Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (Leonard Cohen)
In the fall of 2010, my autonomic nervous system broke. The simple bodily functions that we all take for granted were no longer regulated by the part of the brain stem that controls heart rate, digestion, circulation, balance, and blood volume—just to name a few. In the space of a few months I went from being a priest/pastor/professor with an overstuffed briefcase, a gym membership, and a long commute, to a disabled retiree, partially bedridden and dealing with chronic exhaustion, cardiac irregularities, and a host of other unpleasant effects. Grief, anger, helplessness, and disbelief crept in and took up permanent residence in the corners of my psyche.
As I have begun to bump around the dark, sharp-cornered spaces of life-changing loss, I have been given back the luxury of time. Time to think, time to pray, time to listen, and time to practice the art and discipline of attentiveness. As a permanent exile to the state of brokenness I have begun to pitch my tent and make new neighbors among the broken things of life. Like the young protagonist in The Sixth Sense who “sees dead people” I can’t help seeing broken things. Broken things that demand my attention, arouse my compassion, pique my curiosity, and, ironically, give me hope.
At the heart of my hope is the certainty that God is in the reuse/restore/recycling business. In my own life, and in the broken things of this world, I see the clear and unmistakable fingerprints of God’s creative, redeeming impulse. Some broken things are mended. Some of those mended places are stronger than before. Some mended spots are as tender and refiguring as a scar. Some broken things become, like a seed or a chrysalis, the source of new life and growth. Some remain shard-like and sharp—ready to hurt us again. Learning what parts of life are worthy of repair, what might become something wonderfully new, and what should be swept into the garbage heap of experience is a part of finding meaning in our own story.
My own faith tradition is built on a foundation of broken things. Broken barriers for the marginalized, broken bread for sustenance and strength, God’s own brokenness on the cross, the broken seal on an empty tomb. Other religions and philosophies have also captured this inclination of creation to defy the expectations of entropy and move toward creativity, renewal, and growth. My own perspective is clearly grounded in the Christian faith and life but does not exclude the validity of other vantage points. It is my hope and prayer that these fragments—one seeker’s observation of broken things—will let some light in through your own cracks and encourage you toward a deeper exploration of brokenness: the compost of grace.
“Get a seam ripper,” my quilting teacher instructed our beginners’ class. “You will make mistakes.” Who could have imagined that the innocuous little metal wand with the lobster-claw- shaped blade would become so central to the act of creating? It sits beside my sewing machine as a humbling reminder of the chafed and blistered interface between aspiration and reality.
When I began my quilting class, it had been forty-five years since I touched a sewing machine. Forty-five years since the day when Cathy Claflin sewed right through her index finger in seventh-grade home-ec class. Technology has advanced since then, but it is as easy as ever to sew through your finger. It is just as difficult as it ever was to measure accurately, cut precise edges, and sew a straight and tidy seam. Even before I sewed my first stitch, I had to accept the reality that I was going to need the seam ripper.
Sure enough, I cut my first quilt block with meticulous care and managed to keep all fingers intact. I measured and remeasured my seam allowances for accuracy before starting to sew. I pieced together the eight small and two larger blocks carefully…or so I thought, until I realized that I had sewn one block upside down. Well, there was nothing to do but unwrap those seam rippers and undo my mistake. I slipped the tiny blade under a stitch and cut it. Again and again, I repeated the process. Insert, cut, repeat. The seam ripping was interspersed with the more tedious task of picking the tiny flecks of cut thread from the fabric so that they wouldn’t mar the new work. Jab, rip, pick, discard…until I was left with fabric that bore some faint scars of the previous attempt, but which I could use for a newer and truer seam.
A sage once observed that, to a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail. It follows that, to someone wielding a seam ripper, life’s seamy places demand attention. The world is full of things that are sewn together. Sometimes the seams are tidy, straight, and true. Other times, life is put together more haphazardly. Careers fray mid-course. Marriages stray too close to the seam allowance. Dreams fade into blandness. Hopes wrinkle and pucker. Much of adulthood is spent with some sort of seam ripper in hand, as we decide what kind of flaws we can tolerate, what is sturdy enough to survive a rip-and-repair job, and what needs to be tossed into the scrap bin so that we can start over.
Jab, rip, pick, and repeat. Always we begin again.
Fabric, foibles, and frailty—reminders of the challenges of imperfection. I look at the patchwork of my life and see both the beauty and the flaws. The places where the seams aren’t quite even. The almost invisible reminders of the times when I got a second chance, and took it. The alchemy, or grace, of pattern and color where the outcome exceeds my imagination. And so, I try again…eager to create something new; stitching the uneven edges of my life into something with warmth, and heft, and its own peculiar beauty. The seam rippers wait nearby.
I must have told him a thousand times, and replaced the glass beside the bathroom sink with a plastic cup every few weeks. But the accumulated volume of a shared life can render even the most helpful of suggestions as mere noise. Resistance is expected. Repetition is futile. So it came as no surprise when I heard the tumbler break. A glass that has just shattered sounds different from one that has simply cracked into a few, easy-to-pick-up pieces. The sharp, skittery sound of detonation suggested that the laws of physics might have been breached and that I would find glass not only on the floor, but also in the bathtub, sink and, perhaps, even on the toilet seat. My first inclination was to let him deal with the mess he’d made. But my heart took over. I went into the closet and found his slippers. I sent the dogs, with their unslippered paws, to safer territory. I put on my own shoes and grabbed the broom. I held the dustpan as he swept, this love of mine, clad only in his boxers and his slippers. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t need to.
This is what love comes to, when you’re lucky. Not as shiny and appealing as the cut-glass tumbler, but stronger and more durable like the plastic cup. Sweeping up the messes together. Making sure that neither of us is barefoot among the splinters. Knowing what needs to be said, and when the unspoken will have the last word. Offering the time and effort to make sure that no invisible shards remain to surprise us later. Sometimes love takes out the garbage when it didn’t make the mess.
The preacher climbs onto the pulpit and carefully arranges the pages of her sermon. This is what? The fourth?…fifth? draft. There was the Shitty First Draft, the Crappy Second Attempt, the Vaguely Disappointing Third Try, and the current Time’s Up version. She looks out over her flock and sees that one of her oldest parishioners is already asleep, head lolling backward, dentures on display. Taking comfort from the gentle snores rattling out of the slack jaw, the preacher scans the congregation. She sees a young family who has never been here before, bribing their children into a compliant quiet with crayons and Cheerios. She catches the eye of the man whose biopsy results are due tomorrow and makes a mental note to phone him. She sees the ones who wrestle with their faith, and the ones who are already certain that they have it all figured out. She sees the thirty-something who is afraid that she might not be pregnant and the college student who is terrified that she is. She sees a successful journalist who is about to lose his job, and a teenager who has just gotten a coveted college acceptance. She sees the ones who are always around to help—to do the unglamorous work of balancing budgets, shoveling sidewalks, and making coffee. With some degree of accuracy, she knows who will ask for copies of the sermon to send to a friend, and who will be complaining to the bishop tomorrow morning.
Bowing her head in prayer, the preacher intones: “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my Strength, and my Redeemer.” Nobody knows how much she means it.