Learning From Hearts Broken Open

Lessons from 25 Years of Ministry on the Growing Edge

My nephew was a bright, ascending star. His academic acumen was extraordinary. His athletic ability was astounding. Musically, he was captivating with a repertoire and skill that could have landed him just about anywhere.

And on July 14, 2018, he took his own life.

Journalist Roxanne Roberts was right when she wrote of her father’s death more than 30 years ago, “Suicide is the last word in an argument, maybe an argument you never knew you were having. It is a grand exit, one guaranteed to make everybody stop in his tracks, pay attention and feel bad. It is meant to be the last scene of the last act of life. Curtain down. End of story.”

Except it isn’t.

Tosca jumps off the parapet, and I wonder who finds the shattered body. Romeo and Juliet die with a kiss, and I grieve for their parents. Madame Butterfly collapses on the dagger, and I cry for her little boy in the sailor suit.

The angel Clarence, speaking before the days of gender inclusive language, in It’s a Wonderful Life was right when he said, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”

I raise this specter, so to speak, because death has a way of becoming Occam’s razor for my own vocation: What difference does nearly 25 years of ordained ministry make on the lives that are cut short?

It’s a rhetorical question for certain, but it comes at a time when, at least for mainline denominations, our institutions are shrinking, the walls of smallness are closing in, and the same old leadership voices perpetuate a droning hum of ordinariness that stifles innovation, collaboration, and creativity for a vision of days gone by.

The challenge for me, always, is to ask myself: Am I just another one of those voices? What must I do to cultivate a freshness, even after 25 years of ministry, which will allow my congregation and myself to continue to grow, invite change, innovation and creativity?

For me, it has always begun with an open heart—a heart often broken open.

An open heart (along with an open mind) allows several things to happen.

First, a heart broken open inures the capacity of resiliency. Elizabeth Drescher, in the book Daily Prayers for All Seasons, eloquently articulated this resiliency:

In the light of each day’s questions,
I am never prepared.
Today, again, I have nothing
to offer but a handful
of old prayers, worn down
by the relentless abrasion
of doubt, and a fragment
of dream that plays on in my head
only half remembered. Still,
the doves coo and circle
through the pines
as they do when I pass
each morning. Their sorrow
is so nearly human, it rings
sweet with regret. By dusk,
the trees will bow down and I, too, will
make my appeal, will find
again your mercy,
your solace.

A heart broken open allows us the suppleness needed to grow in ways we never thought we could. Kathleen Norris puts it this way:

The comedy of grace is that it must so often come to us as loss and failure because if it came as success and gain we wouldn’t be grateful. We would, as we are wont to do, take personal credit for what is an unwarranted gift of God. But for grace to be grace, it must take us places we didn’t imagine we could go, and give us things we didn’t know we needed.

And what are those places grace can only take us? Can an old dog learn new tricks? Is a quarter of a century too long for anyone in ordained ministry?

I don’t think so. That would be placing limits on God and grace. Rather, as stated before, an open heart allows suppleness. Transformation through any of us is mystery, a gift given for the sake of others, not our ever-hungering egos.

The Reverend Dr. Howard Thurman, in his sermon “The Growing Edge” knew only too well the divine mystery of how things grow whether through plant-life or human beings. Thurman’s powerful insight is worth quoting at length:

Look well to the growing edge. All around us worlds are dying and new worlds are being born; all around us life is dying and life is being born. The fruit ripens on the tree, the roots are silently at work in the darkness of the earth against a time when there shall be new leaves, fresh blossoms, green fruit.

Such is the growing edge. It is the extra breath from the exhausted lung, the one more thing to try when all else has failed, the upward reach of life when weariness closes in upon all endeavor. This is the basis of hope in moments of despair, the incentive to carry on when times are out of joint and men and women have lost their reason, the source of confidence when worlds crash and dreams whiten into ash. Such is the growing edge incarnate. Look well to the growing edge.

Finally, I’ve found a heart broken open is the doorway to new worlds and new possibilities. So very often in times of ministry or tragedy the way past an impasse or thorny issues was always difficult because I reached the limits of my creativity, then pressed on. In other words, I could imagine a world beyond what I was experiencing.

However, a heart broken open, that is, one that nurtures a practice caring for others beyond myself, even when I didn’t feel caring or loving, opens for me the door of what Samuel Coleridge called “primary” and “secondary imagination.” A brief example is helpful in explaining Coleridge’s distinction.

Years ago, AT&T had a great video ad in which a 5-year-old-child’s drawings were taking over a city. The background music was from the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory—the classic song, “Pure Imagination.” The ad ends with a question that epitomizes what Coleridge defined as primary imagination: “Remember when you were five and anything was possible?”

That part of the mind is needed now more than ever for ministry in a church rent with often difficult changes. It is an unconscious expression of creativity that allows us to give order to chaos, to make sense of confusion, to create meaning out of tragedy. It draws from moments of unbridled joy, certainly, but also from hearts broken open.

Secondary imagination bridges the world of imagination with the material world. This happens consciously through allowing the heat of love and the embrace of fear to move us to create something new. While pain and suffering are a part of the journey, transformation is the end and the reward. This is much more than a concept but, arguably, an action of the divine working in us, allowing us to dissolve old practices, outmoded worldviews, dysfunctional ways of organizing our lives together.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt is onto this when she insists, “But there remains also the truth that every end in history necessarily contains a new beginning. This beginning is the promise, the only message which the end can never produce. …This beginning is guaranteed by each new birth. It is indeed every [human].”

I began this essay at an end—a tragic, painful end. And, many of us see ourselves in a church that is lurching to its own ending, perhaps largely by our own hands. This is a painful, wrenching thing to experience, to put into words, even. But, if my own quarter century of ministry has taught me anything, it’s that such difficulties are the gateway to new life, personally, in our ministries, and in the church itself. The heart broken open, it turns out, is a heart with nothing left to lose, a heart willing, to risk, grow, suffer, and transform for the sake of love.

If you or someone you know are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK. For crisis support in Spanish, call 1-888-628-9454. Additional resources are available at https://www.speakingofsuicide.com/resources.

Daily Prayers for All Seasons, Elizabeth Drescher, Grief, Hannah Arendt, Heart Broken Open, Lessons Learned, Loss, Ministry, Occam's Razor, Primary Imagination, Pure Imagination, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Roxanne Roberts, Samuel Coleridge, Secondary Imagination, The Growing Edge, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory

Ronald D. Culmer

The Reverend Ronald D. Culmer is married and has two children, two dogs, and one goldfish in a house small on size but big on love. Ron served in the United States Air Force, and was stationed at Altus AFB in Oklahoma. He has BA from California Lutheran University and a Master of Divinity from The Church Divinity School of the Pacific. Reverend Culmer is the Rector of St. Clare’s Episcopal Church and School in Pleasanton, California and is enrolled in the joint D.Min. program in Congregational Development at Bexley-Seabury and CDSP and expects to finish his dissertation in June of 2018. Find him on Twitter at @onebreadonecup.

Cover Image: Jonathan Bowers, “Irish LightRays.” (Jan. 25, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 1: Banjo Emerson Mathew, “Sunkissed.” (June 9, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.0 license.

Inside Image 2: T. Chick McClure, “Religious Men.” (Mar. 1, 2018). Via Unsplash. CC2.o license.