The Broken Pot

(A parable of unknown origin, retold by Susan Wardell)

Once there was a woman who lived in a very hot, dry, place. Every day she had to walk a long distance from her house to the nearest well, to bring water back for her family. To do this, she used a large clay pot.

The pot had done this and other tasks for many years, but it was not a perfect vessel. In fact, it was quite broken, with cracks so large that as the woman was walking, the water would consistently leak out onto the dry ground. This happened to the extent that by the time she reached her home, she had only half the water left that she had travelled so far to get.

The pot was well aware of it’s brokenness, and it was deeply ashamed. One day it asked the woman miserably: “Why are you still trying to use me? I am broken!” When the woman said nothing, it persisted: “Can’t you see how my insufficiencies cost your family? I am not fit for the task that you have chosen me for.” And when her silence continued: “Why don’t you select a better pot; something more sturdy and more beautiful, that is not been damaged like I am? Something that will save you time and effort, that will do the job better than a broken vessel like me.”

The woman paused, and picked up the pot to carry it outside. The pot feared that now the time had come where the truth of it’s burdensomeness would finally be acknowledged. But now the woman replied:

“I see your brokenness, and I know well that my precious water leaks out onto the ground as we walk together. But look…” and she pointed back in the direction of the well. Now, at last, the pot saw that all along the sides of the dusty track a lovely garden was growing: full of flowers, fruits, and vegetables.

“These have been a blessing to my family every day” the woman told the pot. “Choosing you is no accident. It is because of your brokenness, not despite of it, that our journey has been made into something even more beautiful.”

Then they walked together again, as the pot let water fall like tears of joy… and all around them, life bloomed.

  • SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

Why diversity matters in Christianity

If you have been around Christian churches long enough, you will know there is often both subtle and not-so-subtle pressures to conform to a certain understanding of Christianity — whatever that might be in your tradition. There is no small amount of anxiety that one might not be a ‘proper’ Christian, believing the ‘right’ things and thus one of the elect, saved, in-group. I’m sure many of us have seen pretty awful situations where someone is excluded on the grounds of their failure to conform in some way.

In my experience, this anxiety around believing the ‘right’ things is much more prevalent in protestant traditions, particularly the non-liturgical ones. I also read that it is these non-liturgical traditions that are more likely to morph into cults. Which seems ironic, given the deep concern and anxiety around believing the ‘right’ thing.

Because of moving around a lot, I am lucky enough to have been exposed to a pretty wide range of Christian traditions and churches, including spending my formative years in the Catholic Church. I have been a member of several churches in the Baptist/congregational tradition, several in the pentecostal tradition, housechurches in the anarchist tradition and also some in the Presbyterian/elder led tradition. I have been in evangelical conservative and some quite liberal churches, and also some that defy categorisation using those tired old terms. What this means for me is that I have also been part of different ‘families’ of faith with diverse beliefs and practices with regards to expression of that faith.

As Jameson says with regards to the shift to postmodernity, multiplicity can provoke terror in some. But I think there is something about multiplicity or diversity that actually keeps people in the broad umbrella of the faith rather than having to reject the whole thing outright. Here are some reasons why I think this:

  1. There is less anxiety about whether one believes the ‘right’ thing, and more attention to participation in the act of faith and belief in God. One morning I woke up and realised that in the Catholic church, the main requirement for being a Christian was a) being baptised in the church and b) taking communion. I mean the point of church is just communion, communing together, sharing in the body and blood of Christ. You don’t have to agree with the pope or the church on anything really. I mean, that allows for incredible diversity of belief, including on such hot topics as same-sex marriage, universal salvation, abortion, women’s rights, ecumenicism and more.  What a relief this was to me, at the time. I don’t have to have a certain belief on those topics in order to be a ‘real’ Christian, at least in the Catholic tradition.
  2. Resistance is not futile. Not only is there diversity in this generation of Christians, but there is huge diversity throughout history, and a lot of alternative orthodoxies with regard to belief. For example, in a previous post I explored the Franciscan versus the Dominican views of atonement. I’ve also previously drawn on mystical traditions of contemplation, indigenous, feminist and environmentalist interpretations of Genesis, nineteenth century Pentecostalism, the Nestorian Christians of Mongolia in the thirteenth century, the Jesus movement of the 70s, the Quietist movement of the seventeenth century and more. When you look at the big picture of Christian history and tradition, there is always resistance to the mainstream, always alternatives. The men in robes or suits don’t have the final say one what to believe. Even the bible has diverse traditions of spirituality and scholarship within it, and strong undercurrent of resistance to the priestly classes.
  3. Cultural diversity allows for us to find the expression of faith that fits with our background and worldview. No matter how many times I hear the phrase the ‘Christian worldview’ I can’t help but add an ‘s’ on the end of that. Worldviews. If we really believe that God is creator, that the Christ atoned for all, and that the Holy Spirit acts in and through people in history, we can’t really believe that there is one Christian worldview that happens to be the one that ‘we’ currently hold and everyone else through history or in other cultural traditions is ‘wrong’. I have found the faith expressions of my brothers and sisters in the housechurch movement in China incredibly inspiring, even as the worldview on which their faith has been grafted is somewhat different from mine. But far be it from me to say they must conform to what may be my screwed up version.
  4. ‘Evangelism’ becomes a more authentic sharing of stories and experience. “Friend, I don’t have the answers,” might be our opener. And “Friend, I still don’t have the answers,” might be the closing remark. What might come in between is “here is what I have learned in my walk. How does that compare to what you know?”

As I grow and age and hopefully get more mature, I am much more comfortable with diversity not just in culture and church background, but in worldview and belief. I sometimes think back to my early twenties and think “Wasn’t it lovely when I knew everything for certain?”, but really, I wouldn’t trade this current position of not-knowingness for anything else. For it is in the not-knowingness that I find my faith is enlarged and made real.

Kelly Dombroski writes at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com , among other places.

Giving fragrantly

In a world brimming over with hurt, I so often feel unsure where to direct my own precious and small resources to help, to heal.

Around me are so many people saying they know how to fix it, asking for my time, my money, my skills, my ear, my heart, offering a path – organisations, projects, causes.

How to choose? How much time I have spent weighing up how to do the most good, for the most people, in the most need.

To the extent that often when I have read this verse from John, I have resonated guiltily with Judas’ point of view about the extravagance of Mary’s giving:

The anointing of Jesus

John: 12 1-3 Six days before Passover, Jesus entered Bethany where Lazarus, so recently raised from the dead, was living. Lazarus and his sisters invited Jesus to dinner at their home. Martha served. Lazarus was one of those sitting at the table with them. Mary came in with a jar of very expensive aromatic oils, anointed and massaged Jesus’ feet, and then wiped them with her hair. The fragrance of the oils filled the house.

4-6 Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, even then getting ready to betray him, said, “Why wasn’t this oil sold and the money given to the poor? It would have easily brought three hundred silver pieces.” He said this not because he cared two cents about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of their common funds, but also embezzled them.

7-8 Jesus said, “Let her alone. She’s anticipating and honoring the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you. You don’t always have me.”

Mary literally pours out her love. Judas responds with all the utilitarian, managerialist logic that is so in vogue right now in all the best nonprofit circles: the end/means arguments, the maximisation of good, the quantification of success. Judas’ motivations were off, we learn, but it has taken me a long time to realise that his logic was too.

It is all right there in the contrast between this, and Mary’s stunning act of intimate love and service for Jesus, her friend and Lord, as he sat in her living room just days before he was to take his final journey towards Jerusalem, and the cross. I started a list of adjectives to describe that one beautiful act of anointing, but it became unwieldy, so I have tried to distil the main things that impressed me about it on this latest, newly-illuminated reread:

  1. There was a cost and sacrifice to her actions, but also a joy and freeness. It was wholehearted.
  2. It was humble. A woman of honour, she uses not only her most precious possessions, but also her hair, on his dusty, road-weary, human feet.
  3. It showed an amazing perceptiveness, a sensitivity to the situation (quite Jesus-like in itself)… and a context-specific responsiveness to what that person needed, in that moment. Jesus honours her for this in v7/8.
  4. I liked how Mary also showed an awareness of what she herself had to give; her own resource-full-ness. She gave out of something she happened to be overflowing with. I think that helped with the free-ness.I am reminding myself to look to the Most High for my abundance, and to show careful stewardship to ensure I have enough left in me at the end of my everyday ragged life, to respond freely. It also helps me to remember Old Testament stories (e.g. 2 Kings 4) where God miraculously multiplies oil for people who have but a little.
  5. Both the ends (goal) and the means (method) in Mary’s giving, was relational. The act seemed to be like a natural overflow of who she was in relation to Jesus. How I’d love my giving to be like this! Even though I cannot give to God-as-Jesus directly, I know the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40) stand flesh-and-blood in his place, and I can give for God, and to her, in relationship with them. Then I am not so much responding to “the poor”, as Judas said – a great, abstracted mass – but to “the person” God has placed in my path, in my living room… right in front of me in one way or another.

I still believe in wise and discerning giving. In a scope that goes global. In establishing strong and strategic foundations for giving. In the usefulness of digital and bureaucratic systems and technologies. But I have made some new resolutions to shape my giving more towards this example of wholeheartedhumble, perceptiveresponsive, resourceful and relational giving, even in and through the above.

My prayer, then: May we turn to God for our abundance (Psalm 23:5). May we find ourselves, in and through our Divine Beloved, pouring into the type of giving that spreads out through a room, a city, a hurting world, like a beautiful fragrance.

SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.

What pain can tell us

For many of us, the normal reaction to emotional pain is to supress, smile, get on with life like the good Christian girls or boys we are supposed to be. Sometimes we can be so scared of our more troubling emotions — jealousy, desire, envy, rage, anxiety, even sadness — that we try to push them away and deny them their place in our spiritual walk. But often these troublesome emotions are a form of call on our lives, calling us into deeper knowledge of ourselves and deeper acknolwedgement of our need for the Divine in our everyday lives.
Thomas Moore says of jealousy and envy:

“Ultimately, these troublesome emotions offer a path to a life experienced with greater depth, maturity, and flexibility.”

In his book Care of the Soul he asks us to accept these emotions as part of human experience, as emotions that also connect with very real parts of ourselves. I agree with him. For example, melancholy and sadness are often appropriate responses to what is going on in the world, and there is nothing Christian about pretending to be happy when you are not. There is, after all, loads of lamentations in the bible, from God and other people.

But what about those stronger feelings, that might be scary to acknowledge, that might make us believe we are somehow a bad person? I like the following passage, also from Moore:

Our task is to care for the soul, but it is also true that the soul cares for us. So the phrase “care of the soul” can be heard in two ways. In one sense, we do our best to honor whatever the soul presents to us; in the other, the soul is the subject who does the caring. Even in its pathology, and maybe especially then, the soul cares for us by offering a way out of a narrow secularity… Therefore, its suffering initiates a move toward increased spirituality. Ironically, pathology can be a route to soulful religion.”

What I understand this passage to suggest is this: especially in our difficult emotions, we might see the call of the Spirit to something deeper. If we were just mildly contented and happy all the time, would we seek out the spiritual in the same way? It’s like a vacuum that needs to be filled: when we pay attention to the reality of that empty space and longing for fullness, we can be more intentional about what rushes in there to fill it. When we deny the vacuum and negative space, we may not even be aware when the space comes to be filled with all the wrong things.

I’m not saying that our suffering is deliberately caused by God to call us, or denying the injustice that is very present in this world, injustice that we need to act upon. I’m talking more about getting in touch with what we are feeling as we feel it, and not denying ourselves our emotions, even if they are ones that cause us pain and suffering. Because, dear reader, it might just mean we find a new level of connection with the One who calls us with deep compassion, from deep unto deep.

Kelly Dombroski blogs at www.throwntogetherness.wordpress.com