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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

On the potter's wheel

Isaiah is an Old Testament prophet sent to Israel to encounter them for their "drift" into becoming "like the other nations".  If you have never really read the entire message of Isaiah, you will have missed special words such as:
      - Though your sins are like scarlet, they will be white as snow.  If they are red as crimson, they will become like wool.  (1:18 CEB)
      - Then they will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools.  Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war.  (2:4 CEB)
      - Doom to those who call evil good and good evil, who present darkness as light and light as darkness, who make bitterness sweet and sweetness bitter. (5:20 CEB)
The list could go on and on, but I would like to focus us on one of the latter chapters of this great book.  There we find these words:

Still, God, you are our Father.  We’re the clay and you’re our potter: all of us are what you made us.  Don’t be too angry with us, O God.  Don’t keep a permanent account of wrongdoing.  Keep in mind, please, we are your people—all of us.  (Isaiah 64:8-9 MSG)

All of us are what He made us.  Think on this one just a little for a moment.  God is our Father.  In his hands, he fashions us exactly as he envisions us to be.  I want to call attention to the fact not stated here - he sees the finished product just as he planned for it to be!  He is the creator of all life - it is by his hand we are formed in the womb and it is equally by his hand we are fashioned into the person we are today.  Now, I know we have a free will, so some of the "fashioning" may get a little "out of whack" at times.  Yet, it is this crystal clear image of us perfectly created by his hands which he sees.

The illustration used by Isaiah of the clay and the potter tell us much.  Clay is a very moldable substance - it can take on many forms.  But...there are some things about clay I would like us to consider this morning.  Clay is first of all a type of soil.  It is a very "heavy" soil - difficult to bring growth from.  Why?  It is compacted tightly and this makes it difficult for growth to spring forth.  Now, in respect to us being clay in the hands of a potter, I wonder how "compacted" we are?  How hard is it for God to bring growth from our lives?  What does he have to do in order to "coax" any sign of life from within?  Did you know clay soil can be the hardest to bring to a place of "tilled productivity" simply because it compacts so easily?  The compacting work may come because of what passes over the soil for any length of time - with each "step" of the passage, the soil becomes more compact.

It takes much effort to bring growth from clay soil.  It is only by the addition of what farmers refer to as "organic matter" that the soil is changed in structure.  If you don't know what "organic matter" is, let me just remind you it usually comes out of the tail end of an animal!  In other words, some pretty "foul" stuff gets added to the soil, in turn, breaking down the hardness and opening it up to the possibility of life.  This might get us to consider the "organic matter" we find in our lives at times as more of a positive additive, rather than a thing we just consider to be "foul"!

Our passage makes reference to the clay in the hands of the potter - as the potter fashions it on the wheel.  This process is referred to as "throwing clay bodies".  Anyone who works with clay will tell you the best clay has three very important characteristics:  plasticity, strength, and absorption.  Plasticity refers to the flexibility of the clay.  Clay with a very high plasticity can be very difficult for the potter to work with - contrary to what we might imagine.  Why?  There are really two reasons:  1)  Highly plastic clay requires much strength from the potter - pushing "against" the plasticity of the clay; and 2)  Highly plastic clay shrinks and warps during drying - making the object created no longer hold its original shape.  So, the potter has to work with the clay to get the right degree of plasticity - so it will yield to his touch and so it will hold its shape in the end!

The strength of the clay is what gives it the ability to withstand the furnace.  A very weak clay will simply crumble in the kiln.  The hardest of clays might actually crack, yielding a vessel of no use in the end.  So, the potter works with the clay in a couple of ways to get the right "strength" to the clay.  There is a process called "passing the clay through the grog" which is simply the passing of the clay through a screen.  If the little holes in the screen are too small, the clay will be too dry and will be very inflexible to the potter as he attempts to model it.  If the clay is not passed at all through some type of mesh screen, it may contain just way too much moisture, making it impossible for the clay to hold its form.  So, he passes it through the right screen in order to get just the perfect blend of moisture and in the process, he adds some of the coarseness clay needs.  Like a little sand - if there is a right blend of a little coarseness, the strength produced is good.  If too much - the thing crumbles.  Can you see how this might apply to our lives - going through "screen after screen", little things which seem "unnecessary" to us being added into the "mix"?  What we may view as unnecessary may be the very thing which adds the strength to our structure!

The last characteristic of the clay is its ability to absorb.  Water is added to the clay while it is on the wheel.  Since this is the case, if the clay is too "wet" to begin with, it might just become too "goopy" to handle.  If the clay was to dry to begin with, the water might begin to break down the clay a little, but it takes much strength from the hand of the potter to form anything of value.  I think this is why the potter puts the clay through various "tests" first.  He wants the clay to be ready for the wheel.  In the process, he creates the right plasticity, the proper strength, and the perfect absorbability.  

Now, if we are the clay and he is the potter, does this give you a little perspective of how silly it would be for us to assume we are ready for the wheel?  The wheel might produce the object he envisions, but if we are not readied for the wheel, the work of the wheel will have to be repeated and repeated.  Just sayin!