I had many mentors in Afghanistan, but one of the best was a broken piece of pottery. How could a shard share its wisdom? Let’s pick it up, look, and listen.
For a time my family and I lived in the ancient city of Herat, where a fortress of Alexander the Great and the ruins of one of the world’s first universities exist in the same space as a desperate people far removed from those earthly glories. And yet, each Afghan family knew how to recover the first step toward earthly glory: each one planted a garden. For all the fierceness of the Afghan culture, everyone, mujahedin warriors included, stooped to nurture the tender plants of their gardens. It wasn’t just for food, not even primarily for food. It was for beauty, the gentle glory that gardens afford kings and commoners alike; a walled-in Eden against the wilderness.
I had one such garden, and quite a good one, for I rented from a well-to-do merchant family who had fled to Germany. The rent was paltry by U.S. standards, lavish by Afghan ones. It was a win-win.
Within the walls, the home took up about an eighth of an acre, the garden another quarter acre. Rows of poplars kept watch over evergreens and pomegranate trees lining the banks of a network of waterways, trenches a little over a handspan deep. Fruit and flowers grew beneath the branches, even strawberries in summer. Ranks of red geraniums in their earthen pots framed the plots. Thick and sculpted shrubbery lined the paths, which were paved with a slate-colored gravel to contrast the white ornamental borders thereof, fleur-de-lis stones on which a family of pigeons would sit when we let them out of their coop.
Ensconced in the center of the garden and adjoining our home was a garden house, oval shaped and tall, with bougainvilleas bursting out the topmost portions of the white-framed windows. The garden house was filled with viney and blooming plants. Songbirds beautified the room with their music and their plumage. And in the center of the garden house: an oval pool, with a mirror at the bottom reflecting the mystery of the flame-like fish within and the bows beyond the pond.
Like all gardens, mine needed water. Lots of water. And like many Afghan homes, mine had its own well. I was blessed with a deep one that outpaced the frequent droughts of the land I lived in. An electric pump fed the hose. The waterways crisscrossed the entire garden in one unified grid, but as any gardener knows, not all plants need the same amount of water; you need to be able to guide the flow to where it needs to go on any given evening. You need to route it; blocking it from water-logging certain places, pouring more to where the grace of the water is needed at that time. And this was the weakness of my garden: I had no way to route the water.
Until one of the pots broke.
I mentioned the geraniums, bright red guardians of the garden, whose scent helped ward off certain insects. Their pots were a little over a handspan tall, made of sun-dried clay. The artisans had graced the clay with gentle curves for rims and various stripes and shapes on the sides, the work of skillful hands.
But they were sun-dried vessels, not kiln-baked ones. Their beauty was fragile. The clay could give way, and one day one did. The vessel broke on its own, and the soil with its geranium poured out, patiently awaiting refuge in another pot.
I gathered the shards to discard, but noticed a particular fragment was shaped in such a way as to arrest me. I did not know why at first. I only knew that I was forbidden to discard it. The shape was roughly that of a pennant, wide at the top that had once served as part of the pot’s rim, and narrow at the bottom, its edge tracing back to the epicenter of the flaw which had caused it to come apart.
The piece was about as wide as the trench of the waterway, and as deep. The exact shape. The precise contours of the waterway.
. . . the precise contours of the waterway . . .
I placed it at a corner of the irrigation ditches, a place where the water needed to turn away from smaller plants and pour into greater ones. I turned on the water. I watched it flow. It filled the trenches. It reached the shard. It turned to the trees and the greater plants, the shard protecting the tender ones. After a time, I placed the piece in another location and did the same thing, watering what needed watering and guiding the flow away from where the ground was sufficiently soaked.
And so it was that this, the discarded piece of pottery — the broken piece — became the strongest thing in my entire garden, such that it ruled over the course of the entire waterway and made the growth of every green thing there possible.
The weakest thing in my garden had become the strongest thing.
Weakness had been turned to strength.
But the Lord said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. . . For when I am weak, then I am strong. ~ 2 Cor 12:9-10 (ESV)
© Kurt Mahler | I am grateful to pastor Robert Lee of Galveston, Texas, for reminding me of this story through his exposition on the Japanese art of kintsugi.Tagged as: afghanistan, garden, grace, pottery, weakness