Then I am reminded of my art student days when I took a ceramics course. Early on in the course I learned which wheel the professor used and claimed the wheel next to his so that I could learn as much as possible by watching him. That's what the Lord wants me to do now. Sit as close to Him as possibles and learn by watching Him, The Master.
We often use the term "Master" in the context of the relationship of a servant or slave to his owner or boss. That has a negative ring to me. Makes me want to run away, dig in my heels and rebel. I've worked for enough lousy bosses to make me very resistant and even hostile toward anyone trying to force their will upon me. But in the context of Master to student or apprentice, I happily did everything the Master asked me to do. Stay late after class to sweep the entire studio and clean the wheels until everything sparkled like new. No problem. Organize the glaze shelves. I'm on it. Come in on my days off to get in some extra wheel time, I was there. It didn't matter I just wanted to take every opportunity I could get to learn from the Master. I want that kind of relationship with my Lord.
Anyway back to clay. What is it really? Just common dirt or if you want to get technical, decomposed rock. It's everywhere to some degree. We walk on it, and complain about it if someone tracks it into our house or the children get it on their clothes. It's basically worthless and we don't really think much about it. And that is how God finds us as sinners. We are worthless dirt full of impurities and junk that nobody gives a second thought about.
Most potters use clays they find in their local area. They go out with a shovel and fill their buckets or wheelbarrow with dirt and take it back to their studio. That's kind of what God does with us. He finds us where we are, picks us up out of our sin and brings us to where He is.
Working with local clay is very labor intensive. First it must be washed so that the impurities separate from the useable material. It is put into a tub of water and allowed to sit until the heavy sediment sinks to the bottom and the lighter clay particles rise. Then the water and clay are carefully poured into another bucket. Sometimes it takes several washing to get all the impurities out because some clays are very sticky and will hold onto all kinds of things; rocks,broken glass, nails. Other types are hard and brittle and need to sit in the water a long time to soften. People are like clay. Some are so willing to believe anything that they cling to thinking and habits that are harmful to them. Others have been so hurt by life that they have become cynical, distrustful and hard.
Once the clay has been softened and separated from its impurities, it is dried, pounded into a fine powder then carefully blended with other clays, beneficial minerals and water to produce a whole new type of clay. Kind of sounds familiar doesn't it. When we give our hearts to the Lord we become new creations. The old is passed away and all things are made new. God lovingly washes us of our impurities and replaces them with His Spirit so we can become the person He created us to be.
Blending clay is not an easy process. Some potters put the clay into a tub and stomp it like grapes. Others have a machine called an "extruder". It has a blade roller that mixes the clay together then pushes it out one end. The potter puts the clay through the extruder several times until it is well blended. If the potter is not ready to use the clay right away, it goes into a big vat to rest until it is needed. Ever feel like you've been stomped on or extruded? Life seems to be in a constant turmoil. Maybe you've lost your job, your house,or loved ones. Your life has suddenly taken a new and unexpected turn and you're not certain how to feel about that. Yep, I know that feeling all to well.
Once blended, the clay is ready to be wedged. Wedging is kneading the clay like bread dough to push out all the air bubbles. This is very important because if the clay has air pockets, it will not throw properly and will explode during the firing process. Do you ever feel like all the air is being pushed out of your life and you can't breath? Perhaps you're feeling overwhelmed or burned out in your ministry or job. Maybe you struggle with depression or some other illness. It may be the Lord preparing you for a great work.
After all the behind the scenes preparation, the clay is now ready to be formed. This is the part the maker lives for; taking a shapeless lump of worthless dirt and creating a beautiful masterpiece out of it. The master can choose one of several different techniques by which he will form the clay. Perhaps he will hand-build the vessel with coils or slabs or maybe he will throw it on the wheel or use a combination of techniques. I think this is where many people become critical, disillusioned or confused. Well, my church experience isn't what I expected it to be, or my ministry doesn't look like hers. Why is that? Am I doing something wrong? They're not doing things right. Real ministry ought to look like this not that. Get with the program or get out.
Craftsmen will produce many items that are exactly the same but a Master doesn't like to repeat the exact same thing over and over. He will make each item unique whether it's a cup or a plate, each will have it's own character and subtle differences. God, The Master has a plan for each one of us and like snowflakes every plan is different and uniquely designed.
When a maker throws a piece of clay on the wheel, the very first thing he does is to center it. Centering is crucial. If the clay is not perfectly centered, the vessel will be lopsided and malformed. Centering is a difficult skill to learn. A master makes it look easy but an unskilled apprentice will end up flinging mud across the studio or have a twisted monstrosity on the wheel. We need to be centered in God's Will and word; otherwise our thinking will become warped. We've all seen it happen, in our lives and in the lives of others. Whole churches have even been led astray because of uncentered teachings and their actions have become increasingly ugly. The message of the cross is no longer one of salvation and grace but is twisted and deformed into some mocking monstrosity of condemnation. When a piece of clay refuses to center, it is removed from the wheel and thrown back into the vat to be recycled. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to be extruded and wedged anymore than I have to be.
Once centered the master pulls and stretches the clay into the shape he has planned for it. He works very deliberately, bending down so close to his creation that his breath becomes a part of the vessel. His fingerprints are etched into all of its surfaces so that each unique piece shares a part of his heart. Our Lord desires to share His heart and breath life into us. Sure being stretched and pulled is uncomfortable. I don't know about you, but if left up to me, I'd be perfectly content to sit in my comfort zone like a lump of mud. But our Maker wants so much more for us. He longs to create in us a new heart of great beauty and value. I know it's frightening to step out into the unknown, uncertain of what each new day will bring. It's much more comfortable to just do what society expects of us and dream wistfully about a someday that never arrives. But it is exciting to see what the Lord is doing around us. Suddenly instead of the same old, same old rut, life becomes a glorious adventure. He will take you to places you never dreamed you'd go, to do the impossible. Sure there will be some rough spots and tough times but if you think about it, isn't that what makes a grand adventure? All the best stories and movies are about someone's struggle to overcome great odds to achieve an ultimate victory. God is writing each of our stories now.
When the main form is completed, the vessel is cut from the wheel. If allowed to dry without cutting the base, the vessel will harden and become immovable. Thus not only will the vessel become useless but so will the wheel. The only way to remove it then is to bust the hardened clay up with a hammer. I don't want to become so set in my ways and thinking that I refuse to yield to the Lord's direction.
After being formed the vessel is set aside in a drying cabinet to gradually cure. Ever feel like you're sitting in the dark waiting for the Lord to hear your prayers for direction and there is only silence? Me too. I don't like waiting. Waiting to be picked up to go somewhere, arriving first at an unfamiliar location and waiting for everyone else to arrive, waiting for important documents to be approved or news of a loved one's health, that brief pause of terrorized expectation at the top of the roller coaster before you plunge over the edge. Yeah waiting is the worse. We want to be "doing" and "waiting" is usually an un-welcomed interruption to our activity filled lives.
When the vessel has cured to what is called "leather hard" the maker will trim the vessel and give it it's final form. At this point he cuts away excess clay to make the vessel lighter and more esthetically pleasing. He may also add handles, spouts or make other adjustments depending on the vessel's ultimate purpose. Decorations are stamped in at this point. And when he is done he puts his maker's mark on it. God does that in our lives as well. He will cut away the things that weigh us down and awaken in us gifts and abilities we never knew we had. And then He puts His personal seal on our hearts so that there can be no doubt who we belong to. Isn't so awesome that the God and creator of the universe, takes personal pride in claiming us to be the work of His hands, His masterpiece? It is so thrilling to create a piece of art, stand back and go, "Wow, I made that." I like to think that God says the same thing when He looks at us.
But the vessel is not finished yet. After final shaping, it is put back on a shelf to dry completely. Ugh, more waiting.
All water must be completely evaporated out of the clay. Depending on the vessel's size this process can take anywhere from a few days for smaller works to over a year for large pieces. During this time the maker constantly monitors the drying conditions in the studio. Temperature, humidity or the lack thereof, even a gentle breeze through an open window can adversely affect the final outcome.
We're all pretty good at waiting for a day or two or even a few weeks. But eventually as the waiting period stretches out with no end in sight, we become increasingly more and more agitated. Or at least, I do. We start to question ourselves and God. "Why isn't anything happening? Did I really hear God talking to me? If it truly was God's Will He should have opened all the doors for me by now. Why am I stuck spinning my wheels getting nowhere?" Then we start strategizing and making plans to move things forward without consulting the Lord about it since He obviously has gone on to something else and completely forgotten about us.
But the drying process can not be rushed. If the potter tries to fire the vessel before it is ready it will blow up in the kiln. Abraham and Sarah are a good example of what happens when we take things into our own hands and try to rush God's timing. God had promised to give them a son. But as the years wore on and they became older, it became harder and harder for them to believe that they would ever have a child. So before 'it was too late' they implemented a plan that sounded reasonable enough at the time. Sarah's maid, Hagar would become a surrogate mother for their child and we all know how that blew up in their faces. Sarah and Hagar's relationship was forever ruined and eventually she and her son were sent away to fend for themselves. The consequences of that tragic attempt to circumvent God's timing is still affecting civilization to this day. It's never a good idea to try to rush God's timing. But we get impatient when things don't move along as quickly as we think they should.
At last the drying time is over and the vessel is given a coat of glaze. Glazing is a fascinating process. The glaze itself is made of various minerals and metals carefully mixed to produce every color imaginable. Some glazes are shiny and glossy, other rough and dull. The potter skillfully dips, paints, pours and splatters the glaze onto the waiting vessel. There is an air of mystery about glazes because only in the intense heat of the kiln are their true colors revealed. After allowing the glaze to dry for a few hours the potter carefully stacks each vessel into the kiln. There are many different types of kilns but they all serve one purpose: to create heat intense enough to fuse the clay particles into rock and to melt the glaze into glass. We're talking temperatures of over 1,200 degrees Fahrenheit. That's hot folks. At least one time in our lives, everyone of us will be tested beyond what we think we can bear. We each have our own trial by fire situations. Maybe it was a traumatic childhood experience or something you're going through now, whatever it is, you feel pushed past your limits to persevere. Many people crack and break under such extreme hardships.
Firing can take two or three days. The potter must monitor and maintain the fire around the clock the entire time. He can't let the fire become too hot or to die down. Sometimes he may carefully push additional chemicals into the kiln to affect the final outcome.When we are going through such times of testing and it's just one thing after another, we may feel that God has abandoned us, but He hasn't. It is during this time that He is working more than ever to cause all things to come together for our good.
After the time of firing is over the kiln is allowed to slowly cool down, this can take over a day. Ever notice how after a period of extreme testing there eventually comes a time of rest? At first we may not realize that the testing is over because we still feel the pain of the fire. But gradually, peace will come over us like a soothing balm if we let it.
The door is finally opened and what once was a formless lump of ugly clay is now a thing of great beauty, ready to be used for the purpose its creator planned for it. Pretty cool, huh.
But what about the pieces that cracked and broke in the fire? It seems tragic that after all the hard work and care that went into their formation that they should be thrown out onto the" bone pile." Yes it is. But the master will pick up the pieces and carefully put them back together using gold or other precious metals, thus creating something of even more beauty and worth. Unfortunately, many people choose to push the Master away and remain on the bone pile in their brokenness. But if we will let Him, the Lord takes the broken and flawed pieces of our lives and covers them with His precious blood so that we become even more extraordinary examples of His grace and love.
And so whenever I find myself asking the Lord," What in THE world are you doing in my life?", He just says, " I am the potter and you are the clay. Remember the clay."
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