How does God speak to us in our in moments of pain and loss?

Mark Bradford is the vicar at St Cuthbert’s Fulwood in Preston, and I knew him from his ordination training at the college where I taught. He has written a fascinating book, The Space Between, reflecting on how God speaks to us and shapes us in those difficult times when things are not going right or in the way we expected. I had the opportunity to ask him about these issues, as well as his approach to ministry and writing.

IP: This is not your first book! What led you into writing, and how do you find time in the midst of the demands of pastoral ministry?

MB: As with many aspects of vocation, I think God often leads you in directions you don’t expect at the time and can only make sense of looking back. I was a curate at Holy Trinity Ripon and wanted to offer the church a ‘Lent course’ in 2013. For a few different reasons, the timings didn’t work out and the ‘Lent course’ became a ‘Resurrection course’! We spent the season of Easter looking at the post-resurrection encounters of Jesus with the disciples. The course went down well and a few remarked, ‘you should turn it into a book!’ Eventually, I decided there was no harm in making enquiries and, to my surprise, a door opened with the Bible Reading Fellowship to turn the course into a book, which was published in January 2016: Encountering the Risen Christ: From Easter to Pentecost: the message of the resurrection and how it can change us.

I enjoy writing and have grown to appreciate the art of it, the more I have practised it. I guess you always make time for the things you sense you are called to do. In curacy, I was able to turn my Thursday ‘study day’ into a ‘writing day’ for a few months and write the draft of the book. I’ve found that incumbency affords less time than I had during curacy! To write The Space Between, I needed a lot of early mornings. I’d hoped to do a PhD at college and a German professor I met as a potential supervisor shared with me how he saw research and writing as an almost ‘monastic’ sort of calling. That’s always stuck with me.

IP: That is fascinating. I have found the same since focussing on writing from 2013; starting early is essential! And I agree with you that writing is like a muscle; the more you do, the easier it gets.

As you note, it seemed particularly appropriate to be writing much of a book about the ’spaces in between’ during lockdown! But what was it that led you to think about these themes in the first place?

MB: I was walking in Yorkshire Sculpture Park on a day off towards the end of curacy, and read one of the plaques about ‘liminality’. It set my mind thinking about the ‘in-between’, disruptive, or ‘liminal’ seasons of life, in which an ‘ending’ has taken place (for example, a loss of role, place, purpose, or loved one) but we’ve not yet arrived at a ‘new beginning’. I began to think about all the stories in Scripture that take place in the ‘in-between’—for example, the call of Moses, the desperation of Abraham and Sarah for a child, Jacob’s divine encounter at Bethel—and it made me realise that, as much as we so often long for comfort and security, much of our lives are spent in ‘spaces between’, where things are so often painful and confusing. I came to reflect on the different metaphors that Scripture and the Christian tradition has used for the ‘in-between’ spaces in our lives—the time of waiting, the place of exile, the desert, the storm, the pit—and these became the chapters of the book.

IP: How did these ideas connect with the realities of life and your own pastoral experience?

MB: As I shared the idea of ‘the space between’ with friends, they fed back how much it resonated with them, especially those able to draw on painful experiences from the past or the present. They spoke of how it gave them a way of framing those experiences and ‘putting them on the map’, without offering glib and shallow answers that are merely ways of avoiding the pain. This offered them hope that they weren’t alone and that with Christ there was a way through that could be imagined, even if it couldn’t be glimpsed in the present moment.

What can the material world teach us about God?

Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church, London, based in Catford and part of the NewFrontiers network of churches. His doctoral research was on the paradox of affirmation and rebuke in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which I reviewed here. He has just published a fascinating book of reflections on the material world, God … Continue Reading

What does poetry bring to theology?

Occasional contributor to the blog, Dr Richard Briggs (Cranmer Hall, Durham) has just published a new book that is a little different from his usual style. Intrigued, I was able to ask him about it. IP: Richard, you’ve written a book of poetry! RB: Yes I have. It’s called Not of this Worldview, and it … Continue Reading

Did Christianity make the West?

Savvas Costi writes: It’s been almost a year and a half since historian Tom Holland released his book, Dominion; The Making of the Western Mind. Since then, there seems to have been something of an influx of interviews and articles relating to the enduring influence of Christianity, or at least the need for it in … Continue Reading

Why is Western culture so WEIRD?

Peter Wyatt writes: Working as a minister in an outer urban estate for almost ten years often creates questions: why do some people ignore you whilst others are warm and friendly? Why do some people seem open and others closed? Why is mission more fruitful with those who are on the edge of things rather than … Continue Reading

How do we make sense of this cultural moment?

Dr Philip Jenson offers a review article on Carl R. Trueman, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2020). At the end of 2020 Carl Trueman published a book that tells the story of an inexorable and irreversible cultural shift that … Continue Reading

What were the early Christian communities like?

Dr Tim Murray offers this review article of Group Survival in the Ancient Mediterranean: Rethinking Material Conditions in the Landscape of Jews and Christians by Richard Last and Philip Harland: Imagining the Early Church Both academics and pastors are frequently required to reconstruct ‘what it was like’ in the early church to make sense of the New … Continue Reading

What can we learn from the history of the Bible?

All through this week, at 9.45 each morning, Radio 4 is playing abridged excerpts from Professor John Barton’s book The History of the Bible. I have found it quite a mixed bag, with some helpful and interesting insights on the one hand, but also including some unhelpful and skewed opinions expressed as objective assessments (which they are … Continue Reading