Handbook of Consolations Review

Here is a book review I wrote for our Seminary’s Grow in Grace continuing education web site.

Handbook of Consolations for the Fears and Trials That Oppress Us in the Struggle with Death, by Johann Gerhard, translated by Carl L. Beckwith. Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2009. 90 pages.

Johann Gerhard (1582–1637) was a Lutheran theologian in the age of Lutheran Orthodoxy. He studied at Wittenberg, Jena, and Marburg, and was ordained in 1606 after receiving his doctorate in theology. He served as the superintendent of churches and as professor at the University of Jena. His major works include Sacred Meditations, Schola Pietatis, and his Loci Theologici. 

The Handbook of Consolations is a pastoral and devotional work. It is Gerhard’s contribution to the body of ars moriendi literature, an important part of Christian devotion in a time when life expectancies were considerably shorter and disease, plague, and war were regular threats to temporal life. Gerhard’s Handbook addresses the reality that the Christian faith is tested and tried in the face of sickness and death.

Gerhard wrote from experience. At the age of 15, Gerhard suffered through an illness that threatened his own life. As he writes this work, he is mourning the recent death of his infant son, and facing the imminent death of his wife (who would die within a month of writing). Gerhard himself says that “this Handbook is also for my own private use as I too bear a sickly body and frail vessel. Moreover, death recently made a very grievous visit to my house” (5).

Gerhard’s basic point is that Christians must be prepared for death. And since “death awaits us every day” (3), we must always be ready.

“Therefore the soul must be prepared for that blessed ability to die well and must be armed with the shield of Word and prayer. For if, at any time, our clever enemy conspires against our salvation and tries to rob us of it with all his might, it will certainly be at the last hour of our life” (4).

The Handbook lists 46 fears or temptations that trouble the Christian in the face of death. They are certainly not limited to fears in the face of immediate death, but also the eventual impending death which all face. Each temptation is followed by comfort drawn from the Scriptures, the Confessions, and from the church fathers.

Each temptation progresses logically from one to another, as Satan tries to find another opening to strike doubt and terror into the heart of the sinner after another door has been closed by the Word of the Gospel. As one example, in temptations 14 through 17, Gerhard brilliantly strings together a series of doubts which are answered in turn by the sacraments. The one who doubts the word of Absolution is pointed to baptism. The one who doubts whether he is still under baptismal grace is pointed to the Lord’s Supper.

The fears and temptations which Gerhard articulates are the doubts of Christians—they do believe, but struggle against the unbelief of their flesh. Many of the fears begin by affirming the comfort of the previous section: “Yes, I believe what you say. But…”  The words of “The Tempted” are words of those who believe Christ’s word and promise, but in a moment of weakness and in the face of death, doubt some aspect of God’s promise.

In some cases, the doubt comes from a false teaching, such as the “absolute decree of reprobation” which Gerhard calls “a false teaching of certain men” (24) and purgatory (80). Other temptations are incited by faulty logic and wrong conclusions, but these objections are answered clearly and concisely.

But in most cases, Gerhard puts words to the worries, doubts, and fears that all Christians face, from doubt about one’s personal status among the elect to real-life concerns about separation from family, an early death, or the dust and decay of the grave.

This little Handbook is a pure delight to read. First, because the temptations are so common. Gerhard speaks the fears, doubts, and temptations that face all Christians. And yet these are temptations and doubts that I fear most of us almost never articulate. How often do we voice our own fears of death? And so reading through these temptations is actually refreshing because it gives breath to the thoughts which many have, but never speak.

Secondly, the comfort is the sweetest gospel through and through. It is true, sometimes the comfort of the Gospel needs to be proceeded by a rebuke of the law. Gerhard is quick to rebuke and correct false ideas (I suspect because he is writing to himself). But the response of comfort to temptations in the fear of death take us deep into the Scriptures. Gerhard brilliantly weaves the passages into the dialogue and cites numerous writings of the church fathers alongside.

This little Handbook will be useful for the pastor as he ministers to those approaching death. In other words, everyone.

First, he should read this book for himself. He should read it because he is dust and will return to the dust. The pastor can recite all the passages of promise and he knows all the answers. But as he observes the mortality of the people he serves and as he does not grow younger, Satan will use every opening. The pastor may be the first to say, “Yes, I believe that.” But his flesh will still wonder, “But at the same time…” Gerhard has a way of reminding us of these things we already know, but like a good pastor, he reminds us anyway, and we are grateful to hear it.

As the pastor then prepares to serve his own flock as they prepare to die, what better manual for pastoral care could he find than this little volume? Especially today, an age where death does not so obviously surround us, even with all the violent images on film and screen, we rarely see death up close. When life spans are routinely longer, death (for many) seems that much further away, because the chances of it seem more remote. But perhaps that makes the trials and temptations worse, for they attack over a much longer period of time. We all know that we are dying. But to spread that knowledge over 80 or 90 years, with many of those years in gradual decline, leads to more opportunity for the tempter to strike.

If the pastor is close to his people when they are sick and dying, he will hear these very doubts. If he does not hear them, he can know that his believing members are very likely hearing them in their own minds and hearts. As Gerhard says, if Satan is going to attack the Christian at any time, it will be at the time of death. The pastor should do whatever he can to be that comforting voice in their moment of trial.

There are only certain books that will fit on the pastor’s shelf of books that he reads and rereads, perhaps every year. Alongside the sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, perhaps he keeps Walther’s Law and Gospel on that shelf, and hopefully Martin Chemnitz’ Enchiridion. For the good of his own soul and for those under his care, the Seelsorger would do well to add Gerhard’s Handbook of Consolations to this shelf, read it often, to comfort and be comforted.

“Since you yourselves also carry about you a body subject to disease, the reminder of death will daily be before your minds. Although your faith does not need these encouragements, which I have collected in this little book for the use of others and myself, I nevertheless think that your reading of this Handbook will not prove unprofitable to you; especially since it proceeds from a friendly and sincere mind. May the Lord Jesus everywhere bless us and the labors of our ministry by His grace and spirit” (5)


Voice of the Pastors

For there will always be some who will suffer these temptations. They should be cheered up and strengthened by the voice of the pastors in this manner: “In like manner, have confidence, my son; believe that you have been baptized, that you have been pastured and fed in the Lord’s Supper and absolved by the laying on of hands, not mine, but God’s, who has said to you: ‘I forgive you your sins; I promise you eternal life.’ ”

Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis (LW 6, p. 132).

A Prayer

A Prayer, when a person wants to go to the confessional and desires Holy Absolution.

“Lord Jesus Christ, my Redeemer! You have bequeathed to your dear church here on earth, and to her faithful servants, the holy office of the keys with its attached promise that the same thing which is bound and loosed here, should also be bound and loosed in heaven. For such gracious means I give you eternal honor, glory and praise. And since I—a poor, enslaved sinner–need this comforting releasing key, and so that I might not be held under the chains of this hellish jailor, I ask from the bottom of my heart that you would grant this to me through my Christian confessor, and for the sake of your blood and death, graciously release me from all my sins, grant me your Holy Spirit, that I receive the Holy Absolution in true repentance and undoubting confidence, good intentions, brotherly love, and thankfulness, and finally, be saved eternally. Amen.”

From: Evangelical Lutheran Treasury of Prayer (Gebets-Schatz), 1884. #298

Meant to be…

There’s a line in the movie Lonesome Dove when the Hat Creek Cattle Company is about to drive their cattle herd through its first dust storm. One of the cowboys says to another (I can’t remember who), “Well, I reckon this is where we find out if we was meant to be cowboys or not.”

I find myself thinking of that line every time I find myself in a situation that seems to require a higher level of pastoral expertise than I imagine myself being capable of.  It may be a phone call that requires me to give pastoral counsel on the fly, for a situation I’ve never even dreamed of. Or the visit to a member’s home that brings to light an aspect of their life that no one else knows about. It could be a trip to the emergency room or to the county detention center, when I have no clue what condition this particular soul is in—until I walk through the door.

But I keep riding into these storms, wondering to myself how I’ll find my way out. I think that this is where I’ll find out if I was meant to be a pastor. I get there and I may stumble around for a while, but usually Jesus’ words find their way to my lips. Then things seem to become more clear. Then I know that, ready or not, Jesus has called me to do this work on his behalf. He has called me to serve these people as their pastor, which means sometimes stepping into unknown places, and into a world entirely different than the one I know.

Yesterday was Assignment Day at the Seminary. We watched the call service via the internet with the upper grade students. Our teacher’s brother was being assigned. As I think back to those days, I realize that we were well prepared to enter into the pastoral ministry. By the time a candidate’s name is read, he’s ready to go, ready to be a pastor. But I find that there is a whole lot more preparation that goes on every day, with every visit, every phone call. I find that I am constantly learning what it means to be pastor, to these people, at this time, in this place.

A Privilege

I’m never exactly sure how to respond when people thank me for giving pastoral care to them or their family members. “You’re welcome” just doesn’t seem to say enough. “It’s no trouble” misses the point. I don’t come because it’s convenient. Often it’s not convenient. “It’s my job” makes it seem like merely a duty which I perform. What I usually end up saying something like, “It’s a privilege to serve.”

Recently I have had the chance to think about what makes pastoral care—especially to the sick and the dying—such a privilege. Over the last few months, I have been privileged to serve at the bedside of a dear Christian man named Vernon Haverstick. I must have seen him a couple dozen times in the hospital, and several times at his home as the end of his life drew near. To me, it seems like a perfect example of why this work is such a privilege. But what makes it so?

It is a privilege to get to know some of the most amazing people. If you read Vern’s obituary, you’ll see that he has quite the list of accomplishments. He did some very important work. That work was highly respected by many people, especially in northeast El Paso. He was highly intelligent, playfully witty, and genuinely kind. And many people saw that in him. That was evident from the 200+ people who showed up yesterday for his funeral. I count it as a privilege to have had the chance to get to know him by serving as his pastor.

But perhaps what makes it all even more of a privilege is just how encouraging these visits were to me. It is always encouraging to see examples of faith in the midst of adversity. It is a joy to see faith’s fruits ripening as someone patiently and joyfully bears whatever cross Jesus sends him. It is a beautiful sight to see a Christian cling tightly to Christ even as “every earthly prop gives way.”

But, for a pastor, the most encouraging thing of all, is to see Christians find Christ where Christ has promised to be. It is an encouragement to see that there are people who truly treasure Christ, his Word, the means of grace. So much of the time pastors deal with people who think their faith is fine, but have little time to listen to Jesus and his Word. There are many things which are important to them, but the means of grace, they could take it or leave it. If they make it to church, great. If not, that’s fine, too. Vern was in the hospital the week before Christmas, and I was not expecting him to be strong enough to get to church on Christmas. But there he was. I asked him how he was doing on the way out of church. “Terrible pain,” he said. But it didn’t stop him.

I loved the way Vern would eye my communion set, or my Pastor’s Companion as we would visit in the hospital. And if I took too long to get to it, he would say, “I know you have something in there for me, pastor. I know you don’t come without some devotion prepared. What do you have for me today?” It was a privilege to open the case, to open the book and give to him what Jesus had prepared for him.

That’s just scratching the surface of this privilege. It is the profound honor of being able to bring Christ to souls such as this. To be able to assure someone of their status before God because they have been baptized into Christ. To handle the body and blood of Christ, and to place it on the tongue of a dying man who knows full well that because Christ lives and is present in this sacrament, he too shall live eternally. I have a front row seat for Jesus’ saving work, to watch God’s grace applied to individuals. This is the heart of Lutheran pastoral ministry—a pure privilege.

It’s the same thing that I get to do on a regular basis in public worship, and Bible classes and catechetical classes. But being able to serve souls one-on-one, individually—in private confession and absolution, the sick room, the death bed—is a unique privilege.

In the last few days I got to see Vern, our conversations were not long. I spoke, read, and sang. He listened and prayed along. One night, after he had called me back into the room while I was about to leave, all I could make out was, “Schlaf gut.” Another night, “Thank you, pastor.” I don’t remember my response. I didn’t say it then, but someday I think I would like to say, “Thank you for the privilege.”

Pastoral Companions

I have mentioned previously that there are two books upon which I rely heavily. They are the Christian Worship: Pastor’s Companion and the Lutheran Service Book: Pastoral Care Companion. Their titles suggest their purpose. These books are meant to go with a pastor as he ministers to his flock, especially the work he does outside the church building. These books regularly go with me to sick and shut-in calls, to home visits with members, outdoor weddings (I’ve had one), and any number of other occasions. Both of the volumes contain prayers, rites, scripture texts, and hymns for all these occasions and more.

You might ask the question, then: why two books? Especially if they basically contain the same material, and have the same purpose? Actually, I usually only carry one of them with me at a time. But i have found that each of the volumes has certain advantages over the other one in different areas.

The CW volume is, in many ways, more valuable because it is a companion volume to our synod’s hymnal. The language is the same as that in our hymnal. It uses the NIV for the Scripture sections. Many of the rites are the same as that in our hymnal. For my regular shut-in visits, I use a mini-booklet that includes a printout of the mini-service that we use to adorn the celebration of the sacrament with someone who is homebound. I would say that in general, this book is my default choice. It has a good selection of rites that would be useful outside of church. It has a good number of prayers, scripture texts, and hymns.

The weakness of the CW volume is found in some of the real strengths of the LSB Companion, by comparison. Here are a few:

  • Pastor’s Prayers of Preparation: There are 11 pages of prayers specifically for the pastor as he prepares to function as Seelsorger in various situations. The CW version also has pastor’s prayers, but they are less specific.There is a Daily Prayer based on the Lord’s Prayer, a couple prayers by Aquinas, and several others, but all of them are much more general than I’m looking for. The LSB version has prayers for preparing for specific pastoral acts, which I find quite useful.
  • Resources for Pastoral Care: This is the largest section of the book, and the section I find the most valuable. It lists resources—psalms, prayers, readings—by the particular situation in which a pastor might find himself and those whom he wishes to serve. It pretty much has every situation you can think of. And some you wouldn’t have, but you would be glad for this book if it ever came up. The CW book has many of these same resources, but they’re spread out in different sections. There is a rite for ministry to the sick and homebound. There is a section for devotions, which are not terribly useful. There is a section for prayers by situation. Then there is the scripture reading section, and the hymn section. If I’m visiting someone who is sick, the CW Companion is not that useful to me. If I already know what I’m going to read with them, and have to dig around for it, I might as well just use my Bible (which I often have anyway). When visiting the sick, the layout of the LSB Companion is much more useful to make use of the resources that are there, and all of the resources for a particular situation are all in one place. This is especially useful when the situation isn’t exactly what you thought it was. Perhaps you call on someone who is sick, but you find that they are really struggling with depression or even despair. Most pastors can probably think on their feet well enough to adjust their conversation and guidance from the Word of God, but it may also be useful to have some help. The LSB Companion is, in my opinion, better designed for this kind of help.
  • Texts in German and Spanish: This strikes me as the kind of thing that is useful in a situation which you weren’t expecting. And while I can function pretty well in German, I would be unable to speak much more than a few memorized hymns and prayers. And my Spanish has a long ways to go at this point. But I can imagine  a few situations where having just a few texts at hand (Lord’s Prayer, Creed, Benediction, etc) in these languages could come in handy.

One of the downsides to the LSB volume is that, like other CPH publications, it uses the ESV. I’ll save an evaluation of the ESV for another time, but the fact is that I have grown so accustomed to the NIV that I struggle to make good use of the ESV sections. Many of the rites are usable, but not those which I use in conjunction with the hymnal. There are hymn stanzas in the companion, but the translation is different often enough to make it awkward.

So what do I do? Lately, I’ve been keeping both books close at hand. In general, I take my CW companion on all regular shut-in calls or any situations when I know what I’m dealing with. But for sick and hospital calls, I like the flexibility of the LSB resources. I feel like I’ll have better luck finding what I’m looking for if I need to quickly thumb through the book to find a good prayer for this or that.

Another way I have used it is to prepare for my calls. I’ll use the LSB book to look up the situation I think I’m dealing with and use that to form my devotions and prayers. In that case, I might not even bring it along. But I probably will, just in case. I’ll probably keep both volumes close at hand, and use each for its advantages.

What I would really love is to have one book which was the best of both worlds (or books). My best chance of that will probably have to at least wait until 2023, when the next WELS hymnal is scheduled to be published. Hopefully we won’t have to wait 11 years after the hymnal this time. (CW was published in 1993, the Pastor’s Companion in 2004.) But I am also hopeful that some of these content and organizational benefits and advantages of the LSB Pastoral Care Companion might somehow be incorporated into a new companion.

Keep watch

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who watch or work or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, give rest to the weary, pity the afflicted, soothe the suffering, bless the dying–and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

I have used this prayer on many evenings. But I can’t think of another time when I have been able put names and faces on nearly every phrase of the prayer.

Back at It

We returned early this afternoon from our mini vacation. It was almost 2:00 when we got home. By 4:00 I was at the hospital, visiting a member who has been in the hospital for nearly a week now. After visiting a little, we had the Lord’s Supper and focused our attention on Jesus and his promises. On my way out of the hospital I was walking through the parking lot past the emergency entrance and I noticed a familiar van in one of the spots. I certainly don’t know what kind of vehicles all my members drive, but I didn’t figure there were too many blue Ford Windstars with a handicapped sticker, motorized scooter lift, and “radio operator” license plates. So I turned around and walked back in. I didn’t even know whom to ask for at the information desk, but I took a chance, and found that Mr. Rourke was in the emergency room. I found him and his wife, who had apparently just gotten into a curtain area. Last week I walked right into the ICU; today the emergency room—no questions asked. I’ll write more about being able to do that later.

But what struck me today was just what a privilege it is to be able to be there at those moments in people’s lives. On the one hand, they are moments of little pride or joy. No one wants to be there. The masks of dignity that we usually wear don’t match well with a hospital gown open in the back and your hair all messed up from a night of often-interupted sleep in an uncomfortable bed. You go there and the first time you get to hear all the details of the problem that brought them there. Hopefully, on subsequent visits you might hear of improvement, but a few days in the hospital almost always set you back, and oftentimes you don’t come out without some long-term affect, some scar, some issue that won’t go away quickly or easily. Oh, there are exceptions, but in general, hospitals aren’t evidence that life is improving. Rather, they are evidence that our bodies and lives are full of the effects of sin and that they are heading in one general direction: death.

So on the one hand, I don’t want to be there any more than anyone else. Although I would rather visit than be a patient. But it’s not a fun thing. But I am so glad to be able to be there. And on a day like today, there is no place I would have rather been.

For in the hospital room there is a unique opportunity to talk about the Christian life as it really is: a life under the cross. A quick survey of the scene as it first appears makes us think that most things are pretty rotten and that unless you can focus on the good things you still have, or the glimpses of hope the diagnosis brings, well, things aren’t looking too bright.

But that’s not the way things really are for the Christian. It’s a fine thing indeed to find a silver lining or express gratitude for your previous years of health and the limited health you still have. But the silver lining could still go away (or what you thought was the silver lining). What then? What about when nothing goes your way? What about when “every earthly prop gives way”?

Ahh, then (if not before) we realize that Jesus’ Word and promise is really the only thing that I have going for me—always. And can you imagine the peace of mind that comes to someone when they begin to understand and believe that? Not that they didn’t know it before, but perhaps they’ve never had to really grasp it before. And now they do. And I find it to be one of my greatest joys to be able to point people to these concrete and sure truths.

Hospital visits are probably valuable all by themselves just because you are there. I suspect that it was valuable just to be there with the man on day seven in the hospital or the couple in the emergency room. Just to be there. But I pray that what I bring with me is of even greater value to them. I bring with me a promise of one who is with them always. Even when I leave. Even if everything and everyone else leaves them.

I keep these and all such others in my prayers this night. But they aren’t alone. And I give thanks that I am privileged to tell them that.