Broken Bones and Broken Spirits

From the prominent perspective of middle age, I can see so much of the life I have lived with clarity, perhaps even greater clarity now than when I lived it in the first place.  I often think about those formative years of college, when my sense of self and my sense of curiosity and my sense of reason all seemed to converge to crystallize the person that I am today.  Certain events play over and over like they were yesterday.  The good times with good friends, falling in love, falling out of love, loneliness and camaraderie.  All of these things remain crisp even after 30-odd years (and there have indeed been some odd years).  There are experiences that I recall where I left my mark on my social and academic environments, and experiences that I was left marked, even scarred, perhaps figuratively, and definitely physically.

In the fall of 1981 at Western Kentucky University, I was eager to get started with life and a career, although I had no idea as to what career I would eventually settle on.  I was interested in science, so that first semester, I overloaded on science: biology and chemistry, in particular, along with animal science, English, probably history or another of the humanities, and maybe even plant science—I can’t recall much beyond the biology and chemistry.

I knew chemistry was going to be a challenge from the first day, when I was not on the lab professor’s preliminary roll.  A last minute schedule change had the unfortunate side effect of me not appearing on that unofficial yet apparently most binding of documents.  I sensed he took an instant dislike to me, the freshman with the audacity to upset his perfect lab routine.  I was not overly impressed with the professor, either, as I found his flat top haircut, striped shirt with plaid shorts, dark socks and dress shoes to be rather laughable.  His black plastic framed glasses and the stump of a cigar clenched tightly in his teeth made for a somewhat less than excellent first impression.  In short, the dislike was mutual. 

But that was only the first of many experiences that made me look forward to chemistry classes and labs like one might look forward to a stomach virus, a toothache, or a really bad paper cut.  No one gave me any good advice on how to plan a schedule, so I loaded up classes to the point that I was in class or lab from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Monday with the exception of about a 30 minute lunch break.  One Monday afternoon, I was making my way up the famous Hill, for which the Western Kentucky University Hilltoppers are named to attend that wonderful chemistry lab.  I was crossing the street in front of the old Thompson Complex Central Wing, which housed chemistry, math and physics.  I stepped into the street and made my way about halfway across, when a lady driving an enormous silver car—one of those legendary land yachts of the 1970’s—decided to go on ahead and proceed through the light, as it changed while I was still crossing.  I began to back off, and she clipped my left foot with her left-front tire.  I was flipped to the ground, her car then resting squarely on the sole of my left foot.  She got out and asked, “Are you alright?” To which I repled, “Could you put it in reverse?”  I got up and limped to lab, knowing that I must never miss.

A couple of days later, my foot was hurting, it was swollen so that I couldn’t even tie my sneaker, and I decided I really needed to see a doctor.  At Student Health (a laughable title, as it is at many other schools as well), the rent-a-doc told me to limp a while, I had probably torn some ligaments, and I would be fine.  No x-ray, no real exam, just deal with it.  Foolish freshman that I was, I did just that.

Twenty-five years later, or so, I was having a great deal of pain in that foot, and the very capable podiatrist that I consulted x-rayed it, and found that it had indeed been broken—in two places.  He said that he was amazed it had healed as well as it had.  A course of extremely strong anti-inflammatory drugs later and I was back to as normal as I could ever expect to be.

As I was thinking about this the other evening, it occurred to me that this sort of thing happens to us all of the time. Something happens and we feel a bit of hurt for a while, but then we get up, we limp on, and it is not until sometime later that we discover—or more likely it is pointed out to us— that we are broken.  Very often this has to do with some kind of relationship.  Children who are neglected or mistreated by parents or by peers may limp along for a while, but then later, they find out they are broken when they can’t experience a normal sort of relationship.  Children who are expected to do more or be more than they can realistically achieve often wind up broken.  Women who are in abusive relationships hide their pain well for a time, then find that they are so very alone with no one to talk to, no one to trust, and no one to love.  They were hurting quietly, but didn’t know earlier that they were broken.

Sometimes, the hurt is helped by external self-treatments: drugs, alcohol, sex addiction, maybe even humor.  But this only dulls the hurt.  The shattered life is still there, only masked by something artificial that can’t last.  And so we need more of whatever it is that takes the hurt away to take the hurt away again, and maybe for longer.  But each time, the effects are less.  And each time, the hurt comes back stronger, and we need more of the treatment to make the hurt go away.  And then the self-loathing sets in because we have reached a point where we are no longer in control. 

Sometimes, the hurt is so bad that the only possible solution seems to be the absolute end: death.  Some people choose suicide.  In most circles, suicide is only spoken of in hushed tones.  Many if not most churches have taught that suicide is an unforgiveable sin, that it is the ultimate act of murder.  They fail to see that the person who commits suicide is usually clinically depressed, which is an organic illness involving brain chemistry.  They pray for the cancer patients who need God’s care, even though they may have brought that disease on themselves with risky behaviors like smoking.  But they condemn the one who attempts suicide, whose life is at risk for something they may have no control over, because of a disease every bit as natural, as biological as cancer.

I detest hypocrisy in any of its self-righteous forms.  And so does God.  Only he has the authority to judge these broken people.  I can’t and I won’t because I am not wise enough to know another’s heart.  I am not as just, compassionate and loving as he even though I want to be.

The second king of Israel, and probably its greatest was the shepherd/singer/warrior, David.  He let power and lust overtake him, and he sinned against God, against Bathsheba and her husband Uriah.  When the prophet, Nathan, confronted him, he composed one of the most sincere laments, a plea for forgiveness that we recognize as Psalm 51.  In verses 1 through 5, David confesses his sin in a heart-felt admission of guilt, a realization that what he has done makes him repulsive to God.  In verses 6 through 12, he prays for forgiveness, noting in verses 13 through 15 that if forgiven, he would do what he could to bring others back to God. 

The culmination of David’s confession and pledge is seen in verses 16 and 17:

16  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.

17  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.  

God is not looking for lots of external shows of penance.  David said he would have sacrificed whatever was necessary to demonstrate his contrition.  But that was too easy. In a way, burnt offerings were only destructive, requiring that a life be taken with no promise of complete restoration, only that a penalty was exacted for an act of wrong-doing.  The sacrifice God is looking for is the broken spirit, the broken and contrite heart.  And somewhere, sometime, for whatever reason, we all fit that description.  These are things he can heal and promises to heal.  The sacrifice of the broken spirit is constructive, restoring life, restoring spirit, restoring lost hope and happiness. 

Our brokenness may not be because of something wrong that we have done; it may be because of something that has been done to us.  God will take that broken spirit and make it whole, even better than before, because he can and because he is love.  No self-medication we may try can do that. 

To be, as David asked, restored to the joy of God’s salvation may not only apply to the life of the soul, but to life as we know it here and now.  Getting rid of harmful, encumbering baggage will only make life better.  But doing that takes the realization that we are broken, and the willingness to sacrifice that broken spirit to God.  He offers joy and peace in exchange for pain and brokenness.  When you think of it like that, there is nothing to lose but hurt and suffering.  And there is every good thing to gain.     

     

               

   

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