Meeting God on Punishment Beach

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Blow through the caverns of my soul.

‘So, how was the retreat?’

‘Er…’

I’ve recently returned from being on retreat with the Community of St Anselm. The title of it was ‘Life in the Holy Spirit.’ How was it? Hard to describe. And the lessons learnt from it, the moments of divine encounter will be processed more fully over the coming days, weeks, months, maybe even years.

We went down to the beach one day; the part we went to was rocky, the clamber to the sea made even more precarious by the blanket of seaweed. ‘This is a beach?’ Someone used to white sand and sapphire oceans asked. ‘It’s a punishment beach!’ Joked another. Punishment Beach. The promise of beauty and freedom with the reality of the risk of danger and where the only thing which is certain is uncertainty.

Sometimes life with God feels like Punishment Beach. You know it’s meant to be incredible, that the promise of abundant life is for you, and yet you punish yourself with striving, trying to earn the un-earnable, losing sight of the promise of love and slipping on the seaweed of lies that draws your eyes down to the danger, not up to the hope.

And then you join in a prayer prayed through the centuries.

‘Come, Holy Spirit.’

***

Formation is never-ending. God is not a God of the gaps when faith and reason kiss each other. Our ‘yes’ is a gift of grace where it’s no longer about living for God but living in Him; where you look for the work of God, not saying I will work for God.

In community, prayers you absent-mindedly prayed before you came are beautifully and joyfully answered. In fear of going down the steep hill, unsure as to whether you’ll make it back up again, someone offers their hand and you realise it’s okay to take it. You take the permission to be vulnerable and in enters God. It stings. He goes deeper. It’s agony. Why now, God? Why here? Because you don’t go into the wounded places alone.

We choose to live transparent lives; we choose to trust. Sometimes you have to bleed in the intimate public that is intentional community. God shows his love for you through other people. The people you laugh with, cry with, share with, listen with, pray with, sing with, serve with, praise with, dance with, be in silence with. And the gift of their trusting you with their story feels like the myhrr laid at Jesus’ feet, a gift, a treasure.

‘What is Jesus saying?’

‘I have never left you.’

‘And do you believe him?’

It’s not about emotions. But it is about trust. And risk. And freedom. You are worthy of love just because of who you are. When you all journey together, you gently wrestle the links of each person’s chains from them. It might be a long journey, but that’s okay. We’re all here, together. We offer our trust and say again ‘I choose you.’

And so at Punishment Beach, I found no punishment. Only mercy, and compassion, the whisper of God and the shouts of my community in chorus: ‘I love you.’

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‘I’ll Stand Before The Lord Of Song:’ The Reception History of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

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Leonard Cohen, 1934-2016.

One year since the legendary singer, songwriter, poet, author, and ladies man died, Leonard Cohen’s words are still as haunting and poignant and beautiful as ever. His most famous work, ‘Hallelujah,’ from whose lyrics this blog has stolen its title from, is a theological masterpiece. Let me explain…

My songs have come to me. I’ve had to scrape them out of my heart. They come in pieces at a time and in showers and fragments and if I can put them together into a song and I have something at the end of the excavation I’m just grateful for having it.[1]

Poet, author, and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is a multitude of identities. He is simultaneously a caddish lothario and doting father, a writer equally comfortable with the erotic and the esoteric and existential, an obedient Jew and a dabbler in Buddhism. His popularity over his decades-long career had been waning until a song from his 1984 album, Various Positions, was covered by increasingly well-known artists, before becoming an anthem of the reality television show age. Since then, the song has exploded in popularity, inspired much debate and discussion over its meaning or meanings, and has raised Cohen’s profile. The song is ‘Hallelujah.’ It is a multifaceted song, lyrically rich yet melodically relatively simple; it incorporates love and desire with biblical and theological imagery and it is these latter elements in particular which have contributed so significantly to the song’s popularity. This essay seeks to explore the identities of Cohen, especially his religious and philosophical leanings, before exploring how he incorporates biblical and theological ideas into his works. It will then examine the reasons for ‘Hallelujah’s’ popularity and impact, before interrogating the song for its various meanings.

The Formation of Leonard Cohen

Born in 1934 in Montreal, Cohen was the only son of Nathan and Marsha Cohen, and his grandparents were some of the founding families of the Jewish community in Montreal, featuring prominent rabbis and members of the Canadian army. Indeed, Cohen’s father, ‘Lieutenant Nathan Cohen, number 3080887, became one of the first Jewish commissioned officers in the Canadian army,’[2] and his gun from World War I, a .38, was a source of fascination to his young son. Arguably the most transformative event in Cohen’s childhood was the death of his father when he was only nine years old. ‘Emotion is autobiographical,’[3] Cohen once commented. His father’s death and the aftermath subsequently permeated some of his work. His first novel, The Favourite Game, whose hero, Laurence, bears a striking resemblance to Cohen, features a scene where Laurence and his sister both steal a look at their father in his coffin and discuss why someone had dyed his moustache black.[4] This version of events also appears in Cohen’s short stories “Ceremonies,” “My Sister’s Birthday,” and “Nursie Told Us The News.”

Leonard’s nanny informed Leonard and [his sister] Esther that they would not be going to school that morning because their father had died in the night. They should be quiet, she said, because their mother was still sleeping. The funeral would take place the following day. “Then the day dawned on me,” Leonard wrote. “But it can’t be tomorrow, Nursie, it’s my sister’s birthday.”[5]

The innocence and poignancy of this detail as it appears in the adolescent Cohen’s first forays into writing is especially moving. Due to the frequency of his father’s ill health in the years preceding his death, tension had arisen between his family unit and Cohen’s paternal uncles, and he recounts the strain on their relationship in The Favourite Game and in his poems ‘Rites’ and ‘Priests 1957.’ From an early age, grief and trauma were hallmarks of Cohen’s life, and have since become permeating themes within his work.

In terms of religion, Cohen’s father ‘was a conservative Jew, not fanatical, without ideology and dogma, whose life was made up of domestic habit and affiliations with the community.’[6] But for Cohen,

the rituals of the Jewish religion, with their sung recitations, were an early influence, and young Leonard had particularly enjoyed reading the Book of Isaiah at the side of his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Klein. The key attraction for Leonard was not [just] spiritual, however, but simply the chance to spend time with his grandfather; the desire to sit at the feet of a holy man transcended the source and nature of the holiness that motivated him.[7]

Above all, Judaism was an identity marker for Cohen, and he was encouraged by his literary heroes and mentors in the Jewish Canadian cluster in Montreal in the mid to late twentieth century, ‘to focus on his Jewish heritage.’[8] His two most prominent mentors were the writers A.M. Klein and Irving Layton. For the former, Cohen wrote the affecting poem ‘To A Teacher’ reflecting on Klein’s mental breakdown which rendered him mute for the last years of his life. Layton, meanwhile, was a ‘rough and tumble poet rogue, [who] became a substitute father in many ways, a guiding rebel,’[9] and Cohen learnt as much about writing and Judaism from Layton as he did womanising. What is curious amongst the writers who emerged from Montreal, like Klein, Layton, and Cohen, is the amalgamation of identities they subsumed. They were Canadians but with Eastern European backgrounds, Anglophones in a Francophone area, Jewish but practically so, rather than religiously. His ‘Canadianness’ and his Jewishness inform each other, and Cohen remarked that biblical images in his work ‘come naturally to me because I was brought up in Montreal where there are a lot of symbols of the different religions. I guess my reading of the Bible has contributed, but there has always been that kind of imagery in my world.’[10]Out of all the identity markers, it is Jewishness which persisted in his canons of work and for Cohen, a prolific writer, religion and religiosity has proved to be an enduring influence.

Biblical Reception History in Leonard Cohen

‘”How important do you think your being Jewish is in what you do?”’[11] asked filmmaker Harry Rasky of Cohen as he filmed a documentary on him.  Cohen replied,

”Well, to have had the privilege of knowing an old tradition it has been, I think, decisive in my own life…the Bible is, I guess, the most important book in my life…it was the English Bible, that language, that touched me, those concerns for the way the voice is raised for instance in the songs of lamentations, the sense of grandeur in the prophets, the sense of chaotic revelation in the Book of Revelations. Those kinds of modes of speech, where the heart is beating fast, there is no other book that has that scope. It really touched me, the Jewish liturgy, the sound of the Jewish voice raised in prayer, or adoration or praise, those are the kinds of modes that touched me and informed me.”[12]

There is a fluidity in Cohen’s theological influences; there is a familiarity and fundamentality for him in Jewish traditions and liturgy, but he is similarly influenced by Christian texts, and especially the language and imagery of them. The importance of the Bible in Cohen’s writing cannot be overstated; the images and references from the nuanced to the overt are everywhere, a consistent presence in all his volumes of poetry, as well as in both his novels. In his 1956 collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, thirteen out of the forty-four poems contain explicit religious or biblical imagery or themes. He deals with anti-Semitism in ‘For Wilf and His House,’ yearns for a messiah in ‘Prayer for Messiah,’ and writes of Moses, Job, and David in ‘Saviours.’ In ‘Song of Patience,’ Cohen reflects on Kateri Tekakwitha, the first First Nations saint who, following a quasi-conversion to Catholicism in 1678, practiced a hybrid of Mohawk spirituality with the penance ritual inspired by Catherine of Siena, from whom Kateri took her baptism name, (Kateri is Mohawk transliteration of Catherine). Kateri, who took mortification to its extremes, was a source of fascination to Cohen who used her story as inspiration for his second novel, Beautiful Losers, and in ‘Song of Patience’ describes falling in love with her, she who ‘in her hand she held Christ’s splinter.’[13] Reflecting on Kateri and her penance rituals, Cohen stated, that

in our age of convulsion, we must “rediscover the crucifixion. The crucifixion will again be understood as a universal symbol, not just an experiment in sadism or masochism or arrogance. It will have to be rediscovered because that’s where [humanity] is at.”[14]

‘The transcendent and the earthly intermingling was Cohen’s oldest trick;’[15] in ‘Story of Isaac,’ the Genesis narrative is transformed into a protest against politics and war, and in ‘Suzanne’ the poem’s eponymous hero and her habits are juxtaposed with Christ and his passion. Cohen balances a nihilistic view of the world with a lens of redemption and hope, inspired by the Judaeo-Christian traditions, stating,

in my own work, I don’t think I’ve ever suggested that the world isn’t good, that a Messianic age should be brought about, or that we should all live in peace and harmony. What I’m trying to stress is the inner strength that will enable you to meet the inevitable and impossible moral choices that are going to confront you.[16]

Perhaps the zenith of Cohen’s philosophical outlook can be seen in his poem ‘The Anthem’ where he writes, ‘Ring the bells that still can ring./ Forget your perfect offering./ There is a crack in everything./ That’s how the light gets in.’[17] His perspective is simultaneously nihilistic – everything is broken, and hopeful – but light can still get in. This sense of engaging with or rather confronting the existential is arguably what has made Cohen as successful as he is; his fearlessness in addressing the big questions, laying his soul bare to life’s most painful traumas and anguishes, is something which resonates with people. When these ideas which speak to people are conveyed through popular music, an accessible medium, the impact has the potential to be far-reaching, and of all of Cohen’s pieces of work, there is one song in particular which has achieved this far-reaching impact: ‘Hallelujah.’

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’

I know that there is an eye that watches all of us. There is a judgment that weighs everything we do. And before this great force, which is greater than any government, I stand in awe and I kneel in respect. And it is to this great judgment that I dedicate this next song.[18]

So began Cohen at a concert in Warsaw in 1985 before introducing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah,’ the version from his studio album and performed at his shows, is an authentic articulation of his personal hallelujahs. His ‘Hallelujah’ articulates his tumultuous love life, his struggles with depression, the grief and trauma from his childhood, and his interesting and at times tempestuous relationships with religion and with God. The result is a modern-day psalm which would not feel out of place in a synagogue or a church and feels intimately Cohen’s yet can also be for the tongues and hearts of other people.

‘I’ve heard there was a secret chord/ that David played to please the Lord,/ but you don’t really care for music, do you?’[19] The speaker of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is initially ambiguous in the first stanza; the rhetorical and informal question of ‘do you’ suggests the speaker is reflecting on themselves, perhaps looking back over their past or maybe examining themselves as they are right now. The David of the song is King David, the every-Jew, the Hebrew Bible character who was both blessed by the Lord and triumphed, while also compulsively sinning, including adultery and murder. Using David as a muse is significant because of the importance of David in both Jewish and Christian tradition. David is a character who believers can readily identify with, in both his sinning and in his being blessed and then triumphing, and he is not bound to one tradition, but is a central figure in both Judaism and Christianity, especially in the latter where his lineage leads to Jesus.

The verse continues, ‘It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth/ the minor fall,/ the major lift;/ the baffled king composing Hallelujah!’ The reference to David as musician is an intriguing one as it ‘was his musicianship that first earned David a spot in the royal court, the first step toward his rise to power and uniting the Jewish people.’[20] This honing in on David the musician sets up ‘Hallelujah’ in the Psalmist tradition and, as a musician himself, suggests that Cohen strongly identifies with David not just because of the Jewish tradition he is embedded in, but because of the uniting force of music. In dissecting the structure of the song, ‘the minor fall’ and ‘the major lift,’ Cohen lets the listener into the secrets of song creation and an insight into the relationship between Cohen and David. What is especially striking is that Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ has its melody, unlike David’s Psalms where the musical scores have been lost and forgotten over time. Thus, ‘Hallelujah’ is in many ways a complete Psalm, unlike the ones in the Jewish and Christian canons, as sung today it can be brought to life for people in a way that just reading David’s and others Psalms in the scriptures cannot. The image of David is also important in his function as the every-Jew, the man who oscillated constantly between righteousness and sin, but who always maintained God’s favour and who, of all the characters in the Hebrew Bible, holds arguably the biggest influence for Jews. The first verse ends with Cohen describing David as the ‘baffled’ king, the thoroughly human David venerated for his power and royalty, while struggling with sin. ‘Baffled’ is an apt way to describe Cohen’s approach and life over the years, an amalgamation of experiences both sacred and profane, the musician celebrated for his compositions and yet falling into the traps of hedonism.

In the second verse, King David reappears when ‘[he] saw her bathing on the roof;/ her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you,’ referencing ‘the moral low point in David’s life when he steps onto the roof of his palace and spots a beautiful woman, Bathsheba, bathing across the way.’[21] This mention of David is then juxtaposed in the latter part of the verse where Cohen alludes to the Hebrew Bible story of Samson and Delilah: ‘She tied you to a kitchen chair/ she broke your throne, she cut your hair, and from your lips she drew the Hallelujah!’ In many ways this juxtaposition of two icons of the Jewish and Christian tradition is jarring and clumsy and it has the effect of making the meaning of the song somewhat incoherent or perplexing to those not familiar with the details of their narratives in the Hebrew Bible. Both David and Samson experience triumphs and dramatic falls from grace, both experience struggles with their sexuality which leads to David committing murder out of jealousy and Samson losing his strength and then his life. But the enduring legacy of both David and Samson, their reception in popular culture and history, is of figures who stumbled, fell, but ultimately triumphed. In the context of the ‘Hallelujah’ contemporary psalm, the use of David and Samson as lyrical muses contributes to the song’s popularity because David and Samson are figures people readily identify with, but are also characters who inspire hope, hope that redemption or a return of what has been lost is possible. Even in the case of Samson who ultimately lost his life, ‘he kills more people in his death than he did during his lifetime,’[22] so his final ‘hallelujah’ is ultimately one of triumph.

The third verse is where Cohen’s successors divert from his original. It begins, ‘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?’ In Judaism, the name of God is sacred, to the extent that it is never written down in case someone unaware of its importance should inadvertently say it, because ‘the name has an inherent power, a holiness that comes from the very presence of God as creator and judge.’[23] There is something intrinsically Jewish in Cohen’s lyrics here, the name of God and its significance is something of peculiar importance to the Jewish tradition and experience, and has been a source of tension between Christians who use the name of God quite readily, as opposed to Jews who revere it. Cohen’s ‘what’s it to you’ here is somewhat defensive; the name of God is a hallmark of the Jewish tradition, and the reception of Judaism and Jewish people throughout world history has generally been one of unwarranted antagonism. Thus, Cohen is defending the Jewish tradition and even more than that, defending his own tradition which matters deeply to him. The verse continues ‘There’s a blaze of light in every word;/ it doesn’t matter which you heard,/ the holy, or the broken Hallelujah!’ The ‘blaze of light in every word’ is ‘the fulcrum of the song as Cohen first wrote it.’[24] The blaze of light is God’s communicating with his people on earth, be it to prophets like Moses dramatically through a burning bush, through the Hebrew Bible for meditation on in both Jewish and Christian tradition, or through the intimacy of God and man in relationship. This relationality between God and believer is what allows for there to be a holy or a broken hallelujah. Cohen’s understanding of hallelujah is that it diverts the person away from nihilism because the hallelujah is for people in whatever their circumstances or experiences at that time. The juxtaposition of holy and broken shows Cohen directly inspired by the scriptures; he states

from what I gather in reading ancient texts, right up to the present, human beings have always been confronted by the same kinds of problems. I think that this world is not a realm that admits to a solution… We have to deal with good and evil continually. With joy and despair, with all the antinomies, all the opposites and contraries. That’s what our life is about.[25]

In ‘Hallelujah,’ Cohen captures a way of expressing an outlook on the world which encompasses and embraces the pain and mess of life, as well as the moments of triumph, taking the experiences of David and Samson and demonstrating how the stories in the scriptures are not unique experiences for human beings. As Cohen says,

now that is the biblical landscape? It is the victory of experience. That’s what the Bible celebrates. The victory of experience. So the experience of these things is absolutely necessary, as well as a teaching that enables the student to manifest, to experience these episodes that are burning through the Bible, that are now relegated to the realm of miracles or superstition, or something that can’t happen to you.[26]

Cohen’s final stanza is the most powerful and poignant. In rawness he writes, ‘I did my best; it wasn’t much.’ At first glance, it seems Cohen has gone back on his previous idea about the holy and the broken hallelujah, and is instead honing in on his brokenness, a current of despair emerging. Then the lyrics are ‘And even though it all went wrong,/ I’ll stand before the Lord of Song/ with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah!’ As the climax of the song, its power is in its honesty and vulnerability, the authenticity of Cohen’s response to the experiences of his life and the power of God in relation to it all. Cohen embraces brokenness, but because of hallelujah, he does not wallow in it;

finally, there’s no conflict between things, finally, everything is reconciled but not where we live. This world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled but there are moments when we can transcend the dualistic system and reconcile and embrace the whole mess and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah.’ That regardless of what the impossibility of the situation is, there is a moment when you open your mouth and you throw open your arms and you embrace the thing and you just say ‘Hallelujah! Blessed is the name.’ And you can’t reconcile it in any other way except in that position of total surrender, total affirmation.[27]

Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ is both painful and uplifting, the hope that emanates through the hallelujahs is inspiring, while the pain of experiences is affecting. But ultimately, being able to stand before God is empowering, and it is this chord of rejoicing despite pain which resonates so particularly and why the song has been received so well. Yes there is an element of redemption, but this redemption is not divorced from the mess of human life.

‘Hallelujah’ is not just powerful because of the way it interweaves contemporary experiences with biblical narratives and theological concepts. Its inherent power and therefore popularity comes from the word which appears a minimum of twenty times in Cohen’s song: hallelujah. ‘’Hallelujah’ is the kind of song that seems as if it has always been written, of course, that is partly because its main theme, the chorus ‘hallelujah’ has indeed always been written.’[28] An ancient Hebrew word meaning praise the LORD, (YHWH), its strength is in its familiarity. It has connotations of the sacred but has been absorbed into general vernacular so that it does not sound out of place in the context of the more profane. The hallelujahs of Cohen’s songs have a fluidity of meaning, they embody nuance and connotation and allow people to express through the word ‘hallelujah’ whatever emotion they need to at that particular point; ‘its unknowable essence leaves [it] wide open for interpretation, but crucially… the core of the song, its tense conviction, remains intact.’[29] Although the biblical significance is perhaps distorted in the song’s subsequent reception, it attests to the power of the Bible, and therefore of God as inspiration, as the base for human responses to the world. Quite simply, ‘there is no getting around the power of that chorus: one word, charged with centuries of meaning, delivered ironically or solemnly or both. It serves as a prayer, perhaps the great prayer of the modern age, regardless of one’s relationship to God.’[30] But it is still a prayer, it is still biblical language, it is still the stem of God’s name which people are calling out when they sing ‘Hallelujah.’ Cohen reflects on the power of the name, and the name appears in the word that people have latched on to and respond to overwhelmingly.

The Impact of ‘Hallelujah’

‘Hallelujah’ nearly never became a global phenomenon; Cohen’s American record label did not want to include the song on his 1984 album Various Positions, it is one song from ‘one of his least successful albums, recorded during what was probably the lowest point in his career, [which has] wriggled out from obscurity and transcended the rest of his work.’[31] There have been a multitude of covers of ‘Hallelujah,’ the most famous versions including those by Jeff Buckley in 1994, k d lang in 2004, and Rufus Wainright in 2001; several television networks in the United States used the song as a background to coverage following the September 11 attacks and, more recently, it was performed in the Hope for Haiti television appeal and played during a tribute honouring the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings at Fenway Park before the Red Sox played their first home game following the tragedy.  It has appeared on the soundtracks for films and television shows including The West Wing, House, and Shrek, prompting Cohen to ask for a moratorium on using the song.[32] There is something peculiar to ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests why it has been received the way it has.

First, ‘Hallelujah’ is, in a sense, everyone’s song. Depending upon the interview, Cohen has admitted to writing in the region of eighty verses for ‘Hallelujah,’ and the version that appears on his album and which he performs live, differs from the versions popularised by Buckley, lang, Wainright, and others who cover the song. The song

contains a multiplicity of positions. It is a song about the reasons for song writing, (to attract women; to please God) and about the mechanics of song writing, (‘it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth…’), about the power of the word and of the Word, about wanting sex, about having sex and about the war of the sexes. It is also a song about total surrender and total affirmation.[33]

Furthermore, ‘because Cohen’s original version remained obscure, there was no fixed idea of how it should sound. When you come to record ‘Hallelujah’ you do not have the spectre of a definitive take.’[34] Because there is freedom to have a favourite version, this allows ‘Hallelujah’ to be a song for different contexts; if you are feeling morose you can turn to Wainright, if you need the uplifting injection of a gospel take, there is X Factor winner Alexandra Burke’s version. Second, part of the reason why the song is free to be interpreted and covered so readily is because of the subject matter. The traditional cover version of ‘Hallelujah’ combines biblical imagery, generally familiar in a Western context, with universal questions about love and life. Jeff Buckley, whose version of ‘Hallelujah’ is arguably more famous than Cohen’s, said of the song, ‘whoever listens closely to ‘Hallelujah’ will discover that it is a song about sex, about love, about life on earth. The hallelujah is not an homage to a worshipped person, idol, or god, but the hallelujah of the orgasm. It is an ode to life and love.’[35] The “layman’s” ‘Hallelujah’ begins the same as Cohen’s: the secret chord, the bathing on the roof, and the cut hair. Then it turns decidedly more classic love song with erotic undertones. There is the despair that can only be articulated out of desire, such as ‘I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch,/ but love is not a victory march,/ it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The next verse features an even more explicit sexual allusion, ‘There was a time when you let me know/ what’s really going on below/ but now you never show it to me, do you?/ I remember when I moved in you,/ and the holy dove was moving too,/ and every breath we drew was Hallelujah!’ There is something jarring about using the image of the holy dove, which is so embedded in ideas of the Holy Spirit and transcendental power, with the acts of intercourse and orgasm; but it also works. It combines the base human quest for intimacy and ecstasy with the existential. The power of the language comes from the vaguely theological imagery while the subject matter is knowable and liveable; yes it is a manipulation of biblical concepts, but it has been used in a context of relevance, biblical reception history for those seeking their sexual desire to be quenched; familiar language for familiar feelings.

The cover version of the song climaxes the lines of the final verse: ‘Now maybe there’s a God above/ but all I ever learned from love/ is how to shoot at someone who outdrew you./ And it’s no complaint you hear tonight,/  and it’s not some pilgrim who’s seen the light – / it’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah!’ The familiar-sounding biblical language is still there and, coupled with the non-committal ‘maybe’ in relation to God’s existence, it articulates a common emotion, a common thought. But as well as being non-committal, the ‘maybe’ can also mean ‘so what?’ Does it matter if there is a God above when in the present there is human love, sex, and emotion? There is a sense that the biblical imagery and language should jar with the sexually-charged subject matter but, once again, the religious language lends itself to communicating the raw emotion associated with lust and love. As a love and lust song, ‘Hallelujah’s’ biblical and religious undertones serve to elevate the subject matter and put a unique spin on the classic love song. The use of religious imagery gives a sense of communicating with something ‘other,’ which makes the song stand out in a quagmire of clichés that popular music charts often can be.

‘Religious ambiguous songs have an added advantage – belief in belief…and so if you can write good religious lyrics – lyrics that are both well-written and yet sufficiently ambiguous – those lyrics will benefit from this belief in belief.’[36] In many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ resonates so strongly with people because of its title and its anthemic, prayer-like refrain: Hallelujah. It is explicitly religious, biblical, theological language; even if you cannot explain what it means in Hebrew or how it is used in scriptures and liturgy, you can at least give a rough sense of its meaning. Rabbi Ruth Gan Kagan of Jerusalem’s Nava Tehilia Synagogue, who used the song for her daughter’s bat mitzvah as well as when conducting other religious services, states that ‘Hallelujah…is not a hymn of the believer – it’s a hymn of the one who is full of doubt, a hymn of the heretic.’[37] When ‘Hallelujah’ is juxtaposed with ‘maybe there’s a God above’ it enables the song to have fluidity in religious leanings; it can be a song for the doubter and the believer. The Jewish-Christian language, in a Western context, is compatible with an infinite number of interpretations and can appeal to a broad spectrum of religious and non-religious beliefs. When Alexandra Burke released the song as her X Factor winner’s single in competition for the sought-after Christmas Number One, its familiarity of religiosity made it a triumphant single for the winner of the most-watched television reality show and a fitting song for the charts during a festive period when Christian religiosity peaks in its exposure and in people’s religious practices; in many ways, ‘Hallelujah’ was guilt-free consumerism in the Christmas period because it could be received as being a religious song.

The cover version of ‘Hallelujah,’ the love song that works as a gospel song, is biblical reception history for the age of fading religious literacy. It combines religious language, which sounds right, with scenarios and emotions which are common to human experience. The sense of doubt about God’s existence with the biblical references which feel familiar are what have enabled the song to transcend artists and genres and to feel acceptable against numerous backdrops. ‘Hallelujah’ works against images of terrorism and a global outpouring of grief such as 9/11, just as it works as the climax of reality television shows, secondary plots in animated children’s films like Shrek, and as erotically-charged songs on the albums of alternative artists like Buckley and lang. The word ‘hallelujah’ is accessible in its familiarity, its religious connotations make it feel like you are singing something profound, it allows you to be formally religious without the commitment of being an actual believer, you can be a doubter and a lover, a believer and a fighter. Religious language should, theoretically, alienate people for whom the religious language is not theirs, but the opposite has happened with ‘Hallelujah’ which suggests there is something peculiar to Cohen’s song that has subverted expectations. ‘Hallelujah’ has become ‘the closest thing pop music has to a sacred text,’[38] but more than that, it has become the popular music version of sacred music, of liturgical chant. ‘Hallelujah’ is a prime example of biblical reception history for the modern age because, at face value, it communicates something more than it lyrically means when you dissect the popularised version. The song as a whole, the tune and the biblical references combined, are what make the song powerful and enduring and applicable for a multitude of contexts and people. The power of the popularised ‘Hallelujah’ lies in its approachability and adaptability. The repeated ‘hallelujah’ is not alienating but embracing and because the song as a whole feels like communicating something ‘other,’ every breath you draw really is hallelujah – whatever it may mean for you.

Conclusion(s)

‘I don’t go looking for joy. I don’t go around looking for melancholy either.’[39] ‘Hallelujah’ has connected the sacred with the profane, drawing on how this intersects in biblical narratives, how this translates theologically, and how this can be expressed in contemporary situations and experiences. The song is an interweaving of hope and despair, triumph and failure, joy and melancholy, with a constant repetition of the word ‘hallelujah.’ The song is popular because the refrain resonates with people from all backgrounds, in its reception from Cohen through to Simon Cowell and The X Factor, it is the name of God which holds the song together and which has ensured its legacy as a go-to song for all sort of occasions for the entire spectrum of human emotions. That there is something in the word ‘hallelujah’ which appeals to people, which lends itself to expressions of gospel-style triumph through to the very depths of despair as articulated in some of the poetry of the Hebrew Bible is important, but so is that even in the secular it still articulates something deeper, something profound, some sense of expressing something other or beyond, or deeper, beyond oneself. In its later incarnations, ‘Hallelujah’ is biblical reception history tweaked, while in Cohen’s original version it feels like it has a more authentic reception of Jewish narratives and theology. But the use or misuse of the Bible somehow feels irrelevant when the song’s entire reception success is on the word which incorporates the name of God. Something of the tradition remains and resonates with people, however they choose to respond to the question of faith. This is ‘Hallelujah’s’ power: it calls upon the name of God. In Cohen recognising that it can all go wrong and that there is still the chance to get up again and stand, he has written a song which defers the strength needed to get through the worst of circumstances through calling on the name of God. Today, this may translate as calling on something greater than oneself, but it is still calling on something or one greater, and when they choose ‘Hallelujah’ to articulate that call, it is God they call on.

[1] Cohen quoted in Walker, B., ‘Complexities and Mr Cohen,’ Sounds, March 4 1972, http://www.leonardcohenfiles.com/sounds2.html accessed 07/04/15. [2] Simmons, S., I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2012), p.8. [3] Cohen quoted in Footman, T., Leonard Cohen Hallelujah: A New Biography, (Surrey: Chrome Dreams, 2009), p.43. [4] Cohen, L., The Favourite Game, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1970), p.25. [5] Simmons, (2012), p.13. [6] Ibid., p.8. [7] Footman, (2009), p.17 [8] Ibid., p.22. [9] Rasky, H., The Song of Leonard Cohen: A Portrait of a Poet, a Friendship and a Film, (London: Souvenir Press, 2001), p.16. [10] Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Leonard Cohen: The Profits of Doom,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.207. [11] Rasky, (2001), p.74. [12] Ibid., p.74. [13] Cohen, L., Let Us Compare Mythologies, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1956), p.15. [14] Cohen quoted in Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.44. [15] Leibovitz, L., A Broken Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen’s Secret Chord, (Dingwall: Sandstone Press Ltd, 2014), p.150. [16] Cohen quoted in O’Brian, R., ‘Songs and Thoughts of Leonard Cohen,’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.184. [17] Cohen, L., Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1993), p.373. [18] Cohen quoted in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.171. [19] See Appendix 1. All further quotations from this song are from this version. [20] Light, (2012), p.19. [21] Telushkin, J., Jewish Literacy, (New York: William Morrow and Company Inc., 2001), p.67. [22] Ibid., p.60. [23] Scharen, C., Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters to Those Seeking God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2011), p.40. [24] Light, (2012), p.24. [25] Cohen quoted in O’Brian, (2014), p.184. [26] Cohen quoted in Kurzweil, A., ‘I am the little Jew who wrote the Bible’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p.387. [27] Cohen quoted in Footman, (2009), p.209. [28] Scharen, (2011), p.45. [29] Light, (2012), p.222. [30] Ibid., p.228. [31] Footman, (2009), p.198. [32] Kreps, D., ‘Leonard Cohen Asks for Brief Halt to New Covers of “Hallelujah,”’ Rolling Stone, 2009. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/leonard-cohen-asks-for-brief-halt-to-new-covers-of-hallelujah-20090710 accessed 07/03/15[33] Simmons, (2012), p.338. [34] Footman, (2009), p.200. [35] Buckley quoted in Light, A., The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of “Hallelujah,” (New York: Atria Books, 2012), p.1. [36] Stone, P., ‘The Happy Memes of “Hallelujah”’ in Holt, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen and Philosophy, (New York: Open Court Publishing, 2014), p.250. [37] Ibid., p.250. [38] Simmons, (2012), p.347. [39] Cohen quoted in Turner, S., ‘Depressing? Who? Me?’ in Burger, J., (ed.), Leonard Cohen on Leonard Cohen, (London: Omnibus Press, 2014), p56.

Wax Strips And Wittenberg Nails

Office food

The office snack bowl: bringing together health-conscious head of fundraising and the rest of us who just want chocolate.

A friend of mine (and I genuinely do mean a friend, this isn’t a story about me that I’m embarrassed to admit is about me) was waxing her moustache. She applied the wax strip, smoothed it down, and prepared to pull. She began to pull it, decided it was too painful, so left it and went to bed. The next morning she woke up, had wax which had hunkered down and brought in several strands of hair from her head for good measure but had decided to divorce the strip of paper. That her face is now wax free (also hair free) is the result of perseverance and repeated exclamations of pain.

What is my point? Other than wanting to stress that this is not a personal anecdote because I am a boss at willingly ripping hair out of my body in acquiescence to patriarchal aesthetic standards. My point is this: unity hurts, but not as much disunity does. 

It’s Reformation Day (if you’re a church history nerd). It’s also Hallowe’en (if you’re into chocolate and exceptional grammar). This year Reformation Day is a bit of a big deal because it’s the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. There was a time when I could tell you a lot about the 95 theses, but that time was a first year undergraduate module on medieval and reformation theology and over time, the nuances of reformation history have been replaced by other, more exciting (and useful) theological facts. Anyway, long story rendered exceedingly short and majorly simplified: there was a colossal church schism in the West and, much like the schism with the East, our ecclesiology since then has been an almighty spit in the face of the call to be the Body of Christ. (I told you this was over-simplified, please don’t shout at me, I’m a theological ethicist, not a church history expert).

As it’s the 500th anniversary, there’s been much more of a buzz around Reformation Day than perhaps there usually is. Across my networks, opinion is slightly divided. My broadly Protestant Facebook friends are very happy about the Reformation and my more Catholic-leaning Twitter world is slightly less enthusiastic.

Say a miracle was to happen and Rome and everyone else reunited, and then West reunited with East, it would be amazing! Wouldn’t it? The church coming together as one body… although, if you’re an ordained woman or an ordained man who would want to say “ordained woman,” how idyllic will unity be in that instance? Can you even get unity through that chasm?

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. In genuine unity, you see that every human being is in the image of Christ, you capture just a glimpse of God’s love for them, and your care and compassion for them becomes consuming and forever unfulfilled to completion due to the postlapsarian condition. I’ve only been in the Community of St Anselm for a few weeks, but that vow I made ‘I choose you’ to my fellow community members has unequivocally become ‘I love you.’

On my lunch break, I think about the resident members sharing the peace with one another before they celebrate the Eucharist. As the majority of my colleagues come into the office around 9am, my mind is drawn to my fellow non-resident members going into their various places of work. Through Twitter, I see where in the world my Abbot is and I pray for him. My Sharing Group WhatsApp buzzes and I am reminded of these people who opened their lives to me and I to them and the humbling yet empowering privilege that is. I scroll through the notes on my phone and come across the words written down after time with my spiritual companion, words straight from God that sear through my inner being, the fire of divine love. And then I remember that even though our ultimate authority is on the throne, in this temporal realm she belongs to Rome while I belong to Canterbury, that whenever someone says ‘we all share in one bread,’ I can no longer say that without feeling crippling pain because she and I cannot share in one bread. 

There’s a cost to unity and it can be a painful one. Ask the God who hung on a cross until he died.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

I liked the Eucharist a heck of a lot more than I did before I donned an alb, took a cross, and said ‘I choose you.’

Disunity destroys your ability to see the image of Christ in another. Disunity distorts what truly matters, it values things over people. Disunity revels in jealousy and greed and anger. Disunity treats the cross like a game of capture the flag. Disunity says ‘this is my body, broken for some of you.’ Disunity would have been a full stop after the gates of Eden closed. But that didn’t happen. In fact, the opposite happens. God makes us garments and clothes us. He covers our shame but we still feel acutely that shame. But I’d rather feel that than death. Disunity brings death.

Unity hurts; to turn to the person who has wounded you and say ‘peace be with you’ can be utter agony. But disunity, it might feel gratifying now, it might shirk the responsibility of reconciliation in the present, it might seem like all you are missing is a toe here and a finger there, but the end result is a pain unendurable.

Unity hurts, but not as much as disunity does.

God Doesn’t Make Cars Crash, And You Know It

twocath

Two Cathedrals

I have a confession to make: I love The West Wing. Yes it’s uber-idealistic, it’ often descends into liberalism sans-nuance, and Josh Lyman’s occasional misogyny renders my unabashed crush on him exceedingly problematic, but I just love it! And being the theology nerd that I am with a keen interest in theology and cinema and television, I cannot help but have my ears prick up when anything vaguely theological comes on my radar, and The West Wing delivers theology in abundance.

There are so many places to delve into The West Wing and its theology: “Take This Sabbath Day,” “Shibboleth,” “Pilot” with the questionable biblical exegesis but it’s Bartlet being Bartlet so I’m inclined to let it slide. But I’m going to focus on one episode in particular: “Two Cathedrals,” the final episode of the second series.

In this episode, the world learns that President Bartlet has MS, something he withheld during his election campaign. As reporters gather for a press conference, the President is also dealing with the aftermath of the death of his assistant, Mrs Landingham who died in a car accident. Through flashbacks, we learn that Mrs Landingham knew Jed when he was at school, she recognised his leadership potential, and she tells him about the gender pay gap in action at the school. At her funeral, Jed does some things in church you probably shouldn’t do and which resulted in the National Cathedral banning all future shows from filming there. Caught up in a tropical storm, he heads to a press conference where he is asked whether he is going to run for re-election and then… end of series.

Consumed with grief at Mrs Landingham’s death, feeling the burden of responsibility for the people around him who have been put in harm’s way because of their proximity to him, overwhelmed by the challenges faced by his office, and probably feeling guilty about having hidden his MS from the electorate and the frustration of having such an illness, he paces at the front of the church, talking – yelling – at God.

BARTLET
[tired] You’re a son of a bitch, you know that?

He slowly walks up the center aisle.

BARTLET
She bought her first new car and you hit her with a drunk driver. What, was that
supposed to be funny? “You can’t conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know who’s ass he was kissing there ’cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name? There’s a tropical storm that’s gaining speed and power. They say we haven’t had a storm this bad since you took out that tender ship of mine in the north Atlantic last year… 68 crew. You know what a tender ship does? Fixes the other ships. Doesn’t even carry guns. Just goes around, fixes the other ships and delivers that mail. That’s all it can do. [angry] Gratias tibi ago, domine. Yes, I lied. It was a sin. [holds out arms]
I’ve committed many sins. Have I displeased you, you feckless thug? 3.8 million new
jobs, that wasn’t good? Bailed out Mexico, increased foreign trade, 30 million new
acres of land for conservation, put Mendoza on the bench, we’re not fighting a war,
I’ve raised three children…

He ascends the stairs to the Inner Sanctuary.

BARTLET
[pleading] That’s not enough to buy me out of the doghouse? Haec credam a deo pio?
A deo iusto? A deo scito?

He stops at the top of the stairs and extends his arms.

BARTLET
Cruciatus in crucem! Tuus in terra servus nuntius fui officium perfeci. [angry]
Cruciatus in crucem. [waves dismissively] Eas in crucem!

Bartlet turns away in anger. He descends to the lower sanctuary and lights a cigarette.
He takes a single puff, drops the butt to the floor, and grinds it defiantly with his
shoe. He looks back at the altar.

BARTLET
[betrayed] You get Hoynes!

Bartlet holds back tears as he walks down the aisle.

‘What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son. What did I ever do to yours but praise his glory and praise his name?’ It’s easy to blame God. His hugeness, his otherness, the mystery of him, the creator of the universe who still somehow whispers our name, means that he’s easy to rail against. He can take it, can’t he? And let’s face it, if he is as good as he says he is, then why am I in pain? Why do I feel let down? Why has this bad thing happened to me?

I was talking to a friend from St Anselm recently and something he said has stuck with me, like an itch that refuses to be scratched. He was describing someone who had been like a father to him: powerful, protective, but also someone to be feared. Now, I don’t want to in anyway vindicate fathers/father figures who are abusive, but there’s something to be said for the God the Father who you are slightly afraid of. Not because they will hurt you, not because they will abandon you, not because they are vindictive, but because in that place of fear, you do find the confusing, paradoxical mercy of God, the ‘appalling strangeness.’ I do think God can take it when we get angry or frustrated at him; if he didn’t, then his Son wouldn’t have cried from the cross ‘why have you forsaken me?’ But in that anger, we can’t blame him for what happened. Just because you can call God a son of a bitch, doesn’t mean you should.

Mrs Landingham appears to President Bartlet, it’s a figment of his imagination, it’s clear he’s alone in the Oval Office.

ARTLET
Ah… Damn it! Mrs. Landingham!

He turns away, realizing she won’t come to his call, and then the door opens…

MRS. LANDINGHAM
[walks in, small and resolute] I really wish you wouldn’t shout, Mr. President.

BARTLET
[beat, as he looks at her in disbelief] The door keeps blowing open.

MRS. LANDINGHAM
Yes, but there’s an intercom and you could use it to call me at my desk.

BARTLET
I was…

MRS. LANDINGHAM
You don’t know how to use the intercom.

BARTLET
It’s not that I don’t know how to use it, it’s just that I haven’t learned yet.

She looks at him and he smiles shyly, as if he’s been caught lying.

BARTLET
I have M.S., and I didn’t tell anybody.

MRS. LANDINGHAM
Yeah. So, you’re having a little bit of a day.

BARTLET
You’re gonna make jokes?

MRS. LANDINGHAM
God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it. Stop using me as an excuse.

God doesn’t cause cars to crash. I have a profound pastoral hatred whenever people say things like, ‘God has sent you this tragedy to test you.’ It’s wrong, it’s just impossible to rationalise theologically and sends you into a major theodicy problem. Blaming God, attributing the origin of evil and suffering to him, does the person suffering a huge disservice, to tell someone that God is the author of their pain is to tie their hands behind their back so they can’t reach out for God’s embrace. It is to deny the otherness of pain and suffering and evil, to give it a prominence it was never to have in God’s creation, to bind it inextricably to God when his promise is that on that amazing day there will be no tears and no more pain.

I don’t have a fully worked-out theodicy, if anyone does then I’d be concerned, although when Mike Lloyd finally gets round to finishing his book on the doctrine of evil and suffering then it will probably best articulate the doctrinal position I hold. (I’m a convert to Mike’s position on this issue, but not on his jokes, that needs to be emphatically stated. Also Mike Lloyd was my Principal at Oxford and someone who I respect unreservedly).

In his book, Café Theology, Lloyd writes:

The author [of the Book of Job] is deliberately and carefully distancing God from any imputation of direct involvement in, or responsibility for evil and suffering. He is, in other words, guarding the goodness of God. It seems to me that we should do likewise. We too need to put moral distance between God and evil. We need to be careful in our thinking and our speaking not to suggest that God is the author of suffering. We need to preserve the distinction between what God permits and what He commits. To forget the distinction is to say that God wills Auschwitz and Hiroshima and the Gulag and the Laogai and the killing fields and Enniskillen and September 11th – and that we must never say. We must guard with our theological lives the goodness of God. We may and we must feel the strength of the case against that goodness. There is a Job in each one of us and he must be allowed to rail. But the time must come when we put our hand over our mouth and find our hope in the goodness of God. For only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to answer our cries. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to care. Only an ultimately good God can be relied upon to put all things to rights.

I once wrote a short story called ‘Playing The Job Card,‘ where I melodramatically laid the blame for a painful situation I was in firmly at God’s door: ‘Is it part of your plan to deal me the Job card? You’ve forced my hand to play a game it doesn’t want to. Do you hear me? I don’t want to play anymore!’ It finished, ‘Tell me there’s a twist in the game. Make it stop hurting. Please… I’m trusting you. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ The God who causes your pain cannot be the God who wipes away your tears. That makes him vindictive, that makes him a Father you cower from, rather than stand under in fear through worship. The God who wipes away your tears is not the author of your suffering, nor does his goodness nullify the pain you feel, rather it is a deep acknowledgment of it and of you, and of how much he loves you.

God doesn’t make cars crash, and you know it.

My Scarlet A

the-scarlet-letter

A is for anxiety.

‘The Bible contradicts almost everything I say about myself. It says I am worthy of love; it says I am unique and valuable. It says I am of incomparable value to God.’ Katharine Welby-Roberts.

It’s World Mental Health Day today and I’m going to let you all in on a secret: I struggle with anxiety. It began when I was reasonably young, but by the time I became a student, it stopped being manageable and being able to be passed off as run-of-the-mill nerves or shyness, and became this secret shame, the damning scarlet A I thought everyone else could see when they looked at me. When anxiety made it difficult to leave the house, I felt it would be better to have my friends view me as flaky, as a last-minute bailer on plans, than actually admit the truth: I have anxiety, I’ve been ploughing on through the day, and right now, I just need the safety and security of staying home this evening because I’ve done a great job of being Hannah Barr today so I would like to reward myself by putting on Netflix and pretending to be CJ Cregg. It’s difficult to admit to having anxiety. I feel the embarrassed urge to tell you that it’s not as bad as it used to be, that I’m pretty fine now. As I write this, I’m still not sure if I’ll have the guts to post this. And it currently feels pretty crazy that a version of this has landed in the inbox of my work’s Head of Comms for posting on our website.

There are two reasons for this: first, there is the fear that if people know I have anxiety, they will take responsibilities away from me, not trust me to do things well, not give me the opportunities to be pushed and allow me to push myself. Second, it is the fear that people won’t believe me and they’ll tell me to get a grip. In the six years since my formal diagnosis of anxiety, I have achieved three degrees, lived and studied abroad, won some awards, been consistently employed, taken lots of risks, made friendships, sustained friendships, done lots of public speaking (which is one of my favourite things to do), and a whole host of other things. This isn’t to brag – although this week I was shortlisted for Tweeter of the Year and I am way more proud of that than I should be! It’s just that sometimes, those things have been bookended by anxiety attacks and of course I would far rather you see my public achievements than the treading water in the background.

But there is also a third reason I’m often reticent to admit all this and it’s to do with being a Christian. Word of advice: quoting Philippians 4:6 to someone with anxiety has the same effect as telling someone who isn’t calm to calm down, it doesn’t work and it just makes them more annoyed!

The overarching narrative of gospel is wholeness. We begin with one God who is perichoretic in character, this means that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in perfect harmony and communication with each other, mutually indwelling. This God makes the world and human beings in it and God and humankind are in a perichoretic embrace. A fracture happens. God and humankind are separated. This breaks God’s heart so he does the extraordinary: he sends his son to make a way for that fracture to be healed, for God and his children to be reunited forever. And now we wait for the fullness of that, for that day where there will be no more tears and no more pain.

But that day might not be today. A lot of damage has been done by Christians, however well-meaning, suggesting to those who struggle with their mental health that they are being tested by God, or they are not praying hard enough, or telling people that they are broken. We are all broken; but it’s because of our sin, not because of our health, mental or physical.

As Christians, we have the best thing you can say to anyone who is struggling whether it’s due to a formal or severe mental health diagnosis or whether it’s in the day-to-day struggles and triumphs which impact on all our mental health. Because as Christians we can say ‘God is with you.’

Let me tell you a tale of two Psalms.

I have prayed these two Psalms throughout my struggles with anxiety; I’ve prayed them when it’s just been that horrible heavy feeling of tar wrapping itself around by chest, I’ve prayed them when it’s felt like I just can’t breathe.

The first is Psalm 50 which features the great verse ‘weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.’ This Psalm has brought great comfort to me because it points me towards hope, that this anxiety is ultimately temporary, a scarlet A which I put there myself and which God will take from me on that amazing day.

The second is Psalm 88. It is the only Psalm to not finish on a message of hope. Rather, it ends ‘darkness is my closest friend.’ And sometimes I have just stayed in that Psalm, in the darkness, not seeing a way out. But that doesn’t mean God isn’t there with me, quite the opposite.

If you are struggling with mental health, God is there with you, in the dark and in the flickers of hope. If you are journeying with someone through this, be patient with them. The cross event was over three days: a day of visible agony, a day of hidden anguish, a day of joy. God is with you in whichever of those days you find yourself in. He is with you even if it feels like it has been a lifetime of unrelenting agony or anguish and tasting joy before being plunged back into despair doesn’t make you a failure. God is with you. He’s got you. He’s not letting you go. He loves you and he is proud of you. God is with you.

‘I Love You’

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Community of St Anselm 2017/18.

Yesterday was the commitment service for the Community of St Anselm. It was wonderful and moving and inspiring and humbling. There are so many things to pick out from it to reflect on, but forgive me for being selfish and wanting to keep some of those things between me, God, and my brothers and sisters in the Community. One of the things that has struck me when speaking to people who’ve been in the Community in previous years is that they have talked a lot about how brilliant and transformative the experience has been, but they have kept the finer, more intimate details to themselves, and I find myself very sympathetic to this. In what I’m sure will be a year of challenge and change, some things God says are just too intimate and precious to cast out in the abyss of the internet.

But here are a few reflections on yesterday:

Joy. One of the things I love about our Abbot, the Archbishop of Canterbury, is how he exudes joy. After we had processed out following the service, he smile was wide and his enthusiasm was infectious. There was a real sense of joy among us all and for me, the joy had trumped the anxiety I initially felt.

On the train down to London, I was re-reading the Rule of Life and the person sat next to me, a lady from Minnesota, asked me what on earth it was, so I explained all about the Community. Her questions were things like ‘so you have to think about religious things all the time?’ ‘You have to cut yourself off from the world?’ ‘You have to follow all these rules?’ And there is a certain amount of limiting myself involved in this year: sacrifice of time and money, the journey of descents, committing to community life and the quotidian recognition of my sin, their sin, my repentance, their repentance, my ‘I choose you,’ their ‘I choose you.’ But the kenotically-transfigured life can be a conduit of deep joy. And the service revealed just a glimpse of that.

Trust. We committed to trust God, to trust each other, to trust those who lead our Community. Trust is hard. Trust is risky. Trust is life-giving. To choose to trust someone and to have someone choose to trust us is a remarkable thing. The cross we now all wear around our necks is a sign of that committing to trust made tangible. In the service, the words preceding being given our crosses were these:

Jesus called his disciples to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. Members of the Community of St Anselm, I invite each of you to take this cross and wear it as a constant reminder of your obedience to his command. Put it on each morning as a sign, each day, that you will choose this path. Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Carry the cross outside these walls and share God’s deep love, proclaiming his kingdom in word and deed.

Dare to shape your living in the manner of his dying. Dare to trust the God who saved you and saved the world. Dare to trust.

Love. When our Dean preached a homily at our first eucharist service a few days ago, he said he had asked God what he wanted to say to us. ‘Tell them ‘I love you.”

No truer words have ever been spoken.

No better words have ever been heard.

Here’s to a year of joy, here’s to a year of risk. Here’s to a year of God saying ‘I love you’ as we say the same to one another. Here’s to a year which sets the course for a lifetime. Here’s to a year in God’s time.

So, Why Celibacy?

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Life plot twist.

‘So, why celibacy?’

This isn’t necessarily one of the first questions you expect to be asked by one of your new housemates shortly after you’ve moved in and part-way through a corporate Netflix binge. Then again, I was only allowed to become the new housemate on strict instruction that I didn’t get engaged within a month of moving in. (It’s been nearly two months, I’ve kept my word). In fact, far from suddenly getting engaged, I informed my new housemates that I was becoming a sort of nun. Somehow, despite that, they still let me move in.

‘So, what is it exactly?’ That’s been the most common question.

The provocative answer: well, I am becoming a sort of nun for a year. The most annoying thing about that is I spent four years of life running open days for a theology department where I categorically denied that the only career opportunity open to theology graduates was being a nun. Side note: let me tell you about all my transferable skills…

I’m embarking on something new born from the wellsprings of the ancient, the Community of St Anselm led by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. I’m going to be a non-resident member, which will mean continuing with the day job, getting to know the train from Oxford to Paddington and back incredibly well, and, well, those are the only things I know with certainty. There’s a rule of life to follow and I’ve re-read parts of Cur Deus Homo by the man himself (Anselm, not J-Welbz) in a move that made me nostalgic for THE1060.

I don’t know what this year is going to be like or really what it is going to look like. I know a couple of people who’ve done it in previous years and their faces light up and they gush when asked about it. Right now, I find I am incredibly apprehensive. The desire to go deeper and to be really changed, to encounter God in new and profound ways seemed like an awfully good idea at the time, but now it feels terrifying.

There are two reasons for this:

What if God doesn’t speak to me?

What if He does?

I had a tutor at university who was genuinely such a lovely man but who couldn’t cope with silences. This meant that every time he asked our first year lecture class a question about philosophy of religion, he answered it himself within seven seconds. Once he tried to go longer and I don’t remember a more uncomfortable five-minutes-felt-like-five-hours of my life. I do empathise; the teenagers in my youth group are exceedingly vocal about Grand Theft Auto but are overcome with muteness whenever I utter the words ‘let’s pray, shall we?’ But it’s a similar thing that I often have with God. I can talk about God for a long time. I have three theology degrees which have resulted in roughly 600,000 words written about God. But I can still find myself thinking God is giving me the silent treatment when I’ve only given him about ten seconds in which to speak.

Silence will form a key part of St Anselm life. On my application form, I spoke of how apprehensive I was about this part, how cautious and intimidated I am by silence, the fear that God won’t speak.

But now, it is not so much the silence I simultaneously fear and long for, but the voice that breaks through the silence.

‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’

It’s easy enough to say.

‘See I am about to do something in Israel that will makes the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle.’

And that right there is the hard, terrifying, uncomfortable, direction-changing , life-giving, Spirit-imbibing part. 

But, maybe that’s why we do this in community. I can say ‘Lord, I am listening,’ but if my ears start to tingle, well that’s where you don’t want to go it alone, that’s where you need those people who have committed themselves publicly to loving you, and you them.

Here we go. A year in God’s time. God, where you lead me, I will follow. God, where you call me, I will go. Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.

***

If you need a laugh 10/10 recommend watching a hapless evangelical (me) try and work out how to put on an alb.

You Are Loved, You Have Hope, You Are Not Alone

Dorchester Abbey

A sermon on Romans 12:9-21 at Dorchester Abbey.

Good morning! It is wonderful to be with you today. Let me quickly introduce myself: I’m Hannah and I work for an organisation called Viva. Viva is an international children’s charity which grows locally-led partnerships who are committed to working together so that children are safe, well, and able to fulfill their God-given potential and last year we reached 2.2 million children in 26 countries. But whilst my colleagues jet off to places like Uganda or Lebanon, my role takes me to the exotic location which is Cowley and other areas in and around Oxford. I manage Viva’s network here in the UK called Doorsteps. Doorsteps is relatively new, it’s only been around a couple of years, but it was started because Viva’s heart is for children worldwide including those here in Oxfordshire, those on our doorstep.

Outside of work I help lead the youth work at my church in Oxford and last week I took some of my teenagers to a Christian festival called Soul Survivor, which involved camping for five days. Now, I hate camping. It is not something I consider fun and even if you like camping, I imagine it slightly loses its appeal when you’re camping with around 9000 teenagers. The state of the toilets still haunts me. And I was just having a bit of a grumble to God one morning about how much I hate camping when I looked over to my young people just hanging out with each other. And in particular I saw my super cool 17 year-old boy playing a game with my phenomenally energetic 12 year-old girl and they were just interacting with each other so wonderfully and I was watching what my other young people were doing and the woes and horrors of camping just evaporated. And all I could say to God was, ‘God, I just love them so much!’ This passage from Romans which we heard earlier is given the subheading ‘love in action,’ and we read in verse ten ‘be devoted to one another in love.’ When we love something, we can’t ignore it, we feel compelled to respond. I love the teenagers in my youth group and I know how much they love going to Soul Survivor and so how could I not take them? And actually one of the things they get from being taken is the affirmation that they are loved, that someone would do this for them.

At Doorsteps, we run a project called Find Your Fire which is all about supporting young people who are struggling, who have really low self-esteem and whose future looks desperate and myself and my youth worker colleagues we come alongside them and mentor them and taking that time to invest in them, to show them care and compassion and love, it changes them. I was chatting to one of my colleagues recently about the difference between the young people at the start of Find Your Fire and at the end of it. These young people stand taller, they have more confidence. At the celebration day one of them was taking me through a list of things they’d done that day and said to me, ‘I couldn’t have done this without Find Your Fire.’ Now they actively look forward to what the future holds because someone put love in action to come alongside them and help them realise their potential. And this love in action is twofold: first it’s us as Doorsteps and the practical things we do to show them how much we care. And second, it’s the young people themselves realising that there are people who care for them, who champion them, and who love them. ‘Be devoted to one another in love,’ it sounds nice, it sounds like something that we should all be doing. And at Doorsteps we see what the practical outworking of that can look like and the impact on the lives of these young people is just incredible because it shows them repeatedly and emphatically: you are loved. That’s the overriding message of the Gospel: you are loved, we see it paradigmatically in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. You are loved.

It would be wonderful if just knowing that we are loved solved everything, at Doorsteps we don’t underestimate the impact of it because we see the effect it has on people. But what so many of the people we encounter lack is hope. The catalyst for Doorsteps’ creation was Operation Bullfinch, which was an investigation into child sexual exploitation in Oxford and one of the hostels where girls were being abused was just round the corner from Viva’s head office. And if you were familiar with the case or have read anything or watched anything on some of the other high profile grooming scandals, such as Rochdale and Rotherham, they offer just a small insight into an utterly abhorrent situation where primarily young girls were just subjected to appalling treatment. I was speaking recently to someone who knew one of the girls who had been groomed and this person had listened to her tell her everything that had happened to her. And when she finished, she asked her, ‘what was the worst part?’ And the girl replied, ‘hearing the central locking of the car go down.’ Because that was the point at which she felt hope was lost. Those words just floor me every time I remember them. And that point of hope being lost appears again and again and again in the stories of those who were targeted in these gangs around the country. Losing hope is the story I hear from young people at the start of Find Your Fire, losing hope is the story I hear from the families waiting to be matched with a befriender in Doorsteps’ family befriending project, losing hope is the story I hear from around the county in response to children’s centres being shut down.

And yet, as a Christian I fervently hold to those amazing words in the beginning of John’s Gospel, ‘light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.’ My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps in any capacity is that they will know that despair is not the end of the story, that there is always hope. In today’s passage in Romans we read ‘be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.’ Yes, it’s easier said than done, but it speaks to something invaluable which is the encouragement to keep going because no matter how bad things might be right now, this darkness is not the final word. We live in a society that writes people off if they don’t seem to measure up and this attitude just leaves despair in its wake. And yet hope, Christian hope, is inextricably linked with joy and it inspires perseverance. If I manage to achieve only one thing as Doorsteps Project Manager then I hope it is this: showing people that there is always hope. For just as you are loved, so you always have hope. You have hope.

Love and hope are marvellous and wonderful and not to be underestimated, they are central to the message of God in Christ. But it is not simply enough to tell people this good news, we need to live it. As Christians, as people who know the love and hope of God means we cannot but show this same love and hope to others. But how best to go about doing this? The way Viva works is through networks, so we have 38 networks around the world, partnerships of churches and other organisations working together for the good of others. The founder of Viva was volunteering in Bolivia and he found that on a Monday evening there were all these different churches providing food for homeless children but then they weren’t there for the rest of the week, so Tuesday-Sunday these children starved. Through the simple act of connecting these churches, the children were fed more often.

One of the things that I find in my job is that it is such a comfort to know I am not alone. I work with some great people to deliver these projects, but I know that Doorsteps is not alone in its dream to see children and young people reach their potential. For the young people taking part in Find Your Fire, for the families who are really struggling and who we are hoping our family befriending scheme will support, they similarly need the comfort to know that they are not alone. And we can and should practically make this real to people. Romans continues, ‘share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality… Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn… Do not be proud but be willing to associate with people of lower position… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.’ To be shown that you are not alone is love in action, it sustains people through hope. It shows people they belong. In belonging, we meet again the God who is love, the God who loves so much that he inspires those who love him to look out for the least, the last, and the lost, and to bring them into belonging.

‘Be devoted to one another in love… Be joyful in hope and patient in affliction… Share with the Lord’s people who are in need.’ Challenging words which if we act on them, live our lives by them, change the lives of those around us for the better. My prayer for all those who encounter Doorsteps, the marginalised teenagers, the struggling families, is that they will know that they are loved, that they have hope, and that they are not alone. It the same prayer I have for myself and for each one of you here this morning: you are loved, you have hope, you are not alone.

I Am A Soul Sista

cake

Youth ministry means cake.

Dear Soul Survivor,

I’ve recently returned from you. I’ve returned from you every year for the past ten years although this time a pretty naff cough and cold has returned with me which, as one of my youth group suggested, is probably because I’m getting old. Honestly, you give up your annual leave to take your youth group to Soul Survivor, you put up with camping for five days, AND you share a tiny number of toilets with thousands of teenagers and this is the thanks you get!

(Although I think we all know it’s because I’m getting old).

In the past few years, Soul Survivor, I’ve had a few frustrations with you. It hasn’t been anything major; your theology is legit, your biblical exegesis is sound, your ministry is life-giving. But, in the past few years, I’ve just felt a bit let down by you.

I became a Christian at a Soul Sista event in Watford in 2004. It was great. It was very pink! I bought a hot pink t-shirt with ‘I am a Soul Sista’ emblazoned in black on the front and I wore it all the time, it was my favourite. I was incredibly inspired by these women who led worship, who preached passionately, who made real to me the God who loved me so much he died for me. As part of a community of women, it felt like a family and it felt like being a girl of God was something to embrace. My confirmation presents a few months later were books by Beth Redman, the most played CD was Precious (a CD I finally tracked down a few months ago and I bawled in the car with the nostalgia-cum-joy).

And then I started going to Soul Survivor in the summer. In those days, I was a passionate worship leader, my guitar was grafted to me. I went to every seminar by Tim Hughes, but Lex Buckley was who I wanted to be. I went to more Soul Sista events. I saw women lead and it gave me hope. You know, Ali Martin, she’s been my favourite preacher since I was 12 years old. As a teenager, her example meant everything. As preaching gradually overtook worship leading in my passions and in my giftings, I used to think ‘what would Ali do?’ as well as ‘what would Jesus do?’

When I ended up in a church which was vehemently opposed to women in leadership, seeing women lead at Soul Survivor was my only hope. As sermons and services and pastoral sensibilities which whirred inside me were shut down by callous statements of my being a weaker vessel, not permitted to have authority, commanded to stay silent, seeing women on the main stage at Soul Survivor was the only thing that encouraged me that I wasn’t going insane, that my calling was from God and it was just the church I was in that had the problem, not God.

But then, you look again at that stage and you start to ask yourself, ‘where the women at?’ One female worship leader; one female speaker who only gets one turn at speaking. An annual seminar saying ‘Soul Survivor affirms women in leadership’ but it starts to just seem like lip service.

And that hurt.

It felt like you were saying one thing, but doing another.

And I’ve been torn. Because people have leveled pretty rough criticism at you guys for the gender disparity issue, and it’s like being caught between my divorced parents. I love you, Soul Survivor! I will always defend you because you’re brilliant, but you really let a load of us women down.

So this year, on the final night, when Mike called on the guys in the room to treat women with respect; when you had incredible women (plural!) preaching on the main stage; when you had a seminar on women leadership where again, guys were called on to cut out the patriarchal crap, it meant the world. (Just to say, the joke that followed Mike’s words on night 5 diminished the impact slightly, but that’s my only niggle).

I want the young women in my youth group to know that God has called them because of who they are. In a world where misogyny has quotidian fatal consequences for women, my prayer for them is that church is a place of empowerment and not of silencing. My prayer is that they will never believe the lie that their gender makes them anything other than equal in the eyes of God.

Soul Survivor, for years you were the place that made these things true for me. Please, keep doing this. Please keep being that place for the girls in the church because these girls become women and we discover that the world doesn’t get easier, in fact, it gets exponentially harder to be female. At 12 you made me feel grateful to God that I was a girl and this year, for the first time in a few years, you made me feel the same.

I love you, Soul Survivor. What a privilege to be part of the fruit of your faithfulness to God.

With love,

Hannah

Living In One Room

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One of the less dungeon-esque student digs.

There are several things spending seven years as a full-time student teaches you:

  1. It is possible to live off 9p jars of “curry” sauce from Sainsbury’s.
  2. The more degrees you gain, the harder you have to work to prove you’re employable.
  3. How to have your life fit into one room.

I was once chatting to a colleague at one of my summer jobs where she was lamenting the moving in process with her new partner. He had no furniture, but he did have boxes upon boxes upon boxes of books. I smiled sympathetically. My earthly possessions are basically 80% books, 15% Pinterest-inspired room decorations, and 5% useful items, i.e. an air bed, a laundry basket, and a candy floss pink bin. It’s a seven-years-spent-as-a-student problem.

One of the things you learn as a student is how to make four walls contain your whole life. As a fresh-faced fresher, my halls of residence room betrayed my overwhelmingly heteronormativity (‘Even your bloody hole punch is pink!’ exclaimed the jock who was my new flat mate). Without a social area, without a proper kitchen (catered halls still one of the best decisions ever) my life had to fit in that one room.

By second year, the refusal to turn on the heating had us all fleeing from the drafty living room to our beds, curling up under duvets. On my study abroad year, I lived in an apartment where I just had my room, with a fridge acting as my bedside table, sharing a bathroom with a girl from deepest, darkest Quebec. Even when I worked as a junior dean and had my own flat, my claustrophobia compelled me to move the bed into the living room, so again, my life became confined to one room. Two more years of student life, two more years of living in a room.

And now? Well, now I’m in a house. And yet, I find myself so often just in my room. There is a whole house. It has a sofa and a television and a tumble dryer and housemates and a garden and yet, so often, I retreat to living in just one room.

There’s a Tim Hughes song that, whenever I hear it, makes me feel physically sick with guilt. It begins, ‘I don’t want to get there at the end of it all, looking behind me to see there was so much more.’ These lyrics floor me. They make me feel utterly horrendous. Here am I, a person claiming to have been saved by grace, to have experienced the awesomeness and magnificence of the Holy Spirit, and yet, I seem to approach my spiritual life like I do houses: one room rather than the whole house.

In Luke’s Gospel there is the story of perhaps my favourite encounter that Jesus has.

A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is – that she is a sinner.”

Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to tell you… Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – as her great love has shown. But whoever has been forgiven little loves little.’

It’s easy to make our worlds small. And yet, just look at the freedom that comes from opening up, from letting Jesus in, from letting him begin a good work in us. For whoever has been forgiven lots, loves lots.

The Tim Hughes song continues, ‘take this pocketful of faith, it is all I have today, I’m giving it all, I’m giving it all.’ In the encounter between Jesus and the Woman With A Past, she gives it all, her pocketful of faith were tears, hair, and an alabaster jar of perfume. She gave it all. The best place to ever be is at the feet of Jesus. And that was where she was. At the end of it all, she won’t see that there was so much more.

As for Simon the Pharisee? I’m not so sure. Only semi-embracing Jesus is like living in a house and staying in only one room. You get a glimpse. It’s nice. It’s comfy. But there is so much more.

It’s costly to give it all, to break a jar of perfume and weep at Jesus’s feet. But not as costly as not doing it at all.

To quote the great John Newton: I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great saviour.