When Advent Groaning Doesn’t Let Up In Time For Christmas

Jesus waits and longs with you.

I shared this thought recently with a woman whose Advent waiting has lasted a few years. The trauma of abuse, the ongoing pain of a divorce, and the seasonal expectation of all things joyful and triumphant were conspiring against her, manifesting in some desperation, even despair. In the prior two years, God had not magically broken through her loneliness and depression at Christmas. No star had appeared to guide her to the newborn Christ. No new and glorious morn. Just more aching, more longing.

Jesus waits and longs with you. The Spirit groans with you, in you, for you.

She, like me and so many of you, imagined God as the great Santa who brings lasting peace and joy to those who wait on him. So, I hope you’ll not dismiss it as silly or childish to hear that she thought herself unworthy, maybe even forgotten by the coming King on Christmas morning.

The congregation breaks out in song:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come
Let earth receive her King
Let every heart prepare Him room
And Heaven and nature sing
And Heaven and nature sing

But she doesn’t much feel like singing.

In fact, she kind of feels like sleeping. Like crying. Perhaps, like raising an angry fist.

Might her heart prepare room, even at Christmas, for the One who longs and groans, even with creation, waiting in eager expectation for the once-and-for-all renewal of all things? Might you – her friend, her pastor, her spouse, her coworker – offer space, offer permission, offer hospitality for her even in her groanings?

I love the liturgical rhythms of the church year, but the purpose is neither to manufacture an emotion or magically relieve our heart’s pain. For some – dare I say for many – Advent longing just keeps on keeping on. Christmas services at the local church may be the least hospitable for one whose Advent ache refuses to let up in time for joy to the world.

For those of you who find the holiday season particular painful, for the one who finds herself stuck in the bleak midwinter, for you whose Advent longing continues indefinitely, remember that the the Spirit groans with you, in you, for you (Rom. 8:26), even while others raise joyful and triumphant voices.

Advent 4 | What If God Was One Of Us?

Joan Osbourne’s one-hit wonder What if God was one of us? continues to play in my head, nearly 20 years after its extended reign at the top of the pop music charts.  It was the Call Me Maybe of its day, that song you’d make fun of but secretly hope to hear every time you turned on the radio.

But Osbourne’s hit had an almost haunting quality to it, asking questions skeptics and Christians alike ponder, especially at Christmas:

What if God was one of us.  Just a slob like one of us.  Just a stranger on the bus.  Trying to make his way home?

Its refrain halted the pondering, instead making the declaration each of us hopes to make in our darkest moments…

 Yeah, yeah, God is great.  Yeah, yeah, God is good. 

It’s a song that, despite the popular commercialization and trivialization of the spiritual, asks profound questions, questions that led often to conversations with the skeptics who I worked with in a Chicago audio/video store back in the day.  What if God wasn’t some angry disciplinarian, perched above on his heavenly judgment seat, waiting your next blunder?  What if God is, in fact, not distant at all?  How would it change what we believe?  How we live?  How we speak to God?

Week 4 of Advent asks these questions.  Taking center stage – Mary – a young, unwed teenager girl who is chosen to carry God Incarnate to full-term.

67And Mary* said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. (from Luke 1)


There can be no more clear commitment to relationship and union with human beings than this – God taking up residence not just on earth, but inside the womb of young woman in a patriarchal and religiously buttoned-up society.  This was scandalous.

God, in becoming one of us, turns religion and spirituality on its head, daring us to believe that this world and, indeed, human beings are God’s delight, God’s beloved, God’s deepest commitment.  It dares us to believe that God came to earth, accomplished his work of reunion through Jesus, and sent the Spirit to dwell in us forever.  Theologians over many years would do doctrinal gymnastics to explain (and sometimes explain away) this overwhelming fact.  Some even say God can’t possibly look at us because of our sin, so he covers us with Christ.  No, Advent and Christmas remind us not just that God can and does look at us in the eye, but that God makes our very being his dwelling place (1. Cor. 6:19).

In the midst of the frantic anxiety of this season, stop and ponder.  Do you need anything more than what you have already?  God dwells in you.  Or, in the words of St. Catherine of Genoa, “My deepest me is you, Oh God.”  Christmas is not merely about three wise men and a manger scene from long, long ago.  No, Christmas is about right now.  God has taken up residence in your very being, and delights to bless you as Mary was blessed many years ago.  Can you dare to believe this?

Joan Osbourne asks, What if God was one of us?  Our response, God is. This is the gift we’re asked not just to receive, but believe, at Christmas.



– How do you perceive God? As distant? Angry? Near? Kind? Talk with someone about this, and reflect on how or why your image of God was formed in this way.

– How can believing that Christ not only loves you, but dwells in you, change the way you face your anxieties, disappointments, or loneliness?

– Take some time to pray that God would allow you not just to contemplate and experience the profound reality of his union with you, but live it out with greater joy and freedom.

Advent 3 | Do Not Fear, God Will Make a Way

How do I get out of the wilderness? It’s a question I get asked often. When you’re a therapist and you write a book with the subtitle Finding God in the Wilderness Places, you’re inviting hard questions.

Advent offers a clue. While the first week of Advent focused on Christ’s promised coming, and while the second focused on how we wait and long in the process, this week’s focus is on finding hope and joy in the waiting. It seems the wise men and women who crafted the Advent calendar and its weekly biblical texts anticipated we’d need a bit of hope by Week 3. And so, in their wisdom, they offer several hopeful texts, including Isaiah 35:1-10.

Now, here’s what’s fascinating. It’s a text so relevant to us but written for refugees long ago – men and women captured, taken from their homes (which were destroyed), and cast into exile. These were people who experienced intense pain, ripped from family, friends, and home, and burdened by the agony of God’s abandonment, as well. And yet, into this desperate wilderness circumstance, Isaiah speaks hopeful words:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be made glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom…they shall see the glory and majesty of God.

“Are you out of your mind, Isaiah?” they’d ask. Feeling powerless and abandoned, they’d wonder how God could do such a thing. He would respond, however:

I’ll strengthen your weak hands, and make firm your feeble knees. Be strong, and do not fear.

“Easy for you to say, Isaiah,” they must have responded. In fact, sometimes the people who frustrate me that most are the ones who say, “Don’t worry, it’ll all be alright.” Do you know people like this?  We all do. They mean well. But, I suspect God had a much bigger vision in mind.

Here’s the picture God would paint:

I’ll build a highway right through the desert, and it will be called ‘The Holy Way.’   And those who are freed will return home while singing…sorrow and sighing will  fade away.

It turns out, their wildest dreams came true, but in a way better and more fantastic than they could imagine. God did get them home, but his ‘highway project’ included bolder aspirations, a bigger rescue.

It’s a rescue that pointed to the very first Christmas.

You see, this God isn’t in the business of simply building dirt roads or single lane county roads. God isn’t into temporary solutions.

No, God is in the business of making Super-Highways.

Years later, God would speak to an old man named Zechariah, too old to have children, frightened at the appearance of an angel who announced that, indeed, he and his barren wife would have a child, and that this child would announce God’s new highway project (Luke 1:12-13). Zechariah, scared out of his wits, needed God’s comfort. Once again, God says:

Do not fear.

An angel would also appear to a virgin named Mary, who shuttered at the reality that she’d been specially called by God (Luke 1:30). Guess how God would respond:

Do not fear.

The ‘Super-Highway’ project would be commissioned by God and announced by John the Baptist, an eccentric desert dweller and the son of Zechariah, saying:

Prepare the highway of the Lord. Make the paths straight. Raise the valleys and lower the hills, straighten the crooked paths and smooth the rough ones. All will see God’s salvation. (Luke 3:4-6)

No fooling around here. God was up to something big.

And the great highway paver would be Jesus, himself, whose mother was also told not to fear.  She’d witness the very first Christmas, as her son would be born – in exile, amidst suffering – and yet would accomplish the unthinkable.  Jesus would, in fact, remove every obstacle, every barrier, bridging the chasm between us and God.  The highway would be built – a full-service highway – with a God who makes sure we stay on the road toward Home.

Sometimes, in moments when I feel most alone and wonder where God has gone, I think of God’s words. Do not fear. And anticipating Christmas, I remember again what we celebrate, that God came to us, and dwells with us – in union – even when I don’t feel it. The road doesn’t always feel straight. The path is strewn with obstacles. But, as St. Paul says, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Rom. 5:3-4).

So, strengthened for the journey and fixed on the destination, we keep our eyes ahead, anticipating that hope of Christmas once again, a reminder that we need not fear, that God has paved a way Home.



  • Can you relate to the question – How do I get out of the wilderness?
  • How does it feel that God is, indeed, paving a way through the wilderness?
  • When you hear the words “Do not fear?”, is it hard to believe? Is it encouraging that God speaks to your anxieties just as he spoke to Mary and Zechariah many years ago?
  • How does the hope of Christmas and its promise of God’s rescue encourage you today?

Advent 2 | How Long, Oh Lord?

In the previous blog, we looked at the season of Advent, a time on the Christian calendar that marks a new beginning, an opportunity to observe our busy and frantic life and choose, instead, to live according to a different rhythm, a sacred rhythm. Embedded in the Christian calendar is a kind of ancient psychology, as if God is saying, “Participate in this and you’ll find the refreshment and freedom you’re longing for.”

In this Advent season, we begin to see how desperate we are – how our restless striving gets us nowhere. As Thomas Merton once said, “We may spend our whole life climbing the ladder of success, only to find when we get to the top that our ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.” We’re faced with the futility of finding that financial freedom that will help us feel secure, or that sexual relationship that will make the loneliness go away, or the perfect religious practice which will unleash perfect inner peace. But with the wise writer of Ecclesiastes, we cry out, “Meaningless.  Meaningless. All of these things are a chasing after the wind.” Control is unattainable.

The prophet Habakkuk, on the other hand, laments not merely personal woes, but society’s injustices crying:

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted. — Habakkuk 1:2-4

“How long?” Habakkuk cries, as he looks around and sees exploitation and violence, corruption and discord. And we, too, are invited to cry “How Long?” You see, as we slow down and consider why we’re so busy, we see that we’re often just numbing ourselves – to our own pain, to life’s injustices. We’re busy because we’re lonely, and we’re not sure God will ever answer the prayer for a spouse. We’re frantic because we’re insecure and anxious, not sure if our boss is seeing the hard work we’re doing.  We’re exhausted because we’ve placed our hope in financial success, only to our family disintegrating amidst the relentless striving. We’re perplexed because we hoped that a politician or a policy would bring the hope we so desperately long for.  We’re dismayed at the continuing acts of terror abroad, and the threat that they may again invade our shores.

How long?

This is our prayer in Advent. Will you give yourself permission to pray it? Many will not. It feels too raw. Or, perhaps it hints at a lack of control, something we can’t admit or afford. Maybe this prayer feels like something you pray when you’re at your end, and it’s just not that time yet. Maybe it feels too vulnerable, and you’ve learned that vulnerability isn’t safe or good.

Just the other day, a woman was standing behind me at Walgreens, waiting in a fairly long line and vigilantly observing the cashier, a young woman who was attempting to get a customer to sign up for the Walgreens Rewards Card. Under her breath, she kept saying, “Why…why…why?” I suspect her anxiety masked a greater longing, a longing to once and for all be delivered from the constraints and frustrations of life. I peered back to see an older woman with a cane, her arm shaking as she tried to support her weight along with a basket of groceries. She looked at me as if to say, “Life is unfair.” However, as I asked her to take my place on line, it was if a thousand pounds of emotional weight was lifted. “Thank you, thank you,” she said. I was her rescuer.

But our cry goes deeper. Our “How Long?” is heard by a King who longs to set the world right. He hears the groaning not only of his people, but his entire creation (Romans 8), and validates our restless cries. This God does not patronize, or criticize, or condemn our frustration. No. What this season reminds us of is that this God listens and responds, breaking through into our reality as a child born in a manure-filled stable, born into inconvenience, injustice, frustration, and futility. And this God, this Rescuer, comes to make it all right.

When we cry “How Long?” we invite this Rescuer to invade our reality with redeeming love. We break the numbing cycle of busyness, avoidance, and denial. We open ourselves vulnerably to God’s love, God’s redemption, God’s freedom. It’s a radical prayer to pray because it is desperate, it is honest, it is risky. In fact, we may be disappointed along the way. God doesn’t promise a quick fix. God’s way of freedom comes with bold prayers and frequent sufferings, but it brings a better Hope.

So, join the ancient voices. Participate in the ancient rhythm. Find your life redeemed and restored in a Story bigger than your own, through a God would become subject to the same futility you experience.



  • What personal struggles cause you to want to cry out “How long?”
  • What societal and/or cultural “brokenness” (e.g. poverty, sex slavery, rampant consumerism) stirs you to cry out “How long?”
  • Can you relate to the woman on line at Walgreens?  Are there ordinary, everyday frustrations which tap into a deeper longing?
  • What hope do you draw from this post?  Is there a sense in which you can see through the brokenness of your life and the world and glimpse the Hope of God coming in the person of Jesus to rescue you?

Advent 1 | Finding Time for God

When I begin seeing the leaves turn, when I smell the turkey roasting in the oven, when the familiar Christmas jingles start playing on every commercial – I know it’s time.   My calendar still reads November, which makes it hard to believe that invitations to Christmas parties are already showing up in my Inbox.  But Christmas intrudes into our present like an old friend, who reliably shows up time and again with the promise of something new.

How do you experience time?  I know someone who feels time is an enemy.  She’s constantly running out of time.  Often, life feels frantic and out-of-control for her.  She’s always saying, “So much to do; so little time!”

On the other hand, another friend strives to be on time in every aspect of life, so much so that he’s mastered every gimmick and gadget to control time.

And yet, time is beyond our control, isn’t it?  I hear Pete Seeger’s old tune rattling in my head –

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time for every purpose under heaven.

Seeger taps in to the wisdom of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, a book we can all identify with, as a control freak who attempts to manage life through perfectly ordered time, relationships, work, sex, and even religion is invited to relinquish control, and relax into God’s rhythms.  If only it could be that easy.

Knowing the inevitably of time’s endless rhythm, a few wise old souls many, many years ago decided to order time in a certain discernable pattern, a pattern that echoed the even more ancient Jewish cycles of worship and prayer, but markedly different.  The Christian calendar would become a way of ordering time centering on the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.  And its rhythm would hold the very real potential of ordering our lives around His Story, so much so that we might be able to relinquish our need to somehow control time, or relax our fear of running out of time.

What if your story was somehow ordered by a larger Story?  What if you could relinquish the frantic need to master time, and relax into a more sacred rhythm?  What if this season of Advent could mark a renewal in your life, a renewal of your time?

This week, the Christian calendar begins with the Season of Advent, the beginning of our Christian calendar year.  We begin our year by laying down the many futile ways in which we mark and master time.  Interestingly, the wise men and women who arranged this Christian calendar begin Advent with biblical texts about the Second Coming of Jesus like:

Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  – Luke 21:27-28

It’s fitting, if you think of it.  Exhausted by our need to master time (particularly at this busy time of year), we’re reminded that we need a Rescuer, a Savior who will set all things right, restoring and re-ordering a disordered world and our disordered souls.  In Advent, we anticipate and long for God to renew our lives.  That’s good news – the good news.

And during Advent, we’re invited to relax into His arms, His timing, His plans for us.  Indeed, Advent is an invitation to re-union with God.  You see, when we relinquish our need to master time, we can relax, enjoying intimacy and real presence with God.  It’s hard to be present when you’re imprisoned by the past or riddled with anxiety about the future.  In the midst of our daily trials, we can say, “Come Lord Jesus.  I need you now…”

And so, begin your year anew today.  Enter the sacred Story.  Participate in its ancient rhythms.  Experience how it can re-shape your own Story and re-purpose your life.  You may need to sacrifice a few things along the way, including some of the time-sucking activities that steal your joy, or that time-conquering mindset that only ends up frustrating you.

But as we’ll learn throughout Advent – just wait.   Wait, even amidst the disappointments that steal your joy.  Wait and see the newness, the life, and the freedom that emerges when life is lived in God’s sacred rhythm.  Wait and long for the coming Messiah at Christmas, when we’re all re-awakened to that wondrous reality of God’s profound condescension.  Wait – and don’t rush – through this season so full of busyness, but so pregnant with purpose and joy.

This Advent, wait on God.  Or, as the great J.R.R. Tolkein says:

Do not spoil the wonder with haste!

Advent Disappointment

Christmas stirs hope.  There is a palpable excitement around gift-giving and tree-trimming and party-hopping.  And there is also the (legitimate!) hope that the same Jesus who came once upon a time will come once again.

But the reality for many is disappointment, once again.  Sure, we’ll numb ourselves with countless distractions.  We’ll play Bing Crosby tunes as we sip cider, we’ll shop until our feet hurt, we’ll make plans and think up ‘white elephant’ gifts and watch the Advent candles lit every Sunday.

But we’ll hurt.

Sure, few will see.  After all, Christmas is all about happiness and hope.  But you can’t shake your disappointment, can you?

You’re single again this year.  Or, perhaps, you’re single for the first time in a while.

Your sense of financial security is hanging by a thread.

Your kids are far more of a mess than you ever thought they’d be.

Your marriage is a dance of strangers.

Your 20-something idealism has turned to 30-something cynicism.

You have to spend the holidays with a family that doesn’t get the pain they caused you.

You’re not making in the dream job.

You’re desperately unhappy in your dead end job.

Amidst it all, ads come on the television that show new cars wrapped in bows, red lingerie on Santa’s supermodel helpers, happy families gathered ’round the fire, and gorgeous homes with stockings and fireplaces and trimmed trees.

And each Sunday, another candle is lit.  Advent.  Longing.  And it hurts so bad.

And that’s exactly what you’re doing there this Sunday morning.  There is no need to anesthetize any more.  Feel the disappointment.  Walk the long walk Mary and Joseph walked in the shadow of powerful Herod’s military palace, symbolizing Roman hope and shaming the weak and feeble.  Enter Bethlehem only to feel unwelcome and abandoned.  Claim your justified doubts about God’s plan in all of it.  Go to sleep with the stink of animal manure all around you.  Christ is born in that mess, not despite it.

Be there, in your disappointment.  Or, you might miss it…