I’ve learned the leaf is from, he says, “It’s good what you’re doing with that boy.” He looks out through the kitchen as I slip back the decaying matter and peek at my phone. “I miss sitting on that porch. Don’t know if I’ll get out there again. I say it’s like the country back there. City in the front yard, country in the back. You see those red feathers I glued around Jesus? Redbirds feed in the yard back there. I always see them eating. When the other birds come to eat, the redbird flies off and waits for them to get what they want. After the other birds have eaten, the redbird flies back and eats whatever’s left. I’ve always seen the redbird wait for the others to take their fill before he comes to eat. I glue every red feather I find on that picture because that’s how I always think of Jesus — putting others first.” Whether that’s a documented trait of cardinals, I have no idea (I almost doubt it), but Jim has sat for years in his own yard and watched it happen, and he’s mapped the phenomenon together with what he’s long observed of Jesus. I wonder if he will sit back there again. Will he see Christmas?
“Would you like me to bring you Communion this Sunday afternoon?”
The significance of receiving the Lord’s Supper in his home spreads down his face. He stamps out his cigarette. “Yes. I would like that.”
However hard I subvert it, the season propels, the congregation strapped for the ride. But trailing the premature rhapsody and the graceless consumerism comes the clockwork cry of an obstinate preacher, or of your INFJ friend on Facebook: It’s Advent. Slow Down, Be Watchful, and Wait. You’re going to miss Christ coming to you. Don’t suppress your gladness; just hold off on some of the tidings. Learn a few Advent hymns. Stop commercializing joy. Look up vigilance. Remember patience.
No one will hear it. The pious, and not just the nonsmokers, will say, “Thank you. It’s what I needed this morning — getting so crazy.” Maybe, though, this year, one or two awakened souls will turn and heed the prophet.
The call finds its welcome with the ones who can’t make it to any Sunday Advent services. They are disposed to watchfulness because their course is spent, their lives — which seemed to be moving through a vacuum — now echoing back. Jim hears his wife call out. He sits next to me at their eat-in kitchen table, facing east, from where the deceased gazes out of a frame blankly, yet soft, her face still in her hand. His body shifts upon the seat with the muscle memory of a routine morning when he slumbers out to paint. She calls from her Hosparus bed, “Aren’t you even going to check that I’m not dead before you leave?” The recollection still stirs his anger though he’d answer it again if he could. He says to the photograph, “I know now how you felt.”
I want to insist I find the door myself but can’t deny him the dignity of walking me. I notice for the first time the spaces through which the housekeeper had earlier led me. In a room with nothing but a full corner of stacked paint containers, a gray cat sleeps in a backward C on an orange bucket, a fresh litter box in the other corner upon a makeshift rug of disposable baby changing pads.
The tradition isn’t about us learning to wait for Christmas, an annual henpecking on delayed gratification, a time for introverts to bemoan shopping centers for creeping carols ever nearer to Halloween. The calendar is reminding us to watch for Christ, though our patience is worn.
To wait for the coming of Christ is not passive activity. The instruction to keep watch for Christ’s coming is one of the Bible’s main mechanisms for leading us to mindfulness, or awareness, or, as well-intentioned pastors say it, being fully present.
Outside I reach back through the door to shake his shaking hand. “I’m parked down the road. See you Sunday after church.” At the curb I retrace my path, but this time awakened to the wet, heart-shaped leaves. Pulling the dried leaf from my coat I look up at Jim’s matching trees. Redbuds.
Joseph Payton is a native of Kentucky and lives with his wife and two young children in Louisville where he has served bi-vocationally as the Senior Pastor of Brookview Baptist Church for over six years. He also homeschools his son using a forest-based curriculum.