5 Anchors for the Soul during the Storms of Life

July 30, 2015

This is a presentation of the Five Anchors for the Soul in the Storms of Life at the Central Church of Christ in Athens, AL on July 8, 2015.


God loves, God listens, God understands, God reigns, and God wins.

Five Lectures on the Book of Job: Midwest Preachers’ Retreat (2014)

May 28, 2015

In September 2014, I was honored to present some material on the book of Job to a group of dedicated and devout servants in the church at the Midwest Preachers’ Retreat in Wisconsin.  Here are the audio links to those presentations.

1.  The Text of Job as Dramatic Lament: The Dialogical Structure of the Book

2.  A Tension Within Job: The Righteous Sufferer and Divine Responsibility

3.  Jobian Faithful Lament: Learning to Voice Our Impatience to God

4.  Yahweh Speaks: Wisdom Encounters Job

5.  The Unsatisfying End to the Book of Job: Job’s Response and God’s Gifts

If you would like a copy of the handout for the retreat, click here: Faithful Lament — Midwest Retreat Outlines

For those interested in more detailed discussions of Job, see my twenty-two blog posts which walk through the book of Job.  They are under the menu “Serial.”



When Friends Try to Help….On the Death of My Son

May 21, 2015

May 21 is an anniversary date for me. Joshua died on that day in 2001. SCAN1561

Many friends helped. Mark and Margo Black were there, Rubel and Myra Shelly were there, Mike Cope was there a few days before as well as John York, and we were surrounded by many others (including my Woodmont Hills Bible class). Gary Dodd painted a portrait of Joshua lying on his death bed; it still hangs in my home office. I am looking at it even as I type. My colleagues at Lipscomb University helped and many friends from Memphis (including Gary Ealy and Allen Black). There are too many to mention.

Many friends helped. They helped by their presence and actions. I don’t remember many words, but I do remember that they were there and what they did.

Words that express love and sympathy are welcome, but their presence spoke more than their words.  I am grateful for their friendship.

But friends don’t always help, and this is especially true when it comes to their words. Some words can sting and stir the pain rather than relieve it. Fortunately, that was rarely the case in my situation, though it is often the case for others.

For me, the memory of my friends on May 21 and the days following is comforting. They helped. They were present. But for others that memory is not as pleasant.

What do we do with unpleasant memories? What do we do with the anger we might feel towards those who mistreated–whether intentionally or unintentionally [which is usually the case]–us?

Those who know me also know that the Book of Job has significantly shaped my journey through grief ever since Sheila died in 1980. And that book speaks to the above question in a powerful way.

Job’s friends came to comfort him (Job 2:11), and they sat in silence with him for seven days. But they broke their silence when Job lamented that he had ever been born (Job 3). The dialogue between Job and his friends runs from Job 4 to Job 27.

  • The friends advise Job to repent (Job 4-14).
  • The friends insist that Job shut up (Job 15-21).
  • The friends give up any hope for Job’s faith (Job 22-27).

With friends like these, who needs enemies!

The depth of their “help” and “comfort”–Job calls them “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2)–reaches unimaginable proportions. For example, Bildad opines that Job’s children died because they had sinned (Job 8:4).  They accuse of Job of self-righteousness, arrogance, and hidden sin (see Job 22).

What do you do with friends like these?  What did Job do?

Job forgave them. Job prayed for them (Job 42:7-9).

Suffering creates a crisis for not only the sufferer but for his or her friends. Everyone struggles with the reality, and no one really wants to face it.

We seek explanations or rationales. We shield ourselves from as much pain as possible. We defend God or accuse God. Our emotions range from shock to anger to indifference. This is true for friends as well as the sufferer. In fact, good friends suffer with the sufferer. And like the sufferer, the friends don’t know how to handle or process the grief and loss.

Sufferers sometimes resent the way the friends responded–they were not present or they said the wrong thing. And this resentment adds to the pain.

Job prayed for his friends.  Job forgave them, even after the harsh things they said to him.

Resentment increases suffering–it is a poison pill we take in the hope that the other person will die. It actually kills.  Forgiveness is the balm that heals resentment.

Job forgave his friends, and we sufferers can forgive those who increased our pain rather than relieving it.

Forgiveness is a comfort God works in our hearts and enables us to move forward in life.

On this day, the anniversary of my son’s death, I remember the comfort my friends provided by their presence and actions.

Thank you, friends.

From Mauthausen to Melk

February 8, 2015

On Friday, February 6, I traveled with our Vienna Study Abroad group to the Nazi concentration camp at Mauthausen, and then we visited the Benedictine monastery in Melk. Geographically, the distance is not so great (about an hour bus ride), but the emotional distance is huge if not traumatic.

Mauthausen was the first concentration camp established by the Nazis in Austria after their annexation of country in March 1938. From its beginnings in August 1938 to its liberation by the U. S. Army in May 1945, the camp worked people to death (mining granite), and the regime summarily executed thousands (including a gas chamber). Over 100,000 people died at Mauthausen.

The Melk Abbey was founded in 1089, and its religious devotion is evidenced by fact that it was the center of Austrian monastic reform in the fifteenth century.  The present Baroque facilities were erected in the early 1700s, and its church is the burial place of St. Coloman, an Irish monk who was martyred near Vienna in the early eleventh century. The Abbey survived both Joseph II’s confiscation of monastic property in the late eighteenth century and barely survived Nazification even though most of its property was used for state education at the time.

The camp has a serene setting on a rise of above Mauthausen which presently has less than 5,000 people living on the Gusen river that flows into the Danube, and the abbey sits at the head of the beautiful Wachau Valley situated on the Danube above the village of Melk which is also about 5,000. Both the concentration camp and the abbey overlook their villages and sit on high points that offer magnificent views of their valleys. Their settings are similar, but their intents are radically different.

Mauthausen was a labor camp designed to kill its inmates. Their daily diet was only half the calories necessary for subsistence.  They were literally worked to death, and certain groups were simply executed. For example, Jewish inmates were sometimes, to the amusement of some of their SS guards, “parachuted” over the granite cliffs to their deaths.

Melk Abbey was an educational institution designed for life. It was a refuge on the borders of Bohemia, Moravia, and Austria in the eleventh century, and it conducted a school from the twelfth century forward. The Abbey has been a center of service, education, prayer, and worship for almost ten centuries.

The two compounds, rising above their Austrian villages, represent two very different intentions. One arises out of a hatred for non-Germanic people groups (Jews, Slavs [including Soviet prisoners and Czech/Polish intelligensia], Roma), perceived social threats (same-sex orientation and Jehovah’s witnesses), and political dissenters (Social Democrats, Communists). The other arises out of a love for God and neighbor that devoted itself to St. Benedict’s Rule of work and prayer.

The two represent very different conceptions of human life. One uses forced labor and violence to secure its ends. The other practices humble submission and service to secure its ends. While they may share some similar ends, that is, security and community, the means by which these are pursued are very different–one by violence and the other by prayer.

Mauthausen and Melk symbolize–only miles apart–the “two ways” of biblical wisdom literature. There is a way that leads to death and destruction, and there is a way that leads to life.  The foolish choose the former while the wise choose the latter.

Nevertheless, there was something uneasy about seeing the two back-to-back. While the contrast in intention and work is stark and illuminating, the contrast between austerity and wealth was also shocking.

Melk’s Baroque buildings, golden reliquaries, and magnificent church pointed to the wealth of the eighteenth century empire that enriched it. The church and the majestic art, floors, and ceilings of the monastery reflect the glory of the empire (the Holy Roman Empire) as well as God.

I have no doubt that this wealth was dedicated to the glory of God, though it was also a testimony to the glory of the empire. The two were not easily separated in the minds of most in eighteenth century Austria. So, I do not question the intent (to glorify God) as much as the means.

We could raise all kinds of questions about how the empire acquired this wealth, how it was distributed, and what the life of the poor was like. We could question a hegemony where ethnic Germans ruled politically disenfranchised Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Croats, Serbians, Italians, etc. The empire enriched this monastery. So, even as I admire the beauty of Melk’s art and architecture, I pause to wonder about the roots of this wealth.

Coming from Mauthausen, I wonder abut the origins of the wealth that created this beauty at Melk. The Nazi empire (the Third Reich) created a monstrous and unambiguous evil–labor camps and death camps. The Holy Roman Empire, through the Habsburgs, created beauty, though it also had its share of atrocities in its history.

Nevertheless, I am amazed by the beauty of the art, the craftmanship of the woodwork, and the genius of the architect. In that beauty I see the reflection of the God who created beauty and loves beauty. I see the giftedness that enabled such art. The glory of God surely shines through it.

Whatever its origins, beauty–whether created by the Colorado river flowing through canyons for millions of years or Baroque buildings designed and built by Jakob Prandtauer over a thirty year period–testifies to the beauty of God’s own life and God’s love for diversity within the creation.

At bottom, is it possible to appreciate and enjoy beauty when places like Mauthausen exist in the world? Can we laugh and enjoy the good when evil surrounds us? Can we go from Mauthausen to Melk in one day without feeling sick to our stomachs?

I think so, but only with care. Indeed, an ancient Hebrew sage wrestled with this very question. We call his work Ecclesiastes.

Qoheleth saw oppression, folly, and death in the world. He lived with a sense of frustration about how evil and senseless the world really is. Indeed, his motto was that “everything is absurd!” Life does not make sense!

At the same time, he saw goodness within the creation. He believed that God created the world and, though it is filled with evil, there is nothing better to do than to love, work, and enjoy creation’s gifts. He confessed that there was yet “good” in the world even though life was absurd.

I felt the same way on Friday.

Mauthausen bears witness to the absurdities of humanity! But Melk–both in terms of its medieval origins and its present beauty–testifies to the reality that beauty and goodness still exist in the world.

Melk and Mauthausen contrast–prayer and service battle violence and oppression.

I am grateful that Melk can serve as a response to Mauthausen, though we must be careful that Melk does not also lead us to sanctify empires.


Lament Prayer

January 20, 2015

God, take your hands out of your pockets and do something! Psalm 74:11a

A Lament Prayer. http://t.co/NpomTUK0HC

The Empathetic God

December 27, 2014

God became flesh.

God became human.

Incarnation is the act through which the Creator experiences the creation as a creature. This is both the uniqueness and mystery of the Christian faith.

The one who was with God in the beginning and was God from the beginning became human. The same one through whom the cosmos was created also became part of the cosmos, part of the creation.

The divine one lived in the flesh. Though previously God dwelt in the Garden and later in the Temple, now incarnate, God lives in the flesh. God no longer simply lived among human beings as God but now lives among human beings enfleshed; God lives among humanity as one of them, a human.

Why? There are many reasons.

The Western church has often, especially since Anselm’s Why Did God Become Man?, focused on the necessity of the incarnation for atonement, that is, paying the price for our sins.

The Eastern church has, practically from the beginning (starting with Irenaeus), emphasized that the goal of the incarnation is the union of God and humanity, that is, God becomes human that humanity might unite with the divine in close communion as God shares the divine life with humanity.

In the light of the Holocaust as well as the overwhelming sense of suffering within the world, some (including Moltmann among others) have emphasized that the incarnation enables divine empathy.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is an important one. We sympathize with another when we hurt for each other. We acknowledge their pain and express our love for them in their condition. In that sense we suffer with them. Yet, we suffer with them as outsiders to their suffering. We stand on the outside as we grieve their loss and express our love.

Empathy is different. We empathize with another when we share the hurt or feelings of another because we have experienced that same hurt or feeling ourselves. Empathizers are insiders; they know the hurt as people who have experienced it themselves.  They have previously walked in the those same shoes; they understand because they have been there.

As we remember the story of God given in Scripture, we recognize that God sympathizes with our suffering. God grieves the sin and suffering present within the world, and God expresses love for us in the midst of our hurt and pain. The relationship between God and Israel includes God’s sympathy for their suffering. For example, God hears the cries of Israel in Egyptian slavery, and God responds.

But we can see more. In God’s relationship with Israel, God is more than sympathetic. God is also empathetic. God knows what it is like to suffer. For example, God knows the pain of broken promises. God knows what it is like to be betrayed by a spouse. God knows what it is like to be rejected. God knows what it is like to be hated. God knows disappointment as God watched Israel become what God abhorred.

God understands betrayal, rejection, and loss. Consequently, God understands some of our most basic hurts.

But still God seems distant. Can God truly and authentically know my hurts in the way that I feel them? When God experiences rejection is it really what I experience? The transcendent otherness of God renders our sense of divine empathy practically empty. I don’t think this is the case, but when we are suffering, God seems too distant to fully understand our own experience.

God’s response to the human condition, however, is to become human.

When God becomes human, God becomes fully empathetic with humanity. God lives within the creation as a creature, and as a creature, the incarnate One is vulnerable to the same processes, hurts, and pains that characterize all human experience.

As the incarnate God, Jesus fully experiences the human condition. He not only suffers with humanity, he suffers as a human being. He experiences betrayal as a human being. He weeps with a family at the tomb of a friend as a human being. When his disciples desert him, he experiences abandonment as a human being. He dies as a human being.

But there is still something more here. Jesus’ experience as a human being introduces new experiences into the life of God. While God knows when others are tempted, God has never been tempted. While God knows when others are hungry, God has never been hungry. While God knows when others die, God has never died.

As God in the flesh, however, Jesus experiences temptation, hunger, and death. These are new experiences for God. They are possible only because God became human.

In this sense, the incarnation enables the full empathy of God with humanity. Only an incarnate God can be a fully empathetic God.

The incarnation, as an empathetic act, is the gracious and loving act by which God enters into our own experience of suffering. God becomes an insider to suffering. God not only knows about our suffering, but God suffers along with us as a fellow-sufferer, a fellow-human-sufferer.

God understands.

When we weep over the loss of a loved one, God understands. When we are tempted to the limits of our strength, God understands. When we are betrayed by a friend, God understands. When we are hungry, God understands.

God empathizes.

Christmas may be the most joyous time of the year, but it is also the time when God says to suffering humanity:  “I understand!”


On Reading Lamentations

September 3, 2014

There is always reason to weep.

We don’t have to look too far into our world—whether through social media, television, or newsprint—to find reason to weep. Yet, too often we—especially the church—ignore, hide our eyes, or look past the pain in order to escape into fantasy, denial, or hope. We rarely sit in our grief and lament.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a testimony to the value of lament. The whole book is a series of laments, a total of five. Responding to the devastation of the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. (described in 2 Kings 25 and Jeremiah 52), the heart-felt cries of sorrow and pain fill the air and ascend to the God of Israel.

However, though focused on a specific moment in Israel’s history, Jewish tradition has recited these poems every year on the 9th of Av (Tisha B’Av). This annual fast day remembers the day when the Exodus generation was told they would not enter the promised land, the day when the first and second temples were destroyed, the day when the Romans finally defeated the last Jewish rebellion against the Empire in 135 C.E., and the day when the Romans plowed under Jerusalem to rebuild it as a pagan city. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day in the Jewish year, and it symbolizes all the tragedies that have fallen the Jewish people.

Tisha B’Av is Israel’s day of mourning. There is no eating, drinking, or sex on that day. Normally every day is filled with God’s good gifts of creation. Even amidst our daily encounters with hebel (what Ecclesiastes calls the absurdities of life), people eat, drink, and enjoy their spouses (cf. Ecclesiastes 9:7-10). But not on this day! On this day, the day when Lamentations is read, there is no joy. It is a day of lament.

Lamentations, to use the title of Leslie C. Allen’s book, is a “liturgy of grief.” These five laments express the pain of tragedy, call believers to an introspective faith, and accept God’s work among them. The laments help believers walk through their grief. It does not ignore or suppress the pain. On the contrary, it voices it. The community neither walks around nor backs away from the grief. Instead, they walk through it.

Lamentations appears in the Hebrew Bible as a communal lament where the people of God remember their story, express their grief, and appeal to their God. Tisha B’Av provides Judaism with a rhythm that incorporates grief into their faith and thereby integrates their experiences of real pain with authentic faith. Sorrow is expressed rather than suppressed.

The historic liturgies of the church have used Lamentations during Holy Week in the light of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday (Tenebrae Services). The laments express the sorrow for sin and grieve death. The Christian Church, then, has adopted this resource within the Hebrew Bible to provide a rhythm of sorrow, repentance, and humility within its own calendar. Lamentations is incorporated into the climax of Lent as Holy Week moves toward Easter.

We read Lamentations, then, to (1) learn to lament, (2) to practice lament, and (3) to move through lament into God’s mercy.

Lamentations is actually five laments; each chapter is its own self-contained lament. We do not know who wrote them (they are anonymous), though an ancient (as early as the Septuagint translation) and strong tradition attributes them to Jeremiah. Whoever the author, they have functioned as significant communal laments for the people of God.

  1. Lament One is a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses, which is the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet).
  2. Lament Two is also a poem where the first letter of each tricolon (three lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  3. Lament Three is a poem where the first letter of each colon (represented as verses) within the tricolon begins with the same letter of the alphabet and the tricolons form an acrostic (therefore, sixty-six verses).
  4. Lament Four is a poem where the first letter of each bicolon (two lines; represented as verses) forms an acrostic (therefore, twenty-two verses).
  5. Lament Five is a poem formed by a series of twenty-two bicolons but there is no acrostic pattern.

While the relationship between these five poems will require our attention in coming blogs, it seems rather obvious that the central poem (Lament Three) is the pinnacle of the book. There are several stylistic as well as theological reasons for such a judgment. It is appears at the center in a unique poetic form, and it reminds Israel of God’s everlasting mercy. Consequently, we might picture Lamentations as a rising crescendo in the first two chapters that is climaxed in the third and with a descending decrescendo in the last two chapters.

In this view, Lamentations begins with lament as the book opens with the word ‘ekah (how?)—as does 2:1 and 4:1. Indeed, this is the Hebrew title of the book (“Lamentations” comes through the Latin Vulgate.). But the book ends with a prayer to Yahweh, “Restore us to yourself” (5:21-22). Between the laments and the prayer is the bold assertion—and probably the most well-known line in Lamentations—“the steadfast love of Yahweh never ceases” (3:22) and the confession “Yahweh is my portion” (3:24).

Lamentations, then, has the classic elements of lament itself. There is (1) complaint, including a description of the horrible circumstances under which people suffer. There is (2) petition, which appeals to Yahweh to transform the situation. But there is also (3) praise, which comes in the form of confident confession and hope.

Lament is not simply wallowing in one’s sorrow as if it is a function of self-pity alone. It includes that as well as other forms of complaint. But it is much more. It is also petition and praise.

Lament moves us through the grief toward a confident hope in God. It takes time, and it takes practice, that is, it takes the practice of lament itself. We must take the time to talk it out with God and in community.

Lamentations provides a resource for the people of God to voice their hurts, offer their petitions, and express their faith.

Groaning, Weakness, and the Holy Spirit

June 28, 2014

The Holy Spirit groans with us and for us. We are not alone in our weaknesses.

See my new post at Wineskins.org. http://wp.me/p4a1Ft-oN

Two Chapel Speeches on Lament

April 28, 2014

Below are links to two chapel speeches this year—my only chapel speeches this academic year.

The first was delivered to the whole Lipscomb student body after the loss of Isaac Philips who was found dead in his dorm room in late September 2013. You may view the chapel speech at this link.

The second was delivered at the Abilene Graduate School of Theology chapel on Ash Wednesday (March 5, 2014). You may view that speech here.

Both are focused on lament. The former laments death, and the later laments injustice based on Joel 2:1-17.


Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life

April 19, 2014

The College Hills Church of Christ in Lebanon, TN, invited me to teach a class on “Yet Will I Trust Him: Trusting God in the Storms of Life” throughout January and February 2014.  It was a good experience for me, though whether it was for everyone else is something I cannot judge. I am grateful for the opportunity.

However, you can judge for yourself.  They have made the videos available on YouTube. The study focused on “five anchors for the soul” which give stability to faith during the storms of life.

1.  Introduction

2.  God loves us and unrelentingly pursues us.

3.  God listens to our laments and invites us to voice them.

4.  God empathizes with our weaknesses and suffering.

5.  God rules over our suffering and gives it meaning.

6.  God wins and empowers hope in the present.

7.  How do we comfort sufferers?