Grounded in the Living Word: The Old Testament and pastoral care practices. By Denise Dombkowski Hopkins & Michael S. Koppel. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.., Grand Rapids, MI, 2010. Paperback, 290 pp. $18.76.
By Bruce Aguilar, BCC
This book surveys much terrain familiar to the chaplain, and it does so in considerable detail. Its format seems that of a school textbook, and required some discipline to complete for this review. Yet one chapter, “Pain, Grief and Lament,” with its themes from the very heart of spiritual care, is an apt beginning point for a chaplain to enter this book.
The two authors are both professors from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Denise Dombkowski Hopkins brings her expertise in biblical theology and Michael Koppel brings his in pastoral theology and congregational care. About Koppel’s area of expertise, “It has been a long, slow road back to theological dimensions for pastoral theology, which has been preoccupied principally with psychological matters,” writes Walter Brueggeman in the Foreword. About Hopkins’ field of knowledge, “by breaking away from both arid historicism and doctrinal reductionism, Hopkins shows the way in which biblical study is, from the ground up, relational and interactive,” Brueggeman adds.
Chapter Five, “Pain, Grief and Lament,” gives an example of the book’s methodology and layout. It begins with a personal story of someone who is grieving two deaths and finds himself in “the Pit.” “The Pit” stands for God’s apparent absence, for a deep sense of isolation with no relief in sight. Hopkins refers to this metaphor and reality of “the Pit” as she describes leading a memorial service after a suicide. Alzheimer’s disease is mentioned as another disease that illustrates the series of losses which can evoke “the Pit”: Sam Sligar calls Alzheimer’s “a funeral that never ends.” (p. 121)
The chapter then provides a series of titled sections, such as “Living Ourselves Out of the Pit,” “The Care Giver’s Dilemma,” “Fighting the Fear,” and “The Psalms of Lament.” Some of these sections within a chapter are followed by “Questions for Reflection” (e.g. “When did you over-identify with someone’s pain? Why? How did you express this over-identification?”) Another tool used to ask the reader to process the material with their own experiences is “group exercise” (e.g. Begin by reading the following poem, “The Guest House”, by Rumi … How does your life feel like a “guest house”? Share your reactions to this poem.)
All the chapters have varying relationship to a chaplain’s ministry. One examines “Telling Our Stories and the Relational Aspects of Storytelling.” Another looks at images of God, something at the heart of the spiritual experience of patients (as well as family members and hospital staff). A different chapter focuses on life at its stage of old age contrasted with the stage of youth. “Conflicted Forgiveness” is another area taken up that can be crucial for spiritual healing for those who are seriously ill. Finally, the authors introduce “Covenant Care Community” – the Hebrew Bible presenting the way to live relationship in community, from the Ten Commandments to the Shema to more. All of the chapters draw from both personal stories and the marrow of the Hebrew Scriptures, from stories to commandments to psalms. This book, while not a light read, is a good reference for varied areas that a chaplain will face in her or his ministry.
Bruce Aguilar works as a staff chaplain at Spaulding Hospital Cambridge (long-term acute care facility) and Spaulding West Roxbury (long-term nursing and therapy center) in Massachusetts. He lives in Belmont with his wife and 12-year-old son.
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