Breaking Point

How I Came To Know Grace
William Stapleton

 It is perhaps the most exquisite of all ironies that the vessels most useful for the purposes of God are those He has broken, and put back together, and cracked, and repaired, and crushed, then loved back to integrity.

The bicycle seemed to have a mind of its own as I pedaled along the old country road.  The sound of the semi, Japanese cicadas that breed in the summer heat and raise an ominous sounding drone over the landscape, blended with the rattling of my back fender, reminding me that I didn’t even have a good bike to ride, just this old ratty one I’d found in the trash.  I was running away and I knew it.  “I should be downtown talking to people.” I said to nobody in particular.  “That’s what I’m here for, and yet here I am riding farther and farther out into the country where there’s nobody, just these awful insects, and the road and the heat.”
 July had hit like a hissing blowtorch, about four months into our second year in Japan.  Our stated goal and purpose was “language and culture learning, with a view to church planting.”  It sounded great, and looked good on newsletters and reports.  But the reality of it was something less.  Every afternoon was spent with a “helper,” someone who spoke some English and helped us put the next bit of required learning into conversational Japanese, taping it so we could practice later.  Helping us was a duty that had fallen to her by the mere trick of fates, as we had somehow showed up in her world.  We made the best of our time together, but that was it.  Every evening, from dinner dishes to bedtime was devoted to practicing, both as a family and individually, all that was recorded on that tape.  And every morning after breakfast I got on my bicycle and rode from house to house, business to business, place to place, practicng my newly memorized bit of Japanese with all who would take the time to listen, laugh at my mistakes, sometimes offer friendly correction, but mostly just ignore the crazy foreigner.

Today, stopping for lunch at a noodle shop, I tried to recite my text for the proprietor.  He lauged derisively and looked down his nose at me, and I couldn’t take it any more.  I left the bowl of noodles on the counter and rode away.  At first, the uphill climb outside my small town had been exhilarating, offering the opportunity to take out some frustration on the pedals and overcome the obstacle of the hill.  I looked straight down, watching the pavement disappear underneath my wheels, glancing only occasionally forward to see where I was going, giving no thought to the expenditure of energy, as adrenaline coursed through my veins.  At the top of the hill, the downhill curve had just been too inviting and, instead of turning back toward town, I went further.  The chain on my bike had been broken when I found it, and without proper tools I had beaten a master link from another chain into the holes with a rock and made it work.  But it gave a loud, complaining creak every time it crossed the sprocket at the rear wheel.  That sound, and the rattling back fender, and the semis filled my ears as I pedaled downward into the landscape of the farms below.  Now on the flat ground between the fields, farther away from my home and my town than I had ever been I stood up, pedaling onward and keeping my momentum.  Ahead about a kilometer or so were some trees that offered shade, inviting me to press onward and rest when I got there.  But as I creaked and rattled down that road I was overcome with a sense of dark hopelessness.  Each stroke of the pedal’s crank, every complaint from the barely-fixed chain reminded me again of just how much a foreigner I really was in this place.  Every mechanical noise I emitted as I made my way down that road sounded more and more out of harmony with the life, the ancient culture, the existence that had continued there uninterrupted for so many centuries.  Without any decision to do so, I found myself walking beside the bicycle, sweat dripping down my face, soaking my shirt.  Then tears started streaming down my cheeks.  The shady spot was nearing now, and in utter frustration I shoved the bicycle into the ditch beside the road, watched it plummet down the bank into the running stream of irrigation water, and ran forward to stand in the shade, arms outstretched, glaring upward at the gray blue sky.

“I can’t do this!  It’s too hard!” I may have shouted it out loud, or it might just have been in my thoughts.  “I feel like a 3 year old.  I have nothing to say to these people, and they wouldn’t listen even if I did.”  It didn’t even occur to me that I was complaining, the words poured out as freely as the tears from my eyes. The thoughts were flowing now, and the direction becoming clearer as I launched onward.  Now I was really saying the words out loud, and I knew who I was talking to.  “I don’t have any Idea why You brought me to this God-forsaken land”. “What good is it, my being here, if I can’t even get a simple sentence across?  And I want to talk as an adult to some adults who can understand what I think.  And I want to discuss thoughts that satisfy my mind, not this childish, mindless drivel!”  The words were a torrent, tumbling out effortlessly, and I continued to let them go until finally there just weren’t any more.  I sat down on a rock, sweating and burning all over, and wept, pouring out every last ounce of frustration and rejection, anger and pain.  I had failed and I knew it.  I spiraled downward into the darkness of utter despair.  I sat there under the tree, my head in my hands, the Japanese dirt filling my whole field of vision.  Here I was, 38 years old, college educated, trained for ministry, and I had brought my beautiful family six thousand miles to . . . what?  To act like a child and embarrass myself in front of people who couldn’t even grasp the simplest bit of the truth I had to share with them.  I had made a horrible mistake.  This could spell doom for me, and my family.  How could I ever get out of this darkness? 

Quiet now, spent, I sat there with nothing more to say.  The song of the semis rose and fell over the landscape.  The rice crops were growing well.  Now about two feet high, they would soon begin to produce a head of grain on top, and then they would bow low to the ground, just before harvest, a bright green velvet carpet as far as the eye could see.  A car drove by on the road, the driver slowing to stare curiously at the foreigner sitting under the tree.  I knew, without ever putting it into words, exactly what he was thinking.  Humiliation rose again; that bitter taste in my throat, and my ears began to burn as the flush of embarrassment reached toward the top of my head.  I didn’t care.  I was empty.

I became aware of a crescendo in the sound of the semis, like they do just before dark. As my mind climbed up from the deep, peaceful inertia of exhausted sleep toward the waking reality of evening setting in, a voice not my own brought words to the surface, like ripples on a still lake.  Anyway, you’ve been making it harder than it should be.  You’re not responsible for what they think.  Just for what you do.  They stare because they see your hope, and they have none.  They laugh because your truth makes their emptiness stand out like a sore thumb.  And all you have to do is ride around and talk to them. You’re not responsible for them.  I am.”  I raised my head and looked around at the already darkening landscape.  No longer bent under the weight of depression, I walked to the ditch and pulled my bike from its erstwhile resting place, pedaling off, up the hill, toward town and home.  “Home,” I thought.  “I’m going home.”

The evening air rushed over my face, cool and refreshing.  The sound of the semis seemed somehow less ominous.  The “ching, click, click, clack” of my bike’s broken parts called out the tempo of my progress.  “Tomorrow I start again.”

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Breaking Point (An Essay On Grace) by William Stapleton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.