Breaking Things

A fair Puritan, E. Percy Moran (Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons).

A Fair Puritan, E. Percy Moran (Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons).

I am not terribly clumsy and yet I have a way of breaking things. Now, I am not the artist that my cousin Stan was. When we were boys, I dreaded when Stan, who was a few years younger than I, came to our house because he would want to play with my toys and any toy that Stan touched broke. Notice I did not say that Stan broke it because that would be neither true nor fair; it was more like magic—if he touched it, it broke. He just had the gift.

I don’t break a lot of things but when I do break something, it usually belongs to someone I love. I don’t always hurt the ones I love, but I tend to break things that belong to the ones I love.

One night just before Thanksgiving last year I broke a Pilgrim. My good wife has two Pilgrim figurines, one male and one female—Mr. & Mrs. Pilgrim, I guess—that she sets out every year at this time, these being the days leading up to Thanksgiving. She’d placed them on the counter behind the kitchen sink; our sink is located on a bar so there is open air behind it that leads directly to the floor. I was putting a glass in the sink and, rather than walk the four extra steps required to get to the front of the sink, I reached over the counter from behind the sink and—without incident, I might add—placed the glass in the sink.

Something happened, though, when I drew my arm back. I got distracted or careless and my sleeve caught the top of the pilgrim’s hat—if he had been wearing a baseball cap this never would have happened—and before I knew it, Mr. Pilgrim was lying, like James Taylor’s “sweet dreams and Flying Machines,” “in pieces on the ground.”

My good wife heard the crash and asked, “What happened?”

“I broke a Pilgrim,” I answered—I wonder if I am the first person since Pocahontas to speak those words.

Then she smiled at me and said, “I can’t have anything nice!”

I knew where she was coming from. Her late sister Jean had a bunch of old stuff and sometimes she’d give Debra some of it; if it’s a nice old platter or something else fragile I’m very likely to break it, so I try to avoid them.

In this case she was kidding because those Pilgrim figurines are not valuable in any sense of the word—they didn’t cost a lot of money and they don’t have any sentimental value (she doesn’t even remember where she got them, much less how much they cost), and it wasn’t a major award. I mean, it’s not like I broke one of her precious Precious Moments figurines—I never go anywhere near the curio cabinet they’re in. I picked up the pieces of the shattered Pilgrim and she looked at them and said, “It’s ok. It’s just a thing. And I can glue it back together.”

My mind flashed back, as my mind is prone to do. My father had bought a brand new used black four-door 1964 Mercury Comet; it couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. I was maybe ten. That car had two things on it that I had never seen before on a car: air conditioning and a little lever on the driver’s door with which you could adjust the side view mirror without rolling down the window. One afternoon I got to messing with the mirror adjustor and the next thing I knew, part of it was in my hand and the rest of it was down inside the door. Now, I could have just walked away and let Daddy wonder how it happened, but I wasn’t that kind of kid. So I found him and told him what had happened, handing him the piece that had come off in my hand.

He looked like he was going to cry. “I guess I can’t have anything,” he muttered, and he turned and walked away. Now, Daddy wasn’t usually like that about things; obviously something else—probably lots of something else—was going on that I didn’t know about. The breaking of the mirror adjusting thing felt to him that day for some reason like the last straw; I suppose it was symbolic of other losses he was experiencing or dreading. He was able to get it fixed and after he did he told me that it was no big deal—but it sure did seem like it at the time, although I did not, and still do not, understand why.

The fact, though, is that in relationships things get broken. The further fact is that it is in our closest relationships that the most meaningful things get broken. The risk of brokenness is one of the prices we pay for our close sharing of life with each other. The still further fact is that what we do with the things that get broken matters.

John Claypool told a story about a five-year-old boy who at his kindergarten made, with his teacher’s help, a clay ashtray as a Christmas gift for his pipe-smoking father. They molded the clay into a shape approximating an ashtray, painted it his father’s favorite color, and fired it in a kiln. After the kindergarten’s Christmas program, the boy ran to get the gift-wrapped ashtray for his father and, running down the hall, dropped it. It hit the floor, shattering within the wrapping paper. The boy sobbed inconsolably. His father told him not to cry; “It doesn’t make any difference,” he said. But his mother knew better. She held her son in her arms and cried with him. Then she said, “Let’s pick up the pieces and take them home and see what we can make of what is left.”

It is, like everything else, finally all about grace. Things get broken. We pick up the pieces, take them home, and see what we can make of what is left. And because of grace, what can be made of the pieces can be more worth having than what had previously seemed “perfect.”

“I guess I can’t have anything.” Sure you can. It’s just that after it gets broken you have to fix it and then you have to live with the cracks in it.

What my good wife said of the broken Mr. Pilgrim applies to us and of our relationships, too: “The cracks will give him character. . . .”

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra; father of Joshua and Sara. He pastors First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA and a graduate of Mercer University (1978) & Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1982 & 1986). He is the former Pastor of First Baptist Church, Adel, GA, former Associate Professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and former pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, GA.

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