Pottery with Yao

My family and I just returned from a week of family camp at Camp Seafarer. What an amazing week! Seven straight days on the beautiful Neuse River in Arrapahoe, North Carolina — water skiing, fishing, motor boating, sailing, zip lining, horseback riding, archery, riflery and … pottery.

Yep.  Pottery.  After awhile, a guy just needs a little downtime.  So I learned a little pottery from a guy named Yao and, in the process, got a great refresher on a biblical metaphor:

 18 This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him.

With all of us seated at our potter’s wheel, Yao began our lesson.  He reached in to a large bag and pulled out big lumps of clay and handed each of us a big chunk — a big, formless, kinda smelly, sorta slimy, hunk of mud.  Each of us looked first at the hunk of mud in our hands and then at Yao’s beautiful finished pottery pieces sitting on a nearby shelf and we all felt a little overwhelmed.  Yao told us to relax.

I suppose if you’ve done this many times before, as Yao has, and God has, it’s easy to relax.  The experienced potter knows that an ugly hunk of mud can eventually become a beautiful, useful vessel.  After all, it’s about the potter, not the mud.

But first, Yao gave us a warning:

The biggest mistake that beginners make, is they immediately put their clay on the wheel and try to make something beautiful and useful out of it.  Don’t do that.

Take your time.  Get to know your clay.  Every hunk of clay is different.  Your hunk of clay isn’t ready yet.  Get the air bubbles out.  Soften up your clay.  Add water if you need to.  Make your clay pliable.  Work it with your hands to see how it responds.  Take your time.

And so we did.  Yao showed us how to work our clay.  He was slow and methodical about it.  We got the feeling that Yao enjoyed the process of working the clay as much or more than he did actually making something out of it — that perhaps the journey really was his joy.  I suspect God feels that way too.  Like Yao, God has a lot of finished pots.  It’s hard to imagine that God really needs another one.  I suspect God works with clay because God likes to, not because God needs to — humbling as that may be to pots, and us humans.

Finally, Yao told us we were ready to put our clay on the wheel.  He called it “centering the clay” and told us we needed to get it right.  He said in order for us to properly work with our clay and form it into something beautiful and useful, we needed to be in control.  We needed to have our clay directly in the center of our wheel and we needed to keep it there.  Nothing would affect the final product more, he told us, than the time the clay spends in the hands of the potter directly in the center of the wheel.  (On a purely personal note, this little point makes me a bit nervous and explains a lot):

“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.

Once we got our clay perfectly centered on the wheel, we were ready to get to work.  Yao showed us how to brace our arms over our workspace so that we could put our hands around our clay to control its movement.  Apply pressure inward and our clay would grow tall and narrow.  Apply pressure downward from the top and our clay would flatten and get wider.  I think this is what Yao meant when he told us to get to know our clay.  This is where we learned how much pressure we needed to apply to get our clay to change its shape.  Too much and our clay might completely collapse.  Not enough and it wouldn’t change its shape at all.  Only the potter knows just how much pressure is enough to get the job done.

“But what if we don’t know exactly what we want to make yet?, we asked.  “Don’t worry about it,” Yao said.  “Just work with your clay.  See how it feels.  Notice how it responds to you.  Does it seem better suited to be a big water bowl or a narrow flower vase?  You’ve got plenty of time to figure out its ultimate purpose.  And you can always change your mind and start over.  Don’t worry about it.”

And so we didn’t.  We just worked with our clay.  At first, I made mine tall and skinny.  I was thinking I might make a tall drink glass.  But each time my clay got tall and skinny, it got wobbly and off kilter.  I decided my clay wouldn’t make a good drink glass and that, frankly, I didn’t really need another drink glass.  What I really needed was a small little bowl to put all my pocket change in.

And so I started over.  But not with a new piece of clay.  I just applied downward pressure to the piece of clay I was working with and — poof.  Down it shrunk into a small and shallow bowl.  Perfect.

Well, not perfectly perfect.  But perfect for my purposes.  Occasionally, my clay would get a bit off center.  When it did, it lost a bit of its symmetry and smoothness. But no matter.  Eventually, I got it back to the center of the wheel.  I never could get  the perfect symmetry and smoothness back, but I was able to get back the basic shape I needed for my change bowl.  So, no worries.  It’s good to know that God can get us back on track and in the center of the wheel so that we can become all that we were meant to be.  But it’s a bit of a cautionary tale to know that the potter can’t always remove all of the imperfections caused by an uncentered piece of clay.

Eventually, I got just the bowl I wanted.  All that remained was to put a little paint on it.  I like Clemson, so I chose orange and purple paint (or as close to orange and purple as I could find).  Lots of people wouldn’t think that combination would make a very pretty change bowl.  But my change bowl wasn’t meant for lots of people.  It was meant for me.  And to me, orange and purple was perfect.

Pottery is a creative process.  Basically, it’s all about turning a big hunk of ugly mud into something useful, something beautiful.  And, of course, beauty and usefulness is in the eye of the potter, not the clay.  Who knows?  If my clay could talk, maybe it would tell me that it would prefer to be a garnet and black drink glass.  But I’m the potter.  I wanted an orange and purple change bowl.  That’s what was useful to me and it’s what I thought my clay was best suited to be.  Eventually, I learned what my clay would respond to and I was able to shape it in to a form that suited my purposes and made me happy.  My bowl has its share of defects, but I don’t care.  They just remind me of the times that I was able to get my clay back on the center of my wheel after it had wandered off a time or two.

I like to think of God as an artist.  The creation story is all about God’s creativity and artistry.  But so is our story.  God doesn’t need another pot.  God just enjoys the art of pottery.  God enjoys working with us, forming a relationship with us, learning how we respond to certain pressures and certain circumstances.  It’s not our job to figure out how to make ourselves useful or beautiful.  That’s the potter’s job.  The clay’s job is to remain in the center of the wheel and spend time with the potter.  And even when we screw that up, the potter is able to get us back to the center of the wheel and finish the job.  Only then can an ugly hunk of mud become something useful and something beautiful.

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

So, there it is.  I made it myself.  It’s not perfect, but it’s mine and I love it.  I am a potter!  Who knew?