Broken and Blessed
Rev. Douglas Taylor
October 16, 2016
Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8:22) Is there no place of healing, no healer to call for, no tincture or ointment that can be used to salve the wounds? Is there no balm in Gilead? The Prophet Jeremiah asks this question from the edge of despair. The Jewish people were in the middle of the Babylonian Exile. This is the predominant use of the phrase Balm in Gilead from scripture – a question. The people were suffering. Jeremiah says we were told there was a balm but now we are not sure, now we wonder if it could be gone or if it were ever there at all. Perhaps there is no hope left for the people. The Prophet Jeremiah saw what was going wrong for the people and he lamented. He cried out. Is there no hope? Is there no balm?
My colleague Meg Barnhouse has a photograph in [her] online art collection titled “Broken Buddha.” It shows the lap of a painted statue. One graceful hand has broken off and is resting on the sole of an upturned foot. Barnhouse says she is drawn to the image, captivated by the possible meaning:
The enlightened one as imperfect, cracked, and chipped. …
“The enlightened one is still whole,” one of the comments under the photo reads. Someone was made nervous by the Buddha’s broken hand. [Barnhouse writes,] The one who wrote that comment wants it to be true but he doesn’t know. Maybe you can be enlightened and broken too http://www.uuworld.org/articles/broken-buddha
Jewish mysticism has a concept called Tikkun Olam. It is a Kabbalist concept that explains how God’s Love is broken and scattered throughout creation, and that our job as humanity is to gather up the broken pieces and make the world more whole.
Again and again, the religions of the world wrestle with something we all have noticed. Some religions approach the questions with more hope or compassion than others. Essentially, though, all religions recognize that there is much and more that is wrong with the world and with our lives. Whether we speak of tragedies large or small, personal or global, a few things hold true for it all. There is suffering and loss, frustration and heartbreak. We feel in some way broken.
And one of the difficulties is that this suffering and hardship and brokenness can break us in an additional way as well. It can break our resolve, our commitment to keep trying. The frustration of ineffective action or hopelessness can break us. Our suffering can create a wall around us that blocks us from seeing the possibility of healing. It becomes a double blow. Our loss and our suffering can blind us. And we are left at times wondering ‘is there no balm in Gilead?’ Will we never be relieved of our losses, must we carry them always?
Henri Nouwen proposed a path of openness and vulnerability to help us see our way through the wounding days. A few decades back, Henri Nouwen wrote a powerful book called The Wounded Healer. It quickly became a standard for pastoral theology and it certainly had a powerful impact on my ministerial and personal development. The premise of the title is that “in our own brokenness we can become a source of life for others.”
The bulk of the book, however, is centered upon a critique of culture. Nouwen said that we live in a dislocated world. He said we have grown fragmented and rootless, a generation of people who are isolated and lonely and longing for something we cannot articulate. Nouwen further blamed the society itself saying we are driven apart by individualistic and materialistic forces in the culture. Healing comes, he said, from a radical stance of hospitality, a welcoming in; it is a standing forth with all your wounds and brokenness, and inviting others in.
Suffering is solitary work. Each of us experiences suffering. Each person’s heartache and pain is unique to that person and is experienced inwardly. This is the Anna Karenina Principle, so named after the opening sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s book Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Yes, we all suffer, but each person’s heartache, each person’s pain is unique. You pain is unique, singular, and towering in significance to you alone. I spent the bulk of my adolescence and young adulthood absorbed by my own suffering.
Howard Thurman, reflecting on this, writes: “Suffering tends to isolate the individual, to create a wall… It makes his spirit miserable in the literal sense of that word. Initially, it stops all outward flow of life and makes a virtue of the necessity for turning inward.” (Disciplines of the Spirit p75) But later he adds: “Openings are made in a life by suffering that are not made in any other way.” (Ibid p 76) Initially it isolates you and creates a wall; you all have felt that, yes? Then it offers an opening; have you ever felt that? What is the nature of that shift from isolation to opening? How does the balm of Gilead work, what is it exactly? How do we go from dislocation, in Nouwen’s words, to hospitality?
As the reading suggest, the shift from isolation to opening is akin to miraculous. So “don’t give up before the miracle occurs.” A wise colleague, James Ford has a book titled “If you are lucky, your heart will break.” Our hearts break because we care. The cost of compassion and love is heavy and we will carry it with us everywhere we go. But there is a significant difference between a heart that is simply broken and a heart that is broken open.
Our brokenness – my brokenness – is a source of power and beauty, it is the crack through which the water spills out onto the flowers. It is the crack through which compassion and understanding can flow. It can cause me suffering only when I work to hide my flaws or be ashamed of them, when I allow myself to be limited by my failures. What matters is not my unique brokenness but my response to it.
A colleague, Rev. Kim Crawford Harvie, writes about one way to respond to brokenness. She describes a meal she and her wife were having with her colleague Dan and his husband.
Rev. Dan Kane was cooking, I was washing, and what happened next was definitely my fault, although he says “we” broke it. Drying on the counter was a hand-painted platter that Dan and Darin had brought home from Italy, a large, expensive piece of pottery with significant sentimental value. And “we”—that is, I—somehow unsettled it and it dropped like a little bomb onto their kitchen floor, shattering into shards and dust with a c-r-a-s-h. I couldn’t believe it.
Dan and Darin tried to reassure me, saying not to worry, but I was reeling; I felt horrible. Without missing a beat, my wife, my hero, opened her computer, Googled the artist, found their shop online, ordered a duplicate replacement, and announced that this one would have different sentimental value. All better.
Fast forward six months. A package arrives from Dan and Darin. What is it? No, not an Italian platter…well, not exactly. It’s a reincarnation. It’s a mirror, set into a mosaic of the broken pottery. It’s one of a set; they sent one to us, and kept one for themselves.
Dan wrote, quoting Terry Tempest Williams’s latest book, Mosaic: Finding Beauty in a Broken World, “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. I believe in the beauty of all things broken.” (from “Quest” newsletter, February 2011)
It is not our brokenness that is the important piece, but our response from within the brokenness. It is our response that defines us. My colleague Harvie broke a beautiful platter. She feared it would break something in her friendship as well. But rather than allow that to occur, her friends responded with grace: “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.” We all have broken places in our lives. We all have at times caused the break. We all have lost or failed or experienced heartbreak. All this is par for the course. The part that defines us, the part where the blessing enters, is in how we respond.
Let me slip into some theology for a moment. I was reading a book this past week written from the perspective of man with Autism. [The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon] At one point the character was reflecting on the way some religious people talked to him about the role God played in his disability. The character was told that a disability or accident is God’s way of giving people a chance to show their faith and grow in character. Unfortunately that form of bad theology is not limited to novels, it happens in real life too.
Some religious people insist that an all-powerful and all-knowing God must have a good reason for allowing evil and suffering. But that doesn’t make any sense to me. It never has. God doesn’t cause illness or accidents. God doesn’t cause hurricanes or cancer or abuse. God doesn’t make us stumble, for the sake of a lesson or, worse, for someone else’s lesson.
The brokenness in your life is not God’s fault any more than it is your fault. And, in the same way that your response to the situation is the defining aspect of your character, that is where God will be in the progressive theistic understanding of liberal religion. God does not make our lives harder just so we can grow spiritually. But God is there supporting our response so that we can grow spiritually even from the hard experiences of brokenness in our lives.
The shift from a heart that is broken to a heart that is broken open, from isolation to hospitality, from suffering that creates a wall and suffering that creates an opening, is a shift I have been trying to articulate for decades. What is the secret to resilience? If there is a balm in Gilead, what is it and how can I be assured of finding it?
The answer is about connectedness. The answer is there in Theo Fleury’s 4 steps to not giving up before the miracle. In the reading (from Kristy Campbell), Fleury starts with the hard inner work of deciding to reach out, (and then the holy spirit revives my soul again …) And then the reaching out is the answer. Connect Fleury says. Connect with God or nature or your fellow human beings – friends, family, strangers, anyone … connect.
I’ll close with a piece of Terry Tempest Williams memoir that illustrates this. I quoted Williams earlier in the broken platter story saying “A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken. I believe in the beauty of all things broken.” Williams writes in her memoir about growing up with many of her relative having cancer. In particular, her mother is actively dying of the ovarian cancer, and Williams describes how she gets through the loss and the suffering of a day, saying:
I feel calm having just returns from a brisk walk along the base of the foothills. The balm of fresh air; Great Salt Lake glistening on the horizon. The valley is in sharp focus, crystal clear. I am reminded that what I adore, admire, and draw from Mother is inherent in the Earth. My mother’s spirit can be recalled simply by placing my hands on the black humus of mountains or the lean sands of desert. Her love, her warmth, and her breath, even her arms around me – are the waves, the wind, sunlight, and water.
She is resting. The nurse came and gave her a shot of Demerol. All Mother said today is how much she wants to sleep, “to not think or feel, just sleep.”
I never imagined we would walk to the place where what we hoped for was death. Sleep. It’s the same thing.
I read Mother a poem this afternoon by Wendell Berry:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
“Read it again,” [mother] said. “Slowly.”
(from Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, p214-15)
So yes, there is a balm. The light breaks through in a moment, the hand of a friend brushes against your own, a poem cuts through the fog, God’s love surrounds you with familiar warmth, a breath of grace falls upon your aching eyes, and in a moment you find a strengthening connection. There is a shift from isolation to openness, from a wall to a widening space, from death to life, Gilead’s balm is found – and for a time we rest in the grace of the world, and are free.
In a world without end,
may it be so.