Wednesday, February 20, 2013

That Which Sounds Pretty, Typically is Not

When I'd first given up a high paid insurance gig to teach English on less-than-a-pauper's salary at a diocesan high school,  I had no money with which to purchase inspiring posters for my classroom.  I  scavenged around those remnants left in filing cabinets, shelves and my desk by the outgoing-retired-teacher.  There was quite a bit of yellowing 1970s-era wall art to choose from.

My foraging yielded a lovely sepia-toned post card of hands shaping clay on a potter's wheel.  The caption read,  "Like clay in the hands of a potter, so you are in Mine”  (Jeremiah 18:6).

'Pretty and poetic,' I'd thought.  How wonderful to be in God's hands!  Here was a western religious idea I could get behind; it didn't make demands on me.  It felt comfortably neutral and safe.  I tacked it on the board alongside my classroom rules and expectations.  I contemplated the muddied hands, shapely vessel and Scripture in that picture every day for the next ten years.  It was my first "memory verse."

I chuckle at my interpretation of that Scripture now.   My assumption had been that God's Hands would be gentle in this molding process.  He loved me so much He would shape me into something beautiful!  I just had to sit back and be the clay.


What I failed to do in my first five years with this verse was to consider context.

What is the real process of sculpting?  Have you done it or watched it yourself?

A sculptor throws a lump of clay onto a wheel (once?  twice?  several times?), in essence beating the you-know-what out of it.  He wets it, spins it, wets it more, pushing, perhaps carving into it,  all the while spinning it, in order to cultivate its shape.   That clay is built up as a vase or some other vessel, frequently to the point of -oops!-collapse!- after which the potter again pounds it into a lump to be split, thrown, and built up once more.  Etcetera.

Once the piece is to the potter's liking, it is fired in a kiln.  As in: Baked.  Made hot.  Really hot.  In-a- raging-fire-of-purgation-hot. 

How do I feel about "being the clay" now?   

Not bad, actually.  This Scripture is comforting if you've already felt beaten about by God's hands.  Why?  Because it spares me from guilt and self-loathing: I don't fall down or fail or feel interior darkness because I have done something displeasing to Him.  He is not punishing me.  While it may feel as if he is angrily beating me up, He is not.  

He is creating something beautiful in me; He is making me more like Himself.  He is taking out the crap (a lot of which I'd worked so hard to put there to "improve"myself); He is refining me.  He is making me ready.

This process does not feel good.  But nothing truly good comes without sacrifice and pain.  One does not get to run a marathon by sitting on the couch with her feet up, eating chocolate, all the time.  The training to get to the point of running 26.2 miles is steady and painful, at times fraught with injury.

Body-building requires an athlete to "shred" or rip muscle for increased growth to occur.  That newer, larger mass of muscle is achieved through the breaking and healing of what had been beneath it.  (I've tried this at the gym.  As much as I've liked the results, it does not feel "nice.") 

One does not co-create a child without anguish and physical suffering, either.  Modern medicine does much to save me from the risk of death and to alleviate some discomfort if I choose, but there is no "easy" way to get a baby onto this earth.  One way or another, that child comes out through me; I will be torn and I will bleed for it.  The result: new life.  The next generation.  A legacy to exist beyond me.

If building our bodies into something kick - ass requires surrender to some amount of suffering, if creating new life requires an acquiescence to discomfort and pain, then why would I ever expect my soul's growing closer to God to be as peaceful or relaxing as getting a manicure or a massage?

No.  I am clay in the hand's of the potter.  The anxiety, exhaustion, self-doubt and whatever else I experience are, when surrendered to Him, the means He works through to get me to be what He intends.  This is not pretty; it is messy and gritty and real.

And absolutely awesome.


  1. Wonderful... thank you! Somewhere in one of his meditations Merton reflects on us as clay and God as the potter. His twist on your reflection is that after God goes all the way through our shaping and baking process, He comes back and sees that, contrary to the plate He made us into, we have gone and reshaped ourselves into a jug, and so He has to start all over again! Hah!

    1. Would you believe I have not read much (if any) Merton?! What would you recommend from him? He is dead-on; we constantly re-shape ourselves. I think reshaping/re-creating/re-defining ourselves has replaced the quest for virtue in this post-modern age.

  2. This is a really, really, really good post. I'd never thought about it this way before but when you spell it out like that, it makes perfect sense. Thank you.

    1. Thank you. I am so glad you liked it!