Prison Quote

Cover of "The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-195...
Cover via Amazon

It was granted to me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts…. That is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I…have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”

Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (December 11, 1918 – August 3, 2008), The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956, Vol. 2, 615-617

Hearing Jesus Speak into My Sorrow – Initial Review

Special thanks to Christy Wong of Tyndale Publishers for providing me this review copy of Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie (and Laura Bartlett for suggesting the review program). I could not read this as other books, namely an academic review of a book in which I read as many chapters as possible in a short time. Rather, because the topic was so personal and emotional, I found that one chapter at a sitting was more than enough for me. My reflections, memories, and eventual praises meant that this was more than an academic exercise, it was life, difficult life. Thanks to Nancy Guthrie for writing what needs to be stated and doing so from one who has been there, even more, from one who has grown through the sorrow to a maturity that is hard to articulate, but which Guthrie has captured in this book.

Nancy Guthrie wrote Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow in light of her experiences regarding the deaths of two of her children. Her style is direct but sensitive, especially when relating some experiences with other Christians that could have produced writing that reflects resentment or anger toward those people. She skillfully avoids that pitfall and shows that God has indeed been working in and through her since all of the tragedies occurred. That takes time for anyone writing or speaking about personal sorrow.

I realized what a difficult task this would be for me in evaluating the book. First, Guthrie has experienced deep sorrow, two-fold. Any kind of comment regarding a specific point in this review may be seen by some as diminishing that truth. Such is not the intent, because having experience my own extended time of sorrow, I readily identify with what she writes. At times I was back reliving my own experiences in 1986, 1992, 1997, 1998, 2001, 2008, nodding my head, even dealing with tears at times, but also having heard Jesus speak into my own sorrow.  What a tribute to the author that she could effectively communicate in such a way to bring alongside those who have also suffered. I think that in itself is highest praise for her work.

Second, as a Lutheran pastor/theologian, I look at the underlying theology and see what is behind the content. thus, I am attuned to differences in theological expressions. For instance, I expected the author’s approach to be based on “decision theology.” From a Lutheran perspective this would be a negative, because typically such theology takes away from Christ and what he has done, which affects not only “coming to faith” but also how Jesus is viewed relative to our lives after that time. In other words, “Jesus becomes a model for us to follow,” which can be defeatist for the Christian, especially for the one in sorrow. How many can follow Christ perfectly? Rather than a relief, this becomes an impossible burden.

Significantly, while the author occasionally reflects such an approach, the overall thrust of the book is that she clings to that which is truly gospel, namely what Christ has done for us. For that I rejoice! Guthrie clearly articulates the gospel as strategic points in the book. For instance, in the Introduction, her pastor’s question at the graveside was right on target: “This is the place where we ask, ‘Is the gospel really true?’” (p. xiv). As she relates, the question reflected her own desperation and discovery, readily identifying with the hope that Peter expressed in John 6, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” She writes: “Not having that hope to hold on to would have been an unbearable agony. I also knew that Jesus provided my only hope for coming back to life myself, as I felt the life in me was being snuffed out by sorrow” (p. xv). In her invitation to read Jesus’ words anew, she notes, “There is life, power, and authority in his every word. He speaks life into death, hope into despair, truth into delusion, meaning into futility, peace into panic” (pp. xix-xx).

Likewise in Chapter 1, “I, Too, Have Known Overwhelming Sorrow” Guthrie reflects this tension. “So many of the other ways I had heard Jesus speaking to me … were mostly about listening for what he could do for me. But in this hard place of grief, hearing Jesus was less about what he could do for me and more about the companionship he could share with me” (p. 3). She continues, “It’s in our suffering that we can truly begin to identify with his” (p. 4). Here I might quibble about the wording, but she comes back to the essential truth: Jesus for us, expressed in many different ways, is above all else.

The author also faced the seemingly impossible tension between God’s sovereignty and God’s grace. “I wondered how God could be truly sad with me since it had been in his power to cause things to work out differently. I think this is the wall that those of us who believe in God’s sovereignty run into eventually. And when we feel its full force, it hurts” (p. 12). I can certainly identify with that seeming indifference to my plight. Significantly, Guthrie comes to right junction, the intersection between the infinite, wise God and his plans and our own ideas about what is best can only be resolved in the cross of Jesus Christ. She continues, “It is at this place of inner conflict — where what we want and believe would be best seems to be at cross-purposes with the plans of God — where we need to hear Jesus speak” (p. 12). I have to think that she intended the double meaning of “cross-purposes” in this context.

Chapters 3 and 4 provide the clear expression of the Gospel because she recognizes the real problem. Prayers for healing become a double-edged sword, which she addresses head-on. “Those of us who do not get the physical healing we prayed for can be left assuming that either our faith is deficient or God is unable or unwilling to heal us or the one we love” (p. 24). The key to an appropriate response to this situation comes later in chapter 3, under the subtitle, “Jesus Speaks to Our Most Significant Sickness.” She writes, “Jesus comes to get to the real root of our problem, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow. He came on a mission to destroy what has brought on all our misery: sin” (p. 33). What follows on pages 35-38 should be mandatory reading for pastors, grief counselors, and every Christian, as summarized at the end of chapter 3,

“Perhaps what we need is not a miraculous healing of our bodies but a powerful awareness of our sin-sickness. We need to see our sin for the certain death it delivers — not just to our mortal bodies, but to our eternal souls. Only then can we appreciate the miracle Jesus offers us when he heals us of this fatal disease of sin.” (P. 38)

At the end of each chapter, Guthrie provides a unique way to express the key thoughts of the chapter with a short section titled “Hear Jesus Speak.” She takes several Biblical passages then makes them first-person narrative as Jesus speaking personally to the reader. She also provides a list of the Biblical passages used to develop this section. Not only is this effective as a summary, but it highlights the “Jesus to me; Jesus for me” truth of the entire book.

This is only the first part of the review, but I can state even now that this will prove a very beneficial to many people experiencing suffering/sorrow/tribulation. For the one experiencing any of this, Nancy Guthrie invites you to walk together to better understand this God who calls us to faith and brings us through the trials. The book is well written, direct, sensitive, Biblically solid, and offers a refreshing approach to a difficult topic. For pastors, this is an ideal companion to Eyer’s book, Pastoral Care Under the Cross.

Thank you, Nancy, for this important book.

Pastoral Care Under the Cross — Book review

This relates to the post yesterday (stripping away the non-essential), and this book approaches the issue from the perspective of the pastor. (originally posted in Aug 2007).

Pastoral Care Under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering Richard C. Eyer,
Concordia Publishing House, 1994

Twenty-five years ago pastoral care seemed indistinguishable from counseling in seminary training and in much practice. I felt inadequate in the counseling role; I wish there had been this kind of resource during my seminary years. In fact, all Lutheran congregations and pastors could have greatly benefited from this book by Richard Eye. At the time of writing Eyer had served as chaplain for 20 years, and the book reveals both his theological understanding of pastoral care and his practical application of that understanding. By doing so, he avoids writing that has that “dated” feeling, which permeates most “practical” books. Thus, the application of the book is not confined to a decade of experiences, but spans the experience of the Church, regardless of era. His writing style is fresh and simple, but never simplistic.

The structure of the book is both useful and theologically significant. The first part has four chapters that focus on the context of pastoral care, the second part has seven chapters in which he applies the truths of the first part to specific pastoral situations. He begins each chapter with a poem that he has written at various times during his chaplaincy, poems that are specific to the content of that particular chapter. I have never been a big fan of poetry, but a few of his poems struck me in the heart, not the brain, which I believe is what he intended. His typical pattern is to provide a key insight for the chapter, then mix practical examples and theology into a interlocking pattern for advancing his theme – he is very effective in doing so.

Eyer presents the over-arching theme of “the theology of the cross,” not in the sense of a dogmatic treatise, but rather as the foundation which informs and guides both parts of the presentation. Under this umbrella of the theology of the cross, Eyer offers insightful statements that set apart his book from most “pastor as counselor” writings.

Pastoral care has been understood traditionally to be the uninvited spiritual nurturing of those suffering some kind of helplessness and loss of control over life. It is modeled after God’s care of us following Eden… But this Biblical notion of the cure of souls and the spiritual care of others is a far cry from popular ideas of what today can only be called secular spiritual care (page 13).

In this introductory paragraph, Eyer sets forth that which is right and true of pastoral care and the dangers which intrude upon the pastor in fulfilling his responsibilities. In distinguishing pastoral care from psychology, Eyer writes: “Pastoral care is unique. It does not derive its substance from the culture nor its legitimacy from the medical profession” (page 23). In the Epilog, he reaches back to his original definition of pastoral care and amplifies it: “The uninvited aspect emphasizes the pastor’s initiative rather than the sufferer’s in addressing suffering. The pastor has an invitation from God, if not from the patient” (page 148). He could not have stated more clearly the distinctive calling that the pastor has in the midst of suffering.

Eyer declares that the cross is the paradigm for pastoral care. “The premise … is that pastoral care consists not in removing someone’s suffering but in helping the sufferer learn to interpret his or her sufferings in the light of the cross” (p. 24). Not only is that a crucial insight for his thesis, but it relieves a burden for the pastor, a burden that is sometimes placed by congregational expectations or even by conscience. This also helps the pastor move away from being “just another care giver” like the doctor, nurse, or psychiatrist. By doing so, Eyer shifts the focus of pastoral care to the theology of the cross rather than the theology of glory. The tremendous societal pressure to “heal the disease” causes even Christians to succumb to the temptation to get healing wherever – if not from the doctor or psychiatrist or pills, then at least from the pastor. Eyer writes, “If pastoral care consists not in doing something to remove suffering but in interpreting suffering in the light of the cross, then we must begin with what God chooses to reveal, not with what people want God to reveal.” If not reconsidered this way, many end up with this amusing, yet tragic state in which they do not justify themselves but demand that God justify himself concerning this suffering. As he shows, the question has to shift from “Why is God doing this?” to “Where is God in my suffering?” This provides the link between the suffering of this one, to the suffering The One, namely Christ.

Eyer then moves to a critical, often neglected or ignored topic, the pastor who gives pastoral care. That is, the spiritual state of the pastoral care giver is critical and must be addressed honestly in light of the theology of the cross. This is not a matter of baring our pastoral souls, which is really self-centered, but a matter of self awareness of our own needs, dependencies, vulnerabilities, and blind spots. The sense of helplessness that we as pastors experience in our pastoral is not something to be avoided, but recognized, even though “feeling helpless never feels good” (p. 36). Note the contrast in theologies: “To take charge is to succumb to the temptation to espouse the theology of glory, whereas a willingness to feel helpless in the face of suffering may be called faithful” (p. 36). Eyer urges Christians to examine their psychological makeup. But he warns, “Christians look inwardly, with the aim of repentance over what they may find there; whereas pop psychology invites us to look inwardly only to indulge and accept whatever is found there” (p. 37). The key according to Eyer is for us to understand where we are weak and what motivates us. Then as the theology of the cross applies to us in our weaknesses, we can model for our parishioners how to care for themselves spiritually, characterized by grace and faithfulness. That can seem monumental, but only if we are looking to ourselves for the answers, strength, and encouragement. And finally pastors are challenged to set the priorities of life: wife first, children next, and then parishioners. An emergency can rightly alter the priority, but we need to return to the above priorities as soon as possible. Behind all this looms the concern for the pastor’s spiritual growth. How often have pastors fallen into the “professional” trap of reading the Bible for a sermon, a Bible study, a visitation rather than for personal growth? Truly 2 Peter 3:17-18 applies to all Christians, including or especially pastors.

On the basis of this personal, pastoral evaluation and assessment, Eyer explores the reality of suffering and sickness in light of the cross. He makes two critical distinctions. First, for understanding pastoral care, pain and suffering are not the same thing. “Pain can be defined as a greater or lesser degree of physical comfort…. Suffering can be defined as the existential anxiety, fear, worry, or hopelessness that may or may not accompany pain. Suffering is a reaction to pain” (p. 44). In an age that is dominated by the need to control pain, we also live in a world that cannot seem to deal with suffering. Eyer notes, “opportunity to provide spiritual care to those who are suffering is greater than ever, and for pastors it can be an important aspect of pastoral care” (p. 44). For contemporary Christians the shift is evident in the question asked in the midst of pain; today the question is “Why am I suffering?” whereas in ages past the question was “What shall my response be to God in the midst of it?” Because the world encourages a fragmented view of the physical and spiritual, leading to life without meaning or coherence, the key for pastoral care consists in reuniting the physical and spiritual, not by forcing this upon the person, but allowing the person discover this unity for himself or herself.

Second, theodicy and theology of the cross are distinct. “Theodicy is the attempt to justify the ways of God to a suffering world” (p. 46). This theme exploited by Harold Kushner (Why Bad Things Happen to Good People) obscures the real need, namely for the suffering person to be justified before God, by God. Kushner’s view influenced Christian theodicy, which reasons:

* “God is just testing you to see if you will remain faithful.”

* “God is punishing you for what you have done.”

* “God is trying to teach you something.”

* “God has a plan for you, and this is part of it.”

Pastoral care does not follow the path of theodicy, for “who can know the mind of God?” (1 Cor. 2:16). The pastor can be most effective when realizing that “interpretation of suffering is better made by the sufferer than by another person, and retrospectively rather than prospectively” (p. 47). I think this approach challenges the pastor to focus on faithfulness during suffering. Can we do that? According to the theology of the cross, we can, and must, follow this course.

In light of the popularity of the “health, wealth Gospel” movements of today Eyer provides a Biblical response showing the connection between faith, healing, and the cross. Faith does not deny nor ignore the need for medicine and doctors. At the same time faith cannot not be a “last resort, since everything else has failed,” nor “it can’t hurt” kind of approach. Nor is faith twisting God’s arm to conform to our desires. Such statements ignore the connection between the physical and the spiritual, and the connections that God had established. And yet, as we can all attest, not everyone is healed when we pray for such healing. Not even in Jesus’ earthly ministry were all healed. As Eyer sets the perspective in eschatological context: “God sprinkles gracious ‘drops of healing’ from the heavens that fall on the just and unjust alike. Some are touched and healed, others are not; but all who experience or witness the healing of one’s many ills are given a hint of things to come in Christ” (p. 55). Sickness is related to sin and forgiveness of sins, but not as many think. “The connection between sickness, sin, and the need for forgiveness of sins is ultimately deeper than particular sins” (p.57). Finally Eyer connects faith, healing and the cross, “Faith is always an open receptacle, not the power line to control a heavenly computer” (p. 59).

In part 2 of the book, Eyer then applies the key understandings of the first four chapters to specific ministry opportunities. Each of these present the pastor with unique challenges to not shirk from the requirements of pastoral care, despite what the world or even the “organized church” proclaims. These circumstances reflect the “valley of the shadow of death,” and become the tempering fire in which to apply the theology of the cross.

* The Elderly


* Dying

* Mourners

* Mental Illness

* Depression

* Medical Ethics

Particularly helpful are his insights into the role of the pastor in ethical decision-making. The pastor serves as advocate, clarifier, communicator, and truth-sayer; this allows the pastor to function as pastor and to be a spokesman for God in the midst of circumstances and ethics that are shaped by a God-less world. Thus, the pastor is not just another member of the healing team but a vital voice for the patient, the family, and the team.

In light of this book, I was taken back, surprised, illuminated, and challenged by what Eyer wrote. At times pastoral care is given short shrift in pastoral training and continuing education, often being transformed into a cheap form of counseling. Many of the hard knocks I learned about pastoral care could have been avoided, had I had access to a resource such as this book. Eyer clearly and coherently summarizes the key point of this book:

What makes the theology of the cross absolutely essential in pastoral care is the danger each person faces who attempts to take matters of suffering and helplessness into his own hands and out of the hands of God…. Pastoral care… focuses not on the removal of suffering but on bearing one another’s burdens and pointing the sufferer to the cross (p. 149)

Book Review by Rev. R. Shields, August 2007

Stripping away the non-essential

This past week in ministry has demonstrated how fragile life can be. A good friend faces monumental changes in ministry due to physical problems. The physical devastation is matched by the hidden, yet just as serious emotional and mental struggles. Platitudes fail to provide an adequate response for us as Christians. At times like this, we are drawn back to the Scriptures, not with the latest technique or fad informing our search, but a broken body, a broken heart, a broken spirit. We have questions that we may not think appropriate to even raise… no, not the usual “why?” but “God, where are you??!!!” and stronger ones.

Last Sunday’s OT reading was Lamentations 3:22-33. How much more fitting can this be?! In the midst of Jeremiah’s lament, he comes to the center of the chapter and the book with some great words:

3:20 Surely my soul remembers

And is bowed down within me.

3:21 This I recall to my mind,

Therefore I have hope.

3:22 The LORD’S lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,

For His compassions never fail.

3:23 They are new every morning;

Great is Your faithfulness. (NAS95)

To grasp how much this represents a statement of faith, we have to go to the beginning of the chapter and realize that Jeremiah’s ultimate “enemy” is God himself!

3:2 He has driven me and made me walk

In darkness and not in light.

3:3 Surely against me He has turned His hand

Repeatedly all the day.

3:8 Even when I cry out and call for help,

He shuts out my prayer.

Thus, Jeremiah’s struggles with the king, the false prophets, the soldiers who were ordered to imprison him several times, pale in comparison to his struggle with God. Even his prayers seem blocked from God (3:8). No wonder his soul is bowed down within him (3:20)!

God hears Jeremiah’s pleas. His Son, Jesus who faced this same experience. He is abandoned by his friends, ridiculed and beaten by his enemies, and hung on a cross. There he cries out: “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” In that very act, God is not far away At all. When this truly righteous person is abandoned, there God is solving the dilemma of all people who feel abandoned.

Sometimes our enemies might be people, other times ourselves, and sometimes the effects of sin in this world in the form of diseases. When we experience such, we are not into comparing with others. We cringe when someone states, “At least it isn’t _____.” (fill in the blank as you see fit). At this point the one enduring the anguish does not care. He or she needs to know that God cares, even if for a time it seems that God is silent, hidden, and that he has forgotten the person.

My next posts will be reviews of two books dealing with this very topic, one from a pastoral perspective and one from a person who suffered personally. Two years ago I wrote a book review of Pastoral Care under the Cross: God in the Midst of Suffering by Pastor Richard C. Eyer. This past Friday I received a book from Tyndale for reviewing, Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie.

When we strip away the non-essential, we gain a perspective about God, about life, about ourselves that doesn’t match the world, but begins to move us closer to God’s  perspective. It is not an easy journey, it is filled with pitfalls, and it will leave us struggling with failure, sadness, anger. But Jesus knows exactly that path and he walked it for us and now with us.