The Clay Talks Back

By Elizabeth Palmberg 08-25-2010

"You are the Potter, I am the clay." I grew up singing that in youth group at church -- but never with very much enthusiasm. Even for a cradle Presbyterian, it just seemed to go too far in denying not just my desire to have free will, but my lived experience of (at least sometimes) having it. The whole potter metaphor just seemed like a belated takeback of the spirit of life God breathed into humanity back in the Garden -- leaving just the inert clay.

But recently I read Jeremiah 18 (which is a lectionary reading for many Protestant churches next Sunday) again and realized that, actually, the clay is anything but inert. In fact, it's able to thwart God's explicit plans, and change God's mind. God tells Jeremiah to go watch a potter at work:

The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: "Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done?" says the Lord. "Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it. And at another moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, but if it does evil in my sight, not listening to my voice, then I will change my mind about the good that I had intended to do to it."

The entire point is that, although the potter is in charge, the clay gets to talk back -- in fact, it has a strong voice in the outcome. Isaiah (chapter 45) asks rhetorically, "Does the clay say to the one who fashions it, 'What are you making?' or 'Your work has no handles'?" Apparently, according to Jeremiah 18, the answer is: yes. Yes, this happens all the time.

Perhaps if more of us actually worked with clay, we would not make the mistake of assuming that clay has no say. Certainly, when I recall the few times I have tried to make ceramics, I was vividly aware that I was in conversation with, rather than dictating to, the raw material. Maybe that's why God told Jeremiah to go watch a potter, live and in person, before using the metaphor.

If we think about it, we also know that when we make something, if we allow the work of our hands to become an idol -- whether it is made of clay, microchips, real estate, predator drones, mortgage-backed securities, or even a large email list with which we try to do good

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