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When Everything Feels Broken

Date:11/1/20

Passage: 1 John 3:1-3

Speaker: Rev. Dr. Michael L. Gregg

We had a tragic event happen in our house two weeks ago. It was family movie night and we were combining suppertime with movie time. As Beatrice and Annaleigh finished eating dinner on their wooden “breakfast in bed” style trays, Beatrice pushed on her hers just a little too hard to stand up. And as she did, the tray snapped on one side and broke at its legs. For Beatrice, this wasn’t any old tray. This tray was many years old. Nearly as old as Beatrice herself. Bea’s tray had provided a firm surface for her to create beautiful and vibrant artwork. This tray was the incubator for schoolwork and playtime. This tray was the cradle for fun family games and painting projects. This tray shared many snacks and many stories.

As soon as she heard the crunch of wood splintering, the tears immediately began to flow. Her tray was special to her, it had memories that mattered to her, and she wanted desperately for the tray to not be broken. But it was and there was nothing I could do to fix it; it was irreparably broken and had to be put in the trash. Amanda and I asked her if she wanted me to put it in the trash bin outside, or if she wanted to do it herself. She made the difficult choice to walk outside and throw it away.

So, Annaleigh and I accompanied Beatrice outside, with the broken tray clutched in her arms, knowing that she would put the tray in the trash bin, we would go online and order another one, and then move on with our evening. But once Bea was outside, she hesitated. She couldn’t part with this special object. The tears began to flow again and her feet would not move. She cried out that she wanted to keep the tray and that it was special to her. After many times of saying to her that the tray was broken and needed to be thrown away, she painfully shouted out, “But dad, if I throw it away then there will be two things that are broken… my tray and my heart! 

I had a choice to make as a father. I had a choice to make as life was feeling broken to Bea. Would I take the tray and the hurt from her and put it in the trash myself, or would I wait patiently, holding the space and listening to her pain? I chose the latter. I got down on my knees, looked her in the eyes, and saw her for the child of God that she is. I told her that her pain was real and important. I encouraged her. I affirmed her strength. I also affirmed her tears for they showed love. I knelt outside holding her and her broken tray for forty-five minutes as the tears flowed and the frustrations were released.

She eventually took a deep breath, walked over to the bin, lifted up the lid, and put the tray inside among the garbage bags from the week. We slowly lowered the lid, walked into the garage, let the garage door come down, and went back into the house. As we reached the living room, still hand in hand, she turned around, hugged me with a tight hug, and said “thank you for being there with me, Daddy. That was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Throwing away a beloved object won’t be the hardest thing she will go through in her life. She will experience brokenness in deeper and more hurtful ways, but I hope that she has a church, friends, family, and people around her to see her as a beloved child of God and that she doesn’t have to go through these difficult experiences alone. You see, a heartbroken child just couldn’t get it together enough to let go. She thought there were other options, other ways to bring back the object that held so many memories because those memories felt so real to her. But, as I told her on the driveway looking up at the night sky in the alley behind our house, that the memories are in here (points to head) and in here (points to heart). Sometimes we have to make the difficult decision to say goodbye to those people and things and ideas and dreams that we know are truly beloved.

It feels like that has happened during these past seven months of COVID. We have had saints and loved ones who have gone on to be in the balconies of our lives, cheering us on and revealing the sometimes-painful path to God’s love. We have spouses deteriorating from disease. We have brothers and sisters dying of COVID. We have finances being stretched to the limits. We have a polarized and divisive culture that feels beyond healing. We have broken hearts and broken dreams beyond repair. How do we move forward during this All Saints Sunday when our loved ones who have died are fresh on our hearts and minds as we remember? How do we live in the grief but know that we must continue to be children of God in the world? What do we do when everything feels so broken?

I think the journey that Beatrice and I walked together provides a clue. The first thing we can do is to try to be patient. I know many of us have very thin patience right now with the other side of the political spectrum, with our children and spouses, with our colleagues and friends, with the news, with our health, and with ourselves. Patience is not easy for me and might not be easy for you, but we are being called by God to patiently and persistently look upon and see the image of God in other people, and appreciate them in their createdness and in their belovedness.

And as the letter writer John said in our Scripture for today, even though we are God’s children now, what we will be has not yet been revealed. We have work to do to be more like Jesus. We have work to do to be more like children of God. But, even if we can’t see the fingerprint of God in others, that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. It is important to be patient and really look for the divine in everything and everyone. Through patience and presence and time, we become more like Jesus. We do that by loving each other and holding each other in our pain, by accompanying one another on our journey.

If you have been on a Zoom call with me since March, you know that I share a home office space with all of Amanda’s children’s books. I had to beg her to give me one little shelf for my church books so that I can continue to read and research while working from home. Sometimes, as I’m sitting in the study working or avoiding work, I’ll pick up a children’s book that catches my eye. I came across a story recently in one of the folktale books on our home library shelf and it fits so beautifully with our scripture for today and I wanted to share it with you:

“An elderly woman had two large pots, each hung on the ends of a pole which she carried across her neck. One of the pots had a crack in it while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water. At the end of the long walks from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments. But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

After two years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, it spoke to the woman one day by the stream. ‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house.’ The old woman smiled, ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side? That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.’ For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table. Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.’”

Each of us has our own imperfections. But it’s the cracks and flaws we each have that make our lives together so very interesting and rewarding, flourishing and flowering. We can observe each person for who they are and look for the good in them, despite their brokenness. We can do this with ourselves and with others. It is important to remember that the journey to a flowering life might take years and our brokenness might never really go away. But if we see each other as valuable and beloved and treasured, then we will reveal God to the world and the world can be changed.

The other lesson I learned from Beatrice is that when everything feels broken, we are to let our pain speak. As much as I wanted her to just throw away the tray and move on, she needed to communicate and give voice to her pain. Honestly, I began the process impatiently and I initially devalued her experience. I kept thinking, “It’s just a tray!” Yet, when I checked myself, drew close to her and listened, it helped us reveal the love that was between us. I heard her painful pleas and she saw a father who cared about her tragedy and her loss.

I know that this long season of COVID quarantine has drawn out our feelings and caused everything to feel raw and broken. One of my friends who is a family therapist after many years of being a minister, wrote an article about how grief is not doubt. Grief is actually true faith during this pandemic time. He said that “when we allow pain enough space to truthfully incarnate the authenticity of our lives… this is what it means to be fully, unconquerably, complexly alive in a world demanding that we pivot, stay positive, and grind. Rather than representing some sort of heretical ‘doubt,’ prolonged, pandemic grief is a prophetic refusal to allow our pained humanity to be rebranded as anything but the full expression of what true faith looks like when it gets brutally let down by the God in whom it placed its trust.” He goes on. “I’m saying your anger, disappointment and hopelessness aren’t evidence of a lack of faith, but are instead what real, resurrected faith looks like when it has been killed, crushed and abandoned, but somehow keeps showing up at meetings anyway. Except that this time, it has signs, chants and double-checked mail-in ballots.” 

What is our pain teaching us in this time? Do we have patience with our own pain and the pain of others? Do we let others speak their pain and their brokenness, without trying to solve it or fix them? I wonder what might sprout and grow from our lives and the lives of others if we trust that the brokenness we are feeling right now can be honest and effusive, so that we might reveal the love of God and our flowering faith within us to the world? In the midst of our brokenness, I wonder what it would look like to have courage enough to say there are two broken things in our lives, the difficult thing we are going through and the brokenness of our hearts? In our brokenness, in however we are feeling, the love of God is waiting patiently with us and provides space for us to voice our pain.

So, friends, on this All Saints Sunday, it might seem as if everything feels broken. We are surviving a pandemic, surviving racial injustice and unrest, surviving financial difficulties, surviving the loss of family members, surviving the unending worry of wayward children or ill spouses. We are simply surviving. And that’s ok. In fact, God wants us to know today, when everything feels broken, that “Beloved, we are God’s children.” And when everything feels broken, we can continue to turn to a God who became flesh and was broken alongside us. We can continue to know that the divine is the parent who is waiting patiently to hear our pain and provide a space for that pain to nurture us into new and flowering experiences, new and flowering lives. Let us all see God for who God is, and see the saints in our lives for how they taught us and loved us, and see ourselves, this All Saints Day especially, as followers of the God of life and the God of love. This is what will give us hope when everything feels broken.

Amen.