Monday, May 21, 2007


Listen to this:

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."

This is the last verse of Jeff Buckley's song "Hallelujah." He sings with only his guitar for accompaniment into an empty and echoing room. His voice is haunting, thin in places, as though he's about to give up on singing entirely, and powerful with anger in others. You feel rather than hear his despair—it washes over you in waves. His song ends, dejected and hopeless—love is a cold and broken "Hallelujah."

Leonard Cohen actually wrote the song and when he sings it, he ends with this verse:

I did my best, it wasn't much
I couldn't feel, so I tried 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 tongue but "Hallelujah."

I've got a live recording of Cohen singing it and his voice is deep and rich and...perplexed. It's as though he doesn't really understand what he's singing but he's singing it anyway. He's trying to puzzle it out, trying to make some sense of his life. I can relate—youth ministry can be frustrating and overwhelming. There are times when I know I've done everything I can and a conversation simply doesn't work. I tell myself that it is God who turns folk's hearts and God who is in charge, not me. It doesn't always work.

It is frustrating to me that I can't find the definitive version of this song—it seems that everyone who records it, including Cohen himself, picks and chooses the verses they'd like to sing. The verses in some ways contradict one another: some seem to be more Bible-story-oriented—David, Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah—and some which are introspective and seem to be based on the singer's own history in love. How do they fit?

In the young adult Bible 101 group at my church, we've been talking about the book of Genesis and its two Creation stories. How do they fit together? Can we make them agree with each other so that it makes sense to us? Should we just take the one that makes sense to us this moment and sing its "Hallelujah"? What's the real story? What are they saying to us: are they short histories of what happened back in The Day, are they political machinations to uplift a downtrodden tribe, or are they poetic versions of a people's experience of their relationship with God?

The answer seems to be "yes"—that is, yes, they're political, yes, they're historical, and yes, they're a people's experience. I'm not saying I like that answer or even that I understand it. I do know that God's creation is so much more complicated than we can imagine and we can find God where things are the most frustrating.

Many days I feel like ending the song where Jeff Buckley does. More often I sing with Leonard Cohen who senses his sinfulness and his salvation in every breath, who sings:

…even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but 'Hallelujah.'"

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