Brokenness as a bridge
Recently my wife and I had one of those horrible, no-good, very bad days that married couples run into from time to time. Context says it was probably the fact that we were trying to make our home in a strange new world, one low in oxygen and high in street dogs and soccer. I also blame myself for missing my morning breviary reading (again) and not making coffee. After a lengthy and silent bus ride, we sat down on a busy street corner to wait for a friend. We both relaxed a little and let out frustrated chuckles. My wife remarked, “It’s like words keep coming out of our mouths, but there’s no communication.” Even in a language we’ve been practicing for a quarter-century, we often fail.
Although human brokenness is painfully obvious in intimate relationships, it can be hidden for quite some time in more guarded ones. That can be the conceit of being called a “missionary,” a term that is still held in high — if sometimes strange — regard in most Christian circles. The missionary is often seen as a cross-bearing spiritual warrior, a saint who has achieved a certain level of holiness that can even transcend cultures.
However, those of us who have missionaries for spouses, brothers or bosses know that they are everyday saints and sinners like the rest of God’s people. Our ideals about living simply and incarnationally are slowly chipped away by very corporeal human needs and desires. We stop counting our blessings and instead tally our sufferings and deprivations. We find that moving halfway around the world doesn’t resolve a single one of the personality flaws that brought us down outside our glamorous spiritual post.
In that way, missionaries come to terms with their brokenness very quickly, or at least they should if they are to avoid a nervous breakdown. In Word Made Flesh, we work with people in very humble and powerless situations. They are trained by society for a one-way submission to those with power. Simply by stepping into the room as a white male from the United States, fat with cash and freshly minted “missionary” status, I receive far more power and praise than I know is due me.
As I have been getting to know our community, I have noticed our North American staff constantly affirming the gifts and abilities of the Bolivians with whom we work, especially when the North Americans are overly praised. They know the extent of their inner brokenness even when it is not on display, and they don’t pretend their income or passport can truly cover it up.
When one of our North American staff was preparing for her wedding, some of the women with whom we work circled around her to pray for her marriage. It was quite revealing. We normally expect spouses to help us achieve a higher level of self-satisfaction and personal happiness, but the women had other petitions: “Father, please keep her husband from beating her and mistreating her.” Because, in their line of work, they are abused nightly by men in ways I cannot even fathom, their expectations are not what they hope to receive, but what they hope not to: abuse, neglect, alcoholism. In their honest and simple prayers, the brokenness of their reality was on full display, not covered up by social status or job title.
In Simplicity: The Art of Living, Richard Rohr writes:
The only ones who can accept the proclamation of the Reign are those who have nothing to protect, neither their own self-image nor their reputation, their possessions, their theology, their principles, nor their certitudes. And these are called “the poor,” anawim in Hebrew.1
And so I’ve seen a potential entry point for friendship with brokenness as a bridge. As my wife and I let down our defenses and invite people to glimpse inside our relationship, into the secret life of real missionaries, they won’t have to look very hard to find our brokenness. Although our struggles are not nearly as severe as theirs, we share the same underlying selfishness, hard-heartedness and frustrations. That type of brokenness I don’t particularly want to celebrate, but together in community, somehow, we cry out to God with a single voice: “Jesus Christ, have mercy on us, sinners. Heal us, mold us and make us new creations.”
1 Richard Rohr, Simplicity: The Art of Living, 2nd edition (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 1992), p. 57.
Adam and his wife Becky joined the WMF Bolivia community in January. Becky’s simple and life-giving pleasure (to Adam’s great luck) has been cooking. Adam’s has been bird-watching. So far, he’s identified 77 Bolivian species.