Why Christian? Hallelujahs!

September 13, 2015


Robin McGonigle

University Congregational Church

Sept. 13, 2015


“Why Christian — Hallelujahs?”

Psalm 22:1, Psalm 23:1-2


On Saturday afternoon two weeks ago, an SUV veered off a highway off ramp in D’Iberville Mississippi and crashed, flipping several times.  Six people were in the vehicle: an adult driver and five small children.  All five children needed medical attention.  One first responder firefighter saw a hurt, panicked child and did his best to calm him down… he literally laid beside him in the road and played clips of the movie “Happy Feet” the animated penguin movie – on his mobile phone -which was genius.


Firefighter Casey Lessard did his best to help a young victim feel less scared and alone.  “The video calmed him down instantly,” fire captain Darren Peterson told the Sun Herald.  While many of us might have been squeamish because of blood and injuries (all 5 children were thrown from the vehicle on impact), Lessard had the presence of mind to look beyond the obvious and help comfort the child.


This is the letter Stephen King received about his first manuscript, “Carrie”. “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.”    In fact, the novel was rejected so many times that King collected the accompanying notes on a spike in his bedroom.  After 30 rejections, King threw the manuscript in the trash.  His wife retrieved it and continued to believe in him despite all the rejections.  “Carrie” was finally published in 1974 with a print run of 30,000 copies.  When the paperback version was released a year later, it sold over a million copies in 12 months.


It is a phenomenon often experienced: heartache and pain can incapacitate us or it can teach us to live with courage and faith.


Psychologists, teachers and faith leaders agree that when talking to children and adolescents about life’s challenges, we must be honest and acknowledge the pain and sorrow that happens.  At the same time, we have a responsibility to offer hope and good news in times of sadness… not with unrealistic, rose colored stories… but with the true stories of people who offer bold, loving actions in the midst of heartache.


A rugged, six-hour drive out of the capital city of Nepal takes you to a small village at the foothills of the Himalayas. Upon arrival, you step out of the Jeep to see that the only remains of the village are scattered across the ground – rubble in the shadows of the homes that once stood. This is Armi, a village completely leveled by the massive earthquake that shook the country on April 25, 2015 and killed more than 8,000.

The 7.8-magnitude quake made world news instantly. Days later, aftershocks reaching 7.3 magnitude levels continued to devastate Nepal and its neighboring nations, causing an avalanche on Mount Everest and ultimately leading to deaths across three countries.

In the height of the earthquake’s devastation, nonprofit organizations, churches, and medical teams from all over the world flocked to Nepal.  But now, many rescuers are leaving the needy behind. The reason?  Monsoon season. Months upon months of rain are expected to undo most of the rebuilding that has been done.  The situation seems hopeless, and relief efforts are slimming by the day.

In the midst of this, you will find team leaders John Fredricks and Tali Constantz, two Christian PEACE volunteers who, like so many others, rushed to Nepal to begin relief work as soon as possible and stayed.  Their church in California has made a commitment to stay – and send others to offer respite.


Tragedy and heartache don’t have the last word for people of faith.  The sorrow and pain are real.  And at the same time, we recognize that all is not lost; that fear and suffering and death don’t have the last word.  This is the meaning behind the song, “Hallelujah”, written by Leonard Cohen and recorded by many, including Jeff Buckley.  Michael suggested that I read a book about this song and that we use it for our fall kick-off to the theme of “Why Christian?”  The book is entitled “The Holy or the Broken”, written by Alan Light.


The song, “Hallelujah” is a song in the minor and can easily be identified as a song about brokenness and heartache.  However, it is also a song about finding the holy in brokenness.  Listen now to the words…




Well I heard there was a secret chord

That David played and it pleased the Lord

But you don’t really care for music, do you?

Well it goes like this:

The fourth, the fifth, the minor fall and the major lift

The baffled king composing Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…


Well your faith was strong but you needed proof

You saw her bathing on the roof

Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya

She tied you to her kitchen chair

She broke your throne and she cut your hair

And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…


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 ya

And I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch

And love is not a victory march

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…


There was a time when you let me know

What’s really going on below

But now you never show that to me, do ya?

But remember when I moved in you

And the holy dove was moving too

And every breath we drew was Hallelujah


Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…


Maybe there’s a God above

But all I’ve ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

And it’s not a cry that you hear at night

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah


Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah…


Broken Hallelujahs.  That’s what we have to offer as people of faith.  We cannot change brokenness per se.  Rocks fall.  Cancers invade.  Earthquakes quake and sadness comes.  Brokenness is a part of what it is to be human.  But it does not have the last word.


Hallelujah is a Hebrew word which means “to praise joyously”.  As the song explains, there are many kinds of hallelujahs.  It starts out with the Biblical story of David, who “played to please the Lord” and then became a “baffled king composing Hallelujah!”  The next verse tells how he saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, bathing on her roof.  In the words of musician Bono, the song portrays King David as shouting praises to God while he was also shouting admonishment “Why hast thou forsaken me?”  Many of us can identify.  Our traditional word for today is a combination of psalms attributed to David: Psalm 22 and Psalm 23.  I have intertwined the two psalms into a chorus, much like the song “Hallelujah”:


My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The Lord is my Shepherd.
Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning?

I shall not want.
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer,
and by night, but I find no rest.

God leads me beside still waters.  My soul is restored.


The song also makes reference to the story of Delilah cutting Samson’s hair – the source of his strength and power.  Both of these biblical heroes are brought down to earth, and risk surrendering their authority.  They are larger-than-life figures and leaders of nations, but on the brink of disaster.


This song is:

  • joyous and despondent
  • a celebration and a lament
  • a juxtaposition of dark Old Testament imagery with an irresistibly uplifting chorus
  • an open-ended meditation on love and faith.


That is why it has been recorded by dozens of artists from U2 to Justin Timberlake, from Bon Jovi to Celine Dion, from Willie Nelson to opera stars.  It was a balm to a grieving nation when a version of it was used for VH1’s official post-9/11 tribute video; it was used at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver; and the benefit song for the earthquake in Haiti.


We will be hurt, tested, and challenged.  Love will break our hearts, music will offer solace that we may or may not hear, we will be faced with joy and with pain.  But the song reminds us not to surrender to despair or nihilism.  This is about hope and perseverance – holy or broken – there is still a hallelujah to be sung.


Whatever is going on in your life – joyous or tragic – there is still reason to give thanks.  Whatever is going on in the life of another – or what went on in the past – there is still room for grace.  Thanks be to God.