Good Grief (a review of A Liturgy of Grief)
There is a Yiddish proverb that calls tears the soap of the soul. The release, rather than the bottling up, of inarticulate emotion is a valuable first aid to be applied over and over again to the raw wounds of grief.
—A Liturgy of Grief, p. 2
My boss and I have recently lamented together the lack of good lament liturgies for the Church. Worshiping communities seem to be good at celebration and constant in intercession–maybe even at times confession–but lament? We’re too scared or too complacent to adopt that difficult posture. We may think that even if we wanted to lament, we don’t have the words with which to do it. “Contemporary Western culture,” Leslie C. Allen says in his Liturgy of Grief, “provides little space for grief.”
And yet we do have resources, scripts to help us unbottle the anguish and woe we inevitably experience. Allen, whose book is aptly subtitled A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations, writes, “The book of Lamentations is best understood as the script of a liturgy intended as a therapeutic ritual.”
A Liturgy of Grief is a unique kind of commentary. Though Allen has written technical commentaries and contributed to commentary sets (a few are here), this book is a monograph, a singular contribution to Lamentations commentaries. Baker Academic publishes it, but it is not so academic or technical so as to exclude readers who have only a passing familiarity with Lamentations or the Old Testament.
The book includes the full English text of Lamentations, in Allen’s own translation. Though he often references the Hebrew he translates, he rarely lists the Hebrew words themselves. Language and translation buffs, however, will be happy to see nine pages of translation notes in an appendix. (This language buff appreciated that Allen saved his longest translation note for the single English word “but” in the last verse of Lamentations.)
Allen has written lengthy technical commentaries, yet this is not that, nor is it intended to be. However, Allen does not neglect to thoroughly elucidate the text. He understands the five chapters of Lamentations as “five poems,” each with their own distinctive theme and contribution to the larger book. The climax of the book comes in the fifth poem. Here the grieving community, having heard the model prayers of a pastoral mentor/liturgist (Allen calls him “the reporter”), at last can pray to God in their grief.
Allen weaves together narratives past and present, from the 6th century B.C. to today, in order to guide the reader section-by-section through the book of Lamentations. In addition to being Senior Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, he is a hospital chaplain. Nicholas Wolterstorff comments in the foreword, “[Allen] brings to his commentary an understanding of grief that was already deeply informed both by the contemporary literature on grief, all of which he seems to have read, and by his own activities as a hospital chaplain.” In reference to the repeated expressions of grief in the first poem (chapter 1 of Lamentations), Allen writes:
For those who grieve, but not for their regular hearers, the old story is ever new, always filling their consciousness and needing to be told once more, as intensely as it was the first time. Patience is the prime virtue that empathy requires.
Any preacher, liturgist, or worship leader will appreciate Allen’s commentary. He gives attention to the approach and words of “the reporter”/liturgist in Lamentations, drawing important conclusions that can guide today’s liturgist in helping a community deal with grief:
In this [third] poem a wounded healer offers his knowledge of God’s ways and his experience of them in a context of suffering. At beginning and end he ministers out of his own suffering and presents himself as an object lesson. A fellow sufferer, he points the congregation forward to a new wholeness that both he and they yearn to attain. In turn, we readers who are wounded have the potential to be wounded healers.
A Liturgy of Grief is a special book and a gift to the Church, both its leaders and its members. Contrary to lament-free churches or a Western culture which knows not how to grieve, Allen opens up a space for readers to recall and feel their hurt and the hurt of others. The commentary is “pastoral,” just as it promises, with Allen a pastor to any who will receive the ministry he has to offer through this book. “When believers find themselves in such a fearfully dark valley,” Allen concludes, “the biblical tradition is there, providing challenging words for souls in pain to use.” In addition to Lamentations, Allen evokes the biblical traditions of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joel, and makes reference to numerous lament Psalms.
Allen illuminates all these “challenging words” of Scripture beautifully. His final chapter perfectly matches the surprising ending of Lamentations. (No spoilers here, but I will say that all I could write in the margins was, “This is real, true, holy.”) I finally realized hours after finishing the book that, all along, Allen as author plays the same role to reader as “the reporter”/liturgist in Lamentations did to his 6th century B.C. worshiping community:
He mentors members of the community by giving expression to the grief he and they have in common, turning incoherent feelings into words and explaining the experiences they have all been through. …He is also interpreter of their loss…. and finally involves them in a creative response of their own that they are ready to make in the final poem…
…that of prayer to God. As a result, A Liturgy of Grief serves as its own sort of book of Lamentations for the 21st century, with Allen “giving expression to the grief” of his readers, interpreting their loss and–finally–guiding them into a response of prayer.
I offer my thanks to Baker Academic for providing me with a free review copy in exchange for an unbiased review. A Liturgy of Grief is available at Amazon.
UPDATE: I interview the author here.