The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah
I’m not the best at building things with my hands. My first time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, I was struggling so much with hammering in nails that the foreman came over to watch. And as he stood there for a few minutes, he just got more and more frustrated and exacerbated until finally he couldn’t hold it in any longer. And he yelled out for all to hear: “You are supposed to hammer the nails, not make love to them.”
So if you need some help with a project know that my spirit is willing, but the flesh and bones don’t always cooperate so well.
But one thing I do know about construction is that if you want to do a good job rebuilding something, you need to do a good job breaking it down first. I learned this on one of my next adventures with Habitat for Humanity. Our college chapter went to York, Pennsylvania (our first nation’s capital!) for a week at the end of my junior year in college. And as we drove over there from Kent State, I kept wondering what are we going to build? What will be going up? What’s the new work we will see?
But once we got there, we found out we weren’t building anything. Instead we were going to be ripping out and demolishing the interiors of a row of townhomes. These were hundred year old townhomes, and the brick on the exterior was great. But inside there were big problems. There were weak floors. Wood was rotting. The chimneys were moving off center. There were walls with holes in them. The pipes were old. The windows and appliances and flooring all needed to go.
Now we could have made this a quick and easy project. We could have covered up the hole with plaster and paint. We could have put some new carpet down over the floors and bought some brand new appliances. And it would have looked good to those coming in. But it wouldn’t have been safe. It wouldn’t have been long lasting. It wouldn’t be a place you would want to live in or you would want your neighbors to live in.
So our job that week was to tear it all down, to break down and take out that which was rotted and bad. And only after us and more weeks of crews coming in after us breaking down these townhomes would finally other groups come in and start building them back up. It was a lot of work. I remember spending an entire day taking out a third story chimney brick by brick by brick. But this was the work that would give space and room and a foundation for these rowhouses to not just look good, but to be good, and to be long lasting.
The breaking down is often just as important as the building back up.
The author of Psalm 51 knows this well. At the end of this prayer and song, the Psalmist says to God:
“For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
“The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit.” Reading this Psalm this week, that phrase “broken spirit” jumped out at me. It jumped out at me, because we don’t usually think of something broken as being good or acceptable or pleasing to God. When we have something broken, we want to fix it as quickly as possible. Or, more often, we want to cover it up or hide from it. We think brokenness equals bad. And there is reason for that. When something is broken, it is not yet finished. There is still more that is needed.
But brokenness can also be a gift. It can be a gift because it uncovers the problems hidden underneath. It allows us to see what needs to be taken out, what needs to be changed and fixed. Brokenness also gives us space and opportunity. It gives us room for new work and imagination and creativity to happen. When something is broken, instead of just continuing on the same way over and over and over again, we get a chance for trying something new and different.
Brokenness also allows us to pay more attention to God. When we are broken, we remember we are not perfect. We remember we need help. We need direction. We need grace. We need love. We need something greater than ourselves to build us back up. When we are broken we listen and see better, because we can’t hide anymore. We can’t pretend everything is perfect. As the songwriter Leonard Cohen sings on his song “Anthem,”
“Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything (there is a crack in everything).
That’s how the light gets in.”
A broken spirit opens us to God’s work in us.
A broken spirit is often what God needs from us. These words of Psalm 51 were originally written about King David. We might remember David first as the kid who heroically battles the giant Goliath. But later in his life and kingdom, things get corrupted. He kills not just those who are attacking him, but even his own loyal soldiers. He treats his first wife Michal terribly as a political pawn. And he gathers more and more wives and concubines as if women are possessions or trophies, instead of human beings made in God’s image.
The rot and sin underlying in David grows and festers. But he keeps covering it up with songs and prayers and shows of religion, pretending as if nothing is wrong in himself. He paints his soul over instead of allowing God to break it down. But this prayer comes when he cannot hide any longer. Finally, the prophet Nathan, gets through to him that he David, has hurt people. He has mistreated women. He has destroyed lives. He has forgotten how much God loves each person and how God’s heart breaks at what David is doing.
The broken spirit of David is not his sin, but his realization that he needs to change. It is when David realizes his patterns and ways of living are not healthy. He needs to weed out and tear away parts of himself that have become evil and destructive, rotten and worn down. He can’t hide anymore. And so finally he opens himself up to God. He asks God to wash him, to turn him, to teach him, to tear him down and build him back up.
A broken spirit is better than a rotting spirit. A broken spirit is something God can use.
We in our world today often hide from our brokenness. But there is a funny thing I have experienced through life. Whenever I have been the most broken in spirit, I have seen God more present in my life. I don’t think it is that God is trying harder in those times. God’s always there. Rather, it is that I am finally taking notice of God, instead of thinking I can do it all on my own.
And I see it in others too. When I was a chaplain in the hospital, my favorite unit to go to was the floor for those recovering from alcohol and drug addiction. Because there was no pretending on that unit that everything is fine. There, people knew they needed to be broken down to be built back up. There was honesty. There was seeking. There was vulnerability. They actually challenged me to look more inside myself and ask, how open am I to God? Do I need to be broken down too?
In the famous Leonard Cohen song, “Hallelujah,” he writes about the brokenness and faith of King David, and his own brokenness in faith and life. But within that brokenness he finds light and hope and joy. Cohen actually wrote over 80 different verses over two years for the song. But in the version he finally recorded he chose these lyrics:
“There’s a blaze of light in every word
It doesn’t matter which you heard
The holy or the broken hallelujah.”
It is a beautiful song. But I would like to make one change to those lyrics. Instead of “holy or broken” I would like to make it “holy and broken.” For I believe those broken moments are often our most holy moments. They are the moments of hard work. They are moments that can be painful and difficult to face. But they are the moments when we hear God the clearest and come to God, open to new possibilities.
As Cohen’s “Hallelujah” finishes
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
May we come to God the same way. Open. Broken. But knowing God is coming to rebuild us. Amen.