The Pastoral Work of Pain-Sharing: Lamentations [Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by Eugene Peterson, part 4]

In a messy world marked by untimely death and stillbirths, racial injustice and relational ruptures, we all wrestle with the problem of evil and suffering. Does God mean anything or a pastor have anything to say in such situations? Eugene Peterson thinks so.

Among other things pastoral work is a decision to deal, on the most personal and intimate terms, with suffering….The biblical revelation neither explains nor eliminates suffering. It shows, rather, God entering into the life of suffering humanity, accepting and sharing the suffering. (113-114)

With this strong statement, Peterson continues his work in Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work by engaging with the brutally honest book of Lamentations, the third of the five scrolls of the Megilloth. Within the context of suffering, loss, and carnage, Peterson describes Lamentations as “a funeral service for the death of the city” (115). Each year, the people of Israel remembered the Fall of Jerusalem and the subsequent exile with a fast on the Ninth of Ab. The fast looked fixedly both at the suffering resulting from the ruin of Jerusalem, but also the sin that caused that ruin. Learning from this, Peterson writes:

Pastoral ministry [deals] with the suffering in such a way as to direct the despair that ordinarily accompanies guilt toward God and not away from him….The task of pastoral work is to comfort without in any way avoiding the human realities of guilt or denying the divine realities of judgment. (117)

The book of Lamentations is a series of five acrostic lament poems that serve to chronicle the breadth of suffering from start to finish, from A to Z. Such an intentional and deliberate work “organizes grief, patiently going over the ground, step by step, insisting on the significance of each detail of suffering. The pain is labeled…arranged” (122). For pastors this helps us walk alongside others both chronicling their grief fully, without minimizing it, while also pointing to the reality that there is an end to the grief. At a practical level, Peterson encourages pastors to listen to those suffering, but also to provide boundaries and limits to it, through set appointments that, in a sense, remind the sufferer that suffering does not control reality or have endless power of their life.

There is no question in Lamentations about not taking suffering seriously…Finally, though, it says ‘Enough.’ Evil is not exhaustible. It is not infinite. It is not worthy of a lifetime of attention. (124)

The challenges of suffering are rooted in historical realities. For Israel this was the fall of Jerusalem, but for us it may be a wide range of experiences. Lamentations helps us see the importance of tracing suffering toward its historical roots.

When a pastor encounters a person in trouble, the first order of pastoral ministry is to enter into the pain and to share the suffering. Later on the task develops into clearing away the emotional rubble and exposing the historical foundations: all suffering is triggered by something. There is a datable even behind an act of suffering—a remembered word of scorn that sounded, a describable injustice causing injury, a death with a date on it pinpointing the hour of loss, a divorce decree giving legal definition to a rejection. (126)

The pastor explores this historical foundation of suffering so that healing can come. We do not pry into personal lives for curiosity’s sake or to merely open up wounds again. No, pastors explore the history “to pin it to the actual and so make it accessible to the grace that operates, as we know from biblical accounts, in the historical” (129).

As with Israel’s remembrance of the Fall of Jerusalem, this often leads us into an encounter with the anger of God. Today, many pastors debate the validity of God’s wrath or anger, but Peterson is strong on its biblical and theological importance:

The moment anger is eliminated from God, suffering is depersonalized, for anger is an insistence on the personal—it is the antithesis of impersonal fate or abstract law. (131)

The God of the Bible is deeply personal and relational. His anger reinforces this reality,  P. T. Forsyth says: “God cares enough for you to be angry with you” (133). Lamentations brings focus for the pastor to how human wrestling with suffering relates both to God’s care and God’s anger. Pastors help those suffering grasp how their pains find meaning within the context of “the immense backdrop of a majestic salvation” that also leads into God’s “immediate companionship” (135).

It is because of this that Peterson reacts against the contemporary tendency to approach suffering from a merely therapeutic framework. Instead, he calls pastors to “neither attempt explanations of suffering nor mount programs for the elimination of it” (139). Instead, letting go of mere technique, we invite people to pay attention to God and grace in the vulnerable experience of suffering. “Encouraged by Lamentations, the pastor will have the strength to do far less in relation to suffering and be far more” (141).

Lamentations also teaches the pastor that encountering suffering should not merely be a personal journey. Instead, it is a community journey. We enter into personal counseling, but lament communally. The individual does not really surface in Lamentations until chapter 3. The predominant approach is corporate lament and common prayer. We raise our voices and we weep together, and this, at least in part, is where healing arises. Such work slows us down to experience comfort only after truly facing into the suffering, not just on our own, but also with others.

Pastoral work patiently listens and enters into suffering, traces the contours of the history that brought the pain, and invites the individual and community to respond not in hurry and trite platitudes but deep engagement. As Peterson reminds us, quoting Nietzsche, “Only where graves are, is there resurrection” (148).

[This is the fourth in a series of posts on Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. You can read all the posts here.]

Refugee Messiah

This past weekend we continued our series “Power in Preparation” at Eastbrook Church. This is the second part of our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew. This week’s message looks at Matthew 2:13-23 and Jesus as the refugee Messiah.

You can view the message video and outline below. The video begins with a time of prayer for our nation that you can see the written form of here. You can follow along with the entire series here and the devotional that accompanies the series here. You could always join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” (Matthew 2:14-15)

Seeking Refuge in Egypt (Matthew 2:13-18)

  • Another dream for Joseph
  • Jesus flees south to Egypt
  • Scripture fulfilled: Hosea 11:1
  • Scripture fulfilled: Jeremiah 31:15

Returning Home (Matthew 2:19-21)

  • Another dream for Joseph
  • Jesus returns to the Land of Promise

Seeking Refuge in Galilee (Matthew 2:22-23)

  • Another dream for Joseph
  • Jesus flees north to Galilee, specifically, Nazareth
  • Scripture fulfilled: Isaiah 11:1/Judges 16:17

Jesus the Refugee Messiah

  • Jesus the new King (Bethlehem – Son of David)
  • Jesus the new Exodus (Egypt – Moses)
  • Jesus the new return (Ramah – Exile)
  • Jesus the unexpected, expected One – “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2)

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into the contrast between Jesus and Herod in one or more of the following ways:

This week dig deeper into the contrast between Jesus and Herod in one or more of the following ways:

  • Set aside some time this week to read Matthew 2:13-23 again. Then write, draw, paint, or pray aloud your own response to this series of events in Jesus’ life.
  • Read Matthew 2 in light of Moses’ life by comparing it to Exodus 1-4.
  • Look at a map of Jesus’ journey with his family to Egypt and back again here
  • Consider watching the BibleProject video, “Messiah

Joseph

This past weekend we continued our series “Family Tree” at Eastbrook Church. This is the third week in the first part of our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew (see previous weeks here and here). During Advent, we will focus on the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew, chapters 1 and 2. This message explored the significance of Joseph as seen in Matthew 1:18-25.

You can view the message video and outline below. You can follow along with the entire series here and the devotional that accompanies the series here. You could always join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’”  (Matthew 1:20)

Joseph the Upright (Matthew 1:18-19)

  • righteous – “faithful to the law”
  • merciful

Joseph the Dreamer (Matthew 1:20-23)

  • dreams of Joseph (1:20-21; 2:13; 2:19; 2:22)
  • Joseph listens to God

Joseph the Obedient (Matthew 1:24-25)

  • hearing the angelic message
  • responding directly to what was spoken (1:20 & 1:24; 2:13 & 2:14; 2:20 & 2:21)

Joseph the Adoptive Father (Matthew 1:25)

  • The importance of taking Mary home
  • The importance of naming Jesus
  • “The Son of David”

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into the life of Joseph from Matthew 1:18-25 in one or more of the following ways:

  • Memorize the angel’s  words to Joseph in Matthew 1:20-21
  • Consider reading about Joseph in all of the New Testament accounts of him:
    • Matthew 1:16, 18-25; 2:9-12, 13-23; 13:55
    • Mark 6:1-3
    • Luke 1:26-56; 2:1-52; 2:1-12; 3:23; 4:22
    • John 1:45; 6:41-42

Men of Faith and Exile

This past weekend we began a new series at Eastbrook Church entitled “Family Tree.” This is the first week in the first part of our extended journey through the Gospel of Matthew. During Advent, we will focus on the genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew, chapters 1 and 2. This message looks at Jesus’ connection with Abraham, David, and the exile.

You can view the message video and outline below. You can follow along with the entire series here and the devotional that accompanies the series here. You could always join us for weekend worship in-person or remotely via Eastbrook at Home.


“This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1)

The Genealogy of Jesus

  • Matthew’s structure: 3 groupings of 14 generation
  • Differences between Matthew and Luke
  • Matthew’s goal in the genealogy: to show that Jesus is king of the Jews and hope of the nations

The Providence of God in History

  • “The son of Abraham” (1:1-2; Genesis 12:1-3)
  • “The son of David” (1:1, 6; 2 Samuel 7:12-13)
  • “After the exile” (1:11-12)

Seeing God’s Purpose in Jesus’ Genealogy

  • Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to the nations
  • Jesus is the new King and Messiah for a conflicted world
  • Jesus is the providential hope for humanity lost in exile

Dig Deeper

This week dig deeper into Matthew 1:1-17 in one or more of the following ways:

  • Consider reading some of the backstory of figures mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, such as:
    • Abraham (Genesis 11:27-23:20; 25:1-11)
    • Jacob (Genesis 25:19-34; 27:1-35:29)
    • David (1 Samuel 15:1-2 Samuel 8:18)
  • If you want to really dig deep into the Scripture around Jesus’ infancy and early years, read Raymond Brown’s in-depth book, The Birth of the Messiah.
  • Consider watching the Bible Project’s two videos summarizing the Gospel of Matthew and on exile.

A Pilgrim Prayer for Nomads

For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:10)

Abraham the nomad for God and His purposes is also Abraham the pilgrim. At one level, Abraham and Sarah’s journey feels random and strange. They leave their homeland and their extended support network. They leave what is known for what is unknown. From the outside, it could seem that they are merely wandering nomads.

But the eyes of faith see something else. Abraham and Sarah hear God and respond. They live each day, aware of God’s guiding hand and watchful for God’s interrupting grace that will point them toward what is next. Abraham and Sarah wait. They step forward and step back They works and rest. They succeed and they fail. They travel and they are still. And all of this happens in relation to the leading of God. This is the blessed way of those, as Psalm 84:5 says, “whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”

Lord, lead me into the pilgrim way of faith seen in Abraham and Sarah. Though my ways sometimes feel more like nomadic wanderings than anything else, help me to discern Your hand in the midst of my day. And so, Lord, give me Your vision and guide me into Your purposes for my life that I every day and hour might draw me closer to You than to anything or anyone else. Open my ears to hear and my eyes to see. Strengthen my mind to understand and my heart to yearn for You. In this earthly way be my eternal home both for now and always.