Sunday, June 20, 2010

Brokenness is Not the End of the Story

Written February 2007 before Darrel and I were engaged.

And I will wait for the Lord who is hiding His face from the house of Jacob; I will even look eagerly for Him (Isaiah 8:17 NASB).

In January of 2007, my older daughter Rachel took me to The Round, a monthly arts gathering in the Fremont Abbey in Seattle. Two or three groups of musicians, some visual artists, and a poet or two gather on the tiny stage in the basement. The artists, mostly young and hip although refreshingly down to earth, each complete a single painting during the evening, while the poets and musicians take turns performing, sometimes jumping in on backup on one another’s songs and poems. For a $5-10 donation, the audience members enjoy a stimulating evening of music, poetry, art, and sometimes spontaneous collaborative new pieces.

I noticed that one of the artists began her work by painting in bright white, unruly letters across the canvas, “Brokenness is not the end of the story.” I was intrigued. Brokenness, it seems, is a major theme of my personal story right now, and I wondered what worldview birthed the artist’s proclamation. This was not a Christian gathering per se, so I had no reason besides her slashes of white paint to think that she was a believer. From time to time throughout the evening, I traveled from my seat at the back of the small auditorium to a better vantage point to observe her progress. Bit by bit, she covered the words completely with her painting—which turned out to be a brooding landscape, mostly black, with bits of Japanese red and teal suggesting a mountainous backdrop, flecks of white and grey forming rocky outcrops or perhaps a waterfall, and a gold foreground hinting at a treeless plain. I couldn’t wait to talk to her. My daughter was an acquaintance and told me the artist’s name was Jen Grabarczyk.

I fought my way through the chatty crowd and waited impatiently for her to finish a conversation with another interested attendee. Finally, I introduced myself, called upon my scrap of journalistic background as excuse to take notes, and asked her, “Why did you write that phrase on your canvas before you began?” Jen told me that earlier that day she had gotten word that a 24-year-old high school classmate, not a close friend but someone she knew, had shot his girlfriend and then committed suicide. News like that, she said, is devastating, even if you aren’t personally involved. You come face to face with the brokenness all around, and you have to believe that there is more to the story than that or you go crazy. Our understanding of the world can’t end with how broken everything and everyone is.

Fishing, as Christians often do when they’re trying to find one another, I asked, “Do you have a particular philosophy or worldview that drives your work?” And she answered in that hesitant way that we do when we’re not sure how we’ll be received, “Well, I’m a Christian.” Of course. So we talked a bit more (and I thought a lot more) about her art, about her studies at Mars Hill Graduate School, about brokenness, about using a simple “abstract landscape” to communicate something small and significant about meaning in the universe, about beauty that covers brokenness, about beautiful brokenness, if there is such a thing.

The next day I bought her painting.

It seems to be part of my journey. After my separation a year ago and subsequent divorce six months later from my husband of 27 years, a step we never thought we would take, brokenness is on my mind—and in my strength and my heart and my soul. The first few months were consumed with survival and transition: moving twice in three months, finding a permanent place to live, experiencing the relief that comes with the absence of conflict, finding comfort in the support of friends and colleagues, working out the custody schedule for my younger daughter, enjoying my work and my students with a new freedom, learning to breathe again. For a while, I felt more whole than I had in years, in spite of the devastation of divorce.

I moved into my condo at the beginning of summer, school ended, and suddenly I had too much time on my hands. Some of it was spent with my younger daughter Emily, but she spent chunks of her time at summer classes and camps and with her father. I had never before in my life lived alone. I’m a project person, so I should have had plenty to do. I took time to settle into my new home, worked a couple of part-time summer jobs, did some decorating, all things I enjoy. I should have enjoyed the time to read and write. But I slogged through books with little joy, and my computer got used more for Solitaire than for writing.

As the pace of my life slowed, I became aware of a haunting hollowness in my chest.
I made a profession of faith when I was six years old. My father was a pastor. I have never strayed from belief in God for any serious length of time. I believe God is sovereign, even through divorce. I trust God for my present and my future. I understand that we live in a fallen world, that bad things happen to good people, that God’s grace should be sufficient for me, and that sanctification is a lifelong process—blah blah blah—so I get that Christians are supposed to be the ones with the peace that passes understanding. But here I was with a wind-sucking hole in my heart. I felt like a failure—not at marriage, but at experiencing the Christian life.

I tried to describe the sensation to a friend in an email: “I think I'm discovering that there will often or always be this sort of hollow spot in my chest that can't quite be talked or cried or reasoned away. It's a kind of loneliness or something, but it doesn't necessarily mean I want to be around people. Maybe it's the shape of abandonment or longings for things I can't have—at least not right now—or knowing that even if I had certain things, I'd never be able to trust them again. . . . It's not just that, though. I think that's the whole point of the hollowness. Nothing fills it—not a great teaching day, not a friendship, not a wonderful moment with my child, not knowing that I'm ‘better off,’ whatever that means. At the end of the day, I have an emptiness I can't explain and can't solve. And I'm thinking this is just how it's going to be, and I'm trying to figure out how to live with that reality.”

I finally paid a visit to my counselor, a godly Christian woman with the gift of telling the truth in a way that makes so much sense that my life actually changes. She told me, “This is going to sound cheesy, but what you’re experiencing is ‘the God-hole.’” The God-hole? How can that be? Wasn’t that supposed to be filled when I “invited Jesus into my life”? Christians aren’t supposed to have a God-hole!
She went on to explain that the emptiness I was experiencing is what most people, including Christians, spend most of their lives trying to deny, trying to run away from. We were created for perfect relationships with each other and with God, even with the cosmos, for that matter, and in this lifetime we can never have that. We can have better relationships, we can create beauty and make others’ lives more bearable, we can live lives that model joy and service and meaning, but something will always be missing. “The longing for Eden,” I said, and my counselor nodded. The longing for shalom—the way things were meant to be. Instead we experience our very real brokenness, even after we begin to know God.

I wasn’t crazy; I was just at a point in my life where I could experience the pain that is common to humankind, the pain at the core of every human desire. Nonbelievers and believers alike try to cover up those longings, deny the brokenness, deaden the pain, with obvious space-fillers such as illicit relationships, alcohol abuse, overeating, materialism, entertainment, workaholism, judgmental attitudes, and so on, and with not so obvious placebos such as community service, hospitality, church work, literature, art, commitment to family, intellectual pursuits, praying, fasting, self-righteousness, and other “good” things. But as Christian psychologist Dr. Larry Crabb suggests in his book Shattered Dreams, any desire, even a legitimate desire, that becomes more important to us than a desire for God himself, becomes idolatry. If saving our marriage, rescuing a drug-addicted child, remaining by a spouse’s side through cancer treatment, or ending world hunger become all-consuming passions, then we have missed the point.

Armed with the new knowledge that I wasn’t an aberration, I began to feel some hope, if not quite the lessening of the hollowness. In some ways, I thought my original impression had been correct, that I was just going to have to live with the sensation of incompleteness for the rest of my life, but at least now the sensation made sense. The brokenness began to feel like a dull headache—uncomfortable but manageable; sometimes I could even ignore it.

But I still felt that the picture of Christian existence on earth was incomplete. Yes, I understand that the shalom of perfect relationships—God, man, cosmos—cannot happen in this lifetime. Yes, I understand that I am called to be a part of restoration on this earth, knowing that perfect restoration is not possible. But is that it? Do I just shut down all that I long for, that I desire? Do I pretend I don’t crave satisfying relationships and for God to make himself known to me? Do I pretend that the events of the past year did not break me? Do I pretend that I am overflowing with joy when some days I am so transparently empty?

Dr. Crabb responds to this notion as follows: “We Christians are often practicing Buddhists. We kill desire in an effort to escape pain, then wonder why we don’t enjoy God.” Jesus is not, he continues, “agreeing with Buddha in prescribing a form of contentment that requires us to cut off the nerve endings of our souls and to report peace when what we feel is a void.” In other words, the unmet desires, the emptiness, the brokenness, the unfulfilled longings—they are real and they serve God’s purposes in our lives. They are not good things, but neither are they to be ignored. They point to something we can experience no other way.
They point to our desire for God Himself.

He is the desire above all desires, the existential longing we try to ignore, the purpose of our suffering. Our desire to know God in a restored, authentic relationship drives every other desire, legitimate or not. Our brokenness strips away all the promise of those secondary desires and allows us to taste our truest longing—to be in genuine, profound, significant communion with God, a communion that cannot begin before we have recognized and embraced the hollowness of our “good” lives, before we have come face to face with the ugly reality of our emptiness and been left wanting more. Then we can begin to want the One who can usher the only true joy into our existence.

On a day when I feel weak, I want financial security, a new husband, well-adjusted children, satisfying relationships with my family, friends, and coworkers, freedom from every kind of pain, and an end to world hunger. On a day when I feel weaker, I want only Jesus. I lie awake at night sometimes praying, “God, make it possible for your grace to be sufficient for me. I want too many things, and I know that the things I want won’t fill up this emptiness. Help me to allow you to do the work in me. I give you myself; please give me your Self.” I believe; Lord, help my unbelief.

A few days after I arranged to purchase Jen’s painting, I returned to the Abbey to pick it up. It was bigger, darker, and less colorful than I remembered, and I had to wonder how I would make it work in my tiny new condo. I took it home, awkwardly carried it in, and propped it on my piano to get it out of the way until I could find a place for it. Much to my surprise, it worked perfectly right there. The colors were perfect, the size was perfect, it had presence, but it did not overwhelm the room; it looked like a decorator had ordered it just for that spot. For a moment, as I pondered the perfection—even the shalom—of this otherwise insignificant moment, I heard the still, small voice of a God who loves me enough to bring me face to face with my own emptiness so I can one day be fuller than I could have hoped or dreamed. Months later, when I enjoy my new painting, I remember my truest desire.

Brokenness is not the end of the story, but it is a necessary, if sometimes ugly, plot point on the road to eternal resolution.

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