Rusty Nails and the Holiday Season
Another holiday season has found its way to us and is now quickly passing. This year, with the ongoing global pandemic, it seems many are still broken down by economic hardship, stress, and tragedy. And in these futuristic times, we humans often just don’t seem to understand our place in the world nor our relationship with one another anymore. Yet in these times of craziness and uncertainty, the holiday season’s greatest virtues still endure. Among these are hope, joy, love, forgiveness, and renewal. The endurance of these last two — forgiveness and renewal — can be especially wondrous in these crazy times. Reflecting on these wondrous things actually reminds me of a story I once heard — about a rusty nail. (Note, growing up I heard this story in a Sunday morning sermon. I told it first on Quora and am excited to share it again here).
Story of a Rusty Nail
A man was walking down the road one day, feeling down. Nothing was going as he’d planned in his life. In the eyes of others, he had messed up his life. He had faced termination from jobs, failed marriages, strained relationships with family, and few friends. What was the point? Was his life to be an abysmal failure? Would it be better if he had never been?
As he walked along the road, he stopped at something peculiar lying on the ground. Lying there was a nail all rusty and bend. It appeared, discarded, and dilapidated.
Curious, the man picked up the nail and placed it in his pocket. Later, in his shop at home, he took out his hammer and metal block. Laying the nail on its side, he began to strike the nail in such a way to smooth and straighten out the rusty old thing.
After a while, he’d straightened it as much as he could.
Next, he soaked the nail in vinegar overnight, which removed most of the rust. After the nail dried, found a bottle of gray spray paint he’d been looking for. Masked and gloved, he sprayed that nail top to bottom on both sides. Then, he left the painted nail to dry for the night.
The next morning, he was shocked to see how the nail was almost as good as new.
Now, the man thought to himself, maybe he was not unlike the nail. Quite bent, rusted, discarded, almost rotting away. But what if he could be remolded and remade. And what if he could actually be reborn into someone new?
This simple yet striking story of the rusty nail has stuck in the back of my mind for decades. The message has even become a motif in my deeper life. In my own journey, I have gone from being so terribly broken and bent by events and my own unintended transgressions to finding redemption, renewal, and whole new beginnings. I am happy my life can be a testament to the unlimited beauty and good that endures in all of us no matter what we have done or failed to do. Has this not been a central message for the holidays over thousands of years from the numerous religious traditions that celebrate the season?
The Christian story, among others, certainly proclaims Divine Mercy and Love for all. In this tradition, with the birth of Jesus, the Christmas story becomes a new chapter of humanity’s journey towards renewal. Although the big stories of Jesus healing the sick and claiming the lowliest as his own come later, even before Jesus’s birth we see hope and new life for those broken or lost. One of the main ones here is of Mary’s brother-in-law Zechariah, who doubted how his wife could have borne John the Baptist because of her older age. The Gospel of Luke tells how, because of his doubt before the angel Gabriel, his ability to speak was lost until his promised son was born: ”And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.” (Luke 1:20). This might seem like a punishment, but it can also be interpreted that losing his speech was a necessary part of his healing. Just as the crooked or bent nail must face pounds from the hammer to smooth out, Zechariah’s transformation also involved these harder parts to help prepare him to be a father and model for John the Baptist.
When Jesus was born, the Gospels tell how both wise men(Matthew 2:9–19) plus shepherds from the fields(Luke 2:15–19) came to see the baby Jesus in the manger. Both the wise men and shepherds certainly experienced brokenness from life but were invited to celebrate in the good news regardless of this. Later, it was reported that Joseph and Mary took Jesus to be presented at the Temple(Luke 2:22). One of the faithful in the Temple was Anna, an elderly widow broken from the loss of her husband decades earlier(again like the crooked nail). She had spent her whole life in faithful prayer and fasting, certainly receiving gradual healing and reshaping. The final step in her transformation was to see the baby Jesus and recognize his promise of full healing and renewal for herself and others(Luke 2:36–38). These are just a few reports in the sacred texts among countless others where thousands of people reported miracles of healing, consolation, and total redemption.
And the Christian story, certainly miraculous and ever-inspiring, is joined by numerous other religious traditions that also speak of these themes with stories of Divine inspiration and healing in their texts. Also, history as another source offers countless examples of people finding sacred transformation and healing. One of my favorite stories from ancient India is of Ashoka the Great. He was a 3rd-century king who revoked his reign of terror through war to lead the ancient Mauryan Empire with compassion and care, even promoting the Buddhist principles of compassion and social piety for the whole kingdom to follow. Of course, whole vast libraries of volumes would record religious accounts or historic recordings of countless more examples of healing, forgiveness, and renewal. These accounts certainly number into the billions as each of us at some point may come to recognize these forces as some of life's greatest miracles. Given all of this, the story of the bent and rusted nail being remade certainly seems appropriate for this holiday season.
While this holiday season we certainly find a lot of horrifying things going on in the world, we must not forget how the realities of love, hope, mercy, renewal, and countless others triumph over the worst. The unlimited worth and immeasurable goodness within each of us also endure over and hardship we face or transgression we commit. No matter what others think of us. No matter what we have done or failed to do. No matter how horrific our past or any circumstances. There is unlimited beauty and potential in each of us, which can be harnessed to renew our whole lives and bring immeasurable goodness and change to others and the world.
So, my wish for all readers this holiday season and into the new year is this — may you find those enduring miraculous realities of goodness, love, mercy, and countless others to be working more strongly in your life. As it is sometimes hard to see those beautiful things, just remember the tale of the rusty nail. The old nail — rusty, bent, and discarded can be remolded and revamped into a better version of itself. The seed buried deep in the dark ground, trampled upon and forgotten can stretch its roots deep in the ground and grow to great heights unimagined.