Beautifully Broken; Wonderfully Whole

(subject:  personal healing and wholeness)                                               Unitarian Church of Lincoln
Lincoln, Nebraska
19 April 2015

In 1988, I visited the ancient temple complex of ad-Dayr al-Bahri near Luxor, Egypt. For 3,500 years, the area has been famous for its stonework, so I bought a small alabaster bowl as a souvenir. About six years later, a cat that came into my life along with the woman I was dating knocked the bowl off a window ledge and a portion of the bowl’s lip shattered into pieces, large and small. I was beyond unhappy.

My repaired Egyptian alabaster bowl.

Because the bowl was irreplaceable to me, and I was able to retrieve most of the broken pieces, I set about making repairs. I was largely successful and you only notice the damage if you look closely, but it bothered me for years that my beautiful alabaster bowl was now flawed. Nobody else knew, but every time I looked at it I thought, “Broken and imperfect.”

Those of you who heard me preach about “perfection” in January may remember my saying then that “The expectation of perfection – in ourselves and others – is a recipe for unhappiness and loneliness.” My focusing on the imperfection in my bowl was a source of unhappiness in my life, caused entirely by how I chose to think about what it means to be “broken.” If it made me unhappy to think about the imperfection of a broken bowl, then imagine what it was like to entertain the notion that I was broken myself.

When I went to seminary, I was introduced to the idea of the minister as a “wounded healer.” I’ll confess, at first I thought it was complete nonsense; more of that touchy feeling liberal claptrap better suited to the Birkenstock wearing granola crunchers in Berkeley than a rational minded and psychologically sound soul like me. Wounded meant weak, broken was damaged, useless, flawed, in need of care, or maybe worthless and ready to be thrown away. After I learned something about redemption, eventually, I became aware that sometimes things – sometimes people – can be beautiful and broken, can be wounded, wonderful, and whole.

You see, life breaks us all in large ways and small. The death of our beloved childhood pet, our first adolescent love that leaves us for another . . . teenage heartbreak is memorably tragic. The first betrayal, our initial lesson in the unfairness of life, and the failure to make the team, to make the grade, to be admitted to our desired college or meet the imagined expectations of others . . . we all suffer minor mental and emotional breakage just making our way to adulthood. Then we get schooled in life and the breaks get bigger; the career we never had – sacrificed for a family or thwarted by circumstance, the pregnancy we lost, the friendship that fractured, the marriage that ended, the job from which we were fired, the loved who died. The hero fallen, the cause lost, the dream dashed . . . show me the heart unbroken by this life and I will show you a heart of stone waiting to be smashed.

Oh yes, we all crack a little, get chipped along the way, and get put back together again – just like my alabaster bowl – but we’re never quite the same and, if you look closely, you’ll see the flaw, glimpse the scar, notice the missing piece, the hole in our heart and the wound in our soul that no amount of closure can quite fill. Yes, friends, we are all broken by this life, in large ways and small, but we’re not all comfortable admitting that about ourselves. I certainly wasn’t . . . and I wouldn’t admit it for a long time.

In his weekly column for the “On Being” blog, Quaker author Parker Palmer wrote, “Heartbreak comes with the territory called being human. When love and trust fail us, when what once brought meaning goes dry, when a dream drifts out of reach, a devastating disease strikes, or someone precious to us dies, our hearts break and we suffer — but there are two quite different ways for the heart to break. There’s the brittle heart that breaks apart into a thousand shards, a heart that takes us down as it explodes . . . Then there’s the supple heart, the one that breaks open, not apart, growing into greater capacity for the many forms of love. Only the supple heart can hold suffering in a way that opens to new life.”

Your heart can be broken or broken open. Being, and staying, broken leaves us hurt, angry, and confused . . . and hurt people hurt people. Being broken open leads to self-awareness, empathy, and compassion . . . ultimately, it leads to healing, always for ourselves and sometimes for others.

The ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus wrote, “He who learns must suffer.  And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”  For me, grace is the difference between being broken and being broken open.

An unconscionable number of American women – an estimated 1 out of every 3 –, at some point in their lives, will be subjected to sexual violence. They were molested as children, abused as adolescents, or assaulted as adults. All of them are victims, but not all of them self-identify as survivors. The difference between “victim” and “survivor” is important. “Victimhood” acknowledges brokenness, and that suffering needs to be honored and held gently and kindly; “survivor” is an affirmation of strength and wholeness, its signals triumph over trauma and healing from harm. How do we help the victim become the beautifully broken and wonderfully whole survivor?

The people who do that best are those who claim their own healed brokenness as a source of power and an instrument of healing in others. Henri Nouwen, picked up on a theme first explored by psychologist Carl Jung nearly a half century earlier, when wrote the ground breaking book The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (1972) . . . “ministers are called to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that recognition the starting point of their service.” Jung used the ancient Greek story of Asclepius to explore “the paradoxical mystery of . . . the healer, who is able to heal all other wounds and illnesses, [but] is not able to heal himself.” When we feel broken by life, nothing comforts us quite like one who has felt that same pain and can sit beside us with tenderness, compassion, and empathy that arises out of their own suffering and the wisdom they have distilled from personal experience. Stories are powerful aids in healing and, often times, the greatest balm for a wounded heart is the touch that tells us, “You are not alone.”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that only people who have suffered the exact same trauma can assist others who are similarly traumatized. But, if you cannot acknowledge and feel your own experience of brokenness and hurt, then you’ll never be able to touch and heal the wound of someone you are trying to help.

Ernest Hemingway wrote in his novel A Farewell to Arms: “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places.” Not only are some strong there . . . some are down right beautiful.


Those of you who are indie-rock fans may have read Rolling Stone magazine’s recent review (by Kory Grow; 31 March 2015) of Death Cab for Cutie’s newest album Kintsugi.  I was impressed that a rock band would seize on a Japanese art form as an album title.  Kintsugi, as another reviewer, Katie Hill (Cavalier Daily) explained, is a process of repairing ‘broken pottery with a lacquer mixed with precious metals, which ironically makes the broken object more valuable than fully intact ceramics . . . “kintsugi” embraces an object’s flaws as a part of its history rather than something to be hidden.’  I love the veins of gold that run through the broken and repaired pottery.  What might otherwise be an attractive and well executed ceramic piece suddenly becomes a brilliant commentary on what it means to be fabulously flawed, beautifully broken, and wonderfully whole.

What can kintsugi, the Japanese art of pottery repair, teach us about ourselves? First of all, it teaches us that we’re all broken and that is actually the natural state of humanity. I’m reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness in which he talks about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that worked to heal the wounds of 34 years of apartheid in that country. He wrote of the 15 members of the multi-racial Commission, all religious leaders, attorneys, and educated professionals “We learned to our chagrin that we were a microcosm of South African society, more deeply wounded than we had at first imagined. We realized . . . that we were all victims of a potent conditioning.” All South African, white and black, we conditioned to think and act in certain ways by a toxic racist system. All were victims, even those who victimized others. And I would submit to you that America is not so very different.

As individuals, as families, as societies, as religious communities, we sometimes we try to hide our brokenness. Usually, we do so out of shame, embarrassment, or fear. We think that we are the only one to whom this has ever happen and maybe we are responsible – in some small way – for our own victimhood. We think that what happened to us was so terrible that we will always be judged by others as deficient, that no one will love us, respect us, or value us again because we are broken. That’s not true; we can be beautifully broken and wonderfully whole, more precious because of our new found power as wounded healers.

Churches can be broken too.  Usually that occurs when someone in authority betrays a sacred trust, lies, cheats, steals, or otherwise violates a fundamental behavioral boundary.  But all brokenness can be healed.  We just need to embrace our broken parts and – sometimes with help – allow healing to occur.

What kintsugi teaches us is to embrace and celebrate our brokenness, because this is what makes us human. This is what makes us useful, helpful, serviceable – if you will – in the healing of others. But we need to be willing to show and share our brokenness. Brokenness repaired makes an object – or a person – more beautiful and valuable than they were before the damage was done.

Years ago, I spent a summer in Idaho and one weekend walked the trails around Redfish Lake, south of Stanley. I came upon the most amazing and memorable tree. It had clearly suffered an unimaginable trauma; twisted sideways as a sapling, then snapped almost in two, so that it hung down toward the ground. But then, something amazing happened. The tree survived the trauma, turned itself toward the sun, and grew up straight and tall, just like every other tree in the forest.

Redfish Lake, Stanley, Idaho

From a distance, it looked like every other tree, but up close you could see that it was really special. The brokenness healed, the astonishing resilience of that tree made it uniquely beautiful and gave it character that set it apart from every other tree in the forest.

People can be like that too . . . beautifully broken and wonderfully whole . . . towering, inspiring examples of endurance, resilience, strength, and hope. We can be strong and beautiful in our broken places, and our brokenness is never more precious than when we use it as a source of power to bring healing and hope to others.

Go forth today and be beautiful, broken, wonderful, whole, and help heal our hurting world with your hope and love.