On Being the Potter AND the Clay

Accompanied by slides and a demonstration on a potter’s wheel, Al Dueck spoke to us on April 7th from Jeremiah 18:1-5 and Isaiah 64:1-2. His reflections follow.

Thirty-five years-ago while in France, Anne and I motored to Giverny south of Paris to see the gardens that Monet had created. It was the garden he painted again and again. The plots were carefully laid out for compatibility and color. Near the Seine, he constructed a pond, the pond from which we get so many of his paintings of water lilies. At the far end I spied the actual Japanese bridge. This [slide] is a photo of that bridge. This [slideis one of Monet’s renditions of that same bridge.

The photo is a picture of “reality.” That is the bridge. We expect the photo to correspond to reality and we assume there is a photographer. Not distorted by fish eye lens. The photo is well framed with a clear subject and focus. The picture seems to exude a sense of confidence and assurance.

The painting is Monet’s experience, his impression of that same bridge. It is not identical to the photo but there is an obvious resemblance.  How Monet uses light and color and shading is different than the photo.

I would like this morning to reflect on two ways of being Christian. To a certain extent they reflect the difference between these two representations: photographic and impressionistic. There is a tension in the texts between the potter and the clay and two ways of creating pottery. 

So let’s begin with the texts. There are a swirl of themes in these two texts related to making pottery and who God is. In the first text that was read the focus is on the clay. The potter starts on a project but when it does not represent what she intends, she throws away the effort and starts again. Yup that’s what making pottery is about. Trial and error. This is a good description of my experience as an amateur potter. Uncertainty, approximation, trial and error. The clay is malleable, soft in the hands of the potter. There is clay and then there is clay, there are hearts and there are hearts. Lumpy clay, defensive hearts, hard clay, numb hearts, gentle clay, obedient hearts. I sometimes give the audience either hard grey (Rod’s bod) clay or soft white clay (B-mix) to knead. The hard clay is from a dried out hunk of clay — totally unusable in its condition. Some have a white clay in their hands which is a soft, moist, fresh clay. It is my favorite clay. It is the clay I want to be as a Christian: Gentle, useful and receptive. This part of me seeks to respond simply with acceptance to the gift of God’s love, truth, life and hope through acts of obedience, of receiving, of imitating. My mother’s faith.

Another theme focuses not on the clay but on the imaginative Potter whose character is revealed in creation. The text moves from the potter and his work with the clay to God as potter and we are the clay. My experience of the instructor who cut my cylinder piece in half. Jeremiah reminds us of the word of the LORD “O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter does? Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.” But what is created is new and different and unique. When YHWH is the potter, a new heaven and earth emerge, a new people. In this new world, infants will not die after a few hours, nor will grandfathers fail to live out their days. People will build houses and live in them. They will enjoy the work of their hands. I do not think that to imitate our creator God is akin to Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity.   I do not think it is hubris to want to be a creator. I am made in the image of a creative God.  I think we are all invited to be potters — or at least playful.  This I learned from my father whom I never met and only heard about how he spun serial stories for his sibs, night after night or when in Canada played violin at hoedowns.

Some 30 years ago, a member of our congregation offered to teach anyone who was interested how to throw pots and we would then sell them at the MCC Relief Sale. I turned to Anne and said I’m going to do it.

There are at least two kinds of clay work — mold shaped and free thrown.


  • this [example] is a mold for a simple cup.
  • after I pour the liquid clay into the mold,
  • I wait thirty minutes and
  • pour out the clay that has not hardened. 
  • The dry mold absorbs the water in the liquid clay and a thick skin forms on the inside of the mold.
  • I wait and hour or so and crack the mold
  • When the cup is bone dry I put in the kiln and heat it 2000 deg
  • Then I dip the cup in a liquid glaze and fire it again.
  • there is a part of me that enjoys the predictability and efficiency
  • the work is done by the mold

Simple isn’t it. So simple some of my potter friends think it is kitch, cheesy, brainless.

This is for me one model of Christian character. 

  • This model is disciplined, orderly, predictable, recognizable as Christian
  • This model focuses on our relationship to God in terms of imitation
  • The mantra is: “Just do it.” You may not feel like loving your enemies. Just do it.
  • Jesus is the example.

Jesus’ desire was that not his will but the Father’s will be done. Jesus’ life reflected the father’s character. As the icon of God, Jesus is our clearest photo of God.

What I learned about this kind of Christianity I learned from my mother. Education – 8th grade. Hers was a difficult life and she learned to depend on God, born in the Ukraine during the Bolshevik revolution, a fatherless child by the age of nine and a widow after two years of marriage. She clearly saw herself as a child of God and as such assumed that her life was to reflect that of her heavenly father. Her faith was simple. She knew what needed to be done and simply did it. She was obedient and she expected the same from me.

  • the talk is of faithful discipleship, doing the will of the father
  • radical obedience to the gospel, clear convictions,
  • loving enemies does not make sense and is often dangerous


  • I begin by preparing the clay – wedging
  • Then I throw the lump on the bat
  • Slowly I shape the wet clay into a mound that is completely centered
  • I had the darndest time centering the clay on the wheel but oh the feeling when the clay is spinning at high speed and it isnt wobbling. 
  • This must be what T.S. Eliot meant by the still point of the turning world this is a pot shaped from clay on a spinning wheel
  • Then I build a cylinder carefully
  • Then comes the point that is most unpredictable
  • usually no shapes are repeated
  • At first all my bowls turned out to be ashtrays, or more pc in our circles, candy dishes.
  • When I begin a piece, I really don’t know what it will become.

Here I experience God differently.  Here obedience is not the focus, imagination is.

Now the encouragement of Jesus is not to focus on the concrete, the literal.  Nicodemus’ sin is lack of imagination. Asked to think of rebirth, the modern Nicodemus can only think of amniotic fluid and cramped quarters. He could only imagine being born again as bodily but Jesus insisted he needed to learn to imagine from the perspective of the Spirit rather than the flesh.  Transformation from above is of the Spirit and as every artist knows, one does not know where it blows.

This part of me was not shaped by my mother. No Picassos hung in our home. But, my father played violin in his adolescence. Actually he played fiddle at hoedowns, much to the consternation of his mother.

After he drowned, it was his youngest brother who became my surrogate father, Uncle Abe. He helped me write my first essay in the ninth grade. Uncle Abe built his own house. Uncle Abe was building computers in his basement long before Steve Jobs was building them in his garage. Uncle Abe was a free spirit. He was the only child to move to the US while the rest of the family stayed in Canada.

I am fascinated with creative unpredictable therapists such as Milton Erickson; people who create intricate plots — novelists like Susan Howatch, Frederick Buechner; Madeleine L’Engle; people who craft sentences in new ways — poets like T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson; the business man Max Dupre who thinks doing business is like jazz.

Year after year, at Christmas we celebrate a creative God, the one who makes visible what is invisible, the birth of Jesus, the son of God.  

Many an artist takes encouragement from the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.  Throwing clay on the wheel, I am imitating the creator.

If you and I are created by a creative God, is this not a Godly activity?

I do not think God gives us first a multiple choice test when we continue to go forth to name the animals in the garden. As God’s cocreators we are free to name the animals ourselves.

I wrestle in my soul with the difference between these two ways of being Christian. I hear this conflict played out in seminaries, congregations and counseling sessions. Indeed each has their shadow side.

The artistic Christian looks over at the disciplined Christian and says:

  • Your discipline feels rigid, your convictions dogmatic
  • The danger is that like clay you will become so passive;  
  • You sing: “He is the potter and I am the clay. Mold me and make me…
  • You assume to follow God’s will you need only go through doors that God opens and closes. Maybe God wants you to design, build and then to walk through the doors yourselves.
  • You are so literal. My mother did believe in a six day, 24 hour version of the creation story.
  • This a song that must be sung; but some should sing it more than others.  Perhaps more so by men than women. 
  • Obedience is an important metaphor for understanding our relationship to the potter but not the only metaphor
  • There are those who think that we learn our theology as a set of propositions to be learned and then taught in the churches and it should as Timothy was to learn from Eunice and Lois.
  • You assume that using Christian language is the test of orthodoxy. Jesus warns us that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom.
  • Being a Christian means exegeting again in each generation and theologizing as a creative process that every generation must do again.

Do I sound defensive? I should. Artists generally did not flourish in your churches. Artists are step children in our congregations.

The mold making Christian looks over at the artistic Christian and says:

  • Let’s start with this picture. It is out of focus.
  • Like your theology, it is “fuzzy” Don’t you think anything is CERTAIN?
  • You think there are theological themes in art, so why can’t I see them
  • To do free thrown work on the wheel, I do not create de novo.
  • For starters, did you create the clay
  • creativity needs a container
  • to recognize what is creative you still need a tradition
  • to be moved by a poem, you will need an accessible vocabulary which we taught in grammar school
  • And lastly, your creativity is based on discipline and skill.  How long did it take you to learn how to center the clay, to build a cylinder, to flare those walls?)

There is a tradition of pottery shapes that precede me. I have been making bowls recently — obsessively. This has a long symbolic history, whether in the ancient Chinese Tao, or the search for the Holy Grail. Often it reflects the openness of the potter to that which comes down from above.

Both are useful in the church. But they do not coexist well in the church. We need to encourage both. Both can be creative and disciplined.

God give us therapists who can be both scientists and artists, technically skilled and creative, who listen to the client and the Spirit of God.

God grant us theologians who love the Word of God and embrace human experience, who seek the meaning and explore many meanings, who write commentaries and sculpt figures.

God grant us missiologists who work hard to understand a culture and at the same time fly by the seat of their pants, who take risks in cross-cultural conversations.

God grant us teachers who provide a gentle structure within which to nurture creativity.

God grant us parents who know structure is as important as play, rules as important as imagination, order a gift as is chaos.

May the prophets and mystics live side by side, the computer technician be married to the fine arts teacher, the theologian a companion of the pianist.

In the end whatever is made with a mold or wheel is tested. They all are fired in the same kiln. It is as if by their fruits you shall know them. Tested by fire. It is a moment of glory.

I remember firing my first kiln of pots. I was anxious. I delayed firing the pots that were all ready. Would the pots crack, would the glaze slide off the pot, would the whole thing explode. I could not sleep. I would get up at night and peer into the molten mass to discern what was happening. Some 36 hours later after the kiln had cooled, I took out my small version of a new heaven and earth.

Some weeks later I penned these words.

For weeks the pots have slept

            on their shelf waiting.

Russet, cream, and pink may awaken as

            Cappochino, Castille blue and Chun red.

Still dazed I sit at my bed’s edge;

            the pots bisqued and ready for weeks.

Then finally while that first full kiln

            layered with vases burns,

            I lie sleepless fearful of a fiery holocaust.

During the night I hover over the molten clay and glaze

            trembling and waiting.

The kiln hardly cold, I glimpse below the lid;

            an array of colors assault me,

Each glass skinned pot gleaming its

            iridescence and transcendence.

Each pure and unpredicted hue sears my retina

            my viscera, my soul.

But this terrifying ecstasy

            knows only the backside of divinity.

When I glaze I cannot sleep.

Photo by Quino Al from Unsplash

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Pasadena Mennonite Church
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