Thursday, September 24, 2015


It was a nice day in a nice suburban neighborhood. The sun shown down upon people working in flowerbeds or taking walks. Not a thing wrong or out of place to be seen. I entered the home and was led from the front door into a sun room at the back of the house. I could have found my way alone by following the tube running from the oxygen concentrator in the living room.

He might have been a big man once. Today, the man sitting in the corner chair seemed shrunken in on himself. He had dark circles around his eyes and a slight tremor in his hand. His head was bowed. Sitting before him was one of his three daughters, gently touching him and holding his hands. Tears moved silently down her cheeks, but she smiled when I introduced myself as the chaplain and she moved so I could sit near her father.

J. T. was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He had come back to make a home, raise a family and then to help his daughters by being a doting grandfather. At age 67, congestive heart failure was cutting that dream cruelly short.

We talked a while. I gave him whatever comfort and faithful assurances I could give. When I rose to leave, J. T. thanked me for coming. Smiling, I said that I was glad I had found him – that I had almost gotten lost.

J. T. bowed his head and said so softly that I almost missed it, “People like you never get lost.”
I paused for a moment and said, “I seem to need help in finding my way a lot. I’m still learning from people who showed me the way a long time ago.”

He nodded quietly and I left, passing the local priest who had arrived to administer the sacraments. After speaking briefly with J. T.’s daughters, I got into my car and sat there.

“People like you never get lost,” he had said. God, if he only knew! Sometimes I feel like getting lost is what I do best. I’ve tried to do and to be a lot of things in my life. Sometimes I’ve been successful and a lot of times I’ve failed miserably.

One thing I have never done is to know exactly what I’m supposed to do and how I’m supposed to do it. At least not all the time.

I’ve wandered in the wilderness mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I spent a year trying to figure out where I fit into the Church (still working on that). I spent more than a year wondering if I had anything left in my life to offer to anyone else. I always wonder why I haven’t been a better husband, a better parent, a better father.

Never get lost? J. T., if you only knew! I’ve survived by following the spiritual bread crumbs left behind by so many others. Without their help, knowing and unknowing, I’d have spent a Biblical amount of time wondering where I was and where I should be going. I still get up some mornings, look around me and wonder where the pathway went.

There are some people who seem to have all the answers all the time. I’m not one of those. I never will be. I will wander in the wilderness until I stumble upon some spiritual bread crumbs or a lamppost in a snowy forest to show me the way for a while.

You see, people like me get lost all the time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Broken Hallelujah

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything here. That doesn’t mean that I haven’t been thinking, although some might argue that fact. It’s really that my life has been kind of a kaleidoscope of late. Colors and patterns have been swirling around and have refused to settle on one identifying system.

I’ve relocated to the city of Athens, GA, home of R.E.M. and the B52s. It’s a place to get great burgers and to wonder why they refuse to spell the word “dog” correctly, preferring “Dawg.” At any rate this process of changing jobs, buying and selling homes and learning where things are have kept me occupied.

 I’ve discovered, though, that I cannot keep my own thoughts at bay for very long. Ideas keep cropping up. Some of them are new. Some of them are old, returning once again as if to say “You haven’t finished with us yet. We’re not finished with you either. Deal with it.” My thoughts don’t seem to respect me very much.

The other night, I was listening to music and heard a song that I had not listened to in a while - Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I love it. I can’t really explain to anyone’s satisfaction why I love it but I do. I love the simplicity of the melody and chord progression. I love the lyrics that touch on so many religious images and are at the same time so very human. I love the way other artists have taken Cohen’s song and made it their own. I love the way “Hallelujah” seems to invite us to make it our own, whether we sing it or simply allow it to wash over us, taking us to places inside ourselves that perhaps we’ve never visited before.

Most of all, I love the way the song invites us, entreats us and dares us to live the one word chorus, “hallelujah, hallelujah.” After each verse that shows a picture of someone who is broken or lonely or confused, comes the chorus again. “Hallelujah, hallelujah.” That doesn’t mean that all is well and everyone is happy. Sometimes, as Cohen says, “It’s not somebody that’s seen the light. It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.”

I get it. There have been times in my life that “hallelujah” has been the farthest word from my lips. There have been times that I didn’t feel joyous, or happy or blessed and I just didn’t want to “Praise Ye the Lord” as the translation goes. I didn’t understand that when human beings speak the word, the word can be a supplication and a plea as well as an exclamation. 

Sometimes words fail me. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say or how to say it. Sometimes I can only feel. In those times it is permissible to whisper “hallelujah” in a way that is a plea or a prayer. “Hallelujah” because I hurt too much for anything else. “Hallelujah” because it’s the only coherent thing I can say. “Hallelujah” just because.

In one of his verses, Cohen says that “There’s a blaze of light in every word. It doesn’t matter which you’ve heard, the holy or the broken hallelujah.” He is right. However we feel it, what matters is that we say it at all. I would even say that a broken hallelujah is just as holy as any other, perhaps more so. The broken hallelujah, for me, is the moment when I have run out of words. I can only speak in tears. The only word is “hallelujah,” perhaps preceded by “please, please, please.”

The final verse of Cohen’s song is one that has rarely been recorded by others, for whatever reason. It’s the verse that ties it all together for me.

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

There will come a time when all I can say is that I did my best and sometimes my best wasn’t much. I made mistakes. Sometimes I screwed up royally. Other times I came through victoriously, banners flying. Life went wrong and life went right. Standing before the Lord of Song, the only thing that I will be able to say – in a whispered plea as well as in celebration – will be “hallelujah.”

I hope that will be enough.