Strong in the Broken Places
A Thanksgiving address, November 24, 2008
Dr. Robert M. Franklin at the Rotary Club of Atlanta
Many thanks to President Alex and President elect Richard Stormont for this opportunity to speak.
I’d also like to acknowledge and thank Dr. Cheryl Franklin, the first lady of the College who helps me to bear the heavy burdens at this challenging time for college leadership. I am proud of the many Morehouse alumni in this Rotary Club, my very talented team who are here and distinguished colleagues like Ambassador Andrew Young, Dr. Louis Sullivan, and Mr. Eugene Duffy. And, let me remind you all that Spelman and Morehouse will host our annual Glee Club Christmas concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, December 5-7. Please check our websites for details but you are all invited.
No Thanksgiving message would be complete without a Bishop Bevel Jones moment. So, in Bevel’s honor, I offer the following story. Today, Bevel is seated right next to the door not unlike St. Peter at the pearly gates.
A young pastor was appointed to a church and at the conclusion of the first few sermons, an elderly woman would position herself to be the last person to greet the pastor. She approached him, looked directly into his eyes and said earnestly only, “Pastor, you’re something else.” He was flattered by this comment each time she offered it. This went on for several weeks. Finally, he couldn’t stand it any longer and asked her, ‘Why do you say the same thing every week? Is there anything else to your comment?’ She paused and said, ‘Well, Reverend, I’ve been listening to your sermons for the past month and I declare, you’re not a preacher, you must be something else.’
Today, as we look forward to gathering at the Thanksgiving table with family and friends, I’d like to offer a brief perspective on the wealth of our great nation and a reminder of the heavy price paid for all we enjoy.
Two of my favorite authors provide quotations that focus on this paradox of the strength that comes from great sacrifice, tragedy and pain. The first is from Maya Angelou, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived. But, if faced with courage, need not be lived again.” The other comes from Ernest Hemingway. “Life breaks all of us, but some of us are strong in the broken places.”
Strong in the broken places. That is the subject of my remarks today. My hope is that it will contain some small bit of encouragement for all of us who have been visited by anxiety and loss, pain, and dread in recent weeks and months.
The Thanksgiving we celebrate today was born amidst great suffering. The pilgrims, who arrived in Plymouth in 1620, endured a brutal winter. Those of you who have lived in or visited New England in the winter know that there is a quality of cold that reaches deep inside and seizes the soul. In fact, the history books indicate that 46 of the original 102 colonists—nearly half—perished from the lack of fresh food to eat and the inability to treat resulting diseases. Imagine the grief and the quiet regret many felt at having made the decision to journey across a wide ocean to the untamed American wilderness.
The next year, these new Americans harvested a bountiful crop. But, one historian noted, they had “made seven times more graves than huts.” Despite this, they set aside a day for thanksgiving. In fact, it was a three day traditional English harvest festival, and included the Native Americans to whom credit is given for helping the pilgrims survive the first year in a new land. Imagine that, half of the people of your village, your subdivision have perished in the past year, but still, you pause to celebrate all that remained and all that could be restored.
Those who dined at the earliest Thanksgiving feasts did not live to see the Revolutionary War that would move us from a colony to an independent republic. Nor could they have imagined that that same young nation would be torn asunder a hundred years later in a cataclysmic Civil War. But, Thanksgiving endured. Soldiers in every war have paused when they could to eat and to give thanks. In time, a divided nation would begin the slow march toward healing and unity. Again, hard economic times both exposed our best instincts and core spiritual values as we shared our bounty, but also our deep fears as some citizens harbored hatred and prejudice based upon unchangeable, God given differences. Then, on 9/11, a fateful attack that killed a few thousand also united millions in America and billions around the world in what Dr. King called “an inescapable network of destiny.”
But, as we continued the long march toward national unity, as a nation we began slowly to perceive strength in our diversity. We elected a young president who happened to be Catholic, and women who could not vote before 1920, began to appear in Congress, the Supreme Court and the highest levels of government and corporate executive roles. Life went on. The world noticed the habit of Americans to innovate and to navigate the winds of change.
The nation grew stronger and we became wiser as we discovered untapped depth in those old fashioned, core American values of freedom, equality, peacemaking, and compassion for the least advantaged members of our communities.
And, as president of Morehouse College, I am compelled to observe that, remarkably, just forty four years ago when the legendary Benjamin E. Mays was Morehouse president, most black Americans could not safely and reliably vote. And, now, the United States has elected another young president who happens to be black. It is almost unimaginable that one nation could make that much progress in four short decades, but…that is the American way. And, now, once again the world stands in awe of us, or better, in awe of that wonderful, ineffable quality we call the American spirit. It is a resilient spirit. And, it constantly surprises us with its bottomless potential for renewal.
“Life breaks all of us, but some of us are made strong in the broken places.”
As we pause for the Thanksgiving meal, again many of our fellow neighbors live in misery and deep, unsettling uncertainty about the future. Many of us have taken deep financial hits in recent months and we are informed from this platform that chilly times are in the future forecast. Many who observed Thanksgiving last year held jobs they thought were secure. Now, the ranks of the unemployed are swelling.
As if that were not enough, we are cognizant of two foreign wars where fellow Americans are making the ultimate sacrifice. 4200 have fallen in Iraq and 600 in Afghanistan. We mourn each and every one of these precious souls and we give thanks for what they have given to us. When we sit at table this week, let us remember the families of soldiers and those who serve far from home. One writer observed that, “gratitude is born in hearts that take time to count up past mercies.”
Like the pilgrims, Americans today understand disappointment and terror. But, despite our difficult lessons and the expensive wisdom we have purchased, “some of us have been made strong in our broken places.”
Perhaps, as we display gratitude we may discover that we are interdependent. And, we are invited to become co-creators with God of a better future.
As a subject, gratitude has long been the intellectual property of religious philosophers and humanists. But in recent years, science has taken an interest in conducting research on the impact of gratitude on our health and well-being. In short, gratitude, like laughter, is good for the human brain and the human soul.
Like many of you, I have been privileged to participate in a Jewish Passover Seder meal. An elaborate ritual dinner held on the first night of the Passover. One of the passages of the litany declares that we must give thanks, “Even if some of the memories cause pain, and even if the edges of our most recent wounds have not yet begun to heal, …we must celebrate.”
The story is told of a Renaissance artist who made the world’s most prized vases. A foreign visiting apprentice came to observe his method. After laboring for many weeks with one piece of clay, firing it, painting it, baking it, he placed it upon a pedestal for inspection. The apprentice sat in awe at this thing of unspeakable beauty. But, it appeared that the artist was not yet finished. In a shocking and dramatic moment, the artist lifted the vase above his head and dashed it against the floor, breaking it into a thousand shards. Then, quietly, he reconnected the pieces by painting them with a paint of pure gold. Each crack reflected invaluable gold. In the end, this magnificent but imperfect piece became the most valued piece in the collection.
As you gather with family, some at your table will feel broken. They may not speak of it, but you will know it is there. Let them know that they can become strong again. They can endure.
And, as you look into the mirror each morning, and see the slow and quiet evidence of strain and stress, of passing time and battle fatigue begin to etch deeper. Know that those are not wrinkles but lines of character and wisdom and beauty.
Life breaks all of us, yet, many of us are strong in the broken places.
I can think of no better way to conclude than the comforting words of the great hymn:
“Life is filled with swift transitions.
Naught on earth unmoved can stand.
Build your hope on things eternal.
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.
Thank you, and have a wonderful Thanksgiving.