Do you remember the last time you broke a coffee cup? Bent a fork? Scratched a CD? What did you do with the broken thing? Chances are you threw it away. How about the last time you chipped a lamp or cracked a crystal vase? You may not have discarded these items, but you likely turned them to the wall so the marred part didn’t show or else boxed them away in the attic, as too sentimental to get rid of perhaps, but no longer beautiful or functional enough to use.
Did you know that the average American produces 4.5 pounds of solid waste—that’s stuff we throw away—every day? Collectively, each day Americans throw away 1.35 billion pounds of stuff. To put it in perspective, that weight is the equivalent of seven thousand blue whales of garbage, daily. Surely, some of this is legitimate, unusable scrap. But very much consists of things we’ve simply decided to get rid of because they’re out of date, or their beauty has faded, or their newness has worn off in favor of the next big thing. They’re no longer worth our time or consideration, so we dispose of them.[i]
Some of the most productive archaeological digs are the sites of ancient garbage heaps. There, shards of broken pottery, metal, and glass are recovered in abundance. Archaeologists develop theories for what ancient landfills tell us about ancient peoples. And even when they don’t tell us the full story of the people from which they came, these broken pieces always tell us at least one important fact: What it was those ancient people were willing to discard and throw away. Such finds reveal to us what our ancestors considered worthless. The more affluent the ancient society, the more intricate the garbage. Those who barely subsisted threw little away, but those who could afford to build ever bigger barns to house all of their things thought little about throwing away a barely cracked pot or slightly scarred jewelry. If something was scratched or broken—if it was marred in any way—it was tossed aside in favor of something new.
We can ask: What do the things we throw away say about us? I would offer that, often, what we throw away is an indication of our deepest values, or lack thereof. And sometimes the broken objects we throw onto the trash heap are symbolic of the other things we experience as broken in our lives.
The most disturbing movie I’ve seen in the past several years is a British-French Indie film titled “The Broken.” The film kicks-off with a family—father, grown children, the kids’ significant others—sitting around a dinner table having a conversation. In the middle of dinner, the large mirror above the sideboard spontaneously shatters. It is broken into ragged shards that crash to the ground, and its brokenness symbolizes something ominous. The family members freeze in shock for a few moments before breaking into nervous laughter wondering at what could have caused the seemingly perfect mirror to break.
It turns out the movie is one of doppelgangers. Somehow, the broken mirror releases into the world the double of each family member, and the doppelgangers embody the worst, broken qualities of the people they mimic. By the film’s end, the doppelgangers have disposed of and replaced all the original family members. The characters are thus, indeed, forever broken. In fact, they are now defined by their brokenness.
That is the very diagnosis of the human condition found in Holy Scripture. Since the proverbial fall “in the beginning,” we are defined by our brokenness. We still love, but our love quickly twists into a desire to possess or control the other. We still recognize beauty in the physical world, but we cheapen it so that our most prevalent images are things like the hyper-sexualized photos of an Abercrombie and Fitch advertisement. We say we want to save the environment, eradicate poverty, and further the good, but we throw away the old and replace it with the new so fast that our accumulations force us, as the Gospel relates today, to tear down the old warehouses and barns and build bigger ones. St. Paul is the best at rattling off the laundry list of failings that underlie virtually every action. Today in the Letter to the Colossians he says we are marked by “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, greed, anger, slander, malice and abusive language from our mouths.”
We are broken. And what have we already said we do with broken things? We throw them away, and we treat ourselves little differently than we do the scuffed and outdated stuff of our lives. Poet and essayist Lelanda Lee says, “How quickly Western culture discards the broken—broken objects, broken people, and broken relationships.”
Existentially speaking, we even throw ourselves on the trash heap. As, in our own eyes, our physical beauty fades, or our virtue fails us, or our ability falls short—as our lives skirt with feelings of emptiness—we discard our own sense of self-worth and give way to loathing. Too often, too many of us begin to think of ourselves as little better than refuse. Indeed, I think that’s what’s behind the actions of the rich man in Jesus’ parable today. Many of us, like him, keep on throwing away the old stuff and accumulating the new—building ever bigger houses, buying ever better cars, constructing ever greater barns—to draw our attention away from how disposable, deep down, we have concluded that we are, to keep us from acknowledging our self-loathing.
There are cultures that traditionally have not been so quick to throw things away. In Japan, there is an ancient practice, that somewhere along the way turned into an art, called kintsugi. Kintsugi means, literally, “golden joinery.” When pottery is cracked, even sometimes with fissures as wide as your finger, it is not discarded. With an amalgam mixed with powdered gold, the crack is filled. The amalgam hardens with a density even stronger than the surrounding pottery, and the gold that fills the crack shimmers and shines.[ii]
There’s no doubt the pottery is damaged. The outlines of the breaks remain for all to see. And yet, the cracks are filled with gold. Lelanda Lee says, “As an art form, kintsugi points to [the value] of something that has been broken and is made whole again in a new identity.”
I can’t imagine a better articulation of the Gospel! Yes, we’re broken. We scarcely need Holy Scripture to tell us that. But Paul—and Jesus—only make mention of our brokenness as prelude to the Good News. Our cracks, our fissures, our past failings and disappointments will not go away. There are no mulligans in life, and consequences are real. (Remember, the wounds on Jesus’ own hands and feet still remained even after the Resurrection.) But the breaks in us that once served as centers of hurt and pain, the love of God-in-Christ can fill as if with gold.
Paul says to the Colossians today, “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory…[You are clothed] with the new self, which is being renewed according to the image of the creator.”
Paul might as well say to us, “Those cracks of yours that you used to believe defined you, that you thought rendered you worthless? Now they’re filled with gold.” And the love of God that serves as the amalgam of the soul that pieces back together the shards of our lives is stronger than the pieces themselves. God turns what were our weaknesses into the strongest parts of us. Anyone who has had suffering redeemed and then used his own experience to assist someone else in a similar situation knows this to be true.
That gives us courage not to throw away our sense of self-worth but to acknowledge that, ribboned with gold, we are invaluable. We can then quit building those ever-bigger barns and hiding behind them to mask our self-loathing. We can then strip away and discard the things we ought to be rid of, the things Paul lists that cause the cracks in the first place: our undue anger, malice, greed, abusive language. We can rethink the ways we have sometimes tossed aside the other broken people and broken relationships in our world and instead choose to see them as worth preserving, honoring, and renewing. And we can look back at our fissures and cracks, not only as evidence of our hurt and disappointment, but also as the locations of our redemption, where God has begun to renew us in his very image, where God has mended the pieces back together with nothing less than gold.
[ii] “Mending our brokenness” in Lelanda Lee’s blog, What a cup of tea (whatacupoftea.blogspot.com), June 18, 2012.