Stay on the Wheel

Stay on the Wheel
By Rev. Leslie Copeland-Tune
Jeremiah 18:1-11

I wrote this reflection in 2010. I decided to share it today, At the Altar, as I remember that God is not through with me yet. I hope it will be a blessing to all those who read it.

I recently had the occasion to think about how a potter takes a piece of clay and turns it into a masterpiece. A friend of mine is an artist/preacher/theologian/writer/administrator and having gotten caught up in the life of being a preacher, she recently rediscovered her love for art—of turning nothing into something; of taking something with little or no value and transforming it into something spectacular.

After visiting a studio that opens its doors to budding artists, she was able to acquire some of the clay that is given away on certain days of the week. A few short hours later she had turned the clay into a beautiful piece of art. A week or so later, she had the opportunity to display her artwork as well as some other items at the altar of her church as a visual representation of this text in Jeremiah 18. The awesome thing about the items she displayed was that some of the items were unfinished, some were cracked, and some were complete, without flaws, ready for use and pleasing to the eye. Some were masterpieces—her masterpieces. Perhaps not under the scrutiny of the critical eye of an art appraiser but to the eyes of friends and co-laborers, awed by a gifted preacher/theologian/writer/administrator, who God also saw fit to make a gifted artist, they were indeed masterpieces.

The thing about making beautiful pottery out of a ball of clay is that it is a laborious effort for the potter and probably no picnic for the clay. I mean, if we were able to talk to the clay, I wonder what the clay would say about how it feels to be molded into a work of art. Initially, the clay in and of itself is dull and without much usefulness. It is, after all, a lump of clay. The clay must be shaped and molded. The clay must be manipulated and marred, poked and prodded so that all of the imperfections are worked out of it. The clay must be put on the potter’s wheel, where, in the hands of the potter, the air bubbles that cause cracks and the excess clay that lacks definition are removed; leaving only what is necessary and good to turn the lump of clay into a work of art.

And, finally, in order to be perfected, the clay must be set on fire. If it is to be a masterpiece, whatever imperfection was missed while the clay was on the wheel is removed during the refiner’s fire. Ouch!

I remember watching this process unfold. One year at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches and Church World Service, a potter was on hand during the entire three-day meeting. Through reports, Bible studies, worship services and businesspottery2 meetings, the potter worked with lumps of clay and transformed them, before our very eyes, into masterpieces. The Late Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, who was installed at that meeting as the NCC President, made this observation (and I am paraphrasing): as the clay was on the wheel, the potter sometimes had to stretch her hand on the inside and dig deep down into the clay to get out the impurities and imperfections, sometimes putting big lumps of clay to the side that had no usefulness.

But at the end of the process, the useless clay had been transformed into something that had value and worth. You see at the end of the General Assembly, we were allowed to buy the various ceramics that the potter made during the meeting.

Jeremiah was instructed by God to go down to the potter’s house to watch as clay was transformed into a work of art. Verse 4 says, “And the vessel that he made of clay was marred in the hand of the potter; so he made it again into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to make.” There was a process that the marred clay had to endure in order to be transformed into a vessel that could be used. This reminds me so profoundly of how we, as Christians, are transformed into the image and likeness of Christ. Marred vessels that God, The Potter, sees fit to make over again into a new creation. Can’t you hear Paul, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels…we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us”? (2 Corinthians 4:7)

The magnificent thing about this process is that each lump of clay is different…and, consequently, each vessel is unique. It is up to the Potter, not to us, how each lump of clay will be transformed into a valuable vessel. But the clay doesn’t have any idea how long the process will take for it to go from its lumpy state, to that of a vessel with honor, beauty and worth. I submit to you that as earthen vessels, the process is never quite complete on this side of glory. That’s why we have to stay on the wheel. No matter how deep the Potter has to dig. No matter how uncomfortable for us. No matter how difficult life’s circumstances may be, stay on the wheel. Whatever process we are going through as individuals to become a part of God’s great collection of masterpieces, I want to encourage us today to stay on the wheel. Stay on the wheel until your process is complete. Stay on the wheel.

“O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter?” says the Lord. “Look, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand…” (v.6)


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