Who Is Present in Absence? A Pentecostal Theological Praxis of Suffering and Healing. Eugene: Pickwick, 2018.
What transpires when Classical Pentecostals pray for God to intervene amidst their suffering, but God does not? Traditionally, Classical Pentecostals center on encountering God as demonstrated through the relating of testimonies of their experiences with God. In seeking to contribute to a theology of suffering for Pentecostals, Pam Engelbert lifts up the stories of eight Classical Pentecostals to discover how they experienced God and others amidst their extended suffering even when God did not intervene as they had prayed. By valuing each story, this qualitative practical theology work embraces a Pentecostal hermeneutic of experience combined with Scripture, specifically the Gospel of John. As a Pentecostal practical theological project it offers a praxis (theology of action) of suffering and healing during times when we experience the apparent absence of God. It invites the reader to enter into the space of the other’s suffering by way of empathy, thereby participating in God’s act of ministry to humanity through God’s expression of empathy in the very person of Jesus.
WHAT OTHERS ARE SAYING:
- Adams, Scott. 2019. Pneuma. 41 (3-4): 535-537.
- Allen, Herman. 2019. PentecoStudies: An Interdisciplinary Journal for Research on the Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements. 18 (2): 227-228.
- Woodall, Judith. 2020. Journal of the European Pentecostal Theological Association. 40 (1): 73-74.
Upon meeting Jeremy, I was struck by his strong belief that God is significantly directing and participating in the affairs of humanity. For Jeremy, this means that God was involved in his life prior to his becoming a Christ-follower as seen in his giving credit to God for his success at his job. He recalled others telling him: “We don’t know how you did that. We don’t know how you ever accomplished all that stuff.” He knows he worked hard, but he, too, is unsure how it happened, except through God’s help. After his becoming a Christ-follower, Jeremy admits God not only continued to help him professionally but also personally. He confessed that prior to his conversion he drank, smoked heavily, swore considerably, and had a horrible temper, and then, “I mean, well, my life has dramatically changed.” In short, Jeremy was a successful businessman with responsibilities that resulted in a six-figured salary, and who had witnessed the Spirit moving in his life, transforming and helping him. For Jeremy, God was protecting and would “protect” him. However, on a fall day a few years prior to the interview, Jeremy was involved in a car accident that changed his life. He does not recall the details of the accident or the month and a half immediately following it, but he has been told that his vehicle rolled three to four times, and the jaws of life were required to remove him from his truck. He had to be flown to a larger city in order to receive the proper medical care, during which time they had to resuscitate him twice. Some of the resulting damages included a broken jaw and a head injury, both of which continue to have their impact. After being discharged from the hospital but while he was still rehabilitating, Jeremy continued to make plans for his life. His physician had put him in touch with an individual who was to assist him on his journey of recovery. After having several good phone conversations, Jeremy informed the other person of his future plans, but the person discounted this possibility. Jeremy asserted that he served a loving God for whom nothing was impossible and curtailed the conversations. He now admits that underlying his assertion was an expectation. For Jeremy, God was like a “vending machine.” He expected that because he had invested in God, God would give him what he wanted. This may have appeared to be the case when Jeremy was cleared by his physician to return to work within a few months of being discharged from the hospital. His expectations, unfortunately, remained unmet. On his first day of work, he was able to find his office, but then he could not recall how to sign on to his computer. That same day he was informed that other employees would join him for a conference call to another city, but he was unable to remember how to go about implementing the call. He also realized he was now inept at developing spreadsheets with Microsoft’s Excel. As a result of his incompetence, he was let go from his job within a short period of time and placed on long term disability. Up to this point, Jeremy’s work had determined his purpose and identity, but now his sense of identity and worth were stripped away. Not only was his wife maintaining their financial records since the accident, but now he also was no longer the main wage earner in the home. Jeremy perceived, “I couldn’t be the man of the house. I couldn’t be the worker, the man that goes out and earns an income.” He viewed himself as no longer being “a man the way I define a man.” His crisis was not only limited to his own identity, but it also influenced his expectations about God. Jeremy described the impact: “And so, now I’m out of work, and I’m feeling like, ‘God, did you leave me? You’ve been with me through this whole process. Have you left me?’”
Interview with the Author:
1) What is short synopsis of the book?
There are two themes that define this book: stories and encounters with God. This book is about real pentecostals who suffered and how they experienced God and others in the midst of their suffering. It tells the stories of how God did not intervene when people had prayed. It, then, looks at those stories through the lens of Scripture and psychology to form a fuller theological understanding of suffering and healing.
2) What type of book is it?
This is a practical theology book, which is not simply applied theology. I believe that practical theology asserts that acts of ministry reveal theology. This means, we know God by God’s acts of ministry to humanity, which is to say, we know God is love because God ministered to humanity by giving the Son. This practical theological book specifically focuses on how the body of Christ reflects God’s love through the congregational care they offer to each other.
3) Why did you write this book?
A number of years ago, I walked through an extended period of difficulties in which I questioned my belief system. In essence, my god had died. I discovered during this time that other pentecostals remained distant and/or offered pious platitudes that failed to meet me in my pain. It was out of this experience that I offer this contribution to a pentecostal theological praxis of suffering and healing.
4) For whom is the book intended?
This book is geared for those who are pursuing higher education, particularly a master’s degree or a PhD. It is also for those in the academy who are challenging pentecostals to strengthen their theology of suffering; this is a response to that call. Yet, it is also for the caregiver who seeks to help others who are suffering and for the carereceiver who wonders, “Where are you God?” Finally, and maybe most importantly, it is for the pentecostal, who has a tendency to speak a triumphal message that presents itself as power over rather than power with the sufferer.
5) What about those who are not in the academy? Will this book be helpful to them?
I believe so. The book centers on stories of people, and I believe that as humans, we all relate to stories. I want to acknowledge that for some who are not in the academy that the first chapter may not capture their interest. If this is the case, I would recommend that they persevere through it, gleaning what they can, and then delve more deeply into the remainder of the book.
6) What do you hope people will take away from this book?
God is present in the midst of suffering, and we participate in the ministry of presence by being present with others in their suffering. I think pentecostals have a unique opportunity to minister in this regard because we know the strength and peace that we receive when we experience God. Pentecostals tell me about the love and comfort they feel when they encounter God’s presence even though their situation may not have changed. This book is an invitation to practice that presence with those who are suffering, so sufferers may experience the strength, love, and comfort of God as we are present to them in their suffering. Since God is already present to sufferers even though they may be experiencing God’s apparent absence, we participate in God’s ministry of presence through the power of the Spirit, thereby allowing sufferers to experience God as we are present to them.
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