“A Broken Hallelujah: Letting the Light Shine Through”

A Broken Hallelujah: Letting the Light Shine Through
A Sermon by Rev. Megan Lynes
Given at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
On Sunday, October 21, 2012


A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:

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

–Leonard Cohen



Map of the Journey in Progress  by Victoria Safford

Here is where I found my voice and chose to be brave.

Here’s a place where I forgave someone, against my better judgment, and I survived that, and unexpectedly, amazingly, I became wiser.

Here’s where I was once forgiven, was ready for once in my life to receive forgiveness and to be transformed. And I survived that also. I lived to tell the tale.

This is the place where I said no, more loudly than I’d thought I ever could, and everybody stared, but I said no loudly anyway, because I knew it must be said, and those staring settled down into harmless, ineffective grumbling, and over me they had no power anymore.

Here’s a time, and here’s another, when I laid down my fear and walked right on into it, right up to my neck into that roiling water.

Here’s where cruelty taught me something. And here’s where I was first astonished by gratuitous compassion and knew it for the miracle it was, the requirement it is. It was a trembling time.

And here, much later, is where I returned the blessing, clumsily. It wasn’t hard, but I was unaccustomed. It cycled round, and as best I could I sent it back on out, passed the gift along. This circular motion, around and around, has no apparent end.

Here’s a place, a murky puddle, where I have stumbled more than once and fallen. I don’t know yet what to learn there.

On this site I was outraged and the rage sustains me still; it clarifies my seeing.

And here’s where something caught me – a warm breeze in late winter, birdsong in late summer.

Here’s where I was told that something was wrong with my eyes, that I see the world strangely, and here’s where I said, “Yes, I know, I walk in beauty.”

Here is where I began to look with my own eyes and listen with my ears and sing my own song, shaky as it is.

Here is where, as if by surgeon’s knife, my heart was opened up – and here, and here, and here, and here.

These are the landmarks of conversion.


I want to start off first by thanking Isabella and Ilana for dancing this morning, and Janet Powers as well, for choreographing the piece. Some of you may know that my sister is a dancer by profession, and because of her I have a great respect for dance both technically, and as a means of expression.  It still takes my breath away to watch good dance.  For me, dance often goes right to the heart of the matter, when words get in the way.

When I first heard the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, I could almost see it as a dance.  The words didn’t make much sense to me, but something about it caught and held me.  The haunting chords and the brokenness of the lament spoke to a very carefully tucked away part of myself.

I’ve included the words to the music inside the order of service, in case like me, you like to read a text to get the full meaning.  Apparently, it took Cohen more than five years to write the song, and he actually wrote 80 different verses, so this is the short list.  It’s been re-recorded by nearly 200 different artists since it was written in 1984.  My two favorite verses come at the end, though they weren’t included in K.D Lang’s version of the song which we heard today.

The song is mostly metaphor, but it also has threads of a specific biblical story.  Actually more than one story I think.  Like a lot of good music, or sacred texts, there’s a story within a story, and the truth we find in it – is our own.

Interpretations of the song vary a lot.  For some people the song is about brokenness and regret in general.  Some consider it to be about lust and betrayal, and how that can ruin good relationships.  Some think the song is all about sex, and that’s pretty much it.  Some find it to be a song about longing for things to be made right again: with God, with family, with one’s self.  Others try to unpack it in a literal way, telling the story of King David’s great mistake, and then veer off from there.

Regardless of the interpretation, you can hear the pain in the song, and that is a piece of what I’d like to think about with you today.  What can we do with our biggest regrets in life?  When we feel broken and ashamed, where do we turn, what do we do?  And on the flip side, what do we do if we cannot forgive?

But let’s begin with the story of King David’s mistake.  The main idea behind the song comes from both 11 Samuel, and psalm 51, which is a powerful psalm of regret.  It’s one of the 7 penitential psalms, said to have been written by King David to God, to ask for forgiveness.

Most of us have heard stories about David, though they are not always linked in our mind.  He was the poor shepherd boy who killed Goliath with a slingshot, and later became the greatest king of Israel.  He was the gifted musician and composer, said to have played the harp so beautifully that animals would dance or weep.  He was the recipient of Jonathan’s love for him, and was thus a biblical example of two men caring deeply for one another.  He was the father of King Solomon who built the first temple for the Jewish people, and he was the husband to eight wives.  David was also the man who took a mistress of another man’s wife, Bathsheba.

The story goes that one day King David grew restless and went up to the roof of his palace. Looking over the city, he saw a beautiful woman bathing on the roof next door. He sent one of his soldiers to inquire about her.  He learned that her name was Bathsheba, and that she was married to Uriah, an elite officer in David’s army.  Unable to resist, he called for her and they slept together.  Bathsheba became pregnant with David’s child. As if that wasn’t enough, David then tried to cover up the problem by persuading Bathsheba’s husband to return home to sleep with his wife so that people would think the child was his.  But Uriah, out of loyalty to his position in David’s army, refused to abandon his post. David then devised to have Uriah sent to the frontline where he was killed in battle.

At the time, people would have thought David was being generous and sympathetic to marry a widow. So he did just that, and more or less got away with adultery and murder.  Except of course, as the story goes, God knew it all.  The line in the song “our love is not a victory march” seems quite fitting. The son born to Bathsheba out of that union soon died and David’s court prophet, Nathan, declared it a result of God’s judgment against David for his sins.  (For once the story doesn’t blame the woman!)

All that contained in one wallop of a song!  No wonder it’s so striking to listen to.  What the song lifts up for me, is the pain and confusion David felt about what he’d done.  Before his mistake, he felt close to God, writing love songs to the Holy One.  But upon letting his lust overtake his better judgment he created an irreparable riff in that relationship.

There’s another biblical reference that seems unrelated to this particular story, except in theme.  Cohen refers to the story of Samson and Delilah with the line “she broke your throne and she cut your hair.”  Delilah was a temptress who took advantage of Sampson’s love for her by cutting his hair which was the secret to his incredible strength.  Then because he was weakened, he died in the hands of the enemy.  In both David and Sampson’s case, they lost some or all of their power because of their lust for women.  Or perhaps more to the point, because they fell out of relationship with God.  Whether or not Sampson was at fault is another story, but certainly in David’s case, the mess was his own.  He made poor and irreversible choices, and eventually had to stand before his Lord in song confessing that “it went all wrong.”  He had mixed up love and passion, and all he could do was to call out a broken hallelujah.

What do we do with a very real need to confess?  Like many of you, I feel terrible about some of the things I’ve done in my lifetime, and would love to have a simple, or even a not so simple, reliable way to repair the damage.  Both sides of our Unitarian and Universalist religious heritage come out of a confessing tradition.  In some of our churches, such as King’s Chapel in Boston or First Parish in Weston, they still include words of confession in their liturgy every Sunday.  These days in most UU churches, we do use certain texts about forgiveness, but not weekly.  I believe we need them.  Perhaps not weekly, but certainly regularly.

During the Jewish Days of Awe, or during the Christian season of Lent, we often join our Jewish and Christian cousins and take time to reflect on past mistakes.  Some call these mistakes “sins,” which in Greek, “hamartia,” translates to “missing the mark.”  Out of our awareness and desire to make amends, we ask forgiveness from people we’ve wronged.  A couple weeks ago we used a responsive reading that has the congregational response, “we forgive ourselves and each other, and we begin again in love.”  It sounds so easy, but it’s one of the hardest things to do.  We feel so guilty, and it seems our hands are never clean.  Are these words really cutting it?  Do we mean them?  Are we really forgiven?  Who’s doing the forgiving?  And does saying all this actually get us to take action to change ourselves and the world?

This summer when a group of pilgrims from Bedford traveled to Transylvania to explore our Unitarian roots, we visited a famous church which had once been Unitarian but is now Catholic.  Along a back wall in the semi darkness I found a confessional booth, carved in ornate wood.  Little brass handles opened two small doors, and a faded red curtain inside blocked off the room where the priest sits.  Since no one was looking, I slipped into a side booth and sat there a while.  All around me the weight of the ages was crushingly present.  I could almost smell those dank ripe secrets.  It was like being in an armpit!  And yet, it felt good to think through some of my old regrets.  I realized that in my case, I didn’t need a priest.  In that moment, my conscience and my gut was a good guide.  And besides, the booth itself seemed to be listening.  Some people might say I was surrounded by a presence larger than myself.  Indeed it felt that way.  All I knew was that I needed to be listened to, and short of a trusted friend or mentor, a listening booth seemed like a good plan.  I recommend to you all of the above.  Your regrets matter.  You deserve a place to reflect.

I did not assign myself a large sum of “Our Fathers,” but I did decide to take action on an issue I’d let fester long enough.  (Which I’m not going to tell you, but it’s probably as bad as whatever you think your worst deed is!)  The process is simple, my Catholic friends tell me – in theory.  “Contrition, Confession, Restitution.”  I didn’t need an intercessor, but I also knew I couldn’t do it alone.  We live in a complex world of relationships, and if one is broken, then the others also bear the burden of disharmony.  Like repairing one strand in a wicker chair, all the others become less strained as well.

I think most regrets are caused by a realization that things might have been otherwise.  We did something harmful, or neglected to do something that truly mattered.  The pain remains because something is still not right about the situation, even though we’ve tried to solve it already.  Sometimes a simple apology will not be sincere enough or accepted.  Often we are still too upset to think clearly about what to do next.  We wonder if there will be a way through.

I think this wondering and hoping is what makes David Ray’s poem titled, “Thanks, Robert Frost” so compelling:

“Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
something that in the end we can bear.

Sometimes there are mistakes we’ve made by accident, that have lasting effects.  Other times we knew as we did it, that what we were doing was wrong.  These plague us more, because we were aware of the harm in our actions at the time and we could have made a different choice.  I once heard a confession by a very mild mannered woman in her 80’s who recalled screaming at her teenaged daughter, just once, “I’d have been better off if you were never born!”  Though she later told her daughter she never meant it, and apologized in every way she could, she still felt those words had cut her daughter to the core.  Their relationship had never been quite the same.  It was a mistake made by the self she had had to be that day.  Now, of course, having learned so much, so painfully, she would do it all differently.  In our time together that day, she showed me a meditation she had just begun to use to help herself heal, all those sixty years later.  Placing her hand on her heart, she said sincerely, “from my broken places, out flows love…”  It reminds me of the quote on the front of our order of service, which is also by Leonard Cohen.  “Ring out the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering.  There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

I believe this is the same idea behind King David’s lament.  His praising of God came from the depths of his despair and regret, and yet his love and devotion came through.  “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah.”  Leonard Cohen writes.  And God was ultimately forgiving to David, though there was punishment as well.  Our UU hymn begins, “My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation, I hear an echo in my soul, how can I keep from singing…”  It is remarkable, that even through our tears of anger or regret, we can sing.  There is beauty in our brokenness.  At times, even our will to heal is enough for change to start.  Beginning is everything.

On the flip side, I have also heard it said that as UU’s some of us have not or cannot face our mistakes because we focus so hard on doing the right thing, both individually and collectively.  It’s too hard to own up to all the ways we perpetuate injustice.

This is exacerbated by living in a litigious society, a culture which focuses usually on one person or one group being responsible for harm without room for forgiveness or restitution.  Our prison system is only one example of this problem.  And gang violence is another.

What I am saying is that for people to face their responsibility for harm done they must be in a safe place, a place where the humanity of the offender is upheld, where they are respected despite what they have done and where there is a chance either for forgiveness or restitution, perhaps even (and this is a big perhaps) reconciliation. But that comes after contrition, confession, and where possible restitution.

The hitch is that even when we admit our responsibility for harm it is often impossible to undo the damage.  Then we can only hope for “salvation” through penitence on one side and, where possible, forgiveness on the other.  We are only human, and we err.  Wherever possible, we begin again in love.  Hard as that is, fluffy as that sounds, this is our tradition.

In Judaism, the tradition holds that during the Days of Awe, prior to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one is responsible for asking forgiveness three times of someone wronged.  Each time must be a genuine act of contrition.  If after three tries, that person still cannot forgive, then the burden now lies with them.

Sometimes it is next to impossible to forgive ourselves, let alone another person.  What can be done in that case?  Can any good come out of a stalemate like that?  Some of you may know that I live with my best friend, Nazish, who is a Pakistani Muslim.  This past week when we heard the news about the Taliban shooting a young feminist named Malala, the pain was close to home for both of us.  The young girl was from Nazish’s region.  And when I look at the character of the girl, and her family’s kindness, I can’t help but see a resemblance to my friend.  So here I was sermonizing on regret and forgiveness this week, and along comes a perfect example of something I can neither forgive nor put behind me.  Reflecting on other hate crimes against humanity, I asked Nazish her religious or cultural understanding of forgiveness.  Here are her words:

“Ten days ago when I read that a 14 year girl old was shot in Swat, Pakistan, for a split second I couldn’t breath.  Why?  Why a child?  Why a girl?  And then I found this quote by Malala: “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?” and it put things into perspective for me.  Malala Yousafzai’s bold criticism of Taliban ideals led to this tragic incident in the history of Pakistan. What happened to her is the worst nightmare of an average Pakistani: I will get killed if I speak up.  But Malala has reminded all Pakistanis that you have to speak up if you want to live a life of your own choosing.

I am devastated and heartbroken about what is going on in my home. Who is safe there, if a child is not?  I stand by everything Malala ever said or did.  I don’t think Islam prohibits the education of girls nor does it allow killing children.  My deepest regret is that the Taliban is creating a horrible picture of Islam and that is not what we are about.  I sometimes wonder if I will ever be able to forgive them for what they have done to Malala, me, my country, my religion and my world.  Thus far, the answer is “No.”  How can I forgive this injustice?  Even my religion allows me not to.  Forgiving others is encouraged in Islam but it is ultimately one’s personal choice to forgive or not.  The thing that I can and will do is to follow Malala’s lead in making sure that girls and boys in Pakistan have access to education. That is how I will work for justice.  The Taliban cannot turn my heart to hate.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we are not bound by commandments, creeds or dogma.  Like Muslims, we are not bound by a law that requires us to forgive others.  Instead we rely on our conscience to guide our thoughts and actions.  Yet the conscience can be a poor judge in isolation.  We need the power of a religious community that affirms life, love, and justice, that asks us to work for equality and to end oppression.

Leonard Cohen writes: “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which you heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah.”

It is in relationship that we are able to uphold and live by our ideals and our word.  It is in relationship that we are called to cry out, and to listen.  Whether this relationship is with a trusted companion, or God, or in relation to a sense of ultimate truth about how the world should be, it is only within this relationship that change can take root.  Our relationship with ourselves, is absolutely vital.  Alone, we can fall to our knees, and ask ourselves again how to put things right.  Like David we cry out our Broken Hallelujah.  But in community we celebrate the glories and the mysteries of light shining through.

May it be so.



Closing Words

Be ours a religion which, like sunshine,
goes everywhere;
its temple, all space;
its shrine, the good heart;
its creed, all truth;
its ritual, works of love;
its profession of faith, divine living.

— Theodore Parker