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.

The Cross has said it all

Good Friday meditation

I’ve meditated on Jesus death on the Cross this morning and seen the flood of pictures and quotes on social media as we seek to express and celebrate this most wonderful event.  As I’ve done so, it occurred to me that we respond differently.  Psychologists have described us according to 5 archetypes, I’ve found Jim McNeish’s teaching on Bioenergetics hugely helpful in this.

So this is a meditation on the manifold ways we might respond to the cross today.  My hope is that where we recognise ourselves, the truth may sink a little deeper.
Our first group are those who love to escape, our home is the world of ideas, data is our rock, understanding is our language.  How can we handle Good Friday?

The_Way_of_the_Cross_at_sunsetWe look at those silhouettes of Crosses against sunset backgrounds and our first thought is of the technical skill of the photographer (or editor, I wonder what software they used?)

The bleeding of others’ emotions only triggers our guilt, but today we can’t use cynicism to label them as sentimental, we can only yearn to feel like they do.

For us the Cross makes sense of love.  We are justified, its just-as-if we had never sinned.  Guilt gone, dealt with, finished. It brings love alive and into three dimensions.  Now we can understand it.

Meanwhile, the dying saviour slowly demolishes our fear as we encounter perfect love.

 

Our second group: we love to be loved.

Where is it all happening? Who can I talk to? Give me people or I die!

What a night the Last supper must have been! last_supper1b

“Jesus, at supper with his friends…” a meal, a celebration, the coming together of a group of friends and then Jesus loves them, washes their feet, shows them each that they are precious.  Oh to have been there, to have been part of the group, to have been so close, to have had my feet, washed, by him.

But we can hardly cope with the horrors of Good Friday.  It’s…just….too… awful.

The pain, the separation, the desolation of Jesus alone, dragged away by those brutal soldiers, betrayed and rejected.

Yet, he did it for me!  Yes, he died for me! Even if there was no one else, he died to show his love.

He poured out his love and his grace and his mercy and his acceptance, of us!  He paid the price to buy us back, we were worth paying that ransom.

Today as I feel the despair, the loneliness, the darkness and desolation, I begin to feel his arms of love wrapped around me, he did this so that I can know him.

CM Prodigal

Third we meet those of us, who can only describe ourselves as ‘humbled’, by the amazing sacrifice Jesus made.  Today is the time to honour him, to lift high the cross.

We remember Jesus’ words ‘When I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself’.  What a glorious saviour, what an amazing king, the model of true kingship for us.

We celebrate the Cross as the great demonstration of true power.  Darkness defeated, Satan crushed under Jesus’ feet as the curse and the fall are overturned.  Love conquers death, the old reality of self righteousness, replaced by the new reality of grace.  Those crowds who turned on him, his close friends who betrayed him, all turned around by his mercy, his amazing demonstration of a better way to live.Crown

“Crown him, with many crowns” we chant with every breath, exalting the greatest king, the greatest victor; our king, our Lord.

crown2
We bow the knee in surrender to him, grateful to be included in his great purpose of redemption, humbled to be a part of his new kingdom.  Let’s tell the world all about it.
How strange that a crown could hurt.  How would it feel to wear a crown of thorns?  How could he endure that mockery and humiliation?

In stark contrast is our fourth group: those of us who love the suffering servant.

As we clear up the dishes from the Seder meal, we reflect on that amazing moment of washing their feet.  Jesus, the leader, was willing to serve – how beautiful.

wonky wineWe find a discarded bread roll and a half drunk glass of wine, and remember how he took those simple symbols of hospitality and shared about pouring out his life for us.  It all brings back the beauty of Isaiah 53, the one who poured out his life, for me.

He did it in our place.  He stepped in and took the pain for me.  That guilt and shame, the agony, that punishment, he took it instead.  He paid the price, so that we can be free. We are the ones who should have been beaten and nailed to that cross and yet he was, in our place.  We are so sorry that he had to do it for us, so all we can feel is gratitude, he did it, so that we didn’t have to.

He made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a slave and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.

Maybe today, we are allowed to pause, to sit and enjoy that.  It might feel strange, passing through that layer of guilt that we should be doing something for him to say thank you.  But as we sit still, as we let him serve us, even that guilt can be washed away, it’s a delicious taste of freedom.

 

And our final group, are smitten by what love can achieve.

We long for change, we long for connection and we believe that love really can overcome the agony of separation and rejection.

The cross has said it all.  It is the ultimate, the greatest demonstration of love.  Death is defeated, guilt washed away, freedom won, salvation is secured, light overcomes darkness.  What a victory!

But it’s a victory of self sacrifice and powerlessness.  Jesus shows us something that we can all learn from, that victory comes not through a demonstration power, but a choice of powerlessness.  Love wins, through humility, through vulnerability and being willing to soak up the pain for a greater good.

Today we celebrate all that Jesus achieved on that cross.  The great turn around, the fulfilment of prophesy, the moment of breakthrough.

He was punished, for our mistakes.  That is an extraordinary transaction, it hardly seems fair.  Maybe, just maybe it isn’t, and that’s ok, because love is greater.

So which are you?

How do you respond to the Cross?

Which truth today can slowly erode your deepest fears?