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Monday, November 23, 2009

“Too Small for Anything But Love” -- RevGalBookPals discuss Terry Tempest Williams' Finding Beauty in a Broken World

I think about Pete Seeger in the early 1950’s, who adapted the spiritual, “We Shall Overcome,” an old gospel from the Deep South during the civil war, and arranged it for contemporary times. …Seeger introduced the song to…Martin Luther King, Jr., and Rosa Parks…(Lily) tells the children about Martin Luther King, JR.,…and says that there was a song that strengthened (him ) and others in their struggle for equality…In John Bosco’s living room, seven children, a mother and father, aunts and extended family members, and four barefoot artists sing “We Shall Overcome” together.(Finding Beauty in a Broken World, page 248)

The first time I read "Finding Beauty in a Broken World" I anticipated a story similar to Red or Refuge, the other books by Terry Tempest Williams that I have read. These books tell a story about family, life, death, and love interwoven with reflections on the wilderness of Utah, themes close to my own heart.

You see, Terry Tempest Williams and I have some things in common. For example, we both share the same first name, although we spell it differently. We both were born in Salt Lake City into Mormon families. We are only two years apart in age. From there though, our commonalities end. She is a compelling story teller with a passion for how we care for the world and one another.

Finding Beauty in a Broken World however was not like the other books. The story is told in prose that is broken and dissonant, like shards of glass. A story that moves from the art of creating mosaics in Italy to a prairie dog study in Bryce Canyon, Utah to the rebuilding of Rwanda following the genocide of 1994.

The first time I read the book I was intrigued as Tempest Williams describes the art of making mosaics. I was confused and bemused at her decision to include, verbatim it seems, her notes from watching prairie dogs for a study in Bryce Canyon, Utah, some 100 pages of notes taken over two weeks. (I have to admit, the first time through I skimmed that section). And I was completely captivated by her story of working with Lily Yeh on the creation of a genocide memorial in Rwanda. Captivated enough that I decided to reread the book, this time understanding the mosaic metaphor that connected her disjointed paragraphs to the prairie dogs to the bones of those killed in the genocide with the incredible grace that comes from creating beauty out of the brokenness.

I offer here some of her words:

Page 90: Most people are not comfortable making a connection between racism and specism or the ill treatment of human beings and the mistreatment of animals. We want to keep our boundaries clean and separate. But isn’t that the point, to separate, isolate, and discriminate? We create hierarchies, viewing life from the top down, top being of course, God, then a ranking of human races, and so our judgments move down ‘the Great Chain of Being’ until we touch rocks. This is the attitude of power, and it hinges on who is in control. Who has power over whom? How does this kind of behavior infiltrated the psyche of a culture? And what are the consequences of scala naturae?

Page 87: The amused officials assured the Navajo that there was no correlation between rain and prairie dogs and carried out their plan. The outcome was surprising only to the federal officials. The desert near Chilchinbito, Arizona, became a virtual waste land. Without the ground-turning process of the burrowing animals, the soil became solidly packed, unable to accept rain. Hard pan. The result: fierce runoff whenever it rained. What little vegetation remained was carried off away by flash floods and a legacy of erosion.

Page 18: I believe in the beauty of all things broken.

Page 6: A mosaic is a conversation between what is broken.

Page 225: I look up at the ceiling of the church. Holes from grenades appear as stars. Light is streaming down onto the pews. Empty pews. Rooms full of bones. Bags of bones, bulging, closed. Sacks full of skulls. Piles of faded clothing. The altar cloth, once white, is now brown with blood. Ten thousand people were murdered here.

Page 227: The eyes of these killers were on the eyes of those they killed. By hand. One million Tutsis were murdered in one hundred days. Their killers were neighbors with farm tools, machete, hoes. Hundreds of skulls, shelves of skulls, thirty thousand bodies – here at Nyamata.

Page 239: How does a phrase like “Never Again” uttered religiously after the Jewish Holocaust, after Cambodia, Rwanda, and now Darfur, translate to “again and again” – the mantra of our collective denial? Code terms like “Civil war” and “tribal conflict” give us license to not get involved. The masterminds of all genocides count on our complicity.

Page 238: I came to Rwanda to step over my fears and find out for myself how a people who carry the history of genocide in their hearts not only begin to heal but move forward in the name of forgiveness and acceptance. This collective crime of cruelty and complicity resides in all of us.

Page 264: Over and over again I am reminded to live and work out of my strength, not my weaknesses, to stand in the center of my most generous self and trust what is good in humanity. More often than not, we will draw the generosity of others toward us. But here in Rwanda, all these platitudes of what one believes and how one behaves evaporate on the dusty red roads. Neighbors murdered neighbors. Priests called the machete bearers into their churches and allowed them to slaughter their congregations. Nothing makes sense. Everything and everyone becomes suspect. My heart trembles. I become my own darkness. At night in Gisenyi, the only buffer between me and the haunted streets of Rwanda is a torn mosquito net.

Page 265: Because Jean Bosco is attending a Red Cross meeting, his associate, Habumugisha Michel, recounts our history:

Everyone is an ambassador of Rwanda, to build pride in our country, to forgive, to forget. This is the message Paul Kagame presented last year to the people of Rwanda. So, when Jean Bosco attended an international meeting in Barcelona, he was our ambassador, telling the people present about our past, our pain, our beauty. Lily Yeh, who was sitting in the audience was very moved by John Bosco’s story. Lily asked, ‘How can I help?’ Jean Bosco said, ‘Come to Rwanda.’ And she did. She heard President Kagame speak. Jean Bosco took Lily to the Genocide Memorial Site in Rugerero. She was very touched and asked it something beautiful could be created.

Page 270: Lily looks down and folds her small, strong, hands. She continues, ‘It is really through the depth of living, the chaos the brokenness that I find peace. Joy is rooted in the depth of our suffering. It is out of my own brokenness, and the brokenness of others in the darkest places, that I find that sense of joy. This is my special gift – to build sacred space out of the chaos of forgotten places. I feel it. The need to create beauty. We all have it, and we’ve lost it. The vehicle for joy is Beauty. Beauty is a right – an angelic quality that heals.

Page 248: I hear William Coffin’s voice: “The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”

The story about Rwanda is personal for me. In my former parish we had an outreach ministry to refugees through Episcopal Relief and Development and it's local affiliate in Chicago, Interfaith Refugee and Immigration Ministry. One of our families was from Rwanda. If you are interested you can read about it in a sermon I preached on Pentecost, 2008: sermons that work. I hope that one day it will be true, what Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke about and Lily, and Terry, and the people in that house in Rwanda sang, "We will walk hand in hand...We will all be free...Oh deep in my heart I do believe, We Shall Over Come."

Questions for our discussion:

If we believe that the mission of our congregations, even our lives, is to be the hands and heart of Christ, how might the stories in this book and its message of love, broaden our understanding of who we are and what we are to do?

Do you have an example of how you have witnessed the creation of beauty out of brokenness? If so, share in the comments or link us to a reflection on your blog.

Might it be possible, in this country, to implement a judicial process similar to the Rwandan gacaca (ga-cha-cha) inspired by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose goal is to bring restorative justice in order that communities can live in harmony (page 321)? Or do you think that our judicial process of a trial by one's peers does this?

I'll be around all day to moderate the discussion, which I hope will be lively even if you have not read the book. Terry Tempest Williams has been invited to stop by and join us. Her Literary Assistant tells me she has not been feeling well, so she may or may not. (prayers for her healing can be offered as well). - Mompriest


  1. A word from the blog administrator--I've had to re-institute comment word verification for the blog. We've been getting quite a bit of comment spam on older posts recently, two to three comments per day. I've addressed this by putting posts older than 14 days on comment moderation.
    Unfortunately, the first comment on this post was spam. But I don't want to inhibit our discussions by moderating comments for new posts.
    I'm sorry to delay discussion of the book with this, but wanted to let you know. If you are a contributor to this blog, you should not need to do comment verification, but all others will need to use it.
    I'll be back later to join the discussion!

  2. I'll be back later to comment per the questions raised here. But forgive me if I share this; it's what I went to sleep with last night, and woke up with today:

    Last week I learned that Paul Rusesabagina, the hotel manager whose true story was told in the movie Hotel Rwanda, will be speaking at my university in the Spring. A colleague said, "Oh, I need to see that movie before then!" My immediate response was, "Not me!" I can't bear video representations of trauma.

    Last night I settled in with dinner and noted that Hotel Rwanda had just started on TV (!) I tried. But I couldn't watch it.

    And then I got past the prairie dogs in this book, and there was Rwanda again. Oh, yes, there is a message here.

  3. I am like you, Mary Beth. I have tried to read this book and my ability to create pictures from the words just stops me cold. I got part way through the 3rd chapter and had to stop. I will try again. (Maybe my life events right now have me too close to tears to be able to process this book.)

    However, I have read books from others who were in the Rwandan conflict (Left To Tell by Immaculée Ilibagiza) and I find that many people don't really know this event of recent history.

    The comment from page 18 ("I believe in the beauty of all things broken.") is something that rings true with me. It is the impetus for WHY I am compelled to care for the broken around me.

    If we believe that the mission of our congregations, even our lives, is to be the hands and heart of Christ, how might the stories in this book and its message of love, broaden our understanding of who we are and what we are to do?

    I believe that if we see the brokenness within us, then we are ready to care for the brokenness around us. Maybe that is why I am drawn to ministry like a moth to the flame. I know that the Spirit within me commissions me and compels me.

    To fully live out my brokenness in the brokenness around me means that I am not afraid to have people who aren't perfect, aren't even TRYING to be perfect, or aren't even willing to ADMIT they aren't perfect. It's that last category that bruises pastors so much (as some in our company have discovered all too painfully.)

    But being a broken servant in a broken world means that I forgive and forgive and forgive... because I am forgiven much.

    That's my first thoughts... I'm now off to get the car checked for an impending road trip (we foresee the funeral coming before Christmas), plug away at school, and love on my family.

    Will try to pop in later. This topic compels me.


    P.S. I had to put comment moderation back on my blog recently as well because of comment sp@m. I don't really need enhancements for body parts I don't have... sigh.

  4. I'm reminded of the Graham Kendrick song
    Beauty for brokenness
    Hope for despair
    Lord, in your suffering
    This is our prayer
    Bread for the children
    Justice, joy, peace
    Sunrise to sunset
    Your kingdom increase!

    Shelter for fragile lives
    Cures for their ills
    Work for the craftsman
    Trade for their skills
    Land for the dispossessed
    Rights for the weak
    Voices to plead the cause
    Of those who can't speak

    God of the poor
    Friend of the weak
    Give us compassion we pray
    Melt our cold hearts
    Let tears fall like rain
    Come, change our love
    From a spark to a flame.

    ...reading this discussion has reminded me with a jolt that Advent is about real Hope - not just ticking stuff off the list until Christmas is 'done'.
    My own apathy in the face of real brokenness shocks me. Now how to help fan that spark into a flame for my congregations??

  5. Haven't read the book and don't know if I can either....But grateful for the quotes and analysis you present, MP, and the invitation to dialogue around the larger issues of facing our own brokenness and that of the world.

    All that is much on my heart recently as I continue to be involved with reform in an independent Catholic group whose leaders were sheltering a pedophile priest....Both they and their supporters make much use/abuse of "mercy, grace, casting the first stone" language to defend actions which grossly and unrepentantly endangered children and the church's good name.

    I have come to face my own brokenness more deeply through the whole process so am trying to speak and act with nonviolence and compassion....And yet to also speak the truth and invite others to do so and to insist on appropriate consequences and protections, for the sake of the offenders themselves as well as the victims. An endless invitation to deeper prayer, reliance on the Christian community, and union with Christ, reigning from the cross, who is both perfect love and perfect truth.

  6. I watched Hotel Rwanda at the theater years ago, a 6th grade homework assignment for my son. Our daughter went too. Yes. we wept throough the entire movie.Tough assignment.

    But now I'm grateful I did. It helped me understand the worn, near lifeless eyes of the refugee mother I met. It helped me understand how silence and complicity can carry violence. How government and the news media shape, on some level, what we know and don't know.

    Mary Beth, Hotel Rwanda is a movie to watch in the afternoon, when you have time to process what you have seen. I don't recall as much violence as a portrayal of the fear, confusion, and betrayal - of the evacuation of white Americans and Europeans and the total abandonment of the Rwandans.

    Thank you Deb and Sophia for your comments on brokeness. Often as clergy we speak about being, and knowing ourselves, as wounded healers. It is from our own woundedness that we can meet others in theirs.

  7. Ruth, yes....Advent was on my mind when I suggested this book. Of course back then I had no idea how my own life would change, and the profound brokeness I have experienced these last few months. Thank you for sharing the song.

  8. Yes, MP, we are wounded healers and need to stay very aware of that....And also of our major obligation to become with God's help, as much as we can, what Flora Slosson Wuellner (I think) calls *healed* wounded healers. This takes tremendous self discipline and courage because it requires diligent attention to self care, spiritual and psychological healing, etc.....Otherwise we can do tremendous damage from our unhealed wounds--often unintentionally but very real none the less. I am passionate about this because of my own experience on all sides of the question and especially because I have heard clergy use the "I'm just a wounded healer" line to avoid repentance and amends and action to ensure repetition of some pretty damaging stuff.

  9. Sophia, point well taken. Indeed we have a responsibility to become healed healers. We have to do this in an active ongoing way. Using our woundedness as an excuse to remain wounded, and thereby cause others to be hurt, is tragic...unfortunately this is perhaps at the heart of much of our human discord...projecting hurt and pain onto others and blaming them instead of doing our own internal work?

  10. There was a brief effort here in my hometown to have a "truth and reconciliation" process about some of the racial/eco-racism stuff that has happened here. But people were so unwilling to face the bad stuff that it never really had a chance: from the very beginning the decision was made to call it a "healing and reconciliation" process instead of "truth and reconciliation", as if you could have healing or reconciliation without truth! Needless to say, it didn't get very far.
    I loved the William Sloan Coffin quote about that.
    I will have to look into this book for my ecumenical book group.

  11. Hi LF - welcome to the discussion. Truth is a very important element in healing and reconciliation. For those deeply wounded there is much healing in hearing the truth spoken by those who have caused the harm, and sometimes in the expression of that truth, there is also remorse. Telling our truth, saying the words, can be very powerful.

  12. Followup to a drama some folks have been supporting me through at Preacher Party and the PrayerBlog as well as my place: And the miracles don't quit--God and truth always win, and sometimes even on this earth and in the short term! I just got a call saying that the presiding bishop facing deposition proceedings, which I was helping prepare a brief for, for sheltering a pedophile priest is going to resign...Because someone found out he doesn't use his real first name, did some research under that--and uncovered his own criminal history of financial aid fraud.

    This is all relevant to this discussion as well because the man involved is deeply gifted and charismatic as well as deeply wounded and dangerous, which is why some of his clergy were closing their eyes to increasingly strong evidence....And I am convinced he has an undiagnosed mental illness--ironically, likely the one I live with myself--and have been praying hard for this to be an opening to healing and a new way of life for him. And that so often does take the old life crashing down around one, sadly. And still will of course, along with healing and true reform for a very wounded church body and present and former members thereof....Many many thanks to all who have prayed for me and all involved.

  13. I haven't had a chance to read Finding Beauty in a Broken World, but the quotes and comments remind me of Annie Dillard and her writing about the intersections of nature and spirit and the human experience. Thanks for making me want to find a copy of this book!

  14. this is lovely, Songbird, thank you so much!

  15. Don't thank me! I only helped embed the video link!! mompriest brought this book into our midst. I must admit I am only partly finished with it, but I found the metaphor of mosaic very powerful for my own life right now. I love the idea that to get the overall result you need what might seem like surprising components.

  16. LutheranChik, I agree there is a Dilliard quality to this book, in particular.

    SB - I too love the idea of mosaic and the way in which seemingly unrelated events become connected...that happens in life, and when we are aware of it, a sign of grace.

    Sophia, hoping this situation continues to unfold with truth and grace. The injustices in my life often take years to unravel and reveal their truth. But, as Mary Oliver wrote:

    Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. Someday I may see this too as gift.

    (Or something like that)....

  17. Mompriest, thank you so much for moderating this discussion and sharing your own connection to the theme of brokenness. I can only imagine that after all you have been through this year, this must bring up a true "mosaic" of feelings.

    The theme itself reminds me very much of Romeo Dallaire's book "Shake Hands with the Devil" which is about his time as Canada's UN envoy to Rwanda during the genocide. The poor man literally shouted from rooftops and anywhere else he could to try and get the UN to take action, but he went unheard. After it was all over, Dallaire became deeply depressed and contemplated suicide.

    He has since written the book, a movie has been made about his experience and he tours the country telling his story, in the hope that the words "never again" are no longer simply pretty words that allow such horror to continue.

  18. Sue, thank you for stopping by and sharing with us Romeo's experience and his book. Another confirmation of the challenges for those in Rwanda during the genocide, and after, to garner the attention of the rest of the world....


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