Things That Sustain: An Interlude. In Defense of Brokenness
This post is a preamble to our discussion on confession as a Christian practice, soon to come.
Derek Morphew, a South African theologian and friend of our community, was visiting and teaching for the past week. His work which before focused on explaining and demonstrating the kingdom of God has taken on a new focus: Peter as the broken model for discipleship. Listen to one of his talks here.
I was in many of the classes he taught and I was struck by the effect of the message as well as by whom the message affected. Hearing the story of Peter’s self-made removal from the community of Jesus was agonizing and all too real for many of us; in his power mongering we couldn’t help but see our own; in his denial we heard our own voices in the dark. You could visibly see the story breaking people’s hearts.
Then we began to hear about Jesus’ slow and purposeful re-integration of Peter; this is when the shit hit the fan. For it is one thing to see clearly that I often have a different agenda for Jesus and the painful flood that comes from it, but it is another kind of heart-break altogether to see Jesus’ special kind of interaction with Peter. First our eyes were opened, in the story of Peter, to the truth of our brokenness and then, with that deep sense of our own compromise, we heard the story of Jesus; we were undone.
Derek ended his talk by saying that this is the kind of leader that God wants, a broken person restored by Jesus and given the humble office of leader. This statement shouldn’t be confused as saying that the restoration is when we are ‘saved’, or something like that. The story of Peter dictates the tactile and relational interaction that is necessary for this kind of movement. It is not a doctrine but the way that Jesus and his believing community are to lead leaders through their failure to the point where Peter ends and Jesus begins.
But to my defense. it is as simple as this: brokenness makes a person safe in a Christian community where lack of failure (or lack of knowing one’s failure) makes a person an unwise counsellor and an overly harsh confessor.
I want to argue that it is precisely to the extent that brokenness is NOT welcome in our Christian communities that out Christian practices DO NOT sustain. Another simple way to say this is that as long as we are gods, God cannot be. I have often wondered at the apparent distance between the amazing theology about the Eucharist and the disinterested and bored practice of it in some communities; i think the distance can be explained by looking at that community’s poor welcome of brokenness.
So what does it practically mean to welcome brokenness in our various contexts and communities? I think it means hearing the stories of Jesus together. This is why the lectionary is so wonderful, it helps us to face the stories of Jesus, Israel and Church that we would rather not. After we have heard them we need to discern them together with our theologians and metal workers, our pastors and plumbers, for all will bring something crucial that will enable us to see again and again that it is God that must be God and not us. This ‘seeing’ is of course mainly recognizing that our own subverting efforts against God are things which we thought, up until now, were quite orthodox. From this place we enter into the story of Peter, his denial and Jesus’ reconstitution of him.
Besides hearing and discerning, we need to respond communally in both a methodical and contemplative fashion, strategizing and praying together for the strength to be weak in the face of a world whose only idea of power is the dollar or the gun.
But in the midst of this, there is a Christian practice which is tailor made to keep us mindful of our brokenness, and that is confession. There is nothing more practical than having a trusted friend, mentor, pastor, or priest in whom you can find the ears of God. In the same way that the lectionary is a system which helps us to not escape, so confession helps us ‘fess up’ to all we have done and all we have left undone, giving us the gift of physical eyes in our community who know us, at least partially, in all our beauty and brokenness.