The World is Broken
Each month at the hospital we take one of CURE International’s values and spend time thinking about it and trying to tease out what it means during our morning devotions. In the month of October we looked at CURE’s fourth value, which is Restoring the Broken, and as a result we have spent the past month thinking about the idea of brokenness, which has been a very interesting exercise. I also read a blog post on brokenness written by a friend on the Paxology Peace Heroes Curriculum blog – highly recommended. So it has been on my mind a lot recently, and I learned a lot from what everyone had to share.
The world is broken. That, at least, is pretty much beyond dispute. We might never agree on what causes the brokenness in the world, or what the solution is, but the fact that it is broken is pretty evident to anyone who is paying attention. There are examples of brokenness no matter where you look: sickness, hunger, poverty, racism and hate, violence, terrorism and war. Here in Niger we have seen some tragic displays of brokenness over the past few weeks. First there was a terrorist attack earlier in the month which left a number of American and Nigerien military personnel killed (and has been the source of political tension and turmoil in the United States). Then, last weekend there was another attack in the town of Ayarou on the border with Mali, and 13 Nigerien gendarmes were killed, including a close family member of one of our nurses.
Brokenness is everywhere, and we see it whenever a child comes to our hospital with a cleft lip or a clubfoot, or some other condition that prevents them from doing what they want to do or being what they want to be. We see brokenness whenever we look at something and think, “That is not right.” Somehow, something inside of us can tell when something is not right or when something is off. It feels wrong, even if we don’t exactly know why. We may not be able to put our finger on it, but we get the definite sensation that things are not the way they are supposed to be.
I don’t think that is a coincidence. In my opinion, this disjointed feeling that we experience is due to the fact that things are not the way they are supposed to be. In the first chapter of Genesis, we see that God created the world, and after every thing that was created, God said, “It is good.” The world was good because it was created the way God intended for it to be created – it was, even if only for a short time, the way it was supposed to be. But then everything changed. Sin came into the world, and with it came deceit, shame, guilt and ultimately death. Brokenness came into the world and we have been living in a broken world ever since.
The work of the Kingdom of God is the work of addressing this brokenness. In Judaism, there is a concept called Tikkun Olam, which means fixing or repairing the world. This is an ambitious project of course, but when the brokenness is global in scale, the restoration must be equally far-reaching. However, it can be very daunting to look out on all the brokenness and to consider all of the healing that needs to take place. Where do we even start? This can easily lead to discouragement as well, and we might easily ask the question, “What difference can I make? After all, I am only one person.” From there, it is an easy step into complacency, when we choose to do nothing since we can’t do everything.
I understand this thinking, and I recognize it all too often in myself, especially living here in Niger. With so many needs all around, pressing in on you from every side, it is easy to say, “Where do I even start.”
First, I need to start with myself. We learned this month that in order to help restore others, we must first be restored ourselves. We have to first address the brokenness in our own lives before we move out towards others. We have to take care of ourselves. We also have to take care of our families, and eventually our communities as well. We are restored to restore others. This makes me think of a cup that is cracked. It cannot hold water and anything poured into it will just leak out and the cup will be just as empty as before. This is a cup that is useless. However, if the cup has been repaired and restored, you can pour into it and even fill it up. This is a cup that is useful. In Psalms 23, we see a cup used as an image of God’s blessings being poured into our lives – our cup, cracked but restored is filled and even overflowing. Then the blessings poured into us will spill over and splash on those around us in our families and communities. When we are restored, blessings can flow from God to us and through us. This is always the direction of the flow; start in Jerusalem, then move on to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the broken earth. The blessings must emanate from me, but in order to restore others we must first be restored ourselves.
To repair the whole world is a task that is too big for us (in Niger we would say, “Ça me dépasse”). Thankfully, it is not our task – only god can restore the whole world. But we have to do our part, and that entails taking care of ourselves and those around us. If we start with that, we will already be on the right path.
Physical and Spiritual Brokenness
Usually, we think of Ezra and Nehemiah as two separate books, but that was not always the case. Origen (A.D. 185-253) was the first writer known to have distinguished between the two books (he called them I Ezra and II Ezra). In all of the earliest manuscripts Ezra and Nehemiah were two parts of one book, which makes sense because they are actually telling two parts of the same story. Though separate they were a part of the same project, which was a project of restoration.
The people of Israel had suffered through defeat, destruction, exile and slavery. They were broken both physically and spiritually; for not only were they bound in chains and not only were their homes and cities destroyed, but their Temple was also left in ruins. The Temple that represented the very presence of God on earth was no more. There is no more potent symbol for being totally and completely abandoned by God than seeing Jerusalem reduced to “a heap of ruins, a haunt of jackals” (Jer. 9:11).
Eventually though, the people of Israel were able to return and to rebuild – first with Ezra and then with Nehemiah. They had separate tasks – Ezra set about rebuilding the Temple and Nehemiah began rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but in truth they were addressing two aspects of the same problem: the problem of brokenness. It was clear that there were physical and spiritual dimensions to the brokenness, and therefore both the walls and the Temple were needed. A Temple without walls would have been impractical just as walls without a Temple would have been hallow and meaningless. Both had been broken and both needed to be restored.
This is also the mission of CURE International, which seeks to bring physical and spiritual healing to the brokenness around us. The physical healing is usually the most obvious, after all we have a hospital, and we have the privilege of seeing daily miracles when children walk for the first time, or have a smile repaired. On this level, the broken is literally restored as hand and feet, arms and legs are set and reset and made whole. Although it may not always be as visible, the spiritual aspect of healing is just as present, just as important and just a miraculous. It is true that bones which were broken are restored, but we also see broken lives, broken families and broken communities restored and made whole.
It is also interesting to note the many similarities between the physical and spiritual aspects of healing. Here are just a few quick examples:
Twisted – We often see patients that come to the hospital with an arm or a leg that is completely twisted or bent (in the wrong direction). Often these patients had a standard fracture, which was either untreated or treated by a traditional healer that did not know what he was doing. Sometimes bones are reset, but set wrong. The wound heals, but it heals wrong, and often the appendage is left twisted and useless. In these cases, there is only one solution – you have to re-brake the bone in order to set it right. Spiritually, something similar can happen if we do not deal appropriately with the emotional trauma that life deals us. The world is a broken place, and you cannot go through life without experiencing some of that brokenness. Often we avoid dealing with it because it can be painful – as painful as having a bone reset. But unless we do confront this pain in our lives, we will never be healed. The open wound may go away with time, but we will still have something twisted on the inside. We have to deal with it, and the sooner the better. Great practical advice: “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Eph. 4:26).
Immobilize – With a lot of the orthopedic cases that we treat, one of the best weapons in the surgeon’s arsenal is simply time. The surgery involves a lot of cutting, sawing, chipping and chiseling away. It is pretty destructive, but it has to be, and sometimes almost everything has to be rearranged. This is necessary, but this isn’t actually healing. The real healing happens with time. The surgeons do what they can to put things in the right place, but then they have to wait for God to do the rest. That is why casts are often used. It helps hold everything in place and allows for time to heal. The human body is amazing – if it is kept clean and immobilized, the wounds heal, the bones grow back together and restoration occurs. God prescribed the same treatment for a broken heart in Isaiah’s beautiful prophecy in chapter 61, “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted”. When your world has been shattered, nothing can bind you up like the embrace of a friend. Sometimes that is all we need; someone to come alongside us, hold us in an embrace and tell us that they are with us. In Niger anytime anything bad happens, people say, “On est ensemble,” which means, we are together. They might not have any solutions to offer, and often have nothing to offer at all except their presence, their solidarity and their understanding.
Called to Brokenness
We should never glorify suffering, and it is only natural to try to avoid it. But it is of course, unavoidable. We all experience suffering, we are all broken and we are all in need of restoration. I read a book recently called Don’t Waste Your Sorrows by Paul Billheimer, and it discussed some of the uses of suffering. I didn’t agree with everything the book had to say, but there were some very interesting ideas, and it argues that if we are open to learning and growing from our suffering, then it is not wasted.
In the book the image of the vine is used in this context, based on when Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2). This is why the vine is cut back, so that it can grow back even more. That is why we prune and trim. The branch has to be broken and has to face the knife in order to grow. There is no healing and no growth without pain.
Billheimer also quotes Annie Johnson Flint’s (awesome) poem, Much Fruit:
It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life;
Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.
O thou, whose life of joy seems reft
Of beauty – shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,
Rejoice! Tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine
That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.
It is true that being broken can be of use, but there is more. For anyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus, being broken is a calling. Jesus made this very clear when he said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). This could not be any more explicit. The cross has become a symbol of the Church and it is worn on necklaces and on t-shirts, but how often is it really taken up? It is easy to forget what the cross stands for. The cross is suffering. The cross is death. The cross is brokenness.
If you are to follow Jesus you are called to brokenness. However, you are also called to restoration. The purpose of the brokenness is to be restored. God told Jeremiah to go to the potter’s house and to watch the potter work. The potter worked the clay on the wheel and made it up into a vessel, but sometimes the vessel did not turn out right, and it had to be smashed back down into mush. But when it is smashed down, it is only so that it can be built back up, better and stronger than before. The message was clear – we are the clay in God’s hands. He wants to make us into a vessel that is useful for this purpose; a vessel that is useful for the Kingdom of God. We are formed and shaped and smashed down and brought back up. We are the cup that was cracked and restored, and out of which pours God’s blessings.
We are restored in order to restore others, but it is a painful process. To take on the brokenness of the world, we must be willing to face brokenness in our own lives. This is what Jesus did when he took the bread and said, “This is my body, broken for you.”
Though we may be broken, we will never be alone, for God is with us even when we are broken. “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” (Ps. 34:18)
 Billheimer, Paul E., Don’t Waste Your Sorrows, A Study in Sainthood and Suffering (Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1977), p. 49.