Clay with a mind of its own

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.”

God didn’t just tell the prophet the words God wanted the people to hear. God didn’t just start a dictation of divine speech right there, wherever Jeremiah was at that moment. And God didn’t tell Jeremiah to go to the temple, or the mountain, or the desert — none of the places we would associate with receiving divine instruction.

God sent Jeremiah to the workspace of an artisan, and there the prophet watched the potter at work. He saw a lump of clay on a fast turning wheel. He saw skilled hands gently and firmly centering the clay into a cone. He watched the clay rise, guided by the potter’s touch, and open like the bud of a flower. It was like watching a dance: potter and clay moving together, the rhythm of the foot kicking the flywheel, the vessel rising from inanimate clay like a living, growing thing, the transformation of thick mud into an object of beauty and purpose. To the prophet, it looked effortless, fluid, but he also noticed the artisan’s focused attention and how the earthen stuff on the wheel followed the master’s touch as though submitting to it willingly. Then he saw how the vessel the potter was making was spoiled in his hand, and how he, without missing a beat, reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him. It was then that the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. It wasn’t when the prophet looked at rows of beautiful pots drying on shelves by the wheel, or when he saw the finished pots on the other side of the shed, transformed by fire, shiny and smooth, ready for market. God spoke when things did not work out as intended: God spoke when the vessel on the wheel was a mess in need of remaking — and the potter did just that.

I have watched potters at the wheel off and on since childhood, and my admiration for their craft only grew when, years ago, I learned the basics of throwing a pot myself. I took classes with the Clay Lady out in Bellevue, at a small workshop at Red Caboose Park. The wheel was driven by a motor, so I only had to focus on coordinating my eyes and hands, and not a kicking foot as well. How hard could it be …

Well, the seemingly effortless motion of pulling a pot from a lump of clay turned out to be the hardest thing I ever tried to do with my hands. And the results of my considerable efforts, even when they looked OK, sort of, never resembled what I had in mind when I sat down at the wheel. My teacher told me that to some extent the clay would always determine what would be made from it. “Clay has a mind of its own,” she told me, “and you must learn to respect that; neither you nor it entirely determine the result. If you try too hard, it gets tired.”

“What do you mean, tired?”

“It simply collapses.”

Mary Richards, a teacher and potter, connected with Black Mountain College in North Carolina, wrote:

You can do very many things with [clay], push this way and pull that, squeeze and roll and attach and pinch and hollow and pile. But you can’t do everything with it. You can go only so far, and then the clay resists. … And so it is with persons. You can do very many things with us: push us together and pull us apart and squeeze us and roll us flat, empty us out and fill us up. You can surround us with influences, but there comes a point when you can do no more. The person resists, in one way or another (if it is only by collapsing, like the clay).[1]

Clay has a mind of its own. God knows that. God has been working with humans for a very long time. The image of God as artisan is among the first we encounter in the scriptures. Genesis 1 portrays God as the first poet, designer, metalworker, and landscaper, as God speaks, divides, fashions, and populates heaven and earth. In Genesis 2:7 God first shapes clay, sculpting and forming humankind from earth. As God’s hands knead and smooth the moist dirt, God breathes life into God’s new creation, so that the human being is simultaneously grounded by this connection to earth and animated by the very breath of God.[2] We are made with divine intention and purpose, all of us collectively, and each of us individually.

Israel, Jeremiah tried to remind the citizens of Judah and Jerusalem, had a particular purpose as God’s covenant partner; they were meant to be vessels of divine light in the world, but they were forgetful, easily distracted by their own purposes and ambitions, just like we are. The clay has a mind of its own, a mind not always in tune with the mind of the maker.

God spoke to the prophet when the vessel on the wheel was a mess in need of remaking — and the potter did just that. 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.

God is a God at work, hands-on, hands in the dirt. The pot on the wheel is a work in progress. The vessel is in the potter’s hand — although spoiled, it still is in the potter’s hand; it can be remade, re-formed into a vessel fit for its divine purpose. As the potter’s wheel continues to turn, there is hope. God isn’t sitting back watching the world collapse. God is a God at work. Creation isn’t something God did for seven days at the beginning of time. It is a work in progress. Humanity is a work in progress. Israel is a work in progress; the church is a work in progress; each and every one of us is a work in progress. And as the potter’s wheel continues to turn, there is hope that we will all be what we are meant to be.

Jeremiah reminds us that we’re not passive, malleable material in the cosmic artisan’s hands. God knows we are clay with a mind of our own and wants it that way. We’re not objects turning out just so in a deterministic universe where everything turns out just so. Mary Richards described how the clay changed her in the process of turning a pot:

It is the physicality of the crafts that pleases me: I learn through my hands and my eyes and my skin what I could never learn through my brain. I develop a sense of life, of the world of earth, air, fire, and water (…) which could be developed in no other way. And if it is life I am fostering, I must maintain a kind of dialogue with the clay, listening, serving, interpreting as well as mastering. The union of our wills, like a marriage, it is a beautiful act, the act of centering and turning a pot on the potter’s wheel.[3]

I listen to these words and I hear her speak of God who not only fosters life, but creates and sustains it, maintaining a dialogue with the clay, listening, serving as well as mastering. I listen to these words and they remind me of God’s limitless willingness to embrace life, including its uncertainty and pain. Her words remind me of Jesus Christ in whom the union of divine and human wills was and remains complete.

The psalm for this Sunday speaks from a place of intimate knowledge between human and creator. You have searched me and known me. You are acquainted with all my ways. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. To me these are words of profound trust in the One who made us, the One we have the privilege to know and address as “you”. It was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. Here too, God’s knowing is imaged through physical, hands-on action — knitting, weaving, touching — and the human knowing of this reality leads to wonder, awe, and praise.

The psalm speaks of the vastness of God’s reality that is far beyond our words and concepts, greater than what our minds can grasp — but not unknowable.

We can know ourselves as intimately known by God – every moment, every thought, every word, every habit, every fear – we can know ourselves as intimately known by the One who made us, and in that intimacy, through that intimacy come to know ourselves more fully.

At the end of the psalm – the verses were not included in today’s reading – we are encouraged to join the psalmist in saying, Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

The psalm begins with the words, “Lord, you have searched me and known me,” and it ends with us speaking of our desire to be so known – fully, completely, intimately – in order that we might know ourselves for who we really are and live the life God desires for us. That was the hopeful reality Jeremiah saw and received in the potter’s house: a people fully responsive to the presence, vision and touch of God.


[1] Mary Caroline Richards, Centering In Pottery, Poetry, And The Person (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1989), 19.

[2] See Anathea Portier-Young

[3] Richards, Centering, 15.

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