God on Mute: When God seems absent

I’ve been reading God on Mute for Lent, which ended at the weekend. There is much in the book that has both challenged me and opened my mind to understanding unanswered prayer in ways I’d never considered before. The book looks at various reasons why God might not appear to answer our prayers – in the time we want, the way we want or why we want them.

What is clear is that, even when he is silent, God hears our every prayer. Every song, praise, outpouring and simple ‘Jesus’ or ‘God bless’, He hears it all, but answering all those prayers the way we expect is quite a different matter.

I wanted to reflect on Chapters 10 and 11 from the book, Exploring and Engaging the Silence, which explores why, at times, God might choose to be silent. I don’t mean listening to prayer and answering it later or in a different way, but actually withdrawing from intervening in our lives.

When Jesus became an atheist
This part of the book reflects on the theme of Easter Saturday, a holy day that is vastly overlooked and understated. Easter Saturday is the time when Jesus was dead. When God was silent for him and for the world. He went down into death like any other person. God was gone.

Jesus, effectively, became an atheist. The resurrection was to follow, he knew that, but he also knew he had to go through the pain of Saturday. The Saturday expressed the despair and utter hopelessness of death without God, without heaven, without love. Nothing. It was a period of agonising waiting. In many ways, we are all now living this Saturday, while we wait for the joy, peace and grace of tomorrow’s paradise. It’s a concept I often reflect on in my grief.

Jesus cried out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ as he was dying. Words also written in the Psalms (Psalm 22:1. 16-18). Not only did he feel the physical and emotional pain of all sin, but even worse, the total absence of God, his father. Jesus’ words expressed the feelings we all feel at times – of doubt and a collapse of faith. Yet, at his hour of most need, his father had to step back.

I just read this moving article by Joey Feek’s husband about how in the months leading up to her death she painfully but determinedly distanced herself from her young daughter in order for her daughter to create a stronger bond with her husband, which would benefit both her daughter and her husband in their grief after her death. You can only imagine the strength it took for her to do that when every fibre of her being would want to hold her child every minute until she couldn’t anymore. God felt this too, as he left his son to die, yet He knew it had to be this way. We, even 2000 years on, still find it hard – with our human minds – to fully comprehend this seeming deliberate withdrawal of love.

Growing into spiritual maturity
What challenged me was what the author, Peter Greig, describes as moving on from the ‘infatuation’ with God to a mature relationship with Him.
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If God is so good, why do we ignore Him?

Something that’s always bothered me is why some humans believe in God and others don’t. Where did it go wrong? We are I believe mostly good people, trying to raise our families and live our lives well, so if God was so instrumental to this why aren’t the churches packed with worshippers?

Since diving full on into a life with Christ, my Bible reading has ramped up and I relish learning more about God and Jesus. It really is true that the more you read, the deeper your faith grows. But… if someone told me this a few years ago, I would have been more than a little sceptical.

Like many, I would have thought:”Yeah right, they only want to brainwash me with their religion. Who has time to read the Bible when there is so much else to do? Give me OK magazine any day! And why go to church? If God loves us all, He’ll know I’m fine as I am and will love me whether I bother or not. We’re not all meant to be pious martyrs!’

Yep, pretty cynical and, if I’m honest, I was brushing it off because I didn’t have time in my life for God, I didn’t find church very exciting, I didn’t understand much of it, I’d had some bad experiences and I simply wasn’t ‘holy’ enough… so I just didn’t go there.

I considered myself, for most of my life, to be a Christian (of sorts), someone who (mostly) believed in God and felt a sense of something special when I went into a church (which became more as a tourist or spectator). I’d look at Christians and feel a bit envious that they had something I didn’t, that depth of faith that I seemed to be lacking, yet also I’d be very wary of them….

But all that changed when my daughter died and I found God waiting patiently for me.

Just as an atheist struggles to understand why anyone would believe in God, once you have experienced God you look at people who haven’t and wonder why. Why don’t they feel this? Why don’t they see what you see? They are missing out on so much deep joy! It really does make you want to spread the Word!

But the thing is, people don’t want to be saved.

Right from the beginning, Genesis, since the Fall (yes, I totally believe all that about Adam and Eve) we have turned away from God. God gave us free will, which in the main we love and make use of, but it means He won’t interfere to turn our hearts towards Him. He’s no wish-granter, but it’s a bit like the idea of a genie where you can have whatever you wish for but he can’t make you love someone, including himself.

And early in Genesis, we start doing our own thing and losing touch with the creator. So much so that God sends the flood to wipe the earth clean! Then, in Exodus, God is obviously involved with his people and communicates to them through Moses and others and numerous signs. Time and again they go to him then it’s not long before they seem to forget. Forget how powerful and loving he is. Forget the creator! If he’s not there, right there, performing miracles or some other wondrous act, he’s forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind! And just like children, once we are left to our own devices we usually get up to no good!

I imagine it to feel, to Him, the same way we do when our children grow up, gain independence and not need us any more. Some children stick around and keep in contact with their parents, often or occasionally. Others don’t. In God’s case, many of his children have said, ‘See you later Dad, we can do it by ourselves, that is, until we need something so we’ll pop back just in case you can help, or we’ll blame you for everything and never speak to you again!’

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Guest post: Born sleeping – 10 years of missing Amy

I’m sharing this post on behalf of a lovely friend, Louise, who lost her first child, Amy, 10 years ago. Louise has offered me much emotional support since my own loss and I have been inspired by her strength. Please read and appreciate the years of love and loss in these words and images.

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Thursday, 17th March 2016, marks the 10th anniversary of the death and birth of our daughter, Amy. She was stillborn at 39 weeks, following a textbook pregnancy, and with no logical explanation.

Having happily carried her for nine months, to then endure labour and birth knowing there would be no positive outcome is certainly the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I truly hope never to surpass it. I know, my husband, Jason feels similarly about having to helplessly watch it happen.

It took me a long time to begin to face my grief, but even in my darkest days I started to write about it. This poem took me years to complete (and I am still editing it as I re-read it!) but I thought, a decade on, I might dare to share it.

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Losing Amy

“It’s not there, sweetie”.
Those words I’ll never forget.
The words of a consultant,
Searching for a heartbeat,
So strong for nine whole months,
That now had ceased to be.

Disbelief so whole,
And pain so numbing.
We held onto each other, as our world collapsed.
To leave that room was to accept it.
I couldn’t move.
I kept repeating, “NO!”

I had felt so joyful,
As I nurtured our first child within.
I had taken great care,
And yet our daughter, Amy,
Our little ‘Bean’,
Was born sleeping.

Although so cold,
Her skin was soft,
As it should have been.
We caressed her face, her perfect hands,
And took our birth day photographs
Of our precious girl.

I felt broken.
So sad and lost.
I gave birth to her
And yet I didn’t feel like a mother.
I treasured the memory of her kicks.
Poor Daddy had nothing to remember.

Three years passed and, despite two beautiful sons,
I was feeling desperate.
I had confined Amy’s photographs to a box
my grief alongside them.
But now the lid was about to blow.
I was losing control.

I reached out for help
And someone grabbed my hand.
Rachel. A bereavement counsellor.
A rock to cling to in the whirlpool of grief.
She helped me find my way out of the dark
And I am so thankful.

Ten years on and my grief persists.
Sometimes it washes over me like a wave.
Occasionally, it still bends me double with its force.
But I don’t attempt to control it now.
I accept it has a place in my life
And our darling Amy, a place in my heart.

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We sadly know we are not alone in our experience and were thankful for the support given by SANDS (the Stillbirth and Neonatal Death charity). Their work provides an essential resource to grieving parents, so if you would like to donate in Amy’s or any other baby’s memory they would welcome any support. Please click this link https://www.uk-sands.org/donate Thank you. x

A picture of health

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This is a picture of Abi and me on holiday in about 2011. I love the health and happiness radiating from BOTH of us in this picture. Of course, there was never any sign that Abi would have a brain haemorrhage two years later but what struck me when I saw this was not Abi particularly, but me. This is how I remember Abi, but it’s not what I think of when I see me.

While I was never overweight, I had worked hard to get myself fit after having three children. I was caring about myself for the first time and it shows. I felt confident, happy in my own skin, mentally calm…

Since Abi died, I feel like a bleak shadow of that former me. My skin appears greyer, my eyes tired, my fingernails are chewed and sore, my body unfit and neglected…

I stopped exercising as it brought on palpations when my anxiety took over. I didn’t see the point in loving myself anymore. I failed my daughter, why should I care about myself?

I am now tied into a pattern of compulsive eating, because food is my only comfort. I’ve gained weight (obviously being pregnant twice in 3 years has something to do with that!). I’m not one to worry about my weight but I know my pattern of behaviour is not healthy, physically or mentally. It’s almost self-destructive. It’s a common trait of the bereaved.

I posted on my faith blog, By His Light, yesterday about how I mourn so much harder when life is tough. When there is illness, overwork, stress and anxiety. When parenting challenges me to my core and being fair or consistent goes out of the window. I feel more tearful as the pressures mount and miss Abi terribly.

I withdraw at times like this… because I need the solace. I want to build a wall around myself where I can just hide under a duvet and wallow… for a while, until it passes. I don’t want others to see this vulnerable me, I want them to see only the me I know… and like.

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Of course, I can’t do that. I have three children to look after, a home and business to run. A husband who needs his wife to keep it together. A baby growing inside me who needs to be nurtured.

So I turn to food as my pick-me-up, several times a day. It helps for the briefest moment so I’m back again in an hour or so. I feel excited by food. Yet I’m starting to feel the discomfort of the weight (not least the baby pressing on my lungs)… I suppose it represents, physically, the emotional weight of grief.

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Breathe deeply in faith

I’ve realised that it doesn’t take much these days to break me. I always mourn my daughter harder when life feels tough…illness, sleep deprivation, anxieties, parenting challenges all set to chip away at my weary soul.

Women, mothers, hold up so much. We carry so much burden to alleviate the physical and emotional burden on others. We keep things ticking. Our minds work at a thousand paces. Yet we are human too.

I pray for patience then sin with words. I pray for peace then sin with angry thoughts. I feel I should be more. Be calmer, milder, more accepting but that only seems to create the opposite as I fail to live up to my own expectations. I’m not happy with my behaviour. I beat myself up. I’m irritable. And perhaps worst of all, I feel desperately alone. Pressures God knows I don’t need.

Today, I prayed a psalm of thanks which fell open in my Bible. I then prayed for God’s help, again. My prayers feel selfish but I poured it out to God in the brief moment I had without a child’s demands. I opened my Lent book, God on Mute, by Peter Greig, and read this quote…  Yet again I realise that, in prayer, I don’t need to search too far or for too long to find comfort and guidance just to…

…breathe deeply in faith.

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A Christian funeral

I attended a funeral this week of an inspiring lady from my church, ‘D’. Her death, while expected in some ways due to the leukaemia that had taken over her body, was a shock to her family and friends nonetheless.

She and her husband are both committed Christians and have done a lot for the church in their lifetime. However, the funeral wasn’t so much about their depth of faith, but was about how ‘D’ had lived her life and the impressions she made on people. We learned how she was the kind of woman to make the most of every day. How she was always challenging herself. How she used her creative talents to benefit others. How she was involved in community work and selflessly reached out to support young and old. All the while raising two children and being a dedicated wife, grandmother and homemaker. She had lived a life many of us aspire to, but did so without self-congratulation or pride, but humbly and modestly, and with an awesome dose of humour! She dealt with her illness with great courage and dignity.

It spoke volumes that the church was full of mourners and there was standing room only for some. While not originally from our village, all ages and people from all her life attended. A testament to who she was. A much-loved person who gave more love in return. I had only known her relatively briefly, a few years, and we socialised at church events. But there was much about my own relationship with her that made me feel a connection to her and such sorrow at her death.

She first introduced herself to me at the first church service I attended after my daughter’s funeral. This kind-faced couple approached me and she told me how they knew something of our loss, as they had lost their eldest grandchild in similarly sudden and unexpected circumstances at a similar age to Abi (who was 12 when she died). Ever since, they always made a point to say hello or to have a chat whenever they saw me. While there were periods where I didn’t see them for a while, I felt welcomed as an instant friend and there was a genuine sense of care and love about them.

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The expectations of a grieving mother on special days

Now that Mother’s Day has passed, I feel I can exhale. I have a little more breathing space (until Father’s Day which is another tough one). I posted on Facebook yesterday about how hard I find the run of ‘special (bloody) days’ I face. It feels like I’m charging at each one like it’s a brick wall and, by Mother’s Day, I simply go splat!

If I’m honest, I have always found ‘special days’ difficult. As an introvert who doesn’t like ‘fuss and nonsense’ I have developed an association with attention on me being difficult. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like letting my guard down. Difficult perhaps because I don’t like showing my emotions. Difficult perhaps because I’m simply protecting myself from disappointment or hurt…

My childhood, brought up in poverty, was still a good life and we appreciated what we had, but it doesn’t create much sense of anticipation either. Never expecting much, trying to ignore what others have that you don’t, being more thankful for a simple homemade cake than a big party and fuss, keeping a lid on your emotions…. It’s a humbling existence, which I’m not complaining about as I’d much rather have this than be the type of person to cry into my drink because I didn’t get the handbag I wanted.

Unfortunately, as a result, I find myself being irritable and grumpy on special days. I will brush off well wishes and shush people who try to be nice to me. It’s not something I’m proud of at all and I do try to be more open to accept love from others, even my husband and children, but it’s always with a tinge of feeling uncomfortable and wanting it all to be over! I will find myself deliberately busying myself with chores just to avoid the feeling that I must ‘sit down and be Queen for a day’. I clearly have no idea how to be kind to myself!

As I’ve got older and a heck of a lot wiser, I’ve realised I’m not a bad person for being like this. I’m just not the type of person to court attention or expect a big fuss. So, with any special day like my birthday or Mother’s Day I almost ‘vant to be alone’… as Greta Garbo once said.

The expectations of performing a role or being some kind of ‘perfect’, special person make me cringe. For me, rather than feel awesome, days like these always remind me of my failings… of actually not being a ‘perfect’ mother, or not being the ‘perfect’ wife. And then I make myself feel worse as I’m irritated at not throwing myself into it and enjoying some much-needed attention! Attention I know, deep down, I do deserve but just can’t cope with.

Recently, I’ve come down hard on my older children (disciplining your other children after you’ve lost a child is an emotional nightmare, but it’s proven to be essential and worthy of a whole other post, like this one).

I’ve been unpopular. I’ve heard my name shouted and horrible words said in anger. I’ve beaten myself up as I feel tired and emotional, always trying to hold it together yet always managing to give way to my frustration, all the while trying to work out if I’m disciplining as a caring parent or just taking out my grief on them. Failing, failing, failing….

Of course, I’m not really failing, but since Abi died, the expectations of special days adds yet more pressure to me.

Now it’s the same but harder still, as I feel the expectations of grief on these days, as well as on Abi’s special days. I want to hide from the world and get stressed about how I’m feeling. Due to how I am, I know it’s no one’s pressure but mine. I clearly like to beat myself up!

This Mother’s Day was tricky but also revealed a lot to me about why I am the way I am and what I am thankful for – and hence inspired this reflective post.

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Having the courage to believe

This week, I attended my 8-year-old son’s parents’ evening. Like many parents at this time of year, I was keen and somewhat nervous to see how he was getting on.

In the past, before my eldest child died, I was guided a lot by the grades my children achieved. Abi, my eldest child, always did very well. Effortlessly getting good grades due to her natural affinity to the school system and learning. My second child was similar; a good all rounder with a creative flair. My son has found learning at school harder to adjust to. As one of the youngest in his class, he was at a slight disadvantage to his peers. He’s bright enough and loves maths, but he’s not keen on writing or reading in a structured way. He tends to worry about getting things wrong and will simply ‘switch off’ when he can’t handle something. Yet he’s happy and his confidence in himself is growing all the time.

When Abi died, my perspective on many things changed. Everything seemed insignificant… of course it was… but it was such a big thing to adjust to that no one warned me about. I suddenly didn’t know what to care about anymore. But as their routines didn’t stop, I needed to somehow find a way to continue to support my children’s schooling. Our children need to see that we care about all the things they do.

Three years on, I’m in a fairly happy place with this now; my focus centres on my children’s overall happiness and wellbeing. The grades don’t really matter. Clearly, I see the value of learning essentials such as English and mathematics, but I’m not fussed about them achieving the ever-pressured targets set by the government. I firmly believe in a rounded education that includes sports, arts, faith, hobbies and just plain old having fun.

It was something the teacher said that struck me the most about his progress. He was sat at a table with his peers and they were talking about God and Jesus. Everyone except my son said they didn’t believe in Him, they made jokes about Jesus and giggled about it. It wasn’t a deep theological debate this was just 8-year-olds having a chat. But my son went against their opinions and admitted he believed in God, and he said this with simple and honest courage in his convictions. The teacher noticed this and commented on it to us.

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