In our reading in the daily office today from Jeremiah 18, Jeremiah is given a vision of a potter at a wheel, working a piece of clay that is misshapen. At any moment, the prophet perceives, the potter could simply destroy the pot rather than repair it, deciding it is too spoiled. This is intended as a warning for the prophet to convey to the people: because of their resistance to God, they too have become misshapen, and risk being destroyed by God as punishment.
The message communicated there is one that still remains powerful for some people. They see their suffering as being placed upon them by God, in punishment for something wrong they have done. It’s a simple proposition: they believe that God punishes wrongdoing with suffering, so if they are suffering, it must be due to their own sinfulness.
Others of us see flaws in this reasoning. First of all, sometimes people immersed in wrongdoing prosper and innocent people suffer. Sometime people emerge from trials in their lives scarred and misshapen through no fault of their own.
On the other hand, others scoff entirely, and deny any agency of God in times of suffering or trial. In the centuries since Jeremiah was written, we have acquired great knowledge about science, medicine, and technology. We explain human behavior through relatively new fields, like psychology. And for some people, that is enough. They think they’ve got it all figured out, and that we human beings are in charge. Yet even with this mindset, most would agree with the idea that we, like clay, are molded and shaped through life.
There are many influences that shape us throughout our lives. Yet, one crucial difference remains that separates us from clay. Clay has no voice in choosing who will shape it. It is true that, while we are children, we are most profoundly influenced by our families, and we have very little choice in the matter. As we grow older, however, we begin to push away from our families, and begin to allow ourselves to be shaped by friends and heroes that we admire and mimic, but we have choice in who those people are. Then, when we are adults, we like to trumpet our individualism and independence, imagining that we ourselves are in charge of the people we have become—that we, all by ourselves have shaped ourselves. You know, we love that phrase: “He is a self-made man!”
Yet we know that’s not really true. We are also shaped by others. It is good for us every now and then to remind ourselves of how we are similar to clay. If we do not allow ourselves to be molded by skillful hands, we will never be useful. And indeed, every person who has passed through our lives has a role in shaping the person each of us have become. Sometimes, we are shaped lovingly, kindly, and we become better, stronger, more beautiful. Sometimes, we fall into harsher hands, hands that attempt to squeeze us too tightly, or press upon us too hard, and we have trouble maintaining our balance as we limp away, misshapen, listing to one side.
Some people spend a huge chunk of their lives trying to make up for the injuries inflicted upon them by some of those influences in their lives. Some of us have lived through episodes in our childhoods that haunt us and have threatened to crush us—the shouts of our mothers and fathers that arose in the night and awakened us from childhood sleep night after night, or alcoholic rages that break the dishes. Hands that have touched us in anger, seeking to break us rather than shape us. Hands that have attempted to shape us for their own ends, who have used us and then discarded us.
But to talk about a God who is waiting to crush us is to show that we do not understand God’s message at all. It just doesn’t fit with the God we have experienced in dark moments in our lives—a God of incredible power, yes, but the power to support us with limitless love, a God whose faith in US forgives us for our sins and foolishness and lack of faith over and over again.
As we heard last Sunday in the parable of the Prodigal Son, God is not a vengeful father waiting to crush us into dust. Rather, God runs to us the second we turn back from our errant ways, and just when we think we are as far as we can be from God, in our repenting we turn and find God right alongside us all along.
The problem with using verses like these to attempt to frighten us into some sort of rigid behavior is that it ignores the overriding thrust of the truth that God has revealed to us over and over again: that God reaches out to us repeatedly, and loves us unconditionally, even when we go our own blind way. God understands our weaknesses and through the gift of unlimited grace calls us again and again to reconcile with God and with each other, to allow ourselves to be shaped, to acknowledge that God can transform and sustain us even in our darkest moments because God made each of us, whether saint or sinner, cares for us, and loves us for all eternity. And that’s actually right there in the same readings that others twist for their own ends.
Sometimes we all get misshapen. But if you have ever watched a potter at the wheel, you know that she never throws the clay away; she just persists in working on it until she gets it right. God presses upon us behind and before, God’s hand is upon us, shaping us, never giving up on us, reconciling who we are with who God intends for us to be – a people forgiven, healed, renewed, shaped! A people empowered to go forth into the world, reconciled and at peace with ourselves, and with our God, and with one another.
The hands of God’s love never stop trying to ease us, to soothe us, to work with us and within us to help shape us into our best selves. Like a potter at her wheel, God’s hands are creating within us, right now, offering us a profound sense of release, a profound reconciliation, a profound sense of peace—the kind of peace that comes from being in the presence of a love that is so amazing that we are reshaped, and are never the same again. A love that leads us through the truth of our brokenness, through reconciliation with ourselves or those we have hurt, to a peace which not only passes all understanding but enables us to get through the next trial without being misshapen. A peace that comes to us through a God that reaches out to us, again and again, constantly trying to work us and shape us on that wheel, if only we will allow it. Shaped and mended, lovingly, tenderly, on the potter’s wheel.
The Rev. Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and a priest in the Diocese of Missouri. She is priest-in-charge of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Ellisville, MO. She posts daily prayers at her blog Abiding In Hope, and collects spiritual writings and images at Poems, Psalms, and Prayers.