When fragile things shatter

December 11th, 2017

The glass shattered before I realized what was happening. Bustling about in the kitchen, I had knocked it to the floor while reaching for some spices and watching a timer and listening to “All Things Considered.” Menacing shards jutted up where I stood. Tiny slivers had scattered to all corners of the room.

Our children were very young. They dashed in with bare feet to investigate the noise. “Stop! Hold it right there!” I shouted.

Before letting anyone else cross the kitchen threshold, I picked up the largest pieces of glass. Next came a furious sweeping of smaller bits. Finally, I vacuumed the floor over and over to get rid of the tiny, invisible grains lying in wait for tender little feet.

Fragile things shatter so easily.

Breaking that glass inconvenienced me. I tossed the jagged remains into the trash without a second thought. One mass-produced drinking glass looks pretty much like another. Amazon offers tons of replacements.

By contrast, had I dropped my maternal grandmother’s china tea set, I would have frantically gathered up every delicate piece. There could be no replacement.

Even in the unlikely event that I could order another set by the same manufacturer in the Czech Republic, it would not be my grandmother’s tea set. The pot from which she poured tea with her work-weary old hands. The cups she had somehow rescued and brought with her from war-ravaged Austria.

I would want desperately to fix it. And yet, despite my best efforts, I would never be able to make that tea set whole again. Sure, I could clean up the mess. Maybe I would be tempted to hang on to a bag of broken pieces. I would feel the tea set’s loss and wish again and again that I hadn’t broken it. I would wish that, somehow, what I had broken could be mended.

Fragile things break easily. Especially human things. Human lives. Human souls. Human hearts. Human things are not interchangeable. They are not replaceable. They can only be mended. Frequently, they are beyond our ability to mend on our own.

Each of us lives with things we’ve broken and cannot mend. Many of us contend with the breakage that another person has caused in our lives. All of us were thrown into a world already broken by racism, sexual harassment, sexism, poverty, intolerance, economic exploitation, and escalating violence.

If our hearts and minds are genuinely open to the ache in our own hearts and the misery around the world, we will also recognize a deep yearning that all things—all the fragile, human things—be made whole. But arriving at that genuine openness makes us terribly vulnerable. We begin to see that we yearn for something that we need divine help to achieve.

So, many of us avoid that openness by focusing narrowly on our own comforts and status. We anesthetize ourselves with luxuries, applause, entertainments, sex, power, or chemicals. This life-strategy will temporarily prevent the misery of others from encroaching on our personal enjoyments. But eventually the fractures within our own souls begin to catch up with us.

Oh, we may continue to employ these strategies more and more frantically right into the grave. But loneliness will haunt us. Our own misery will grow as we vaguely realize how increasingly unstable, unattractive, and narcissistic we appear to everyone around us.

Before reaching such an extreme state of disintegration, most of us begin to identify our deep longing for wholeness. We become willing to do something about it. To put that another way, we allow ourselves to be susceptible to outrageous hope.

I believe that it was this kind of susceptibility to hope that drew so many people into the wilderness to listen to John the Baptist.

If you ask people for a word association with John the Baptist—excluding references to clothing and dietary habits—you’re likely to hear the word “repentance” again and again. And for good reason. He preached about and offered a baptism for repentance of sins. But I wonder if we hear what he’s actually trying to tell us.

Many of us assume that he’s telling people that they’ve broken the rules. God is coming back soon to judge the good and the evil. Say you’re sorry and change your ways, and you’ll dodge the perdition bullet.

The Gospel according to Mark leaves a different impression. Mark prefaces his story about the Baptizer with a word from the prophet Isaiah: prepare. He doesn’t mean, “Gussy up so you’ll make the cut on judgment day.” Instead, he’s saying something like this: let’s make ourselves open to mending. The first step is to admit that we need it.

The Baptizer’s call to repentance is an invitation to acknowledge the world’s brokenness, our role in the brokenness, and the suffering and sorrow that result from that brokenness. That’s as far as John the Baptist can take us. He tells us openly that another will come after him to bring what he cannot give.

That other has come. Most of us realize that he meant Jesus. But he was also pointing at us. Jesus began the mending of shattered fragile things. He continues it through fragile hands and feet like yours and mine.

This article originally appeared on the author's blog. Reprinted with permission.

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