Everyday Christian: Ponytail palms and pots, Hemingway and Hillsong


There’s a terracotta plant pot that has been preaching to me for a few years now. I see it out of the train window on my way to work a few times a week. It’s just across Sydney’s iconic Harbour Bridge, and just before commuters get plunged into the darkness of a tunnel ahead of North Sydney Station.

When boarding the train, I always aim for a seat on the top level and on the lefthand side of the train so I can look down at my terracotta pot. I wait for it to come into view, as we cross the harbour and pull away from Milsons Point Station.

My terracotta pot sits outside the last unit in a set of red-brick, red-roofed units that almost look to be made from Lego. Something about the angles in the scene, set in green lawns and spliced by concrete footpaths, appeals to me. Lavender Bay is visible a block or so in the background.

My pot has a palm tree planted in it – one of the kinds that grow bulbous at the base. The plant-identifying app on my phone informs me it is a Beaucarnea recurvata, more commonly known as a ponytail palm or elephant foot tree.

With the passing of years, the ponytail plant has grown taller and fuller at the top. It has also grown more voluptuous at the base – something I have known because, since the first time I saw it, the pot has had a large crack in it, making its base visible. Over time, I have seen that crack become wider, until a broken piece began to arch away from the pot, attached a little less each week until, finally, it lay disconnected on the ground.

Would I have the foresight to re-plant myself before I broke the world around me as my ponytail palm had done to its unsuspecting terracotta pot?

Observing my terracotta pot’s unfortunate demise, I have often pondered the idea of growth.

Sometimes I have tut-tutted the plant’s owners for not re-potting it to prevent the break. Large pots are expensive! And why did they choose a palm variety that would grow too big for that pot, anyway?

Other times I have reflected on various aspects of my own life – what if I grew too big? Would I have the foresight to re-plant myself before I broke the world around me as my ponytail palm had done to its unsuspecting terracotta pot?

Two weeks ago, I noticed another terracotta-potted ponytail palm tree just around the corner from mine. It was smaller and its pot hadn’t broken. Well, it hasn’t broken yet, I thought, with all the condescension of a master gardener (which I am not).

Suddenly, another thought occurred to me. Hang on, don’t plants stay small and even die if you don’t upgrade them into a bigger pot? I wondered.

Was this ponytail palm one of the rebellious few that, rather than allow itself to be contained by its surroundings, had kicked out its elephant foot and broken free of the pot it outgrew? Or did this all go down differently from how I had been envisioning it for years?

I took my horticultural conundrum to Dr Google, who quickly referred me to the expertise I sought. It turns out that, despite its name, the ponytail palm isn’t a palm at all. It’s a succulent that is native to Mexico. And the likelihood of this particular ponytail palm having burst its terracotta bounds by mustering up the sheer will to grow was somewhere between nil and zero. Ponytail palms and their elephant feet don’t do that. They only grow as big as their pot allows them to.

And there was worse news for my poet-heart. They might not even be upset about the constraints of their too-small terracotta pot lives! According to gardeningknowhow.com, “Potted ponytail palms are happiest when root-bound”.

Oh dear, how depressingly true of us all! I thought.

Nonetheless, give one of these babies an inch of a crack in a terracotta pot and I have seen with my own eyes how their inner wildness will break free.

And, “in the wild, ponytail palms can grow up to 30 feet tall and bear sprays of creamy white flowers,” reports mydomaine.com (which is a house website I ended up at, not a plant website at all … so someone should give their digital strategist a raise).

“Sometimes the breaking happens first, and then the growth,” it said.

Anyway, I digress.

The point of this piece is obviously not to reveal the ins and outs of growing ponytail not-palms. All that was just to bring anyone still reading this to the moment when God let my terracotta pot preach to me, two weeks ago.

“Sometimes the breaking happens first, and then the growth,” it said.

The Apostle Paul said it like this in a letter he wrote to a fledgling church:

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let there be light in the darkness,” has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ.

We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves.

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.

– 2 Corinthians 4.5-11

Now, all of this brings to mind that ubiquitous quote: “We are all broken, that’s how the light gets in”. It is almost as much of a social media staple as cat memes.

It’s actually a misquote, though, Dr Google reveals. Or a quote conflation, to be more precise, merging the lyrical genius of Leonard Cohen and the literary prowess of Ernest Hemingway.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

– from Anthem, by Leonard Cohen

And from Hemingway’s inimitable A Farewell to Arms:

If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Cohen, it seems, is concerned about the light getting in. Paul, though, seems to be focused on the light (of Christ) getting out. Personally, I suspect it is not an either/or situation, but a ‘both’. Something to ponder out a train window for the next couple of years, perhaps.

Just a couple of hours after it occurred to me that my ponytail palm had not, in fact, broken its terracotta pot with growth but had more likely grown because it had been broken, another break began to consume my thoughts. My church began to break.

Of course, like my pot, the crack had started years earlier. But now it seemed to widen with every passing hour and new media article. And within a week, a part of us went from dangling by a thread to lying in pieces on the pavement.

It wasn’t pretty. It isn’t pretty. It’s bloody painful, actually. And we don’t even want it to be pretty.

When a pot develops a crack – for whatever reason – God is faithful enough to allow growth to come from the brokenness.

And while I do not want to suggest that God has to smash pots to achieve his purpose, I can see him at work in this.

You see, I have recently heard a pot-preached sermon that reminded me when a vessel develops a crack – for whatever reason – God is faithful enough to allow growth to come from the brokenness. That he lets the light get in and the light get out.

I can see it in my broken church. The bravado stripped away, humbled and bent low – our church’s roots are growing deeper already.

This is not what many people want to hear, of course. And who can blame them? Some people have spent so many years critiquing us and being ignored. They have rehearsed arguments designed to break through our arrogance. If anyone knows the inner joy of “I told you so” it’s this author. Yet there’s no need to call someone to repentance when they are already on their face at the altar.

I don’t know how all this will turn out for my broken church. And the uncertainty feels like a necessary part of the process.

But I know there’s a terracotta pot with a ponytail palm and an elephant foot that has been preaching to me for years about this moment. And I suspect that in our brokenness, one way or another, God will teach our church to grow.