“Broken for Each Other”
Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto
September 18, 2016
©Rev. Mary McKinnon Ganz
Reading: “Things to Do in the Belly of the Whale,” by Dan Albergotti
We break things. We drop dishes, shatter glassware, throw baseballs through windows. We spill milk and spill blood. We sever ties. We burst bubbles, bust up marriages, crack eggs, crash cars. We go bankrupt, go off script, go rogue. We slice it and dice it and make hash of the truth. We demolish foes, eradicate pests, rend cloth, snap peas, splinter wood. We torpedo plans and trash dreams. We are human beings: we break things; we can be broken ourselves.
That is the beginning of the sermon, but it is not the end.
We understand brokenness through stories; some of them, our own.
Megan Phelps-Roper is the same age as my daughter, but she grew up in a different world; in Topeka, Kansas, in the bosom of her church, known to the world as Westboro Baptist. This is the church that teaches a God who hates and punishes. These are the people who show up to picket at funerals of first-graders to insist, with their signs, that the innocent have died to pay the price for your sins and mine.
A while back, Megan had a series of epiphanies. It began with a conversation about how Jesus said, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” She began wondering. How could she reconcile that with the signs carried by members of her church, like “God hates (and they use a word I will not use)?” How could she believe in a death penalty for anyone, since that would end the possibility of repentance and redemption? One by one, the doctrines on which she had been raised, began unraveling.
Megan left her church. Well, many of us here have at some time or another left a religious community, haven’t we? When Megan left, her sister, Grace, chose to leave with her, but every other member of their family declared them dead – so the leaving was absolute. They cut themselves loose without a single line of support from the only world they had ever known. They found themselves in the belly of the whale.
I have always loved the Jonah story, and Dan Albergotti’s poem helps me understand why. Have you had times in your own life when you were torn away – or tore yourself away – from everything you had known? Or perhaps when you realized, like Megan, that much of what you thought was good and right was, in ways you hadn’t been able to see, destructive and hurtful?
Nothing much to do in the belly of the whale, but sit. Sit in the dark, your toes pointing down, down toward the depths. Getting down to it, wrestling with your demons — that’s the only way I know back to the light.
In the belly of the whale, it is pointless to blame. What if politicians – say, members of our Congress – were to sit this way, considering their own psyche’s role in the great issues that confront this nation? – instead of casting about for a villain to carry responsibility for all that is wrong.
In the Judeo-Christian tradition from which Unitarian Universalism grew, Jonah in the whale is the image for such times. Hindus have a goddess, Akhilanda, whose very name means “never not broken.” Akhilanda is always pictured standing on a crocodile. What does a crocodile do? It carries its prey out to the middle of the river, and whirls it round and around. That’s what happens to us, in the times we experience ourselves as broken. We are whirled about, disoriented. Doesn’t this happen in every life?
I’ve never met anyone who hasn’t known brokenness. At the same time, we are whole – whole in our very brokenness. Like so much of life, it’s a paradox – truths stretched between two poles, and somewhere, between them, the Holy moves.
One of my oldest friends, Jane Stevens, is a journalist committed to doing good in the world. Because of pain she suffered growing up, she became intensely interested in the way childhood experiences shape our adult psyches and stories. In her research, she learned about a movement to name and catalogue what’s known as “ACE,” “Adverse Childhood Experiences.” Adverse Childhood Experiences include sexual abuse, verbal abuse, alcoholic home, violence, and more – the whole sad range of sorrowful events that can happen in the early life of a small and powerless person. Studies have shown that it’s not any particular kind of bad thing that might happen to you in childhood, but the number of bad things, that makes the difference. And what a difference! Jane’s mission as a reporter is getting out the news that the more of these experiences a person has – the higher their “ACE Score” – the more likely they are to suffer not only from mental or emotional illness, but from physical disease as well. Adverse childhood experiences turn out to be predictive of heart disease, cancer and other chronic illness.
On Jane’s website you can read about a Harvard study, that every dollar invested in early childhood programs returns five to nine dollars in tragedy prevented. And I believe this to be true on the micro level as well. The time Jessalynn spent holding her crying friend – not trying to fix it, allowing her to be – that will return good nine-fold to the world. I believe this. The time any of you spend providing a safe and loving church home for the children of this religious community returns at least nine-fold to the world in ways none of us may ever know. That’s probably another sermon, come to think of it. Today’s sermon is about how hanging out in the belly of the whale – being real about what’s broken, giving up our ideal of the perfect life we were supposed to have – how this can empower us, like Jane, to turn our personal sorrow into good in the world.
I read a lot – not as much as I used to when I was younger, and I read slower now — but still, a lot, and most of what I read, I forget in about a day. But about eight years ago I read a novel by Stephanie Kallos that has stuck with me. It is the story of two broken women, and how the unexpected intersection of their lives creates a locus of healing and beauty.
It’s called, “Broken for You.” One of the women inherited a house full of porcelain treasures that turn out to have been stolen from Jewish citizens who were sent to death camps in Europe. Together, these two women discover that by smashing these beautiful plates and pitchers and statues and cups, new art can be created. To do so, they have to give up a lot. They have to give the hope that the owners of these pieces could ever be traced, and their possessions returned.
And how they wanted to return what was stolen! When something is broken, when a wrong is done, how we want to fix it! And so often, it is not possible. Sometimes, all that can be done is to make a sacrament of the breaking, and create something new.
Of course, we should do what is in our power to work for justice, and to set things right when we can. Yet in our work for justice, in our yearning to set things right, we must be alert for moments when the powerful urge toward goodness is keeping us from seeing what is, keeping us from being with our friends who are crying; ourselves, even, when we are crying.
Here is something I wonder about: Does all beauty come from brokenness? – the brokenness of individuals, the brokenness of the world? I don’t know the answer, but I think about Toni Morrison, and how she created the exquisite novel, “Beloved,” out of the holocaust of American slavery, and then recently created the novel, “God Help the Child,” out of sad and intersecting stories of children who had been hurt by the adults who were supposed to care for them.
I think about the community you have created here at UUCPA, and how the long history of this church, of any church, includes brokenness and healing. How we come to church, so many of us, because some part of us feels broken. How the community heals us, and sometimes breaks us. And how the brokenness we bring can be a gift, from which beauty springs.
“Be happy,” says one of the characters in “Broken For You,” “we’re worth more broken.”
I think about Leonard Cohen, who wrote the anthem of brokenness. It’s called “Anthem,” in fact: “There is a crack, a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” What a line! How did he find it? Here’s what he told his biographer, Sylvie Simmons: “The light … is the capacity to reconcile your experience, your sorrow, with every day that dawns.” He continued, “It is that understanding, which is beyond significance or meaning, that allows you to live a life and embrace the disasters and sorrows and joys that are our common lot. But it’s only with the recognition that there is a crack in everything.”
Rebecca de Mornay, one of his great loves, had another thought about how Leonard got that line. She said it was because he was “brave enough to sit in the suffering, and write from it.”
Brave enough to sit in the belly of the whale. To go into the river with the crocodile.
So much mayhem happens in the world because we try to deny our suffering. Isn’t it so? We try to place it outside ourselves, and blame. But our suffering is our own; it deserves to be seen, valued, embraced. Just as the suffering people among us deserve to be seen. Valued. And embraced. This is how the light gets in.
We are whole to the extent that we can include it all. We are stronger when we make a place for the imperfect inside us, and the weakest among us.
Recently I heard an interview with Xavier Le Pichon, a geophysicist who studied plate tectonics. At one point Le Pichon quit science in order to place himself among people who were suffering. He developed a theory of human community that fragility is at the heart of humanity, and at the core of human community – just as fragility is a characteristic of the Earth that is our home, which sometimes breaks and splits apart in tectonic shifts called earthquakes.
Care for the most vulnerable among us is at the core of our humanity. This is one reason (just one) that the election coming up is so very important not just for the future of this country, but for the future of human community.
I opened with the story of Megan, granddaughter of Fred Phelps, because we rarely get to see the crack in everything — and the light the crack lets in — so clearly as we do in Megan’s journey. She’s been profiled lately in the New Yorker, but I first read about her in a blog by Jeff Chu, who interviewed her for his book, “Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian’s Pilgrimage in Search of God in America.” Megan’s story isn’t finished. Jeff asked her: what do you think God wants you to do now? “I have no idea,” she answered nervously. “I mean, I have almost no idea. I know I want to do good for people. And I want to treat people well. And it’s nice that I can do that now in a way that they see as good too.” She added, “How exactly do you accomplish that? I’m not sure.”
There it is! – the place the light gets in. “I have almost no idea,” Megan said. “I’m not sure.” In that humility is an opening – for possibility, for creativity, for the next new thing that is good.
Sometimes I have almost no idea, too. But I am pretty sure about this: it has something to do with being honest about the crack in everything. And opening my eyes – my eyes and my heart – wide enough to see the light in everyone.
SERMON SOURCES AND INSPIRATIONS
- The songs of Leonard Cohen and the novels of Toni Morrison
- Stephanie Kallos, Broken for You
- Sylvie Simmons, I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
- Jeff Chu, “Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church”
- Julie Peters, “Why Lying Broken in a Pile on your Bedroom Floor is a Good Idea”
- Jane Stevens and others, “Aces Too High”
- Xavier Le Pichon, “The Fragility at the Heart of Humanity”