Book Review – Speaking to Silence: New Rites for Christian Worship and Healing

Faced with planning a worship service in support of the survivors of suicide or infant death, clergy usually muddle through, adapting words originally written for quite different circumstances. With some pastoral adjustment, standard ritual serves well in a wide range of circumstances. But who has not wished—while scanning on the fly to scratch the most discordant words—for rituals that tear the veil of squeamishness and speak directly to the case at hand?

Speaking to Silence offers liturgies, rituals, and practical advice for Christian worship in situations not found in the index of the average prayer-book. Where else can you find a ritual to steady the victim of an unfair boss, to support the family of a chronically ill child, to reclaim a house haunted by the memory of a violent crime, or to rebuild spiritual wholeness in a person who has lost an arm?

As you may know from experience, you can learn some things only from experience. Speaking to Silence springs from its author’s twenty years as pastor of a racially and economically diverse Lutheran parish in Germantown, Philadelphia. Any situation in the book could certainly arise in any place, but this is unmistakably an urban book that accepts diversity, suffering, and recovery from suffering as normal parts of life.

Janet Peterman, I ought to tell you, is a long-time friend. I didn’t need to read Speaking to Silence to know it would be full of practical ideas and advice for pastors, or that it would reflect both deep Lutheran roots and an open heart to others whose religious language and ideas differ. Nor was I surprised that Peterman invited other people to write some of the ceremonies, the better to encourage readers to create fresh rituals of their own.

What unifies the book and makes it more than a collection of new rituals and practical advice about how to use them, is the author’s challenge to the silence of conventional religion about life events it finds embarrassing or shameful. A rite “For Blessing a Gay Union until the Church is Ready to Bless” allows for celebrating a relationship even if church regulations require the service to take place outside the sanctuary. Services for “Acknowledging Addiction,” “Turning into Recovery,” and “Beginning Again after a Slip” show a refreshing willingness to embrace and extend the gifts of twelve-step programs, which many clergy keep at arms’ length because of their quasi-religious content. Given that addiction is the most common pastoral issue in many congregations, it is about time we looked for allies rather than quibbling about who’s right.

To recovering addicts, Peterman suggests pairing biblically-inspired laments (“Woe to me when…”) with biblically-inspired affirmations: (“Blessed am I when…” ) in a single inhale-exhale ritual. It is a practice that honors both human frailty and the power of positive thinking, while steering clear of both harsh judgment and naive happy-talk.

The lament-affirmation practice could be good for clergy and congregations committed to our own recovery. We might say, “Woe to us when we turn away from suffering that makes us uncomfortable.” And then, “Blessed are we when we find courage to bring words of hope into our shadow places.” Speaking to Silence will help us find the courage and the words.