If you’ve ever tried to throw a bowl (or anything) on a pottery wheel, you’ve inevitably had the experience of trying to center the clay. This is the foundational task: as the wheel spins, use your hands to steady the clay and center it on the wheel. Everything else follows: the form and raising the walls of the vessel. Failure to center the clay means the vessel will wobble, fail to shape, and then collapse.
I’ve been throwing pottery for over a year now. For a while, I had the technique down, or at least down enough to center the clay and build from there. But lately, I have had the worst time centering the clay. And twice in the last week, I have grown so frustrated I have nearly ripped the clay from the wheel and hurled it across the room. Don’t worry, I didn’t do it. Yet.
As I sit with my struggles to center the clay, my mind wanders to the world around me: does anything feel centered these days?
Consider the vessel of our national community: our country as it continues to spasm with political strife and polarization; the many communities in the US (and around the world) struggling with COVID-19 and its effects; our quickening trajectory toward greater ecological peril; our reception of (or failure to receive) the ongoing flight of many migrants and refugees seeking opportunity and asylum.
Consider the vessels of our lives: our households where we continue to hunker down; our jobs that either play out over a screen or that put us in harm’s way; our lack of jobs which heighten our anxiety and worry; our minds and hearts that feel the weight of our isolation, powerlessness, and lack of answers about what will happen in the next two weeks, let alone the next six months or year.
To make matters worse, the things that often center us are either stripped away or are altered such that they seem almost foreign or antiseptic.
Yes, the outdoors offer quiet and respite from the walls of our homes which feel like they are closing in, but recently, frigid temperatures across most of the country have forced us indoors. And power outages have meant that many cannot count on home for safety.
Yes, social media and Zoom allow for contact with friends and loved ones, but there is no real substitute to a warm hug from a loved one or succumbing to the surrender of contagious laughter in a room full of good friends.
Yes, Eucharist is publicly available in many areas again, but the intimacy is just not the same with masks and plastic face guards and who can attend remains really limited.
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The prophet Jeremiah, like us, was in a nation that had lost its way. He watched as his country slipped closer and closer towards chaos. It was then that God invited Jeremiah to observe how, like a potter, God could shape what appeared ruined and broken into something new.
“Can I not do to you, house of Israel, as this potter has done? … Indeed, like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, house of Israel.” (Jeremiah 18:6)
God’s question to Jeremiah was rhetorical. Could God do to Israel as the potter had done? Of course. But would Israel recognize and turn to God as their Master Potter, the one who could rescue them from self-destruction and chaos? Therein lies the rub.
In the end, Israel ended up in exile under the Babylonian empire for decades. Everything was stripped away. The Jewish people were left with fundamental questions: who are we? and who is God for us? Or, put another way: how will we find our center again? In whose hands?
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These are not easy questions. Regardless, they are before us. As with Israel, these are our questions now too in a radical new way, as individuals, local communities, and as a nation. We cannot answer them on our own. After all, we are but clay. We cannot center ourselves, try as we might. Our attempts end up like my failed attempts earlier this week: in anger, frustration, resentment, and worse.
Perhaps now, God is calling us to go down to the potter’s house and see what God can do when the vessels of our lives feel de-centered or seem ruined and beyond repair. We ask for the grace to go and see, to marvel at the Master Potter, and to dream with God and one another about who we are and who we could be.