Mardi Gras, Psalm 150, and the search for an authentic hallelujah

Mardi Gras, Psalm 150, and the search for an authentic hallelujah February 7, 2016

"Mardi Gras Bourbon Street 2015" by Nick Solari, Wikimedia Commons C.C.
“Mardi Gras Bourbon Street 2015” by Nick Solari, Wikimedia Commons C.C.

Hallelujah. I’ve been suspicious of that word my whole life. It means “Praise the Lord!” in Hebrew. Every time we say it, we are making a command to ourselves and everyone in earshot. It seems irredeemably stilted and churchy, a word that we say in order to speak correctly about God and show everyone else how appropriately thankful we are. There’s definitely a version of hallelujah that is the pious posturing of people who spend most of their lives scowling at the sins of others. But my pastor Shawn Anglim at First Grace United Methodist Church preached a sermon today about Psalm 150 that suggested a different and more authentic meaning to hallelujah that looks more like the revelry and laughter and dancing of Mardi Gras than stilted pious posturing.

The psalms are my favorite section of the Bible. They are where I go to find words to say to God in prayer. But my cynical, melancholic nature draws me to the psalms of lament and anguish because they seem more “authentic.” Psalm 150 has 13 lines, each of which is a command to “praise God.” There’s very little explaining why God should be praised other than his “mighty deeds” and “surpassing greatness” which seem like the kind of generic phrases I would use in a eulogy for someone I didn’t know personally at their funeral. So at first glance, Psalm 150 seems poetically shallow and stilted. It seems like people saying what they think they’re supposed to say. It seems like one more example of someone who loves speaking correctly about God more than anything else.

In John Piper’s book Desiring God, he meditates on Psalm 37:4: “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” For John Piper, this is God’s basic command to humanity. Heaven is the reward if you obey and hell is the punishment if you don’t. If you can only read the Bible as a series of commands to obey, then hallelujah is the obligatory parade salute that we make for the omnipotent dictator of the universe whose “mighty deeds” and “surpassing greatness” we see extolled in all the propaganda posters on the fences around us. Heaven becomes North Korea.

But what if a scripture like Psalm 37:4 isn’t so much a command as it is the revelation of incredibly good news about God’s underlying agenda? What if God wants more than anything else to share his delight with us? What if God wants to make our hearts jump like they do when our favorite lead guitarist solos at a rock concert, when our hero basketball player makes a buzzer-beating 3 pointer, or even, dare I say, when we climax during sex? What if hallelujah is a word for our loss of words when we experience a euphoria in which we utterly lose ourselves? What if God wants our lives to be filled with the revelry and laughter and dancing of a Mardi Gras parade?

I grew up thinking that I was supposed to scowl at the euphoria of things like sex, rock concerts, and Mardi Gras parades because they were all part of the “worldliness” that Christians are supposed to define ourselves against. But what if “worldliness” is not the euphoria itself but the manipulation of euphoria into exploitative systems that destroy our bodies, our communities, and our planet? Every good and beautiful thing can be turned into a hideously addictive commodity that enriches a few people while poisoning and oppressing everyone else. For example, sex has been made into a dehumanizing commodity in our society instead of being the powerful means by which two people who have gained the spiritual and emotional intimacy to see God in each others’ eyes can become each others’ hallelujah.

If you look at Psalm 150 through Mardi Gras-colored glasses, it’s no longer the recitation of obligatory correct speech about God, but the manic revelry of a celebration that the Holy Spirit has thrown into utter chaos. Of course it feels trite to read in a boring, monotone voice, “Praise him with trumpet sound! Praise him with with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance! Praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clashing cymbals! Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” It’s just really bad poetry if the words stand by themselves without any music. But imagine if those words were actually embodied with real trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals while people were dancing! Imagine if the psalm created genuine revelry instead of pious posturing. You would have a straight-up Mardi Gras parade. What if that’s what hallelujah really looks like?

I don’t know what the other revelers in the New Orleans street are feeling when they experience Mardi Gras, but the fact that so much alcohol is necessary makes me think there are wounds and fears in their hearts (as there are in mine) that would keep them from dancing and yelling and laughing if they were sober. As for me, I like the idea of Mardi Gras a lot more than the actual experience of it. It’s because I’ve got too much going on in my head to be fully present. That’s why on Thursday at the Muses parade, I drank more margarita than I should have. So I could be absent enough to be present (which isn’t being present). Imagine if we could simply live the Mardi Gras spirit without needing to numb our senses to get there.

My best Mardi Gras moment this year was making dance music yesterday on the sidewalk in front of my church before the Endymion parade. Early on, a few drunk frat guys stopped to chill with me. I had a microphone with me and made the unfortunate choice of letting one of them grab it. What he said was about 80% okay. He was calling out everybody on the sidewalk and telling them to have a happy Mardi Gras. He told people walking by to “dab it for Jesus Christ,” which a bunch of people did. He said it was one of the best moments of his life.

But then he started dropping some F and GD bombs, so we had to cut the microphone off. One of the things he kept on talking about was his “forty ounces of freedom,” referring to his empty malt liquor bottle. I wanted to tell him that Jesus would give him way more than forty ounces of freedom, but that felt like too much of a Jesus Juke. He got really guilt-ridden and apologetic when we had to take the mic away. I felt bad and tried my best to reassure him, because what he was doing, despite his judgment-impaired condition, was authentic worship. He did the best that he could to spread the joy that God had put in his heart for him to share, and he just didn’t know how to do it without a potty mouth.

A little later, the kids from our church came over so they could take turns making weird and awesome noises on my Midi keyboard. And that was when the party really got hopping. Kids know how to do Mardi Gras without tanking up on forty ounces of freedom. I’m not judging my frat boy friend, because I’m just as much of a mess as he is. I just want to learn how to be a kid again, so that life is a dance party and every bead necklace is an hallelujah.

Thirteen years ago, on Valentine’s weekend 2003, I was in New York City for a giant anti-war protest against the impending invasion of Iraq. After we marched all day, there was a giant rave on a ship in the harbor. I’ve always hated dancing, partly because my body still carries the shame from when the kids in middle school called me a penguin for walking so awkwardly down the hall. But in that room of lights and fog and throbbing bass, I let go. I couldn’t help it. I had to obey the bass. And it felt so good. And in my head, a voice said, “This is worship.”

After planting that seed, God has developed a vision within me for a “Jesus rave” worship experience built on electronic dance music. For the last ten years, I’ve been producing progressive trance music. I spent hundreds of hours sitting in front of my laptop every night by myself with my headphones on, not knowing if anything would ever come of it. Three summers ago, I was given the chance to make a Jesus rave at the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. The next year, my favorite Pentecostal preacher Jonathan Martin joined me. Last year, because Jonathan was unavailable, I gained the courage to preach my own Jesus rave.

Then last month, I did something I’ve never done before that I never thought I could do. I live-mixed a Jesus rave on the fly while on a retreat with some Wild Goose friends in Asheville. Every time before, I had spent months meticulously polishing off a pre-recorded track to use. The thought of mixing live was terrifying, because what if I mess up? This time, I had to trust the Holy Spirit to shape my song real-time. I’m sure I messed up several dozen times but it didn’t matter. Because the Holy Spirit came over us and made a beautiful mess. Everyone in the room became part of the song. Some people danced, some people prayed, some people chanted, some people did yoga. For several hours afterward, I walked around outside in a state of unity with the universe I had never experienced before. I whispered hallelujah because I didn’t know what else to say.

The state of euphoria that I felt just after midnight on January 10th, 2016 gave new meaning to the words of Psalm 37:4, “Delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” And I think the psalmist who wrote Psalm 150 was experiencing something similar when he felt like it wasn’t good enough to say, “Praise him with clashing cymbals!” and had to come back with another line saying, “Praise him with LOUD clashing cymbals!” I don’t think the psalmists wrote these things for the sake of speaking correctly. They were and are ecstatic utterances of worship that cannot be appreciated outside of that state of being.

My dream is to help others experience the serene self-abandon of an authentic hallelujah. I would love to bring a Jesus rave to your church this summer while I’m doing my book tour. Or if you’re in New Orleans, come and build the dream with us at the NOLA Wesley Foundation. Another scripture which captures the vision of authentic hallelujah for me is 2 Corinthians 3:17-18: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”

When we understand that human beings were made to image a God who wants to delight with us, then hallelujah is a dance party. God is less like an ominous king on a giant throne in the clouds and more like the love-filled breath of a song that all creation is singing together. God wants us to worship because worship is where we find true freedom. Worship is where we lose the veils that the world has thrown over our eyes so that we can see the glory of the Lord in the delight that we share together. Hallelujah is not a stilted, churchy phrase; it’s a life fully awakened to the joy of God’s dance.

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