Lyrical Living: Words to Live By
“Melt Me, Mold Me, Fill Me, Use Me” Click herefor audio
Pastor Donna Buell
Jeremiah 18:1-6, John 4:34
I’ve heard it said that “For every situation there is a suitable line from a song.” In a sense that has been part of the premise behind our summer sermon series, Lyrical Living: Words to Live By. The music we sing in worship is not irrelevant to our daily lives. In fact, there are many insights for life that we can draw from the music of our faith. That is why Marty and I, Becca and Kathy put so much effort into the selection of music that we use in worship each Sunday morning. We work hard to find music that gives voice to some aspect of the day’s scripture, sermon and theme; music that will help to connect us more deeply to the message of the day, and perhaps inspire and support us in our living. This morning, on this Labor Day Weekend, I chose a phrase from the song we just sang, “Spirit of the Living God.” In this simple yet profound song we pray that God’s Spirit would fall afresh upon us: melting us, molding us, filling us, using us.
This morning I have linked this song with the story Marty read from Jeremiah, in which God sends the prophet down to the potter’s house to observe the potter at his craft. And in this experience Jeremiah sees that the people of God are like clay that is fashioned and refashioned, shaped and reshaped, in the hands of the potter. In what is a familiar prophetic narrative, Jeremiah is told that the people of Judah, having failed to follow the commands of God, have become what God never intended for them to become. And that God, like the potter, has the freedom and the power to make a fresh start. At first this seems harsh – this notion that God would choose to allow the kingdom of Judah to be destroyed. But there is also a message of hope here, that God, like a potter, can take that ruined lump of clay and refashion it, bringing new life out of the ruins, a life that is more in keeping with God’s intent. Even when the worst has happened, God is able to use that same clay to fashion something new. And this process of fashioning and refashioning the people of God occurs over and over again throughout the whole biblical narrative.
Whenever I read this passage I can’t help but think of my own experiences in a pottery studio more than 30 years ago. While I was a student at Union Theological Seminary, studying for my master’s degree and trying to discern the life for which God was equipping and calling me, I enrolled in a pottery class at Riverside Church which was located just across the street. My hope was that this class would provide a much needed change of pace from the stress of academic life. For two years I spent an evening each week in the pottery studio, observing, learning, and practicing the skills and the process involved in transforming a lump of clay into a useful vessel. I never created anything too great, but I enjoyed the process and the break it gave me in the middle of my week. And more importantly, that process became a powerful metaphor for the working of God’s Spirit in my own life, in my spiritual formation, and in my journey of vocational discernment. And it has continued to be a valuable metaphor for my understanding of the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of others, in the life of a congregation, in the life of the community of faith as a whole, and in the broader world, as well. And as I think about this process of transforming a lump of clay into a useful vessel, the song that always comes to my mind and heart is “Spirit of the Living God,” with its’ words: “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.”
The first step in any pottery project involves taking a lump of clay, which feels solid and cold and firm to the touch, and wedging it, or kneading it in much the same way that you knead bread dough. This process helps to create an even texture, distributing moisture throughout the clay, eliminating hard spots, and forcing out air bubbles which could potentially cause the clay to explode while being fired in the kiln. So this wedging of the clay is an essential first step and it takes time and muscle. This is the “melt me” phase of the process, though it doesn’t actually melt the clay. But it does warm the clay, and it makes it softer, more flexible, more malleable.
After wedging the clay, the potter moves to a potter’s wheel, throws the clay on to the wheel so that it holds fast, and then, with plenty of water on the hands to reduce friction, places his or her hands around the clay and begins to apply very firm pressure as the clay spins on the wheel. This is a bumpy ride at first, as the lumpy clay fights against the potter’s hands. But eventually those rough spots are incorporated and the clay rests a bit more comfortably in the hands. Then the potter begins to push the clay from the bottom up into a column and then presses it back down again, and repeats this process multiple times until the clay feels still and centered on the wheel.
At this point the potter has a solid, symmetrical, centered mound of clay, which is the necessary foundation for any vessel the potter intends to make. But the work of molding that clay has just begun. Next the potter begins to hollow out an open space. The potter doesn’t dig clay out of the center to form that space, rather, as the wheel continues to spin, the potter presses in to the top of the clay, pushing down and out so that what was once in the center becomes part of the base and the wall of the vessel. Then the potter places one hand on the inside and the other hand on the outside and applying pressure from both sides, pulls the clay up. This requires a more gentle touch, because too much pressure from inside or from the outside can throw the pot off balance or even poke a hole right through the clay, ruining the pot so that the potter has to start all over again. It is in the careful and skillful give and take of those hands that the potter is able to form the clay into a particular and unique shape.
Once the potter is satisfied with the shape, he or she carefully removes the pot from the wheel, and allows it to dry completely. And then the potter trims the base, glazes the pot, and fires it in a kiln. It is only then, after all these steps of molding or shaping have taken place that the vessel is ready to be filled and used.
A number of years ago our Bishop at that time, Sally Dyck, asked the pastors of our conference, to share our call stories with our congregations. That fall, when I told my story in Northfield, I used this same passage from Jeremiah of the potter and the clay, because ever since I took that pottery class during seminary it has been a helpful way for me to think about my own sense and experience of vocation. At the time, I shared these words, which perhaps will speak to your experience as well.
There have been moments (some of them quite recent) when I have felt like a stiff lump of clay. There have been moments when I have felt as though that stiffness was being worked out of me, like a lump of clay being kneaded by a potter in order to make it malleable and flexible. There have been moments when I have experienced what it is like to be centered and still in God’s presence like clay that has been centered on the wheel by the potter’s steady hands. But I also know how much effort and discipline and grace is required to overcome my lumpy resistance and bring me to that place of stillness. There have been times when I have felt as though I were being hollowed out, emptied of my plans and expectations – of my self, my worries, my opinions, my distractions, my stuff – but I recognize how important it is to create that spaciousness within if I am to be shaped into a container that is useful for anything. And through all the various stages of my life my sense of vocation has been shaped and reshaped, by both internal and external forces, into new forms to fit new contexts, just as clay can be formed into a cup or a bowl, a pitcher or a vase, a plate or a chalice.
This image of the potter and the clay also speaks to me because it reminds me that I am not the potter, giving shape and form to my own life and vocation. God is the potter. In this metaphor I am the clay that is being melted and molded by the power of the Holy Spirit so that I might be filled and used by that same Spirit in loving service to God and neighbor. (Sermon October 11, 2009)
Those words, spoken in 2009, are just as true for me now as they were then.
We don’t especially like to think of ourselves as being clay in a potter’s hands, even if that potter is God. We like to think that we are the ones in charge, that we are masters of our destiny, that we shape and build our own lives and our own future. And surely there is give and take here. We are not completely passive in this process. But I think that as people of faith it is important for us to keep God in the equation. And I think it is helpful for us to have ways of thinking about how God is at work in our lives and in the work of our lives, which is why I find this metaphor of the potter and the clay so helpful.
Often, when we talk about our work or our labor, we are referring to wage labor, to the work we do to earn a living. When we do that, we reduce our work to what we earn from it and to what those earnings allow us to consume, rather than seeing the meaning and value in the work itself, in its dignity and integrity; rather than seeing work as an expression of what it means to be human, of what it means to be created in the image of God who is always about the work of fashioning and refashioning creation. (thoughts from Dorothea Soelle, To Work and To Love)
That’s why in the church we tend to talk about vocation rather than work or labor. We speak of that to which God calls us and for which God equips us. And that makes a big difference, because the work for which we are paid in the marketplace may or may not be the thing to which God is calling us or at least not the only thing. And the amount the marketplace is willing to pay for that work is no reflection of the value God places upon that work. In the church we talk about vocation, from vocare which is rooted in the Latin word for voice. As Parker Palmer writes, “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear.” “It does not come from willfulness. It comes from listening.” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, pg. 4) In the church we believe that no matter what it is we do for a living, we are all called to live a life of discipleship, we are all called to live out our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ in every aspect of our lives…at home, at school, at work, at play, in the marketplace and the voting place, in public space and private place, in cyberspace as well as in worship place, in what we think, in what we do, in how we speak, in how we live…
And to live that life to which we are all called, in our own unique and particular ways, I think it is helpful to remember that God is like the potter and we are like the clay. That God is at work in our lives using the people and places and experiences of our lives to shape us into a useful vessel. That God uses our joys and our sorrows, our successes and our failures, our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts, our talents, our interests, our abilities, God uses it all to create unique vessels that have the capacity for empathy and compassion, for wisdom and courage, for passion and commitment, for judgment and justice, for grace and love. And when our stuff, our opinions, our plans, our expectations, our all-consuming self-absorption, is moved out of the center of our lives, a space is created that can be filled with the power and the presence and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, so that we might be used to make a difference in the lives of family and friends, classmates and colleagues, neighbors and strangers, near and far, so that we might contribute our unique part to the work of God’s kingdom.
I don’t know about you, but it seems that no matter how many years it’s been since I was in school, I still get that “back to school” feeling on Labor Day weekend – that sense of a fresh start and a new beginning. So this morning, I’m inviting you to spend some time reflecting on your own life, and on your vocation, listening for the things to which God is calling you and for which God is equipping you at this particular time in your life. Perhaps you have recently headed back to school as a student or a teacher or staff person. Perhaps you are beginning a new job, or taking on some new areas of responsibility at work. Perhaps you are unemployed or seeking a new job. Perhaps there is nothing particularly new, and your life and work are feeling a bit stale and routine. Perhaps you are finding yourself overwhelmed or anxious about the demands of your work. Perhaps you are newly retired. Perhaps you find yourself taking on new commitments in the church or in the community. Perhaps you are moving into a new phase of family life that is changing your role in relationship to loved ones. Wherever you find yourself in life on this Labor Day Weekend, I invite you to try to think about your life as being in the skilled hands of God the potter who is able to fashion and refashion you into a vessel that can make a difference in the world around you. And I invite you to allow yourself to be that clay in the potter’s hands. Not only in the coming days but every day I encourage you, as a spiritual practice, to let these words be your prayer: “Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me. Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me. Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on me.” Amen.