Beginning in Brokenness
There’s a lovely quote that’s become quite popular, “We all have baggage, find someone who loves you enough to help you unpack.”
We love to hear stories of people traversing their own desert, their wilderness times. It gives us courage and inspires us to hear how they have overcome, but few of us enter a wilderness or desert experience on our own. It is in our nature to have a certain inertia about us, getting up off the couch, taking that first step, can be the hardest thing to do, and often we don’t do it until something forces our hand, grabs us by the heart strings and says “Come!”
Joseph Campbell, the great student of myth and archetype, reminds us that the hero’s journey always begins with conflict, with tragedy. We do not get to rise up one morning and proudly proclaim, “Look what I have overcome!” without having faced great difficulties. Yet we hesitate because we know that sometimes, especially in our greatest fears, sometimes great difficulties break us, and we fear that brokenness more than anything.
So it often comes as a brutal surprise, these events that send us off into the wilderness. Something happens, a diagnosis, a death, loss of a job or a home, and we find that we suddenly don’t know where we are, sometimes we don’t know who we are. We might stare at our reflection in disbelief, as if someone else was staring back at us. It’s one of the reasons we fight so hard to defend beliefs that we have long held, or sacrificed a great deal for. We don’t want to be wrong. We don’t want to see our frailty, our fallibility. We don’t want to see how easily we hurt one another.
How often do we begin a relationship with promises that we will never hurt one another? Yet we do. We fail to live up to the very best that we can be, that we want to be, and our failure to do this insists on a response from us. We are asked to move into our own wilderness journey and face the shadowy, hidden parts of ourselves and this can be very frightening.
Someone once told me that the mark of a healthy community is that when someone is brave enough to say, “I have all this baggage, these wounds, these regrets and failures that I carry around with me,” the response is, “Me too.” Calvin spoke about this as ‘total depravity’ meaning that nothing, no one, no part of us, escapes being flawed in some way. No one can firmly stand on their feet and say “I don’t need help, I can do it ALL on my own. I don’t need you. I don’t need my community. I don’t need God,” that if we are willing to look deeply at our own flawed nature we all know that we do, in fact need help. We can’t do it all alone and this feels very vulnerable. It’s part of our American culture that we ought to be able to stand on our own feet and do it ourselves! Man up! Cowgirl up!
Our liturgical tradition insists that every year we pause and encounter our mortality, our frailty, our fallibility and acknowledge our deep need for God. As the poet Hafiz said centuries ago,
“Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
As few human or even divine ingredients can.
Something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft,
My voice so tender,
My need of God
Some of you might be wondering when I’m going to get to the scripture, because this is an unusual story. It’s not a part of our lectionary at all. Like most of the dark stories in our past we prefer not to talk about it. Noah lets us down. He was supposed to be a good guy! He was supposed to have insight and courage, steadfastness and to be the one who came riding in, well not on a white horse, but on his great ark, and saved the world as we know it. He was the one who stood up to all the ridicule of his neighbors, who followed God faithfully even when he didn’t fully understand. He was the one who stood on the deck of the ark and wept as the full horror of the flood hit his hometown and devastated it.
I don’t know about you, but I hate it when my heroes fail. I like them bright and shiny and untarnished. I don’t want to know that Lot offered his daughters to a gang who pounded on his door, if they would only stop threatening his guests. I don’t want to think about the fact that Bathsheba really had no choice but to accept the advances of King David. I don’t want to think about the failures of those who shaped and formed our faith. I don’t want to think about the failures of those who shaped and formed my family’s history, or our country’s history, or..well, you get the idea.
But if I am to walk my faith journey with integrity and honor, I must be brave enough to look at the hidden, shameful aspects of our history, of my history. And if I am wise, I’ll do that before some tragedy forces me off the couch and insists I walk the path through the valley.
Lent is that season that invites us to walk this path, to be reflective, to look deeply at who we are, who we want to be, and see how the two diverge. It is grace that our faith takes us through this process every year. Pause, look, reflect, remember you are mortal.
Our character is uniquely known and formed by those choices we make when pain and loss push us into our own desert, our wilderness experiences. When we find ourselves lost and unable to recognize ourselves, can’t find our way, when difficult emotions have narrowed our focus down until we feel lost in them. We don’t talk much about Noah’s trauma or his drunkenness. We don’t talk much about his hung over behavior and his shame filled cursing of his grandson. That isn’t the Noah we are comfortable with. But it shapes him, it tells us who he is, and for all those long years afterwards he lives with the consequences of having discovered within himself, that which he wants to deny, to forget.
We have such a tendency to deny our brokenness to want to be shiny and bright all the time. But we are not created to stay that way. Our lives are full of conflict and change, each change bringing with it the loss of what was. We have this inertia, this struggle to leave what is comfortable and familiar and sometimes we need the comfortable and familiar, we need to wrap ourselves in what we know will feel good and be healed, but we were never meant to stay in those places.
Our failure to look at the brokenness and darkness within us allows it to come into our lives when we are least prepared. We might hear ourselves saying something racist or demeaning to others and be surprised that we said that. We might, in a moment of stress react in ways that bring harm or pain to those we love, snapping or hitting when we really needed to stop and breathe, to stop and know that it is going to be okay, we are safe in God’s hands, we have survived worse, don’t be afraid, it’s going to be okay…but it takes practice to be able to hit that reset button, that pause, in the middle of stressful moments.
I feel for Noah in this text. He has witnessed so much death and loss. All of his friends and neighbors, gone; the market he used to walk through, gone. I find myself wondering what he witnessed when he disembarked from the ark. When I was a child and I heard the story of the flood in Sunday School the pictures that went along with it were always beautiful, full of rainbows and fresh green grass, birds singing, but now, as an adult, I wonder if it wasn’t more like the aftermath of Katrina. Just as I feel so much for Lot’s wife, who heard the destruction of her town behind her as they walked away, who lost her best friends and her aunties and her neighbors, the kids she used to watch for a friend, the gardens she tended, how could she not look back? And be consumed in tears, be swallowed up in mourning and loss? A pillar of salty, crying tears, I’m sure that was an accurate description.
Noah tries to do the right thing when he gets off the ark. He turns his attention to rebuilding to reestablishing what was lost, the gardens, the vineyards. He seeks some sense of normalcy and when it is all done, he has a glass of wine, or a bottle or two. So much pain to numb out and he had tried so hard for so long to be strong, to be in control, to set the good example, and how deep his shame must have been when he is discovered, exposed, frail, small, just a man. In his shame and his anger he curses his son and his grandchild, and I do not want to judge him, but only to note that had he been able to take that second breath, to pause for a moment and remember who he wants to be, he might have done better.
And I want to note too that God continues to bless Canaan and all this descendents. Yes, Noah set brother against brother, but the Canaanites still live, still prosper, still thrive.
Pain that is not transformed, is transmitted, especially during times of stress, pain, and loss. When we find ourselves acting in ways that betray our deepest values, our cherished beliefs, it is then that we are invited to walk a desert path, encounter God in the wilderness and transform our pain, that our lives might be transformed, that we might live healthy, whole, and abundant lives. Welcome then to the wilderness,
may the Spirit of God surprise you today!