Friday, May 31, 2024

A Better Potter


A Better Potter


2 Corinthians 4:5-12
4:5 For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. 

4:6 For it is the God who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 

4:7 But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. 

4:8 We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; 

4:9 persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 

4:10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

4:11 For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh. 

4:12 So death is at work in us, but life in you.



II Corinthians 4:7 is one of my favorite scriptures in the whole Bible: “But we have this treasure in clay jars…” The treasure is the gift of God’s forgiveness, redemption, and grace as delivered to us by Jesus Christ, during his time “camping” among us. WE are the clay jars—clay, because we are both malleable AND fragile, but also because we can be “shaped by the master potter. The problem is, we WILL be shaped, one way, or another, and the resulting “pot” may not be something we—or God—would be proud to display in public.


Making pottery is not an easy process, believe me. Discounting commercial operations that use computerized machinery to mold them, glaze them, fire them, and package them for mass distribution, making pottery is more of an art in our day, than something we do because we need a pot to hold something. Most of us buy pottery to display, and those who make it, are artists. My first effort at making pottery was in public school, where, as one who enjoyed art, I took several art classes. The first thing I learned was that I wasn’t very good at drawing things, especially living things. Then came “pot week.” My instructor was one of our public school art teachers who had a major side business selling incredible, hand-make pottery. Not only was he a master at creative use of the potter’s wheel, but he had a great eye for innovative shapes and eye-catching decorating, including mixing some of his own slips and glazes. The good news for his students was that he liked to teach others how to throw a pot, and he was good at that, too. A number of my peers were soon rather expertly wedging clay, throwing simple pots or vases, and preparing them for firing in the large, “community” kiln that was filled each day for firing at night when electrical rates were lowest. I never got much beyond the wedging.


Wedging clay is basically what bakers do when they knead dough. It smooths the clay, giving it a consistent, soft texture, and helps identify and extract any dried/hard impurities. It also exorcises any air bubbles, which are murder when encountered on the wheel, and may burst and destroy all in the community kiln, when they survive to that stage in the wall of a pot. I could expertly wedge clay. Beyond that, the potter’s wheel won each and every time. After wedging the clay, the budding potter slams an appropriately-sized slug of it onto the center of the wheel. The wheel is turned on and begins to spin. The potter starts applying a little water (actually a very thin slip of clay and water) to the lump of clay with a small sponge. Then, in a kind of clay-oriented Karate move, arms and hands are braced against the body and applied to the spinning clay in a move called “centering.” The goal is to gently nudge the clay into the very center of the wheel, and flatten it into a perfectly round, flat mound of clay ready to be “opened” by the thumbs of the potter. This step was my Achilles’ heel. No matter what I did, I could never successfully center the clay. “Success” in clay centering was marked by the “hump” of clay being so perfectly centered that, as it is spinning, it literally looks like it’s stationary, with no wavering at all. I could never make it do that. My teacher tried everything to help me learn this step, but to no avail. He gently encouraged me, while counseling that I was “fighting the clay.” There was a three-way battle going on, actually, between me, the clay, and centrifugal force, and apparently I was never able to balance these forces. The clay lump always wound up with a slight waver in its rotation, and believe me, even the slightest waver will ruin the amateur’s effort to open and “bring up” the walls of clay to form a pot. I should state that an experienced potter can throw a pot even with a warpy clay slug, as they have learned the art of “centering as they go.” This requires a REALLY gentle touch, and almost building an “empathy” with the clay. Expert potters also “feel” the texture and moistness (or lack of) in the clay, adjusting their touch and technique to compensate. The rank amateur, working with a decently-centered lump of clay, is often successful at bringing up a simple pot or vase, usually only running into trouble when they try to get too fancy or ambitious, early on, or applies too much moistening slip to the pot as they go. Me? Not getting the darn thing centered in the first place is a dealbreaker. It was even worse than that, though. Feeling pity for me, my instructor would center a lump of clay for me, leaving me with the “raw materials” to throw a pot. I could sometimes succeed at “opening” the clay, using my thumbs to turn the lump into a centered “ring” of clay, which could then be “brought up” using the fingers of the left hand inside the ring, and the right hand fingers on the exterior. Nope, not me. Each and every time, I was again diagnosed as “fighting the clay,” and a half-formed pot would begin to waver when about half-formed, and would eventually fall back down onto the spinning wheel. Because my art experiences in school were relatively short-term, we had to move on, and Yours Truly never—NEVER—successfully executed a pot on the potter’s wheel (or maybe I should say I did “execute” quite a few, as this term is used in capital punishment?). 


Don’t cry for me, Argentina. My creativity emerged when we were to draw “thumbnail” sketches of pot designs, or later, jewelry pieces. Turns out, I’m a pretty “out of the box” thinker when it comes to designing at this level, and my teacher gave me an “A” for the pieces of jewelry I designed and made (I’m not bad with tools). He also picked a couple of my pot designs he fancied, and showed me how to “hand build” them using the coil and scorew method, avoiding the potter’s wheel, altogether. I got a good grade for a couple of these hand-built jobs, and carried one around as a pencil and pen holder for decades, until it was broken in one of our clergy moves. Many years later, while in college, my daughter had the same luck I did with throwing pots, and my “wall-seum” is home to an incredible hand-built pots she made that looks like it was excavated in some ancient Mayan digs.


This extended story illustrates why I like II Corinthians 4:7 so much! Pottery is hard stuff! When the hymn echoes this text with the words, “Thou art the potter, I am the clay,” it totally gets the story right! I already know what happens if I try to form my “own clay” of my life: I’m OK with “wedging” the air out of it; however, I’m lousy—let’s say unsuccessful—at getting it centered, and will throw it out of kilter, even if I let GOD do the centering; and my personal efforts to “bring up” the clay [my life] to look anything like God’s plan will fail. God is the better potter for all of these metaphorical processes. And God has the “right touch” for the consistency (or lack of it) and texture for the “clay” of my life. 


The text says much more to us “clay jars.” Here are a few of the key “treasures”:


*We are proclaimers of the Good News of Jesus Christ


*We are the recipients and vessels of the “light of God” as revealed in Christ Jesus


*Like an old Timex watch, we can “take a licking and keep on ticking,” thanks to our commitment to a higher power and a higher purpose.


*Through our experience as “ambassadors for Christ,” we learn the difference between being “perplexed” and despairing. Despair leads us to sadness, depression, even grief. Being “perplexed,” when responded to properly, leads to curiosity, learning, and self-discovery. THIS is truly a treasure in the “clay jar” of our life!


*We know we carry around “death” in our earthly bodies, for it is the natural order, but as ones who have yielded to the redeeming and transforming grace of God in Jesus Christ, we ALSO carry around the seeds of resurrection!


The fragile, clay jar of our existence may never be “brought up” to something that holds water unless we offer our “raw materials” to the Better Potter. My experience of attempting to throw a pot on the potter’s wheel is a great metaphor for the senselessness of “picking oneself up by the bootstraps,” a practice WAY too many wielding “horse sense” say is the remedy for human suffering. Grace, forgiveness, opening oneself to the illumination of the light of Christ, and offering God some well “wedged” clay, truly IS a healing balm. Yielding to the Better Potter will not just raise OUR “pot,” but will also “bring up” other pots, as well. Christ didn’t come just to save your SOUL, but to restore and reconcile all of humanity! This is also why we need the Better Potter to mold the clay—with superior knowledge of its texture, empathy for its “feel,” and the creativity to form something outstanding! So, we are being called by this text to “Wedge, yield, rise, and shine” by putting ourselves in the hands of the Better Potter. Amen! 

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