clay

The Potter and the Clay (Part 2)

In the previous post, we looked at how the Potter pulls the clay from the ground and prepares it for His use. He "wedges" it to get rid of air holes, then throws it into the center of the wheel. After that, of course,  the shaping begins.

“Opening the form” happens after centering.  The potter puts his finger into the very center of the clay to create a well. As He pulls the clay towards him, the clay begins to respond.  Re-centering happens throughout this entire process. We are constantly in need of aligning ourselves with God and his ways. There is an interesting incident in Jeremiah18:

This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.”  So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me.  He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel.”
      We all get marred by others:  cruel words, physical abuse; emotional manipulation.  We call them scars.  But sometimes we mar ourselves – we make choices that catch up with us.  And it’s not that the Potter has to throw us away, but there is a re-centering, and maybe a new well, a new direction in the plan.  The Potter is not stumped, but the pot may take on a different shape on the way to fulfilling the Potter’s purpose.
    Sometimes our lives take a path we don’t expect.  We had this plan – we were going to do THIS with our life – but we got marred, and something about that marring changed the shape of our lives.  And we still have the same purpose we always did, but now we might get there a different way.  
Pulling up the wall (the sides of the pot), the Potter's hands no longer fully surround the clay.  The hands change position to one hand on the inside and one on the outside and the wheel speed slows considerably.  Gentle pressure inward forces the clay upward.  Again, pressure must be steady or the form will shift off center.  God is doing something inside us, but He’s also working on the outside.  When this happens to us, there are things happening that no one else can see – but there are also things people can see.  God doesn’t just work on what we do [external]; God doesn’t just work on who we are [internal]. He works on both.
     The Potter does not need to use much pressure to make the clay take shape.  The clay is very sensitive to the touch.  The Pot has a sure foundation; the grains are aligned with the Potter’s plan; the pot is still near to the Potter.  In the same way, the believer is grounded in the truth, aligned with the will of God, and confident that the work God is doing is making something beautiful.
Once the walls are lifted then the potter begins to apply a pressure to specific places on the wall to create a shape. The wheel is turning much slower now.  The potter is now using small nudges that make big changes to the pot.  Centering really is not needed any longer at this point; just a balancing of the form.
      This is the gentle nudge, but it is HUGE in shaping the pot.   Question: Do we believe God speaks to us?  Are we sensitive to His touch?  Are we so surrendered and submitted to God that we are living in the awareness of His presence in our lives – His purpose, His plan? If we want our lives to really take shape we must be sensitive to His nudging – prayer, the Bible, godly friends, and our conscience.
The pot is removed from the wheel and set aside to dry before it is returned to the wheel for final trimming.  Re-centering occurs before trimming the foot of the pot.  Usually, if the potter is good, a few gentle taps move the pot on center.  The potter trims a "foot" on the pot.  Another foundation for the pot to sit on. 
 It is important that there is a consistency of thickness throughout the pot, or it will crack in the drying process.  There is a balance to the Christian life. Faith or works?  Intellect or emotion?  Long-term planning or in-the-moment response?  Well, yes. For example,  if we rely only on scripture and never learn to "know" God spirit to spirit - hearing his voice, feeling conviction, becoming spiritually discerning - we will not be able to be used as the potter intended.  But if we neglect the word(truth) and only rely on what we discern we will not be used as intended. Balance is crucial in forming the life of the believer.
     The drying process is a good analogy of the times when we know we are waiting on God.  The pot remains confident that the potter will return to finish the work he began (Philippians 1:6) This is Joseph as he languished in prison…Ruth as she waited on Boaz…Jesus as he waited for his ministry…. the disciples as they waited between Jesus's ascension and the feast of Pentecost…this is us as we wait at times when all we see happening is that we are drying, when actually we are being prepared for the next step in God’s process. 
The pot is fired.  Once the heat of the kiln reaches a specific temp. the clay is transformed and is no longer able to go back to the earth as soft clay.  The actual chemical composition has changed.  In Matthew 3:11, John the Baptist said: “I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire.” 
If the pot never experiences the fire, the heat, the clay will never mature.  It will never be able to be fully used for the Potter’s purpose.  Trials change us. This is a pivotal point in the life of the believer.  We have to be careful that we don’t reach a place anywhere in the pot making process where we fear the fire of refinement.  Again, it is all about surrender.  
The Glazing is the final adornment process. Glaze is actually clay that has melted to make glass. Its purpose is to enhance the look of the pot, to make it attractive. 
   There is an importance placed on having a glaze that "fits" the clay body you use.  The two need to mature together in the kiln at the right temperature  and will hopefully fuse with no imperfections.   
   This sounds a lot to me like our testimony of forgiveness, grace, and hope. .  It comes from us, the clay, but it’s made possible by the Potter.  

Then the pot is filled. That’s the purpose of a vessel – to hold something. 

  • Romans 5:5 “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
  • Acts 1:8 “you shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem…”
Now, we are ready to be poured out in the service of others.  God molds us for His purpose; God fills us with the love and power of His Holy Spirit, and now God’s vessel pours God’s life and truth into the world, to the glory of God.
And through it all, we have The Potter - steady, unchanging, trustworthy, faithful, a solid rock, a firm foundation. 
Because God wanted to make the unchanging nature of his purpose very clear to [us] …We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” (Hebrews 6 )

The Potter and the Clay

Several months ago, I preached a sermon about the imagery of the Potter and Clay in the Bible. Lately, I have been talking with Amy Gilmore, a friend who actually makes pottery (I offer that in sharp contrast to my complete inability to do anything artistic).   Amy has been explaining to me how the Biblical imagery has come alive for her because of her experience.  What follows is the well-rounded perspective from one who both both potter (as an artist) and clay (as a follower of Christ).
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When searching for clay, the Potter has to reach into the ground (unless he or she is fortunate enough to have a ready-made bucket) and pull the clay loose.  In the same way, Christ reaches down into the dirt of our life and pulls us out. This as our salvation. David wrote in Psalm 40:2, "He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand."

God forms what was once a lump of earth into an object of design and purpose. 
It isn't about God making us into something we think is great; it is about letting God make us into something He loves and uses. When God offered encouragement to Jeremiah, he noted, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Most of us want to know what God is going to make us into before we allow him to begin his crafting.  This is not submission, or faith. 


 At this point in our life we are helpless, in need of a Savior, someone who can pull us out of all the dirt that traps us.  And when we surrender to His salvation, we also surrender our purposes, plans, hopes and dreams.  As the Apostle Paul noted,  “Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” (Romans 9:21)
Next, the clay is "wedged" in preparation for throwing.  Air bubbles are removed: pride, greed, lust, envy, gossip, meanness, unforgiveness. It’s pockets of our life we want to keep to ourselves - our checkbook; or our sex life; or our entertainment; our resentments that we nourish; our self-justification;  friends that we know are bringing us down.  Air bubbles are the secret sins from which we need to be delivered. 
After the wedging, the potter "throws" the clay onto the wheel head with a force that makes it stick. Ever had a time in life when you just crashed into something?  Job loss? Marriage failure? Sickness?  Depression?  Sometimes, that’s just life; sometimes, it's Satan trying to tear us down.  In those cases, the crash we feel is us “hitting the wall.” When that happens, God can redirect our momentum so the crash happens on his wheel instead of Satan’s wall.
When God is involved, the moments in our lives when we feel like we’ve hit a wall are times we are actually hitting the wheel. The wheel is the foundation of the faith, the core truths at the center of God’s will is the place to be.  The Potter will make sure you are centered, because an unsteady center brings about a lack of symmetry. 
Now the Potter begins to work on the clay -  our heart, our attitude, our emotions, our willingness to be molded for His purpose.   Water is applied to reduce friction between the hands of the potter and the clay. Now, our purpose, our design, our beauty begin to emerge as we allow the Potter to achieve His purpose. Think of how Ephesians describes Christ's work in our lives: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…” (Ephesians 5: 25ff)
We were pulled out,  we were de-air bubbled (?) and centered – and none of this has been easy.  But now the Potter is ready to begin work – His Word is watering us, refreshing us, baptizing us into new life and truth, making us a workable element in the Potter’s hand.
 As the clay spins in the hands of the potter, the particles come into alignment as well.  This alignment - think "submission" -  happens through repentance and belief.  It takes both. We cannot only repent, nor can we only believe.  Only the two together will produce fruit in our life.

Potters and Vessels: Jars of Clay

The potter/clay image is used through the Bible to describe our relationship with God.  Jeremiah talks about God as the potter and the nation of Israel as the clay; in 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about how we as Christians hold the treasure of Christ’s presence “in jars of clay” so that we can’t  boast about how awesome we are.


There were plenty of potters reading the biblical texts when they were first written; they knew how pottery worked.  It could be pliable and workable in the hands of the potter, or it could be hardened and unworkable.  If the clay was hardened and dried (but not yet fired in a kiln), revitalizing it was possible, but the process required time and patience.  The clay had to soak up water to make it malleable enough for the potter to make - or in this case, remake - something beautiful.

We, the “jars of clay” that can become spiritually parched and unworkable, require the same solution, but with a different kind of water.
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In the Bible, we see a “water” image used for:

  • ·      the Word of God (Deuteronomy 32:2; Ephesians 5:25-26)
  • ·      the power of God (Isaiah 59:19)
  • ·      the cleansing presence of Christ (Hebrews 10:22-23)
  • ·      life that flows from the throne of God (Revelations 22:1-2)
  • ·      the faithful presence of God’s people (Proverbs 18:4; Psalm 133:3)
  • ·      the reality and presence of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33)
 God is the Potter; all of us are clay. God keeps us moldable through his presence, his Word, his Holy Spirit, and his people.
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    According to Acts 17, when Paul was in Thessalonica his presence instigated riots.  He went to the synagogue and preached the gospel of Christ, and a lot of people were converted.  Those who were unconvinced caused such a tremendous riot that the Roman authorities made Paul’s friends pay a security deposit to guarantee there would be no more riots. 
     So when Paul wrote to the Thessolanicans about how to live well in their town, it’s interesting that he did not say, “Go and preach like I did in the Jewish temple.  If they riot, it’s a sign that you are doing God’s work!  The more the hate you, the more blessed you are.”  He often says a version of "imitate me as I imitate Christ," but not in this case. No, Paul has an entirely different bit of advice:

“Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.” Thessalonians 4:9-12

        Thessalonica was a tough place for Christians to live.  It was full of hardened people and souls.  What should have been beautiful and moldable had become parched.  People were a  shell of what they could have been, easily shattered, in desperate need of the spiritual water that would bring new life.

     In this arid place, Paul gave the church the plan for how God’s people in Thessalonica could bring water to their friends and neighbors so that they could become workable clay again in the hands of God.

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“Now about brotherly love we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you. Work with your hands so that you may walk properly toward those who are outside, and be dependent on no one.”
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Step One:  Love one another.
     Tertullian (ca AD 192) wrote that the Gentiles had noted this: "Behold how these Christians love one another."  The "badge" of Christianity is not an icthus bumper sticker or a cross necklace: it’s love.  True community love was one of the outstanding  evangelistic features of the early Christian church.
Step Two: Lead A Quiet Life
       Philo of Alexandria was a contemporary of Paul.  He contrasted the “quiet” person in Greek culture with someone who was evil:
“Besides, the worthless man whose life is one long restlessness haunts market-places, theatres, law-courts, council-halls, assemblies, and every group and gathering of men; his tongue he lets loose for unmeasured, endless, indiscriminate talk, bringing chaos and confusion into everything, mixing true with false, fit with unfit, public with private, holy with profane, sensible with absurd, because he has not been trained to that silence which in season is most excellent.
     No wonder Paul says, “Hey – don’t be like that. Be different.”  We, of all people, ought to display an inner peace that only comes from Christ.
     There is a lot of fear and restlessness about the economy… the elections…the Middle East…gas prices…doomsday scenarios…terrorism…the housing market…the cherry crop… If Paul were writing to us, he would say, “You should be the calm ones.  If anybody is taking a deep breath and offering stability, it should be you – you have Christ.”

Step Three: Mind your own business
      This carries the idea of focusing your time and energy on being the best “you” you can be.  There are strengths and gifts and opportunities unique to each of us. Instead of wondering why our neighbor is not a better person, worry about yourself.  You can’t control your neighbor’s attitude or character or morals or lawn; you can control yours.
  • I can’t make my neighbor parent well…but I can parent my kids well – and model the love God the Father has for his children.
  • I can’t make my neighbor and his wife quit fighting…but I can treat my wife well – and model the love Christ has for the church.
  • I can’t make my neighbor be generous with his money…but I can be generous with mine – and model the generosity of God.
  • I can’t make my neighbor embrace the same family values that I have – but I can raise my family with the family values of the Bible, and show how God’s design for marriage and parenting is a foundational blessing to the world.
Step Four: Work with your hands
      In Paul’s time, The Gentiles regarded manual labor  as degrading. The Jews upheld the dignity of all forms of labor: every Jewish boy was  taught a trade, and even the rabbis learned a trade. Christianity agreed with Judaism:  work is a holy occupation.
(This is not a verse about those who can’t work, by the way.  There are things like sickness, a bad job market, and injury that can make it hard or impossible to work.)
Step Five: Walk properly  
     This is "having good form.”  If you have ever seen Michael Jordan shoot, that’s good form.  If you are a basketball fan, you can’t help but notice. Even if you don’t like Jordan, you grudgingly admit, “The dude can shoot.”  It's that kind of form in ordinary life. This language is very specifically about how Christians should relate to non-Christians

·      Be honest
·      Keep commitments
·      Be kind and courteous
·      Show respect
·      Go out of the way to do good
     The non-Christian Thessalonicans might not like the fact that followers of Christ had made that decision, but it was going to have to be in spite of their lives, not because of their lives. Your life and your testimony are connected.
Step Six: Be dependent on no one
     In 2 Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear: if you can work, you should work. But this command carries a much broader idea of contributing to the community.
     It’s basically saying, “Contribute as best you can to the flourishing of the community around you.  Don’t rely on others to pick up the slack when you are able to.”  I think it’s within the spirit of this verse to say you can do this by trying to make sure the community benefit because you are there.  Contribute, don’t just take.
    The church has had its greatest opportunities historically when in the midst of hardship, they were ready when people turned to them for help. This isn’t simply a command about “rugged self-reliance,” a concept which is embedded in the American dream.  It’s about purposeful preparation with the goal of helping others.
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     David once wrote of God, “My soul thirsts for you, my whole body longs for you, in a dry and thirsty land where there is no water.”  (Psalm 63:1)
     I was at the check-out line at Meijers last night, and on the cover of all  the magazines I saw story after story, and picture after picture, of dried out, shattered shards of clay.   We live in a dry and thirsty land. 
     There are some Paul’s in the world who will go on TV and radio and newspapers and “cause riots” as God equips them to bring the water of life to this land in that particular way.  For most of us,  our calling is not so spectacular, but is equally as powerful. 
     We are called to bring the Water of Life to our community, to join with the Word, the Spirit, and the presence of Christ to immerse parched, broken friends and neighbors so that God can revive what once seemed hopeless and mold something beautiful.