The Contingency of Clay

The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD: “Come, go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.  Then the word of the LORD came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the LORD. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. 

Jer 18:1-6, excerpt from lectionary text for Sunday Sept 8, 2019, Jeremiah 18:1-11

‘Just like clay in the potter’s hand…’. 

Usually I read this passage through the oracle that follows, concerning Judah and its evil, as if the visit to the potter’s house is entirely or only contained in the litany of ‘pluck up and break down’ that came first when Jeremiah first encountered the word of the LORD (Jer 1:10; see ‘Uprooting Anew,’ Aug 25, 2019).  I read and picture smashed crockery strewn about the workshop.  An image of destruction.

But it’s not.

Read the potter’s house as a parable.  Don’t reduce it to a simple proposition nor a single image.  Read the potter’s house closely and hear what is actually going on.  

There is no smashing.  There is not even any crockery — nothing has been fired yet, nothing is firm.  The vessel is yet becoming, yet being formed, re-formed.  The potter is working at his wheel.  The potter is reworking the vessel.  Rather, the potter is reworking the clay.  The clay is not yet a vessel, if to be a vessel is to be a firm, fixed, final shape, greenware or bisque.  The potter’s work is not yet final.  The state of the clay remains contingent.  And in that lies the hope.  The clay is yet pliable; the potter yet working.

What is the clay of me, of us, of the community?  What is intrinsic to my being?  How to know?  How to continually discover?

What of me is vessel, contingent, a shape that holds only for a time — that is meant to hold only for a time?

And how to give myself over to the potter’s hands and not to the vicissitudes of life.  Of course, experiences will form and trials may deform.  But the form mustn’t be fixed prematurely.  Even a form that was right for a time may not be meant for all time.  Yes, its reformation may feel like destruction — I liked my life that shape, loved it even — its revision a loss to be mourned.  The grief is real.  But that grief, too, must pass, along with the former, remembered shape.  If the potter is reshaping the clay, as seems good, then there will be a new form for a new time, a new shape for a new stage.  

Learn the qualities of the clay.  Learn the potter’s hallmarks — shown through the word, handed on in lives through time and today, signed in love and upwelling joy.  Study.  Learn.

The LORD is a persistent potter, reworking the clay as seems good.  

I am clay; my form still becoming.  That contingency, and God’s patient persistence, is my hope and my prayer for us all.

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