Sunday, February 6, 2011

THE POTTER’S HOUSE

I went to the potter’s house one day. It could better be described as a cottage. It was a small home, comfortably set on a small lot on a street of similar homes. It was set back some distance from the street, and as I approached, there was only one detail that offered a hint as to the occupation of its owner. The path leading from the street to the house, raised slightly above the surrounding grass, was topped with broken pottery. Most of it was plain and colorless, but here and there a glint of color spoke of a finished piece that for one reason or another had broken and while once ornate and functional, now found usefulness only in helping to keep people’s feet out of the mud.
I found the potter in his shop working a lump of clay. He acknowledged my arrival with a silent nod and continued with his work. He had the clay in the middle of his wheel and for a time kneaded it first from one side then turning it slightly, from another. After a while he balled it up, centered it and started the wheel turning. Slowly he began to flatten the lump into a large pancake, occasionally dipping his fingers into a nearby bowl of water and dampening the clay.
Finally seeming satisfied, he pushed the edges of the clay back toward the center of the wheel until he had formed it into a short, fat column. He stopped the wheel momentarily, rinsed his hands and placed clean water in the bowl. Having completed these tasks, he once again started the wheel and began shaping his vessel. He glanced my way once or twice with a smile that seemed to invite me to guess his purpose. I stood quietly, convinced that every detail of this vessel was clearly imprinted in his mind, while I was just as clearly without a hint of understanding. I was awed by the way the clay seemed to respond to his hands. It seemed almost alive, following the movement of his fingers as he pressed, pinched, and cupped it between his hands. A hollow formed in the clay, the sides began to rise, contours began to take shape, and the sides started to thin. Just as I was beginning to think I recognized the vessel’s purpose, a frown appeared on the potter’s face and he stopped the wheel. Digging into the vessel he removed what appeared to be a small lump of hard, dry clay.
Restarting the wheel, he pressed the clay back into a formless lump and once again went through the process of flattening it out, feeling for other lumps. Finally satisfied, he pressed the clay back into a column in the center of the wheel and restarted the process of shaping it into conformity with the picture in his mind.
I marveled as, once again, the clay responded to his will and the movement of his hands. Lifting, pressing, shaping, and smoothing, he worked his purpose into the lifeless object before him. Once again he stopped the wheel and there before me stood the vessel, completed except for the firing and finishing. Even though I had watched it happen, I could not fathom how he had worked this miracle of creation that now stood before me.
He turned to me and we began to talk of his work and how he shaped each new piece according to a predetermined purpose. As we talked I commented on the uniqueness of the path leading to the house, and how I thought it a very practical thing that he used the scraps of his labor on the path rather than simply discarding them. He responded to my observation with a thoughtful look and called my attention to the dried lump that he had removed from the partially formed vessel.
“It is not an uncommon event,” he said. “Care must be taken to find those imperfections in the clay and remove them. They are often difficult to detect and so small that you might be tempted to overlook them instead of going to all the trouble of starting over.” He went on to say that if they are missed or left in the vessel, they will weaken it so that it breaks during the firing or will not stand up under normal use. “If it breaks during the firing,” he said, “it often destroys not only itself but other vessels near it.”
“As you noted, the path to my house is covered with the inevitable results of imperfections that did not get removed before the pieces were put through the fire. Most of those vessels were destroyed in the first firing. Those were the colorless pieces you saw. Some, however, survived the firing and became finished vessels. They were beautiful to look at and for a time were useful vessels, but the imperfection had weakened the vessel and inevitably it could not stand up under the stress of normal use. Those glints of color you saw were from such vessels.”
He went on to say that we are much like these vessels. Each of us has imperfections of character that have the potential to destroy us if not removed, and if they manifest themselves in the wrong way they can destroy others as well. “There are two examples in the Scriptures,” he said. “In one, the flaw is identified and dealt with early, and the person goes on to a productive ministry. In the other, the flaw is never dealt with and the person, although starting strong and showing great promise, eventually self-destructs, destroying not only himself, but also those dear to him.”
“The first of these is Peter, whose pride and insecurity brought him to actually deny his relationship with Jesus. Afterward however, when he looked at Jesus eye to eye, he crumbled under his guilt and repented. After Jesus’ ascension, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ admonition to ‘strengthen the brethren,’ and is regarded even today as one of the central pillars of the church. Peter is like the vessel I made today. Jesus spotted his flaw and warned him of it. Initially Peter resisted Jesus’ prediction of failure, but when it happened it took only a look from Jesus to bring Peter to repentance. God was able to reshape Peter into a vessel of honor.”
“The second is King Saul, whose pride was initially hidden by a false humility. He started out as a strong leader, and a good king, but before long his pride came to the forefront and, being hardened, he never repented. God rebuked him repeatedly and finally rejected him completely becoming his enemy. His final act was to lead the nation of Israel into battle where not only were they defeated, but he and his sons were killed. Saul is like the vessel that endures the furnace and is initially beautiful and useful, but does not stand up to the stress of service. He is like those bits of colorful pottery you saw on the path. The color serves as a reminder of what once was and could have been, but their only usefulness now is to help keep the feet of others out of the mud.”
I left the potter’s house with a troubled mind, for I had been struggling with the guilt of a failure of character. I, like Saul, had at one time been in a position of honor and regarded by some as a leader in spiritual and temporal matters. Also like Saul, when my defect surfaced it destroyed not only me but others, including my family.
Was I destined to serve only as a reminder of what was and could have been, and find usefulness only in helping keep the feet of others out of the mud as they tread over the broken pieces of my life?

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