Homeless in Advent, Thank God

Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Census at Bethlehem

I’ve been dreading this Advent, usually my favorite season. In a time ripe with promise, all I could see was loss. But then God answered my prayer—with a big fat stupid No.

Over at the Patheos Atheist Channel (a concept that still makes me giggle), blogger Bob Seidensticker has been engaged in a long and, to him, frustrating attempt to convince believers in general (and Christians in particular) that they are deluded, because prayer doesn’t work and miracles can’t be proved. The frustrating part for Bob is that we all agree with him, and don’t particularly care. If, like Bob, you see both miracles and prayer as Ways of Getting What You Want—his idea of “the perfect miracle” was Christ transforming patio furniture to gold, for example—you’re pretty much cruising for a spiritual bruising. Really, he’d do better going after ceremonial magic and alchemy, because at least they’re actually rooted in working one’s own will on the natural world.

Or so I smugly told myself until Monday, when God refused to give me what I wanted, which was a home to move into and start fresh RIGHT NOW. For a bad few hours, the phone call letting me know I had been turned down for housing in a senior community—turned down because, even with promises of support from friends and counselors, the board couldn’t take a chance on someone who’d left as large a trail of property damage and financial irresponsibility as this hoarder had—made me want to call Bob and apologize, not to mention negotiate a trade to Team Atheist. What the what!? My patio furniture not turned to gold after all? Prayer doesn’t work! There is no God!

O me of little, wee, eentsy, infinitesimal faith!

See, I had already spent last week drowning this little bruised wick of a light of mine in a Sandy-sized flood of self-pity. Thanksgiving week began with my surrendering my keys to the house of hoarding horrors, giving over access to and control of My Stuff to the landlady and friends who are trying to help me make this transition. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my cat—who will be a million times happier and healthier in a new situation, but still. I started anti-depression medication for the first time in my life (generally turning out to be a blessing, but with uncomfortable side effects right now), and as a consequence stopped self-medicating with alcohol. (Cold turkey for Thanksgiving, indeed.)

And after my burst of bravado in going public with my situation in the blog—another blessing, not only because of the support in prayer I’m receiving, but even more because it seems to have helped others facing similar crosses—I basically spent the Thanksgiving weekend curled up in a blanket on my out-of-town friends’ couch, feeding their cats and missing mine, watching sentimental holiday movies on their cable and becoming painfully conscious of how many times the word home is invoked during this season. This is why hoarders don’t ask for help, I thought—this feeling of being out in the wind with no skin, a snail with her shell ripped off, homeless. Monday’s phone call just confirmed it.

So God snapped me out of it.

Yeah, God said (audibly, though that could be the meds, Bob), the patio furniture that is your life is still the same crappy aluminum tubing and broken plastic webbing, but it works, it is serviceable. You are serviceable to Me. And yeah, you may have to do some hard stuff, some stuff you don’t want to do—like rent a room in somebody’s house if you can find somebody who’ll have you—but so what? Try it My way, just this once. I mean, I could let you have it your way, again, like I let you have it your way the time before and the time before that and the time before that, O ye stiff-necked daughter of Jerusalem, but how’s that workin’ for you?

I knew it was God and I knew he was serious, because he was channeling the scariest thing on the planet: Dr. Phil.

God channeled less scary folks, too—my family, my friends, my counselor—to yank me back from the abyss this week, to blow on the mustardseed-sized flicker of faith until there’s just enough flame there to light the first purple candle in my heart. And in that light, I began to see that this is not inconsolable loss but incomprehensible gift.

It’s the gift every one of us is granted in Advent: the call to move forward on trust alone, to walk by faith not by sight, to bring dry bones to new birth. On Monday, in the depths of despair, I asked myself Can I really start over at 62? And heard the echoes: Abraham upping sticks, Sarah laughing, Hannah and Elizabeth feeling their impossible children quickening, Magi riding the night wind east, Joseph’s staff flowering, Nicodemus hoping against hope. Of course, of course. With God, all things are possible.

We’re all homeless in Advent, too: suspended in the 3D tension of was and is and yet to be. We’re all on the road to Bethlehem or the flight into Egypt, sent packing with no spare tunic or sandals, wandering 40 years in a wilderness to make ourselves capable of digesting milk and honey and freedom. We none of us have a true home here. I’m just lucky—yes, lucky—enough to live that in a particularly personal way this year, and in doing so to offer my blisters and fleshpot-pining for those made homeless through no carelessness or destruction of their own making: survivors of fire and flood, mortar and drone, earthquake and the lifequakes of poverty and illness and broken hearts.

There will be—there already is—new life for all of us, and a home. That is God’s will, and oh, it is working for us, if we let it have its way. In that light, Advent is advent-ure. And I say, Bring it on!


For your reading pleasure on the Advent road:

Fr. Michael Duffy is anxious for the Advent-ure to begin.

Tom McDonald has suggestions for a mobile Advent.

The Anchoress has beautiful words of her own, plus a wreath of Advent reading.


  • Bob Seidensticker

    Joanne: I have a relative who’s making progress to get over a hoarding habit as well. Sounds very difficult. Best wishes for a vibrant life soon.

    It sounds like your friends and relatives have been there for you. That’s quite a lot to be thankful for in the season of Thanksgiving.

    - Bob the atheist

    • joannemcportland

      Thank you, Bob. And I agree, I have a lot to be thankful for.

  • http://www.thecatholicbeat.com Gail Finke

    Yaaaaaaaaaaaaay Joanne! And don’t get discouraged about anti-depressants. With that kind of medication, it is really just guess-work and experimentation. When you find something that works it will be amazing, but it often takes a couple of tries to get it right. Nasty and discouraging while it’s happening, I know. That was a beautiful reflection. You’ve convinced me… now let yourself be convinced as well.

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  • Blanca

    Good luck and never give up! God will guide you and strengthen you. Just take baby steps and keep smiling. Best wishes, we all go through bumpy moments in out lives… What is important? Never to give up! Never! Take care!

  • Lori

    God bless you, Joanne. I struggle with my own home as someone who likes to lie in bed above all. I’ve let things get very dirty and untidy. Please pray for me and I’ll pray for you.

  • Brother

    God bless you Ms. McPortland! This present darkness cannot overcome the Light Who Is within you and surrounds you.

  • Jo Ann

    I just love the sound of your voice! God is using you and preparing you all at the same time. I lost my home last year when my husband lost his business of 28 years. At 57 we have started all over again with two of our four children still at home. Who ever thought I would be getting my masters degree in theology as a result? Now I’m a dre and youth minister graduating in May during here at the dinner break of the National Conference on youth ministry. God writes straight with crooked lines! Last year I had a pity party. This year I am thankful, so very, very thankful and joyful!

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