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The Blessing in the Breaking

Rev. Douglas Taylor


A colleague from an earlier generation, Elizabeth Tarbox, has a story she tells which she calls “The Teaching Bean.” (from Evening Tide 1998; by E. Tarbox, p 15-16) When she was a child her step mother gave a lima bean to her and to her sister. She showed the girls how to set the bean in wet blotting paper, how to set the paper in a jar, how to set the jar on a windowsill in the sun. She told them to watch the bean over the next days and weeks.

A little later that morning, Elizabeth snuck back up to the window, removed her bean and “polished it up with a bit of furniture polish.” And then she put it back in the jar. She writes, “It was all shiny now and smelled much better than my sister’s bean.”

Over the follow weeks Elizabeth witnesses her sister’s bean swell and send out a white root followed a sweet green shoot arching up out of the jar. Soon, her sister’s jar was a mess of roots and shoots and the bean was ready to be planted. Meanwhile, her own bean did very little beyond getting a bit wrinkly and eventually shriveling up to fall to the bottom of the jar. After a while, she just threw it away.

Reflecting on this experience, Tarbox writes:

“How often have I covered things with furniture polish to make them shiny, to make them smell better? How often in my life have I cared more about the way things looked, and how they smelled, rather than how they really were? I spent half a lifetime covering my feelings with the emotional equivalent of furniture polish, thinking that if I looked good and smelled good the ache inside would go away.” The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox

I know something about that ache. I am familiar with that urge to cover up and hide the messy parts of my life. But real life is messy and a little smelly. It’s okay. In fact, it’s better when we let it be a little messy and a little smelly. It’s worth it. Because amazing things can arise from places in our lives that are messy and flawed and broken. Elizabeth’s bean remained perfect and pretty until it shriveled up and fell to the bottom of the jar. But her sister’s bean smelled bad. Her sister’s bean broke – it formed a crack and a small tendril of life emerged.

Like Rev. Tarbox, many of us were trained by our society to try to be perfect, to pretend to have no flaws, to fit in – or at least to stand out in only the most expected and acceptable ways. We have not been enculturated to honor our cracks and breaks, our failures and mistakes. The lesson in the song Japanese Bowl by Peter Mayer is a wisdom we usually stumble upon later in life. Too often, we have to unlearn the dream we were fed that a good life, a happy life involves the image of perfection. Too many of us grew up trying to be perfect, while our neglected messy spirits were left to shrivel up and fall to the bottom of the jar.

But fear not. Unlike a shriveled bean, a shrivel spirit is not beyond salvage. Elizabeth Tarbox continues her ruminations on the lessons she learned from that bean. She writes:

“But spirits are not like beans, thank god. They may shrivel with neglect, but as long as life persists there is the chance to wash off the polish and redeem the growing thing inside.” – The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox

A chance, she tells us. There is always a chance to redeem your spirit and break open anyway. Today, let us give thanks for the ways our broken hearts and broken spirits have held unexpected blessings for us, openings through which life and light may find its way.

Carol Mikoda’s piece about “Listening” which we heard in the readings reminds me of what Elizabeth Tarbox’s bean is trying to teach her. Mikoda urges us to listen. “You might hear its message, meant for you, about being brave, about breaking off the coatings applied over the years for protection.” And we can do the hard work of peeling back the layers of polish and shielding, that we may uncover our broken hearts once more.

Many of us have tried to be successful, accomplished, cool, independent, self-sufficient, and on occasion – perfect. We thought it would make us feel happy or at least make other people think good things about us.

But perfection is a trap. It tempts us with the self-destructive belief that if we just try harder and become better, we will be able to avoid the painful experiences of shame and failure. And worse, when we are unable to be perfect, we mask our imperfection rather than embrace it. We hide and cover up, lie and deny the messy truth about who we really are.

I suppose there are people in the world who do not learn from their mistakes. People are messy and complicated beings. Some folks can’t see their own faults and flaws, and thus can never work to overcome them. They never admit to being wrong or needing help. And they end up living small and limited lives. Perfectionism is destructive. Embracing your mistakes and flaws, your beautiful brokenness, will set you free.

In his song Anthem, Leonard Cohan calls us to “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

So, go ahead and be broken. It won’t make you feel better, necessarily. But it will set you free. Being broken doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt. It just means you are able to grow. The bean that breaks, that splits open, is able to send out the roots and tendrils of life; able to grow. There is a blessing in the breaking. There is a secret power that can only be found in failing or falling apart. From the crack, a new thing can arise. You can arise. A deeper, truer aspect of yourself may emerge from the broken mess. Because that’s what life does.

Now, I am not suggesting you go out and start breaking things or aim to fail. I am not encouraging us to stop trying to be better people or stop working hard for something worthy of our efforts. All I am saying is to not despair for the mess we are in. Part of the brokenness is what comes after the break. Part of the brokenness is the blessing that can be uncovered as well. The brokenness is not the important part of this whole thing, our response is.

And I am not trying to say we can slap a silver lining on everything. What I am saying is we should not pretend the storm clouds are not storm clouds – because in seeing them for what they truly are, we can look past them to what truly matters. What I am saying is we do better when we speak the truth of our situation rather than pretend all is well. From the truth – the messy, uncomfortable, sometimes painful truth – there is then room for growth and forward movement.

By acknowledging the brokenness, by incorporating it into our identity and the story we tell about ourselves, we shift the story from ‘the brokenness’ to ‘the ways in which we have overcome the brokenness,’ to the blessing that arose from inside the crack, to whatever came next in the story. 

I have spent more pulpit time this election cycle on the dire concern for our continued democracy than I usually do. In general, I am not a very political preacher. But we are living in distressing times and there is much that has been broken in our civil society. What I am striving to do is speak the truth, to not hide or conceal or pretend the problems away. Instead, I long to declare with L. R. Knost that we ought not be “dismayed by the brokenness of the world. All things break. And all things can be mended.

And so it may be with your heart or your spirit or whatever that bean from our story would mean for you. It is broken, but there is still a way to mend it. Mending is what we do.

Our children’s story today was a version of the concept of creation in Jewish mysticism – Tikkun Olam. God’s love is shattered into countless pieces and scattered across creation. Our job, as co-creators, is to keep bringing the pieces together, to gather in the shattered bits of love.

The next time it feels like something bad has happened, or something precious has broken, try this: grieve. Feel the loss, don’t pretend it didn’t happen or it didn’t matter. Grieve. And speak the truth about what it was and what the failure or fracture has meant to you – to us.

Then, watch. Healing doesn’t just automatically happen. Yes, it is a natural process in us, we do heal – but it is not always automatic. As other’s have said, time does not heal all wounds. Love can heal most of them, over time. But that will always be a messy and complicated love – so it won’t ever heal perfectly.

What I suggest you watch for, in the midst of your brokenness, is the unexpected opening for life that can appear. It is not going to appear if you polish your bean to pretend it can look and smell better than it really does. But it will appear if you step back and let the messy failures be what they are. And remember, the happy ending that may come won’t be perfect. The blessing that may come won’t fit you and your hoped-for life in the most wonderful way.

Consider this pandemic. This has been a hard time. People have died and people are suffering and there is much for me to get angry about. The truth is important here; grieving what has been lost is important here. But our response to it all is where the blessing will be found. Our response has been to learn new ways to help each other, new ways to keep in contact, to find life-giving meaning emerging now that would not have emerged in this way without this great fracture in our lives.

And we, unlike Elizabeth’s lima bean, can always have that polished washed off. Our spirits, thankfully, are always ready to thrust out that thin and delicate tendril of life. We, blessedly, can heal from the fractures and mistakes of our days. Perfection has not yet ruined us. We can still reach for the bright and lasting light, gather in another piece, bring ourselves and our world a little closer to wholeness – one piece at a time.

In a world without end,

May it be so.