By Nako Kellum –
My father is a potter. He lives in Japan. After his retirement, he began to study pottery, and since then, he has produced hundreds of cups, bowls, and vases. He has given me a chalice set for Holy Communion, and several mugs, cups, and rice bowls. I felt bad when I had to tell him that I (actually it was our cat) broke a cup that he had made for me. I did not want to discard it, because I cherished the fact that he made it for me. Surprisingly, his answer was, “No problem! I can just do tsugi.”
In Japanese, tsugi (tsoo-gee) means “to mend,” and we use this word when we mend pottery, china, or lacquered items. We use glue or lacquer to put the broken pieces together, and if the pottery or china is very special, the artisan will perform a “kin-tsugi” repair. Kintsugi (keen-tsoo-gee) is a step beyond a lacquer repair, in that the artisan inlays gold powder over the repair as well. This began in the 14th century, when the practice of tea ceremony became popular in Japan. People who practiced the art of tea ceremony did not want to discard expensive tea bowls when they broke, so they came up with the idea of “kintsugi,” i.e., mending the broken pieces with gold.
When you repair a vessel using kintsugi, you will see gold lines and fillings where there were cracks and chips. You can tell the pottery was broken, but it looks beautiful in a new and different way. Kintsugi makes the broken vessel beautiful again, and it makes the pottery stronger, because of the lacquer.
Kintsugi is a good analogy of how God works in us. We are broken, but he “mends” us.
Occasionally, I hear stories from people who have gone through very challenging seasons in their lives. I am saddened and heartbroken when I hear what they go through, whether it is abuse, illness, loss, addiction, or broken relationships. What amazes me, however, is their resilience. Most of them confess that they are still around because of what God has done for them, or that they are stronger because of the trials. Some say that God used their past to help others. It is as if God mends the cracks and the chips, and makes something new and stronger.
When I was a young child, I did not like to break things, often crying when I broke something. The first time I broke my doll, I started crying, and my mother said to me, “Well, everything that has a shape breaks eventually.” She was telling me that anything made of matter would not last forever. She was never upset with us when we broke things accidentally, but repeated, again, “Everything that has a shape breaks eventually.” It was her way of comforting us, and at the same time, teaching us to let go of things.
Though she said that, I knew that she performed “tsugi” on some of her favorite china and pottery. It wasn’t kintsugi, as she just mended them with glue. Some pieces still sit in the china cabinet in my parents’ house. She did not discard them (as she did my doll), but she picked up the pieces and put them back together.
I feel comfort in the fact that God does not discard us because of our brokenness. Just as everything that has a shape breaks, we human beings are broken. All of us have cracks and chips that come from sin, weaknesses, and hurts. Our tendency is to hide that brokenness from each other and at times, even from God. The idea behind kintsugi is quite the opposite. Instead of hiding brokenness, kintsugi embraces brokenness and uses the imperfections to make something beautiful.
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul compares us with pottery, or jars of clay: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us” (1 Corinthians 5:7, NRSV). I wish we were compared to metal, which is difficult to break, but, we are clay jars. God’s power shows through our weakness, brokenness, and shortcomings, just like the gold lines in kintsugi. God is not ashamed of our cracks and chips. Instead, he uses them to show his power and glory, mending us from the inside out, with his very presence.
I asked my father if he would use kintsugi to mend my broken pottery. He looked into it, but the materials were too expensive. This is because kintsugi uses real gold and natural lacquer. From reading an interview with kintsugi artist Yuko Yamashita, natural lacquer is collected from a lacquer tree that must be at least ten years old. The lacquer needs to be collected between early summer and fall, and one can only extract about one cup of lacquer per tree. After the lacquer is collected, the tree is cut down for lumber. Yamashita says it is as if the lacquer tree gives up its life in order for broken pottery to have a new life. Gold and natural lacquer are precious materials in their own right. Kintsugi costs…a lot.
It cost God to mend us, as well. God mended our brokenness through his Son’s broken body. Recently, our church started a weekly Holy Communion service on Monday nights. Every time we celebrate Holy Communion, I am reminded of my own brokenness and how much I need my Savior and Lord, to mend me. It reminds me of Jesus, who gave his life, so we can have true life. God had the power to make Jesus’ broken body into a new resurrected body, and he has the power to make us new as well.
Kintsugi is not about restoring the pottery perfectly to its original condition. It is about making something new, using what was already there. The cup does not become a plate, but the cup that is mended with gold is not the same cup that was broken. The kintsugi part of pottery is called “keshiki”(kay-she-key) – “a landscape.” It is a new landscape that the owner of the pottery can enjoy.
How can we be “keshiki” – a new landscape – for God, and for others, to enjoy? We can start by offering ourselves to God. We do not need to hide our brokenness and imperfection from God, because he has the power to mend it. We cannot do it ourselves, but the Lord of the Resurrection can. There is nothing beautiful about brokenness. We are not “beautifully broken.” However, I would suggest that we can be “beautifully mended” in Jesus, when we let God work in us, for he is the Potter, just as we are the clay.
Do we trust our Heavenly Father as the Potter? Our church, the United Methodist Church, is broken. Some people may say its cracks and chips are beyond repair, but I believe God can mend us with gold – the “gold” being his presence, and his power. It does not mean he will bring us back to how we have been, or to our idea of “unity.” It will be something new when we let God mend us, instead of trying to fix it ourselves.
“Kintsugi” at times adds more value to the pottery than its original form. There are people who intentionally break their pottery and do “kintsugi,” so it will have more value. What if, by letting our Father, our Potter, mend us, it adds more value, as the church, to his Kingdom? What if we pray together, placing ourselves totally in God’s hands, and as the whole church we seek his will? I trust that God will mend us and give us a new “keshiki,” a new landscape, and I believe it will be beautiful.
Nako Kellum is co-pastor in charge at First United Methodist Church of Tarpon Springs in Tarpon Springs, Florida.