Strong in the Broken Places

Today, as we observe the Independence Day season, I'd like to offer a brief perspective on the wealth of our great nation and a reminder of the heavy price paid for the freedoms we enjoy.

Two of my favorite authors provide quotations that focus on this paradox of the strength that comes from great sacrifice, tragedy, and pain.  The first is from Maya Angelou:  "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived but, if faced with courage, need not be lived again."  The other comes from Ernest Hemingway:  "Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places."

Strong in the broken places.  That is the subject of my remarks today.  My hope is that it will contain some small bit of encouragement for all of us who have been visited by anxiety and loss, pain, and dread in recent weeks and months.

As we progress through this Fourth of July holiday weekend, we should recall that before the original celebrations of independence came great suffering and self denial.  One hundred and fifty years before the Revolutionary War, the pilgrims at Plymouth (1620) endured brutal winters.  In fact, the history books indicate that 46 of the original 102 colonists--nearly half--perished from the lack of fresh food to eat and the inability to treat resulting diseases.  Imagine the grief and the quiet regret many felt at having made the decision to journey across a wide ocean to the untamed American wilderness.
One historian noted that the new Americans "made seven times more graves than huts."  Despite this, they set aside a time to give thanks, a day that, ultimately, evolved into our modern Thanksgiving holiday.  Imagine that, half of the people of your village--your subdivision, if you will--have perished in the past year, but still, you pause to celebrate all that remained and all that could be restored.
The Americans who dined at the earliest Thanksgiving feasts did not live to see the Revolutionary War that would move us from a colony to an independent republic.  Nor could they have imagined that our same young nation could be torn asunder a hundred years later in a cataclysmic Civil War.  But soldiers in every war have paused when they could to eat and to give thanks.

Think about it.  In the 1600s, Americans fought the elements to survive.  During the 1700s, Americans fought the British for their independence.  In the 1800s, Americans fought one another over the moral issue of slavery.  And during the 1900s, Americans fought international powers to protect freedom in the world.

In the early days of the 21st century, a divided nation would begin the slow march toward healing and unity.  Hard economic times both exposed our best instincts and core values as we shared our bounty--and our deepest fears--as some citizens harbored hatred and prejudice based upon unchangeable, God-given differences.  Then, on 9/11, we were shaken to our collective core when a fateful attack killed several thousand.  I am proud to say, however, that in the fashion of our forefathers and mothers--with God as a directing force--we rallied to make sense of and learn from that devastating day in world history.  The odd blessing is that millions of Americans and billions around the world united in what Dr. King called "an inescapable network of destiny."
In no way could a reasonable man suggest that this tragedy was pardonable; however, it provoked the faith-based community to reflect on God's message to God's people.  And there is merit in that.
In 2 Corinthians 12, the Apostle Paul refers to a man who has seen and experienced the third heaven.  We now know that he made reference to himself, though we remain ignorant of the specifics of his experience.  That is no accident, as Paul is following a directive from God.  

Second Corinthians is one of the most fascinating texts in the Bible.  Here Paul reflects on his own brokenness, his waning ability to cope with unnamed infirmities.  Three times he petitioned God to relieve him of the issues that plagued him; and three times, God reminded His servant that he had been gifted with all he needed to cope.

God knows us intimately, and He knows that, in our mortal weakness, we are prone to exalting ourselves in times of sufficiency--and even more in times of surplus.

We do not know what Paul's thorn was, but he communicates his understanding that it is better, with God's help, to bear our human frailties than it is to glory in our ineptitude.  It is in these periods of suffering that we are drawn to Him and reminded of His promises:  He will supply our needs; all things will work together for good to those who are called according to His purpose; and His grace will always be sufficient.
Over the years, we have persevered in the long march toward national unity.  Surely there have been breaches of faith, but overall, we have slowly begun to perceive the strength that is innate in our diversity and joint humanity.  In 1960, we elected a young, Catholic president; and women--who had been denied the right to vote before 1920--began to appear in Congress, the Supreme Court, and the highest levels of government and corporate executive roles.   

As president of Morehouse College, I am compelled to observe that, remarkably, just forty four years ago when the legendary Benjamin Elijah Mays was president of Morehouse College, most black Americans could not safely and reliably vote.  Now, the United States has elected another young president who happens to be black.  It is almost unimaginable that one nation could make that much progress in four short decades, but...that is the American way.

The nation has begun to count the cost of its freedom and consider the invoice that will have to be paid if that same freedom is not extended to every American citizen, as well as our brothers and sisters around the globe.  We have grown stronger and wiser as we discovered untapped depth in those old-fashioned, core American values of freedom, equality, peacemaking, and compassion for the least advantaged members of our communities.

Once again, the world stands in awe of us, or better, in awe of that wonderful, ineffable quality we call the American spirit.  It is a resilient spirit.  And it constantly surprises us with its bottomless potential for renewal.

As we enjoy this Independence Day holiday, many of our neighbors--fellow Americans--live in misery and profound, unsettling uncertainty about the future.  Many of us have taken heavy financial hits in recent months, and we are informed that chilly times are in the future forecast.  Many who observed July 4th last year held jobs they thought were secure.  Now, the ranks of the unemployed have swollen to record levels.  
As if that were not enough, we are cognizant of two foreign wars where fellow Americans are making the ultimate sacrifice. Over 4,200 have fallen in Iraq and over 600 in Afghanistan.  We mourn each and every one of those precious souls; we give thanks for what they have given to us; and we remember their families and those who continue to serve far from home.

Like our predecessors, Americans today understand disappointment and terror.  And despite--or perhaps because of--our difficult lessons and hard-earned wisdom, we have been made strong in the broken places.

Like many of you, I have been privileged to participate in a Jewish Passover Seder meal--an elaborate ritual dinner held on the first night of the Passover, an eight-day celebration that celebrates the Jewish pride of heritage and the hope for freedom for all people.  One of the passages of the litany declares that we must recapture the Exodus, and I quote:  "This great gift of freedom was given to us.  Let us merit what has been given us by becoming the agents of freedom for all God's children who dwell in darkness."

The story is told of a Renaissance artist who made the world's most prized vases.  A foreign visiting apprentice came to observe his method.  After laboring for many weeks with one piece of clay--firing it, painting it, baking it--he placed it upon a pedestal for inspection.  The apprentice sat in awe at this thing of unspeakable beauty.  But it appeared that the artist was not yet finished.  In a shocking and dramatic moment, the artist lifted the vase above his head and dashed it against the floor, breaking it into a thousand shards.  And then, quietly, he reconnected the pieces by painting them with a paint of pure gold.  Each crack reflected invaluable gold. In the end, this magnificent, but imperfect, piece became the most valued piece in the collection.

As you gather with family, some at your table will feel broken.  They may not speak of it, but you will know it is there. Let them know that they can become strong again.  They can endure.

Let them know of your struggles.  But, more important, let them know of the faith that fortified you to endure.  

Let them know that God's grace was sufficient for you and shall also be for them.

And as you look into the mirror each morning and see the slow and quiet evidence of strain and stress, of passing time and battle fatigue begin to etch deeper, know that those are not meaningless wrinkles but lines of character and wisdom and beauty.

Life breaks all of us, yet many of us are strong in the broken places.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, we draw comfort and courage from the words of the hymn that tells us:

"Life is filled with swift transitions.
Naught on earth unmoved can stand.
Build your hope on things eternal.
Hold to God's unchanging hand."
So, "precious Lord, take our hands, lead us on and let us stand."  
We know that no matter how difficult our circumstances may grow,
you will never abandon us.
This is our hope and our profession of faith.
In Christ's name.  Amen.