brokenness

Going Back to 127

Sunday on our way to church my almost five-year-old daughter said to me, "Dad now that I'm in 123 I feel all broked up." I said, "What do you mean broken up, sweetie?" She replied, "I feel broken up and switched around. I feel switched." When I pressed her again she went into a longer explanation.

She moved into a new room recently and while a lot of her friends from her old room (127) also moved to new rooms, a few still remain. So she has a new room, a new teacher, and new kids to get to know. She admitted that sometimes when her class is outside she'll peek in the windows of her old class, even though they're not supposed to. She said she can see her friends in there, and she rattled off four or five names. As a dad this is a bit heartbreaking.

Because I'm an idiot, I asked her, "What do you think you need to feel wholeness?" I mean, I'm seriously an idiot. She loves me, though, and she's only 5 so she just asked, "What's wholeness?"

Good question.

As adults we know what it's like to feel broked up. Something is missing. Something feels uncomfortable. Something is incomplete. Or maybe we feel like something used to be there and now it's gone. It's not always so easy to put our finger on what the feeling is or where it comes from. Certainly the cause of this feeling isn't usually as obvious to us as moving into a new classroom.

We talked about the new friends Nora has in 123 and then I asked, "Don't you think if you went back to 127 you would miss the girls we just talked about?" Matter-a-factly she said, "No." Like, duh, dad. But I suspect she would, in fact, miss them and her new teacher and their activities.

Wholeness isn't available to us as a return. As much as we would like to be able to go home again, to be embraced as a child by mom, to return to old friends and familiar places, we know deeply that they can't embrace us as they once did. We also know that in our attempted return we will leave behind things that have become familiar, and that by returning we again leave behind a part of ourselves.

Wholeness—whatever we mean by wholeness—can only be found where we stand now. More than that, I feel wholeness is only ever something that visits us—we do not visit it nor attain it by an action of the will. We may cultivate an awareness of the presence of wholeness in our lives, interact with it, even develop an intimate relationship with wholeness as we do with a friend or a lover, so that wholeness becomes an integral part of who we are and how we act in the world.

But we cannot go back to 127.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Beauty & Brokenness

The Behemoth, a product of Christianity Today, is a small magazine which aims to remind readers of “the glory of God all around them, in the worlds of science, history, theology, medicine, sociology, Bible, and personal narrative.” Sort of an effort at a reunion of the various modes of being and knowing torn asunder by the Enlightenment. The claim is that we can know God in tangible ways and that fields claiming authority based upon the scientific method can be used in conjunction with faithful theological reflection to seek understanding.

So it isn’t surprising that the most recent issue features a thoughtful piece on the theological significance of beauty. The basic argument goes that beauty cannot prove the existence of God, nothing can, but it can give an observer clues about truth.

The author quickly moves past the problem of evil: “How can there be a good God when there’s so much evil in the world?” He then suggests a “problem of beauty.” In other words: “How can there not be a good God if there’s so much beauty in the world?” Beauty graciously and freely given is a clue to the nature and reality of the divine.

My gut reaction is to reject this notion. Too often this kind of argument about the revelation of God in nature is essentially an appeal to the vague lovely. Given Christianity’s claim that God is ultimately revealed in the person of Jesus Christ—his life, death, and resurrection—the vague lovely as a theological ground just ain’t gonna cut it. I am hesitant in the extreme to move past the cross to the resurrection, to a theology of glory and victory which might deny the reality of suffering and death.

But, embedded in the piece is a part of a compelling argument. If we look at, for instance, a storm that causes destruction, pain, and death and call that a problem of evil, logically we must also allow ourselves to be confronted by the beauty of a cool breeze on a warm day, the quality of light cast through a window, or the way cotton forms around a body. The author touches upon this when he writes about redemption as a sign of beauty: “God also creates beautiful things out of brokenness—unfulfilled dreams, dashed hopes, divided communities, hurting people.” But this doesn’t go far enough.

Beauty does not cease to exist because suffering exists.

Suffering is not easily resolved by the reality of beauty.

The content of faith exists in the tension between beauty and suffering. Indeed, there is beauty not only in our response to the destruction caused by a storm but in the storm itself. A forest fire is not only beautiful because it prepares the way for new life; the fire itself is beautiful and terrifying.

A truth is available in the tension between beauty and brokenness. This is the truth of the cross.