faith, homelessness, life together

My Broken Saints

As 2015 begins, I am making my home with two broken saints.

The first was a housewarming gift from my mother. Buying Beth-Haven was one of the loveliest hours during a long season of triumph: completed PhD, wonderful job, and now, a perfect little cottage to call home.  St. Francis was to serve as a token of welcome, a sign of hope for all creatures great and small who might come to share the house with me.

Unfortunately, when we opened the box we found him broken. I had neither the skill nor materials to mend him, but I could not bear to toss him into the trash.  It hurt to look at him, knowing that my mother had wanted to give a perfect gift, and realizing that we had no way to repair him. Broken Francis stood between us, embodying the fractures in every human relationship, even the most loving. What do we do with such signs of pain? Cast them away? Order a newer model?

At first, the best I could do was to station Francis at the front door. He wasn’t pretty enough to set upon the mantle, but he seemed content in his humble place. Sometimes this is the best we can do with painful relationships: sometimes it takes all our strength to keep them in the house, to look at their broken faces each day, to acknowledge that we are still at home together.

A few weeks later, some of my friends’ children taught me an even better way. While the grown-ups talked, they went foraging for azalea blossoms, which cover south Alabama in the springtime. After everyone had gone home I found that they had found my broken saint. Rather than fear or pity him, they played with St. Frank, filling his hands with flowers. My timid fidelity has resigned Francis to a dusty corner, but they had more courage: if they could not mend what was broken, they could find other ways to make him beautiful.

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And so my first broken saint became, after all, a sign of hope, encouraging me not to give up on problems I could not solve, hearts I could not mend. Lesson learned, right? Apparently not.

I had nearly forgotten about my front-door saint when two of my college friends announced the birth of their second child, a daughter. I found a beautifully illustrated version of St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures,” and I decided to make a St. Francis softie to accompany the book. I loved the idea of a little girl growing up to cherish Francis’s reckless love for God’s kingdom and all its creatures.

I bought the fabric from a friend’s Etsy shop, embellished the saint with some simple embroidery, and then stitched and stuffed him. Before I could send him off to his new home, however, my hound-dog decided he must be a gift for her. I came home to find bits of his stuffing all over the dining room floor. The saint himself was missing an arm and he boasted enormous gashes across his face and halo. Distraught, I posted a picture of the carnage and appealed for sympathy. What’s the point of making something, I pouted, if perfect is impossible?

My friends, however, insisted that all was not lost. One of the most compelling comments came from the mother whose baby was to have the toy. “Scars and stretch marks tell a story,” she wrote “especially in the story of mothers and babies.” Several other friends pointed out that Francis himself, a patron to animals, would probably laugh to know that an exuberant hound had taken such joy at his expense.

And so, I scrubbed the dirt away, threaded my needle with gold, and began to stitch the holes. Mending is tedious work, and to fix a jagged tear requires both precision and creativity. As I stitched, I remembered one of the first disagreements my fiancé and I had. We argued about the once-popular praise song that croons, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for….” I have hated that song since I was a teenager. I suspect it fools many people into praying a prayer they don’t actually mean. Even knowing that God can use sorrow, I don’t ever yearn for pain. I want to be whole, healed, strong, resurrected. And didn’t Christ, on the night he was betrayed, pray that the cup of sorrow might pass from him?

Yes, and yet he also prayed, “Not my will, but yours, Father.” He didn’t accept pain for its own sake, but as the culmination of his purpose: to reveal God’s saving love to mankind. He was obedient even unto death, and when he rose from the grave, he still carried the scars of his crucifixion. Do the scars point to some limit on God’s mercy or power? Certainly not. God could have raised Christ with each and every cell made perfect.  So why leave the marks? I won’t presume to know the deepest answer to that question, but I can point to at least one of the ways Christ used those wounds: in John 20:24-29, he holds them out to his grieving friend, Thomas. The flesh tells a story, helping Thomas to believe that Christ taught about the new life and the kingdom that is coming.

And so, while I could have ordered a new Francis and scrapped the old one, I chose to mend. I chose to hope that  the baby–who will, no doubt, gnaw on Francis with as much glee as my hound–will grow to love the humble and the broken of the world. That she would learn to treasure God’s saints not only in their glory, but also when they bear the scars of love.

IMG_6998Perhaps I need to pray that prayer for myself. I share my house with two broken saints: one mended, one broken but with flowers in his hands. I am beginning to think that they are not only saints, but prophets. They teach me that our love for another fails daily, but also that, by the grace of God, we can sometimes help one another mend. They also teach me that some wounds are too deep for my hands to repair, but that we can bring flowers, time, casseroles until the wounded hands of Christ come and make all well.

In a few months I will make my home with another Francis. This one isn’t broken, but he is weather-beaten. He watches over a parcel of land that is already precious to me. First, it will soon house a revolutionary ministry to the homeless. (It’s called the Community First! Village, and you can learn more about it here). It will also be the ground where my marriage begins.

IMG_6917I am sure that when I take up this new chapter of my life, I will find myself overwhelmed by all that is broken in my own life, in my husband’s, and in the lives of men and women who have spent years on the streets. Surely, there will be days I want to escape. Already there are days I rail at God for not fixing everything and everyone at once. I still won’t sing “Brokennes is what I long for,” just as I still wish, deep down, that my dog hadn’t mauled St. Francis. However, I will pray and sing for God’s kingdom to come. If that means making my home among so many broken saints, then God give me grace to love them well. If that means being broken upon the altar, then Spirit give me the courage to be thankful for that suffering. Christ, teach me to fill their hands with flowers. Help us ask one another for the stories behind our scars. Use their broken hands to stitch my own wounds up with gold.

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faith, life together

A Friend to Sorrow

It is hard to be a friend to Sorrow. She slips in at the least convenient times, always uninvited. You may sit down at the family table, close your eyes to say grace, and feel her cold, strong hand take hold of yours. Or she may slip into your quiet bed, wrapping you in her gown of her grey, rain-soft silk.

At other times she rages: shattering every mirror in the house, overturning the Christmas tree, shaking us by our shoulders until our teeth ache.

We grant her rights at funerals, and grudgingly admit her to hospital rooms. In the autumn, and in certain hours of the evening, we notice that she walks with a kind of grace.  But come sunrise and summer, out she goes, banished through the backdoor.

It is hard to be a friend to Sorrow. She speaks a language we have labored to forget, and her veil makes us nervous, like one who is foreign or deformed. Many, hearing her approach, run away, abandoning home for the sake of escape. Even the best of us grow shy in her presence, baffled by our own helplessness.

It is hard to be a friend to Sorrow, but when she comes, do not drive her out. Offer her a chair and set the tea in front of her. Ask her why she’s come, or if you cannot speak for fear or shame, then simply sit, and let her rest with you. If you let her roam the rooms of your house, you may be surprised to catch her singing a song your mother used to hum.

She attends every birth, dances at every wedding, and has the key to every home. If you open when she knocks, she will not need to batter down the door. So sit with her, and listen, and one day, when you have grown brave again, ask her to remove her veil.

It is hard to be a friend to Sorrow, but we dare not drive her out: for her other name is Love.

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