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.

IP: You note that ‘To live well in the emptiness of the space in between is a complex thing’. There is a strong sense that you are addressing a series of painful moments in life—exile, wilderness, storm, the pit. Why do you think it is important to face up to these painful experiences? How has that worked in your own life?

MB: I guess I’ve grown to reflect that the church tradition in which I’ve been formed (a mix of evangelical-ness!) hasn’t always equipped me particularly well to deal with painful experiences. I don’t think it’s anything deliberate or intentional, just a desire to focus on the more up-beat and celebratory aspects of faith. Of course, we must celebrate the wonder of God and the triumph of his work of salvation in Christ, in the power of the Spirit. It’s just that there are other tones and moods to our life of faith as well as triumph and victory. Yet when only these can be expressed—whether individually or corporately—we inevitably have to engage in denial, which is deeply unhealthy.

IP: Yet, for those who are rooted in Scripture, there are plenty of resources there to help us face up to painful reality—not least the psalms.

MB: Of course, we all know the model of the psalms as the ultimate ‘school of prayer’ in which the full gamut of human emotion is expressed. There’s just that peculiarity, in my experience, of Bible-believing Christians who omit certain parts of the Bible in their practice—not least the psalms of lament and complaint. I know this is well-rehearsed in lots of places, but I don’t know that it’s always well integrated.

In the most painful parts of my life—such as our wait to conceive our first child, ruptures in significant relationships, the death of my Dad from a brain tumour—it’s become apparent that I haven’t always had the vocabulary or practices to live well in the darker seasons of life. Throughout the book, as well as drawing on biblical resources and the stories of others, I try to be honest about my own experiences in these areas as well.

IP: Each of your chapters has the same structure—considering the Old Testament, the New Testament, historical figures, and contemporary experience of a friend. Why did you decide to explore your themes in this way?

MB: In addition to offering people a way to ‘frame’ the painful and disruptive experiences of life—the metaphors of waiting, exile, desert, storm and pit that form the shape of the book—I wanted to explore how these then resource us to live well within the painful and disruptive moments of life. The stories of Scripture—old and new, and supremely the story of Christ—invite us in to see our lives as part of a far bigger narrative. The church seasons put this story into a calendar that I’ve found more and more helpful to live into as time has gone on. Classic Christian disciplines enable us to put this into practice in the warp and weft of daily life. I think it’s helpful for us to see how others who’ve gone before us in the Christian tradition – that ‘great cloud of witnesses‘ (Hebrews 12:1) – have lived through these difficult times.

Equally, I wanted to give (anonymous) voice to ‘saints’ known to me who have recently gone through, or are still going through, the sorts of experiences being explored in the book. In all these different ways, I think we are blessed with a powerful mindset or worldview for the times when hope can so easily fail, but we are reminded of being part of something so much bigger than ourselves.

IP: Which parts of this kind of reflection did you find the most rewarding, and which the most challenging?

MB: The most challenging part was in making choices as to what to put in and what to leave out. When you start to think about it, just as with our own lives I believe, so much of the Bible is situated in the ‘in-between’, in one way or another. The most rewarding part was receiving the story of close friends that I invited to share their experiences, anonymously. I felt, and feel, so moved at their faithfulness and the ways in which they have known and been shaped by the grace of God when life has been at its most painful.

These are stories we don’t normally hear, because they’re too painful to share on a Sunday morning. But we need to hear them, and others like them—particularly those that don’t fit the natural arc of the ‘ideal testimony’.

IP: How has writing this book shaped your own life and ministry?

MB: It’s certainly deepened my sense of compassion for people, and I’ve sought to become more attentive in pastoring to the variety of pains and struggles that we all go through, in the pandemic and beyond. People have written to me so movingly about how the theme of the book has resonated with them—for example, a lady coming to terms with the grief of her husband after fifty years of marriage; a woman whose partner had a heart attack and then a quadruple bypass; an ordained minister working through the pain of a role that came to an end abruptly and painfully.

One of the things I’ve tried to grow in as a pastor and a preacher is a greater sharing of myself in appropriate vulnerability. At the same time as I sometimes experience ‘imposter syndrome’ in my role, there’s the simple reality that others assume an apparent impregnability to my faith because I have a dog-collar around my neck. People have shared for, example, how helpful it has been to them when I’ve talked about my own experiences of my Dad’s illness and death. Truth is propositional but it is also emotional as well.

IP: And how has it deepened your own faith, and your own reading of Scripture?

MB: Reading and researching for the book made me realise again the vital importance of the Psalms—all the Psalms!—in my life of prayer and worship. I’d written essays on this in college, but discovering it afresh has led me to integrate it much more fully into my life. I’m trying to get to a regular pattern where I pray (even sing!) all 150 Psalms each month. This is a work-in-progress at present. I’ve found it’s much easier to write a book than to fully live out all the things you’re encouraging others to do!

Ultimately, though, writing the book has renewed in me a confidence in the gospel—in the power of the cross and the hope of the resurrection—not as some abstract truth, but as an embodied reality that holds us and sustains us and carries us even, especially, in the most painful moments of life. Truly, as Betsie ten Boom was able to say, remarkably, about Ravensbrück concentration camp, ‘there is no pit so deep that he is not deeper still’. I can share testimony, along with others, of how God’s grace enables us not just to ‘survive’ these spaces between, but to be molded and shaped by them, so as to be formed ever more into his likeness. Jacob can speak for all in a ‘space between’ when he exclaimed: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it’ (Gen. 28:16).

Mark Bradford is the vicar at St Cuthbert’s Fulwood in Preston and Assistant Diocesan Director of Vocations for the Diocese of Blackburn. Before ordained ministry, he was a secondary school teacher in Harrogate, North Yorkshire. He is married with three children. You can follow him on Twitter at @mark_bradford

The Space Between: the disruptive seasons we want to hide from, and why we need them is published by the Bible Reading Fellowship (BRF) and is available in both online and in-person book shops.

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6 thoughts on “How does God speak to us in our in moments of pain and loss?”

  1. Often God draws close, sometimes God gives us space. Grief and bereavement can sometimes take years to process and work through. God may give us nearness in the ‘now’, and just hold us when words and thoughts are impossible to vocalise. That’s if we’re even ready to be held. But very often, grief and loss are a journey – sometimes a long journey – and healing is rarely overnight.

    What we do know about God is that we will be loved and accompanied all along that journey, and other things in life may slowly heal the parts where we are desolate, inconsolable, and empty.

    I’m sure there are no simple words. I always associate mercy with healing, but it’s sometimes very very hard to see mercy in a pitiful death. There has to be space for anger. And also, sometimes we may emotionally freeze to try to avoid the pain, and we may even freeze God out.

    In such circumstances, I think God sometimes then comes at us from different angles and other things in our life, to remind us again of goodness, of kindness in other situations. God is very very patient, an very protective, longing to protect us and comfort us, but often this takes time and a journey, and often I think God knows that we need space.

    Everyone grieves in their own way, so there’s no single solution or template for how God will help us. As a nurse, I have accompanied patients and their loved ones in some harrowing circumstances. At the end of shifts I have sometimes quarreled with God about the sheer pitiful sorrow and suffering. But I do not doubt that God is there, and sometimes you know that in a mystery: God’s drawing close, a family’s drawing close, a sanctity somewhere there in the heart of helplessness and pitiful intensity.

    It’s hard to define all this in words, unsurprisingly. In hospital I’ve often found that it isn’t words that are needed: it’s just alongsideness and practicality.

  2. Susannah, I disagreed quite strongly with your views on a recent comment. I didn’t express my disagreement. Here I think you say a great deal that is right and helpful.

    I struggle with depression. Its root seems to involve a real absence of emotional and mental energy but this manifests itself in all kinds of emotional pain. I seek to trust. Sometimes this is relatively easy and I can know peace and yes a joy in the Lord. Many times it has not been so easy. Emotions and thoughts get in the way. Nevertheless I have discovered trusting is the only way of peace and joy. The only way forward. I often say ‘God is good’ and often can say no more.

    • Thank you for the raw honesty of your response, John. I agree with what you say about trust, though I know trust can sometimes feel more like a tenuous thread. Thankfully, the God we try to hang on to in the darker times, the God we look to because of trust built up from better times… is unchanging and faithful and tender, though we may feel numb to that tenderness at times. At times when it seems impossible to see the light at the end of the tunnel… in those times I think we may only hold on because although we can’t see it, we believe that God holds us, loves us, even if we can’t feel anything.

      I have also known very dark times, and exactly as you put it: “all kinds of emotional pain”. At very difficult times, I found I numbed some areas of emotions because I couldn’t handle my distress – it was just too raw – and at times I turned pain in on myself, just to feel something, anything at all. We all have different ways of trying to cope. In my case it involved self-harm.

      I had a three month worst period when I felt desperately abandoned, and it was the time I really felt hopeless depression. That had never been my temperament before, but when the dark time came I was very nearly overwhelmed. Yet somehow, what saved me was a sense of God holding me, like a child… holding me so close. And it wasn’t some magic moment, it was a journey, but through that time, my trust, my faith, and life came through to better places.

      I do think many do try to hold on to that *trust* in God, and I do believe God sees us in our distress, and longs to draw close, but knows there’s a time, and for a while we may not even feel that closeness and tender love, and yet may hang on to trust that, because of the compassion of God, it’s there somewhere, and we’re known right where we are (with all the mess of pain) and we are loved immeasurably, but we just can’t ‘feel’ it.

      I know these are just words. I pray God, seeing your fidelity and your inclination to trust along the journey of your life, may give you grace and tenderness… and grant us times when once again we know and feel God’s promise to give us… hope and a future. God bless you, John – and thank you for sharing. As Christians we are not all supermen and women. Your honesty may help others to realise it’s not just them. In fact, very many people suffer much because of depression at certain times of their lives. We don’t all admit it though.

      In part, it’s being human. It’s not all easy in life. I certainly haven’t found it so. But I do trust in the grace and goodness of God. There are some things we can’t undo in life, and speaking for myself there are some things I bitterly regret. But I thank God for mercy and I thank God for bringing me through storms, and all the unexpected little blessings that may still lie ahead, and new hopes and goodness, many of them unexpected. God bless you John.


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