I first read the following story at the recent Art Experience at my church. (Click here to see some of the art that was used in the AE and in other venues at church.) The AE showcased photography, painting, music, graphic artwork, and pottery. Each form was used in some way to worship God. One of the potters had an essay on display with some of his pieces, and I read it and was incredibly moved by how his words so described God's work in each of our lives. In the Bible, there are so many references to pottery, God as potter, and us as the clay. (For example, Isaiah 29:16, Isaiah 64:8, and Psalm 2:9.) I knew that and kind of got it, but the meaning was fully driven home to me when I read this essay by Steve Settle. I asked him to send me a copy and got his permission to post it on my blog to share. I hope you're as moved by it as I am!
"The Potter" or "Our Potter, Who Art in Heaven" by Steve Settle
In the beginning there was the clay. And the clay was formless and void. And the Potter said, “Let’s make something useful from this lifeless lump.”
This may seem like a simple undertaking, and if you have ever watched a skillful potter at the wheel, the whole thing looks very easy. To fully understand the significance of this achievement, however, one must have an idea of the entire process, from the initial preparation of the clay, to the shaping and decoration of the vessel and lastly, the final test of fire.
The first step in the preparation, before the Potter even touches the clay, is the design of the vessel. What will the purpose be? What form will best suit the function intended? With a specific purpose in mind, the Potter begins to prepare the clay by kneading it vigorously to work out any imperfections and to get it to the proper consistency for the turning of both decorative and functional vessels. For some vessels the Potter adds grit to the clay. Grit is derived from mature vessels which have been broken and ground to a powder. This “experienced” clay gives the fresh clay more strength, character and durability, but there are limits on the amount of grit the clay can handle; too much and the clay is too abrasive, too little and the clay has no backbone.
Once the Potter is convinced the clay is ready, He cleaves a portion from the mother lump, forms it into a ball and smacks it down on the center of the wheel. It does require some force here or the ball will go flying off the wheel with no chance for survival. The initial centering is critical and takes the most force and persistence of the entire process, for the clay seems to have a mind of its own. But when done properly at this early stage, a well centered lump takes much less effort to raise. A lump that is off center requires much more patience and skill, and sometimes never achieves its full potential. The Potter’s next move, the opening, determines much of the final form of the growing vessel. With all of His powers concentrated in the tips of His fingers, He begins to penetrate deep into the heart of the lump and resolutely begins to pull out to open the clay and establish the depth and breadth of the foundation.
Now comes the most exciting phase. With a firm, yet gentle and steady touch, the Potter begins to coerce the clay up from its foundations. The clay is constantly trying to go its own way, which would undoubtedly end up in disaster, so the Potter must continuously guide the clay back to the center. As the shaping process develops, the excess clay is trimmed off at frequent intervals and if possible, defects are removed, for they jeopardize the survival in the inevitable firing. Some shapes are more difficult to achieve than others and therefore require more time and effort, but in the end these are often more highly valued. Each vessel is unique, even those with similar functions, and when the formation stage is completed and the Potter is satisfied with the shape, He puts His mark on each vessel to identify it as having been created by Him.
The newly formed vessels are allowed to dry for a short period and when totally dry these baby vessels are as fragile as eggshells. They are beautiful because of their simplicity, but they are totally useless. The Potter must guard them carefully because even the slightest stress will cause handles to fall off, or lips to crumble. Only after the test of fire do they become strong enough to stand on their own. Usually the first firing is a moderate temperature which leaves the clay porous, yet strong enough to be useful for some applications. Any pots with imperfections will be destroyed by the fire. Some vessels will never be taken past this stage, and yet live very useful lives. Others will be decorated to emphasize their form and enhance their strength and appeal. However, even the most highly decorated vessels are no more qualified to perform their tasks than the plain ones.
The second fire is always more severe than the first, this time fusing the clay to its fullest strength. The fusion gives the vessel an inner strength which makes it impervious to outside influences. As the kiln is opened to reveal the transformed vessels, the Potter smiles with satisfaction knowing that all who see and use these vessels will marvel not only at the beauty of the vessel, but also at the skill of the Potter.