Broken Vessels – the Mystery of Redemption

Whilst walking the dog, I’ve recently begun to collect those small fragments of broken pottery that are so inexplicably present in gardens, streams in the woods and on beaches. It fascinates me how they ended up there and I like speculating about the unknown history of these small worthless pieces, imagining the larger functional item they were once a part of and the owners who used and perhaps treasured them. I may use the fragments I’ve found as mosaic pieces surrounding a central mirror, giving them a purpose and value once more. As far as I know, and rather disappointingly, there isn’t a Japanese word for this, in the manner of Kintsugi, the Japanese art of putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold which highlights and embraces the flaws and imperfections, creating an even more beautiful piece of art than before it was broken.

The spiritual parallel is not difficult to see in the life and teachings Jesus and in Twelve Step Recovery. The idea that God is interested in broken people and somehow, mysteriously, uses our flaws and imperfections to make something more beautiful and valuable than it was before, lies deep within these ways of living. Our initial surrender and trust in God’s will and purpose for our lives allows this transformational work to take place. Jesus constantly talked about how he had come for the lost, the sick and the lame – the equivalent of those broken, pieces of pottery – transforming us into new people, with fresh meaning and purpose. (His deeply flawed disciples illustrate this perfectly). These flaws in our nature become the marks that make us special, like the knot in a piece of timber which the master craftsman turns into a feature on a table-top or bowl, a thing more beautiful than it would have been without it. It is part of the topsy-turvy world of the Kingdom where loss is really gain, giving is receiving and brokenness becomes redemptive. And redemption is God’s core business with human beings. In one of Susan Howatch’s Starbridge Novels, Harriet a non-believing sculptor explains the mystery of the relationship between the creator and their creation. “No matter how much the mess and distortion make you want to despair, you can’t abandon the work …..it’s absolutely woven into your soul and you know you can never rest until you’ve brought truth out of the distortion and beauty out of all the mess. You love the work and you suffer with it and always – always – you’re slaving away against all the odds to make everything come right”.

A few years ago, some fascinating research from Connecticut showed that after more than five years in recovery within Twelve Step Programmes, people were contributing more to society and the world around them than if they’d not had an addiction in the first place. They were more generous, more grateful, more sacrificial, more willing than the average person or the way they had been prior to their addiction. We see this to be true in the lives of pretty much anybody regularly attending Twelve Step Meetings and working the programme, whether it is the woman alcoholic who only used to leave her house once a day to buy drink at the corner store, forbidden from seeing her grandchildren who has now become a wonderful, caring grandmother working on reception at the local community centre; the heroin addicted artist who produced nothing for years but is now reconciled with their parents and painting stunning and profound pictures, or the crack addict now repairing cars, volunteering on a helpline and supporting his kids.  

Broken vessels made useful and beautiful. It’s both that simple and that profound. We may not always feel like we’re beautiful and useful and we may only see our flaws and failures, but we can each be part of the redemptive, transformational work of God going on all around us. We remain flawed and imperfect, but we are never useless, “because God uses broken people like you and me to reach broken people like you and me.”

Back to Basics – keeping it simple

Going back to basics is a phrase beloved of sports coaches, especially if results aren’t going their way. Essentially they mean that remembering to do the simple foundational things properly is the key to getting the bigger things right. It’s not just true in sport but in many other things in life, including recovery and especially Christianity, where we can so often over-complicate things. We would do well to remember the basics and return to these on a regular basis.

In the teachings of Jesus, nowhere does he spell out the basics more clearly than in his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5, paralleled in what is sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6.  He begins as he means to go on. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”. The Kingdom of Heaven is central to Jesus’s manifesto; the focus of his work was to proclaim the arrival of this kingdom. But his kingdom is not of this world, as he told Pilate at his trial. His teaching on poverty of spirit shows this clearly. The world tells us that it is good to be rich in spirit – to be self-sufficient and not dependant on others, that God is a crutch for those who cannot cope alone, that we are in control of our destiny. But Jesus sees it very differently. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, he says, not the rich in spirit. The poor in spirit are those who recognise their need of God, their inability to do it alone, the mess that we make of our own lives (and other people’s) when we try to be self-sufficient. It is a humble acceptance of who we really are and how much we need God to help begin to make us complete.

Spiritual poverty, is right at the heart of 12 step thinking. It is Step 1. Absolute basics. An admission of powerlessness – over alcohol, drugs, gambling or what addictive behaviour has come to dominate and control our life – and invariably the lives of our family too. The lie that we are still in control is built on pride and dishonesty. The admission of powerlessness blows that notion apart. Spiritual poverty and embracing Steps 1 and 2 is not just an admission of powerlessness but is about humility, honesty and acceptance of our need of a power greater than ourselves to put this right. Jesus makes it abundantly clear that his message was for such as these, the sick who cannot cure themselves, not those who think there is no problem. In truth, his message is not just for the addict but for all of us with our false illusions of control and mastery, since we are all powerless and in need of a higher power to help us manage our lives. Like Step 1, all we need to do is admit how weak, vulnerable and messed up we are without this – the old way of functioning doesn’t work. It is a hard journey and process to recognise this and admit it to ourselves and others, because our default position is always one of self-sufficiency and a belief that we can fix ourselves.

Which is why we always need to keep returning to basics. People working a 12 step programme never come to the end. They keep working through the steps, including revisiting Step 1 long after first coming into recovery. Followers of Jesus also need to go back to the basics and poverty of spirit is an important starting point. However good my glittering image might be, recognising and owning my messed-up self, the one that only I truly know, is important. For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those of us who haven’t got it right – the addict, the sinner. It’s not for the fixed and the sorted. We are blessed because we have nothing but God, our higher power on which we can rely. This is the honesty and humility which helps us to take one day at a time, living in a right way, where we seek to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.

Surrender your own poverty and acknowledge your nothingness to God. Whether you understand it or not, God loves you, is present in you, lives in you, dwells in you, calls you, saves you and offers you an understanding and compassion which are like nothing you have ever found in a book or heard in a sermon. Thomas Merton

How can we embrace poverty as a way to God when everyone around us wants to become rich? Poverty has many forms. We have to ask ourselves: ‘What is my poverty?’ Is it lack of money, lack of emotional stability, lack of a loving partner, lack of security, lack of safety, lack of self-confidence? Each human being has a place of poverty. That’s the place where God wants to dwell! ‘How blessed are the poor,’ Jesus says (Matthew 5:3). This means that our blessing is hidden in our poverty. We are so inclined to cover up our poverty and ignore it that we often miss the opportunity to discover God, who dwells in it. Let’s dare to see our poverty as the land where our treasure is hidden. Henri J.M. Nouwen

The deeper we grow in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the poorer we become – the more we realize that everything in life is a gift. The tenor of our lives becomes one of humble and joyful thanksgiving. Awareness of our poverty and ineptitude causes us to rejoice in the gift of being called out of darkness into wondrous light and translated into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son.  Brennan Manning