Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

Living in apocalyptic times: Reality, grief and hope                        

   from the Tragedy and Congregations team,


As the pandemic continues to unfold around the globe, it may be helpful to think about how we are living in apocalyptic times. The word apocalypse means an uncovering or revealing. When a collective trauma happens, it is common for it to be closely followed by disturbing revelations of other traumatising realities. It is as though the lid of Pandora’s Box is lifted and all kinds of things fly out. A minister is found to have engaged in misconduct and it is revealed that the treasurer has fiddled the books. The world is hit by a pandemic and the killing of George Floyd ignites a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement around the world.

Covid-19 has revealed (and reminded us) of much: the interconnected nature of life on earth, a shameful hierarchy of value among human beings, the benefit to the earth of us pausing our activities, the vulnerability of certain groups of people, the ache of loneliness and lack of human touch….the list goes on.

Old Testament scholar and wise man Walter Brueggemann, reflecting on the impact of the destruction of Jerusalem in 587BCE, observes that in times of cataclysm there are three urgent prophetic tasks: to face into reality, to grieve the losses, and to foster hope. In that order. I would argue that these are not just prophetic but also pastoral and priestly tasks.

Reality: What is revealed is real – pay attention to it. The veil has been torn and the scales fall from our eyes. What is revealed may set the course for our future ministry together.

Grief: Grief is the antidote to denial. The Bible testifies to the power of lamentation. Name the losses (lost health, lost loved ones, lost innocence, lost ease of being in the world, lost time…). Grieve them. Or notice how your current emotional state is actually one of grieving.

Hope: Grief also opens the way to authentic hope. Not the hope that everything will be OK or go back to normal, but the sure knowledge that God is working God’s purposes out amidst the chaos and pain. God is not done with us. We can rely on that. We hope for a new normal which manifests the commonwealth of God among us.

Those familiar with the myth of Pandora may recall that the last thing left in the box is Hope. The thing with feathers (Emily Dickinson). That orientation of the spirit that transcends the world and is anchored beyond its horizons (Vaclav Havel).  That which does not disappoint us because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us (Romans 5:1-5).

Fierce with reality, unafraid to shed a tear and with hope in our rucksacks, we press on……

Carla A. Grosch-Miller with Christopher Southgate and Hilary Ison

            22 July 2020


Resources: Walter Brueggemann (2014) Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.); and (2020) Virus as a Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Uncertainty (Eugene OR: Cascade Books).

Carla Grosch-Miller’s ‘Lifelines’

Carla Grosch-Miller’s collection Lifelines (Canterbury Press), 978-1-78662-234-3.

I have kept company with this book most mornings for the last couple of months. It is a trustworthy book – by which I mean that the poet’s evident zest for life and love is discovered in and through struggle, and the griefs of the deaths of her brother, mother and father. This is no easy appeal to goodness or to joy, but material won out of and beyond bitterness of experience.

The book begins with a long section tracking the church’s year. Unlike Malcolm Guite’s fine sonnet sequence Sounding the Seasons (also Canterbury) the verse here is free and colloquial, but insight is always breaking through. On ‘Christmas Morn’ we are described as ‘complicated dust’. In ‘Bent over’ an old woman is ‘looking to the time/when I shall be emptied of all but love’.

Indeed Grosch-Miller is very strong on the beauty of old age, extraordinarily evoked in one of the early grief poems of the second half of the book. ‘I saw beauty in the fragility/of her shrinking shoulders… Saw it in her thick thighs and pretty feet/the pixelated skin of her ankles and shins.’

Beyond the grief section comes Carla’s own struggle with faith: ‘It slips between my fingers/this faith that once sustained me./The graceful cup I make with my hands/prefers emptiness now,/the kiss of wind,/the memory of water.’ Here are poems that will speak to many who find themselves in a place of emptiness. And poems of the resolution that keeps on keeping on – ‘I will walk to church today’ (‘Sunday morning’), and is surprised by grace. ‘Grace is grace. It comes… I pray that each heartbreak to come will/crack the stone/and allow more Love to seep in.’ And always the honesty, the accuracy of tone, as in ‘Psalm for the Dead’, and the ‘Mother’s Day Prayer’ which balances a prayer for vigour in giving birth with a prayer for courage in facing death.

The book relents, towards the end, and offers us less intense, if no less wise, poems from a walk on St Cuthbert’s Way. Good prayers for any pilgrim, from one whose own journey has given her the right to pray ‘Receive the full weight of my being/Read the tilt of my body as a leaning into you/Render my soul to be fit for heaven on earth’.

So I commend those drawn to this website, by acquaintance with or interest in tragedy, to consider this remarkable book – which would be a true and giving companion on their journey of exploration.

Christopher Southgate

July 2020

We are offering a course for groups of ministers on Zoom

Trauma-informed Ministry

in a time of COVID


delivered by the Tragedy and Congregations Team


The Revd Dr Carla Grosch-Miller

The Revd Hilary Ison

Professor Christopher Southgate


Since 2017 the team has delivered 20 training days in various settings for Anglican and URC groups. We have provided a range of resources as the COVID crisis has unfolded.

We now offer half-day Zoom meetings with groups of 12 ministers. These will provide:

  • opportunities to articulate experience of the COVID crisis
  • a chance to make connections between these reactions and trauma theory
  • explorations of the dynamics of communities after a tragedy
  • biblical resources for addressing our current situation

To book one or more meetings please contact Chris Southgate at

We normally ask a contribution of £100 per meeting towards staff costs. Please let us know if this extent of contribution is a problem. To see more of the group’s work, look at the project book Tragedies and Christian Congregations: a practical theology of trauma (Routledge, 2019). This is also available from Professor Southgate (£30 p&p).

This project has received funding from the Templeton World Charities Foundation Inc., and is now in receipt of a grant from the Garfield Weston Foundation (in association with Sarum College).

easing out of lockdown?

Easing out of Lockdown – what next?


At the beginning of lockdown in this coronavirus pandemic, the Tragedy and Congregations team offered a short document on ‘Thoughts for Ministers in the first phase of the coronavirus crisis’…s-crisis-deepens/ ‎

which is still worth revisiting for the information on trauma reactions.

Stress is exhausting

15 weeks on, as we begin to ease out of lockdown, I wonder what your reaction was to the news that churches could open again for private prayer and then for public worship at the beginning of July? If the Twitter-sphere is anything to go by then it is, as would be expected, a very mixed experience, with some really glad and able to be back in church again, and others more cautious or unable to open up for various reasons. But whatever your situation, just coping with the experience of the past 15 weeks will have been exhausting on a personal and professional level, as well as psychological and emotional. The stress reaction to a crisis is fuelled by the release of adrenalin to help us respond as best we can. But that stress response is only meant to last for a short time to deal with an immediate event – not 3 months and counting! It will be in our bodies as well as our minds that we will be registering the effects of this.

Take time out

In a recent poll of clergy in the Diocese of London, it emerged that 72% had not had any time off since lockdown began. It’s understandably been really difficult to take time out during lockdown but it is vital for ministers and church members to take time out over the summer, whatever that will look like. Your whole brain-body needs to rest and allow the nervous system to reset before ploughing on to the next phase of this crisis. Self care is vital if we are in this for the long-haul.

Take time to reflect

You may have come across the saying, “we have travelled so far, so fast, that now it is time to sit and let our souls catch up with us”. I’ve seen it in various forms, but the truth of it is important for this in-between time from one stage of the pandemic to the next. It’s important for us on a personal level, but also for ministers to be able to encourage church members and church leaders to reflect on their experience and where we are now. There is no ‘going back to normal’ as many of us wish for, and there will be many losses to acknowledge and grieve, as well as new insights, initiatives and opportunities that have emerged. But most importantly, what has shifted within ourselves as people and congregations? What have our experiences been and what have we learnt?  When we travel this road of reflection, we are better able to make life-giving choices about how to move forwards as God’s people on the Way. 

Living with the unknown

One of the hardest things of living through this pandemic crisis is living with uncertainty, with the anxiety of simply not knowing. Nobody knows how this will all turn out, and what ups and downs there will be on the way. It makes us feel insecure and vulnerable. How can we resource ourselves to live with such vulnerability – both our own and as leaders, trying to hold it for others? For leaders in these times, it means holding your nerve and being prepared to live with the vulnerability of ‘not knowing’ the answers, but being prepared to work them out together.

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke counselled his ‘young poet’ to be patient with the uncertainties in his heart, to ‘love the questions themselves’ and to live them, without seeking answers. He would not be given the answers, wrote Rilke, because he could not live with them. Instead he should ‘Live the questions now.’[1]  ‘Perhaps [we] will then gradually,’ suggests Rilke, ‘without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

We are travelling this journey as the disciples did in the experience of Holy Saturday – of the extreme vulnerability of not knowing the outcome, nor of what lies ahead. What holds us is that we are accompanied; Jesus has travelled this road. We can only be present to the experience and live into it in the company of the one who is faithful and who holds our souls in being.

Hilary Ison with Christopher Southgate, Carla Grosch Miller July 2020

A visual aid to help us reflect on our experience in the storm….

Three representations of resilience (with thanks to Ruard Ganzevoort) 

  1. the rock – solid, unmoved as the waters swirl around it in the raging river.
  2. the tree – well rooted in the ground, able to bend and flex with the wind and all that buffets it
  3. the complex of sand dunes – the storm lifts up the sand and swirls it around, so when it lands again after the storm it is still the same overall complex but refigured in shape and form


In what ways do any of these representations speak to my experience or that of the church?

[1]    Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, Tr. M.D. Herter (New York/London: Norton, 1993), 35 (italics in the original).