Reality Check

Glenn Pemberton, Professor of Old Testament at Abilene Christian

Three years ago, Dr. Glenn Pemberton, a professor of Old Testament at Abilene Christian was one of the featured presenters at Austin Grad’s annual Sermon Seminar. Pemberton spoke on preaching from the psalms. If you don’t know Glenn, then you can’t really appreciate how he truly lives the psalms.

Some time back, his house burned to the ground. He lost everything—all his books and notes (not good, if you’re a PhD Bible professor). Shortly after the fire, Dr. Pemberton began to have horrible pain in his feet. He was diagnosed with a rare, incurable neurological disorder. Today, Glenn Pemberton lives in an almost perpetual state of excruciating bodily pain. He spends much of his time in bed or in a wheelchair.

After a year of watching her husband in such pain, Glenn’s wife divorced him. So, in just a little over a year, Pemberton lost everything—professionally, physically, and relationally. Can any of us begin to imagine THAT kind of pain upon pain? Pemberton confesses that he came very close to losing his faith. This well-respected Bible scholar nearly turned his back on God.

In a YouTube interview with a church of Christ preacher named Mike Cope, Glenn says: “One of the hardest things for people in pain to do, or at least it was for me, is show up for church—because there was no way for me, in a church setting, to express that pain.”

Let’s take off our masks and get real with each another. Let’s follow Jesus’ example of selflessness and consider others as better than ourselves. This way, we can serve more effectively.

Worship services are usually periods of great celebration. And why not? Christians have more to celebrate than any other group of people in the world! Redemption from sin, eternal life, spiritual health, peace, and unspeakable joy! We should celebrate these things! But we live in a broken world. And we cannot afford to ignore the pain that many folks suffer every day.

Pemberton says that he is so thankful that he rediscovered the Psalms, especially those scholars call the “lament psalms.” Fully 40 percent of the psalms are “lament psalms”—written by people who were hurting physically, emotionally, and spiritually. These psalms are deep expressions of pain and loss, fear and disappointment, outrage and depression. The psalms teach us how to express ourselves to God as we live life in a fallen world.

However, in our songbooks, laments make up only about four percent of the songs in the book. Most of those songs we either don’t know or don’t sing very often. Maybe we should devote ourselves to learning more lament songs because, let’s face it, at some time in our lives we all need an outlet for expressing pain, suffering, and grief.

A few years back, Southern Hills held a grief recovery group for about 10-12 church members who had recently lost loved ones. Since I have experienced significant loss in my life, the elders asked me to facilitate the group. I told Sandy Renfro Wednesday night that the grief group is one of the best things to happen to me in the last ten years. I didn’t know how badly I needed to deal with the pain that was stored up inside me. I am so thankful we had this outlet where pain could be expressed.

To be a church that looks like Jesus, we must be a lot more honest with each other … and that’s hard to do. Although we no longer wear our “Sunday Best” clothing, we still put on our “Sunday Best” face and attitude. People who really don’t care how we’re doing ask us anyway. In reply, we put on our fake smile and say, “Just fine!” … when nothing could be further from the truth.

It is entirely appropriate to ask someone, “Is everything okay? You seem a little down today.” That’s an appropriate question. But only if you really do want to know the answer. Coming alongside a sister or brother who is in pain will require you to be a good listener and most of us are not very good listeners. We’d rather talk… or give advice… or fix.

Many times, the person hurting is not looking for any of that. They just want someone to listen to them, cry with them, and maybe hold their hand or offer a hug. That’s what it means to love people.

That’s one way for us to connect with each other and speak truth into one another’s lives. Take off the mask. Let down your guard… and let’s be real. You can be a great blessing to someone else, not by fixing their problems, but by caring… and listening … and praying together. Turn it over to God.

Let’s take off our Sunday best and get real with one another. Let’s follow Jesus’ example of setting aside self and considering others as better than ourselves. When we do that, we can more effectively serve. 

In our time together, we need periods of laughter… and periods of weeping. We need times of noise and times of complete silence. We need times when we sing ‘Hallelujah’ and times when we sing ‘How long, O, Lord?’

We must be sensitive to one another’s needs, never insisting on our own way, but insisting that everything be done so that the body of Christ may be built up.

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).

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Jim Hays

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Powell Pendergraft

Thank you for this, Jim. Rather than avoiding people who are hurting, we must immerse ourselves into their needs. When I see someone I am supposed to love, I must be ready to rejoice or weep, whichever comes next. Our avoidance comes from fear we cannot help, or “oh, here comes so-and-so, the same thing again and again.” But, this is where that person is. I have to meet them there. I have to recognize that I may not be able to do anything but pray with them, cry with them, be there for a while. Sometimes I can do more. There are times that I can do a little bitty bit, and recognize that the Almighty is the Great Comforter in His Spirit, and the Son is the Great Physician, not I. I am a bandage or an ear or a prayer for a little while, and that is ok if that is all I am.

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