Relating, Creating, Transforming

Posts tagged ‘clay’

How Are We Clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-4

potter
I don’t know how many of you have ever made pottery or at least watched someone else do it. It is a fascinating process and one that requires great patience, care, and creativity. Also, at least in my case, pottery-making involves A LOT of mistakes and starting over again.

Perhaps this is why many people in the Christian and Jewish traditions embrace a very small portion of an otherwise-ominous book of Hebrew prophetic scripture called Jeremiah. In general, most of the prophetic books are ominous and quite pessimistic, but in all fairness, it makes sense. I mean, consider Jeremiah’s context. These prophetic writings were penned over about four decades of not-so-great times in Israel, starting with the thirteenth year of King Josiah (627 BCE) and finishing with the eleventh year of King Zedekiah (586). In short, Jeremiah experienced the time in Israel just before, during, and after the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took over. So obviously, Jeremiah’s words are generally pessimistic.

What is interesting theologically about Jeremiah is the tension between what is called “temple theology” and “covenant theology.” Real quick explanation. Temple theology says: nothing bad will happen to us [in this case, Israel] because Yahweh will protect us and the religious temple of Jerusalem. Covenant theology, on the other hand, says: Yahweh will reward us for our obedience and punish us for disobedience. It is “if-then” philosophy, i.e., if we do this or that, then Yahweh will do this or that.[1] 

This tension, I argue, still exists in modern theology today. Some people [across religious traditions] believe that no matter what, a higher power will save them/bless them/protect them. Many times they believe that because they assume that the higher power accepts their religion as the best one or the truest one. And then contrarily, there are some who believe that this higher power will reward and punish them based on their obedience or disobedience of particular religious rites and rules. Okay, still with me? Do you identify or resonate with either of these viewpoints? Were you raised to believe something similar?

As you think about that, now consider the allegory/image of the potter. Within this image are these two viewpoints, and I will suggest, an alternative viewpoint as well. First, consider what a potter might have been in the time of Jeremiah. Judean ceramic pots, in Jeremiah’s image, would not have been ornate, decorative works of art. These pots would have been functional, made of cheaper materials, and expected to last only a short time. This is why when YHWH calls on the prophet to visit the potter, this is normal and something that he would do quite often. Time for another pot as the last one no longer was usable. But don’t let this fool you. The old pots and the clay, for the potter, are not trash.

The potter is constantly interested in recycling and reuse.

For example, those of you who are potters know that a potter will periodically start a project and then decide that the project is failing and so they will abandon the original idea and start something new. I have heard that potters keep containers of scraps of clay and even pieces of old projects. These discarded pieces can be used or reclaimed as usable clay for new projects. Considering that, this is where I find an alternative to the temple and covenant theology I mentioned early.

I am not one to believe in a Yahweh/God/higher power /presence that punishes and rewards people according to how much they obey or disobey certain rules or moral codes. Neither do I buy the idea that the Divine favors one religion or nation over others, no matter what. For me, it’s all about the potter and the clay—very simple. Potters don’t waste clay. They recycle. They rework the clay. It’s not punishment or reward. It’s not favoritism.

It’s love of the art, the creative spark, and the hope that even discarded pieces from failed projects can be a part of something new, wonderful, and whole.

The discarded clay can be part of a new ceramic vessel and hold something important like wine, water, or oil.

So what do you think? How are we clay? What are your thoughts about this image?

[1] See Alphonetta Wines, “Thinking the Unthinkable: God as Enemy—An Image of God in the Book of Job and Other Books of the Hebrew Bible” (PhD diss., Texas Christian University, 2011), 58.

Jars of Clay

Jeremiah 18:1-6

 

Art in Me is a song written by Dan Haseltine, Steve Mason, Matt Odmark, and Charlie Lowell–otherwise known as the band “Jars of Clay.”

jarsofclay They are three-time Grammy award winners who recently released their 11th album [Inland]—this time under a new label. Jars of Clay, in 2007, left the contemporary Christian label called Essential Records and started their own label, Gray Matters. Why? On paper it seems that they have enjoyed a lot of success claiming the label of a Christian music group. But the members of Jars of Clay have never felt completely comfortable within the confines of this label. Dan Haseltine has remarked that the “Christian” label led to limitations.

“It’s a ghetto, frankly,” Steve Mason says of the category. “Unfortunately, it loops us in politically and socially to a bunch of things that we don’t necessarily buy. It is frustrating, sometimes, because we feel like what we’re doing is good art, and we want what we’re doing to stand up with the stuff that’s out right now.”[1]

The questions that Jars of Clay ask in their music can be identified by all walks of life — all faiths, no faith. They are honest questions. As Mason commented in an interview, Jars wants to make “room at the table for everybody.”

jars_of_clayGroupSad, isn’t it? This music group has encountered so much pressure to just “fit” into a category called Christian—to be lumped together with others who are completely different from them. I am glad, though, that the band decided not to change its name. Jars of Clay is an appropriate name for their honest, meaning-filled music. After all, clay jars are earthenware, pots, things made out of earth. They are formed, shaped, pulled, pushed, and molded until they are cooked in a kiln.

And all the pots are different; they are not the same.

But clay jars don’t form themselves on their own. They need a potter. Perhaps one of the most intriguing and misunderstood metaphors for God in scripture is the image of the potter. The prophet Jeremiah, as all prophets, sees things in the natural world and in everyday life and applies a deeper meaning to them. Essentially, this is a prophet’s job—to see and hear a little bit deeper and then to share this insight with people. Sometimes, though, as in Jeremiah’s case, what prophets shared was not always pleasant. The image of God as potter and people as clay is both comforting and challenging.

In Jeremiah’s day, clay was used for lots of things. Of course, there were expensive clay items that the rich would decorate and display. But the most common pots were the ones that Judeans used every day for practical things around the house. Maybe the pots were not perfectly shaped or adorned with color. But they were perfect to store grain, wine, or oil. The pots were life-sustainers. That doesn’t mean that the pots themselves would last very long. Because they were used so much, from time to time they would crack or break.

That meant a trip to the potter’s house.

The potter’s job, of course, was to patch up any cracks or breaks and, on occasion, to completely destroy a pot and remake it. So Jeremiah is called to the house of the potter—a common trip that people of Judea would have made. But we need to pay attention to the Hebrew word for potter here. Potter [in English] is a translation of the verb yatsar which means to fashion or form.[2] It is the same verb used in Genesis 2:7 when YHWH [God] kneels in the dust, grabs a piece of wet clay, and forms a human being. It is the same image we see in the Muslim scriptures [the Qu’ran]: human beings formed by God from clay.[3] So this is a direct reference to the creation story—a story that hundreds of ancient cultures tell in a similar way with humans being created from clay. For example, the Incas of South America tell this story:

Viracocha [God] raised up all the people and nations, making figures of clay and painting the clothes each nation was to wear. To each nation he gave a language, songs and the seeds they were to sow. Then he breathed life and soul into the clay and ordered each nation to pass under the earth and emerge in the place he directed.[4]

And the Hopis from North America tell this story:

The deity of the east made of clay first a woman and then a man, who were brought to life in exactly the same manner as the birds and animals before them.[5]

We must make this connection between the creation story and Jeremiah’s trip to the potter’s house. It shows us that this potter who Jeremiah must visit is constantly forming, shaping, dismantling, and remaking the clay. There is a reason for that.

The clay, now established as being human beings, is seemingly in constant need of repair.

Sometimes the clay pots even need to be broken up completely. At times, the potter’s hands slip on the clay and the potter has to restart the process. At moments the potter isn’t pleased with the pot’s shape and so it must be smashed back into a clump of clay and reshaped. If you’ve ever tried to work at a pottery wheel, you know that this is how it goes. It is a process full of trial and error, smashing, shaping, and remaking until you get the shape you desire. Making pottery requires a LOT of patience. And you have to get your hands dirty. And you have to make sure the clay is adequately moist and not too dry. And you have to spin the wheel just right so as to smoothly transition the clump into being a pot.

So the image of God as potter and humans as clay, shared by so many cultures and religious traditions, seems clear:

All of us come from the same natural, organic earth.
We share a formation by a patient, careful, detail-oriented potter.
Each pot formed from the clay is different—unique.
And the potter is never finished with the clay.

It is a powerful and wonderful metaphor, I think. But it can be misunderstood.

Sometimes we make the false assumption that all pieces of clay are exactly the same and so the pots need to look and act the same. Sometimes we can forget that it is normal for pots to develop cracks and imperfections. Often we look at overused, broken-down pots and assume that they are useless and cannot be remade. And also we can force other clay pots to be shaped in the same way we were—even though that is impossible. Each pot is formed uniquely. Each clump of clay needs a different amount of water and a different shaping technique. Homogenous pots do not emerge from the potter’s house.

And the metaphor hits home when we consider our own brokenness, our struggles, are cracks, fissures, and need for reshaping and remaking ourselves. Yes, we are cracked pots in need of patient care, love, mercy, and periodic trips to the potter’s house. And I think if we recognize that we share this with all others, then we’ll stop trying to force them into categories.

And we’ll embrace their clay-ness and their ability to be molded and shaped as the potter sees fit—not as we see fit.

So friends, recognize your clay-ness and recognize the clay-ness of others. Remember that you have something contained in that clay jar that is your life: a treasure. The treasure inside your cracked pot is the love and compassion of God that you share with others. May it be evident and may it shine through all the beautiful cracks and openings in your pot. Amen.


[1] “Jars of Clay Seek ‘Reintroduction’ With First Indie Release,” Hollywood Reporter, 9/4/2013, Rebecca Sun.

[2] Cracked Pots I Have Known and Loved, John C. Holbert

[3] Qu’ran 38:71: Indeed, I am going to create a human being from clay. Sahih International

[4] Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. Ed. Richard Cavendish. Silverdale Books. page 187.

[5] The Traditions of the Hopi, by H.R. Voth, [1905]

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