I have written a book review that is slated to be published in an upcoming issue of Bible Study Magazine.
You can see what Bible Study Magazine looks like by flipping through this past issue.
The book I review is Lamentations and the Song of Songs, by Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell. It’s the newest edition of Westminster John Knox Press’s Belief theological commentary series. (More about the book is here.)
Both authors suggest reading their respective biblical books in a “participatory mood.” Cox and Paulsell each highlight the timelessness of Lamentations and Song of Songs, surveying well their history of interpretation to help readers today apply them and enter in to the texts. A good commentary to have at hand, especially when preaching through either Lamentations or Song of Songs–something that probably doesn’t happen as often as it should.
We’re afraid of other people’s pain. Like Job’s friends, we’re afraid when we don’t have answers. Job doesn’t get any answers for his sufferings, but he gets God.
–Michael Card, from this great article on Biblical lament in worship.
He’s got an album called The Hidden Face of God, which you can hear at Grooveshark for free (or click on the album image to the left). It kicks off with a great Gospel-flavored track called, “Come Lift Up Your Sorrows.”
Doran Stambaugh, formerly of the Chicagoland band w a t e r w o r k s , has written a song, “I Don’t Understand,” as a response to the mass shooting at the Dark Knight screening a week and a half ago. This is a good lament.
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.
Yesterday I posted a prayer of lament for the victims and families of victims of the shooting at the Dark Knight showing in Aurora, Colorado the other day. Here is another lament prayer, compiled by Laurence Hull Stookey from a collection of Scriptures.
Christians do, after all, have a rich Biblical tradition from which to draw in expressing our mournful prayers of lament to God. Below the prayer are citation information and a link to a formatted, print-friendly pdf of the prayer.
If I were leading a congregation in unison prayer or offering a pastoral prayer tomorrow morning for all those affected by the shooting, I think this is what I would use. It’s good “lament liturgy.”
Prayer of Lament
O God, you are our help and strength,
our refuge in the time of trouble.
In you our ancestors trusted;
They trusted and you delivered them.
When we do not know how to pray as we ought,
your very Spirit intercedes for us
with sighs too deep for words.
We plead for the intercession now, Gracious One.
For desolation and destruction are in our streets,
and terror dances before us.
Our hearts faint; our knees tremble;
our bodies quake; all faces grow pale.
Our eyes are spent from weeping
and our stomachs churn.
How long, O Lord, how long
must we endure this devastation?
How long will destruction lay waste at noonday?
Why does violence flourish
while peace is taken prisoner?
Rouse yourself! Do not cast us off in times of trouble.
Come to our help;
redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love.
For you are a gracious God
abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.
By the power of the cross,
through which you redeemed the world,
bring to an end hostility
and establish justice in the gate.
For you will gather together your people into that place
where mourning and crying and pain
will be no more,
and tears will be wiped from every eye.
Hasten the day, O God for our salvation.
Accomplish it quickly! Amen.
From Let the Whole Church Say Amen! A Guide for Those Who Pray in Public by Laurence Hull Stookey, pp 94-95 (Copyright 2001 by Abingdon Press). Reproduced by permission. Formatted print-friendly pdf of prayer here.
Scriptures from which the above prayer comes are: Psalm 124:8, Psalm 37:39, Psalm 22:4, Romans 8:26, Isaiah 59:7, Job 41:22, Nahum 2:10, Lamentations 2:11, Isaiah 6:11, Psalm 91:6, Psalm 44:23, Psalm 44:26, Exodus 34:6, 1 Corinthians 1:17, Ephesians 2:14, Amos 5:15, Revelation 21:4, Isaiah 60:22.
Last night a 24-year-old gunman opened fire on a theater full of people who had come to see The Dark Knight Rises on opening night.
From the New York Times:
A gunman armed with three weapons, including a rifle and shotgun, opened fire in a theater crowded with families and children at a midnight showing of the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises” in a Denver suburb early Friday morning, killing at least 12 people and wounding at least 38 others, the local police and federal officials said.
Just before he began shooting, the police said the man, identified as James Holmes, 24, had appeared in front of the packed theater in Aurora, Colo., and set off at least one smoke device before firing randomly at audience members, who had just settled into their seats.
Read the whole article here.
Just this last week I read a moving book called A Liturgy of Grief: A Pastoral Commentary on Lamentations. I reviewed it here. I quoted something the author, Leslie C. Allen, says right at the beginning of the book:
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.
Surely this shooting is occasion for the release of some inarticulate emotions: emotions of frustration, anger, sadness, confusion, mourning. Even for those of us with no direct connections to the shooting victims, it is occasion for grief.
Allen in his book often refers to a book by Ann Weems called Psalms of Lament. She composed her psalms (patterned after the Biblical ones) after she unexpectedly lost her son on his 21st birthday. She dedicates the book “to those who weep and to those who weep with those who weep.” Here is her Lament Psalm Four, which I hope you will pray with me now:
O Holy One, I can no longer see.
Blinded by tears
that will not cease,
I can only cry out to you
for your footsteps.
Are you, too, O God,
blinded by tears?
Have you watched this world
pile its hate
onto the faces
of your little ones
until your eyes are so filled with tears
that you cannot see me
waiting for you?
Are you, O God,
deafened by the expletives
of destruction and death?
Have you heard
so many obscenities
that you cannot hear
O God, if you are blind,
can’t you hold out
your hand to me?
If you’re deaf,
can’t you call my name?
How long, O God,
am I to sit
on the plain of blindness?
How long am I to listen
to the profanity
of my enemies
“Where is your God now?”
Show them, O my God,
that you remember.
Reach out your hand
and dry my eyes
that I might see
a new beginning.
Open your mouth
and call me by name
that I might know
you remember me.
Claim me that I might
announce in the marketplace
that my God is here.
O my heart,
My God is here even
in the midst of destruction.
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.