“Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel …” (Jeremiah 18: 6)
Entering the lab, I was panting even though I had not climbed steps or walked very far. I used the usual tactics to calm down — deep breathing, focusing my mind on something else, concentrating on an image of peace, paying attention to the gentleman sitting beside me in the waiting room.
It wasn’t working.
When my number was called out, I stood on wobbly legs and approached the chair, the arm band, making the fist …. the foot-long syringe.
Yup. I suffer from what they call ‘white-coat syndrome’. That’s the polite way of putting it. Neurotic and spineless is another. I would rather avoid any situation that involves needles or other instruments of bodily invasion being employed on me.
No matter how hard I try to control — okay, suppress — those feelings of fear, no matter how much praying, contemplating and meditating I do ….
Friends and family might press me on this: “What is the worst case scenario? What is the absolute worst thing that would happen in those institutionally-sterile situations about which I am always anxious (besides dying!)?”
Well, that I would pass out, lose control, collapse in a heap upon the cold laminate flooring of the windowless, basement lab. That I would make a fool of myself in front of others. Ah — being vulnerable to others I hardly know. Showing the very less-than-perfect side of me. Revealing that I am not always the ‘finished’ and ‘polished’ Martin. That I, too, may join the human race and literally fall and stumble.
Figuratively, as well.
We are told, as God spoke through Jeremiah to the people of Israel, that the faithful life is not about mistakes avoided, but mistakes transformed.
In some sense, the warning we get from the prophets of the Old Testament is to avoid messing up. Otherwise God will punish us.
But then, I wonder, why God would have us hear a story about a potter forming a spoiled piece of clay if the message of the bible was simply to get rid of (read, ‘deny’ or ‘avoid’) our mistakes? There’s more to the life of faith then avoiding sin out of fear of punishment.
Because the truth is, we are not Jesus, nor God for that matter. The truth is, we continue to sin even though we are saved by the cross of Jesus. So, what’s the point of a saved, redeemed life? I wonder if what God is doing here is giving Jeremiah a way to understand the paradox of life in relationship with God. God is preparing Jeremiah for what Judah and Israel were heading into … exile, loss, banishment …. and then salvation. This pattern of death and resurrection is already imprinted on the life of God’s people.
Being a hope-filled and faithful Christian is not about avoiding mistakes we will make, but about seeing those mistakes transformed into God’s purposes. In this pattern of death and resurrection we fall and we rise. We don’t just fall, and stay there, as people of Faith. We rise, too. How so?
First, it’s about a changed and changing life.
Clay in a potter’s hand is not static. It is continually being formed in rhythmic motion. Faithful living is movement, growth, transformation. It is marked by a yearning for deeper communion with God and with others in love, compassion and grace.
Second, it’s about owning your mistakes, not denying them or pretending them away in fits of self-rejection, despair, even self-hatred. The vessel which the potter used in Jeremiah’s experience started as a “spoiled” piece of clay. The beauty into which it became started out “a mistake”.
We don’t often think of the places of pain, imperfection and failure as the fodder for our salvation, do we? But it’s true.
We give God glory when we offer our whole selves to God, not the perfection of it. In all our vulnerability and weakness, God is glorified. When we have the courage to expose our weakness and confess honestly within the Body of Christ – the church – then the Spirit of God draws us to God’s purposes, God’s mission, for others most effectively.
As Christ’s body was broken in love for us — what we give thanks for in the Holy Communion — so the Spirit of Jesus shines through us as we offer our brokenness to “go in peace to serve the Lord” in the world.
Again, counter-intuitive. I think we’ve gotten so used to the un-Christian idea that the only thing worthy of giving to God and showing to the world is what we pretend to be our ‘perfect’ selves — untainted, unblemished being and acting of moral purity. Only when we’ve finally gotten rid of our sin. Only when we can prove our worthiness, achieve some moral standard, then God is glorified. Then we can belong in the church.
But this is not biblical. Stories from the bible of men (especially) with tragic flaws — despairing, backtracking, blind spots, denials, and betrayals fill the Scriptures; As Richard Rohr writes, “they are the norm” (p.360, On the Threshold of Transformation). Think about Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Moses, David, Solomon, Peter and Paul, etc., etc. And yet these overtly flawed people were used by God to convey the truth.
Truth-telling is indeed the purview of the prophet. As unpopular a role it is. I’ve heard of many churches named “Christ the King” but tell me if you’ve heard of a “Christ the Prophet” church, even though Jesus never rejected or denied, and even claimed as his dishonored position (Mark 6:4). The New Testament twice lists ‘prophet’ as the second most important role for building up the church (Ephesians 4:11; 1 Corinthians 12:28) (p.328, Rohr). A prophet tells the truth.
The Gospel text for today (Luke 14:25-33) truly takes a punch at what many Christians in North America identify with ‘family values’. A prophetic word, perhaps.
Jesus is not calling us to reject relationships characterized by compassion and grace, especially within families. But Jesus adds an essential and often sorely-missed ingredient into the mix of what we could describe as ‘Christian values’ in relationship: courage.
Courage reflects truth-telling in relationships. The root of the word, courage, is the Latin word for ‘heart’; courage originally meant: “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart” (Brene Brown, Gifts of Imperfection, p.12).
To tell one’s heart is an act of vulnerability, isn’t it? And when we make ourselves vulnerable in telling the truth, especially to those we love, we need to be prepared to reveal not only our good points, but even our flaws.
“To take up one’s cross” as Jesus instructs in this Gospel text, is to courageously embrace one’s vulnerability, and give it to God. “Spirituality in the best sense,” writes Richard Rohr, “is about what you do with your pain” (@RichardRohrOFM). Will you hide it from others, pretend that you are okay when you are not? I can’t imagine healing can happen when you close yourself off to others.
Healing doesn’t happen if we try to avoid those sources of fear, imperfection, vulnerability and shame in our lives. Only by leaning into those feelings of fear and anxiety, by courageously going to those places of brokenness with love, compassion and honesty will we begin to experience the dew drops of transformation in our lives.
Just as fear can be a contagion, a virus spread from one to another, so is courage and compassion. More so.
Even the resurrected Jesus — the victorious one — he showed the scars from his wounds he bore. Jesus didn’t hide them from his disciples. The resurrection of the crucified Jesus was God’s promise to humanity that the final word on all human ‘crucifixions’ — the crosses we bear — will also be resurrection.
I think the nurse sensed my anxiety in the basement lab, as she held my hand drawing blood from my arm. There really was no hiding my elevated everything. But there was something about the way she spoke to me and respected me that, in the end, got me through it with flying colours.
I couldn’t do it on my own, wrapped up in my own anxiety. But being in the presence of a compassionate, gracious person, however, made all the difference.
Amazing grace. Thanks be to God.