The Broken Vessel
October 11, 2009 – Access Sunday
The Rev. Diana Coberly
I remember, at age 5 as I began first grade in a one room school house, making the decision that no one would ever think of me as handicapped – including, myself. And, for the next 35 years, I did just that. In the mid 1970’s, I became involved in the First White House Conference on the Handicapped, held in Washington, DC, but I still didn’t acknowledge my own disability – the work was for others! But, by the mid 1980’s, after struggling for a few years with post-polio syndrome, I had to accept the fact that I myself am disabled. So, for the decade or so, I worked personally, professionally, and spiritually on issues of disability and accessibility – focusing on how my and other‘s lives were impacted by attitudes of the able-bodied population.
Then, in 1995, I made the decision to go to seminary. I arrived at the Pacific School of Religion in January, 1996 with the intention of not talking about or thinking about disability issue, of not taking an activist role in accessibility issues, of just putting all of those concerns, including my personal pain and frustration, on the “back burner.” I had no intention of revealing the woundedness I carried as a result of growing up with a disability. I don’t mean that I intended to hide the fact that I have a disability or even that I wouldn’t share some of myself out of the experience. What I mean is that I intended to keep the physical and emotional scars of my life as a person with a disability, covered. Only the intact parts of me – the shiny, whole, unblemished, unscratched parts – would be revealed. Now that sounds rather silly – and, ignorant – anyone with just the smallest amount of knowledge about psychology knows that it is nearly impossible to reveal just certain parts of oneself. But, don’t we try to do just that? And, why? What does each of us really believe about exposing the brokenness of our lives?
I clearly remember how the news commentators discussed Jacquelyn Kennedy’s composure throughout those first days and weeks after her husband, John Kennedy, was assassinated: she held her head high and never shed a tear – a model to be emulated by all Americans experiencing a personal tragedy. As a teenager who had very successfully covered my own brokenness, I remember feeling despair about society’s expectations of people in pain.
You’ve heard these statements, or similar ones: “Keep a stiff upper lip, “Big boys and girls don’t cry,” “Well, now that you have gotten that off your chest, do you have anything positive to say?,” It takes more muscles to frown than to smile,” “Just grin and bear it.” One of the more painful ones to me comes out of Alcoholic Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous – a program for folks who have covered their feelings, often for years – with alcohol or drugs. The saying is, “Get off the pity-pot.”
We are a society scared to cry out in our woundedness and brokenness. We are a society scared to reveal the scars of our woundedness and brokenness. Throughout most of my life, I was scared to let others see my brokenness, but today I want to tell you that I KNOW – I BELIEVE – what the Psalmist in Psalm 31 knows and believes. That is, that God listens, holds, and loves us through our pain and suffering. That, in fact, it is through our pain and suffering – our brokenness – that we truly come to know and trust God.
The psalmist expresses gut-wrenching pain and despair in verses 9-13 – a kind of pain and despair most of you can relate to, I am sure. Listen again, to part of this text: (read vv9-12).
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My eye wastes away from grief, my soul and body also.
For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing;
My strength fails because of my misery,
And my bones waste away.
I am the scorn of all my adversaries, a horror to my neighbors,
An object of dread to my acquaintances;
Those who see me in the street flee from me.
I have passed out of mind like one who is dead;
I have become like a broken vessel.
The speaker relates being like a broken vessel, to death. A life passed out of memory, cast aside like the shattered pieces of a broken pt; unwanted, useless, fit only for the waste basket.
Again, I ask: what do each of us really believe about our lives, with all its brokenness? I am reminded of how the value of a precious piece of art – a vase, a figure, a bowl – is so greatly decreased the instant it is cracked or chipped, or broken. Is this how we see ourselves – AND, how we see others who are broken, chipped, or flawed? Is this why we turn away from someone with facial disfigurements, or someone being carried, someone with spasticity, someone who is depressed?
I am told that when glass blowers blow a piece of glass and it turns out to be perfect, it is broken. The glass blower does not want the item to appear as though it was machine-made – the value of the piece is in its imperfection!!
Psalm 31 tells us that God listens to us, hears us, holds us and redeems us in our imperfection. The psalmist tells us how that happens: by placing one’s extreme confidence and trust in God. I said earlier that I know and believe this to be true.
One night, as I lay in a bed in a hospital in Albuquerque, NM following the third surgery on my ankle, I felt as though I could not survive one more moment of physical, as well as, emotional pain. (I was recently divorced and had been diagnosed with post-polio syndrome.) The nurse had come and gone in preparing me for bed and as I thought about falling asleep to wake up to another day, I cried out in total despair to God: “Please, Help Me!” I suddenly felt myself being lifted gently off the bed, easing the pressure on my body and having arms wrapped around me. The pain and despair melted away and I fell sound asleep.
And, I have experienced God’s saving grace in other situations of despair as well. I was having some serious financial difficulties at one point in my life and was so filled with fear and self-loathing, I could hardly breathe. I was trembling so, I could barely hold on the steering wheel of my car. As I came to a stop at a three-way stop, I once again cried out to God to rescue me. As I began to pull away from the stop sign, I felt an incredible sense of peace spread through my body.
There is no way I cannot believe!!!! That through the times I have felt most broken and have totally surrendered by need to control, I have come face to face with the redemptive power of God. The brokenness we hold in our hearts gives us value beyond measure.
So, today, I want to say to you: embrace the brokenness in your heart; walk through that fear of exposing it and feel God’s embrace as you, in your woundedness and brokenness, come face to face with your value as an imperfect human being. Amen.