Friday, February 24, 2012

Breaking Down

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

to go.

She concludes:

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 watches

who works within

the rending to make your heart


The loveliness of Richardson’s poetry raises gnarly questions, though. Once we’ve broken down our hearts, what are we looking at? Which of our pieces glimmer with radiance and beauty? Which of them are deeply scarred with dark doubts and unsightly faults? Which are ready-made for the Great Artist’s use? Which must be reworked to allow God’s vision to come forth in us? Which will fall into place? Which must be reshaped to fit into a new, magnificent, and serviceable whole?

Naming Parts

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.

Podcast link:

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.


Tim said...

I believe faith figures into our breaking in many ways. First, we must believe God truly loves us just as we are—the good, bad, and ugly of us—and wants to make us whole. Then we must believe that our breaking comes from an honest desire to remade into something magnificent and serviceable to God’s kingdom. In other words, we have to be confident that good can come of our shattering sacrifice.

And finally we have to rely on faith to overcome all the fears attached to the act—the anxieties about not being fit for remaking, the worries that parts of us will get lost rather than reclaimed and reshaped, that when we name our parts we’ll lose faith in God’s power to make us whole.

It’s a huge risk we take by rending our hearts. Honestly, without faith—crazy, gut-level trust despite our reluctance—I don’t know how it can be done.

pam lee-miller said...

this post made me think about II Corinthians 4:12 " But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you."

The brokenness in all of us allows God's wonder, God's love,
God's hope to stream through us in ways we often cannot see, sense or even know. This light---surges through us, around us, above and below-----healing those wounds too deep for any other salve.

The sacrifice for me--well we know that whatever we do, there is always a give and take...always a sacrifice. Several years ago, I quit a very lucrative career with children ages 2 and 3 and decided to attend seminary. Six years later, I graduated winning tons of awards---the sacrifice for me---time not spent coloring with my kids, time not spent acknowledgin that I could not have done this without my husband.....time....stress....and ultimately later, my trust in the institution of the place I loved and I ended up at almost the same place I started---back in healthcare making a good living with good benefits.

so why spill all of this.....the whole process broke me, pulled me apart, pulled the legs (church) from which had always held me up right from under me. What I got,
an acceptance of myself---a trust that authentic living is more important than being part of a place that pushes folks away because of gender, sexual orientation ,social status. As Barbara Brown Taylor said...."I have an altar in the world" and I preach the gospel, every day in ways others may not even a hand on a back, a hug, a look in the eye, a smile,
by living. Pain..the pain of being rejected by the place I loved most----help me become like the velveeen rabbit.........more "real"
yes my fur has been rubbed off, my legs scraped up, but God's love....that which is so intrinsically a part of who and what i am, so intertwined in my DNA---moves and breaths and guides me to greater depths of the Mystery....and for the sacrifice, for the loss............well for has all been worth it.
sorry for the ramble this morning...but you did ask....and I just wrote without a filter...p

i don't even know if i answered the question or just did some southern rambling.......but it brought me back to a wonderful sacred place. thanks

Tim said...

Ah, Pam, you answered the question and then some! Brokenness and sacrifice go hand-in-hand, don't you think? And I'm amazed at how God often "engineers" our breaking by leading down paths with unexpected ends. You had to travel through seminary to find your way home in a place other than the pulpit. I traveled a path that crossed huge cultural divides, religiously and socially, to be broken so that I could witness the agony of exclusion on many levels and be steadfast in my belief that God creates us as we are and welcomes us with lavish disregard.

The altar comment from Barbara Brown Taylor, whom I admire beyond measure, and your thoughts after it reminds me of a favorite saying, "Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary." That's where our authenticity resides!

Blessings, dear friend,

PS: Never filter or worry about "southern rambling." I'm an Alabama boy by birth and prone to do the same.