Weakness Waters the Garden

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)

~ km

© 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.

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  • Sonia Roque says:

    Such a beautiful story! I know through this God is teaching and blessing us all in the little. I am so thankful for garden! This was a moment in your past in a place far from here, but it was as if we were all taken there with you today and seeing how Jesus takes little things and makes them awesome and amazing!

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      I rejoice, Sonia. I overflow with thankfulness that this small thing speaks right here, right now, to you today. He does all things well.
      ~ km

  • Laura M says:

    When things break, we need to rest assure that God’s sufficient grace will make them the precise contour of the new waterway, the sufficient flow of water that grows a new and blossomed beautiful garden. When things break…imagine the garden.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      “When things break…imagine the garden” : this shall be my personal bumper sticker — placed on the inside of the bumper. Only my Mechanic — capital ‘M’ — and I will know about it : ) Thank you, Laura. ~ km

  • Larry Taylor says:

    A beautiful story and a great reminder that God is at work in all things, even when we go through difficult times or events.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Thanks, Larry. That “all things” part of your comment sinks in…His creativity in our limits is limitless. And Larry, thank you for being my state senator, too. It is not easy! I appreciate your service to our state.

  • Sondra Guthrie says:

    God spoke to me through “Weakness Waters the Garden,”especially because I love to garden & smell the fragrance of each flower! But the thing that ministered to me was the broken shard! Many times God has had to remind me He is the potter and I am the clay. During some of these times I have felt like a garbage can in lieu of a beautiful vase for a rose bouquet. One day, the Lord spoke to me & said that a garbage can is used every day but a vase for a rose bouquet is used occasionally! As with this shard, it was a piece of beautiful pottery, but now was being used every day to help direct the water. Isaiah 45:9 “Does the clay say to the potter, ‘What are you making?’
    Now, I praise God for garbage cans!

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Dear Sondra, I am glad the shard spoke to you. And thank you for the insight about your own discovery in Him: the value of being a vessel He has made. A “waste bucket” is not wasted, it is working for the good of all. ~ km

  • Jody says:

    I would love to see pictures of that garden. The layout, the arrangements, etc.

  • Rosemary Stovall says:

    Kurt, that was beautiful and encourages me to pay attention to the way the Lord supplies in the most and amazing ways we might miss. Thanks dear friend for always teaching me (for years) the every day miracles.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      When you write how we learn to “pay attention to the way the Lord supplies in the most amazing ways we might miss,” I am reminded of how I’ve learned from others how to take time to recollect the hours of the day that has just passed, but to remember in His presence, as if we are watching the memories together. In this way I, too, often discover amazing and kind things the Lord has done that I had overlooked in the moment. Thank you for being such an encouragement to me, Rosemary. ~ km

  • Bel Tucker says:

    Wow ! I’m a gardener so I could related closely your story – I loved all the vivid illustrations and descriptions of the flowers and trees- I can imagine your garden. Beautiful writing Kurt. Thank you for reminding us – of that verse and how God can use the weak things- us . Bel

  • Steven Buchanan says:

    Wow, beautiful Kurt.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Thanks, Steven; so encouraging to read your words. And thank you for being one of my first city’s responders here in Pearland, Texas. You are part of many a story that shows what is written here. Thank you for being who you are. ~ km

  • Diane B says:

    The wonderful spiritual reality that HE uses the broken things. There is such freedom to embrace our weakness knowing that in His redeeming life and purpose He will always gain in us and His purpose where the weak broken place becomes a place of intimacy and beauty. Thanks Kurt for the spiritual eyes to see.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      “The weak broken place becomes a place of intimacy and beauty.” Yes. Oh, how hard it is to go through the loss of strength until we experience this kind of gift you describe: the gift no one can take away. Thank you, Diane. ~ km

  • Jim Luther says:

    Great as always! Kathy and I have moved back to Pittsburgh to be close to our grandchildren. If you are ever … well you know.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Thank you, Jim! You and Kathy are what Joyce Landorf Heatherley and Walter Albritton call “balcony people”, always calling others up and cheering them on. Thank you for being balcony people to Karen and me. ~ km

  • Billy Ray says:

    This is great, Kurt and reminds me of the passage in Hebrews 7:28 which states, “For the law appoints as high priests men who are weak.” There are huge implications for this in the story of God’s redemption plan for mankind… God chooses the weak things of this world to shame the wise.

    • Kurt Mahler says:

      Thanks, Billy. Your comments remind me of the ancient Greek story of Odysseus, one of the original heroes of our Western culture. As the protagonist of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, he is known as “the man of many faces” who uses a combination of “force and fraud” to outmaneuver his enemies and overcome obstacles. He is a picture of a man ever able to be stronger than his opponent. But Billy, you point out how opposite the culture of the Kingdom is: weakness is woven into the very fabric of our ways as the very place His presence is revealed the most. What a challenge to accept weakness! How tempting it is to try to be strong! And yet, if we discern the mystery aright, we will taste freedom and joy at a new level, for we will no longer strive to be strong, but strive to enter into the rest and wonder of seeing Him be strong. ~ km

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