February 7, 2008

Ash Wednesday

Broken Hearts

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17
Psalm 51
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

In my office, I keep a jar full of beach glass. The pieces are mostly small, many different shapes, and the colors are soft and muted, pale green, translucent brown, blue and frosty white, some almost clear. I have collected these fragments as I walked the long lovely beach where my family and I spend our summer times. A lot of glass has washed up on that shore. There have been some terrible hurricanes there, and I am sure that many of these fragments are the result of those storms.

Most of the pieces are smooth, worn down by the sea and the sand, the jagged, wounding edges softened. It is no longer possible to tell what the original purpose was for these pieces; they are completely transformed by the battering of tide and time. Once in a while, though, there is a piece that is raw and new, sharp and dangerous, its former identity still apparent but no longer functional. I have found glass that was part of light fixtures and window panes, jars and bottles and kitchenware. These pieces are the dangerous ones, capable of slicing into a bare foot as one walks through the sand. It is more common, though, to find glass that is worn down, smoothed and gentled. The jar in my office has both kinds.

I keep these fragments, not because they have any real function, but only because they are beautiful. Whatever the first intent for their use, that purpose is gone, broken: destroyed by some accident or the fury of a storm, or just discarded, thrown away. And then, battered by the surf and scrubbed on the sand, the pieces are changed. They become like little works of art. Through destruction and force, the glass is transformed. It becomes beautiful.

And so it is with us, although it is hard to think that transformation and even beauty can come out of brokenness. It is a paradox, a paradox where brokenness becomes essential to wholeness. This is hard for us because we do not want to know how fragile we are. We treasure the notion that we can manage, that we can function, that we are in control. But the great and violent storms of life break that illusion. We can find ourselves shattered, like splinters of glass scattered on the summer sand.

Storms and accidents and discardings can destroy our hopes and dreams, leave our goals and purposes in pieces, and even alter the function of our lives forever. The aftermath of such times is painful and raw. We are left with jagged edges that can be dangerous to ourselves and to those around us. We are no strangers to this. It comes from the death of a dream, from a broken relationship, from a career-ending injury, from the loss of someone you love, from a doctor's report, even from everyday disappointments. Yes, we cherish our strength and self-sufficiency, but the truth of the matter is that we are finite, fragile creatures. Remember: we are dust.

We are dust, and yet we have been shaped and molded and given life through the hand of our creator. And the one who granted life at the beginning of time is still at work. God is at work creating new life in spite of brokenness, creating new life through brokenness. Like the waves of the sea that pound on the glass, the great and powerful love of God transforms the fragments of our broken lives, smoothing our jagged edges, making us beautiful. Perhaps it is hard to think that brokenness might open the way to God and that God's transformation might be known in and through and even as brokenness. It is a strange wisdom to know first-hand this way of God's working.

Yes, it is a strange wisdom and even more strange to seek it out, to ask for it, to pray this kind of prayer:

Batter my heart, three-person'd God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o'erthrow mee,'and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.

John Donne's poem is a hard prayer. "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . . breake, blowe, burn -- and make me new." It is a hard thing to ask, but even so, I invite you to take this as your Lenten prayer. I warn you, though, that it will be much more difficult than giving up chocolate or coffee, or deciding to forego the movies. Those kinds of sacrifices may be helpful, but not on their own. The word of God is clear: It is not enough to deal only with the external. Fasting is not the repentance that God asks. Neither is the appearance of goodness what God desires. In fact, Jesus warns us about appearance for its own sake: "Beware of practicing your piety before others. . . ." he says. Instead, through the voices of prophet and psalmist, God calls us to a Lenten preparation that involves an interior change. "Rend your hearts . . . ." That is the sacrifice acceptable to God: a broken and contrite spirit -- a broken heart.

To know this wisdom in your innermost being, in your secret heart, is, indeed, to know the strange way of God's working. God desires a complete and utter renovation of the places deep within, the places that are known only to God and to you. There is no change from the outside in that is quite as radical. God would set God's truth within you, by breaking down all the structures of your pride and your purposefulness and your striving, even your goodness and righteousness. God would crush those bones, so that there is an open and empty space. And that is the space, that God-shaped void, that God would fill with the steadfast love and mercy of an incomprehensible grace. Out of this brokenness, come joy and gladness and beauty – a new creation.

But remember that creation is disruptive. Without noise, there can be no sound of silence; without darkness, no understanding of the light; without death, no sense of the preciousness of life. It is out of chaos and upheaval that great change comes about. New creation involves a break with the old, a breaking of the old. In order for God to create in you a clean, new heart, the old heart must be broken and destroyed. "Batter my heart, three-person'd God. . . breake, blowe, burn -- and make me new."

In this transformation, we are given a new purpose, a new identity. Or perhaps it is more truthful to say that we come to know what our true identity and purpose really are – to be beautiful for God. The beach glass on my table serves no useful function. It is there only because it is beautiful, because I enjoy it.

You are this way, too, whenever you allow the transforming love of God to work on you. You do not have to earn God's grace— you cannot. You do not have to function as the perfect Christian – you cannot do that either. And it is a hard truth to know in a place like this, but no amount of effort will prove your worth. No amount of sacrifice will buy God's love. The only sacrifice acceptable to God is your heart, your broken heart -- yourself.

And if your heart has not been broken already, it surely will be, because that is the way of the world. It is also the way of God, because God is at work in brokenness.

So let your heart be broken. And then gather up the fragments of that broken heart, that heart you thought was yours alone, and hand them over to God. Because that is the offering that God desires.

(c) Martha C. Highsmith, 2008

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