Broken Soil, Broken Hearts

[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

This week, I prepared our small garden space, as I do every year, for the tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, cucumbers, and more than we’ll plant in the coming days. It starts with layering on top of the ground wheelbarrows full of freshly composted soil (filled this year, thankfully, with earthworms and grubs), then working it into the dirt, breaking apart the soil and mixing it in with a rototiller. It’s a violent process, but with the heavy clay content of our native dirt, it almost always needs to be done.

I always feel a sense of satisfaction and peace when I can look back upon this labor after it’s done, even though it’s a small and not particularly impressive bit of work. Still, in its little way, it makes me think about the necessary disruptions in any productive life. Sometimes the good that is natural to a thing is best revealed by attending upon its own rhythms and time–but other times, it has to be drawn out, with work. And sometimes, of course, that work is thrust upon us, without our choosing.

I thought about my rototilling in church today. All our regular meetings were cancelled, so we could instead attend a special stake meeting to hear from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, who ended up–in the midst of mission conferences and other responsibilities–here in Wichita, KS, this Sunday. Holland asked several people to bear their testimony before him, and then he spoke for a half-hour, picking up on what he felt was an unspoken theme in the others’ comments. Launching into a litany of the thousand ways in which we can all feel burdened and broken up by life–haunted by the deaths of loved ones, handicapped by disease, struggling with finances, in despair over the challenges our children face, and so much more–Elder Holland plaintively insisted, again and again: “God loves broken things.”

Speaking both theologically and agriculturally, Holland riffed on the great Baptist preacher Vance Havner, and talked about how brokenness was both tragic and essential to our mortal life. How can God not love broken things?, he asked. So much of His creation is broken. It is only from broken clouds that we are able to receive rain for our soil. It is only from broken soil that grain may be grown. It is only from broken grain that bread may be milled. And that bread, once broken, becomes the essential symbol through which we may partake of the Savior’s own brokenness upon the cross, reminding ourselves of the broken heart and contrite spirit which we are commanded to seek. That heart, and that spirit, was exemplified by Jesus’s own brokenness–what Holland called the Savior’s own “contrition,” the sorrow He felt, the hurt that God Himself feels, at the inevitable and terrible and fundamental pain and disappointment and disruption of this fallen world.

Opening his scriptures, Holland turned to an old and beloved story, one that fits in well with stories of fallen natures and elemental struggles:

And the same day, when the even was come, he saith unto them, Let us pass over unto the other side.

And when they had sent away the multitude, they took him even as he was in the ship. And there were also with him other little ships.

And there arose a great storm of wind, and the waves beat into the ship, so that it was now full.

And he was in the hinder part of the ship, asleep on a pillow: and they awake him, and say unto him, Master, carest thou not that we perish?

And he arose, and rebuked the wind, and said unto the sea, Peace, be still. And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.

And he said unto them, Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him? (Mark 4: 35-41)

Storms are frightening, for certain, as are traffic accidents, sudden deaths, tragic realizations, disappointing news, economic downturns, unintended catastrophes, unlooked-for diagnoses, and so many other daily instances of brokenness. It would be easy to fall into a simplistic providentialism here, and wait on the healing which God promises to us all–and Elder Holland didn’t entirely escape that tendency. But more important was his insistence, as I understood him, that it is not experiencing doubt or anguish or pain which shows a failure to do that work which our own brokenness and the brokenness which we confront in all our friends and families and congregations calls us to perform. It is fear, above all else, that we must seek the faith to overcome. Yes, there is an ultimate healing which awaits those who endure…but more important, I think, is the fact that there is that peace of mind, that solace of feeling–“the peace of God, which passeth all understanding“–which attends those who trust that there is an empathetic, loving God, weeping for and with us through and in the midst of all our storms.

Recently, a young person has come into our family from a background that is commonly referred to–fairly or not–as “broken.” She needed a home, we provided one, and now we all find ourselves engaged, without have known what exactly any of us were choosing, in a good deal of sometimes painful and difficult and disruptive work. Perhaps something good and nourishing will grow from this breaking up of our family soil; perhaps we’ll find ourselves refreshed by the rain which the broken clouds are bringing into our home. Or maybe we’ll all just end up muddy and wet. Either way, I took inspiration from Elder Holland’s words: to not be fearful, and go about the work we cannot avoid doing, and look for the grace of peace along the way. It is a grace that will be there, in the tilled soil, and in the clearing which follows after every storm. I’m grateful to have been able to learn such things for myself, as I’ve broken up clods of dirt by hand…but, like everyone else, I need every reminder I can get.


  1. I love this. For various reasons I have long hated getting dirty, but recently I have gotten into gardening, where dirt is inevitable. (Mud, not quite so much, since I am in SoCal and there’s a drought on.) I am not sure that any other recreational pursuit (and for most Americans, let’s not kid ourselves about it being anything else) can make one understand the perspective of God quite like attempting to grow plants, whether for food or visual pleasure. Things that are beautiful to you will die, things on which you have labored will fail to thrive…and then, you eat a caprese salad from your garden tomatoes and basil, and it’s the greatest thing in the world.

  2. Thanks for the comment, APM. I’ve gotten to know over the years, through our local farmers market and elsewhere, some families and co-ops for whom gardening really is more than just recreation–but you’re certainly correct that such describes us. So unlike many other labors which involve and are made incumbent by brokenness, gardening is one that is entirely self-chosen. Still, I think you’re right about what getting into the dirt can teach you. Most essentially, the fact that everything you struggle to grow is fated to die, and before it dies it’s going to be attacked on all sides by other broken things–Holland himself went back to the refrain “thorns and thistles and noxious weeds” probably three or four times in his comments. But in the midst of all that, the grace: the homegrown tomato, the fresh chives, the melons bursting with life. It is, indeed, one of the greatest things in the world.

  3. Peter Yates says:

    God bless you and your family for agreeing to assist the young lady who seems to have experienced “brokenness” in her life.

    And thank you for sharing thoughts on being broken not being an end all, but perhaps a bridge to understand that our Savior really does understand us.

  4. Rachelle says:

    One of my all-time favorite songs is Broken by Kenneth Cope.
    Br. Holland’s talk sounds like he has heard this song, too.

  5. Kenneth Cope may not have known it, but Elder Holland probably knew that the language he was using originally came from the early 20th-century Baptist preacher and revivalist Vance Havner, in a sermon of his called “Gilgal to Gilboa.” The full passage is:

    God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that sheds forth perfume. It is Jacob limping from Jabbok who has power with God and men. It is Peter weeping bitterly who returns to greater power than ever before.

  6. whizzbang says:

    Pope Gregory the Great had a similar statement, it’s been said a few different ways but here is one version “For unless a grain of mustard seed be bruised, the extent of its virtue is never acknowledged. For without bruising it is insipid [lene], but if it is bruised it becomes hot, and if gives out all those pungent properties that were concealed in it. Thus every good man, so long as he is not smitten, is regarded as insipid [lenis], and of slight account. But if ever the grinding of persecution crush him, instantly he gives forth all the warmth of his savour, and all that before appeared to be weak or contemptible, is turned into godly fervour, and that which in peaceful times he had been glad to keep from view within his own bosom, he is driven by the force of tribulations to make known;”

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