When asked to promote an upcoming “Bible Lands Study Tour” and follow with a brief sermon during chapel services at Campbell University Divinity School this past Tuesday, I noted that the history of the Holy Land is a history of brokenness told in shattered pottery, ruined cities, and fractured relationships that continue into the present, as evidenced by the difficulty of ongoing efforts at peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
It occurred to me that virtually the entire Hebrew Bible is a story of broken relationships, broken covenants, and broken dreams. That’s why the promise of Isaiah 61:1-3 shines so brightly, as it speaks of one who would proclaim good news that would bind up the brokenhearted, set free the captives, and bring gladness in place of mourning. When Jesus began his public ministry, according to Luke 4:18-25, he cited that very text as a sort of mission statement, and his ministry is remembered as one of healing both broken bodies and broken souls.
I thought it worth pointing out that when the hope Christ offers is figured into the equation, even brokenness, as painful as it is, can be seen as a gift. Jesus brought hope to a hurting land, though it required great suffering on his part to do it. When we remember Jesus today, we do so in the symbols of crushed grapes and broken bread.
As we celebrate Jesus’ proclamation that the kingdom of God has arrived on earth, we acknowledge that brokenness still surrounds us. Religious and ethnic and economic and national divisions continue to exist. Broken homes and broken hearts abound. Brokenness may come from what we do to ourselves, or from what others do to us. We don’t always keep our promises to God, or to each other. Sometimes, the hard truth is that one person’s healing requires another person’s sorrow. We are broken people.
Yet, the good news remains good, even in our brokenness. Deep brokenness leads to mourning, and mourning has the capacity to lead us toward God.
When we feel personal pain, we often try to avoid it or numb it. When we interact with others who are in pain, our normal inclination is to minimize their grief and try to make them feel better, rather than learning to simply be with them in their pain, and to share it. We are uncomfortable with and perhaps fearful of sorrow, but there is profit in intentionally engaging our grief.
In his little book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen spoke much about the brokenness of the world and our need to be attentive to it. “I am beginning to see,” he said, “that much of praying is grieving” (p. 130).
Have you ever noticed how often Jesus wept? He wept in shared grief for Lazarus and his family. He wept for the people of Jerusalem who were like baby chicks scattered before a fox. He wept at the thought of his own suffering and death. He said “blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Mat. 5:4), and meant it.
Mourning comes before comforting. Brokenness comes before healing. I have come to believe that, in some ways, we are never more in touch with our soul than when we are weeping, and if we become better acquainted with our soul, we are on the road to getting better acquainted with God.
There is a sense in which our tears, distilled from the deepest part of our pain, can become a sacrament of the soul, a means of communion with the Spirit. We should never be afraid or ashamed or embarrassed to cry, whether the tears come from our own pain or from the shared grief of another or from a tender heart’s compassion for those who suffer in this world. We are never closer to God than when we weep, and in doing so we may find ourselves on a journey toward joy: though the road may be long, the destination is sure.
As we engage our brokenness, we open our hearts to forgiveness, to acceptance, to growth, and ultimately, to renewed strength and healing. We may discover, when it happens, that all the pieces didn’t get put back together in the same way they were before. Some pieces may be missing. Others may have been added. Brokenness changes us, but when we approach it in the right way, the change can be for the better.
As people who have experienced both brokenness and healing, we gain a greater capacity to care for others by entering their world and sharing their grief. In doing so, we discover hope and healing welling up both for them and for us – we come to know “the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
Attentively encountered, even brokenness can become an opportunity for grace and for growth. Thanks be to God.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.