There are potters in the Bible–did you know? As I work with a piece of clay, whether on the wheel or in my hands alone, I often think deep, spiritual thoughts. 😉 Here are some of them.
First, concerning the above passage which describes a potter making a jar on the wheel and having a problem with it. I’ve done that. If the jar isn’t too far along, you can squoosh (that’s a technical term in the pottery trade) the clay back down and start over. That’s what the potter in the passage must have done. It means he knew what he was doing, because this isn’t that easy a thing to do. Novice potters are best advised to throw the boo-boo back into the slop bucket, but an experienced potter can still make it work. I’m really glad God knows how to squoosh. He knows what He’s doing.
Usually, the problem that would cause a potter to do the squooshing technique is a flaw in the clay. Throwing pottery isn’t that difficult once you know how to do it, and an experienced potter doesn’t generally have to squoosh unless there’s something wrong with the clay–a rock, lots of air bubbles, lack of plasticity, etc.
Lack of plasticity is the worst flaw. It really limits what you can do with the clay. Again, an experienced potter can make it work, but he might have to do some squooshing. You can squoosh two, maybe three times if you’re good, but then the clay will be too tired and too wet. If you haven’t managed to make something useful of it by this time, it’s back into the slop bucket. It still gets to be a pot, but it will have to rest, be reconditioned, dried out a bit, wedged and kneaded–all rather unpleasant for the clay, I’m sure, but it shouldn’t have been so recalcitrant.
The potter is patient–otherwise, he wouldn’t be a potter. He can let the clay sit in the slop bucket for a long time, if that’s what it takes. Eventually, he takes it out in big, sloppy handfulls and slaps it onto a plaster slab to let it dry out to a workable consistency. If it’s got rocks in it, he might pour it through a sieve before he dries it out. Next, he’ll wedge the clay. This involves cutting it in half with a wire stretched from the front of his wedging table to the top of a stick he’s nailed on behind. He cuts the clay in half, slaps one half down hard on the table, slaps the other half down hard on the first piece, and then picks the whole lump up and does it again. After this, he kneads it like bread dough. He’ll knead it maybe 30-50 times, maybe mix it in with some drier or wetter clay to get the moisture content just right. Getting squooshed is actually starting to sound good to the clay by this time.
I can make all kinds of analogies with this. When we have fallen away or failed, maybe God gives us some time to soak. He’s working in our lives, softening up the hard spots, hardening up the soft spots. Just when we’ve gotten comfortably homogenous, He glops us out of the bucket and puts us on a slab to dry out. Could you equate this with times when God seems silent in your life? Times that seem really dry, spiritually? We get a little hard around the surface areas, but still soft and a little squishy inside. So he picks us up and starts to cut us into pieces and slam us back together again. He mixes us with other believers who are different from us–harder, or maybe softer . . . more or less plastic–all the time cutting us and putting us back together. Finally, the wedging stops, but at that point, the kneading begins. Over and over, the potter kneads the clay. The goal of this process is to form the clay into a cohesive mass, remove any remaining impurities, and work out any air pockets.
Next, the wheel. (I’m going to stick to wheel throwing here, since the potter Jeremiah visited was using a wheel.) The potter centers the clay. It’s important for us to have our lives centered around God–really centered. I remember reading Campus Crusade’s Four Spiritual Laws booklet. That little tract has seen some fire lately, and some of it is deserved, but there’s a lot of truth there. I read the bit where the cross is supposed to be at the center of your life, but I never really figured that part out for a long, long time. Sure, God could be on the throne, as long as he stayed in his room. I mean, everything can’t revolve around God, can it? That would be unbalanced, wouldn’t it? If you try to throw your pot before you get the clay centered, your pot will be all wopsided. Why? It’s not centered–it’s unbalanced. If everything in your life doesn’t revolve around God, that’s when its unbalanced. You will end up with a lopsided life. Until the clay is centered, there’s not a lot you can do with it on the wheel, unless you want a lopsided pot, which some folks do, but I won’t go into that.
Now it’s time to open the clay. You stick your thumbs right down into the center of the lump (with the wheel turning, of course), almost all the way to the bottom. God needs to penetrate our lives to the foundation if He’s going to do anything with us at all. A lump of clay, all prepared and centered, is no good until the potter enters it entirely and reshapes it. So you’ve got your thumbs inside the pot now. You spread them out, toward your palms, which are holding it, cradling it, limiting it’s expansion from the outside. This pushes the clay outward and, if the potter knows what he’s doing, it also begins the process of raising the walls. The clay, compressed between the potter’s thumbs and his palms, has nowhere to go but up, so it thins out and rises. This is the exhilarating part of making pottery, and the best part about being the pot as well. If the clay is well-prepared and compliant with the potter’s wishes, it can rise to far greater heights than an observer would have suspected by looking at that squatty lump of clay sitting inert on the wheel. It can contain a great deal of internal volume–a container suitable for God to fill with His mercy and love–a container suitable to hold His glory. “Now we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that this extraordinary power may (be observed to) be from God and not from us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7)
A good potter feels the weaknesses in the clay body (there are always weaknesses) and throws around them. The clay might not be as plastic (pliable, able to hold its form) as he likes. If this is the case, he will have to cajole it gently with his fingers, throw it more slowly, leave it a little thicker-walled, to avoid tearing it or having it slump into a lump in need of recycling via the slop bucket. (We don’t want to go there again!) He may poke a needle tool into the clay wall to remove air if there’s a bubble in the clay, and he may stop to dig out a rock that’s made it through the preparation process. These nicks have to be repaired, but they don’t have to ruin the pot, though if they’re especially bad, they may cause the potter to have to resquoosh. If the moisture content in the clay isn’t perfectly homogenous, one side of the pot may rise higher than another side. If this happens, the potter will have to trim the top edge with the needle tool and throw the excess back into the slop bucket. Our goal, in being good clay, is not to rise above the other clay, but to work in concert with it. If we exalt ourselves, we will have to be trimmed. It is God we are supposed to exalt, and we do that by being formed, in community with other believers, into a thing of beauty, a vessel of honor in the Potter’s hands.
When the pot has been raised so that it is as tall and thin-walled as the potter wants it to be, the potter will begin to refine its form. He may push some clay back in (referred to as collaring). He may curve some clay outward. He knows just how far he can push the clay. If he wants to make a particularly unusual vessel, he will let it dry for a few days under plastic, to firm up the walls, and then go back and thin and stretch them some more. This allows the potter to get the greatest internal volume possible, contained within ultra-thin walls of clay. The thinnest, most delicate pots are the most valuable. They can hold the most, being mostly internal space. I’m sure I don’t have to spell out the analogy here. All this stretching and drying out, restretching and drying out doesn’t mean God doesn’t love you and have a wonderful plan for your fellowship of believers–rather the opposite, in fact.
Sometimes, the potter will cut the vessel from the wheel head and then go back, turn it upside down, and trim away bits of pot he doesn’t want from the bottom. The pot needed these bits to anchor it to the wheel, but once it’s cut away, they must be trimmed off to expose the foundation–the foot ring–so that the vessel can be beautiful and finished from top to bottoom. The potter may add a handle or two, carve away parts of the pot to create a design, affix an applique or a knob, or make a lid, or attach a spout. God is always tweaking, isn’t He? Always finding some way to make us just a little bit better, more useful, more beautiful, and furthermore, each person and each congregation of believers is different from every other one. Different, but holding the same glory–the precious presence and power of God.
What happens next is so hard for us to understand or accept, but it is an absolutely necessary part of the process. The potter places his creation on the shelf and lets it dry out completely. How hard is that to take? It’s a kind of death, really. The pot shrinks by about six percent of its size and loses its beautiful wet color. It has to be covered for a few days, or the shrinking will crack it. The whole piece must shrink together. The clay particles get closer together as the water evaporates and the piece hardens. It’s still very fragile, but it can no longer be changed from the shape the potter has given it. It might be tempted to think it has reached an advanced state of maturity, but it feels and looks dry and lifeless.
Next, the pot is placed in the kiln. We all go through the fire in one way or another. God doesn’t let us off, for to skip the fire is not an act of love, but of severe neglect. The vessel cannot retain the water in its walls that it had while wet or leather hard, and it cannot hold water in its inner chamber if it remains in that state of dryness potters refer to as bone dry. Only the fire can harden a vessel into usefulness, and only a very hot fire can enable it to hold ordinary liquid, let alone oil, without leaking. The potter carefully regulates the kiln. If it gets too hot, it will mature the clay past the point of its being able to receive a glaze coating, and he means for it to be glazed, or coated with a hard layer of lusterous glass, gloriously colored to reflect His beauty and hold His glory. The pot may feel all alone, but the Potter is there. He, too, has been through the kiln and He knows just exactly what is needed to ready His vessel to receive its final polish.
The kiln reaches just the perfect temperature and in the perfect time frame, then it cools. The pottery inside has a reprieve as it, too, cools down. When the kiln has cooled sufficiently, the potter removes and admires each piece. He tenderly applies just the right glazes and then, guess what? Back into the kiln! And several hundred degrees hotter than the last time! You might be thinking while you’re going through this that you can’t take it. You’re going to get out of that kiln no matter what. But if you do (and you may be able to), you’ll never reach your full beauty. The Potter will be forced to sadly set you on a back shelf–He may not discard you, for He loves you dearly. He may try you out in another firing (what fun!) and perhaps He can salvage some of the beauty He intended for you, but a pot whose firing has been interrupted is never quite the same the second time through. The lesson? It hurts–seems unbearable and nearly is–the pottery must reach nearly the melting stage before it has reached its hardest and most mature, beautiful, impervious state, but the Potter knows exactly what we need and what we can endure.
Finally, the kiln begins to cool–slowly, for this will enhance the glaze’s complexity and beauty–and reaches the temperature at which the potter can finally open the door and see his creations, all glorious in their new lustrous garments. These beautiful works of art are vessels of honor, suitable to be filled with the creator’s glory, useful for sharing His mercy and love with the world–a fitting display of their maker’s wisdom and skill. Is it worth it? Maybe it doesn’t seem so in the middle of the process, but the end result is surely worth it, if only for the joy and approval of the Potter.
God bless and keep and perfect you,