that word we gave up for lent

There is a song that I love, a song about love. You probably know it. It is called “Hallelujah,” though it doesn’t claim to be a religious song and as far as I know wasn’t on any religious top-40 charts. In Ann Arbor recently, I found a book about the song, which is why it has been on my mind again. (Plus, I discovered there are way more verses than I’ve heard before.) The book is “The Holy or the Broken,” which doesn’t really sound much like a book about love. You’d expect something more like “The Joy and the Passion” or “The Ecstasy and the Mere Giddiness.” Somehow we have in our cultural daydreams the notion that love is always supposed to be upbeat. Even if we know better, the drumbeat of our society is the feel-good love we’re all supposed to be seeking. And it can carry over into our lives of faith. Some kinds of Christianity pressure us to be high on Jesus all the time, always singing praises and feeling good. Breathlessly we’re supposed thank God for all our blessings, expressing over-the-top delight in even the most mundane bits of the day. But life isn’t like that. And the lyricist knows better:

Well Baby, I’ve been here before. I’ve seen this room and I’ve walked this floor
You know, I used to live alone before I knew you.
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch, but love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

Counter-cultural? Sort of. And maybe why the song has resonated with so many different kinds of people in its 30 years.

Now maybe there’s a God above, but all I ever learned from love
is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you.
And it’s no complaint you hear at night, and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light.
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.

This is someone who has failed, who has been betrayed, who has been hurt by love. And who can still hope. If you don’t know the song, you should hear it. Haunting melody, biblical allusions, and a realism that often escapes us.

Of course, many of us have given up speaking “hallelujah” for Lent, in order to try to reflect more deeply than rote expressions of praise and gratitude allow. But this song, this Hallelujah, takes us deeper into recognition that all is not as it should be, that we are not the people we mean to be, that our lives haven’t been all that we hoped or all that was possible. Lent is the time when we dump all that at God’s feet and let it become something more than it ever could otherwise.

Maybe “dumping it at God’s feet” for you means formal confession time, or the congregation reciting Psalm 51, called the “Miserere:” Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.

Or maybe you’re not so religious, or not on friendly terms with religion in general:

You say I took the name in vain; I don’t even know the name.
But if I did, well, really, what’s it to you?
There’s a blaze of light in every word; it doesn’t matter which you heard,
The holy or the broken Hallelujah.

Maybe for you, a painfully honest journal is your confession. Maybe you participate in a 12-step program, relying on step 4, that “fearless moral inventory.” Or maybe, as one congregation is helping folks do, you jot whatever you need to jettison onto an anonymous postcard and mail it to the writers of Post Secret – a growing collection of anonymous posts written by people who can’t speak aloud the thing they really need to get out of their bodies.

Or maybe this song. It isn’t so much HOW we purge, but more a matter of realizing again that we are creatures, not creator, of joining once more in the humility that it is to be human. This is perhaps the most private, personal part of faith. And yet we need community to do it well.

I did my best; it wasn’t much. I couldn’t feel, so I learned to touch.
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you.
And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my lips but Hallelujah.

Blessings on the way.

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About Deb Conrad
I’m Deb Conrad, pastor, teacher, photographer, writer, antique-lover, cat-mom, wine-drinker and old-house-seeker. I have a bike by Burley and knees by Stryker. I play guitar marginally, bowl when I can. I live in Flint, Michigan, with previous lives in SC, NJ, PA, MD, Washington DC, TX, CA and KY. I founded and still help run UrbanSpirit, a poverty education center in Louisville (link below), where I meet interesting people and try to do what I can to change the world. I'm pastor of Woodside Church in Flint, a groovy place if ever there was one.

4 Responses to that word we gave up for lent

  1. jlwynn says:

    Thanks Deb! Loved this….

  2. Mary Mack says:

    That is a great song and I like how you broke some of the lyrics into bite-sized pieces to analyze and appreciate. A good, educational read, as always.

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