Apr 05 2012

From Brokenness to Transformation

Published by at 10:20 pm under Minister's Musings

From Brokenness to Transformation:

A Theological Reflection first offered to a PACT Interfaith Clergy Gathering

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones


In mid March, the PACT (People Acting in Community Together) interfaith clergy gather to discuss the crisis of unequal and unfair wealth distribution in this country. We facilitators have statistics about how the current income gap between the richest and everyone else is now higher than it has been since the 1930s, with the top 1 percent claiming 23.5 percent of national income. We have graphs that show how “good policies” in the 1950s through the mid ’70s (such as minimum-wage laws, civil rights legislation, and an ethic of civic engagement) intentionally “lifted all boats.” Every section of the population in that era did demonstrably better for a while, from the poorest to the richest. Since the late ’70s, “bad policies” have intentionally benefited the wealthiest at the expense of all others. The very poor, and peoples of color, have been particularly hard hit.

          But before we get to the numbers and graphs, we want to start with why this matters to us. What does our faith say about getting involved in turning this situation around? Rabbi Joel Fleekop from Congregation Shir Hadash shares part of his Rosh Hashanah sermon. Father Eddie Samaniego from Most Holy Trinity Catholic parish speaks specifically about the sins of Bank of America. His parish recently divested its millions of dollars from the big banks and moved them to local ones. I offer this reflection, personal and poetic, uncertain and incomplete. Humbly, I share it with you here:


Mine is a wrestling faith—striving through the night with an unknown Source, clasped in the embrace of forces larger than myself, always with that echoing cry, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

          So when Rabbi David J. Cooper from Piedmont reminds PICO interfaith clergy last month of the story of tsimtsum and tikkun olam,[1] I am grateful … and the wrestling begins again.

          Here’s a Unitarian Universalist retelling: An exiled Jewish teacher in the fifteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Luria imagines a time before time when God is everywhere and everything—limitless holiness but with an urge, a need to create. But where? There’s no room for such creation! So God, in a gesture both brilliant and generous, contracts God-self—a holy contraction called tsimtsum. At last, room to work in! Now God handcrafts vessels—mysteriously, because of course God does not have hands—and God fills them with more of God-self, bright sparks of creative potential. Then God—in a risky … or is it playful? … mood—flings these vessels out into the newly made universe. But the Holy can never be contained, even by something God has made, and so the vessels shatter, scattering shards and shooting sparks everywhere.

          From the beginning, the myth says, the whole of our world, and we humans, are made of stuff both broken and divine.

          When I look at the income gap, created intentionally by policies that favor the wealthy and powerful, I see shards of fear and greed on the one hand, shards of want and despair on the other, and shards of isolation and longing throughout. Shards splintered again and again, slivers of those original vessels. The task of tikkun olam, healing the world, putting it all back together, seems daunting, at best.

           I pick up my own shards—loneliness, overwhelm, heartbreak, feeling not enough. Fingering those sharp edges, I long for a cracked yet glimmering wholeness—the vessel reconstituted, and the light shining through the cracks. But the broken edges scrape and burn. I doubt they can be repaired.

And then, miraculously, the embers of those creative sparks begin to stir in the dust, in the air all around us. Always, always, they whisper, God is everywhere, in the sparks, in the shards, in the longing, in the lure. Isn’t that the meaning of the story?

“Gather the spirit, harvest the power, our separate fires will kindle one flame,” we Unitarian Universalists sing.[2] We have been singing about tsimtsum all these years!

The story traces the arc of our oh-so-human lives: longing, contracting, shaping, flinging, shattering, scattering, luring, reconnecting. If I, if we, will fan the flames of our creativity and put even a few pieces back together—then, infused by the Holy, we will wrestle a blessing from the pain, and it will, somehow, be enough.                         

[1] Rabbi David J. Cooper, “On Tikkun Olam,” opening reflection at Land of Opportunity PICO clergy gathering, Hayward, California, 4 Feb. 2012.

[2] “Gather the Spirit,” words and music by Unitarian Universalist Jim Scott, # 347 in Singing the Living Tradition (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993).

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