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Words on the Word Interview with Leslie C. Allen, Author of Liturgy of Grief

July 28, 2012

Not long ago I reviewed Leslie C. Allen’s Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. The book gently yet steadily coaches the reader in processing grief, expositing and drawing on the rich Biblical tradition of lament. I interviewed Dr. Allen this week.

You write, “Contemporary Western culture provides little space for grief.”  Why do you think this is?

A very good question. Perhaps, in reflection of a technologically advanced and relatively stable society, our culture expects comfort, convenience, and control, and won’t face up to anything contrary. Medication is assumed to be the answer to psychological as well as physical ills. So we feel embarrassed by grieving (and dying) people.

How can churches and worshiping communities better attend to the grieving processes of their community members? In addition to Lamentations and the rest of the rich Biblical tradition, are there other resources available to worship leaders and liturgists to better help them guide their communities through experiences of grief?

One example comes to mind. When I moved my home and started attending a new church some years ago, I found the associate minister’s morning prayer each Sunday was prayed on behalf of those present who were suffering in various ways. It was a different prayer each week, always wide reaching and beautifully crafted. I (and doubtless others) appreciatively felt she was praying for me, at a time when I needed prayer but found it difficult to pray.

You say, “‘Why?’ in the complaint psalms is never an intellectual request for information but a loaded rhetorical question that conveys emotional bewilderment and protest.”  Is there ever an appropriate time for the pastor/chaplain to address questions like “Why did this evil happen?” through a more deliberately theological-philosophical lens?  If so, how does the chaplain discern if and when it’s appropriate to go there?

C.S.Lewis’s The Problem of Pain evidently brought him no help as he penned A Grief Observed. Lamentations felt free to eventually tackle theological issues, using prophetic revelation as the guideline, whereas we and those we try to help are not living in the immediacy of such a situation when prophecy was being directly fulfilled. And Lamentations is able to give a variety of answers, perhaps in the hope that some at least would be found helpful. If a grieving person truly seeks an intellectual answer, one may tentatively broach some thoughts to be tried on for size. Otherwise, it is better considered when the emotional passion of grief does not intrude.

You mention the New Testament story (Mark 4:35-41) where Jesus’ disciples ask, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  Especially given Jesus’s reply (“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?”), how can we who worship God know when it’s appropriate to lament or complain in prayer and when it’s not?  This is the “how far is too far?” question with relation to lament and prayer!

If our prayers are to be real, we must pray from where we are, emotionally and in other ways. We miss a tone of voice in the written form of biblical revelation. I suspect Jesus’ reply was mainly meant as reassurance, rather than rebuke, like the examples of “Do not fear” in Isaiah 40:9; 41:13, 14; 43:1-2; 44:2, etc.

I happened to read Allen’s book just before the Colorado movie theater shootings. Reading it inspired me to find and pray two lament prayers in response (here and here). As a Professor of Old Testament and hospital chaplain, Allen in his book provides the reader with good space for grief and Biblically-inspired means to lament.  A Liturgy of Grief is available here.

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