A few days ago, I had an hour between meetings and a friend who needed to talk. She and her family have been going through life as we all do, with a carefully crafted “to-do” list of the beautiful mundane that you don’t really miss until it’s gone. Grocery store runs because you forgot the milk the day before, supplies for the school project that you really think shouldn’t be attempted the last month of school, a gift for teacher appreciation (is there anything worthy?!)… it’s all on “the list” until one day something drops into your life and “the list” is crushed under the tyranny of the unexpected and urgent.
Suddenly all the little things that once filled our days — things we resented and rolled our eyes at and sighed our way through — these little things look like gifts through a different light. And though we have many choices about how we want to walk through whatever is up ahead, going back to the beautiful mundane… our peaceful little ordinary lives we didn’t even treat as the gift that they were… well, going back isn’t one of our options. The path is different, now, and it feels more like stumbling in the darkness.
And so it was in one of these moments that I met my friend. She agreed to meet me at my church (where I work part-time) in that hour between meetings, and when she arrived she sent me a short text: “I’m in the sanctuary.” I opened the heavy wooden doors to the sanctuary to go and find her, and though the lights were all off, I stepped into the warm-glow of light streaming through the walls of stained glass windows. I’ve seen these windows a hundred times before, but maybe because I was thinking about how shattered my friend’s life felt, I saw the glass in a different way and one clear thought resonated through my mind.
It wouldn’t be so beautiful if not for all the little broken pieces.
And it’s more than that, really. The light wouldn’t be so beautiful if it didn’t shine through the darkness. The seams of black twisting and turning their way through the glass serve as both the glue and the division. Up close it’s impossible to make sense of the twists and turns and think they bring anything other than disruption to a piece of smooth glass.
And suddenly a new image forms in my mind… ice-skating on these sheets of calm, gentle glass. Each of us dancing and twirling and coasting our way along on our own peaceful sheet, beautiful and vibrant in its simplicity. Yours is red. Mine is blue. And though sometimes we get a little bored and sigh at the monotony of it all, deep down we wish we could do this forever. Coast. Slide. Smooth-sailing.
But in the time it takes to breathe, everything changes. The sheet of glass shatters. My husband and I sat on the back porch watching the sky glow pink as the sun sank below the horizon a few nights ago. We’d just finished another day of this beautiful ordinary, but we both felt the weight of how fragile this all is. One week and three different acquaintances with three vastly different tragedies. A sudden death. A traumatic injury. Unexpected legal problems. “We’re all so close to the edge,” he said as he shook his head. And deep down we all know this is true. And so we do what we can to stay in the middle of the glass. No sky-diving. Wear your seatbelts. Don’t run the red light. Eat your veggies and take your vitamins. Be careful now. Stay over here where it’s safer. We skate and we skate and we skate and sometimes we wonder how much longer we get to have an unbroken sheet of glass; keenly aware that all our efforts at staying safe can end in the time it takes to breathe. So we hold our breath, bracing for the moment when it shatters.
And it does. It always does. And we can shake our hands at the heavens and scream “Why God?” We can craft careful theologies that indict God as the perpetrator of our pain in our attempts to shore up our belief that he’s in control of everything. We can buy plaques and coffee mugs and cards that give us warm fuzzy feelings but no real comfort. We can say nice things meant to comfort and not realize they only wound. “I guess heaven needed another angel.” “That which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Or we can wait. Sometimes we don’t need to get back up and brush ourselves off. Sometimes we need to sit and mourn in the middle of the broken glass. Lament. Remember and grieve. We need to be able to ask “Why God” and not have any well-meaning but empty answers… we need to sit in the middle of the sheet of broken glass with the pain and sadness and wait.
When we look for God in these moments, let’s not expect to find him with a hammer in his hands. He’s there with us, of course. He’s always with us. But we’ll find him in the mending.
And mending is slow work. It takes time. I picture a stain-glass artist at work. He carefully gathers up my broken pieces. His workbench covered in sharp shards of broken stories. And he starts his work. A bit of your pain meets a bit of mine. A bit of mine reaches out to some of hers. We fit together and he joins the seams. We become stronger in these once-broken places, drawing stability and courage and finding our feet as we link arms with those around us. My most fragile point, the little bit that protrudes and makes me feel most vulnerable… he fits it in the perfect place, buffered between two others who have space for my vulnerability. The work continues, and sometimes it hurts as edges are softened and filed to allow for the fitting. And it all still looks like utter chaos right now — just a mess of little broken pieces; each one finding a bit of connection, maybe, but still floating unmoored, uncertain what the future looks like. Each one bravely waiting.
Slowly it takes shape. There is beauty and purpose here; patterns of restoration which in time will result in a masterful work of art more beautiful and more richly complex than the singular sheet of smooth glass ever could’ve been. (This isn’t to say we end up grateful for the breaking. Some things that shatter are so precious we can never recall the loss without grief seizing tight over our throats, and that’s as it should be. Stained glass shows us we can live in the dark and light space of both/and; both make it beautiful.)
There’s a popular pop song with the line “no scars to your beautiful.” And while I love the message of the song, I don’t think this is true. Look at stained glass and see the truth: it’s the scars that make it beautiful. It’s the scars that take two precipitous edges — the raw places of our wounding and loss and the very edges we worried we’d tumble over into utter oblivion — and brings them back together into something that looks like wholeness and tells a story of bravery and transformation.
So let’s breathe.
Not because everything is going to be ok. Sometimes it isn’t, of course. Things shatter. But we can trust God is always in the mending, and he only makes beautiful things. There are scars to our beautiful; no need to hide them. The scars connect us and help to tell a story bigger and more beautiful than any we could tell on our own. They bring order out of despair and something new out of what we thought might be lost forever. These scars are marks of healing, and when the light shines through, it’s the scars and all the broken pieces that make us shine.