The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. (Psalm 51.17)
The Great Artist
An artist friend called me breathless with excitement. “I just leased this great loft near you and you’ve got to come see it right now!” As she’s normally a slow-and-steady type and few things are more disheartening than having no one to share your joy with, I instantly headed over. I walked into a massive raw space that looked as though its tenant had fled in the night. It was a mess. Apparently the previous renter was a potter of some sort, because my friend—who worked in a variety of media—had already swept up three piles of derelict projects and clay shards. I would have been furious that the landlord hadn’t cleaned up before renting it. But she couldn’t have been more thrilled. “Just look at all of this!” she said. “Think of what I can do with it!”
Frankly, I didn’t know what to think. It looked like useless junk to me. When I offered to help, she suggested, “Let’s get it all in one place so I can sort everything out and decide how I’m going to use it.” I picked up a half-finished piece and asked, “You don’t want to keep this kind of stuff, do you? You’re just talking about the smaller bits.” She replied, “Are you kidding? Drop it.” Huh? She repeated her order. I let the piece fall to the ground and shatter. Smiling wryly, she said, “That, my friend, is called ‘breaking down.’ Now I can use it.” A few months later, when she brought me a serving tray inlaid with a magnificent pattern made of its pieces, she asked, “Remember this?”
Unfortunately, I lost the platter (another story for another time). But the memory remains fresh and resurfaces whenever I read scriptures like Psalm 51.17: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” And it especially comes to mind during this time of year, as I envision Lent’s metaphorical desert strewn with shattered pieces that we drop along the way. There they wait, seemingly forgotten and useless, until the Great Artist sweeps them up, sorts through them, and reorders them into something magnificently—serviceably—new.
A Shattering of Self
We tend to imagine broken-hearted people as sufferers. Something has disappointed them. Someone has wounded them. In other words, we see them as passive. Yet the Hebrew word Psalm 51’s poet uses (nisbarah) is neither definitively active nor passive. The breaking can result from another’s cruelty or arbitrary misfortune; but it can also be a sacrificial act—a shattering of self in pursuit of wholeness. We break down the contents of our hearts to inventory what we’ve stored in them—to examine their pieces and allow the Creator Who heals and restores to reassemble them in remarkable ways. We do this in response to God’s call in Joel 2.12-13: “Yet even now, says the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
The poet Jan Richardson taps into this sensibility in her Ash Wednesday blessing, “Rend Your Hearts”:
Let your heart break
Let it crack open
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
And so let this be
a season for wandering
for trusting the breaking
for tracing the tear
that will return you
to the One who waits
who works within
the rending to make your heart
The process involves more than falling apart so God can reassemble us. After we do the breaking, it asks us to name our parts—to call the components of our hearts for what they are. This is by far the most challenging aspect of Lent’s work, because we are all exceptionally gifted at turning blind eyes to our weaknesses. When we speak their names, however, we force their recognition. Here are my misgivings. Here are my resentments. Here are my vanities. Here are my prejudices. Thankfully, there are other parts we’re honored to claim. Here are my certainties… my mercies… my humility… my openness.
When we look at our pieces, we don’t know what to make of them. Suddenly the beauty of breaking down rises before of us, because the making—actually, the remaking—of our broken hearts belongs to a God Who, by Self-admission, is gracious, merciful, patient, unfailing in love, and fiercely forgiving. Like my artist friend, our Maker surveys the heap of shards we’ve created and exclaims, “Just look at all of this! Think of what I can do with it!”
We do the breaking; God does the remaking.
Postscript: Question 3
Predictably, most commentators on Psalm 51.17 immediately link its brokenness and contrition with guilt for past sins. And, to be sure, harmful thoughts and actions produce shattering consequences in our lives. Yet, more appropriate to Lent’s purpose, I’d like us to think of broken-heartedness as a self-induced, sacrificial act. And this raises a huge question I believe we must ponder while we undertake the breaking: what is faith’s role in our sacrifice?
I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer to that. In fact, each of our responses may be very different. I’ve added my thoughts to the comments and invite you do the same. This breaking business isn’t easy by any stretch and sharing our perspectives will no doubt encourage all of us to rend our hearts.