You’ve probably heard the song “Hallelujah.” You know, the song that’s been covered by everyone from Bob Dylan and U2, to the man singing in the subway. There are literally hundreds of recorded covers of Hallelujah, but oddly enough no one ever seems to get sick of the song—It brings down the house every time. Some have even called it the perfect song—but like most great works of art, the story behind the song may be better than the actual song.
Hallelujah was written by Canadian songwriter and artist, Leonard Cohen. The original date it was written is unknown because Cohen constantly tinkered with it. Cohen was a mad artist—he would pace around his hotel room in his underwear into the early morning hours never satisfied with the lyrics or arrangement. It is purported he wrote as many as 70 verses, but no one knows the true number.
After five years of tinkering, in 1984, Cohen recorded Hallelujah on an album so unappealing his record label wouldn’t release it, so Cohen released the album independently with little fanfare. You may have heard the original Cohen version of Hallelujah, but most likely you haven’t. It’s not that good. It’s dark and slow, a far cry from the crowd pleasing version covered by so many.
One night, while performing at the Beacon ballroom, a man named John Kale heard Cohen sing Hallelujah and loved it. He asked Cohen for permission to record his own version, and to send him the lyrics—Cohen faxed him 15 pages.
Kale, changed some lyrics, the tempo, and most importantly the “feel” of the song. and recorded his version on a Leonard Cohen tribute album, “I’m Your fan.”
Cohen’s tribute album wasn’t popular, very few people purchased the album, but a young aspiring singer named Jeff Buckley heard the song at a friend’s house one night and decided to record his own version.
In 1994, Buckley recorded his version of Hallelujah,” that’s the version you’ve probably heard, It’s the famous one, just a man and his guitar, with a slight hint of desperation in his voice. Every subsequent cover of Hallelujah has been a cover of Kale, covering Buckley, covering Cohen.
Ironically though, no one really paid attention to Buckley’s version when the song was released in 1994. It wasn’t until Buckley died in a tragic drowning accident in 1997 that his music garnered mass attention, propelling “Hallelujah” into the spotlight—15 years after Cohen’s first recording.
Five years of writing and rewriting, three failed albums, three different versions, and a tragic death was all it took for everyone to discover the perfect song.
I bring all of that up, because it made me think about the verse in the Bible where Paul said that God is the author and perfecter of our faith. I love when God initiates faith in me. Initial faith is inspiring and exciting. It brings with it dreams and hopes, but the perfecting of faith, the tweaking, is agonizing.
Great art is usually recognized in hindsight; faith is much the same. Perfect faith is a process. Failures, revisions, time, wins and losses, and the Bible is filled with little verses, usually unnoticed by the average reader. Verses like Genesis 15:1.
“Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abraham in a vision.
It’s those first three words, “Some time later” that is so telling. It’s the life lived in between the stories in scripture that say so much. Genesis 41:1 is another one.
“Two full years later Pharoah dreamed…”
The frustrating part of perfecting faith is that it’s different for everyone. Sure, there are patterns God uses, but he is unique with every individual, and most of the time it feels like he moves faster with everyone else.
There’s a story about a time when Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were having dinner in a café in Paris one day, and Bob Dylan told Cohen he really liked his song, “Hallelujah.” He asked Cohen how long he had worked on it. Cohen told Dylan 2 years because he was too embarrassed to admit the answer was actually 5 years. Cohen told Dylan he really liked his song “I for an Eye.” He asked Dylan how long he had worked on it. Dylan told Cohen he wrote it in 15 minutes.
I want great faith; I bet you do too. I want the first draft to be the finished version, but God loves to take his time, he’s a mad artist perfecting me, and he’s never finished until my life is finished.
There is a sign that hangs on the wall in my barbershop that says, “Great haircuts are not cheap and cheap haircuts are not great.” I think faith works the same.
Don’t compare your debut album to someone else’s greatest hits.
God is perfecting you, and he is perfecting me too. I’d be willing to bet the people you could list right now that you consider to have great faith are either much older or have gone through an incredibly trying season in life. I wish it worked the other way, that great faith was found in youth and prosperity, but it’s not.
The world is filled with one hit wonders, but God has different plans for you. He will keep tweaking, perfecting and rewriting, but we can be confident “he, who began the good work will continue his work until it is finally finished.”
*I took details about the history of the song “Hallelujah” from Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, “Revisionist History” episode “Hallelujah” on July 27, 2016
1 John 5:14-15
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us–whatever we ask–we know that we have what we asked of him.
I’m willing to bet you’ve experienced “The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon” many times in your life, you just didn’t know what to call it. The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, coined in 1986 by Terry Mullen, is when a concept or thing you just found out about suddenly seems to appear everywhere.
Have you ever wondered why Christians dismiss certain Old Testament laws but cherish others?
Maybe you’ve tried to have a conversation with someone about their lifestyle or behavior only to have a defensive accusation returned to you because you “only follow the parts of the Bible that are convenient.” Maybe you’ve had that conversation with yourself.
Tell me if this sounds familiar to you. You’re sitting in your car waiting for the police officer to come back with your license and registration.
Whether or not he gives you a ticket is a toss-up. At the moment, based on the fact that he didn’t smile when you attempted a small joke, you would put your current odds at around 80/20 you’re getting a ticket.
I want to help you read the Bible cover to cover in 2017.
For years I tried to stay committed to a yearly Bible reading plan but fell behind on the weekend when my routine changed. After a few weeks of trying to catch up but falling farther behind, I would eventually quit. Finally, I created my own plan and take the weekends off or to catch up if I fell behind #brilliant.
When you grow up as a pastor’s kid you learn how to pray out loud pretty quickly.
You start out with the repetitious prayers, like “God is great, God is good,” or “Now I lay me down to sleep,” but over the years your prayers age with you.
Recently, while someone was praying for dinner, my daughter peeked her eyes open to find me staring back at her.
A shocked expression came over her face, and as soon as the prayer concluded she announced to the group, “Daddy had his eyes open during prayer!” I’m sure you’ve had this happen before, and you’ve responded the same way I did. “How do you know I had my eyes open? Did you have your eyes open?” When you’re 7 years old, you don’t realize publicly shaming your dad incriminates yourself. At what age do you learn that lesson?
I was reminded of this while rereading the story of Job recently and came across these verses that caught my attention differently than previous reads.
“You have already insulted me 10 times. You should be ashamed of treating me so badly. Even if I have sinned, that is my concern, not yours. You think you’re better than I am, using my humiliation as evidence of my sin.”
Why do Christians believe God needs enforcement officers? We feel this desire to look down on and insult people who are struggling with sin, and whether we say it or not, we believe we’re better than “them,” and we assume it’s ok to humiliate “them” since they’ve made bad or sinful choices. In the tabloid industry, they call it a “takedown piece,” in the church we call it righteous indignation. Don’t get me wrong; Jesus humiliated people too, but never the adulterer or devil worshipers, only the guys who had memorized the Bible, strange right?
I have a friend who recently posted on Facebook his disdain for churches bringing Santa Clause into the church (he was referencing churches doing events where kids could get their picture taken with Santa.) He is entitled to his opinion, and I believe He loves Jesus, but here was my problem, his assessment was that we were doing harm to children’s faith by promoting a “false” character and kids would connect that disappointment to God. I disagree, but I’m not upset by the theory, what upsets me is my friend dips tobacco and curses. Why isn’t that harmful to children’s faith? To be clear, I don’t believe dipping or cursing is a salvation issue, I sometimes curse (unless my dad is reading this in which case I only say darn and shoot), but you know what else isn’t a salvation issue? Santa Clause. My point is, why such passion about harming children’s faith and Santa Clause, and the blatant disregard for his issues? Our passion for righteousness usually starts far enough in front of our noses to keep us from seeing ourselves doesn’t it?
I have another friend who cheated on his wife and lost his family. Some would say he deserved it, and they are entitled to their opinion, but statistically, 7 out of 10 men cheat on their wives and 5 out of 10 wives cheat on their husbands, so somewhere between 50%-70% of my friends are appalled by his actions and are either doing the same or will. I hope I’m wrong, but my point is, I have friends who disowned my adulterous friend while at the same time masturbate to pornography when their wife is not home or already asleep (not figuratively, I mean they told me.) Is adultery and porn the same thing? Not in divorce court but at the cross, yes.
I could keep going, but the truth is I’m a broken mess, and you are too. We’re like the angry mob giddy over the opportunity to stone a sinner assuming Jesus will be as excited as we are, but Jesus always takes the position of a defender to the humiliated. Don’t skip past that.
When I use my faith to humiliate sinners, I am putting myself in direct opposition to the side Jesus stands on.
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Humiliation is all the rage today. The leading candidate for president mocked a retarded person, and his numbers went up. We love to feel superior just like the man in Luke 18
“Two men went to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, and the other was a despised tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed this prayer: ‘I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like everyone else. For I don’t cheat, I don’t sin, and I don’t commit adultery. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.’ I tell you, this sinner, not the Pharisee, returned home justified before God. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
You would think a people saved by the undeserved grace of God would be more graceful, but we struggle to share what we’ve received. Jesus knew our struggle, that’s why he kept telling stories like the parable of the vineyard workers; that’s why he kept having lunch with Zaccheus, and the woman at the well. You can examine your struggle with grace by asking yourself if the last second salvation of the thief on the cross makes you happy or disappointed.
I start out almost all of my prayer times the same way now, and I would encourage you to do the same. I start praying with “God thank you for not disqualifying me when I disqualified myself.” The only difference between the scandalous and the saint is whether the public has found out yet. I’m not telling you to ignore people’s sin. I’m not even saying you can’t be disappointed or upset, what I am saying is remember the exalted will be humbled. Any time you find yourself looking down on someone else you’re standing too tall. Take a knee and thank God for mercy and grace.
2 Corinthians 12:9
“My grace is all you need; my power works best in your weakness.”
I can’t count the number of times I have prayed and told God, “I will never do (whatever) again,” only to reenact my old errors not long after my prayer.
Luckily God has helped me to find freedom from the sins of my youth, but now new sins are fighting to find their way into my life, and I face the same battles I did early in my faith: fighting to live a life of freedom?
All of us have sworn never to commit the same error again in the middle of paying the price for our current mistake, but after the dust settles and the crisis has been averted we slide back into our old habits and patterns. Why do we do that?
Often we stay active in our habits and sins because we’re not truly sorry for our sin, we’re sorry for the consequences of our sin. There is a difference between regret and repentance, but in the middle of our sorrow it’s hard to know my true intentions, Do I truly intend to turn away from my sin and embrace God’s ways for my life, or do I just want God to intervene with a drastic rescue to get me past my current sorrow? It’s only when I look back that I can identify my true feelings about my sin.
2 Corinthians 7:10
“For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death.”
We experience sorrow when our choices cause us pain. It may be a lost relationship, public humiliation, or a season of misery, but sorrow is the indicator that our ways were not better than God ways, and our “idols” did not save us, they only let us down. But according to 2 Corinthians 7, there is a form of Godly sorrow that “leads us away from sin and results in salvation.”
Here are 2 questions to help you identify if you hate your sin and want to embrace God’s ways for living, or if you just hate the consequences of your sin and want to continue living life according to your ways.
1. Am repeating the same sins, at the same speed, with the same regularity?
Sin will always be in your life or lurking right around the corner of your life, so I’m not implying that you will arrive at a place of complete “sin free” living, but if you find yourself repeating the same sins, at the same speed, with the same regularity, it may be an indicator you still believe ________ is better than Jesus. As long as we believe that our way is the best way to be happy, we may repent out of guilt or hopes to avoid lightning bolts from the sky, but we can’t truly turn from our sin because we believe it holds our satisfaction and joy. It’s only when we are convinced that God’s way is the best way for the best life that we can let go of the sin we have gripped so tightly and embrace God’s ways because we count “everything as a loss” to know God.
“Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ”
2. Am I willing to do whatever it takes to remove this sin from my life?
As a pastor, I have the opportunity to counsel and talk with people often who are facing challenging situations because of the circumstances of their sin. I can never no for sure, but there are times when you can hear in someone’s voice they want a drastic miracle to avoid consequence more than they want freedom from their sin. One of the biggest ways we can tell in our life if we are ready to repent and turn away from our sin is if we are willing to whatever it takes to find freedom. Am I willing to change jobs, get rid of my tv or cell phone, cut up the credit cards, forgive someone who hurt me, or end a relationship? If we find ourselves claiming to want freedom but aren’t willing to sever the attachments that draw us back to our sin, it may be an indicator that we aren’t convinced that Jesus is better than_______.
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed, rather than having two hands, to go to hell…”
When we sin, we’re just admitting that we aren’t sure Jesus is better than whatever we think we’ll make us happy. We won’t be able to find freedom until whether through misery or revelation we become convinced that God’s way is the best way for the best life, and our ways only lead to spiritual death.
Let’s put down our sin and our idols to embrace the incredible freedom and plans God has for us.
Have you ever made an “if/then” deal with God? I’m sure you have.
At some point in life, all of us are so desperate for divine intervention we’re willing to agree to any terms.
I’ve prayed with spouses who needed God to save their marriage, they’re agreement with God usually sounds something like, “God, if you will save my marriage, then I promise always to keep my family in church.” I’ve prayed with people weeks away from a court date who make deals that sound like, “If God keeps me out of jail, then I will never do those things again.” I’ve agreed in prayer with countless people who claim, “if God gets me this new job, then I will start tithing.”
If God will give me a husband, if God will give me a child, if God will heal me, if God will help me… When we’re desperate, we’ll agree to anything.
In 1 Samuel 1, a women named Hannah made an “if/then” deal with God. She told God, “If you will give me a child I will give him back to you.” and sure enough she became pregnant, had a son, and named him Samuel which means “God heard me.” Even though Hannah hesitated a year later, she did eventually give Samuel to Eli just like she promised God she would.
Peter one night, around 3 in the morning, told Jesus, “If it’s really you, then call me to walk on the water” and Jesus’s next words were “come.”
If you’re anything like me, in the moment of desperation my promises are sincere and filled with good intentions, but after God has faithfully interceded again, I slide back into my old ways. I’m glad God’s promises for my life aren’t as fickle as my promises to him. I’m glad He knows me intimately enough to know I lack the discipline to be the person I fully want to be.
I’m glad God’s promises for my life aren’t as fickle as my promises to him.
God is patient, loving, and gracious to me. He provides for me even knowing I lack the faithfulness He faithfully displays in my life, but it still begs the question, “Are there any promises I made to God that He is still waiting on me to fulfill?” It’s never too late to get started. If Jesus said, “Come” the invitation still stands, and who knows, you just might walk on water.