“Yet you Lord are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.” Isaiah 64:8 Am I the potter or the clay? I recently concluded a six-week pottery class. To be honest, I was not a good student. I skipped two classes, and I think I was not very patient in the other four. This kind of surprised me. I wanted to be a potter. I like shaping things out of nothing. I like controlling the creative process. Perhaps what I didn’t like was the reality that in pottery, while the clay is submissive to the potter, the potter must be somewhat submissive to the clay. Perhaps I had trouble being submissive. I am afraid it is not just in my pottery class. More times than not, I want to be the potter of my life and not the clay. But clearly, when I do the shaping instead of God, well, it does not end up a beautiful piece of art. Isaiah’s analogy of the potter and the clay is most assuredly appropriate. Yesterday and today. Whichever role I play (the potter or the clay), will make the difference in the outcome of my life. Today. Tomorrow. Eternally. To shape clay on a potter’s wheel, the clay has to be in the right form. It must possess the right ingredients. It is the balance of earth and water. Too much of one makes it difficult, if not impossible, to shape to its best design. I need the right ingredients in my own life. I think those three ingredients are scripture, prayer, and worship. If I fill my life with a balance of all three, I am ready for the next step, the kneading. It is the kneading of the clay that removes the air pockets and the grit that might linger in the clay. These are the impurities that can cause a vessel to explode in the firing process. It is critical that the clay be properly kneaded. It is the hard pushing and smashing of the clay that removes the impurities. I am like the clay. I need to be kneaded by God. I need those impurities pushed and smashed out of me. Kneading hurts. It hurts me, but I also think it hurts God. But it is necessary. It is the first state of being submissive to the potter’s hands. Centering is the next stage. The clay must be centered on the potter’s wheel. If the clay is not centered, the shaping while turning will result in a mess. It is about balance. I must be in a Christ-centered state to allow God to shape me. The next stage is the shaping stage. It is the throwing of the pot, the shaping of the clay, as it revolves around the center. I must revolve around the Center. Only then can the potter’s touch, the touch of delicate pressure, shape me to be His creation, the creation He designed me to be before time. The last step is the firing. Only when the clay is the right balance of ingredients, only when it is kneaded of impurities, only when it has been centered, and only when the Creator has shaped it to His satisfaction, is it then ready to be placed in the fire. The fire makes it strong. The fire brings out the radiance and brilliance of color, but it also brings out its strength. The right steps leading up to the firing, make the clay withstand the fire. Withstanding the fire brings it into its true beauty. We are all vessels. And at times we are all brittle, breakable, and even broken vessels. Even after an artist goes through all the steps, sometimes it just doesn’t turn out exactly as planned. The artist keeps going. The artist keeps shaping. We are the vessels. And as Paul tells us in ll Corinthians 4, we are indeed jars of clay. We are just ordinary earthen vessels, common, brittle, breakable vessels. But it is inside these common, everyday, breakable earthen vessels that the God of the universe has placed the Treasure of the universe. The Christ treasure lives within us. And with the Treasure inside we may crack, but we won’t break. We may leak, but we won’t empty. We may chip, but we won’t be thrown away. Most importantly, with the Treasure inside us, we are created as His vessels to pour that Treasure out onto others. I may want to be the potter in my life from time to time. I may want to keep insisting that I don’t want to be submissive to the Potter’s hands and that I don’t want to be the clay. But the truth is still eternal. I am not the potter. I am the clay. I am a lump of clay. My prayer is that I will submit to the Potter’s hands to shape me into the vessel He desires to create, not into the vessel I might think I can create. After all, I only lasted four weeks in a beginner’s pottery class. My track record as a potter is not that impressive.
Spirit of the Living God, shape me, mold me, fill me, use me.
I knocked on the door of the convent with great anticipation. It was the winter of 2008, and I was undergoing cancer treatment for 3 months in a community outside of Los Angeles. I was far from home, and I was alone, and for this day I had planned a day of quiet reflection and meditation at a small convent in the middle of Hollywood, California. The convent sat on 8 acres above the noisy neighborhood of contrasting virtues. This day was a cold day, even for a Southern California winter. But it was also a sunny day, and so I felt that it would somehow be a special day. Sister Catherine Rose opened the door to greet me. I had called before, so she was expecting me, and as I saw her face peeking through the open door, I was immediately drawn to the unspoken peace of her spirit. On this day, the convent was closed with the exception of the chapel and the gardens, but she had encouraged me to come and visit anyway, as it was the only day that I had a break in my daily cancer treatments. We talked about my journey, and she shared with me her journey, and then as new acquaintances sometimes do, we talked about the weather. “It’s a cold day to meditate in the garden,” I joked. She simply smiled and quietly replied, “Just follow the sun. You will find the warmth you need.” Sister Catherine Rose was right. She was right about that cold Southern California day, as I moved from one sunny spot in the garden to another sunny spot, but she was also right about every day. To feel the warmth, I must stay in the light. To stay in the light, I must follow the Light. I must face the Light. It is turning always in the direction the Light that, as Paul says in ll Corinthians 3, “…the veil is taken away.” This is what I have come to call the Christ orbit. As the light of the sun gives us visual truth, the order to see things clearly, and life-giving energy, the Light of Christ gives us spiritual truth and divine clarity and eternal life. But as the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa, I must revolve around Christ and not vice versa.
Too many times in my life I find myself not in the Christ orbit, but in the “me” orbit. I am at the center seeking the Light as one who periodically opens the blinds in the morning and then closes them at night. Oftentimes, I find myself not held in place by the gravitational pull of the Son, but by the gravitational pull of the world. Oftentimes, I even break out of the world orbit and plummet like a blazing meteor reeking havoc in my path. The Divine invites me back, however. Unlike the meteor that destroys itself in its plummet, I am invited back into the Christ orbit every day. Every day, every minute, every second, I am invited back. It is the Divine orbit. The Dance. The Radiance. And so I try to do as Sister Catherine Rose suggested on that cold Southern California day in 2008. Some days are better than others, but this I know, when I follow the divine plan and orbit the Son, the Light in my life always overcomes the darkness.
It has been close to nine months now since I last contributed to this blog. I mentioned in January that I needed time off to have knee surgery, to heal and rebuild, and to just back off a bit from some weekly commitments. Truth be told, it was not physical rebuilding I needed most, but more of spiritual rebuilding, I think. I felt that I had fallen somewhat deeper into the busyness of life. I wanted to find my way deeper into the Center of life. I wanted to spend less time juggling and more time abiding. The last nine months have not gone exactly as planned. I set out to be like Mary, abiding at the foot of Christ, attentive to His voice, sensitive to His touch. I am afraid I have been more like Martha, not far from the foot of Christ, but so busy juggling and distracted to really hear His voice in the way I deeply desired. Intent as I was to be there, I found, as I often do, I was allured by busyness. Quickly, within even weeks, I was captivated by my quests, my dreams, my fears, my anxieties, my do-lists, and even by the things I truly feel God was calling me to do. That is the thing about busyness. It discriminates not against the secular or the sacred. A great deal of my activity has been for God, but even working for God can disconnect us from God. Thomas Merton talks about the sin of over-activity. He even asks for forgiveness for his sin of over-activity, because the reality is that over-activity and busyness, born out of a desire to serve self or to serve God, are one in the same. They both cut us off from the joyful act of abiding. A life of busyness and over-activity impede our inner capacity for The Peace that is beyond all understanding. Busyness and over-activity pull us away from the foot of Christ, from hearing His voice and feeling His touch. Tim Keller states, “The prince of darkness is creating busyness.” I believe this. I have felt this. Anything that takes my thoughts, my heart, my soul, my peace, from the lowly, humble Christ, the loving Center, must be dark. A focus away from the Light can only come from darkness and only lead to darkness. And it can happen in a moment, the busyness of thoughts about health and the future and the emails and the presentations and the blogs to write and the myriad of life’s commitments. But that is the thing. There must be only one real commitment. It is not juggling. It is abiding. It matters not whether it is in the name of business, or family, or health, or in the name of God, if I spend time pulled away from abiding in the Eternal Now, I am, as Thomas Merton says, “…killing the root of inner wisdom, which makes work fruitful.”
I am trying to put the juggling balls back in the bag now. I pray it bears richer fruit.
Please note. We are resuming the Sustain noonday service beginning this Thursday, September 10. The service will always be on Thursday promptly at noon in the Chapel of South Highland Presbyterian Church. A short 30 minutes of prayer, music, and meditation. Now we are offering a light lunch following the service. Come and abide.
“And Mary said: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.’”
One of my favorite Christmas presents growing up was a microscope set. I remember spending all day long looking for small dead bugs to examine their legs and wings. Magnifying something that was so small and seeing it so large was fascinating to me. It was not until I saw what my best friend got for Christmas that my outlook changed. He had received a telescope. It was not big, but on the cold nights ahead, we spent hours looking into the night skies for distant stars and planets. Things that were so large and so massive and so significant were no longer mere specks in the sky. My microscope magnified something so small. My friend’s telescope magnified something so large.
Upon hearing the news of her purpose from the angel, and recognizing that she was to fulfill that purpose, Mary’s soul became alive in the magnification of God. The Apostle Paul tells us that in all things we are to magnify God. It is the chief end of man. But God does not need our magnification of Him. We need our magnification of Him. The world needs our magnification of Him. As Mary sings in her Magnificat, “My spirit has rejoiced…” Her life song was a song of magnifying her Lord. Her life rejoiced. So many times I magnify things that are insignificant in life. I magnify my persona. I magnify my profession. I magnify my creativity. I magnify my success. The sad truth is that I spend time magnifying myself. I look closely at my problems only to see upon close examination that they are truly insignificant in comparison to those who experience much more significant challenges. I spend most of my life as a microscope. Most of the time I am seeking my own significance. I am looking in the wrong direction with the wrong motive. It is when I look upward that I seem to come alive. I want to be a telescope. I want for my life to magnify to the world that which many think may be so small and so far away, is in truth, a love so immense, so deep, so infinite, and not far away from us, but within us. We have all been created to sing our own Magnificat. The world desperately needs for us to sing it. We are all vessels, created to magnify God’s love to the world. Therein lies our rejoicing. Therein lies our significance.
The railroad tracks were wider in this area of town. The nights were darker. The cold was colder. It seemed that way to me. It was December sometime in the early 1960s. My brothers and I were riding with my mother into the so-called “bottom” of the small town where we lived. My mother hated that word. We were never allowed to use it even though everyone else in the town did. She said it was a horrible label to slap on the face of a place where people lived. My mother ran the Head Start program in the same neighborhood, so she was very aware of what labels could do to the self-esteem of young children. On this cold, dark December night, we drove deeper into the neighborhood. We were doing what we always did at this time of year. We were delivering gifts and food to families who were truly in despair. Tonight we were to go to Mr. Green’s house. It was hard to call Mr. Green’s house a house. It was more of a shed. The windows were boarded up so the night around his house seemed extra dark. The only sound was the sound of a dog barking in the distance. My brothers and I were scared. My mother was not. She turned off the car and told us to grab the boxes of food and clothing, and we walked up to the concrete block doorsteps and knocked on the door. There was a sound coming from the inside, which sounded like a chair being pulled along the floor. It became louder the closer it got to the door, and then it stopped, only to be followed by the sound of locks being slowly opened. And then the door opened. There stood Mr. Green. When his eyes met my mother, his faced glowed with a brilliance that I have rarely seen on another face since that night. “I’ve been waiting on you Miss Slaughter,” Mr. Green softly whispered. “I knew you would come.” Mr. Green had one chair and one small table and one mattress that sat on the floor. The house had no electricity and no running water. A small fire flickered in the fireplace, but the room seemed to glow with a warmth much greater than what a tiny fireplace could produce. My mother sat and held Mr. Green’s hands and just smiled. Very few words were spoken. We didn’t stay long, and as we walked out the door, Mr. Green, still glowing from the fire dancing off his face, held my mother’s hand and said, “Miss Slaughter, you are my angel.” My mother held his hand even tighter and looked at him and kissed him on the check and said, “No, Mr. Green, it is you who are my angel.”
I believe there hasn’t been an Advent since then that I don’t think about Mr. Green. We are all like Mr. Green. We are all cold and lonely and broken and hurting, and we are all waiting. We are all waiting for a little baby to come down into our brokenness and make us whole. We are all waiting for a little baby child to come into our empty, cold room and warm us. But until that little baby comes again, until God decides to send Him back, well, God sends us. God sends us into the brokenness of each other. Until that time comes again, we are to keep the fires burning. We are to keep the light shining in the cold, dark world in which we all live. Christ prays to God about this Himself. “As You have sent Me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” John 17:18. Advent means we are still waiting for Christ to return, but it also means that until that time comes, He is sending us. He is sending us to share the good news of His love. He is sending us to Mr. Green’s house, and He is sending us to the Amazon, and He is sending us to our coworkers, and He is sending us to the lady at the checkout counter. The world is waiting for the love of Christ. “Whom shall I send?” God asks. The Advent response must be, “Send me!” About 50 years ago, an old man waited on a cold December night for the warmth of a little baby. God sent my mother in His stead.
More times than not, we tend to forget how much joy comes from a true spirit of thankfulness. It is like sowing seeds in rich soil that bear such life-sustaining fruit. But being thankful can become perfunctory. Or shallow. Like seeds tossed upon barren soil. It is expected. It’s the way we are supposed to feel, so therefore we say, “I’m thankful.” True thankfulness, a total surrender to the emotions of overwhelming gratefulness, is something different. It takes more time. And practice. And toil. And perseverance. And patience. But when experienced, authentic thankfulness indeed is like a seed, dying in a way, yet coming alive and digging its root deep into fertile soil. The fruit…joy? Yes. But also peace and contentment. True, authentic thankfulness throughout every day, truly feeling the blessings of life, is like a silo or a grain bin filled to the brim. It indeed does sustain life in the barren seasons. This joy, this peace. The barren seasons do come. The droughts of our life, the famines, the storms that want to rob us of that joy. Rob us of that peace. Sometimes life is picking fruit, and sometimes life is plowing in the hot sun. But true thankfulness sustains us. Thankfulness is God’s gift to us. We just have to plant the seed. Nurture the seed. Then God enables us to bask in the beautiful autumn sun and enjoy the fruit. His joy.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
It’s cold! When it gets cold like this I can’t help but start thinking about Christmas. Now, I’m not one of those people who are already listening to Christmas music, and I wouldn’t dare put lights on my house yet, but I am already thinking about Advent. It is the time of year the has the most impact in my life. This week I keep thinking about the wise men; those guys from a far off land that brought gifts of frankincense, gold, and myrrh to Jesus. They saw a sign in the sky that they knew marked the birth of the great king so they brought gifts just right for a king.
When we hear about Jesus and come to find out more about him we all bring things with us. I think it is reasonable to wonder, “What gift can I bring Jesus?” Well Jesus himself has told us what he would have us bring. He wants us to bring him the thing that we have built that we think makes us special. He wants us to bring it to him so he can get rid of it. Jesus said this to almost everyone that came to him asking how they could have the life he offered. He once struck up a conversation with a lady from Samaria. Using a metaphor for eternal life, he offered to give her living water that she could drink and never be thirsty again. She said, “Give it to me!” Jesus responded, “Bring me your husband.” What a weird thing to say! But Jesus knew that this woman was living her life going from one relationship to another seeking happiness. She believed with all her heart that if she just found the right relationship she would be satisfied, she would be happy, she would have value. She had placed all of herself in this. Jesus essentially says to her, “If you want me, you have to bring me this sin.”
He deserves gifts for a king, but what we bring to Jesus for salvation must be empty hands. He will not have us if our value is wrapped up in something besides him. We cannot bring our ash with us. And this is for our own good. It is because of his great love for us that he prevents us bringing anything. No good work, no wealth, no family heritage, no false identities. We must come to him admitting we have nothing to offer. If we cannot let go of what we have made of ourselves we can never become what he longs to make us into.
Birmingham Community Church