In a different praise band, in another church, many, many years ago, in the New Jersey galaxy, far, far away, we used to sing a song called “Take My Life” (Scott Underwood, © 1995 Mercy / Vineyard Publishing, CCLI Song #1617154). The lyric is very simple.
The verses go,
Holiness, holiness is what I long for.
Holiness is what I need.
Holiness, holiness is what you want from me.
Then the chorus is prayer-like,
Take my heart and form it;
take my mind transform it;
take my will conform it
to yours, to yours, oh Lord.
Other verses are sung by substituting different words in place of “holiness.” In verse 2 we sing “faithfulness is what I long for.” Then in verse 3 “righteousness is what I need.” For the final verse we would sing,
Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for.
Brokenness it what I need.
Brokenness, brokenness is what you want from me.
Each of the first four or five times we played “Take My Life,” someone would approach me after worship to ask about that last verse. “Why are we singing about longing for brokenness?,” they would ask. “Why would a song say brokenness is what God wants from us?” Good questions, right?
Jesus went around fixing things, not breaking them. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, had compassion for the poor, and called us to do the same. Jesus walked the earth making life better. And we’ve heard from countless sermons and books that Jesus is supposed to make our lives better. Why would we sing about brokenness as if it is God’s will for us? It isn’t, is it?
Silver Linings Playbook
This summer I rented Silver Linings Playbook because it had been nominated for a bunch of Academy Awards, and was one of those “film festival” movies I like so much. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about it and there it was in Redbox for $1, so I grabbed it. I was surprised by how moved I was by this film.
Warning: This is an R-rated movie, with adult language and adult themes. So don’t gather the kids around and pop this into the Blu-ray player this afternoon.
The story centers around Bradley Cooper’s character Pat. Pat has just returned home from a psychiatric hospital, having been signed out by his mom as soon as he reached the minimum recommended time of treatment for the breakdown he had caused by the stress of his marriage falling apart.
In the clip I’m about to show you, Pat goes to his friend Ronnie’s house to reconnect over dinner with him and his wife Veronica. Ronnie and Veronica have something else in mind. They have also invited Veronica’s sister Tiffany to dinner, in hopes of fixing them up. Tiffany, played by Jennifer Lawrence, has experienced a psychological break of her own due to the tragic death of her husband.
This clip is of the dinner when Pat and Tiffany meet. This is intended to be funny so it’s OK to laugh.
Ronnie tries to impress Tiffany by talking about Pat’s remarkable knowledge of US presidents (you’ll have to ask Pastor Bob if the OK thing is historically accurate. I have no idea.). Nothing. Veronica tries next, “bragging about her little sister.” Crickets. Then Tiffany blurts out to Pat, “What meds are you on?,” and a very natural conversation ensues. Tiffany and Pat do not connect over things for which they would be proud, but instead through their brokenness. As their lives unfold through the rest of the film, we watch their connected brokenness bring healing to each of them.
Many good stories share this theme. Broken people coming together in their brokenness and finding strength and healing from one another. Why are these themes so prevalent in really good stories? Probably because they ring so true for us.
In my final year of seminary I was appointed to two small churches along the Jersey Shore: the West Creek and Warren Grove United Methodist Churches. West Creek was the bigger of the two, boasting about 100 members, and about 70 in worship each Sunday. It’s heyday had long since passed. The large parking lot and fellowship hall, sat empty most days, including Sundays. But one night each week, the cars would fill the lot and the hallways would be buzzing. It was exciting. Friends would call from time to time telling me how they had driven by the church and seen the activity. They wanted to know about the successful ministry program we were running. My response was always the same, “Oh, you must have driven by the night of the AA meeting.”
The biggest ministry of West Creek United Methodist Church in those days, was hosting one of the largest Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in the area. Their average attendance rivaled our Sunday morning worship numbers, and I’m pretty sure their Halloween Party outdrew our Christmas Eve services. This was a big ministry, for which all I did was unlock the door.
But I was drawn to our building on those nights – sometimes in my office working late, sometimes wandering the halls, sometimes tinkering with whatever needed to be fixed or cleaned. Any excuse was a good excuse because I sensed something profound was happening there and I wanted to be near it. People were being helped and healed, everything I wanted for my congregation.
Maybe it was because one of my professors, Bryant Kirkland, had told me believed when the church wasn’t looking AA stole our best stuff. Maybe it was because I knew Jesus was drawn to people battling demons. Maybe it was because I knew my grandfather had been an alcoholic, the neighbor across from my childhood home had been a heroin addict, and I had noticed some addictive personality traits in me. More than likely though, it was simply the prompting of the Holy Spirit putting me where I needed to be. Whatever the reason, I was there. Soon I was being introduced to some of the regulars, doing informal counseling and performing weddings for people who had never come in the front door of the church before their wedding day, but knew the Fellowship Hall very well. I was happy to do it.
Imagine my surprise then, when more than 20 years later, I read in a book by controversial author, pastor, speaker, and theologian Rob Bell titled What We Talk About When We Talk About God, that he too had an experience with AA early in his ministry. New to ministry at the age of 25 (me too), Bell was approached one day after as sermon by a man named George. George told Bell he needed to go to an AA meeting with him. Bell muttered something to George about not being an alcoholic, but George said “it didn’t matter, everything I needed to know about being a pastor I would learn if I went” (Bell 137).
After some coaching, Bell went with George and the meeting had a profound impact on him. He says he began to realize and be drawn to the ability of these people to be open, honest, and vulnerable as they talked about their struggles. It was very different than any other gathering of which he had been a part. Bell describes his epiphany with these words:
As I sat there, it was as if I could see, really see, for the very first time, just how much time and energy and effort we expend making sure that everybody knows how strong, smart, quick, competent, capable, together, and good we are. (Bell 138f).
AA doesn’t work because people are taught how strong and powerful and good they are. Quite the opposite. The first of the 12 steps to recovery is to admit powerlessness over alcohol, and that life is out of control. Members of AA, NA, and other 12-step groups choose to identify with their brokenness. For example, when introducing themselves at a meeting they say something like, “Hi, I’m George, and I’m an alcoholic.” Or, “I’m Sally and I’m an addict.” Even after years of sobriety, an AA member will never say, “I used to be an alcoholic,” or “I’m glad I’m not an addict any more.” Instead, at the meetings, they continue to identify themselves with their brokenness. Reclaiming it every time they come together.
Counter to every way we typically try to overcome any other problem, healing occurs through this acceptance of brokenness. Alcoholics Anonymous and movies like Silver Linings Playbook illustrate an equation we may have lost in the 21st century church:
Brokenness + Brokenness = Healing
I’ve seen it happen. Parents struggling with kids who are making bad decisions meet up with other parents who are struggling or have struggled similarly, and find new strength because of their shared difficulties. People wrecked by divorce seldom find healing from one who has been in a happy marriage for years, but rather from another wrecked by divorce.
But all too often, especially when we come through the doors to the church, we expend a lot of time, energy, and effort into hiding our brokenness. We plaster on a smile before entering the room. We are comfortable in Bible study sharing our knowledge, religious experience, or bumper sticker theology, all to give the impression we have it all together. Then, when the meeting is over, we go home alone, just as broken as we were before we went. We suffer in silence with our hurts, our fears, our grief, our guilt, and whatever else we have pushed down so others will think we belong.
The problem is that while we are trying to keep our problems at arms length, we are also creating space between ourselves and others, including God whom we keep at a safe distance as well. If we truly want to connect with others and God, we need to reclaim our brokenness.
I wonder what the church would be like, if instead of trying to make sure others think we’re saints, we came to church and were able to say, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a sinner. I’ve struggled this week with fear and worry. I’m sad about some things in my life and scared about others. I’m struggling with anger issues and doubts. Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m furious with God, and I’ve been short with my family. I didn’t work up to my potential. I have made mistake, after mistake, after mistake. I’m worried about my job. I’m worried about money. I feel like I’m coming apart at the seams. Hi, I’m Joe and I’m a sinner.”
Could more healing occur if we were more willing to be broken? If we were more willing to be humble?
Pharisee & Tax Collector
Which brings me to our scripture lesson for this morning. Were you wondering if we would ever get there? Jesus tells a story he sets up in such a way his audience will immediately identify a good guy and a bad guy.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray,” he begins (Luke 18:10). The temple was a very special place for the Hebrew people. It is where they believed heaven and earth met. It was the nearest one could get to the realm of God on this earth. One of the men, Jesus tells us, is a Pharisee – a religious leader who belonged in the Temple. He’s a good guy. The other is a tax collector – a traitor who has turned his back on his own people to make a good living for himself by working for the occupying Roman government. Just the mention of his job labeled him a “sinner,” bad guy.
The Pharisee prays a prayer of thanksgiving: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Luke 18:11b-12). See, he does all the right stuff. He’s the good guy! Jesus then describes the prayer of the tax collector, who “standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’” (Luke 18:13). Even he knows he’s the sinner.
Then Jesus concludes the story by saying the tax collector is the one who left the Temple justified. Wait! What? Because some of us have heard the story for years, we are not surprised, but this would have shocked Jesus’ first hearers. That’s not the ending anyone would have expected. Pharisees and other religious people who tithed and fasted were the ones on God’s side. Tax collectors were not. How’d he turn out to be the good guy?
Most of the writing I found while researching this parable, say this is a parable about prayer. I respectfully disagree. The prayers are not the real issue here, but a vehicle revealing the heart of each man. The key to understanding this parable is found in the way Luke introduces it: “[Jesus] also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (Luke 18:9).
This is a parable for those who read it today and pray, “Thank you God, I’m not smug like that Pharisee.” This is a parable for all of us who have ever looked down our noses at the poor, the non-religious, the nominally Christian, those of another faith, the out-and-out sinner, and have seen not a human being but a problem to be solved, or a symptom of all that’s wrong with the world. This is for those of us who are so very proud of our status as children of God, that we begin to see ourselves as better than others. This is for us who are too quick to give a sermon to the person without faith, rather than listen to his/her heart. This is for all of us who have forgotten we are as much in need of the grace and love of God for a spot in his Kingdom, as those whom we recognize as broken and struggling. This is for all of us who have forgotten we too are sinners.
Healing seldom occurs when the broken meet the self-righteous. Instead healing happens when we are willing to be broken.
If we expect to be effective with our new mission statement and objectives, we need to humble ourselves before God and one another. “To build disciples of Jesus Christ who love and serve God and neighbor” we must be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and broken. We must connect with a group of fellow sinners (in a missional community or other group) to be healed and to become agents of healing through reclaiming our brokenness. Tiffany and Pat found healing through being broken together. Alcoholics find freedom in identifying with their brokenness together.
When we do, we embody the work of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the one who chose to be broken for our healing. Every Sunday, as we gather before the cross, the symbol of brokenness, and come to this table where we remember the body of Christ broken, we acknowledge God’s willingness to be broken for us. When we bring our brokenness to his brokenness, we are healed. Brokenness + Brokenness = Healing.
As you come to the table this morning, may you not come as one who thinks they have earned the right to be here, but as one who comes broken, needy, humbled. May you pray with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” And may you return to your seat, go out to lunch this afternoon, and go to work or school tomorrow, as an agent of healing – not because you have it all together, but because you are broken as well.
Let’s stop wasting our time, energy, and effort making sure everybody knows how strong, smart, quick, competent, capable, together, good, and saintly we are. Instead may we be people who claim our brokenness. Amen.
Bell, Rob. What We Talk about When We Talk about God. New York: HarperOne, 2013. Print.
Unless otherwise noted, all quotations of Scripture are from the New Revised Standard Version available online at http://bible.oremus.org.