Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley

Harold L. Senkbeil

Bellingham, Washington: Lexham Press, 2020. Digital (Logos Edition). $5.99. Paperback. $8.99.

Reviewed by Gregory P. Schulz on 09/01/2020

Many of us can name a seminary professor whose impact on our ministry is truly enduring. For example, the Sunday of the week I began writing this review, the Eleventh Sunday after Trinity, I heard a friend preaching on Luke 18. In his sermon, he named a seminary professor whose comment after class a few decades ago deeply informed this pastor’s use of “Lord, have mercy on us!”—both in his relationship to his own parishioners and in his attitude toward secular teachers in non-religious schools to this day.

In the same vein, a much smaller number of us can name a senior pastor with whom we served in our vicarages or early in our ministry whose impact on our pastoring is enduring. These pastors we fondly and respectfully refer to as “a real pastor’s pastor.”

Finally, and rarest of all, there are pastor-professors whose impact on us is enduring. These comparatively rare gifts to Christ’s church and her called and ordained servants of the Word we can call “a real pastors’ pastor.” Please notice my plural use of “pastors’.” In the case of a real pastors’ pastor, we can repurpose Churchill’s famous quote into a joyful prayer to our ascended Lord, who gives us such pastors-and-teachers (Ephesians 4:1–17): Rarely “have so many owed so much to so few!”

Dr. Harold L. Senkbeil, author most recently of Christ and Calamity: Grace and Gratitude in the Darkest Valley, is a pastors’ pastor. At CTQ’s invitation, I am happy to provide a brief review of this timely book, calling your pastoral attention to the manner in which this pastors’ pastor encourages and equips us to provide pastoral care in times of calamity, that is, during times of unusual and widespread upset and suffering.

I shall also raise two questions about this timely little book. I have one question regarding our pastoral disposition toward the COVID-19 calamity, which I will pose but not dwell on. I have a second question regarding a noteworthy editorial deficiency in this must-read book, which I will elaborate for a paragraph or two. I am working from the PDF version of Senkbeil’s book, the free version of Christ and Calamity widely available early in the summer of 2020.

This book exhibits an experienced writer’s mind at work in concert with a profoundly pastoral heart. You can see this for yourself by perusing the warmly personal opening section, which is actually the author’s entire book in a nutshell. In fact, the opening pages are a warm, personal summary of the pastors’ pastor that many, many of us know Hal Senkbeil to be from his lifetime of service in our LCMS ministerium, also at both of our seminaries, and at the helm of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel; thanks be to God!

A pastors’ pastor is speaking to pastors and readers everywhere. Here is his professor-author’s Lutheran mind at work: “But here’s the thing about faith. What matters isn’t the amount of faith we have; it’s the object of our faith” (9). Here is his pastor’s heart, open for all to see:

“I’ve seen a lot of suffering in my time. I’ve been at the bedside of parishioners in agony; I’ve wrapped my arms around believers collapsing in anguish. I’ve kept vigil at deathbeds. Once I carried the coffin of a full-term stillborn baby to its tiny grave, grief-stricken parents and clueless young siblings trailing behind me. I’ve already told you of the chronic physical pain endured daily by both my precious bride and my dearest friend.” (18)

While sampling the opening of Christ and Calamity, be sure to note that “this is not a book about the coronavirus or the COVID-19 pandemic [but] about you and God—and how you relate to him in times of calamity” (7). This is what our pastor-author delivers in “the eleven, short chapters of this book . . . How you can trust [the Lord God] even when it seems like he’s untrustworthy” (7).

Finally, two questions for further thought and discussion as you read and share this pastoral gem. First, even though Christ and Calamity is “not a book about the coronavirus or the COVID-19 pandemic,” it obliges us to ask nonetheless, Where can we find care and counsel for the pastoral care calamity generated by the government mandates and social pressures that have led to suffering souls being deprived of their pastor’s presence and means of grace ministry to them in nursing homes, hospices, and hospitals? I have no disagreement at all with Dr. Senkbeil’s choice to address people suffering in the midst of various personal or family calamities, and the pastors who minister to them. But, strictly speaking, the title term calamity evokes wholesale upset and suffering at a national or worldwide level. It’s also at the level of wholesale calamity that pastors and congregations need Christ and his word. No pastor worth his salt is going to accept a temporary situation, much less a “new normal” in which senior saints, disabled children of God, and others facing death and suffering are isolated from word and sacrament in their hour of greatest need, preparing for life eternal. But how to navigate this, as dual citizens? As I say, Christ and Calamity, in the very wording of its title, evokes an additional and urgently needed pastoral care discussion, above and beyond what this book addresses.

Secondly, while Christ and Calamity is indeed rich in verbatim Scripture passages, the very means of ministry (think of the nisi per Verbum of our Lutheran Apology, Article 4), it is impoverished in regard to the links, the references, the names of authors who can tutor the caring pastor in the how and why of implementing the kind of authentic pastoral care that the author outlines and exemplifies so well. Although it includes a (very) few footnotes, we have to ask, Where are the footnotes and references to enable readers to learn what the author means by his brief references to evil, to suffering, and to the psalms of lament?

For example, in his opening pages, Dr. Senkbeil counsels us, “Instead of whining, try lamenting. Have you noticed that in the Bible’s hymnbook, the Psalms, roughly a third are songs of lament” (12), and then quotes opening verses and excerpts from a few of the psalms of lament. For another example, in his brief chapter “When You Are Weak, Christ Is Your Strength,” he alludes to Jeremiah and his book of Lamentations (written during a wholesale, national calamity in the sixth century BC) and provides a few brief excerpts.

In its broader, real-life context, the tutoring and footnotes for the lamenting and suffering mentioned in Christ and Calamity began in 2008 and continue today in the curricula and seminars of DOXOLOGY: The Lutheran Center for Spiritual Care and Counsel. Sessions on suffering and lengthy lessons on using the psalms and other biblical chapters of lament for pastoral care have featured in the training and mentoring of about 15 percent of our church body’s pastors thus far, in addition to pastors and church leaders from other denominations around the world. Nevertheless, whether in PDF or in any other format or medium, books on this central pastoral care issue of suffering and lamenting can and must start to make up for what I have called “the lamentable lacuna” that Ronald Rittgers has diagnosed authoritatively in The Reformation of Suffering.[1]

Parish pastors on the front lines of pastoral care—not to mention our deaconesses, laboring for Christ and us in the homes, hospitals, and hospices of our world with those who are suffering and dying —deserve to have more available to them than a small handful of seminary professors talking about Oswald Bayer’s case for a theology of lament. Consider, for example, John T. Pless, et al., Promising Faith for a Ruptured Age: An English-Speaking Appreciation of Oswald Bayer.[2] Pastors, deaconesses, and all Christian caregivers should be provided with the footnotes and links to genuine theology-of-the-cross authors and highly regarded online authorities such as Emily Cook, author of Weak and Loved: A Mother-Daughter Love Story.[3]

Christ and Calamity is another gem for Christ’s church and her pastors and caregivers from Harold Senkbeil, a true pastors’ pastor. I have my free PDF version, but I’m planning to wait until Lexham Press provides us with the footnoted, fuller edition, presenting Dr. Senkbeil’s pastoral wisdom along with the leads, the links, the names—the ways to implement in the field what Hal urges so winsomely in his book—before buying my own copy, and then buying a few extra copies to give to my pastor and deaconess friends.

[1] Please see my essay, “Our Lamentable Lacuna: How Western Churches Have Undermined the Plausibility of Christian Faith,” in LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology XXVIII, no. 1 (Epiphany 2019): 7–14.

[2] John T. Pless, et al., eds., Promising Faith for a Ruptured Age: An English-Speaking Appreciation of Oswald Bayer (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick Publications, 2019).

[3] Emily Cook, Weak and Loved: A Mother-Daughter Love Story (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2012).