The Season of Waiting (And Waiting…And Waiting)

with Kate Bowler

Christmas should feel different. Shouldn’t it? It is the symbol of plenty, of fulfillment, of more-than-enough-ness, and of the expectation that perhaps while we wait for Christ’s birth, we might practice being a little more loving, more forgiving, more patient. Advent is a chance for us to wait for the kingdom of God to break in together.




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Kate Bowler

Kate Bowler is a New York Times bestselling author, host of the podcast Everything Happens, and Duke University professor. After being unexpectedly diagnosed with Stage IV cancer at age 35, she wrote Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved), which tells the story of her struggle to understand the personal and intellectual dimensions of the American belief that all tragedies are tests of character. Her latest book, No Cure For Being Human (and Other Truths I Need to Hear), grapples with her diagnosis, her ambition, and her faith as she tries to come to terms with limitations in a culture that says anything is possible.

Show Notes

Join us in this Season of Waiting by downloading our Advent Guide.

The end of today’s episode was full of ways people in our listening community honor and remember their lost loved ones. If you want to read more of these beautiful ideas or add your own, look at this Instagram post or this Facebook post.


Kate Bowler: Oh, hello, hello, hello there. Hi. I don’t know if you’ve heard. But it’s the holiday season. Are you ready yet? Oh, my gosh. I hate that question. It usually comes when I’m already completely overwhelmed. Buying the right gift, constructing gingerbread megachurches. Okay, well, that’s actually something I choose to do. Caroling, well also something I choose to do. But there is a tremendous emphasis on don’t we have to make the most of every memory? Dang it. And then what about all the deeper things? Like how your heart is doing in the midst of all of it? Are the kids all right? Is your friend still struggling with what’s his face? How can we not, I don’t know, alienate the in-laws again this year? Or how do we manage our first holiday or 4th or 12th without that person we miss so much? This season of Christmas seems to be the ultimate challenge to the human spirit. Christmas is the symbol of plenty and fulfillment and more than enoughness and of the expectation that perhaps now we can be just a bit more loving, more forgiving, more generous. And yet we live here in the not yetness. We have the symbols of Christmas, the whispers and clues of its overflowing peace and joy and hope. And yet our actual lives can seem so opposite. I’m Kate Bowler. And today I thought we would do just something a little bit different here on the Everything Happens podcast. This week marks the beginning of Advent. And if you thought that Christmas was just a single day, too bad for you. Advent is a whole season in the church calendar, that set apart to wait. Yep. That’s it. You heard me right. It’s just four whole weeks set apart to wait expectantly for things to be different this time. For Christmas, the day of Jesus’s birth, to break in and disrupt our normal lives. So maybe this Advent, the world can suck just a little less. And I can’t believe I put those words together in the same sentence. But that’s exactly what we’re hoping for, for reality to be a little less terrible, for the run up to Christmas Day, to be less chaotic or rushed and feel more holy, more healing, more moving up to the center of a feeling of awe and wonder. That we get to be here to witness to that little baby being born. This year, we’re going to walk through the season of Advent together, and it is not too late to join the Everything Happens project obsession with Advent. We made this absolutely enormous, completely free Advent devotional. It’s basically like a free e-book that you can get online that you can download on my website. So again, totally free. You just go to and it’s just a little something to orient this time and place in the calendar. It’s a set of daily reflections and little scripture verses and orienting questions, and it is not supposed to be just the feeling of bad homework. It is a moment that’s designed to help us pause so that this Christmas might not only be marked by the hustle and bustle of capitalism and chaos, but maybe one that’s just set apart to wait together. To hold our breath in unison as we wait for God to put things right. My hope and prayer is that this little advent devotional will be a way for you and me to make the very act of waiting holy, as we anticipate Jesus’s birth together. May we experience the stubborn hope of Christmas. Joy in the midst of sorrow. A love that knows no bounds and a transcendent peace amidst a world on fire. Jesus cannot be born soon enough. So let’s mark a little time together. And I thought maybe I might read for you today’s entry from the Advent Devotional. All right, so here goes. My son Zach helps me light the candles on the Advent wreath each Sunday. It’s a tradition created by a German pastor in the 19th century as a way to teach kids about the coming of Christ. We flick off the fluorescent lamp in our living room and let the darkness sink in. The tradition dates back to 1833 in Hamburg, Germany. Johann Hinrich Wichern opened the “Rauhe Haus” house which sheltered, orphaned and neglected children. And every night of Advent, he told them stories, prayed, and lit a candle. To accommodate the candles, a wheel shaped chandelier was built around which evergreens were twined. Visitors and supporters were impressed by this display and the custom spread. But those who imitated it reduced it in size to four candles, one for each week of Advent. Many churches and homes mark the progress of Advent by lighting one candle a week until on the final Sunday, when all four are alight. Three of these candles are purple or violet, (penitential colors) while the one lit on the third Sunday (Gaudete Sunday) is the pink of rejoicing. After Christmas, these candles are often replaced with white ones. The candles represent the coming of Jesus, the light of the world. And it was once customary for someone named John or Joan to be the first to like them, because John the Baptist at the River Jordan was the first to see the fire of divinity in Jesus (John 1:29-34), and John the Evangelist began his gospel by referring to Jesus as the light (John 1:1-5). The wreath is an ancient symbol of victory, while the greenery represents the everlasting life. As I explained the practice all over again to my still very wiggly nine year old. I am struck by the contrast of light and dark during the Advent season, in particular. In our era of artificial street lamps, incandescent light available at the click of a switch and glowing blue and red dots blinking from every appliance. We forget just how dark winter is when the sun seems so pale and far away and the nights are long. Our ancestors knew this kind of darkness intimately. In December, after sunset, they locked the doors, shuttered the windows, and tucked in early. Their folktales warned them that as Christmas drew near, the spirits of darkness began to range more actively, furiously at the approach of the Christ Child, which is where wolves and evil forces are brought in the night seeking to harm humans, steal children, and destroy their livestock. Ritual steps were taken to keep witches from coming down the chimney or to keep monsters out of the home. In Scandinavia, families often slept together for protection on Christmas Eve, the peak of evil’s power. The dark of night always seems to carry a bad reputation, whether literally or metaphorically. It represents the unknown, the scary, the avoid at all costs. But perhaps there are things we can’t learn under blazing artificial light that we can only learn in the dark. It takes being outside at night to squint for the stars or flipping off the light so Zack can watch candlelight dance. He did seem terrifyingly enamored by the flame. But this lack of light will never take us by surprise. We know that we are born into a broken world, that violence and sin are daily constants in life on planet earth, and that it took a hideous death of an innocent man to free us. We also know that there is an inexhaustible source of brightness and warmth in the person of Jesus who first appeared to us as a baby in a manger. Some 2000 years ago. The arrival of Jesus was preceded by a light in the heavens that guided the Magi and was hailed by an old wise man in the temple as the appearance of a, quote, light unto the Gentiles. Christ became our light in the darkness of this world. Thanks be to God. So, my lovelies. Happy Advent. May we all experience a little courage in the dark, short days of winter, knowing that this is the season where the brightest light of all breaks forth. If you want to join us for Advent, download the free devotional at and it will be in the show notes of this episode. All right. As you probably know, my dad is the foremost authority on Christmas. So you knew this Christmas obsession was coming. Thank you so much for tolerating it. I will talk to you again next week. Bless you, my dear.

Karen from California: Hi. My name is Karen Pew, and I’m from San Mateo, California, and I’m calling about Christmas traditions in honor of someone who I’ve lost. My brother who passed away nine years ago from he had lymphoma. He used to every Christmas make popovers. And when he passed away that first Christmas, nobody really wanted to celebrate. But I really wanted to make the popovers, so I did. And for the past nine years, it’s been my job to carry on the popover tradition. And we today we call them the Tom Q Memorial Popovers, and we kind of laugh about it, but it seems so silly and so small, but it it’s like he’s with us at the table.

Sarah from Arkansas: Hi. My name is Sarah. I live in Arkansas. My dad passed away nine years ago during the Christmas holidays and his big thing was to make sugar cookies with sprinkles on them. And so we continue every year making sugar cookies with sprinkles on them. And we also make sure that there’s one yellow sprinkle cookie that’s in the shape of an airplane because he was a pilot. And after he didn’t fly anymore, he did radio controlled airplanes and all of their planes were always yellow. So we always make sure there’s one yellow sprinkled airplane.

Justin from Ohio: Hi, Pastor Justin Hildon Ashland, Ohio calling. My best friend and I we started our first annual Christmas tradition last year, and it is going to be our second annual tradition this year. So we decided the week after Christmas, then go hang out, watch Christmas movies and drink mulled wine and eat charcuterie. And yeah, I feel there’s more of an opening to you. Making holidays into something that works for you versus feeling you have to do what everyone “does”.

Charity from Honduras: Hi, Kate. This is Charity. I’m calling from Honduras. The tradition that we celebrate to remember my dad is that on his birthday, December 2nd, we always make a pan, a fudge without nuts because he did not like that. But that’s a way for my kids to remember my dad. Thanks.

Kara Washington: My name is Kara Todd and I live in Olympia, Washington. And about ten years ago, just as my husband and I started dating, his family lost his older sister in a devastating way to undiagnosed ovarian cancer. She was supposed to get married right before Christmas and had an aneurysm in October and passed away right around Thanksgiving. And so it’s been pretty devastating to his family. So that Christmas, he decided that instead of putting decorations on his Christmas tree, he would put pictures on his tree. And so he called it the family tree. The other thing that he did was instead of having a star or an angel on top, he he put on top of the Christmas tree, the Santa hat that she had purchased and had planned to have all the groom’s men wear at the rehearsal dinner. But every Christmas, when we get out the tree and we just continue to add pictures of our family members, and we had very few decorations. But the pictures from our family and the tree topper of the the Santa hat is something every Christmas that we that we do to remember her, and to remember our loved ones that we’ve lost in the last decade. And some of our most precious times have been when our son was itty bitty and have him put that that hat on a tree. It Helps us connect him to the people who’ve come before us and helps him know his place in our family.

Carol from Morganton: Hi, this is Carol Porter calling from Morganton and my husband George, that a few years ago. And every year we would pick up something special from this fancy catalog, Sundance catalog, Robert Redford’s catalog. And every year I would get him something. He would get me something. So every year I still buy myself something from him, from Sundance, or somewhere. But it’s always a great gift. And would you give me a present every year? And that’s my that’s one of my happy traditions.

Amy from Canada: Hi. My name is Amy and I’m calling from Ontario, Canada. My mom, Gloria, passed away in a tragic car accident 15 years ago, and it happened just a few weeks before Christmas. We always had a very big breakfast Christmas morning, and I like to have the same things that she had on our table now. And I cannot go without my potato scones, with my bacon and eggs, and it transports me right back to my childhood when I eat it with my own family. I also play our favorite Christmas music, Dolly Parton and John Denver’s Christmas albums. We’re always playing. Music seems to be a very sacred space where memories flow together and tether my heart to hers in a very special way over the holidays. It’s wonderful. Here’s to being messy and beautifully human together.

Lily from Oregon: Hi. My name is Lily Crowder. I live in Newberg, Oregon. This is my second holiday season after losing my 15 year old son. And navigating this year feels a lot different than last year. I think last year I woke up on Thanksgiving morning and just stared out into space and cried most of the day away. And my family just sat with me and we cried together. And so that was comforting. And by the end of the day, we rallied and made a few of my son’s favorite dishes. And one of them was the last dish that he actually cooked wich this macaroni and cheese. So that’s what I made. And that was just a way that I could actively grieve and celebrate him. And Christmas, that will have a whole different challenge of its own. I think this will be the first year. Last year I couldn’t touch any ornaments or even look at the stockings. But this year I’m going to have all four of my kids stockings and we will let the day bring with it whatever it is, whether there are tears or laughter. I think it’s just learning how to say yes to all of it. Thank you.

Kate Bowler: A really special thank you to our generous partners who make this work possible. Lilly Endowment. The Duke Endowment. Duke Divinity School and Leadership. Education. And to my wonderful team. Jessica Richie. Harriet Putnam, Gwen Hegginbotham, Brenda Thompson, Keith Weston, Jeb and Sammy. Thank you. And I would love to hear what you thought about this episode. Would you do me a favor and leave for review on Apple Podcasts? It really, really means a lot to us when we get to hear what we do well and also might even do better. You can also leave us a voicemail and who knows? We might even be able to use your voice on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, lovelies. I’ll talk to you next week. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C Bowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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