Grief and prayer, after Auschwitz

It was the anger which took me by surprise.

I had anticipated sorrow, tiredness, and questions, but not anger.

I hadn’t really known what to expect on my return to Romiley after a pilgrimage to Auschwitz-Birkenhau.  I was partly afraid that my emotional journey might take the familiar path of numbness to guilt and self criticism for being ‘shut down’.

It happened as I set off in the car to the Peaks to find space with God to process and pray.  The usual necessities had taken up time, few people knew I was unavailable this week and I had a flood to texts and voicemails to ignore and feel guilty about.  I remembered a trivial practicality and pulled over to call my wife, when she answered, I exploded.  Furious that my precious prayer day had been invaded, frustrated that the world felt it needed me when I was unavailable, judgmental on those who were carrying on normal lives, serving others.

mellor-cross-2There was no rational reason for my anger, no one had wronged me, no crisis had invaded my protected time.  Raw and slightly afraid at my outburst, I detoured to Mellor Cross,
a wonderful place of prayer for me.  The mists cut out the glorious views and the farmer’s no parking signs were officious, but that didn’t get to me.  The 20ft Mellor Cross has lost its top bar and we, God’s church in our area, have not yet restored it.  (another job to feel burdened by) The symbolism pierced my bubble and provoked the question I was avoiding:

“Is it all derelict? – even this cross is desecrated, is there any good left in the world?”

auschwitz-1-2That was when it hit me, my anger was grief.
In that moment, I could see no good in the world. If I looked outwards I could only see tensions, unresolvable problems or hollow frivolity;  If I looked inwards, I saw fear, guilt and heard the agonising screams of the victims of Auschwitz.

Recognising that my anger was grief, brought perspective,  but who was I grieving for?

I had asked the Holy Spirit to navigate my emotional journey this week, what was he wanting to do in this tunnel he was taking me through?

Grief is chaotic, it generates questions, throws them up into the air, bats them around, rarely answers them and then rushes onto the next one.  Amongst the many questions my grief generated, were some about prayer which I want to explore here.

‘If my grief anger is at those closest to me – Why am I not angry with God?

It was an irrational anger with no object to blame, so it spilt on those I had subconsciously calculated will forgive me or be unharmed by my unfounded outburst.

Why not God?  Why am I not angry at him?

A skilled psychoanalyst might try to lead me to a conclusion that I am, that I blame God for the mess and pain in the world.  Yet as I leant against that headless cross and wept in surrender, all I could feel was gratitude to him, because I know that he really is the present one, with us in sorrow, suffering, martyrdom and desolation.  Our teaching in Auschwitz was built on God with us before he is for us.  One of the most profound moments of my pilgrimage to Auschwitz was encountering again to a new level of emotional engagement with Jesus, my beloved older brother on the cross, carrying my suffering.  Through this trip, I have recovered a profound closeness to him as other preoccupations have been expunged.

auschwitz-1In my past experiences of intense grief, I have rarely turned to anger against God, usually I turn away from the assumption that he is to blame.  In the Psalms he gives us freedom to express our anger, he is bigger than our emotions and in so doing he opens his arms and invites us to come and pummel him, confident that he can bear it until we punch it out of our system, his unconditional love soaking it up.  But this doesn’t answer my question.

If I try to blame God for Auschwitz, somehow I can’t.  Because to do so, would be to attempt to place myself closer to the victims than he is.  To place me in solidarity with them and have the pride to judge God makes no sense.

auschwitz-1-1

He was there and I wasn’t.

He was alive and I wasn’t yet born.

The victims were his family and not mine.

 

 

 

My mind bats away the vast and complex, ’is God powerless?’ but the next question which my grief, in its bleak outlook on the world raises, is terrifying.  When I consider how my heart responds to numerous prayer requests, I have to ask, “have I given up on the notion of God being powerful or likely to act? and has this trip further pushed that faith away from me?’

This is a substantial area of grief for me, a substantial challenge to my faith and ministry and mission.  In the face of Auschwitz, Syria and Donald Trump, the painful mess I see in so many churches, the frustrations of trying to share the best news ever with a world that so often shows little interest, and other disappointments, is there any point in asking God to do something?  When I look around me right now from a place of grief, the weight of evidence of what I focus on tells me that God is not active, not bringing change, not ruling from heaven and bringing resurrection life in the midst of the decay of this fallen world.

auschwitz-1-6My head might wrestle with the theological constructions, but when I catch a glimpse of my own prayer life and moments of ambivalence in prayer right now, I see that a big chunk inside is tempted to let go of hope, let alone faith, that God acts when we pray.

That is a scary place to be.  img_6127That is the decay of a central pillar of my life and ministry.  To play with this as a percentage game, when I start to believe there is a less than 30% chance of a prayer being answered, then why bother praying it at all?  Have I really lost the faith that when I pray, God will act?

img_6157What happened in the Holocaust was horrific, extreme and beyond imagination.  In so many ways  millions of prayers were left on earth unanswered and so it seems that God was powerless or disinterested.  We can of course refer to the bigger, eternal story, that God is responding in the long run, some theological answers are satisfying, others not.

But what about day-to-day prayer now?  How can I pray for the civilians of Mosul and Aleppo today? How can I pray for America this week? They are facing the alarming historical parallels of a sociopathic populist leader being democratically elected by a protesting disaffected people.  Hitler wanted to ‘Make Germany great again’.  How can we pray, if we start to feel like God isn’t going to act?

auschwitz-1-3When it comes to prayer, protest and resistance, Auschwitz was not binary.  In late 1941 three girls smuggled gunpowder out of the munitions factory and then blew up one of the gas chambers , this raises good questions.  450 prisoners were killed in response to this plot, but it put a gas chamber out of action.  That slowed down the killing by 20% for a few months until liberation. Each chamber could kill 2,000 at a time, potentially many thousands a day, maybe thousands of lives were spared because of that?

There are Holocaust survivors, Judaism was not eliminated, there are stories of those who escaped Nazi occupation, there are Oscar Schindlers and Nicholas Wintons.  Some prayers were answered.  Just because we may not see the whole outcome, we will see more of heaven invade earth if we pray than if we just watch.

Also, perhaps prayer is more instinctive than that?  As I consider the reality, I can’t stop praying.  We were led in meditations on the Stations of the cross around Birkenhau, one of the most moving parts personally was the prayers of intercession at each station, img_6137for women, for children, for Jewish and Romany people, for perpetrators of evil.  These were amazing moments, because my heart took over and in wordless cries turned to God for help in compassion for those who are powerless.  I will continue to pray and intercede, because I am unable to not pray.  I cannot bear the burden of compassion and empathy I feel with those I am otherwise powerless to help, I have to share that burden with God and carry it with him not for him.

“What are we asking God to do when we pray?” 

The lectures, worship, reflections and leadership of the trip was outstanding, it was a privilege to be with such exceptional wisdom and emotional intelligence.  However there was a moment when a typical litany left me yearning for more.  As we travelled around the world in a nicely constructed list of ‘people we ought to pray for’, I found myself deeply dissatisfied.  No words or time were  available to help us consider what we were asking God to do for these beloved people.  The prayers were devoid of verbs, and so the nouns became like tokens.  The only lists I write are shopping and ‘to do’ lists, a collection of things I lack, an expression of poverty or pressures.  These two words perhaps best describe how I feel about merely listing to God a series of people he is already fully aware of.

And so its redoubled my consideration on how can we encourage one another to pray with verbs.  Most (but sadly not all) of our collects manage it.  An example from next Sunday

Almighty God,
 in Christ you make all things new:
 transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace, 
 and in the renewal of our lives
 make known your heavenly glory;
 through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
 who is alive and reigns with you…

We urgently need prayer which expects something to happen, prayer which does more than express empathy or train memory, prayer which turns to a powerful God and asks for change.

 

[Grateful to Richard Frank for his photography]

A follow up post on the dehumanising which happened at Auschwitz is available here. https://romileyrichard.wordpress.com/2017/01/27/dehumanising-a-reflection-on-auschwitz/

 

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Knitted angels

Last week certainly took us by surprise.

Back in September  I received an email offering a plan for Christmas, the crazy idea of placing hundreds of knitted angels in Romiley as free gifts to our community.

One of my priorities is to empower and support the creative and crazy ideas which arise in St.Chad’s and so I thought ‘Why not?’ and said “yes, go for it”.  This was someone offering to do something fresh and inventive, outside the walls of the church, to initiate connections and bless our community.

By Sunday 11th Dec, over 600 had arrived, Angels - 1 (4).jpghours and hours of knitting and hundreds of conversations had happened.  We prayed that God would use the angels to bless people and very early on Tuesday morning we hung them on railings all around Romiley.angels-8

As the village woke up and set of for school and work, the place came alive.

The Surprise worked! – delight, joy, smiles and stories bursting everywhere.  The atmosphere in the school playground was transformed – reluctant schoolchildren (& parents) trudging to school in the dark, were running and laughing again.  Kindness broke forth, our lollipop lady found a child with no angel in tears and so gave her the one she had chosen for her tree.  Within minutes a grandfather ran off to find one in a yellow coat for the Lollipop lady.

But something else was going on – it felt more than just a happy little surprising occasion.

Something shifted.

There was a new found generosity of heart.
A celebration of what the Romiley community is about.

Commuters, walking in darkness, struggling with an early start, facing yet another draining day ahead, were lifted.  People who had been struggling with burdens, felt loved.

We provided some photos and video footage for BBC NorthWest, who put it online, their Facebook videos usually get c.20K views, by the weekend ours had been viewed more than half a million times!

But there’s another dimension to this story – which I want to share.

My confession:

A few years ago, I was excitedly preached about Angels, stories in the Bible and experiences of people I’ve met, of the vast, majestic, overwhelming heavenly beings.  In my talk, I threw in some comments, which were – let’s be honest – not entirely positive about little knitted angels. angels-4 In trying to make my point – I chose to stamp on something precious to others – and I’m not proud of it!  (The damage done when we preachers choose to trash talk something to emphasise something else, is for another blog, it’s destructive and endemic)

So what did God do? – He chose to take the very thing I had been cynical about & use them to do something really quite powerful and dramatic here in Romiley.

The church I lead, now becomes famous for being ‘the knitted angel church’…

I had some interesting conversations with God about this on my early morning dog walks last week!

God, in his love – took another opportunity to remind that building up, not pulling down is how we do things in his family.    But he didn’t just take the opportunity to humble me (he gets plenty of those) because when he has our attention, God makes the most of it.  When struggling with internal conflict between what we know is right & the tantrums of our feelings – He has a chance to speak.

angel-in-lightsSo with my full attention, God had another surprise.

As well as the outbursts of joy, and chatting and fun around Romiley.

As well as the grateful recognition that we seek to show God’s generosity.

Then the requests came in.  A flood of them.

Emails, Facebook messages to our church profile,  phonecalls, even people turning up on the church doorstep having driven to Romiley to find us.

Requests for these little knitted angels – to give to sick relatives and unsettled children.  Requests for these to bring hope and healing to those in distress.

angels-10At first we weren’t sure what to do about this – a knitted angel is cute – but it has no magical powers.

I had to wrestle with all sorts of religious thoughts,  along with my preach all those years ago slagging off little angels – I considered all potential negatives.

Was this superstition and folk religion?  Was dropping cute knitted angels in the nighttime too cowardly as a form of mission?  Was this a misrepresentation of the heavenly reality?

But then I remembered that we’d prayed for those who received these angels, we’d prayed that God would use them.  We’d taken something very simple, very natural – something sweet and lovely and prayed that God would use it – and now he was!

It was a wake up call for me.

People are hungry for God. – They are looking for him, searching for him, reaching out asking for his help.  We are surrounded by people longing for love and connection – and these angels were a sign that God’s people want to show kindness.

People are desperate for hope, for something playful and fun, wonder and surprise.  Finding a knitted angel, hanging on a railing early on a damp dark December morning – is a reminder that there is fun and playfulness in the world.

People are desperate for healing – for sickness to be overcome and they’re looking for the God who heals.

And there was such faith and expectation out there, that God could use these little tokens to bring healing and hope.  Amidst my religious reactions and our preoccupation  with a video going viral, we were discovered vast amounts of faith, outside the church.

So we started praying differently.  God used handkerchiefs and aprons in the book of Acts, to bring healing to those in need, so I got past my religious reactions and started asking him for that.  We’ve already heard of one lady’s daughter who had been in intensive care for a long time, making a dramatic recovery the day after her Mum took her an angel.  We’ve heard of insomniacs, sleeping peacefully.  I’m praying for many more, God loves these people and we long to see his kingdom touch their lives.

In many cases it seemed that there was more faith in God to heal outside the church, than within it.  And yet those inside the church have already received that love, that joy and that power from him.  We’ve already experienced connection, freedom and healing from God and  can share that.

So God took the little thing that we had to offer and used it to remind us that He has so much more.

angels-2I wasn’t totally wrong all those years ago – knitted angels are just nicely constructed arrangements of wool.

But this stopped being about the angels a long time ago.  Angels are only messengers who bring good news of great joy.  Whether they are 10ft tall, radiant in overwhelming light and carrying vast swords – or 5inches tall, made of scraps of wool with a bit of tinsel.  They have one job, to point people to Jesus.

God used this little tokens of love, to catch people’s attention, to express his love and to point people to Jesus.  He is the one who can heal, restore, refresh and bring hope.

Beauty in India and Nepal

Last night my plane touched down at Heathrow, but like many a traveller before me, as I battle jet-lag, my mind and my heart are still far off, refusing to come down to earth.

I’ve returned from an intensely stimulating yet refreshing week in India and Nepal, visiting the churches and partners there which Tearfund train and support in the pursuit of protecting vulnerable children from sex trafficking.  Cliches communicate so weakly, but please pause with me to engage with just one: “There’s beauty everywhere.”

RLP IndiaNepal - 15I saw beauty in people’s faces everywhere, in the resilience of humans finding a way to survive, in the sunshine and colours of India, the breathtaking mountains of Nepal and the amazing work of God in the fast growing Nepali churches.

 

Tearfund’s goal is to partner with local Churches around the world, where the needs is greatest. Serving the poorest and most vulnerable to empower them to overcome poverty and become a blessing to their communities. I’ve known Tearfund’s work for decades and I’m sure of one thing, they have thought, prayed and shared wisdom to a great extent in how to best help the poor.  The genius priority they have discovered is that to overcome poverty, we can help people to discover their own solutions to the problems they face.  One such form of poverty is the stealing of young girls from Nepal, who end up as women in prostitution in Indian cities, enslaved by debt and an underground corrupt system of exploitation which deceives and controls them.  I went expecting to encounter extreme ugliness in a messed up world of sexual exploitation, but amidst it I found incredible beauty in what people are doing, motivated by God’s love.

For the past 5 years the Holy Spirit has been teaching me about the key kingdom priority of empowerment rather than control.  This past week has been one of the most powerful and exciting modules in that learning.

The first part of the trip was spent in Mumbai, many writers have attempted to capture the mind blowing experience of visiting India for the first time, my wise cousin’s simple description: “Brilliantly mental”.

RLP IndiaNepal - 3Our focus was to visit the red-light district there, the foulest, darkest, busiest place I’ve ever been.  On our first evening we took time to prayer-walk through it’s streets, my heart simply yearned for God’s kingdom to come and His will be done.  There was ugliness everywhere.

I expected it to be a trip of two halves, the beauty of Nepal and the ugliness of the red-light district in Mumbai.  One of our group described it as protecting girls from being tricked out of heaven and trafficked to hell.  Yet what surprised me was that amidst the extreme dirt and ugliness, we found beauty.

Years ago my sister started working for a charity helping ‘women in prostitution’. I asked why she used a long wordy description, was it fussy political correctness, rather than calling them ‘prostitutes’?  Words matter and what she explained then, I have seen clearer than ever.  I expected to encounter ‘prostitutes’, women emptied by exploitation, lifeless units abused by broken men.  Instead we met women and children, who are enslaved by prostitution, yet still alive.  We met the children of these women, being protected and educated by Christians.  Still living with their mothers, but having a safe place to sleep and a happy place to learn and laugh.  They were so beautiful, it was genuinely impossible to get my head around their situation in life.

Then we met some of the women in an group which teaches them life skills, relational and practical ways to rebuild their lives and escape the slavery of debt.  Two pieces of beauty amazed me: Their friendships were a genuine source of life and hope, they loved one another.  And when I asked what we could pray and ask God to do for them, they had real faith, we prayed for them and saw the Holy Spirit powerfully impact them, bringing healing and hope.  I had nothing to offer them except God’s power and love.  Seeing Him move there will transform my boldness to pray in other places too.

RLP IndiaNepal - 38

We moved on to Nepal.  A truly remarkable place, so different from Mumbai.  The central part of the trip was a visit into the remote mountain villages.  On the edge of steep mountain, small communities live so simply, in such beauty.

RLP IndiaNepal - 18What God is doing there is totally amazing.
We met Ashora, a young woman who was dramatically healed from a crippling stomach illness 7 years ago when she encountered Jesus.  She started a church in her community and then planted one in the next door community, (45mins walk away down a steep mountainside) These two churches have a combined membership of 500 people now. 400 of them have come to Christ directly as a result of them or a family member being physically healed by God!

The healings and growth was exciting, but the culture of the church was beautiful.  This was a church planted and led by a 17 year old girl.

 

They loved to pray, they loved one another, they weren’t driven by angst or in competition with their opponents, I didn’t sense a trace of hollow religion.

The  church is often persecuted because the kingdom of God overturns the caste system that traps people in a social structure of exploitation that dehumanises the poor.  These churches had received anger and violence in persecution.  As the church began to serve those around them, for example by helping people to save money and start small businesses to rise out of poverty, the persecution was pushed back.  In this village, when the earthquake brought unimaginable devastation, the church was mobilised to do a door-to-door review of what people had lost.  That audit data, meant fairness when government and NGO relief aid arrived.  We heard of how many communities elsewhere had turned on one another, lying and fighting over relief aid, in Ashora’ s community because of the church, there was peace and that is beautiful.

These snapshots of the beauty which we experienced everywhere have been so hugely refreshing for me personally. So now, as I try to land back in England, the question is how do I link this trip to the rest of my life?  Yes St.Chad’s will continue to support Tearfund and I encourage you to do so personally.  Through Connected Church  we will also stay in touch with the believers there and pray for them.

RLP IndiaNepal - 26

I’m left asking ‘what is the poverty I face in my community and what solutions do we already have to overcome it?’

After being a husband and Dad, my calling is to facilitate St.Chad’s to see the kingdom of God invading Romiley and be part of the renewal of the Anglican church, out of Hollow Religion.  As I come back to England, I have an inbox and ToDo list full of problems and issues.  Coming home I see that so much of what I do as a church leader is to deal with problems.   My twitter feed is full of friends tackling those at General Synod, God bless them! We are swamped by problems, I’m usually so busy looking at them that I miss the beauty all around me.

One thing I learned was that poverty isn’t just about food or shelter, but about broken relationships.  A huge part of how the Nepali churches are empowering people out of poverty is  by building trust.

What do we already have which can help us overcome the poverty of relationships in the UK church?  How can we continue to build trust?

This week I have seen local churches, started through healing, growing through sharing Jesus and overcoming resistance through serving and empowering others.  Their life seems more beautiful than ours, but we do have beauty and the more we empower one another in local churches, the more we will see it everywhere.