The potter walks along the creek bank, and then climbs the narrow path into the surrounding hills. He is searching for clay. It is buried along riverbanks, hidden by dense undergrowth. The potter hikes far from home, climbs into the hills, searches through forgotten pathways. Deep into the wilderness. As a miner looking for jewels. As a shepherd searching for his lost sheep. As a loving God calling for his children.
Before the clay can be formed into a pot, it must be centered, so that every part of it lines up with the very heart of the wheel. The unruly clay wobbles at first, heading off in all directions. The potter adds water and presses his hands against the sides of the clay as it spins, pushing the clay closer to the wheel head, smoothing uneven places, and pressing bumpy edges. Finally, under the firm and gentle guidance of the potter, the clay begins to center. It is a process that requires much time, trust, and patience. But by the end, the clay will be smooth, solid, and perfectly aligned—on its way to becoming a true work of art.
The clay sits on the wheel, smooth, round, and perfectly centered. But there is a problem. The lump is solid through and through. There is no opening that will turn the heavy lump of clay into a bowl, a cup, or a vase. At this point in the process, there is too much in the way, and it is of no use at all. So the wheel spins and the potter gets to work, resting his left hand lightly on the outside of the clay, using his right hand to press into the top of the clay. He moves the extra clay aside; he opens up an empty space. As the clay is opened up, new room is made available to hold good things.
This is the moment of truth, the moment the potter has been waiting for. Every step before this one is preparation; every step after is finishing work. In shaping a pot, the potter puts one hand on the inside of the pot and one hand on the outside, squeezing the clay in-between, moving from the bottom to the top. The clay is stretched, thinned, and directed between the potter’s hands. As each person is shaped according to God’s plan, so each pot is shaped according to the potter’s will. One day he makes coffee mugs and mixing bowls for the kitchen. Another day he crafts a slender vase for the living room. But whether he is creating a pot because there is a need for something to function in the household, a need for beauty somewhere in the world, or a need to express the joy of creativity, he makes each pot as he sees fit.
As the potter is working, something goes wrong. The clay was perfectly formed just a minute ago. But suddenly, it wobbles, warps, and tumbles over. What would cause a pot to collapse like that? Sometimes, if the clay has been pulled and stretched too much, water seeps in between the flat plates that make up the clay and weakens its structure. It's called "clay fatigue." And it may seem like a disaster. But the potter is never daunted. There is always something he can do. He scoops up the clay, takes it over to the wedging table, and begins again, pressing and turning, eliminating pockets of air, softening dry places, returning strength and integrity to the entire lump of clay. Then the potter attaches it to the wheel head, sets the wheel spinning, and simply starts the process all over again.
The potter picks the greenware pot off the shelf and stacks it in the kiln. There have been many difficult times of cleaning, wedging, stretching, and drying. But now comes the very worst of it: the pot is flung into the blazing furnace. Hot. Very hot. Impossibly hot. The kiln heats the pot to about a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. The fire is hot, and the fire is dangerous. But after it is fired, the pot is smaller, lighter, and much, much stronger. The firing process heats the clay so hot that a permanent change takes place; it will no longer dissolve in water. The process isn’t easy or comfortable, but the clay pot is not good for anything until it is transformed by fire.
Now that it’s been fired, the pot is very, very strong. But can anything be done if it gets broken? It has been permanently, unalterably, forever changed. Time has passed. And trials. It is rigid now. Strong. Hard. Water can’t touch it. It won’t dissolve. But a small chip, crack, or break can still be mended. It is not too late to redeem it. The potter gathers up the bits, dusts them off, reattaches them, and smooths them over. He uses a very strong bonding material—so strong, in fact, that the bonded place becomes stronger than the pot itself. If the pot is subjected to stress again, it will not break in the place that has been repaired. It becomes strongest in the broken places.
For the clay pot, the second time through the kiln is the step that brings out its full beauty. The potter brushes on a glaze, a thick suspension of chemicals that is basically tiny, tiny, tiny bits of glass. As the temperature rises, these bits melt and fuse together, covering the pot in bright color. The first time through the fire brings out the strength of the pot. The second time brings out its true beauty. It takes courage, lots of courage, to go back a second time, to return to a place of pain and challenge. But sometimes that is exactly what we are called to do. Go back. And do it again.
There it sits, bright and beautiful, on the dining room table holding fresh flowers, or in the china cabinet waiting for a company meal. The pot is finished. But what would happen if this beautiful finished pot were dropped? Even at this point in the process, the potter can still make things right. Undaunted, he prepares a clean, smooth surface and arranges the shards of the shattered pot in a pattern, gluing each piece into place and working grout in between the cracks. From broken shards he creates another thing of beauty—a mosaic. Broken tea cups, dinner plates, soup bowls, vases—all can take part in the miracle of redemption, joining old scraps together to create something of beauty and great worth. There is no raw material, no accident, no broken pieces, that the potter can’t redeem. Because no matter what, he is never, ever daunted.