Five centuries or so ago in Japan, a tea master named Yusai Hosokawa was preparing tea for a warlord when a servant dropped an invaluable vessel. The piece broke into five pieces and the warlord raised his hand to punish the servant, but Yusai intervened by singing an improvisation on an ancient romance poem, altering a phrase in the courtship song to take responsibility for the broken pot on the servant’s behalf. It worked. The warlord was moved and showed mercy.
Later, Yusai took the five broken pieces and had them put back together again. But the pot was not restored to its former beauty. Yusai had the pieces repaired with lacquer and gold gilding. What had been cracks and flaws became the primary features in a new creation. The warlord, who had first been moved by the beauty of Yusai’s song, was now moved by the beauty of this once broken pot, a beauty which now exceeded that of its original state, and the art of Kintsugi was born.
A Japanese painter named Makoto Fujimura retells this story in a book titled Art & Faith: A Theology of Making. Fujimura points out first that the art of Kintsugi was born of a moment of compassion when Yusai put himself between the warlord’s anger and the servant. But, once he felt this compassion, what he inserted in the situation was not a defensive act of violence, but an instance of beauty: a song.
There is something transcendent in this unlikely kinship between compassion and beauty. And by transcendent, I mean that it transcends familiar categories. Even categories such as brokenness and repair. Kintsugi, you see, is not an art of repair. What once was is not restored. Kintsugi is about new creation. A new creation whose beauty comes to us precisely through its brokenness.
Makoto Fujimura is a Christian. And he sees, in this ancient art, something essential about the Christian faith that Christians on the theological left and on the right can miss. Christians on the right might see the missionary task as returning the lost to a right understanding of the redeeming work of God in Christ. And Christians on the left, especially those committed to social justice, will go to work repairing the world.
Both projects are part of what the Christian faith and life are about. But they are incomplete. Evangelicals and liberals alike can forget that the gospel is not that we can restore this broken world or our own broken understandings of God into the pristine forms of Eden. Christian hope is that a new creation is always at hand and that the Creator is always taking the shards of what is and shaping them into a beauty that acknowledges and incorporates them and could not exist without them.
This seems like a good time for some Kinstugi theology. A pandemic wiped away so many of the familiar forms of our worship and our prayers. It took away the ways we gather at meals and express ourselves in song and greet each other bodily with hugs and handshake and even smiles, now concealed behind masks. It’s only natural to long for a return to what was. But we won’t. Nothing in this world is ever truly put back together again. Not Humpty Dumpty or teapots or human communities.
The good news—as in, the gospel—is that the Easter hope of Christian faith has never been about restoration. It’s always been about the new creation that is springing into being today, like a mustard bush from a seed or a loaf of bread swelling from a few grains of yeast.
And what I pray for you and me and Calvary and our whole world right now is that we come to see and trust that God can incorporate even what’s most broken in us into the beauty of a new creation that is still just coming to be.
Hopefully, such trust will give us the space to be truthful about the sadness and loss and heartbreak we’ve experienced. Hopefully, it will make us less prone to pretend the cracks in our lives aren’t real or try to make them invisible to others and to ourselves. Hopefully, we’ll come to rest in the truth that all of who we are, and all of what we’ve experienced, can be put to beautiful use, the glistening, gleaming cracks in a creation that is being made new, even now. Even here. Even in us. Even in you.