Singing a cold and broken hallelujah

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Rev. Matt Baughman

“I heard there was a secret chord, that David played and it pleased the Lord,” states Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Leonard Cohen taught many to pray. He was not a preacher or an expert on faith and religion. Cohen was the songsmith who wrote, “Hallelujah,” You’ve likely heard one of the nearly 300 recorded versions of the song. Maybe you caught it at the end of a heartrending episode of one of your favorite television shows. Or maybe, like millions, you heard it in the movie Shrek.

Hearing the song, you may have been surprised at the way the hallelujah chorus was weaved between stories of adultery, pride, and doubt. Though there are many versions of the song, all begin with the stories of two famous biblical figures, Samson and David. Samson was a proud and violent man. David was overcome with desire for another man’s wife and destroyed his own kingdom. Some versions of the song continue with these story lines. Other versions describe the agony of a struggling romance or the painful reality of abandonment. Then, amid these unholy stories, we hear the sacred chorus: “Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah.”

At first, one might wonder if Cohen was merely being irreverent by injecting God into stories of doubt, lust, and vengeance. However, I believe Cohen’s song mirrors some of the holiest songs ever written, the Book of Psalms. In the Bible, the psalms are prayers and songs, written by people stuck between their human predicaments and the powerful reality of God. Some of these psalms are clear shouts of praise to God, “Hallelujah,” but others are much more like the “cold and broken hallelujah” of Cohen’s song. There are prayers about God’s absence, prayers about loneliness and betrayal, and prayers for vengeance. Even more, many of these songs are attribute to the wayward King David himself. Nevertheless, all are prayer.

Maybe you pray. Maybe you don’t. Maybe you believe in God. Maybe that is simply too much to think about. But, maybe you can sing along with Mr. Cohen. When you do, you are standing in a long tradition of prayer that includes even Jesus himself, who in his greatest moment of suffering, took a line from one of the bleakest Psalms, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

As with many of the Psalms, Cohen’s prayer ends with a hint of hope – hope, not in the strength of one’s prayer or faith, but hope that the reality of God is greater than all human pain, suffering, and doubt.

Even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song with nothing on my tongue but ‘Hallelujah.’

This column was written on behalf of the Moses Lake Christian Ministerial Association.

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