“Cold and Broken Hallelujah”
At the end of October 2018, over one hundred members of the Winona community gathered one evening at Wesley United Methodist church to pray. A few days before, a gunman had opened fire at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh killing eleven people and wounding six others. In the sanctuary that evening, we gathered with friends and neighbors, community and religious leaders to pray, to grieve, and to remember. My role in that service was to read the names of the dead, a solemn and holy responsibility. And as our service concluded, everyone was given a candle, and Rev. Rachel Rosendahl and I led a procession of all gathered down Broadway towards Windom Park. We walked in the dark in silence, remembering and mourning, guided by candlelight and the person in front of us.
It took a long time for everyone to arrive in the park, but as people were gathering – Pastor Rachel and I realized that while the procession had been planned, what was going to be done in the park had not. Pastor Rachel and I whispered to one another, thinking of a way to draw to a close that somber and shadow-filled evening. We both were feeling the heavy responsibility of our role in the community that night – to lead the gathered through the vital task of lament towards a place of hope. Finally, we decided that we needed to sing. So, Pastor Rachel, who has a glorious musical talent, raised her voice and sang “Hallelujah,” a familiar, haunting song. Soon, all of those assembled were joined with her.
I stood alongside Pastor Rachel and looked out at those gathered. I could see their faces reflected in the candlelight; I could hear their voices raised together. I could feel the grief and found comfort in the hope. I was very new to Winona – I had been your pastor for less than two months. I looked out at a sea of faces that were still unfamiliar to me, but have since become my community. The Holy Dove was moving amongst us – filling our Spirits, providing room for our grief and yet at the same time grounding us in the promise of hope and life. I looked out at my new community and heard them sing “Hallelujah,” but not the joy-filled hallelujahs for times of celebration – they were, as the song says, “cold and broken”
Leonard Cohen, who wrote that haunting song “Hallelujah” said this: “This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can… reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’. The song explains that many kinds of hallelujahs do exist, and all the perfect and broken hallelujahs have equal value. It’s a desire to affirm my faith in life, not in some formal religious way but with enthusiasm, with emotion.”
We are existing in a strange place right now, a place that, as Leonard Cohen said, cannot be reconciled. We are starting Thanksgiving week in the United States. Normally a time of joy and gathering and abundance and family. Yet, we have gotten to this week just as the pandemic’s full force is upon us – people are getting sick and dying at record numbers all around us. Our hospital systems are at or near their breaking point – many having to make the impossible decision of who gets care and who doesn’t. Health officials and community leaders have begged us to set aside our beloved traditions, to not gather, to stay home, separate and isolated. What so many of us are trying to reconcile is how do we give thanks in the midst of death. Another way to ask the question is, how do we raise our voices to sing Hallelujah in the midst of pandemic?
How do we give thanks, sing hallelujah when this is what we are seeing: Too many families with empty chairs at their table. Too many families not able to afford a feast for their household. Too many families trying to cobble together Zoom gatherings, smiling across computer screens when all they really want to do is to embrace their loved ones. Too many people alone – staying isolated to protect their own health and the health of those they love. Too many people trying to think of what they can give thanks for – and struggling to come up with answers. That is why the song ‘Hallelujah’ kept playing in my head as I tried to think of what a Thanksgiving worship service would be in 2020. Because Leonard Cohen said that he wanted to express his belief that a perfect hallelujah and a broken hallelujah are of equal value. This year, at a time that our nation has set aside to give thanks, we have no perfect hallelujahs to offer. But the broken ones, those hallelujahs said with broken voices, through tears, through grief, through longing for normalcy, those broken hallelujahs are just as valuable. They help us to reconcile and embrace the whole mess, as Cohen said. And as people of faith, we are called to do just that – to embrace this whole messy world, to give thanks to God for all that we do have, and to sing our Hallelujahs through it all.
My Beloved Community, our faith in God is grounded in hope. Our faith grounds us in new life. Our faith grounds us in compassion and possibility. Our faith grounds us in Hallelujahs. As St. Augustine said, “We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our cry.” We are an Easter people. We are a people of life. We are a people of impossible hope. We are a people who have put our trust in a God that says death, destruction, disease are not the end of things – life is the end just as it is the beginning. We are a people who follow a Savior born into poverty and risen in the empty tomb. We are a people of Hallelujah – we are people of Hallelujah even when, especially when, all we can muster are cold and broken.
Singing Hallelujah is not meant to be falsely cheerful, a veneer of okay-ness in the midst of despair. Singing cold and broken Hallelujahs gives space for lament that is yet wrapped in the embrace of hope. Singing cold and broken Hallelujahs helps us to look out at the world and see and feel the pain, but also to see and feel the good. Singing cold and broken Hallelujahs is how we can give thanks in a year that feels as if there is nothing to be thankful for. We are an Easter people, a people of Hallelujah, a people of hope. We are an Easter people, and this year we are a people of cold and broken Hallelujahs.
Two years ago I stood in Windom Park with the Winona community, and while embraced in gentle candlelight I listened as you sang of hope in the midst of grief. I listened as you sang Hallelujah while you mourned. I listened to your voices as they gave thanks to God, God who does not turn away from our pain and suffering, but rather holds us close, draws us near, and strengthens us for our days to come. And I learned then that there is always a reason to give thanks. There is always a reason to sing. There is always a reason to cry Hallelujah.
I join my voice with the voices of health leaders in our state and ask that you set aside those gatherings and traditions that you love this year. And I do so knowing how much pain it causes. It hurts me too. But I also do so putting my trust in God – putting my hope in God. Knowing that no matter how isolated we have to be to care for our neighbors, nothing, nothing can isolate us from the presence and love of God. We are an Easter people which means we are a people of life and impossible hope. We are a people of promise. We are a people of Hallelujahs. On Thursday, however you choose to mark the Thanksgiving holiday, remember this: you do have so much to be grateful for. We all do. So raise your voices and cry your cold and broken Hallelujahs, raise your voices and give thanks.
Let us pray…
On this day, O God, in distant community and in solitude we come before you to give thanks and to offer our cold and broken hallelujahs.
For some of us the words we offer will flow easily from our lips. For others trying to name our blessings may prove difficult.
Thanksgiving 2020 is very different from previous years, many of us will be alone, or with much smaller numbers of family. Some will have a newly empty chair at their table, and others will be so busy caring for the sick, they won’t have time to rest. And for us all, worries will try to crowd out our sense of blessing.
These realities reshape our prayers from years past. As we seek joy, we know that first we may need to travel through heartbreak.
Whatever our reality, O God, we ask that you help us focus not so much on material things
(whether their abundance or scarcity) but rather on how we are living our lives. Help us recognize all the ways you are present in our lives this year. Help us gather the strength we need for today and for all of our tomorrows.
We know that you hear our prayers and praise, even when they are said through tears. And in those moments when we have no words to utter aloud, you hear the cries of our hearts. For this and for your presence in our lives, we give great thanks.
We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, who showed us that it is possible to look the pain of the world straight on and offer a blessing. A blessing that brings healing and hope. And we pray as he taught us by saying together…Our Father…