Two men visiting Hong Kong, noticed the ubiquity of street vendors, all pushing their carts along, pell-mell, in and out of traffic. Attempting to gain the attention of any potential customer, they would shout repeatedly, “Sale! Sale! Good items for sale!”
So numerous were these vendors that the men found it difficult to avoid their aggressive sales pitches. It was then that they noticed a lone vendor, different from the others. This man stayed to himself, and slowly and quietly pushed his cart along the sidewalk. Intrigued, they stopped the vendor to ask him about his wares, “What are you selling?”
“Selling? Oh, I’m not selling anything.” With that, he reached into his cart, picked up the pieces of a toy that had been broken. “You see, I buy broken things. Joy always comes in the mending.”
I like this story. Because there is a part of me that feels broken. And mending, well, that sounds very good to me. But I believe, in my mind (if I’m honest), that I am exchanging the word mending with the word, fixing.
I know you can relate, too. Every single one of us is familiar with brokenness. Or at least, we sense it, but don’t know quite how to name it. You know, when it feels as if life is on “tilt.” What William James calls our “torn-to-pieces-hood.”
At a commencement speech at Harvard, Professor Kimberley Patton told the students, “Even if a broken heart does not lie in your past or present, it awaits you in your future, at some place, at some time when you will almost certainly be unprepared. But in myth, in ritual, and in theology, the broken heart is not a regrettable symptom of derailment but is rather the starting point of anything that matters.”
The news reminds us we live in a broken world… with broken bodies, broken relationships and broken spirits.
–When we feel stuck or without passion, we are broken.
–When we betray our own heart, we are broken.
–When our dreams are derailed by ridicule, we are broken.
–When we live only to “fit in,” and censor our own voice, we are broken.
–When we are enamored by diversion and avoid our own company, we are broken.
–When we believe that we are only the sum total of our achievements, we are broken.
–When we give in to the relentless fear of failure, insecurity, and the reluctance to ask questions that might reveal we do not “know everything,” we are broken.
Sometimes we feel it. Sometimes we don’t. Even so, it takes a toll.
This weekend I spent time with the good people at St. Bridget Catholic Community in River Falls, WI. Enjoying beautiful Midwestern autumn air, we talked about Sanctuary, the times and spaces in our life that make deposits toward replenishment and renewal and healing. And we talked about bunkum, the stuff that gets in the way, the withdrawals that take a toll.
I was raised on “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (from The Psalms) But the “translation” (in my church) was crystal clear: God loves the broken, only if it is in the process of being tidied or cleaned up or renovated.
In our culture, the concept of brokenness wreaks havoc with the picture in our mind of an unspoiled life. And we frantically try to fix it, or dismiss it or hide it. Blemished beauty has no place here.
So. What do we do with our brokenness? Henri Nouwen suggests that we need to “embrace it.” Because we are beloved of God, we have to dare to embrace it, to befriend our own brokenness and to really look at it. “Yes, I am hurting. Yes, I am wounded. Yes, it is painful. And… I don’t have to be afraid.”
Conceptually, I get it.
But how do I invite my brokenness into my life?
How do I embrace it (or, as Mary Oliver says, “row toward the embattlement”)?
This, is certain: Embracing the brokenness that affects us all may not carry us toward safety, but most surely toward salvation.
This morning, on my flight home, I watched Won’t you be my neighbor. And I cried, the good kind that happens whenever I witness kindness and grace. “What changes the world,” Mr. Rogers says, “the only thing that can ever change the world is when somebody gets the idea that love can abound. And can be shared.”
Well… as they say in the Wizard of Oz, “This isn’t Kansas anymore.” We’re no longer in Sunday School. And the spirit of God is no nesting dove. Where God’s spirit is, there is in all probability, chaos. We need to understand that about the spirit in our lives. Sometimes the chaos is called to order as it was in the beginning… other times our need for complacency erupts into chaotic confusion (just like Pentecost), unraveling everything.
It’s not easy, because I have orchestrated my world–all my ducks so carefully and neatly in a row. And then… life happens.
Here’s the deal: when we acknowledge the broken places, there is an open space, a place for gestation and receptivity (what the Japanese call “hollowness” to the divine).
–These are the times (albeit “nonproductive”) when new things are hatching and being born in the darkness… if only we do not panic.
–These are the times when we will learn compassion (what in Buddhism is called bodhicitta, the awakened heart).
–These are the times when the unbearably wounded will themselves emerge as healers and leaders.
–These are the times when we know that there is a place from which we can truly and wholeheartedly, give of ourselves.
In his book Mortal Lessons, physician Richard Selzer describes a scene in a hospital room after he had performed surgery on a young woman’s face:
I stand by the bed where the young woman lies… her face, postoperative… her mouth twisted in palsy… clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, one of the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be that way from now on. I had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had cut this little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to be in a world all their own in the evening lamplight… isolated from me… private. Who are they? I ask myself… he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously.
The young woman speaks.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.”
She nods and is silent.
But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says, “it’s kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with the divine. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers… to show her that their kiss still works.
Here in my garden, it is autumn. The petals from spent blooms are scattered over shrubs and plants and lawn. As if a kind of offering. It is unnerving almost, this unconditional and unstinting nature of the garden. Regardless of conditions, “rowing toward embattlement,” the roses continue to flower and reach for the sun.
Quote for your week…
Life did not intend for us to be inviolable. Instead we are to be transformed into the blood and sinews of the world. To this end and purpose we can turn, in love, without fear, without ambivalence, letting the ducks break rank when they must, letting them fly where they will, into the air, into emptiness, into the breast of God, whose mighty and broken heartbeat joins with our own until the end of our separate lives, when the sound will become one, when we will see that all our ideas of self and emptiness and God were not enough. Kimberley Patton
POEMS AND PRAYERS
But how do you live in your brokenness?
Do you live your brokenness under the blessing or under the curse?
Henri Nouwen (Lecture at Scarritt-Bennett Center)
When The Roses Speak (flowers on my desk)
As long as we are able to be extravagant,
we will be hugely and damply extravagant.
Then we will drop foil by foil to the ground.
This is our unalterable task, and we do it joyfully.
And they went on. “Listen, the heart-shackles
are not, as you think,
death, illness, pain, unrequited hope,
but lassitude, rue, vainglory,
Their fragrance all the while rising
from their blind bodies, making me
spin with joy.
Mary Oliver, Devotions
In order to be truthful.
We must do more than speak the truth.
We must also hear truth.
We must also receive truth.
We must also act upon truth.
We must also search for truth.
The difficult truth.
Within us and around us.
We must devote ourselves to truth.
Otherwise we are dishonest
And our lives are mistaken.
God grant us the strength and the courage
To be truthful.
Michael Leunig. @1991