You don’t have to look far to realize that we live in a broken world. The earth itself is wounded; plants and animals are suffering as their habitats are changed or destroyed. Nations are in uproar as different factions fight for control. Families struggle to maintain peace in the midst of differing personalities and opinions. Individuals try to put on the mask of happiness but are troubled by inward pain. Our brokenness is manifest in different ways out of our unique experiences, but there’s no doubt that it’s there. As human beings—created in and for relationship—we often feel most broken with respect to our sexuality, since it is so closely connected to our need to be touched, loved, and held close (Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved, 90). The fact that the church has stigmatized sexual intimacy for so many centuries only adds confusion to the natural longing for relationship. We have broken hearts. In so many forms, suffering is all around us. And it’s no less present inside ourselves.
We’re living in what Parker Palmer, in his article called “The Broken-Open Heart,” calls the Tragic Gap. This is the gap between what is and what should be, and it’s inescapable. Suffering should not be, but it is. We’re living in what New Testament scholars sometimes call the already-and-not-yet, the time in which God’s reign on earth has arrived but has yet to be fully realized.
But in the midst of this in-between time, this Tragic Gap, God sees the suffering of this broken world. As the Hebrew Bible tells us, God has heard the groans of pain (Exodus 2:7). God knows our grief and suffering. In fact, God knows it intimately. In Christ, God-in-human-form, God experienced affliction firsthand as the authorities persecuted, tortured, and killed Jesus. Palmer writes, “It was on the cross that God’s heart was broken for the sake of humankind” (6). But God’s broken heart is not a passive thing. In suffering with us, and for us, God is also doing something new: transformation.
God—who is creator, redeemer, and sustainer (and more) all at once—can recreate pain into good. The resurrection of Jesus Christ shows us God’s victory over death. Out of death comes life, despite everything that looks like evidence to the contrary. And not only did life overcome death in the case of Jesus Christ, but it continues to happen daily. God’s power to recreate death into life and pain into good is why our own broken hearts matter.
Because to live with a broken heart is to live in the tension of the already-and-not-yet. Our own experiences of pain and grief break our hearts open. Of course, a broken heart often results in constant inner pain and seeks vengeance. However, that is not the only possibility. Palmer beautifully describes how a broken heart can be a means of transformation:
Imagine that small, clenched fist of a heart ‘broken open’ into largeness of life, into greater capacity to hold one’s own and the world’s pain and joy…. We know that heartbreak can become a source of compassion and grace because we have seen it happen with our own eyes as people enlarge their capacity for empathy and their ability to attend to the suffering of others (6).
Our natural instincts of fight-or-flight lead us to try to avoid tension at all costs, but what we must do instead is live in the tension. The problems, the suffering, and the pain in the world are not good—but they can’t be fixed instantly. The brokenness of our world is too multilayered, too deep, and too complex for a quick and simple solution. And yet, in the midst of this broken world, God brings forth hope out of our very own brokenness.
When our hearts are opened, we can finally receive the boundless love God has been pouring upon us since before we were born. We can begin to recognize that God calls each one of us “Beloved” not only in spite of, but because of, exactly who we are—warts and all (Nouwen, 98). Our broken-open hearts empower us to minister in the tension with the patience and hope of knowing God’s reign is on its way.
But how do we minister? What can we do? We may have hope… we may have compassion… but where do we start, if the brokenness is everywhere?
For a start, let’s remember two things: 1) God is everywhere, too, and 2) where there is brokenness, there is the possibility for transformation. As we’ve already discussed, our own broken hearts can be transformed into hearts of compassionate ministry. Likewise, other places of brokenness can become places of joy and hope.
A couple months ago, I had the amazing experience of visiting Cass Community Social Services is downtown Detroit. An outsider might look upon Detroit, especially the neighborhood surrounding Cass, as hopeless: it’s full of abandoned lots and decrepit buildings, and the few people who do live there are in poverty. The clients served by Cass Community Social Services have a whole range of issues and experiences—homelessness, addiction, mental illness, developmental disability, abuse, and the list goes on. They’ve had more than their fair share of pain and suffering. But apart from the lines on their faces, you’d have no idea when you meet them. They truly exude joy. The resources of Cass have empowered these individuals to get off the streets, overcome addictions, learn new skills, and in many cases become marketable employees. Out of their brokenness they have emerged in wholeness, content in who they are, and knowing that they are beloved by God as well as by the Cass community. And, because God’s transformative power doesn’t stop after just one transformation, these people’s transformed lives go on to impact others. Their joy is contagious, and it motivates them to spread the word of hope for others whose lives need transformation.
In my mind, this is what the church should be. As disciples of Jesus Christ, our mission is to preach good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberty to those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18). And not only to preach it, but to live it. Jesus himself was born on the margin, a sign of God’s solidarity with the oppressed, and his earthly ministry focused on people in the margins of society: women, children, the poor, the sick, the unclean, the foreigner, and the sinner (see Yvette Flunder, Where the Edge Gathers, 2).
The broken places of the world call out for healing. People on the margins live in those broken places, unable to see the light of hope. The church must reach out, as the body of Christ, to those people and places to bring light into the darkness of their suffering. I want to be clear that the church is not itself Christ; we are not the Savior. But we can participate in the work that the Holy Spirit has already started doing, reaching out with a healing touch to all who are in need of healing, and empowering transformation.
Being the body of Christ means a few different things. It means that we aren’t self-directed, but we follow the lead of our “head,” Christ. It means that we have many different parts who have different roles—hands, feet, mouth, ears, eyes, etc. It means that if we lose one part, we’re no longer the body. It means that pain in one part affects the rest of the body. As important as it is for us to reach out to the broken places of the world, we must not neglect the brokenness in our own body. We must take care of the whole body of Christ—every single member. As Yvette Flunder puts it in one of her sermons, “I must bear with you and you must bear with me. We can’t give up on one another, for we are all the body of Christ and we can wait for each other” (120).
When we are truly living into our role as the body of Christ, we are united in purpose: to love. To love God. To love one another. To love our neighbor. And even to love our enemy. God’s love calls us and compels us to participate in God’s work of transforming the world through love.
It’s no secret that the church has a long history of succumbing to the status quo and perpetuating oppression, showing it is just as broken as everything else in the world. But being broken doesn’t mean it’s hopeless or that it can’t also bring about good. In the past two centuries, the church has managed to shine the light of God on a broken society by standing up for justice in the face of oppressions such as slavery, sexism, and apartheid (Flunder, 21). God is able to work powerfully through terribly broken institutions to resurrect life out of situations pervaded by death.
You and I, too, are broken. But we can still do ministry. We can still work for the transformation of the world. God’s reign is already on its way, and we can be part of its coming. We can both witness to and participate in the transformative healing that it entails. God is working before us, beside us, and within us to transform brokenness into new life.
Personally, the particular marginalized group I feel called to minister to is the immigrant/refugee community. I hope and pray that my future ESL teaching will be able to impact children’s (and their families’) lives for the better. I also feel called to leadership in the church, helping others to find their own calls. The thing is that in the body of Christ, there are so many different kinds of members… we each have our unique role to play. Our particular skills, interests, and passions lead us to work for transformative healing in different ways and for different communities. Our own unique experiences of brokenness are part of who we are and what motivates us. The transformation of bringing forth God’s reign would not happen if it weren’t for the widely varied gifts that we all have been given. The God who created us continues to recreate our experiences of brokenness into opportunities for hope and healing, and the same God has called every one of us to spread that transformation in our own unique way.