Sometimes in the Old Testament, God can seem far off and remote. We have a hard time connecting with such an impersonal God. Then, every once in awhile, we read something that shocks us into remembering that God loves us personally and passionately. Both of today’s readings from the Old Testament wake us up to God’s relationship with us.
Our Psalm today is one of the most beautiful Psalms in the Psalter. The Psalmist marvels at God’s knowledge and care for us from the time we are in our mother’s wombs, to the end of our days. The Psalmist has come to understand that no matter where we go in our lives, or how far we may try to run from our experiences, God is always with us, caring for us and shaping us.
This idea of God shaping us takes even further form in our passage from Jeremiah. In this prophetic piece of writing, God is describing to Jeremiah how God can shape the fortunes of Israel like a potter shapes a piece of clay. This metaphor is really powerful-God as a potter means that God is hands on with us, that God molds and shapes us in an intimate way.
I don’t know much about pottery-my most formative mental image of pottery is as a 13 year old watching agog as Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze steamed up the pottery wheel in the movie Ghost. So, I asked some questions of those who do know something about pottery and this is what I learned.
Pottery has five main steps. First, the potter kneads the clay. This prepares the clay to be shaped later. Next, the potter throws the clay-this is the image crystallized so clearly in Ghost-when the potter places the clay on a wheel and begins to shape the clay as the wheel moves. Third, the potter fires the clay, in order for the pot to hold its shape. Fourth, the potter glazes the pot to add color and finally, the potter fires the pot again.
Being kneaded, thrown, and fired. These are not universally pleasant images, but they certainly resonate with human experience. How does God knead, throw and fire us?
Think of kneading as a time of preparation. A potter must knead the clay before she throws the clay, because the clay must be pliable and homogenous. Kneading gets out rough patches and soft spots. Kneading makes clay flexible and useable.
In our Christian journeys, let’s think of the time of kneading as the time when we gain the tools, flexibility and knowledge we need to deal with the world. We are kneaded by God when we come to church, when we read the bible, when we pray. We are kneaded by our parents as they teach us to share and play nicely with others. We are kneaded as we go to school and learn to read, write, think, do math, conduct experiments. We are kneaded as we learn to dance, play a sport, pick up a musical instrument. God uses all these things in our youth and our adulthood to prepare us to be the fully formed people he created in our mother’s wombs.
The throwing stage can be a little more challenging. Being pulled and pushed and shaped by God can be exhausting. We’re constantly being shaped in order that we may live out more closely the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
My best friend, L., who often comes up in my sermons, is going through a period of being thrown by God at the moment. For many years, she has consciously sought out jobs in which she did not have to be responsible for other people. She is a hard worker, but the stress of managing others was just not worth the benefits for her. She has been an administrator and personal assistant in a variety of capacities, but finally after getting the bill from the company that replaced the roof of her house this winter, she finally had the motivation she needed to seek a job with more responsibility (and a higher paycheck!)
She began work a few months ago in an office with a bunch of Ph.Ds and a lot of administrative assistants as their first office manager. Every day she is being stretched-though she is an incredibly intelligent woman, the PhDs use words every day she’s never heard of. Some administrative assistants resent her presence and the IT girl has commenced a war against her. L’s intelligence is being stretched, her people skills are being pulled and prodded, her patience is tried every day, and her sheer physical endurance is growing as she works her tail off. She knows God brought her to this job, but she also feels like she is reaching to the very edges of her ability for the first time in a long time.
Being thrown on God’s potting wheel can be dizzying! Having to grow as a person when we are already fully fledged adults can be really painful. But as Christians, as people in relationship with our Creator, we are never done growing, and God is never done with us.
While being shaped on the potter’s wheel may be tiring, no experience quite matches that of then being placed in the potter’s fire.
At some point in our Christian journey, we will each find ourselves in the potter’s fire. This may be prompted by an event in our lives, or it may simply be a spiritual experience. This week, early reviews of Mother Theresa’s book of personal letters have been published. What has shocked many people is that Mother Theresa spent much of her life-and all 50 years of her ministry as a nun–in deep spiritual turmoil. She often felt as if God were far from her and went through periods where she doubted his existence entirely. Instead of leaving the convent and her ministry, though, she stayed in the spiritual struggle. She continued to pray, and read, and consult her own spiritual mentors. She also continued serving those she was called to serve. And though she would deny she was one, this faithfulness, this fight, is what formed her into a saint. The fire of her doubt, ironically, is the fire that sanctified her, that showed forth her true self.
The potter’s fire has also been described as the refining fire-it is the fire that burns away the parts of ourselves that are not true, and brings to light the parts of ourselves that God has created and shaped. The potter’s fire may not come a purely spiritual struggle. The potter’s fire may come as grief at the death of a loved one. The fire may come during a painful divorce, or an illness, or after a dream has died.
As you know, though, not everyone who has been through a difficult period of their lives emerges from it enlightened and more themselves. People often leave the fire bitter and occasionally even broken. A potter’s fire is a dangerous place. It is in the fire when glaze turns the wrong color, or even worse, when a piece of pottery shatters.
When we are in the fire, or when we know someone who is in the fire, we need to be extra gentle. This is the time for extra prayer and rest and meditation. This is the time for loving friends and trips to the spa. We do not run away from our lives, but we do take deep breaths and more naps.
The fire is not something inherently destructive-the fire is intended to shape and refine us. God is not interested in our destruction, God is interested in our holiness, in our relationship with him and with each other. Those fruits of the spirit that are formed when we are on the wheel are shined and honed in the fire.
Pottery is known for being beautiful, but fundamentally pottery is known for being useful. As Christians, God shapes us to be useful, too. Useful to our families, useful to our churches and workplaces, useful to the poor and those who need extra help. Today, at our Festival of Ministries, you will have the opportunity to think about how God has formed you for usefulness. What experiences have you had that have made you better and more yourself? What might God be preparing for you to do? There is much work to be done here at Emmanuel, even if that work usually means having quite a bit of fun and spending time with really remarkable people. You have a place-or several places!-here at Emmanuel, and today is your day to explore them! So, whether you are a vase or a bowl; a plate or a coffee mug-we welcome to spend time with us after church today deciding what kind of piece of pottery you are!