Teaching at the Italian Theological Academy

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About a week ago I finished up four full days of teaching at the Italian Theological Academy in Sicily. I’ll share a few anecdotes below, but first I want to say thank you. The Lord was so kind to answer your prayers and give me strength that was so unmistakably from His hand. In the midst of sickness at home, a fire at the airport the night before I left, and missed flights for various reasons (3 in total), I made it safe and sound to Sicily. And although, when all was said and done, I laid down to sleep at 3:30 am the morning of my first day of teaching, the Lord gave me strength and kept me mentally alert. Most importantly God was gracious to make His Word clear so that the students could better understand the person of Christ and the person of the Holy Spirit.

Before the class I had preached twice in Italian. So the prospect of teaching for several hours (something like 25) was intimidating to say the least. The help the Lord provided served as a great encouragement that He will continue to give me the grace I’ll need to minister more and more in Italian. That isn’t to say that there weren’t errors made or that it was just like it might have been in English, but maybe I could explain it this way: there were moments in which I really felt like ‘myself’ as a teacher; glimmers where the difficulty with the language faded into the background and gave way to the desire that my hearers grasped God’s Word.

The time I spent with the students in class, chatting theology during the break, and hearing about their lives over meals was a joy. Each of the students was hungry to learn and had plenty of questions. One student consistently came up with insightful reflections and observant questions, often wondering things about the connection between two doctrines I’d never before considered. Due to the complicated nature of his questions (and my even more complicated and long-winded responses), I’d jokingly ask for questions from the class with the exception of that student.

Another student serves as the only elder in his church in Northern Italy, while working a full time job. His sermon preparation happens in the early hours of the morning each day before he heads to work. He found out about the formal training the academy offers about two years ago and ever since he has been hooked. The director of the academy and I had talked about the possibility of giving the students a break Sunday morning and not having the early session before morning worship, but this dear brother, so hungry to learn, pleaded that we have it. My heart was refreshed by his tenacity to learn and his longing to get the Bible right. I was glad that we could have the session.

If you asked me what the hardest part was, I’d answer immediately: The session after lunch. Rare were the moments when I thought, “Oh man, this isn’t going well.” The longest one lasted about half an hour. It was after lunch Sunday. I taught a session of the class for an hour and a half, I preached in the worship service, and then we ate a big meal, the kind that involves various lasagnas, pastas and meats (note the plurals). The only person more tired than the glazed-over students was me. And it just so happened that this section on the Holy Spirit’s Ministry in the Old Testament was the only section of my syllabus that had several wrong Bible references. This all came together to make for an interesting time after lunch. At one point I had a guy reading a chapter in numbers for about 5 minutes straight, while I searched frantically for a verse that actually said something about the Holy Spirit, only to have to say at the end, “thanks for reading that text, which really is quite fascinating, but unfortunately it doesn’t actually say anything about the Holy Spirit…let’s move on.”

As has been alluded to, the course focused on Christology and Pneumatology (study of Christ and the Holy Spirit). We began the time with some introduction on the theological task, emphasizing the theological task as worship. We talked about the importance of always pondering the person of Christ in the light of the redemption He accomplished that we never could. John Calvin, whose Institutes are also available in Italian, says it this way:

Now it was of the greatest importance for us that He who was to be our Mediator be both true God and true man…Since our iniquities, like a cloud cast between us and him, had completely estranged us from the Kingdom of Heaven [cf. Isa. 59:2], no man, unless he belonged to God, could serve as the intermediary to restore peace. But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God [Gen. 3:8]…The situation would surely have been hopeless had the very majesty of God not descended to us, since it was not in our power to ascend to Him (II.XII.1).

We also talked about the practical nature of theology and that we must never accept the artificial distinction between theology and practice. We can’t very well live for Christ if we know not who He is. Also, given that Jehovah’s Witnesses are the second largest religion in Italy, it was important to equip the men with a robust understanding of the deity of Christ.

Sadly, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit is considered to be the doctrine of Pentecostals and at times receives little attention from non-Pentecostal evangelicals. It is, as James Packer has said, “the Cinderella of the Christian doctrines.” So I was glad for the opportunity to deepen my understanding of the Holy Spirit. We spent a great deal of time talking about the Holy Spirit’s role in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant. This helped prepare us to understand the book of Acts, the miraculous spiritual gifts (e.g. tongues) and the baptism in the Holy Spirit. Again I felt the material was especially pertinent as there are many Pentecostals in Italy.

I sat on the plane headed back, ready to see my family, with a heart grateful to have played some small part in encouraging these men who will in turn have the opportunity to encourage others.

If you have a minute, please pray for us!

As I mentioned in our recent prayer update, we are in the throes of researching Italy’s cities, trying to determine a place where we might plant a church. Part of this research includes visiting cities that seem somewhat promising. There are no plans to put fleeces out and no hopes of a heavenly cloud formation that reads ‘come to this city.’ We want to use wisdom to discern, along with the help of our elders and other counselors, the place that seems to be the best opportunity to be faithful to the Great Commission.

Before I tell you where we went, a quick disclaimer is in order. Our visiting a particular city does not mean that we will go there. Obviously we can’t visit every city in Italy, so there are reasons behind the ones that we visit. But often, the only way to know that it isn’t a good ‘fit’ is to talk to the people in the city, see for yourself what kind of gospel ministry is already happening, and really just experience the city. All that to say, don’t get your heart set on a particular place just yet.

Our Trip

The route we took on our trip.

Below I’ll give you a taste of what we saw on our 5 day trip in Northern Italy. I thought you might enjoy hearing about how we are processing each opportunity. But more than that, I thought a bit of information might help you in your efforts to intercede on our behalf.

On the way up we stayed the night in Florence. At the beginning of our research we thought Florence or a city near Florence might be where we’d end up. Stopping there for the night gave us the opportunity to spend part of the morning seeing a few neighborhoods. There is already a great church there that is doing some really exciting work. Our hope is to spend at least one Lord’s Day with that church this summer. As of now, we’ve decided to put the Florence idea on hold, while we pursue other opportunities.

Brescia

Brescia

The next morning we headed up to Brescia. Brescia made it on the list of cities to consider, like the rest of the places, because it was pretty big and didn’t seem like there was much happening on the church front. The province is the 6th largest in Italy (1,262,295 people) and the city itself has nearly 200,000 people. The cost of living is low and there is a beautiful historic center that isn’t super touristy. There might be a few faithful works in and around the city, but so far we haven’t confirmed anything. We were able to have a few longer conversations with locals and here are a few things we learned (according to these two sources): the people are closed (religiously and in general); the city is very laid back and a great place to live; if there are protestant communities they aren’t very well known; there are a lot of foreigners that live in Brescia (many from Africa and Asia).

Verona

Verona

After a night and a morning in Brescia we did the hour drive to Verona. Verona’s beauty and sites make it a popular tourist stop. We weren’t there as tourists but we did ([un]fortunately depending on who you ask) get to peek at Juliette’s balcony one night after dinner. We knew/confirmed that there is one church in the city center and several small churches about 30 minutes outside the city. The city is the 12th largest in Italy (253,409), but the city center is rather compact. One person explained to us that the city has a small town feel and that it is really common to bump into someone you know downtown. The city and the areas that surround it certainly still have needs even with several missionaries already there, but the number of workers already there is definitely something we will take into consideration.

Sunday morning we headed to Mantova to worship with the people of Chiesa Sola Grazia. The city where the church is located is only about an hour from both Verona and Brescia. Ending up in either of those cities would mean we could have some sort of relationship with Sola Grazia. It was a sweet Lord’s Day and our hearts were refreshed. We were glad to sing some familiar songs for the first time in Italian. We had already known one of the pastors, Andrea Artioli, and had the opportunity to get to know their new missionary/pastor Alan Johnston (not Matt’s cousin). Before coming to Italy about a year ago Alan was a pastor in Ireland for nearly 20 years. Getting to pick their brains on our research was a great grace, and their thoughts really helped prepare our perspective for our trip to Genova.

Genova

Genova

We wrapped up lunch at around 5 (not abnormal in Italy), still undecided if we wanted to head to Genova or head back to Rome. It was the only city that we hadn’t visited on our current list, so we decided to be crazy and go for it. After lots of long stops, we arrived in the city at around 10:30p.m. The city which is tucked in between the mountains and the sea is striking. Genova as a city has a character like we’ve only ever encountered in Rome. It is the 6th largest city in Italy (582,320) and the metropolitan area has nearly 900,000 people. The fact that we accidentally had TomTom navigate us to the city center instead of our hotel may have influenced our opinion, as we drove across the main piazza it was truly magical…even if we will probably get a ticket.  The next morning was rainy so Matt headed out alone to explore a little, and was thrilled to have the opportunity to chat for about 30 minutes with a guy about his age. It began as conversation about the city and turned into a conversation about absolute truth and absolute authorities (the Bible).

If I had to list our level of interest based on these three cities, it would look like this: (1) Genova, (2) Brescia, (3) Verona. We hold all of this with open hands having already seen our hearts be excited about a place, only to learn as things developed that it probably wasn’t the best. We are encouraged by the progress we are making in the search, and we trust the Lord will continue to make our next steps clear. Thanks for praying.

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Alice on the way home.

Agur Didn’t Believe in Purgatory

We finished our Saturday compelled to thank the Father for the day He’d provided. We spent the morning with friends who live on the top floor of our apartment building. Having consumed the obligatory espresso (me) and cappuccino (Johanna) we took a passegiata (a stroll); a very Italian activity. As we meandered along, making our way to the park, Alessandro kept steering the conversation back to the Catholic Church and true faith.

Now, first impressions aren’t everything. People can feign interest in the things of God, the same way that saving faith can be feigned (Jn. 2:24; Acts 8:13). But, the few times we have been together he has shown a real curiosity about the truth. Over dinner at our place he commented that he found it absurd that priests tried to tell people how to conduct themselves in marriage or as parents since they have no experience in either area. When I told him that the Bible knows nothing of a priest in the Roman Catholic sense, and read him some of the elder qualifications from 1 Timothy 3, he was floored. I emphasized the fact that an elder must be, “the husband of one wife,” and “one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4).

In light of previous conversations like that one, I was hopeful I’d have another opportunity to contrast the religious world he’s always known with the Scriptures. At some point, in a conversation that traversed the emptiness of externalism and the need for a God-provided new heart, purgatory came up. I mentioned, almost in passing, that purgatory isn’t taught anywhere in the Bible. He was startled to say the least. In fact he said that he was really sconvolto, which means, “Gravely distraught, profoundly shaken/affected.” He turned and called out to his wife, who was walking with Johanna and the girls a ways back, and said, “You won’t believe this, but there’s no purgatory in the Bible!”

Adding to the Bible is somewhat of the Catholic Church’s specialty. It isn’t as if Roman Catholic doctrine came into existence all together at one moment in history. Although some Catholics strain to show that their doctrines are ancient, the fact remains that doctrines like Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of Mary were only made official in 1870 and 1950 respectively. Further, there is nothing that would keep the Catholic Church from continuing to create new doctrine today.

Purgatory itself is an important piece of the Roman Catholic doctrinal system. As long as you believe in an unbiblical view of justification: that a person can be justified but not totally cleansed, and an unbiblical view of sin: that there is a distinction between mortal and venial sins and that there are temporal punishments which we must do something about ourselves, purgatory makes sense.[1] To believe in purgatory (and all the connected doctrines) is to reject the Bible as absolute authority, because the only way to reach these conclusions is to believe something that isn’t in the Bible and that is contrary to its teaching.

I think Agur can help us here. This often underappreciated sage is quoted as saying, “Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:6). The statement, significant on its own, is all the more powerful in context. Agur is reflecting on the two most essential elements of theology: who we are (30:2-4), and who God is (30:5-6). A real submission to the authority of the Word of God is the truest expression of a high and glorious view of God. However, there is nothing more arrogant and God belittling than adding to God’s Word. The way we handle God’s Word tells us what we really think about God, and what we really think about ourselves.

With language no one would accuse as beating around the bush, Argur provides this self-assessment: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, And I do not have the understanding of a man. Neither have I learned wisdom, Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One.” (30:2-3). Agur is a brute on his best day. This isn’t feigned humility or self-pity, but rather a refreshingly honest articulation of biblical anthropology. What’s he getting at? We are utterly inadequate to account for life on our own or to understand our existence in a meaningful way by ourselves. It’s no coincidence that a life lived in attempted autonomy ultimately yields only confusion, frustration, pain, sadness and never clarity.

How does Agur arrive at vv. 2-3? Don’t miss verse 4. Our ability to answer the questions in verse 4, determines our viability as autonomous creatures in God’s universe. A high view of ourselves is only legitimate or realistic if we can answer ‘me’ to these questions: “Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son’s name? Surely you know!” (30:4). Our self-conception is appropriately dwarfed any time we cross-examine out hearts with the questions from verse 4.

Only by owning verses 2-4 do we come to point where we can understand that God and His Word are what we aren’t. The dead end of our attempts at independence leaves us needy for God’s help. “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him” (v. 5). God’s Word is free from even the slightest imperfection (cf. Psalm 12:6). Flaws are the only things that can be added to a word that is flawless. Acknowledging the surety of His Word leads to a trust in the security only His character can provide.

To summarize: Our willingness to embrace additions to the Word of God is connected to our view of ourselves and of God. Belief in Purgatory necessitates belief in a distorted view of God and of man, and so a distorted Gospel. Sadly people like my neighbor Alessandro are told by religious authorities, who supposedly speak for God, that Purgatory is a real place. This results in someone who thinks they believe what God teaches, but in reality guarantees a distorted view of mankind, God and the only true connection between God and man: the Gospel.

Agur didn’t believe in Purgatory. I think next time I see Alessandro I’ll tell him about Agur. I want to keep pushing Him back to God’s Word as the only acceptable absolute authority. This in turn will give me opportunity to press him to rethink the way he conceives himself and God. As long as his view of himself and God are distorted (the two always go together) he won’t be able to see his need for a Savior. A bit later in chapter 30 Agur goes on to give us a taste of what happens when someone rejects his theology. Perhaps the scariest is in verse 12: “There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness.”

[1] James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 182.

A week with Matteo

I felt a bit like a kid back from summer vacation as I hopped on the metro to head back to school this past week. I returned to school encouraged by the progress I thought we’d made towards fluency over the break and ready to dive back into the grammar. The week was good, and this was really the first full week of school where I didn’t have a “my-Italian-won’t-work-today” day (it came on Wednesday week two).

With new classes came new teachers. The Lord continued His pattern of giving us teachers who seem interested in the Gospel and/or who give us a platform to share about it. Although I didn’t have a ton of time to talk with my teacher for the group lessons, the teacher I spent the week with for my individual lessons was a different story. The teacher I’d requested wasn’t available for this week, and so the administrator told me I’d be working with Matteo.

Matteo is 28 (two years younger than me), studied literature and philosophy at university, and has been teaching Italian for the past 4 years. With individual lessons you really get to set the pace for your course, and I explained to the administrator that I wanted to work on my writing ability and maybe on some pronunciation. Essentially I figured I’d be writing a few paragraphs on somewhat generic themes, reading them aloud, and talking about grammar. All that happened, but much differently than I’d expected.

Matteo showed up on Tuesday (we met for about an hour Tuesday – Friday) and told me he was exited to work with me because he studied philosophy and was intrigued by the idea of a protestant pastor. Within about 10 minutes we were already discussing our differing worldviews. He was explaining to me that he’s convinced that there must be something out there, but that he’s pretty sure he can’t be sure, and he certainly can’t know what it is. We talked all about his inconsistent relativism and why God must exist.

Not one to pass up an opportunity like this, I wrote a brief one-page defense for the existence of God. Essentially I explained an argument called, “The Impossibility of the Contrary.” This argument explains that, “only Christianity provides the preconditions of intelligibility for man’s experience and reasoning. If Christianity were not true, the unbeliever could not prove or understand anything.”[1] The God of the Bible is (Heb. 11:6), that is, He must exist, because the world as it is would be impossible without Him. To reject Christ, says Van Til is “intellectual suicide.”

This “paper,” a generous way to talk about it, certainly wasn’t tight philosophical argumentation, but it spurred all sorts of conversation. We talked about the way that Matteo knows that there must be something ‘other’ because God put that knowledge in his heart (Rom. 1:19). But that God was gracious because He put this longing for something more in his heart in such a way that it couldn’t be satisfied in this earth (Eccl. 3:11). I told him about my testimony. He asked me about how I would raise my girls in the faith. He talked about what it was like to grow up in a strict Roman Catholic family. He talked about his philosophical heroes. We talked about interpreting the Bible. We talked about Jesus as offering something different from every other religion.

In case you’re wondering I did get my corrections, and we did talk grammar. It was a great exercise for my Italian. Especially at the more advanced levels, doing things you enjoy in the language is a great way to stay motivated to progress. But more than that, my heart sang with thanks to God for the opportunity. It was certainly a, “this is why I’m supposed to be here” moment.

[1] Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready, 152.

Alice Anne’s Approach to Language Learning

Speak Confidently. No matter what. Even if you are only using a real Italian word every tenth word, keeping talking! When the other person tries to end the conversation, don’t let that discourage you from getting a few more phrases in.

Watch as Alice applies her language learning philosophy on a friend who was at our place for dinner last night. Oh, and if you make it to the end, Noelle makes a brief appearance.

 

A Cultural Note: Ferragosto

All the things people said about summers in Rome weren’t just talk. It’s hot. Although everyone continues to stress the fact that we are getting off easy because it is usually much hotter (90 will be the high this week). But no matter how hot people think it is, most of them have still fled the city to find a cooler refuge. Traffic is less chaotic; still chaotic, but noticeably less so. Tourists are everywhere. We went to Piazza Navona to grab a gelato for Johanna’s birthday, and we heard significantly more German than Italian. And, while the larger supermarkets stay open, lots of stores are closed, with signs hanging in the window that read, “chiuso per ferie” (closed for the holidays).

The little shopping center by our house, mid-morning on a week day.

The little shopping center by our house, mid-morning on a week day.

August is sort of the finale of summertime holiday activity. It may not be as obvious now, but a friend told me growing up in Rome his neighborhood would be a ghost town come August. Ferragosto, the official holiday, lands on the 15th of August. Like with a lot that happens here, although there are some sort of official Roman Catholic connections, it seems as if most people are just excited to have some time off work. In this case it basically means going to the beach and eating special food. But the background is fascinating. An article on Focus.it explains the pagan roots of the holiday that later became a Roman Catholic celebration:

The name of the anniversary is derived from the Latin, feriae Augusti, “rest/holiday of August,” in honor of Octavian Augustus, first Roman Emperor, from whom the name of the month of August is taken. It was a period of rest and of celebration instituted by the Emperor himself in 18 B.C., that drew from the tradition of other holidays that celebrated the end of agricultural work, dedicated to…the god of the land and fertility…The anniversary was assimilated by the Catholic church about the 7th century when the celebration the Assumption of Mary began being commemorated August 15th. The dogma of the Assumption (recognized as such only in 1950) establishes that the Virgin Mary was assumed, that is accepted, into heaven body and soul.

But I didn’t read all that until yesterday. Instead we, along with what seemed like the rest of the country, went to the beach with some friends from church. We showed up at a free beach around 9 in the morning, near a small city called Latina about an hour outside of Rome. Our spot in the sand was about 6 rows back from the water. That is to say, at least 6 other groups had set up shop between us and the water. All of which is standard fare here. The beach scene in Italy involves guys wandering around peddling their wares; from bathing suits to bracelets to beach balls and other inflatable stuff. If you hear a whistle it is not the lifeguard warning of impending danger but the drink guy letting you know he has arrived. Most venders push some sort of make shift cart, but I noticed one guy who had blown up about a dozen inflatable animals, set them in the water, and walked behind as the waves washed them along the beach. Pretty tempting for a three year old.

Matt's turn to be assistant in the kitchen.

Matt’s turn to be assistant in the kitchen.

Around 12:30 we headed to our friends’ beach house. Johanna and I took turns being the assistant in the kitchen, as our friend is convinced we have no idea how pasta should be cooked. Johanna did well; I just basically struggled to cut tomatoes. Every region eats something different on Ferragosto. For our second course, we had the traditional Roman dish: stewed chicken and peppers (Wikipedia even confirms it). Our first course was an incredible spaghetti with various shellfish. Both our girls loved slurping the mussels right out of the shells in true Roman fashion. We are unsure if it is an odd side-effect of her starting to speak Italian, but over lunch we discovered that Alice has also developed a thick Southern twang for certain words. When she got her pasta she announced “there are sheeylls in this pasta.”

Coffee after the meal gave us the opportunity to have some extended conversations about what it looks like for God to get the glory even in the seemingly mundane. Spiritual conversations that require more nuance were difficult to navigate at the beginning. This happens to be the same couple we spent Christmas Eve with two weeks after we first arrived in Italy. And a lot has changed. The drive home was a chance to reflect with thanksgiving on what the Lord had accomplished in some very tangible ways.

Charles Bridges on Proverbs 13:24

I’ve found a friend in the study of Proverbs in Charles Bridges. His, “An Exposition of the Book of Proverbs,” first published in 1847, is freely available on Google Books. In thinking through Proverbs 13:24, “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently,” Johanna and I found his reflections challenging:

Among the many modern theories of education, how often is God’s system overlooked! Yet shoulnd not this be our pattern and standard? The rod of discipline is its main character; not harsh severity, but a wise, considerate, faithful exercise; always aiming at the subjugation of the will, and the humbling and purifying of the heart. Here how- ever God and man are at issue. Man often spares the rod, because he loves the child. This at least he calls love. But is not our Father’s love to his children inconceivably more yearning than that of an earthly parent? Yet does he not spare the rod—”What son is he, whom the Father chasteneth not?” (Heb. xii. 7.) Is the rod the proof of his hatred? “Whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth.” (Ib. verse 6. Deut. viii. 5. Rev. iii. 19.) Nay—he gives us his Divine judgment— He that spareth the rod, hateth the child. Does he not act at least as if he hated him; omitting a duty so necessary for his welfare; winking at the indulgence of vicious habits and a wayward will, so surely issuing in bitter sorrow? Is not this delivering him up to his worst enemy? Better that the child had been trained in tile house of strangers, than that he should thus be the unhappy victim of the cruelty of parental love. The discipline of our children must therefore commence with self- discipline. Nature teaches to love them much. But we want a controlling principle, to teach us to love them wisely. The indulgence of our children has its root in self-indulgence. We do not like putting ourselves to pain. The difficulties indeed can only be known by experience. And even in this school one parent cannot measure the trials of another. But all our children are children of Adam. “Foolishness is bound up in their hearts.” (Chap. xxii. 15. Gen. viii. 21.) All choose from the first dawn of reason, the broad road of destruction. (Isa. liii. 6.) And can we bear the thought, that they should walk in that road? We pray for their conversion. But prayer without teaching is mockery, and Scripture teaching implies chastening. Discipline therefore must be. All need the rod, some again and again. Yet it must be the father’s rod, yearning over his chastened child. (Ps. ciii. 13), even while he dares “not spare him for his crying.” (Chap. xix. 18.) The rod without affection is revolting tyranny. But often do we hear mourning over failure. And is not this the grand reason? We do not chastise betimes. (Ib.), Satan begins with the infant in arms! (Ps. lviii. 3. Isa. xiviii. 8.) The cry of passion is his first stir of the native corruption. Do we begin as early? Every vice commences in the nursery. The great secret is, to establish authority in the dawn of life; to bend the tender twig, before the knotty oak is beyond our power. A child, early trained by parental discipline, will probably preserve the wholesome influence to the end of life. But fearful indeed is the difficulty, when the child has been the early master; to begin chastening, when the habit of disobedience has been formed and hardened; to have the first work to do, when the child is growing out of childhood, and when the unreserved confidence needs to be established. Rarely indeed does this late experiment succeed: while the severity necessary to enforce it is not less dangerous than painful. “It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.” (Lam. iii. 27.)