Rev. Lindsay L. Fulmer
Ladera Community Church
August 29, 2010
Before he ever sits down at the wheel, the potter begins by kneading the clay; pounding it down onto the surface with both hands, again and again, pressing into it with his palm, pushing away, gathering it up again. This rids the clay of air bubbles, which could cause the pot to crack or break in firing. Patting the kneaded clay into a mounded ball, the potter slaps it down firmly onto the center of the wheel. With one forearm braced against his own body, the potter begins to kick the wheel. He dips his hand into water and drizzles some on the clay to keep it moist and pliable while it spins. Too dry, and the clay will crumble and resist shaping. With the opposing hand he pulls steadily against the other side of the clay, slowly bringing it into center. He knows he has the clay centered when, by gently pressing his thumb into the top, he’s able to create a perfectly circular indentation.
The clay must be centered before a pot is formed, or the pot will not hold but fold and buckle. Centered, the clay spins smoothly through his hands; he wets a sponge and presses it against the clay to keep it supple. Faster now he kicks the wheel, and with practiced ease, arm braced securely, he deepens the opening by applying pressure, then guides the clay with his fingertips, slowly, steadily upward into a new shape with rounded sides. A pot forms. If the clay grows too dry, or too wet, the pot will collapse. If it does, the clay is not thrown away, but gathered up again, patted back into a mound and the process begins again. In skillful hands, a strong and useful pot will be created.
Come and go down to the potter’s house and there I will let you let you hear my words, God told Jeremiah. Watching the potter, Jeremiah recognized the dynamics at play. Being a prophet is hard and frustrating work. When you can see the writing on the wall, when you have tried again and again to draw people back to the center, back to God, and they resist the pull of your voice, when the whole society seems out of whack and about to cave in, the potter’s house was just the place for an object lesson, a visual aid to instruct Jeremiah, And by his observation, all of us. Jeremiah had watched his people turn away from God, from the core covenantal values of their faith, yielding instead to the demands of the dominant culture. Reformation requires certain pliability, a willingness to give, and Jeremiah repeatedly encountered stubborn resistance and closed minds. As a consequence of the people’s turning toward idolatry, Jeremiah predicted the temple, once the sacred center of community life, would fall - Can I not do with you, O House of Israel, just as this potter has done? Says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hands, so are you in my hands.
Lessons from the potter’s house hold true for individuals, as well as institutions, for families as well as nations. The very first is this: There is a dynamic process at work in creation - some is in our control, some is not. Shaped by experience and education, we make choices, that bear consequences and determine the contours of our lives. We can choose to learn from the past, or repeat it; we can avoid or confront, we can fear or trust, we can change, or conform. Consider we are like the clay, and God, the creator is the potter, able to form and reform. Only as we are pliable, open to fresh new ideas, open to the movement of the spirit, which flows like water, can God’s hand guide and shape.
And such shaping can only happen as we allow ourselves, like clay, to stay centered as the wheel of life spins in rapid, even dizzying circles. You and I can likely name people who seem well-centered, who though subject to many pressures and pulls smoothly seem to hold true and fast, trusting implicitly what is not in their power to control remains in God’s good hands.
I can think of a woman I knew named Gertrude. Born in 1907, she grew up on the high dry plains of South Dakota. Her parents drank and fought, and her childhood was full of painful turns. She resolved, as a young child, that she would not ever live that way. She took refuge in school, and remembers loving teachers who became her mentors. Gertrude became a nurse, married a kind hearted and sober man, raised two children, and just as they were off to their adult lives, her husband grew ill. She took care of him for some twenty years, and when he died, she was sixty-five. What did she do then? Well, she let compassion move her and joined the newly begun Peace Corps, and went to Africa. What stories she had to tell, sprinkled with her easy laughter.
A deacon at the Berkeley UCC church, Gertrude was my in-care advisor while I was in seminary. As such, she’d regularly take my children and me out to breakfast. By sharing stories of her own challenging childhood, the painful experience of her own parents’ divorce, she helped my young children recognize the power they had to choose, not what happened to them, but how they might respond to it. You can let life harden and break you, or you can let it soften and shape you into something useful and good. She died not long ago, at age 100. I’m grateful for having known her.
If we are like clay in God’s hands, hands which create and would form and, when we fail or falter or fall, gather us up and reform us again and again, we might believe those hands, working together, apply in equal measure the gentle pressure of love, and truth. What creative power lies between these two - love and truth? What an abundance of creative possibilities, if we center our lives here, held fast within the circumference of truth and love.
Not always easy, either to accept unconditional love, or the plain and sometimes hard truth, realities we can surely resist. Spin off from this center, though, and individuals, families, nations will and do fall. The good news from the potter’s house is that we, unlike the inanimate clay, can choose. We as individuals, as families and communities, this church, and as nations, can choose, and have a hand in our own shaping. Center ourselves on God – whose hands bear the creative power of love and truth and be built up; or not, and risk a toppling fall. Even then, the potter does not discard what has fallen, but gathers it up again, working patiently to form something good, something useful. We can return, and turn again, until we become what God intends us to be.
As the poem by Paolo Solari begins,
Choose, choose, choose
Choose to fight or run
To sleep or read
To study or play
To be faithful or promiscuous
To obey or rebel
To yield or resist
To create or destroy
To repent or deny
To forgive or resent
To save or spend
Who will I trust?
Who will I serve? Who will I please?
The crowd, the fashion, the neighbors?
For what will I sacrifice?
1. Solari, Paolo source unknown.