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.