Living the Beatitudes: Broken In

February 2, 2017 by

There’s a lot of “God talk” in our world these days and no lack of nominal Christians. Political candidates cite scripture passages in an effort to win supporters while billboards display Christian slogans across our nation. But how many of us grasp the true import of Jesus’ life and teachings and actually live according to them?

Jesus’ teachings revolutionized the religious and political ideologies of his time and continue to do so today. Rejecting egoism, Jesus taught self-denial and sacrifice for the good of others. In stark contrast to the anticipated Messiah who would conquer and rule, Jesus was born in poverty. He lived in obscurity and was crucified with criminals. What is more, he expects the same from us, his disciples.

Kelvin Burke

True Christianity is dangerous business and has exacted the martyrdom of thousands throughout the centuries. In today’s culture of convenience and ease, I fear many of us have opted for a pseudo-Christianity that misses the point almost entirely.

The Beatitudes, which encapsulate the gospel message, prescribe virtues most of us would rather avoid; that’s what makes them so radical. Why did Jesus promote emptiness, poverty and meekness?

In his essay, “Blessed are the Merciful,” John Piper suggests that the condition of emptiness creates a vacuum in us that longs to be filled with righteousness. “Then come three descriptions of how righteousness abounds in the heart of the hungry: mercy, purity and peacemaking.”

Not all of us are born inherently merciful, pure, or peaceful. In fact, few of us possess these virtues naturally. According to Christ’s teachings, however, these are the attributes we must attain if we wish to enter God’s kingdom.

Throughout history people have struggled to reconcile the existence of a loving God with the suffering that plagues our world. I myself have grappled with this seeming inconsistency. According to Piper, however, God may use poverty, illness, and pain to purge us of pride and self-reliance, making room in us for warmth, love, and tenderness.

Kelvin Burke in his wheelchair

Take, for example, the virtue of mercy which Jesus applauds in the fifth Beatitude. To extend mercy to another, I must feel compassion toward them. In my experience, empathy cannot be cultivated by willpower alone. It is birthed in us through the repeated blows of life, as canyons and mountains are hewn out of unyielding rock.

“Mercy comes from a heart that has first felt its spiritual bankruptcy, come to grief over its sin, learned to wait meekly for the timing of the Lord and to cry out in hunger for the work of his mercy to satisfy us with the righteousness we need,” says Piper.

An early Christian parable compared God’s kingdom to the building of a marble tower. The perfection of the tower requires every stone to be chiseled and fitted by the stonemason. Like these stones, we too must submit to being broken by the hand of God.

Kelvin Burke, a chaplain on the Isle of Wight, experienced this dramatically when, at the age of twenty-three, he found himself forcefully moved from the ranks of the able-bodied into those of the disabled.

At twenty-three it looked like I had it all going for me. I was sporty, flirty, and had a good job as an accountant. I played hockey in the Premier League and had an outside chance of being selected for Great Britain for the 1980 Olympics. I owned a four-bedroomed detached house and was a practicing Christian. What more could I have wished for? Then, on May 30, 1979, the bottom fell out of my rosy world.
I was on a church week away hiking in the beautiful British Lake District. I and some buddies had just climbed Buttermere Fell with its spectacular views over Lake Burrermere, Honister Pass and the famous Honister Slate Mines. We hiked back via Derwent Fell, pausing to ponder, pray, and worship as we enjoyed the vista of mountains and valleys. Returning to our camp site a short time later we were nearing the top of Honister Pass – singing choruses and spiritual songs – when our car stalled, sped backwards, and crashed over the side of the mountain pass, falling into the ravine below. I was thrown out of the car and landed with the car pinning me face down in a stream with a complete spinal cord fracture at the level of the eleventh thoracic vertebra. My lungs were pierced, and I was paralyzed from the waist down.
As I lay there waiting for the ambulance, I heard the words of the Lord clearly in my heart, “I am with you always.” This verse went through my mind repeatedly as I battled for life in intensive care.
Returning to work as an accountant, now in full-length calipers after ten months in hospital, I was no longer the cocky youngster who set off to the Lake District the previous year. I now saw the needs of people around me. One was alcoholic, another had cancer. One guy was estranged from his wife, while the next was rich but lonely.
As I prayed and read in the Bible, I felt challenged to give up my business and become a full-time pastor. Not only had the accident paralyzed me for life, it changed me spiritually.

Kelvin Burke speaking to a hospice patient

Kelvin now serves as the lead chaplain for the Isle of Wight NHS Trust, serving patients in both a hospital and hospice setting.

Pastoral and spiritual care in a healthcare setting is intense. I encounter people seeking meaning and purpose in life post-trauma. Assumed “givens” – independence, mobility and good health – are stripped away, and life looks different for many patients following illness or trauma. Then along comes the chaplain in a wheelchair. And, because that young twenty-three year old was trapped under a car off Honister Pass – broken and traumatized – he finds an immediate rapport.

Kelvin has been deeply influenced by Henri Nouwen’s Wounded Healer wherein he depicts Christ’s brokenness as our way to new life. The wounded healer empathizes with the broken person, offering not an ideology but himself.

There is a deep interconnection between the qualities Jesus highlights in the Beatitudes. Poverty of spirit – whether inherent at birth or acquired through life’s blows – transforms us into instruments of mercy. When we submit ourselves to be broken by God, we can be molded and used. In the words of Mother Teresa, we become “little pencils in the hand of a writing God, who is sending a love letter to the world.”

Pictures of Kelvin Burke used with permission.

Read more posts in this series.


About the author

Rebekah Domer

Rebekah Domer

Since Rebekah’s upbringing at the Woodcrest Bruderhof in New York, life has taken her on many diverse assignments, from the...

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  • Dear Rebekah, Many thanks indeed for your new Blog. It must give you a terrible lot of work to do, but you must help many, many people and draw them near to God, the source of everything, especially Mercy and Love. Pope Francis made the year 2016 a year of Mercy;our hope is that it has changed the hearts and minds of many, many people. I hope your Blog will do the same and open the hearts and minds of people to God. God is in Charge in the hearts of all people and our life is a gift from Him. We hear of so many people who die each day for one reason or another - accidents, wars, killings, etc. What is important is that if we stay close to God, listen to Him and ask for His help, we will be ready to meet Him and to live in True Life. God tells us : "Happy are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven." What He asks of each of us is to "Be Merciful", like He is Merciful and to share that mercy with all. Veronica

  • Thank you Rebekah. We read this together at our dinner table this evening. Our teenagers weren't too sure they liked the idea of being "little pencils" writing a love letter to the world, but usually Mother Teresa hits the nail on the head. We certainly see and hear plenty of tragedy in people's lives, and it is a grace if God uses it to change people into his instruments. Steven MacDonald comes to mind. And the prayer of St. Francis, loved by both Steven and Mother Teresa, has universal truths in which compassion and peace can be found through love to others. With the world going in the direction it is heading, we are going to need all the instruments of peace we can possibly get. To be a true instrument of peace will come through hardship, poverty, and suffering. Thank you for writing and sharing this.

  • Great blog. I really enjoyed it!!! Do you know Joni Erickson Tada? She became a quadriplegic at age 17, paralyzed from the neck down, from diving into shallow water. She, too, has a ministry and is a blessing and inspiration to many people, myself included.

    Emily Russo
  • What a beautiful journey with God...

  • Dear Rebekah, What a beautifully written tribute to an inspiring role model for us all.

    Rosalie V Gambino