Friday, March 24, 2017

Finding a meaning for Alleluia

Since I am a book nerd (whose memory has been very weak, trauma+life changes = sore memory), I turned to some of my resources to find a definition for Alleluia and begin with a more literary approach. They reminded me that Alleluia is the English version of the Hebrew Hallelujah, which translates as Praise the Lord, Praise be to Yahweh, the one who is, the Great I Am.  The word shows up mostly in the Psalms, and especially in 113-118, which the Jewish tradition refers to as the Hallel.  The Great Hallel is psalm 136. Scanning through these psalms you see phrases of favorite hymns and contemporary Christian songs. These are literally hymns of praise. "What a better starting point?" I thought.

So, I began with the first one, Psalm 113.

1 Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord.
    Praise the name of the Lord!
2 Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever.
3 Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord.
4 For the Lord is high above the nations;
    his glory is higher than the heavens.
5 Who can be compared with the Lord our God,
    who is enthroned on high?
6 He stoops to look down on heaven and on earth.
7 He lifts the poor from the dust and the needy from the garbage dump.
8 He sets them among princes, even the princes of his own people!
9 He gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother.
Praise the Lord!

Tears streamed down my face.  I couldn’t believe it. Did this Psalm that I read as a background study for my art exploration of grief just speak directly to me by name?  These were psalms written by men weren’t they? Could this have been written by a woman like me?  Could this have been written by her husband? her child? her parent?  Part of me searched for some message from the Holy Spirit, as if the phrase, “he gives the childless woman a family, making her a happy mother,” somehow meant I would be with child any day now.  Part of me wanted to point to this coincidence and see it as a promise that I wouldn’t be childless forever.  And yet part of me recognized that this woman still receives both names, and I already have had both of them too…and my whole goal with this is to find some happiness, some joy left within me.

At times I feel like the medical term “failed pregnancy” overlaps in my brain to name me a “failed mother.” You or I can try to console my heart by saying this isn’t true, and yet as sure as the term is written on my physical history, it is also written on my spiritual record.  Ironically, I wonder if all mothers don’t feel this way from time to time when they see the hopes they had for their children fall apart.  How many of us feel like failures every day at other things which we care so deeply about and seem to have trouble seeing results. Does joy come from success only? Do we have to find success to find joy?

Where does the "happy mother’s" joy come from? Does it come from her children? Does it come from a joy in her daily tasks? Does it come from the balance of family and career? How does a childless mother find happiness when there is nothing to balance?

My favorite part of painting is in the mixing and discovering of pigments.  When I can’t seem to decide what to paint, I start with the colors and then go from there.  My logical brain says this is backwards, but my explorer brain enjoys the process.  When I’m finished, I always feel refreshed and rested, and today I had some thoughts on why that might be.  When I look at the colors in wonder, I am amazed by their beauty.  The best way to describe this sense of awe is to say that I take joy in seeing the colors form on the page.  I take even greater joy seeing them change and develop into something with character and meaning.  

Could this be where joy comes from? the moments of pause when we wonder and appreciate beauty?  Is that why a mother gazing at her child looks so happy? It’s not pride or success, but true awe and enjoyment in beauty.

This is a definition of Alleluia I can do.  I can look for beauty and hold on to the promise that there is still goodness and beauty present with us here and awaiting us in the moments, days and years to come.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Holding on to an Alleluia

In some communities they bury the alleluia’s at the beginning of Lent or just before. I’ve never done it, but I know people who have. They’ve told about how they “fast” from celebrating during this season as a way of lamenting the injustice and pain in the world. Essentially it’s like a season of constant confession without jumping to the assurance of forgiveness and good news.  The music is droll and the prayers are full of cries for mercy.  On Easter Morning as they tell of Jesus' resurrection, they pull out the Alleluia’s and celebrate, now with a renewed exuberance. 

I’ve always been fascinated with this tradition, but somehow I forget about it until the week before Lent and then it’s too late to institute the burying of the Alleluia’s.  So it never seems to happen.  This year I was choosing hymns for our first Sunday of Lent and as I thumbed through the hymns for preparation for Communion, I came across “Come, Behold, the Feast of Heaven,” which ends each phrase with an Alleluia, with the same tune as “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” I paused to think how these two hymns could act as book ends holding up Lent as a space in between, seeing our practice of communion as both looking towards the meal to come on Maundy Thursday as well as the meal to come in the end of this life and the beginning of the next.

I had a very different theme and sermon already prepared at that point.  It was one of those times that I felt like the sermon had already been given to me, and I felt like the message was complete in what the Spirit was calling me to say...and yet I felt this tug to say something separate that wasn’t quite completed in my soul, like an ember that was starting to burn, but hadn’t quite caught fire yet.  So, I kept thinking about the Alleluia as I prepared for worship in the coming days.  Several weeks prior I had purchased a coloring sheet from Illustrated Children’s Ministry which had the word Alleluia and a beautiful butterfly.  They encouraged providing two versions of the coloring sheet to your congregants, one with pictures in the wings and another with blank spaces for those who felt called to draw their own images of alleluia.  You could color it and then bury them until Easter or you could just color them on Easter.  So, here I stood.  I had the hymn, I had the physical Alleluias, I had the time to prepare and put directions and an explanation in the bulletin which we print in a crazy amount of time in advance.  And yet, there was something holding me back.  Something within me felt like I could not bury the Alleluia.

Instead, I felt this incredible yearning inside to pick it up.  I wanted to pick up the image of the Alleluia and hold onto it for dear life. So, that’s what I did. 

If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I had a tragic loss in my life and traumatic physical complications about a month prior to Ash Wednesday.  I could tell you the story of my loss and my medical condition again, the story of my endurance and recovery process, but that’s another story unto itself. For now, I want to begin sharing with you about this current journey of picking up the Alleluia. I did not end up changing the sermon or introducing this idea with my congregation that Sunday, I had to start working through it first.  I’m starting to write about this process now, and I wanted to share it with you.  

As I invited my congregation to prepare for communion that Sunday, I did invite them to choose to pick up the Alleluia, “if like me, you need a little help singing today.”  I just let the idea hang in the air, and that afternoon, I started to paint.  I had been dreaming about filling a journal with alleluias as I tried to visualize what it might look like to “hold onto an Alleluia."  So, I ordered some carbon paper to trace the butterflies from Illustrated Children’s Ministry into my journal.  I figured even if I couldn’t think of what to put in the blank spaces, I could at least trace and paint the images already provided and hope to go from there.  

If you find yourself in a place where it’s hard to be joyful and even harder to sing for joy, I invite you to start dreaming of what it might look like to celebrate the goodness in our world, and then, if you can fathom it, begin to dream about what it might look like to celebrate the goodness in this moment, inside you, in the place of emptiness in your life.  Ok, maybe that’s too far too soon, but we’ll get there.  Even if you can’t fathom it, maybe you can dream it, and if the dreams only look like tears right now, you can start here with me.  May the Spirit which imagines Life for all things speak to your heart. Amen.

In case you can't read the scriptures around this first Alleluia, here they are:
Hebrews 12: 12
So take a new grip with your tired hands and your weak knees.
Hebrews 12: 1b, 2b
Let us run with endurance the race God has set before us...Because of the Joy awaiting him, Jesus endured the cross, disregarding its shame.