This time last year we were preparing to meet with friends and family, blissfully unaware that just before Christmas our plans would be dashed by the government's decision to put the nation into lockdown once again.
Over the last couple of years we have experienced many times of waiting, which have felt particularly isolating when accompanied by necessary shielding or avoiding close contact with others.
Advent is traditionally a time of waiting and preparation before our Messiah's birth. So how, after such a difficult time of waiting in recent years, do we engage with Advent and wait with expectation and hope?
This is a question I have been wrestling with a lot recently. We are experiencing an incredibly difficult season in our family, which has resulted in us pouring our hearts out to God on a daily, hourly – even minute-by-minute basis at times. But something about Advent has nudged me to remember afresh that there is hope, and to remind myself of that whenever external circumstances threaten to engulf me.
I know that life is a gift – but it is also full of hardship and trouble (Jesus told us that in John 16:33). But he also encouraged us in that verse to 'take heart', and that is what clinging to hope helps us to do.
There are times when it is a literal clinging – either a conscious decision or a knee jerk reaction out of desperation. And that's OK. While Advent is a time for slowing down, and a great opportunity to take stock of every area our lives, God knows our struggles and our thoughts and would far rather we be honest before him. So don't beat yourself up if you aren't fully prepared with a plan for how to utilise Advent effectively this year.
Here are some things I have already been incorporating into my days, and which I will be continuing with throughout Advent. I hope they will be helpful for you too.
1. Start each day asking for a fresh measure of God's grace and mercy I have begun to do this out of sheer necessity, but it is a great reminder, taken from Lamentations 3:22-24, that: 'Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness I say to myself, "The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for him."' The New Living Translation uses the word 'mercies' instead of 'compassion' and interestingly the word used instead of 'wait' is 'hope'. We can start each day actively choosing hope, as well as acknowledging our need for God's help.
2. Lay down disappointments and expectations This is a really tough one, particularly when we are going through hard times. So often they can bring up past disappointments or, like I am, we may experience fresh waves of disappointment day after day. I have found taking them before God and visualising giving them to him as an offering can be really helpful. Of course, there are times when I am nudged to do some processing and forgiving.
I know I've talked about having expectant hope, but actually sometimes it is our own expectations that cause our disappointments. Perhaps God hasn't done what we wanted or hasn't acted in the timeframe we would have wanted him to. It is so important to keep laying down our own expectations and asking God for his.
3. Lament when necessary As a nation we have faced huge loss as well as a dramatic rise in all kinds of awful statistics such as domestic abuse and mental health issues. It is an important part of the healing process to acknowledge our pain and loss and take it, unfiltered, before God. I have found lament to be the way back to God in times when he has felt distant. As I've poured my heart out to him, I have often felt him come close. The passage in John 11, in which Jesus weeps alongside Mary and Martha over the loss of their brother even though he knows he will raise him, reminds me that he is there in the midst of the pain – and isn't trying to rush me through it. Rather he stands and weeps alongside me, but also, in the right time, reminds me of the hope I can find in him. As Rachel Newham says in her new book And Yet (SPCK): 'When Jesus walks alongside us in our dark nights of the soul, he reminds us of his story, heaven's hope and death's despair, and he lets us know that hope has the last word.'
4. Take time to immerse yourself in truth Nothing fuels our faith more than meditating on God's Word. We are bombarded by so much information each day, some of it seemingly intelligent or innocent but it can have a negative effect on us without us even realising. The Bible can, at times, seem a bit out of place with what we are seeing and experiencing around us. But that's just like the incredible story of Jesus' coming. Even the majority of those who were waiting with expectation didn't expect their Messiah to come as a baby! Allow God's Word the chance to feed, nourish and replenish you.
5. Ask for spiritual eyes to see where God is at work, even in the waiting I have learned through painful times of waiting that often God is doing more behind the scenes, hidden and unnoticed, than we realise. We see it in Jesus' own story. He came as a helpless baby, totally reliant on his mother, then grew in stature and understanding – not embarking on his public ministry until he was 30. In the times of waiting we can wrestle but, in doing so, often I find I learn more about who God is.
This Advent may you come to understand in a fresh way the hope that only Jesus can bring.
Claire Musters is a writer, speaker and editor who blogs at clairemusters.com. Her most recent books are Every Day Insights: Disappointment and Loss and Grace-Filled Marriage. The latter was written with her husband, and they have provided a series of free videos to accompany the book, which can be accessed on the Big Church Read website. Claire also writes and edits for Premier Woman Alive and Christianity magazines. All her books are available to purchase directly from her; do get in touch via her website for special Christmas offers.