“Do not become dry in the hands of the potter”

I have a problem with sermons: if I cannot agree with the overarching metaphor or interpretation, I have a great deal of difficulty getting anything of value out of the sermon at all.

This occasionally happens in the States. It happens much more frequently here in Zambia, probably due to fundamental differences in worldview, experience, and relation to the biblical text. It’s probably also related to a fundamental difference in length of sermons and church services: services here typically range from two and a half to three hours. (And I have it good. Alison’s Pentecostal host family typically spend between four and seven hours at church on a Sunday, and the expression of faith tends towards screaming. She says that she gets though it by cultivating an look of interest when she is, in reality, paying no attention, and by being amused by the way Zambian accents can make ‘Jesus’ sound like ‘Cheez-Its,’ especially if you’re yelling.) I try to tell myself that at least 45 minutes of that time is probably due to repeating everything in Tonga and English, but my body generally informs me that three hours sitting on a hard (and possibly wobbly) wooden bench is still three hours. However, it is true that the service in Mboole where they only translated the sermon was significantly shorter — but I understood very little of Church – {Sermon}.

I also have difficulty taking anything of value from the sermon when the preacher proclaims things from the pulpit that are diametrically opposed to what I believe about the nature of God, God’s family, etc. I am getting better at this one, but it’s not within the scope of this blog post.

This morning’s sermon was “Do Not Become Dry in the Hands of the Potter,” taken from Jeremiah 18*, where God says, “Jeremiah, go to the potter’s house,” and Jeremiah does, and the pot becomes spoiled and the potter smashes it and re-forms it, which is a lesson about Israel. The general idea of the sermon was that when Christians stray from God’s ways, they are no longer useful instruments to God. Okay.

“When the clay becomes dry in the potter’s hands, it is useless to him, hard to work. We must not become dry.”

The instant I realized what this sermon was about, I thought, For everything, there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.

I am a terrible potter, at least when it comes to making vessels on a wheel. However, I have spent enough time and energy trying to throw pots that I can very easily assign tactile-visual memories to metaphors involving clay.

And the truth of it is that the drying of clay is integral to the process of creating finished ceramics. (Also, I have never had the problem that the clay was too dry; mine was always too wet and collapsed, but possibly that’s a problem specific to beginners trying to throw things beyond their skill.)

If I close my eyes, I can easily see Andrea centering a leatherhard (which is to say, half-dry) pot on the wheel and affixing it with lumps of clay, then setting the wheel to a slow spin as she carved off excess weight at the base to create an elegant ‘foot.’ Andrea abhors people who don’t trim the feet of their pots; if the bottom is still clunky, the pot isn’t finished.

The gorgeous ceramics endemic to the Southwest US are created by taking pots at the same stage of dryness, glazing them, and carving off bits of the glazed clay to reveal the natural color beneath.

Even if you aren’t adding fancy trimmings to your pots, you can’t fire wet clay; the water will expand and the piece will explode, quite possibly taking nearby pieces with it.

Aside from that, I don’t like the metaphor of clay in general. It works excellently for the idea of destruction and reformation, but when applied to individual spirituality, it entirely breaks down. Clay is clay. (Yes, there are different grades and colors, but within any one type of clay, all the clay is more-or-less the same.) If the potter is having difficulty working the clay, the fault is in the potter’s preparation of the clay (or the potter’s skill), not the clay itself. If it has air bubbles, that’s because the potter didn’t work it sufficiently before beginning to throw. If it’s too dry, the potter should have added more water, and if it’s too wet, the clay should have been left to dry out a bit. If the clay if off-center on the wheel, the potter centered it badly. Before it is glazed or fired, any piece of clay has the potential to be re-formed into something else, although it may take varying amounts of work to fit it to do so. As Romans 9:21 says, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?”

Needless to say, I spent the next while figuring out all the reasons that I didn’t like the metaphor, rather than getting anything useful out of the sermon. When I next brought myself to pay attention, the pastor had moved on to using First Samuel 15:22 (“And Samuel said, ‘Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.'”) to tell me that if I’m not in a proper church-y mood, I should just not come to church.

Now I’m sorry, but most of the time I do not wake up on a Sunday morning filled with joy at the prospect of going to church in Zambia. I know that it will be a 45 minute walk under the already-hot sun to church, that the service will probably be an hour longer than I really have attention span for, that the preacher and I will probably disagree on a number of points, that if I’m unlucky my feet will get bitten by mosquitoes, that it will be hot and that the windows will not provide sufficient ventilation to compensate for cramming 400-700 people into that church, that it’s somewhat big and impersonal and I know very few people and that enough people wander in and out that the church is not good at welcoming visitors beyond the first day, and that I will quite probably have to walk back home again 45 minutes under the very definitely hot sun. These things have the cumulative effect that I frequently don’t feel like I’ve managed to do very much worshiping at church, and going to church does feel sometimes like a bit of a chore. (I should point out that despite my complaints, it’s MUCH better than Spain, where Spanish Catholicism made me feel like the new kid in class to such an extreme degree that I only ever went to mass twice. In fact, when I’m not grumpy at the preacher, I do feel more at home in Macha BICC than I have in some churches in the States. And I really do like the music, and am even starting to understand it sometimes.)

I’m not arguing that you should go to church if you hate the idea so much that you’ll just sit in the pew sulking and being miserable and angry. The preacher does have a point, at least that far. But I still go to church every Sunday that I’m here, and not just because the SALT program expects me to behave like a reasonable Christian who goes to church on a fairly regular basis. It’s good for me to go to church. I meet people, and interact with the community, and have an opportunity to practice Tonga. Most weeks there is something that speaks to me, at least a little bit. And even the things that make me feel uncomfortable and out-of-place challenge my faith in ways that solidify it and force me to figure out what I do believe. None of this would happen if I stayed home and hung out in my room.

But I’ll admit that I do spend a good bit of time most weeks just trying to figure out new words in Tonga, or exploring the concordance in my Bible.

————–
*Whenever I’m not working from memory I’m using the English Standard Version. One of these days I will graduate to the Whatever Whatever Tonga Version, at least on a part-time basis.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

3 responses to ““Do not become dry in the hands of the potter”

  1. I too often have a problem with sermons. For one thing we preachers too often refer to things we don’t really understand. The one you describe understood very little of pottery making. But something else bothered me more. There seemed to be little, if any, good news in that sermon. Here in the States every BIC preacher has a card or certificate designating that person as a “Minister of the Gospel.” (I.e. of Good News.) So their sermons should be about “good news,” but many, like the one you heard, are not.

    Many sermons I hear are about duty, what we should or ought to do. But being typical humans we often do not do what the preacher is urging us to do, so the sermon becomes “bad news” since it adds to our condemnation for not doing what we ought.

    Yet duty is still a Christian word. But for it to be fully Christian, it must come to us rooted in the “Good News.” Then the result will be joy as the Gospel produces fruit in our lives.

    So I continue to have a problem with sermons, disappointed in hearing so little of the Good News.

    • Even when sermons here do include Good News, I frequently find myself uncomfortable with them, because there is a lot of attention paid to stories of faith and healing, and while no one has gone quite so far as to say, “If so-and-so’s faith were strong enough, she would be healed,” but I often feel that the message preached from the pulpit is only one step away from that. It breaks my heart to know that when the SDA revival meeting prays for P at the innovative school, what they’re praying for — what he’s praying for — is that he will be able to walk.

      • Herb JH

        I understand your heartbreak. I have been at healing services where the sick and infirm were anointed and prayed for, and the leader then pronounced, “You are healed!” But they went out as they came in. “If faith were strong enough;” but that puts the burden back on the sick person. So the message is not Good News. And it puts the focus and the burden on the human. But the NT Good News has the focus on Jesus and what God does and has done.
        Very interesting and challenging experiences for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s