Two weeks ago, on a Thursday evening, I did something I’ve never done before; something I’ve always wanted to do. I went to my first pottery class. I wasn’t sure what to expect and I was prepared to look and feel a little silly, because I was a complete beginner. I didn’t know how to do anything. My only previous clay experience involved Play-Dough and cookie cutters with first my kids and then later, with my grandkids. And that was fun, but not exactly an artistic effort.
My hope was—and is—that I will learn how to create a few simple bowls and plates that I can use as everyday dishes. That for me goes along with our Quaker testimony of simplicity—having just enough and appreciating what we have—and also fits the spiritual practice of mindful eating. Like the practice of mindfulness, mindful eating encourages us to slow down and be really present as we eat our meals, feeling grateful for all the people and systems who have had a part in bringing and preparing the food that nourishes us. When you think about it, an unknowable number of people had a part in bringing that cantaloupe to your breakfast table. It’s a way to live more gratefully moment by moment, a practice that can add more life to our lives. And I think it makes God smile.
So I arrived at my first class expecting to feel out of my comfort zone. There are several students in the class, two of us are completely new to pottery and the rest have some experience. The artist who leads the class has multiple degrees in ceramics and teaches art at a high school in Indianapolis. She seems like a good and patient teacher. Within the first 20 minutes or so, I had already confessed a couple of times that I had no idea what she was talking about when she used phrases like throwing pots or doing slab work or pinch pot techniques. She smiled and assured me I would come to understand as I began working with the clay.
You may have discovered in your own life that it can be humbling to learn something new, to start over as a student and let someone else with more experience and knowledge take the lead. Doing something new can feel uncomfortable because it takes us back to that feeling of “beginner’s mind,” that sense that we’re not quite sure what we’re doing, and that makes us feel vulnerable. It’s outside the comfort zone of the competent, smart people we know ourselves to be.
Even though it can be uncomfortable, that kind of humility is good because it keeps us open to new things, willing to be a student—of God, of others, of life. Our perspectives, our experiences, even our spirituality can grow stale if we think the same things and do the same things and see the same people and go to the same places day after day. If we are open to new experiences and new insights, God will keep leading us forward through our lives, guiding us to grow and learn and become more whole, and wholy loving, people.
Our Old Testament reading gets at this idea that it is in fact God leading our interests and the shaping of our lives so we can grow into God’s vision for us:
But now, O Lord, You are our Father; We are the clay and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.
This wasn’t an idea original for the psalmist; the book of Genesis tells us that God first shaped Adam from the clay of the earth, molding and smoothing until the form was just right for the function God had in mind. And then once the material form was ready, God added the most important part, the eternal and living part, which we share today—the breath of life–and humanity as we know it was born. And whether you think this happened as written or you understand it as a beautiful story about Creator and Created, the idea is the same. Clay forms may be beautiful, but they aren’t alive until God’s spirit is added to the mix.
In our common language, being “made of clay” is phrase that points to our imperfections. When we say someone has “feet of clay,” it usually means we had thought they were exceptional–maybe we’d put them on a pedestal or made them a celebrity—but now we can see the cracks in their character and we know they are human after all. I heard someone in a workshop once talk about that experience of being disappointed in others for whatever reason. She said, “When someone falls off their pedestal that’s a good thing, because they didn’t belong up there anyway.” Dis-appointment means we no longer appoint that person to be our savior; we see now they are simply human—like us—after all.
So in my class, of course, I’m still a beginner, but I have already learned a couple of interesting things about the nature of clay. First,
- Clay wants to fall open. When we first began working with the “pinch pot” technique the idea was to take a half ball of clay and begin working it with our thumbs and fingers to pinch down and around and make what would ultimately resemble a coffee mug. I tried to do what the instructor did, but my little cup had soon expanded into a big floppy bowl. I wasn’t sure how that happened. “Oh, clay wants to fall open,” our teacher told us, and showed us how to gather the edges back together and support the clay so it holds its shape as we made the cup deeper. She said we’d develop a feel for it. I thought about how we, too, clay creatures that we are, need support on the way to our becoming. Without arms to hold us and goodness to guide us, we might simply fall open to all sorts of influences that might detour us from what God plans to create in and through us.
- Clay can get overworked. After our initial cups, we used a similar technique to start on pumpkins. As I rolled and pinched the clay, shaping with my fingers and palms, I noticed that in some places, the clay got stiffer and became less pliable. Then it started to crack in places. I made the little vine for the top of my pumpkin no less that six times, and every time the vine cracked when I tried to curve it. The instructor told us why: “Clay gets tired when it’s overworked.” With too much handling, the clay becomes less flexible and it needs to rest and recover. I needed to put it back in the bag and get some fresh clay—and not overdo my working of it. Perhaps that’s why God so protects our free will; with too much handling, we might wear out and crack.
- Clay needs to breathe. When you create something enclosed with clay—like the round shape of the pumpkin—you need to create an air hole in the bottom so the clay can breathe and air and can move in and out of the vessel. If you let it harden—or fire it in the kiln—without that air hole, the object will collapse. And aren’t we the same way? Made of clay, yes, but with plenty of opportunities—through our lungs and the pores in our skin—to take in the air, to receive the freshness of God’s spirit in all the living details of our lives.
- You don’t give up on clay. In two weeks, our class has worked on six different projects, and how many times do you think students have thrown a wad of clay in the trash and started again? Not once! Oh, we’ve smooshed the clay back into a ball and started over or put the clay back in the bag to rest, or sprayed it with water to revive it, but no clay has gone into the trash can. Clay is reworkable. It recovers. If you let it rest and give it a drink, it will revive itself and help you create what you’re hoping for another time. This says something to me about the nature of God’s persistent grace as it shapes and molds us into the loving, whole, kind beings God created us to be. It makes me think of one of my favorite verses from Philippians: “He who has begun a good work in you is faithful to complete it.” And that’s true not just for us but for every child of God the whole world over. We’re all still works in progress and so there’s hope for each one of us. No matter how unloving someone seems in the moment, with a little rest and some Godly contact, “that of God” can still appear, in them and in us.
Our New Testament reading for today comes from 2 Corinthians. Paul wrote this second letter during a very stressful time. He was feeling the strain of trying to lead from a distance this young and inexperienced church and the people at Corinth was pushing back on Paul’s leadership a bit. My bible commentary says that a meeting Paul had with the church did not go well and Paul had left early, “leaving sour feelings all around.” This likely caused some in the church to question Paul’s authority and they were beginning to listen to other teachers.
The people of the church at Corinth had discovered that Paul—this forceful and passionate leader—had “feet of clay.” He was a flawed human being, ego-centric and overbearing, even though the deeper message he shared from God was true and pure and loving. They were all trying to understand and live by Christ’s teachings, but the reality is that the clay of their very human personalities was getting in the way. Left on their own, Paul and the people of Corinth would have continued to go around and around, locked in their surface struggles, defending themselves and blaming each other. The only way any success would be possible—the only way anything beautiful, harmonious, kind, and loving is ever possible—is that God breathes new life into it—a new idea, a new solution, a fresh sense of forgiveness–and we, then, inspired, are able to rise to the possibility God reveals.
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”
That is good news for us all. Because even though our efforts in this world will be uneven and our actions imperfect, God takes whatever we can offer and turns it into a living work of love. We are the clay, and God is the potter, and we can trust that God’s good intention and artistry continues its work in each of our lives. We don’t have to struggle with our cracks and imperfections, because God is whole and perfect and complete, shaping us more and more into the image of Christ. It’s wasted energy for us to judge the beauty or functionality of any other of God’s creations, because nothing is finished yet, and as long as we live, change is possible. The shaping continues, thanks to the warming and leading Light of God’s presence with us all.
In closing, I share a few verses from The Song of the Potter, by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
Turn, turn, my wheel! Turn round and round, Without a pause, without a sound: So spins the flying world away! This clay, well mixed with marl and sand, Follows the motion of my hand; For some must follow, and some command, Though all are made of clay! Turn, turn, my wheel! All things must change To something new, to something strange; Nothing that is can pause or stay; The moon will wax, the moon will wane, The mist and cloud will turn to rain, The rain to mist and cloud again, To-morrow be to-day. Turn, turn, my wheel! This earthen jar A touch can make, a touch can mar; And shall it to the Potter say, What makest thou? Thou hast no hand? As men who think to understand A world by their Creator planned, Who wiser is than they. Turn, turn, my wheel! The human race, Of every tongue, of every place, Caucasian, Coptic, or Malay, All that inhabit this great earth, Whatever be their rank or worth, Are kindred and allied by birth, And made of the same clay.
- OT Isaiah 64: 8
- NT 2 Corinthians 4: 6-9
- Philippians 1:6
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. The Song of the Potter. https://discoverpoetry.com/poems/henry-wadsworth-longfellow/the-song-of-the-potter/