Sunday, April 27, 2008
"Excuse me? You’re going to put me in a kiln, heat me up to 2000 degrees—and leave me there for how long? I DON’T think so! When I sing, ‘Have thine own way, Lord,’ inviting you to mold me, I agree to wait and yield and be still. I see no fine print indicating that I’ll be sauna-tized at 2000 degrees. You surely read the recipe wrong, Lord.”
My unyielding attitude and my questioning God is nothing new. According to Isaiah, God’s people are often prone to argue with their Maker:
“You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me’? Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing’? (Isaiah 29:26)
"Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker, to him who is but a potsherd (a pottery fragment) among the potsherds on the ground. (Isaiah 45:9)
When I’m in an adolescent, pottery-fragment sort of mood I often speak back to God. I’m resistant throughout this process of becoming a clay vessel, but now—NOW—I’ve reached my limit. I kick and scream all the way to the kiln. “Woe to him who quarrels with his Maker”? I’m WAY beyond quarreling. I’m out of here!
There are times in life when the pressure is so great, the heat so hot that we can’t imagine being able to endure and survive. The Bible encourages us to“…yield your hearts to the Lord,” (Joshua 24:2), but this yielding can feel more like succumbing, losing, or dying. “Yielding” conjures an image of a flexible tree branch that yields to the wind or bends low when pelted by rain or burdened with snow or ice. I think of yielding to cross-traffic or moving aside to let someone go ahead of me in line. I hear a senator saying, “I yield to the good senator from the state of Indiana.”
Perhaps “yielding” is an apt term for clay as it is being shaped on the wheel, but I think there needs to be a different word to describe what is expected of me when trapped in a kiln-like experience; a word that blends courage, determination, guts, grit—a word one might use to describe a Navy SEAL, perhaps.
The prophet Ezekiel reveals to us a God who yields:
"This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Once again I will yield to the plea of the house of Israel…” (Ezekiel 36:37)
The God of Israel put up with the repeated unfaithfulness of his people, yielding to them with a grace beyond measure. As I enter the kiln, I need to remember that even in my unfaithfulness, God continually forgives me, loves me, and never gives up on me. Can I bring myself to yield to my Heavenly Potter who has modeled for me a holy yielding?
Sometimes I feel as if I am thrown head first into the kiln of crisis, like when I entered the hospital to give birth to my husband’s and my first child, only to be devastated a few hours later when our baby died. Sometimes I voluntarily step into the chamber, as when I chose to conceive again and entered the fiery furnace of fear. I personally fanned the flames—until the moment when our second child, Matt, announced his arrival with a lusty cry.
I hope that my yielding will “yield [a] harvest and God, [my] God, will bless [me].” (Psalm 67:6) I want to be like “a tree planted by streams of water which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither.” (Psalm 1: 3) Maybe I can endure the blistering heat if I know good will come of it. And I take heart that “my leaf does not wither.”
I’ve been exercising my “waiting” muscle quite a bit lately. On a recent mission trip to Guatemala, I waited in a long line at the ticketing counter at Indianapolis International Airport while members of our People Helping People mission group were methodically checked in – at 4:15 a.m., no less. I waited to go through security; I waited for the plane and waited to board the plane—and then waited some more. In Guatemala City, there was customs and immigration and waiting on luggage, my mind spinning with the conveyor, as I hoped and prayed my suitcase arrived safely. I waited for the bus to arrive and load up passengers and luggage for the six hour trip to San Marcos, and then waited to check in at the hotel. And that was just the first day of the trip.
The waiting wasn’t all that difficult at first. I was excited to see old friends and meet new people, to hear mission stories, to experience a new country and culture. But as the day wore on, and I wore out, my tolerance for waiting waned. “Just feed me and put me to bed, please,” I wanted to whine, “enough with all this waiting.”
Most journeys entail periods of idleness; some we enjoy and others we detest. However, not all waiting is wasted time or useless inactivity. Waiting can be purposeful and necessary. As we visit the pottery studio this week, we’ll notice that the pots have been removed from the wheel and lined up on shelves. They’ve been set aside to air dry prior to firing.
We’re eager to move along, get glazed and gorgeous so we can be admired and appreciated for the beautiful vessels that we are. But why rush? There’s a trial by fire coming up soon, so let’s dawdle awhile, shall we? Just as all the previous steps in the process have proven essential to a positive outcome, this waiting game has its merit as well. If you’ve ever made a loaf of bread, you know that the dough must be set aside to rise. Rushing the process and baking the loaf before the yeast has done its job results in an inferior loaf of bread (I can personally vouch for this). Similarly, if a woman has “a bun in the oven,” it’s not advisable to rush the process. (Go ahead and groan—I deserve it.)
So here we sit, waiting. We’re bored. We’re anxious. We’re frustrated and feeling useless. Finally, the conveyor belt cranks into service and we’re on the move. If you’ve ever witnessed a makeover on the popular show, “What Not to Wear,” the application of makeup is the final step in a total makeover overseen by fashion gurus Stacy and Clinton. The objective is to transform a clueless-about-her-looks woman into a sophisticated, eye catching “gee, I wish I looked like her,” model of potential for all other women who have let themselves go.
Likewise, it’s time for the blah clay vessels to get their crowning touches of glaze. The process is a lot like getting one’s hair tinted. When the dye is applied to the hair, the recipient is going to look worse than ever. The dull, colorless appearance of both dye and glaze bear no resemblance to the hues and luster of the final products.
But be patient. For once the dye is rinsed out and the hair shampooed, gelled, curled, teased, scrunched, carefully arranged to look natural, and finally sprayed to preserve the work of art, then the stylist will swing the chair around and let you gaze upon your more youthful image.
My analogy fails at this point, for while the person enduring the tinting process may spend a few minutes under a warm hair dryer, a clay pot is about to serve a lengthy stint in a hot kiln.
I’ll join you next Saturday on the hot seat. In the meantime, ponder these words of John Milton:
“They also serve who only stand and wait."
How might you be a servant in waiting this week?
created in Christ Jesus to do good works,
which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Okay, folks, it’s time to get in shape! As a tyke, my daughter, Beth, begged us to wake her up early so she could watch “Mousercize” on the Disney channel. She was so in to exercise, that for Christmas, she requested “Get in Shape, Girl” products—pint-sized, pink exercise paraphernalia like a mat, sweat band, tiny bar bells, etc. But her idea of getting in shape was to get comfy on the sofa and “watch” Minnie and Mickey and their cheerful, colorfully clad, energetic friends sing and sweat. That’s my girl, all right: just like her mama.
However, this is not the kind of getting in shape that I want to talk about today. No exercise videos or leotards required. No running shoes, no sweating. Did I hear a collective sigh of relief? You’re not going to be required to do anything in this step of the process of becoming a clay jar. You can just lay back and let the Master Potter do his thing.
Once the impurities and air bubbles have been pounded out of us (Part 2, March 29) the potter places the purified clay on the wheel. It’s essential that the potter center the clay on the wheel, for if it is even slightly off center, the pot is likely to collapse at some point during the shaping process. Twila Beahm, my artist friend, likens this to real life. If we aren’t centered in God, life spins out of control and splat!
When the clay is centered, the wheel is set in motion, and the potter uses his very skilled hands to force the clay to rise up into a cylinder, and then presses on top of the clay with his thumbs or palms. The potter repeats this process three or four times to increase the clay’s flexibility and strength.
From time to time, the potter will dampen his hands with water to soften the clay and make the texture more smooth and supple. Water symbolizes the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit moisturizes and softens our hearts. We are supple—responsive to the Potter’s touch, and in his hands, we grow more flexible and open to new situations.
Now pressing his thumbs into the center, the potter “opens up” the clay, gradually hollowing out the vessel. A little pressure with the finger tips evens out the thickness of the cylinder walls. Finally—drum roll, please—the potter shapes the clay into a vessel.
That wasn’t so bad, now was it? All that pressing feels like a massage. Well, maybe not a massage, but a good work out, at least in compared to the beating we took in the preparation session last week. I guess we could say that this phase is our “work out” or “exercise routine.” We do stretches to enhance our flexibility and weight training to build our muscle strength. “No pain, no gain,” as the saying goes.
But wait, what’s this about spinning? I’m getting dizzy just thinking about it. Pastor Howard Chang makes this spiritual application: “Often we want to run from or change our circumstances. We may even become embittered toward God because of the situations we find ourselves in. If we do, we will only find that we will face the same circumstances elsewhere. Why? Because we are still the same clay, spinning on the wheel of life’s circumstances.”
As the wheel of life spins, we have a choice: to fight our Master’s shaping, or relax under his touch. If you’re like me, you do some of both. When we want to climb off the potter’s wheel and run away from the trying circumstances in our lives, it helps to remember this:
“We know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
I enjoy needlework, and as I stitch, a picture slowly emerges. With mere thread, fabric, and a pattern, I create what will be seen out of what is unseen. God can do likewise. Clay or cloth, it matters not. His touch transforms.
Monday, April 21, 2008
This very day, I am winging my way to Guatemala to take part in a Christian medical mission. One of my favorite things to do at the mission site is to play with the children. A very popular activity involves my painting their hands bright colors (rojo, verde, azul, amarilla, y naranja) and letting the kids place their handprints on a piece of paper. On each piece of paper is printed, “Usare mis manos para ayudar no para lastimar,” which in Gringoese means, “I will use my hands to help, not to hurt.” Domestic abuse, child abuse, gang violence, and similar crimes scar every society and the best way to fight it is by educating the children.
Hands are an essential—and the most important—tool for the potter. Our Heavenly Potter has provided the metaphor of clay and potter to help us understand how God shapes our lives. While his hands are loving, his touch is not always gentle. As we begin to look at his process of forming us, we need to keep the following points in mind:
- God’s touch is purposeful. He knows our true potential and how we fit into his purposes. He has a master plan, and a plan for each and every one of us, and he has the power to create and bring his plan to fruition.
- God’s hands are steadfast. He does not give up on his project.
- His touch, whether gentle or firm, is always that of a caring and loving God. The hands of the Master Artist are sensitive, listening hands. Twila Beahm, local potter, says she listens to the clay and it speaks to her. Given that we are all so unique—right down to our handprints—I believe that our Potter began his relationship with us well before we were formed. God is all about relationship—relationship with his creation—and relationship involves listening.
- Our Heavenly Potter is well pleased with his handiwork. (“God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Genesis 1:31)
With this in mind, let’s peek in on the Potter and observe him at work. After carefully selecting the clay, the potter must remove all the impurities, such as gravel, stones, and small tree roots. Laying the clay out, he picks out the foreign matter. Over and over again he kneads the clay and smashes it down. Using a technique called “wedging,” he slices the clay in half and slams the halves together, forcing out the air bubbles.“Ouch!” Sounds painful, doesn’t it? But this process is extremely important. If the impurities and air bubbles are not removed, once on the wheel, the pot may collapse due to these flaws. This reminds me of childhood piano practices in which I would practice a song over and over and over, working to eliminate my flawed key strokes. A song can be ruined by the strike of a wrong key and EVERYONE at the recital will remember THIS note—not the fact that you’ve played a million other notes perfectly. (I refused to participate in recitals for this reason.)
My piano practicing was grueling. I would get so frustrated with myself that I would pound the keys and bang my head on the keyboard. When my kids were young and loved to watch Sesame Street, I recognized myself in that muppet character who was a piano head banger. I wonder if our Heavenly Potter gets frustrated with us as we collapse on his wheel, yet again—and again. It’s a painful process—for both pot and potter.
I’m relieved to know that God does not settle with seconds and keeps his hands to the wheel on which we spin.
Next week, the fun begins, as our Potter places us on the wheel and gives us shape.
“O Lord, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.”