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.

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.

Be gone, cruel voices

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.

I’m thinking of when you have something important to do, to say, but become paralysed by your uncertainty about your ability — or your right — to do it, to even begin! What if what I have to say is not actually so important, if it is, in fact, foolishness?

This seems to be something writers experience a lot. Other jobs I have had — well, they let me continue on in a haze when I’m feeling uncertain. I’ve done banking through break-ups, pruned grapevines in the depth of winter and depression, scanned grocery item after grocery item and mouthed words of welcome even as I wondered, who am I, really? What value is there in my life? But with the job of writing –unless I am writing about the actual feelings of pain, uncertainty, doubt — I cannot just keep going through the difficult feelings. These things can grow so large as to become overwhelming cruel ‘voices’ that absorb all my attention, and writing is, at heart, a task of focused attention — even ‘foolish’ first drafts of writing.

This week I had guidance on this problem from two sources. One was a prolific writer of theology from the second century — Augustine of Hippo. Augustine writes to his childhood friend Nebridius with joy:

I’m delighted to have you thank me when I don’t hide anything that comes into my mind from you. I am delighted I can please you in this way. Whom can I more freely share my foolishness with than someone I can’t displease?

I immediately shared this quote with my good friend, also writing a book. I was thinking, to be honest, that my friend could think of me as a reader while writing, because I could not be displeased, I’m already ‘all in’ for this important project.  The cruel voices that taunt the writer as he or she writes are indeed formidable, and they tell us we have nothing to say and are not worthy to write and no one will read us anyway. But these voices fade in to nothing if there is even just one reader who wants to hear what we have to say, however ‘foolish’ it appears. Augustine found this person in Nebridius. I have experienced this with some of my dear colleagues and friends as I have finished difficult pieces. As friends and readers, we can say for each other ‘be gone cruel voices, we don’t need you here’.

Of course, these voices are not just present for writers. Many people experience cruel voices telling them they are worthless. What I was reminded of through  my friend this week is that we do not only have to rely on our friends and ‘readers’ to help us say ‘be gone!’ to those cruel voices.

I recieved the prose, you see, and it was utterly beautiful and compelling. I couldn’t help but comment — is this the same person? Choked up, my friend confessed the secret of this clarity of voice and purpose. The voices were quieted, this time — by the power of prayer. Prayer before writing might bring to mind The Reader, The Faithful Reader, more faithful than Nebridius or I. This was the second lesson for me.

The faithful audience and reader of all our lives is the One who gave life to all, gave up life on the cross, and breathes life in and through us. This One is delighted to hear what we have to say, to see our task through to completion, because this is The One who gave us that task in the first place — whether this task is writing, teaching, parenting, serving, ministering, caring, public speaking, or any other task in which we have to face fear and doubt.

I was reminded this week of what our lives might be like when the cruel voices fade into insignificance in the light of One whom we cannot displease with our efforts at speaking and living the truth given to us: Compelling, beautiful, clear in voice and purpose.

What do you have that is difficult to do at this time? What might the result of your task be if your only audience is God, a God of love and compassion who takes joy in your ‘foolishness’? This week, dear readers, think of your Dear Reader, your Audience of One, the One who looks on your ‘foolishness’ only with the greatest delight. Those cruel voices may indeed be gone, or at least, be not as overwhelming.

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

Fruit, root, or fallow?

On Friday I sent an email to a colleague: "I hope your week was fruitful" I said. The phrase somehow got stuck in my thoughts as I reviewed my own week later that day.

Fruitful? Had my week born fruit?

Planning coursework? Tweaking a powerpoint for next week's class? Admin paperwork? What about the afternoons I spent on the lawn, in the sun, with my children? The conversations with friends? The laundry?

"I hope your week was fruitful". Smiley face. I had intended the phrase amicably, but turned back on myself it became accusatory... and somewhat antithetical to the lessons about seasons that have been hard-won for me, and yet are a cherished part of the grace I have found in God.

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven."
- Eccelesiastes 3:1 (... and *Turn, turn, turn* Bob Dylan).

The season of fruit is only one of nature's seasons, and yet the other seasons are just as necessarily for the natural cycle. Even winter, when the ground lies fallow while restoring itself, is essential (and inevitable!) for the eventual harvest.

I have wrestled with and clung to this when the concrete limitations of my human heart, human body, have pushed up hard against the relentless pressures for productivity that the contemporary world provides.

Fruitful? No I couldn't wish this of every week. I found myself wondering laughingly if I could wish someone's week to be 'bud-ful' or 'seed-ful' or 'root-ful' instead:

Weeks to rest and gather strength..... weeks to consider carefully, plan and prepare for a job done well... weeks to invest in something, with hope, for the further-off future...... weeks to dig deeper down to the good stuff that nourishes... weeks to enjoy noticing and nurturing small things that are full of promise... weeks add slowly and graciously, step-by-step, to the growing whole...

...  these I wish for my colleagues, my friends, and for you. Surely they are just as important as the weeks we taste the tangible, finished products of our work.

Not every week is a fruit-ful one.

Nor is every type of fruit the visible, quantifiable, auditable sort that this contemporary ideological moment favours.  What about the 'fruit of the spirit?'

Did my week grow love? Reap joy? Sow peace? Did patience bud, gentleness take root, and faithfulness flower? Did self-control seed? Did I taste goodness and prepare the ground for kindness?

A different harvest altogether.

I contemplate another week now, and in this new sense I'm happy to write to you dear readers: "I hope your week will be fruitful" ... full of spiritual fruit, of seeds and buds, of rejuvenating soil and deepening roots. May you trust to God, the great gardener, to tend well to your life, in every season.
  • SUSAN WARDELL is a Social Anthropologist, Mother, Jesus-follower, Tree-hugger, Muffin Afficionado, and Writer. She lives in Dunedin, New Zealand.