I’ve been thinking a lot about brokenness recently – both on an individual and collective level. So much seems broken at the moment, mindful of the grief and pain many carry; whether the loss of loved ones, the impact of long covid, or the shattered businesses or dreams caused by the pandemic, or simply the reality that the world as we knew it, is no longer. In our own lives brokenness shows up in many ways; physical limitations due to illness, disability or ageing; mental health issues; broken relationships; and this past year the collapse of our usual networks of support. This Chapel community – despite our best efforts – some things have unravelled during our time apart. Even when we can finally all meet together again, things won’t be quite the same, because the norms of doing ‘church’, like the norms in every other sector of society, have been shattered. The pieces won’t fit back together in exactly the same way. We may not like it, but this is the reality. Our social and political systems seem broken – cracks exposing inequalities and injustices – so much that is no longer working. Covid has shattered many assumptions, and as we limp towards an uncertain future, there will be much that needs mending in the coming months and years. It can feel overwhelming, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Some of the ‘breaks’ caused by the pandemic have provided opportunities for trying out new things, or different ways of being. Some things which have shattered, were not fit for purpose and there’s the potential for rebuilding society in more sustainable ways. In the shaking and breaking we may find a blessing waiting in the wings, if we only have the courage to bend with the changes, rather than resist. Recognising that as in nature, so too with us; breaks are the way new life and growth occurs. The chick cannot hatch unless the egg is broken; secure in its shell the young bird is safe but cannot fly. The butterfly emerging from the chrysalis, must break through the outer casing to take to the skies. The seed in the ground must discard its outer husk to germinate. In meteorology, the term ‘broken’ refers to the sky “being more than half, but not totally, covered by clouds.” We may enjoy the full sun on a cloudless day, but there’s something magical about the light shining through the clouds. Nature teaches us that some things must be broken for new life, or light, to be revealed.
Nature also teaches us something about mending. Consider the spider. Have you ever brushed past a web and broken it, and wondered what the spider will do? Spiders are master menders, like fishermen at their nets – if there are holes, they repair them. If the entire web is destroyed, they rebuild from scratch. In fact, some species replace their entire web every day. This costs the spider in time and energy, but the larger and stronger the web, the better the potential catch of food. We can learn from the tenacity of the spider – who constantly repairs and reweaves what is broken, again and again, day after day.
When we feel broken, we can consider the potential waiting to be birthed and find the resilience to mend what can be mended. But we also have to learn to live with a measure of brokenness, because despite the unrealistic messages of social media and our consumerist culture, we are imperfect humans in an imperfect world. Religion at its best, should help us towards self-acceptance – flaws and all. But sadly, religion often ends up being part of the problem. Consider the verse in Matthew’s Gospel (ch 5 v 48), when Jesus exhorts his followers to “Be perfect therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” The Oxford English dictionary defines the word perfect as: “Having all essential elements, Unblemished, faultless, Correct, precise, Utter, absolute” A tall order! What human can ever be unblemished, faultless? But the original word in this Gospel passage – ‘telios’ – suggests ‘wholeness’ or ‘completion.’ A better translation would be, ‘Be whole, complete, as God (or ultimate reality) is whole’. When read in this way, instead of an impossible command, we hear an invitation towards our divine potential. The word ‘telios’ also translates as ‘mature’ – suggesting a ripening towards wholeness in the fullness of time. In Hebrew and Christian scripture, people are described warts and all: Moses had a stutter, Elijah got depressed, Jesus’ disciples squabbled and deserted him in his hour of need, the apostle Paul prayed for his ‘thorn in the flesh’ to be taken away, only to hear God reply, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, my power made perfect in weakness. Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn in the flesh’ was (maybe a disability, a bad habit, or a person) he had to learn to live with it. Characters in scripture are carriers of the divine message, despite their imperfections.
Who do we consider the most beautiful people? Hollywood and glossy mags insist perfection lies in plastic surgery – but I’m more moved by laughter lines. When we think of the people we learn from, are they the most ‘perfect’? Some of my mentors have been physically disabled, those suffering with mental illness or learning difficulties. And of course, even the most spiritual folk and those who achieve great good, have their share of imperfections. Ghandi, despite his huge achievements, was an inadequate husband and father. Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa struggled with bouts of depression. Wisdom lies in a realistic acceptance of our flawed humanity.
In Japan, the word ‘Wabi Sabi’ suggests an appreciation of the impermanent, imperfect and asymmetrical. In Zen tea ceremonies, flaws in bowls are prized and broken bowls are painstakingly repaired, the cracks made more visible with gold lacquer. This technique, ‘Kint-sugi’, means ‘gold joinery’. Legend says that in the 15thc. a Japanese shogun sent a damaged bowl to China to be fixed. It was returned held together with ugly metal staples, which started Japanese craftsmen on a quest for repairs to make broken pots look better than before. Over time, ceramics were broken on purpose, just so they could be mended in gold!
To be human is to be imperfect. There is a long tradition among Persian rug-makers honouring this principle. For humans to make something perfect is considered presumptuous – so a deliberate flaw is added as a mark of humility and authenticity. Navaho Indians add a flaw to their blankets to allow the spirit of the blanket freedom to roam, and in Native American beadwork the addition of a ‘mistake bead’ is the gate through which the Great Spirit can enter. Just as a flaw needn’t lessen the beauty and value of a rug or bowl, just so our imperfections don’t lessen our value. We all get broken by life. But if we are fortunate, we’ll find others who see beyond these flaws to our intrinsic worth. This is the work we can do in spiritual community; to affirm each other’s worth and apply the gold of friendship and kindness to our broken edges. We each bring unique gifts despite our imperfections, and even the most cracked of us, are vessels for something larger to shine through.
We mend what can be mended, we accept a measure of brokenness in our own lives – but what about our broken world? How are we to respond to the many issues that scream for our attention; climate change, homelessness, the refugee crisis, racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, widening inequality, abuse, violence and conflict, a struggling NHS, the rise in mental illness … the list seems endless. Where do we start? First by recalling that there is still much goodness and beauty in the world. By focussing on the good, and letting beauty nourish us, we develop the resilience we need to tend to what’s broken. And we can learn from another ancient craft – stone walling – as an analogy for mending our broken world – stone by stone. There isn’t a ‘one size fits all’ blueprint for fixing our world. How I long for some person or organisation with super-powers to sort it all out! But not even the best governments or world leaders have that capacity. Of course we need people in power to develop policies that will mend what is fractured, but we can’t leave it all down to politicians. Mending our broken world will happen with individuals and small groups of people in different places, each doing their bit – contributing their particular ‘stone’ to the rebuilding process. Each of us seeing where our skills and gifts best fit the gaps – looking for the break with our name on it. None of us alone can fill all the gaps – but each of us can help to fill at least one gap – even just by offering encouragement from the side-lines. It can’t be done all at once, but by our shared endeavours, bit by bit, the world gets rebuilt.
In Jewish tradition, the ancient concept ‘Tikkum Olam’, translated in modern times as ‘repairing the earth’, invites us to each take responsibility for our world. We may feel insignificant, yet as never before, we have the means to work together – each a tiny, yet necessary link, in the chain. Whilst there may not be a Santa-Claus God ‘up there’ who will save us, I believe there is a force of Love that abides in all things, which we can channel in our shared endeavour of mending the earth. If we wait until we are perfect to take up our tools, we will wait for ever. We are called to embrace life with all its imperfections, to find cause for celebration amidst brokenness, and mend what can be mended. A story attributed to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, tells of a man trying to solve the world’s problems. His young son comes and says, “Dad, I want to help”. The weary man takes a map of the world, rips it into pieces, gives the pieces to his son and says, “You can help by putting the world back together”. The boy protests “But I don’t know what the world looks like!” His father insists, thinking it will keep his son occupied. He returns to his reflections. Two days later, his son bounds in, “Dad! I’ve put the world back together!” His father is surprised, but sure enough, all the torn pieces are taped into a whole. “How did you do this?” he asks? The boy replies, “On the back was a picture of a person. I put the person back together, when I turned it over, the world was back together!” To fix the broken world, we begin with ourselves and the people around us.
To conclude with the words of the singer song-writer Leonard Cohen: “There is no perfection – this is a broken world – we live with broken hearts and broken lives – but still that is no alibi for anything. On the contrary you have to stand up and say hallelujah….’” “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in”.
In Faith and Hope, Sheena