A Potter’s Look at Jeremiah 18

I’m a fan of first-hand knowledge. If possible, I like to get advice or insight from people who have lived, done, or seen the thing in question. Sometimes I don’t have that luxury. Sometimes I have to take an observer’s word for it.


Currently, I’m spending time in the book of Jeremiah. Eugene Peterson’s book, Running With The Horses has been my companion on this journey. Jeremiah was a prophet who began his ministry around 627 BC. He had the poor fortune of being a prophet to the Jews during a troubled time in their history. He was constantly the bearer of news they didn’t want to hear…and people did not like him.


(Some scholars say that he complained more than any other prophet. Which I find oddly endearing.)


I came across a Jeremiah 18 and realized that I have firsthand knowledge on this part of the account. Looking at it through my own eyes, as a potter, made it new and rich.


At this point in Jeremiah’s ministry, the Israelites have only made surface level attempts to change. Jeremiah is frustrated. This time around, God tells Jeremiah to go to the Potter’s house and he’ll give him his word there. (In this time, every village had a potter. The birth of Pottery thousands of years before, allowed people groups to settle down, farm and store food…not roam around in pursuit of their food sources. Communities were born.) Jeremiah sees the potter throwing a pot, but it’s not quite right. I imagine that maybe it was off-center, or perhaps he raised the wall too fast and it had thin sections…or maybe he didn’t trim his fingernails and he gouged his pot with them. At any rate it wasn’t an acceptable pot, so the potter formed it into another pot. (Jeremiah 18:3-4 paraphrased)


Jeremiah’s takeaway from this is what God says to him next. “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?…Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6). God is telling him -I can bring down your people and I can remake them…but I can’t tolerate the disobedience…I’m not going to throw a bad pot and put my name on it.


This potter’s takeaway is slightly different than Jeremiah’s. I certainly have had many a ruined pot on the wheel. And I am aware of how long clay that has been fired will rattle around this earth. I don’t want to make things and put my name on them if they are not an accurate reflection of me as the maker. So, I understand why the potter in Jeremiah took the marred pot and collapsed it in on itself to make another one. What the story doesn’t say is that most skilled potters don’t do that. Usually the clay is too wet to re-throw it right away. It most likely would have to be taken off the wheel, dried a bit, re-wedged (like kneading dough, but to get the air out) and then it could be thrown again. It’s basically recycling the clay and it’s a time-consuming process. It is a common practice among beginner potters or in studios with systems in place to aid in the process. However, master potters usually look at the value of their time compared to the cost of the clay (which is not much). And most choose to use their time in ways that will yield more of a profit. In other words, their time is worth more throwing, trimming, or glazing than it is recycling. Some say that recycled clay is the most expensive clay a potter will use.


Arguably, it would have been easier for God to ditch the Israelites and start over with a new group of people. I am certain it would be easier for God to ditch me, any one of the many times I have strayed, and start over with a new person who is trying to follow him. But he doesn’t do that. We cost him his son and we are expensive to God.


“The life of faith is very physical. Being a Christian is very much a matter of flesh—of space and time and things. It means being thrown down on the potter’s wheel and shaped, our entire selves, into something useful and beautiful. And when we are not useful or beautiful we are reshaped. Painful, but worth it.” Eugene Peterson


The Israelites, you, me…we are expensive clay that the master potter won’t give up on.

The Gift of Darkness

“An empty room is silent. A room where people are not speaking or moving is quiet. Silence is a given, quiet a gift. Silence is the absence of sound and quiet the stilling of sound. Silence can’t be anything but silent. Quiet chooses to be silent. It holds its breath to listen. It waits and is still. “In returning and rest you shall be saved,” says God through the prophet Isaiah, “in quietness and confidence shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). They are all parts of each other. We return to our deep strength and to the confidence that lies beneath all our misgiving. The quiet there, the rest, is beyond the reach of the world to disturb. It is how being saved sounds.” -Frederick Buechner


Perhaps it’s a natural reaction to the over-stimulation and over-scheduling of Christmas, but this time of year has me longing for quiet, simplicity, and order. Ironically, I don’t have many of those things right now…and I never seem to have all three of them at the same time.


My favorite time of day has become the first moments after I wake up. (If I wake up before my alarm.) Somehow in those first moments of being awake, all things seem possible, and my connection to God seems direct and unencumbered by my lack of trust and penchant for self-sufficiency. My dreams are literally just a few moments in the past and the thin space between me and another world still feels navigable.


It’s ironic to me that the time where I feel the closest to God is in actual darkness. However, it’s not the darkness of the middle of the night. That is a different animal. That place magnifies problems, replays conversations, and hashes out “what if” scenarios on a never ending loop in my mind. But the end of the night/beginning of the morning is where I find the quiet that Isaiah talks about in 30:15 of his book. It’s where my soul breaths in and out the holiness of God.


I can say the same about the dark seasons of my life. The seasons of sickness, despair, and confusion all feel like a spiritual darkness to me. Cameron Anderson (former Director of CIVA) said that “…in order to be spiritually formed, you have to be willing to draw near to the darkness.” For me, this metaphorical darkness served the same purpose as the actual darkness of the end of the night. It stripped away everything that was unimportant, temporary, and out of my control. As a result, the turmoil of the metaphorical darkness created the same space as the actual darkness for my soul to breath in and out the holiness of God.


While my body longs for the sunshine and warmth of spring, my soul seems to rest in the quiet and dark end of a winter’s night. Maybe it’s because I know that morning is promised and close. Maybe it’s because God is about to make all things new and the reality of that is enough to rest in momentarily. Whatever the reason, it’s a gift from my creator when I get a few minutes in the quiet, thin space to start my day.

Merry Messy Christmas

So much of our story is in how we remember it. How we choose to frame things can completely alter our perspective. We have cameras with us 24/7 to capture every moment of our lives, but to remember things from over 100+ years ago, we rely on art for our images. The art shapes our perspective of history.

There has been a lot of art created about the birth of Jesus. Some of it is beautiful. Most of it is grand. Historically, it is all clean and tidy. But that’s not really how it happened, is it? Jesus’ birth was bloody and painful…like all human births.

On the left is Carravagio’s “The Nativity with Sts Francis and Lawrence”. It was the most human portrayal I could find in my quick search of Nativity art by the masters. It was scandalous in 1609 when he painted it. He shows Mary in a tired (but clean) slump after giving birth. For some reason, we want Jesus to be all wrapped up in blankets with a halo of light. We want Mary to be serenely looking on. We want the farm animals to be quietly cooing. We want Joseph to be steadfastly attentive. This is how our art portrays the scene.

I went to a live nativity last night at our local zoo. I winced watching the young “Mary” ride in on a donkey, remembering how terribly uncomfortable pregnancy is. We chuckled as the goats fought with each other and the sheep ate the straw from the manger where they had put “baby Jesus.” Even in this modest attempt to recreate the scene, we were reminded of the humanity of the event. It was a far cry from the Carravagio painting.

There is an artist I really like named Scott Erickson. Pictured on the right is one of his new works. It is part of a series on the birth of Jesus. I find it interesting that this series has been met with mixed reactions from his fans. Some people found the work graphic and even pornographic. I really like these paintings because they make me a little bit uncomfortable. They remind me of Jesus’ humanity. They remind me that he got messy to come to us. So often we think we need to be neat and tidy to go before the God of the universe…but look at how his son came to us. Messy.

This year has been a bit messy. It has also been great in a lot of ways. But this Christmas, I am reminded by the art of Scott Erickson, that God is not only the God of beauty…he’s the God of mess too. Mine and yours. Merry Messy Christmas!

Seek. Listen. Wonder.

Below is the gallery statement that I have written for an upcoming show in Richmond, VA.

Observation is the most important skill all artists have. There are things to be seen not with our eyes, but with our heart, and our mind, and our spirit. The artist can capture and communicate a mood or a feeling, or an idea that is at the same time as big as a mountain and as small as a grain of sand. By observing, listening, and quieting their own internal dialog, the artist can see beyond what’s in front of them and hear what’s behind the words. Artists can sometimes see the unseen things of faith and wonder and communicate them in a tangible way, bringing themselves and their viewers a little bit closer to worlds unknown. The Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev said, “Creative experience foreshadows a new Heaven and a new Earth.”

This show is a collection of work of five resident artists from Gallery Edit in Richmond, VA. Their work spans several disciplines, perspectives, and lexicons of life experiences, but they are all seers of life and listeners of God. Each artist is seeking to communicate truths that may be limited by language but have no limits in their imagination. “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.” Jeremiah 33:3

This time of year is a celebration for all of Christendom. Our long-promised savior was born. The seers of this event were not the educated religious elite. In the Old Testament it was the prophets who saw the coming of Christ. The prophets were the unpopular truth-tellers who were on the margins of society. And in Jesus’ day, it was the blue-collared shepherds and  the angels who attended the greatest birthday in the history of mankind. They were the quiet listeners, the obedient followers, and the faithful wonderers.

In this show, we invite you to become seers of the artists’ wonder and interpreters of their language. As you view the art, you are invited to not only look with your eyes, but also with your heart, and your spirit. Enter in to the space each artist has created and offered to you. It’s an invitation into quiet conversations with the Creator.

Hope and Doubt

Sometimes when I make things, I try to tell a story. Other times, I am trying to show a familiar idea from a completely new perspective. In the piece “Hope and Doubt” I am trying to show an emotion…create a feeling…take the viewer to a place in their heart that maybe they have been before.

I am generally a “glass half full” kind of person. I do have skeptical thoughts about people and situations, but I generally act in hopeful ways. There is a path forward for everyone. I believe that. And for me, moving forward is moving towards God. There are no material promises in that. But what there is, is peace.

Sometimes doubt creeps in like a wave and washes over me, breaking apart my hope. Doubt reminds me of all the times that people have let me down before, and tells me that this time will be no different. Doubt overwhelms me with my own inadequacies, and paralyzes me with indecision. Doubt whispers to me that perhaps God is not really there, not really listening, not really caring.

For me, hope seems to be able to bounce back from the bar-age of doubt waves. I eventually find my feet and am able to stand. The more I practice getting back up, the easier it is to do. However, hope is a very vulnerable place to be. Hope is risky. Hope makes you take a chance at getting hurt, or being wrong, or letting go of someone or something that you have been holding on to. Hope requires you to believe in things outside of yourself and surrender people and situations to God that you really couldn’t control anyway. Hope is not blind, it chooses to trust. Trust in God and trust in people. And to trust that God loves people and that sometimes the path to move closer to Him is hard and potentially painful. Hope requires a soft, malleable, teachable heart. A friend once told me that trust is a more intimate expression than love.

These two ideas of trust and hope are becoming intertwined for me. And they are definitely a choice that I make. Almost like an act of defiance towards doubt and  this fallen world, I am choosing to take the next step that will bring me closer to my Creator. Choosing to stand in the light and see what is there…beautiful and ugly…and trust that God loves all of me and will not leave me. And choosing to want that for the people around me as well.

In The Magician’s Nephew (from the Chronicles of Narnia) C.S. Lewis says, “What you see and hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. ” I want to be standing closer to God, that’s where the hope is. And I want you to be there with me.

Community

We all cringe when we chase the channels and stumble across the show where the young girl is confronting her boyfriend to tell him that the baby she is carrying isn’t his. You know, Jerry Springer, Maury Povich…or any one of the cringeworthy shows on MTV.

Human tragedy, on display for our entertainment.

I don’t stick around to find out the outcome of those horrible spectacles on TV, but sometimes I wonder what happens after the lights turn off, the cameras stop rolling, and the audience goes home. Who is there to dress the wounds and sort through the carnage? Because what happened was nothing short of an emotional massacre.

What about when it’s your family? What happens when a disease drains your bank account and leaves your family stumbling around doing a new sort of mathematical juggling act of figuring out which bills to pay? Or when there’s an addiction that keeps pulling someone you love back into its black hole where more is never enough? How about the fog of depression and mental illness? That one is harder to understand and harder to name because that person is looking at the world through glasses that remove all hope. Your family? Your community? Will it survive?

When I made my ceramic quilt called “Community”, I spent an inordinate amount of time carefully crafting each colored tile and the bordering solid colored tiles. Each piece was lovely on its own, but I then took great care to attach them to each other with copper wire. They are connected and bound to each other in sort of an unspoken commitment to my vision of what community looks like. They contrast and they complement. The thing about communities and families, when they are committed to God’s vision for them, is that they are more beautiful when they are connected to each other then they are individually. And if one of the tiles fail, or one of the people struggles, the rest of them are strong enough to keep it all together…because they are connected.

Sometimes families fall apart and sometimes people let you down. It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not what God wants for us. I have to believe that it grieves God when his people get this part of life wrong. Jesus was relentless about pursuing the broken, the outcast, the ones running away from him. He didn’t ignore indiscretions or injustices…he exchanged them for reconciliation and redemption. That’s why he came.

My family, my community…We are more beautiful together than we are apart. Together, we are strong enough to hold each other up.

If You Want Freedom…

If You Want Freedom…

Jennifer Chetelat

2018

Ceramic Plates

~10” diameter each

First Row from Left to Right

Have no other gods

Don’t make any thing more important than God

Don’t disrespect God’s name

Rest one day each week

Respect your parents

Second Row from Left to Right

Don’t murder

No adultery

No stealing

No lies about your neighbor

Be content with what you have

God gave the Israelites the Ten Commandments because he loved them. Because he loves us. I think they could use some rebranding. Maybe a better marketing campaign with a catchy slogan and a memorable spokesperson. We got them from an old guy with a speech impediment on some clay tablets.

To the person who isn’t sure if God is real or if he actually loves them, they are a hard sell.

All organized societies have rules. Sometimes they are written down and decided on by a group of leaders, and sometimes they spring up more organically from mistakes made and lessons learned. But they generally keep peace. And they keep people’s behaviors from getting in the way of their progress as a society.

That’s how I view the Ten Commandments. Following them keeps my behaviors from getting in the way of my progress of not just growing in my faith, but growing as a person.

It would be easy (but lengthy) to take a deep dive into each commandment. However, I don’t think most people struggle with all of them. I would guess that most people only get stuck on two or three of them.

The other day, I took a sabbath. For the whole day. I spent time with my husband, I spent time with God, and I spent time with myself. I didn’t work in my studio. I didn’t answer any emails. I didn’t do any ministry work either. I went out to breakfast with my husband. I napped. I prayed. I read. I checked in on a friend. I watched dumb movies. I ran errands. I felt like a normal person who wasn’t trying to squeeze my to do list in to an impossible number of hours.

Disclaimer- I did spend an hour in a Verizon store which definitely was an interruption in my sabbath and a descent into one of the levels of hell from Dante’s Inferno…but when I left, I was back to my Sabbath.

This whole sabbath idea of creating space in my schedule for a pause is a hard one for me. I’m a doer. Resting happens when I sleep. But it’s not a good way to live. It’s mostly not good for my heart. While my body and mind may be able to accomplish all of these tasks, my heart needs a minute to disengage from the list and the expectations. God knew that and that’s why he warned against living the way I often do.

When I made my “If You Want Freedom…” piece of art, I was trying to reimagine the Ten Commandments. It was based on a sermon I heard at church and a new way of thinking about this list of rules, I wanted to give them a new physical representation as well. I guess it’s my attempt at rebranding. These ten ideas lead to a simpler life. One with less drama, heartache, and exhaustion. The kind of life where it’s easier to stay connected with God and people.

While I do struggle with a few of the other commandments, building a sabbath pause in to my schedule is my current challenge.

Makoto Fujimura is one of my favorite artists. He’s a Japanese painter, writer, and advocate of the arts. He’s also a Christian. Recently in an interview he said, “Schedule an hour every week to waste time with people and you will be amazed at how much it will rejuvenate you and end up speaking of the gospel because essentially the gospel is God wasting time with us”.

If I want freedom, I will make space for a pause in my schedule. I will purposely waste time with people. I will take a minute to enjoy the privilege of God wasting time with me.

What do you need to do for freedom?

Forgiveness 70 x 7

The thing about forgiveness is that it’s a choice. And quite honestly a selfish one. If I forgive someone, it doesn’t absolve them of what they did wrong…only God can do that. But choosing to forgive frees me from the anger and resentment that will grow in my heart.

Peter asked Jesus if 7 times was enough times to forgive. I guess implying that the 8th offense did not need to be forgiven. But in Matthew 18:22, Jesus answered “No…70 x 7”. (The piece pictured above has 490 nails on it.) Jesus offers us a more gracious way to live. His capacity to forgive is actually limitless. I speak from personal experience.

Below is a piece that I wrote almost a year ago. It has sat on my computer until now because I wasn’t ready to share it. But I think it goes hand in hand with this piece of art…actually it takes it one step further.

-Being hurt by a friend, by someone you care about, by someone you have walked through a little bit of life with, is the worst. It’s easy to dismiss a hurt by an acquaintance and even easier to disregard a slight by a stranger. Depending on your family dynamics, those hurts can be easy to bounce back from as well. In my family, we know that no one is going anywhere, no matter how mad we might get. So, apologies will eventually happen and life will go on. For me, the pain of being hurt by a friend is different. Those relationships are a little more fragile and require more maintenance.

It’s almost harder when there is not an argument or specific incident to point to that caused the rift.

Recently, I felt a relationship shift and I didn’t notice it at first. But after multiple encounters with a friend that left me feeling like I didn’t matter, or I was incompetent, or I had malintent, my feelings went from confused to hurt to angry.

As per usual for me, my knee-jerk reaction was to confront. I composed several pointed emails to this person, laying out my case with all the best words I could come up with. I made my arguments as well as any defense attorney in the many John Grisham novels I have read. And every time, just as I was about to hit the infamous send button, something inside me said…”nope, wait.” So I waited, and I cried.

Days turned into weeks and I continued to wallow in my pain. I’m pretty good at that.

And then it hit me, I’ve been here before. It has been quite a few years, but I know this pain. The last time that I found myself feeling like this, my pastor encouraged me to look at Matthew 5:44.

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

Wait, what?

But they’re not an enemy. I don’t wish this person ill will. And there are Christians all over the world who are actually being persecuted. I’m just hurt and mad. How do I pray for this guy? What does that look like? But my pastor urged me to begin praying for this person that hurt me. So I did. I prayed that God would bless him. I prayed that God would bless his family. I prayed that God would continue to grow this man in his faith and bless all of his endeavors.

Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t easy to do at first. Actually, it was a huge exercise of discipline for me in the beginning. But slowly, over time, God softened my heart and healed my pain. I had forgiven this person long before he realized that he had hurt me so profoundly. And when the meeting finally happened to air our differences, I came to it from a place of peace. God heard my prayers and I got a sincere apology from this friend. That never would have happened if I confronted him before I gave the Holy Spirit a chance to work on both of our hearts.

And even if that wasn’t the outcome, it would have been ok. God moved my heart from a place anger and hurt to a place of empathy and compassion.

I write this from the middle of a painful place…again. My feelings are still raw and my heart is bruised. And while I am still licking my own wounds, I am fully aware that there have been times when I was on the other end of this situation. I was the offender. Maybe I was careless with my words and someone else’s heart. Maybe I’m there now and I don’t know it.

I know this, it’s time to pray.

Edit: From/To

I am going to start a series of blog posts about a body of work that I recently made and showed at Gallery Edit in Richmond, VA. To kick off this series, I want to share with you my artist statement. As a curator, I have read quite a few artist statements. To me, art is about communication. Most artists prefer to communicate visually. Here I try to communicate with my words ideas that are personal, and big, and not fully worked out for me. But I tried.

Jennifer Chetelat: Artist Statement

As a potter and ceramist I am constantly interacting with a medium that undergoes a drastic change. Clay has the ability to go from something malleable and temporary to something solid and permanent with the properties to exist in its form for thousands of years. However, left on its own, clay mostly does not change, it is subject to the elements and can be a very temporary substance. But when it is placed in the hands of a skilled creator it has the potential to become something beautiful, and possibly functional, and everlasting.

For me, my relationship with Jesus Christ has been the catalyst for growth as a person. When I was young in age and young in my faith, I saw the way of life that is laid out in the Bible as just a bunch of rules. A measurement for my behavior. And a yardstick by which I usually fell short. However, as in any relationship, the more I got to know the person on the other end the more I realized that there was so much freedom in a life of faith. The change in me is gradual, but when I step back and look at the areas of my life where I have really surrendered my own pursuits, those are the areas where I have the most peace and joy.

As in the piece From/To, I see my life in layers. One layer reacts to the one before it and informs the next one. And of course, there are unexpected events or occurrences that pop up and change the trajectory of the whole journey. This piece is done as a diptych because I do see a definite line in my life of before and after my personal decision of faith. When I look back on my own life, I see seasons of health and happiness as well as seasons of sickness and sorrow. For me the transformation from what I was to what I am becoming is a much slower, longer process.

The main inhibitor along the way is usually myself. For me, my faith frees me from these limitations. It frees me from the limitations that I put on myself, or that others put on me. It also frees me from stagnancy. God wants me to be in relationship with Him and I put things in the way of that intimacy. The things that I put between myself and God are ideas that I have explored in some of my pieces. “Performance”, “Expectations”, and “Hope and Doubt” are all constructs of my efforts to be self-sufficient, and independent from my Creator. When I put myself in the skilled hands of my Creator (and allow the time and trials that life brings to transform me), like my clay, I can become something beautiful, functional, and everlasting.

The process of making wet clay in to a permanent state of being is a multi phased one. After the clay has dried completely, it undergoes a series of firings in a kiln that are thousands of degrees. I used to be afraid of the “firings” of life, but I’m getting less so with age. Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner said, “ This is life. Beautiful and terrible things will happen, don’t be afraid.” I have seen enough of the beauty on the other side of the terrible to begin to trust my Creator.

Outgifted

 

We’ve all been there. You have a friend that is close enough that you are exchanging gifts (usually at Christmas). You put thought and money into what you think is a nice gift. You buy or make them something that you think they will really like. Maybe it’s something that you’d like to receive yourself. Your friend opens it and is loving and gracious and appreciative. And then you open the gift they gave to you…and you are blown away by their thoughtfulness and the sacrifice of resources or time that they have spent on you. You are humbled and feel unworthy of their generosity. You have been outgifted.

I’m not sure why we think that this exchange needs to be equal, but in our culture it just does. Perhaps it’s because comparing is such a prevalent (and unhealthy) part of our society. Perhaps it’s because we are subconsciously keeping score with an unseen relational currency and we don’t want to put more, or leave more on the table than we need to. Whatever the reason, there seems to be unspoken social mores that gift-giving should be a level playing field among friends.

But what about when what’s given cannot be held in your hands or deposited in the bank?

I work in a nonprofit ministry organization, and we have been taking time each morning, (over the last few weeks) to look for and talk about the good in each person in our office. After each person has written their word of affirmation or admiration on a poster-sized piece of paper hung on a whiteboard, we take turns explaining what we wrote. It has been a beautiful and meaningful exercise. The point of it is to cultivate the practice of looking for the good in people as a daily discipline.

The other day, I was on the receiving end of all of this goodness. I sat and listened to people explain what they had written. Some of the people in my office I know very well, and others I have spent less time with. I was not prepared for their generosity. I was not prepared for the outpouring of love and emotion. I was not prepared for how much the things that I have done or said meant to people. Their words to me were overwhelming and extravagant. I was outgifted.

The thing about being outgifted is that it’s humbling. You are put in a position where what you have received is far greater than what you have given. My coworkers and co-laborers in ministry saw good in me that I don’t always see in myself.

I want to be extravagant with my words and selfless in my actions towards others. Looking for the good in people is really not that hard to do. It’s a habit that you can cultivate. I think it is in line with learning to look for the attributes of Christ in people. Imagine how different the world would be if we could train our first impulses to seek the good in every circumstance, encounter, and relationship.