She was the very personification of her name. Grace, a walking miracle, a precious trophy of divine triumph. Born and brought up on the wrong-side of the tracks, Grace found herself, at 40 years of age, with one grown child in a small downtown apartment. Her only escape, the contents of the next syringe, the prescription of her own private chemical counsellor. And then, on one unusually bright day, some Christians offered Grace a way out.
Within weeks she was free; a follower of Jesus made clean in body, mind and soul and the newest evangelical stalwart in a growing urban church. To this day, many members of her congregation mark their own journey to freedom from the moment when they first encountered Grace. A few months ago, Grace was found dead. Lying in the gutter, her body once more ravaged by narcosis, she suffered the violent death-sentence of her own destructive freewill. By the time the coroner had finished with her corpse there was not much to bury.
A life so broken...
?Searching for answers her pastor ventured, “Some people are like Humpty Dumpty. Their lives are so broken that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men cannot put them back together again.” Neither borne of flippancy nor despair, the pastor’s parable weaves a powerful apologetic from a well-worn rhyme. Back in the good old days, Grace was a glowing hero, the picture of spiritual success, a poster-girl for the gospel and her denomination. Her story was published as a testimonial in various magazines and publications. And she rightly took every opportunity to share her good news on platforms and in person. After all, who could doubt that she had been ‘well saved’?
So what happened next? According to our dogma, all those who repent and accept Christ are assured of their salvation. Beyond this, the born-again are expected to show signs of their salvation. For this is how wereally know that we really are part of the family. For a few years Grace’s life ticked these boxes more emphatically than most. A clean lifestyle, strong leadership and a compelling testimony were all there for us to applaud and marvel at with our heartiest “Hallelujahs!” Through one glorious chapter of Grace’s story, the signs of salvation shone ever so brightly. ??But what happens when these signs flicker and fade? Are we to doubt Grace’s assurance? And, furthermore, what happens when our own lives seem to lack the vital signs of a life well saved? After all, there, but for the grace of God, go all of us. Doesn’t the ending of Grace’s story change everything???
Because at the end, she is lost. Betrayed by her own evangelical confidence. Blotted out by brokenness. At this point, a more callous writer might beat a hasty predestinatory retreat: “You see! That was Grace’s problem, she wasn’t really chosen. That’s why she couldn’t live up to ourkind of salvation.” While such simplistic electioneering relieves us of a costly call to compassion, we would do well to stand back and reflect upon the kind of god who would abandon a daughter like Grace. Whoever this jumped up deity is, he is not Jesus, God’s love story for creation, the second member of the trinity; that family famed for its unending and unconditional love. ??According to the Bible, the God who makes the heaven and the earth does not shrug off, shy away from or shirk the broken. In fact, the God of the Bible is the God of the broken. His deity is not characterised by divine disinterest in imperfection, but in his willingness to surrender a throne in order to serve the last, the lost and the least.
While the ending of Grace’s story may continue to elude our theology, we can be assured that she did not escape Christ’s saving intentions. When asked what we can learn from her story, Grace’s pastor offered this: “The church can never fully mend the broken in this fallen here and now, but we can pick up the pieces of their lives and hold them together in our hands until such a time as we can present them to the King.” For only in this moment, and only through him, is our salvation made complete. ??
Engagement with the broken
?The image of the church patiently and painstakingly carrying the broken pieces of creation to Jesus is certainly potent. Upon reflection, the church cannot avoid the subject of brokenness and for good reason. As a community of imperfect saints, we live as a broken body; a fractured communion within a creation cracked by sin.
I once attended a conference where I heard a most moving presentation about the church’s engagement with the broken. Talking of our call to carry these broken lives, the presenter went to great pains to express both a personal and corporate sense of failure. Having given his life to the broken, he confessed that he had often avoided the direct call to share in their suffering.
In my experience few of us could avoid being personally challenged by this heart’s cry. The church has been too quick to turn brokenness into another worthy cause, a new project or a fundraising drive. Instead of embracing the broken, we hold them at arms length. They become objects of our charity, clients of our services and pictures on our appeal posters. No longer children made in the image of God, these human beings become objectified by church projects and initiatives; yet another problem for our ecclesial machine to fix.
As a member of The Salvation Army, a church famed for its care for the marginalised and the forgotten, I have seen it at first hand. When faced with the stark realities of destruction and dysfunction, it becomes far easier to employ those outside the church to do the difficult work than it does to challenge our own congregation. “The local church that is the hope of our broken world,” we declare. Yet we soon substitute this ministerial community for a team of trained professionals.
With a prophetic strain this leader challenged the church to examine her own brokenness. In the final analysis, the church’s attempts to deal with the brokenness of our world are often as broken as the world we are trying to mend. Having carefully and painstakingly drawn the circle, the speaker nervously took his seat and awaited a response.
A senior leader began. “Well, we can’t mend brokenness with brokenness.” I wanted to leap on to my chair and scream, “No!” To my great regret, I didn’t.
A sentence that was intended to initiate conversation served only to shut down every possible avenue of enquiry and further denigrated the gospel. As God’s parable, Jesus demonstrates, once and for all, that God’s plan is precisely what this leader conceives as impossible. Through the life and ministry of Jesus, God mends brokenness with brokenness. ??In Christ, God is broken into a billion pieces so that he may be shared with each member of his broken creation. Having stepped down from heaven, Jesus does not choose to avoid brokenness, to wish it away or deny its existence. In fact the opposite is true. Jesus chooses to absorb brokenness. To draw into his own life every sin and sickness, fall and infirmity, doubt and darkness, to such an extent that the brokenness of creation finally serves to break the creator. And in one final divine twist, Jesus unlocks brokenness as God’s plan for the redemption and perfection of the world. Carrying the broken pieces of creation in his bare hands, he offers them to God saying, “This is my body, broken for you.”
While discussing this piece, a friend of mine posed an intriguing question. “You know why they couldn’t put Humpty together again don’t you?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Because they let the horses try to fix him first.” The quip is not without insight. Our attempts to respond to the broke and the broken through a new strategy, programme or the latest management technique can cause more problems than they solve. ??These legitimate aspects of the church’s life are merely the vehicles that carry the church and not the church herself. Such co-opted solutions often become a communal cop-out; the seductive alternative to the option of incarnation, a sign of our unwillingness to get down and dirty with a messed up creation, to be up close and personal as Christ’s body to the world. I know this is true because I do it all the time. I have lost count of the times that I have told myself, “it’s far better to respond strategically to the needs of the masses than spend precious time serving the odd one or two.”
Riding away from the wounded?
?It is not that the King has no need of horses, but that his horses serve to carry his people into, and not away from, our messy world. When we get this the wrong way round, two communities lose out.
Firstly, our broken world loses touch with the main vehicle by which it can be carried to the Kingdom. By relying upon the mechanisms and machinery of the church to mend the world we withhold the real solution; the humanity which constitutes the church’s community and mission. If a theory, technique or organisation could save us, then God would surely have spared his own Son and instigated a different three-year plan replete with a cosmic business plan and relevant performance indicators. In truth, it is only the Son - the one who made the world and knows how to remake it - that can mend our brokenness.
Furthermore, his willingness to break open his own humanity enables us to experience and mediate his presence to the world. As the church, we are his body. While we may consider ourselves too battered to be of any heavenly use, it is our brokenness which provides the key to our divine utility.
Secondly, having robbed the broken of our own presence, our break from brokenness may lead us to miss out on the miracle of Christ’s presence altogether. The Bible is clear, when we engage with the least of humanity, we come face to face with the King (Matthew 25:34-40). “When I look into the eyes of a dying man,” Mother Theresa declared, “I see the eyes of Jesus staring back at me.” This momentous encounter does not occur at a distance, but when we stand face to face with those who are in need.
The power of God, as revealed in Christ, lies neither in the strength of our systems nor in the efficiency of our churchly machinery but in our courage to embrace weakness, sickness, vulnerability and brokenness. In the adventure of incarnation we ride towards the top of the hill and there acknowledge the true heights of grace. In the moment when brokenness reigns, enthroned upon a cross of broken wood, we witness the coronation of a carpenter as King of the world.
Jean Vanier, founder of the international L’Arche movement of communities for persons with mental disabilities, explains that the “broken and the oppressed are teaching me what the gospel is all about.” If we too wish to discover Christ’s presence, Vanier insists, we must become God’s gift and Christ’s presence to a broken world and its most damaged victims.
Most eloquently illustrated in a lecture to the educational elite at Harvard University, Vanier’s account of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well speaks volumes (John 4:1-26). “This woman is one of the poorest, most broken people in the gospels. When Jesus meets her, he does not tell her to get her act together. Rather, he exposes to her his own need. He says to her: ‘Give me [something] to drink…’ Jesus approaches broken people, not from a superior position, but from a humbler, lower position: ‘I need you.”
So what are we to do with Grace? As with her own pastor, we can do little more than hand her over to the King. However, in her memory we can acknowledge that we also exist as damaged goods in a messed up world. And this honest confession may yet transform the way we see and serve the King. For as Jesus needed a broken woman at a Samarian well, so too we, the body of Christ, need Grace, and millions like her, if we are to enjoy an audience with his Highness in the here and now and herald his presence in the days to come. This miracle is made possible when we learn to live for and with Grace.
As Christ took on flesh and moved into our neighbourhood, so we too must brave the broken shards of our crumbling communities and offer shattered lives back to the King of Kings. Finally, we look forward with hope and expectation to the day when this love takes full effect in our world and finally transforms our fractured histories into the full perfection of his Kingdom.