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.


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.



Why do you search for the living, among the dead?


“Why do you search for the Living amongst the dead?”

They had travelled from Galilee, served his practical needs, hung on his every word, and watched him die.  Where else would they search?

They had seen him battered and bleeding, mocked and mutilated, seen the spear plunged into his side and his body carried from that horrific cross to the cold tomb of a rich stranger. Where else would he be?

They had cringed at his pain, feared his enemies and felt angry with his betrayers.  They had spent the sabbath waiting and spent their money on embalming spices.

What more could they do?

And they are greeted with an obtuse question…

Why do you search for the living among the dead?

If the Resurrection happened today in the UK, I wonder whether the grieving women would have taken offence at the angel’s question?  We live in a culture wracked by insecurities, each covered with defence mechanisms.   I can imagine a modern reaction would have been to try to justify themselves or find fault, blaming this radiant man in the garden as harsh and cruel.

But the women weren’t like us.

They were humble, they had listened to Jesus and they remembered his words.

The question came, as everything does from heaven – saturated in love.

God doesn’t ask us questions in order to find out information.

He asks us questions to pull us out of earth’s story to be a part of heaven’s story.

On earth, all was black and desolate.

Strangers lost in a hostile city, grieving their closest friend,  directionless without their leader and bereft of their shield and protector.  Their band had dispersed, the movement was over, the vision had died.

In heaven, all was glory and victory.

The conquering hero had returned, with captives set free and the keys of death in his hands.  The beloved son had fulfilled his mission, had shown his amazing love and trust, the Father had demonstrated his power and the Spirit was just waiting to launch a new era of hope.

The angelic man in the garden asked a simple question to pull them from one story to another.

Why does God ask us questions? –

So that we see things differently.

He wants to take our minds away from the bleak or mundane anxieties of earth and into the hope-fuelled joy of heaven.

Away from the poverty of earth, into the glorious riches of our inheritance.

From fear, into faith.

From passivity, into purpose.

From decay, into creativity.

From anxiety, into prayer.

Away from cynical dismissal of what’s unseen, into being sure of what is hoped for.

The one who taught us not to worry, knows the questions to ask, to help us see differently.

Why do you search for the living, amongst the dead.? –

 He is not here, he has risen.


Grief and Religion. (part 1)

Religion often doesn’t handle grief well.

Many people I have met who have walked away from church and as a result pushed God away to what feels like a ‘safe’ distance have been hurt through hollow religion at a time of intense grief.  When those who are bereaved are handled by the cold, rough, unyielding hands of hollow religion, the damage can be irreparable.

Two weeks ago, my brother-in-law died in a cycling accident whilst out on an early morning ride with friends.  He leaves behind my wife’s sister and two young children and a huge archive of fabulous memories.  The words said about him at his funeral on Thursday were overwhelming in their honour of his eccentric, generous, joyful, character.  But when we grieve we don’t want memories, we want to turn the clock back and prevent the tragedy, or rush it forwards to resolution.

George’s tragic death has hit my wife and I hard, because of our deep love for him and his family.  We have  been plunged again into the dark wild seas of bereavement and thrown around on it’s turbulent waves.  I’m convinced that we can’t control grief, it buffets us around.

corfu waves2 - 1

I wrote earlier this week about my experiences of grief at NewWine (Grieving-in-a-crowd/) I have had a remarkable response to that and as I’ve reflected further, I have been considering the interaction between grief and religion, linked the the material in my forthcoming book ‘Awakening: from Hollow Religion to Heavenly Relationship.’   Having first drafted this, I’ve had a number of nudges from God and encouragements from people that what I’ve written can help others.  In the midst of my own grief, my passion to rid the church of hollow religion has intensified because when we are grieving, we are at our most resistant to all that’s inauthentic.

I hope what I have written in the book can speak hope and life to those who have been hurt by hollow religion at the most painful times in life. Recognising the contrast between hollow religion and heavenly relationship can help the church to love and not control those who experience intense pain.  This is the first reflection I’ll post on this, with further parts to come.  If you are yourself in a place of grief and bereavement right now, I pray that this can help you.  If you are supporting someone through grief then I pray this can help you to love them effectively.

Hollow Religion tells us what we should believe but in the kingdom we’re invited to know the King, and believe what he says to us.

Through my own experiences and study of grief, I’ve encountered the 5 recognised stages of grief; Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and resolution.  I am convinced that they aren’t linear, we are all different and go through them at different pace, different order and sometimes a few all at once!  Someone could probably tell me what stage I’m in right now and why I’m writing this, but that doesn’t really interest me.

Striding edge - 1One thing that does interest me, is that those who are walking this path are not helped by being controlled or told what to do.   Religion tries to either offer a dogmatic grid to tell people how they should be feeling, or facile answers attempting to rush the process.  Hollow religion isn’t comfortable with death, grief and raw emotion, it’s too messy and dangerous, many religious beliefs are attempting to prop up an ‘everything is awesome’ culture.  As I’ve considered how religion cack-handedly makes a mess of caring for the bereaved, it’s usually because religion wants to pull people through grief too quickly, damaging them on the way, rather than let them encounter God in the midst of the pain.

When we’re grieving we need freedom not regulations, space to be found by God, not information about Him.

That isn’t easy to write, because one of the most painful and challenging parts of grief is that we both experience the depth of engaging encounter with God and the desolation of wilderness feeling separate from him.  In many ways we can’t do much about that, yet grief screams within us that we need to do something to make things right.  Over the past fortnight I’ve once again experienced the troughs and crests of the unyielding waves of grief, one hour bursting with creative ideas and drive, the next crashing into a drained numbness.  One thing I’ve experienced in grief is the restless angst of not knowing what to do with myself. I long for stillness and then crave distraction, all activity loses it’s appeal and yet doing nothing seems worse, I have a jumble of thoughts to bring to God and then find they disappear when I try to pray.

Bereavement card - 1It’s not easy to find God in the midst of the internal chaos, but that’s made worse by the external pressure of religion attempting to meddle in the holy ground of knowing God.

When supporting a bereaved person please, please don’t tread on that holy ground, don’t invade it, don’t try to tell hem why they can’t feel God, don’t give them your tips and techniques to find God, don’t invade their space with your autobiography, however amazing you are! Lovingly pray for them, listen to them and do what you can to offer practical support, to clear space around them, so that they can pause and let God find them.  Let the Holy Spirit do her job, she’s better at it than you!

Religious lies which push God away.

Hollow religion develops when we believe lies about God’s character and start to live at a distance from him, hoping to appease or please him.

A few years ago, I took a funeral of a man in his 40s who had died suddenly, it was a huge crowd.  He and his family and friends had almost no church background, as I prepared my talk, I heard a whisper from the Holy Spirit; “Please tell them that it’s not my fault”.  I could sense God’s pain, that those He wished to comfort were pushing him away and blaming him for the tragedy.  As I delivered the talk, I could feel the tension in the building, a sense of defiance.  As I shared the Bible’s truth I could almost hear the resistance; “How can he dare speak about God when all this is His fault?”  The Holy Spirit enabled me to speak a very clear and simple prophetic message.

“God did not cause this! He is the one who fights with us against death, not the one who makes it happen”.

Death is the enemy, not God.

The New Testament is joyful and triumphant in it’s declaration that death is defeated.

Hollow Religion mixes a cocktail, combining a view of God’s sovereignty based on philosophy not Jesus, with the desire for simple answers and trying to make everything awesome.  It both leaves a foul aftertaste and is hugely unhealthy, don’t drink it!  Trite comments like;

“He does everything for a reason” or “He wanted them in heaven” are both unbiblical and very damaging. – We will not go to the one we are blaming for comfort.

Religion is what we do, when we believe that we are distant from God.

When we walk with God through this process, he leads us through the valley of the shadow of death, besides still waters, through the wilderness and into his presence.  He sets the pace and the rhythm of that journey, let him lead you however long it takes.

Grieving in a Crowd

NWine - 1

[A reflection on my experience of NewWine 2015]

I have just got back from a week at NewWine, with my head and heart stirred, shaken and bursting with raw, creative tensions.  I’m going to abandon my usual care about the internet being ‘in ink not pencil’ and share honestly from my heart.  This blog is more autobiographical than analytical,  I’ve a bunch of reasons to share it, not least to help others reflect on grief and crowds; truth and feelings.

Our NewWine experience this year was totally different.

My wife Nells and I were driving in convoy and turned into a supermarket half an hour from the site, as I got out of the car her face was in a state of total shock.  As a perennially guilty driver with our trailer tent hitched on the back I panicked that I’d crunched another vehicle, the news was far worse.

“George is dead!”

She had literally just heard the news that our brother-in-law had died that morning in a tragic cycling accident.  When horrific news hits you, your world stops, everything goes numb and like many I immediately wanted to do something practical.

We travelled on to NewWine, Nells headed straight off to support her sister and I stayed with our 4 boys and church family and threw myself into the practical challenge of being a single parent camping at a festival, processing immense grief, surrounded by people who were enjoying one of the highlights of their year.

I reflect, it’s what I do, it’s why I write this blog.  I reflect on God, grief and the gospel, I reflect on love, life and loneliness, I reflect on trauma, tragedy and triumph.

Here are a few of my reflections on what was a very unusual week, I pray that they might help others.

Family and friends.

Nells went to be with family, I stayed with friends, I missed her so much.  When we’re hurting we long for intimate connection with those we can most be ourselves with.  I was so blessed that as well as my 4 sons, my sister and her husband were with me at NewWine. I didn’t see them much, but those brief moments of family connection and knowing they were nearby gave me a stability, because their love runs deep and empathy was tangible.  There’s a depth of relationship in healthy family where we can cry, we can be brutally honest, the unedited dark humour which is a by product of my way of processing, doesn’t’ get judged when it spills out inappropriately.  In healthy family, we don’t need to explain ourselves, we are known.

We need family and we need friends. Friends were amazing too.  Our church family and local network of close friends were so immediately supportive, offering practical support, listening and not judging, giving me space and I’m sure praying loads.  Shock and grief can cause us to feel very alone, we want to push others away, but we need deep relationships.  I’m so ridiculously blessed to have amazing, godly, unselfish family and close relationship with them, I was hugely blessed to have them on site.  Not everyone has that, but God places the lonely in families, if they let him.  Build deep, empathetic, listening, caring friendships – they are invaluable when tragedy happens.

Caring for those who grieve.

I didn’t get to many talks or seminars to be honest, for the first few days, I wasn’t really in a place to listen or be motivated and envisioned.  The only seminar I attended was on Job, I’ve just studied it extensively, preached a series on it, and I respect the speaker (Michael Lloyd) – suffering was a subject I could focus on.  The seminar focussed on supporting those with grief and I agreed with every word, about giving space, not blaming God for causing suffering and some other stuff…

The reason for mentioning that, is this: being plunged into a big festival in a state of shock and grief meant that I was surrounded by people, mostly Christian leaders and members of our church family.  I found myself in the position of being a grieving person who needed loving care.

When we’re in shock and grief, we can often detach from our situation and review things differently. I’ll be honest, I stepped out form being ‘Richard in grief’ for a few moments and gave an assessment on the quality of pastoral care I received.  One sad reality of the British church is that we’re experts at critiquing, we seem unable to help ourselves in analysing and finding fault in how ‘those at the front’ do things at big events.  I passionately believe that comparison, criticism and judgement are killing the church, (see my forthcoming book ‘Awakening’ on this) and I confess my own assessment of how ‘well’ others cared for me in the midst of shock.

Here’s my assessment:

The love, care and pastoral support I received from friends and other leaders at NewWine was exceptional, consistent and profoundly encouraging.  The senior leadership of NewWine were all aware of our situation, some of them are friends, others I’ve only met briefly in the past.  They all went out of their way to show love, empathy and just basically be lovely.

No one tried to control me, no one came up with trite, unbiblical nonsense about God, or views of sovereignty based on Greek philosophy not the Biblical revelation of a compassionate God who himself experienced our suffering.  No one tried to find a reason, or make it alright.  Every person I shared our news with, was gentle, honest, gave me space and listened carefully.

This brief highly subjective snapshot of the spiritual health of the NewWine movement and of St.Chad’s church, revealed a beautiful integrity, genuine love and profound grasp of Biblical truth.

Surrounded by joy, struggling with grief.

One of my first thoughts was that it wasn’t going to be easy being in a context of joyful celebration, whilst I was in trauma.  I’ve read the writings and angst of others describing that it’s hard to lament when surrounded by triumph.  In the past year I’ve concluded that I’m an omnivert, I hugely value and crave personal space and I am re-energised by quality time with other people.  I know that many introverts find festivals exhausting, (see Mark Tanner’s excellent book ‘the Introvert Charismatic’).  I didn’t want to be ‘the angel of death’, ruining everyone else’s joy by being around and reminding them of grief and suffering.

In reality, none of that mattered.  As Spirit-filled believers we’re able to rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.  In the crowd, it’s ok to be yourself.  The rawness of my grief meant I stopped caring about what others thought of me and guess what, that enabled others to flourish, to be compassionate, to bear my burdens and be themselves.

Worship is about truth.

Charismatic worship gets flak for being superficial, repetitive or triumphalistic.  That is total and utter godless trash talk and has no place in God’s kingdom!

I found it a bit inconvenient finding a seat in the crowds, (usually late because of the practical responsibility of parenting) I found it a bit awkward worrying whether strangers would be distracted by the weeping bloke and I had all the usual worries about unwashed sweaty arms invading the personal space of strangers.  But I worshipped, I sang, I cried, I raised my arms (and not just in the big choruses after those stirring key changes) and I declared truth about God.  Because the truth about God becomes more real when we are preoccupied with death, eternity, pain and confusion.

NWine - 1 (1)I love loud, dramatic, powerful rock-ballad worship, because the music breaks open my heart to declare truth louder than my feelings.  Our culture tells us that our feelings determine our words and actions, that can be extended to imply it’s disingenuous to sing words of celebration in the midst of pain and grief.  That too is godless trash talk which has no place in God’s kingdom.  The tragedy of George’s death doesn’t mean God stopped being good, doesn’t cancel the truth that God is faithful, powerful and died to bring us life.

I have written 15 reflections on Psalms of lament in the past month. I am so so glad that God encourages us with permission to splurge our feelings honestly without needing to tidy up their theology to impress him.  But the beauty of the Psalms is that they don’t’ get stuck on lament, they express the blunt un-edited pangs of pain and come to land on the life-giving truth of God.

My extremes of grief and crowds this week have been unusual intense and in that whirlwind, I am more convinced than ever of some key truths:  Relationships matter, love gives space and doesn’t control and worship is based on truth not feelings.