Once and a while a song outside my normal music genre resonates with something inside. Lately it’s been Mandisa’s hit, “Overcomer.” The lyrics speak of rising above life’s hard places, not because of our own strength but because we’re sustained by God’s hand. The message is perseverance, faithfulness, and gutsy determination to cling to the Father no matter what. The first time I heard the song I thought of this week’s guest blogger, Keri Altland. I’ve only known Keri for a few years, but in that time she’s walked through some dark, desperate valleys. I’ve watched her faith strain, stretch, and grow in ways that only suffering can accomplish. Keri is an overcomer because she holds tight to the ultimate Overcomer. Her persistent pursuit of God’s guidance, strength, and glory inspires me. Today’s post is a beautiful, insightful glimpse into a heart that knows the heat and pressure of trial by fire, and also the loving touch of the Potter’s hand.
Nothing So Broken: Being the Clay
Guest post by Keri Altland
But now, Oh Lord, You are our Father,
We are the clay, and You are our potter;
And all of us are the work of Your hand.
As often happens for me, God whispers to my soul in the form of pictures and metaphor. This time is no different. I was contemplating the words “broken and redeemed” and for whatever reason pottery came to mind.
Yeah. Ok. Pottery is beautiful. My mom is a potter. She makes beautiful things. I love her artistic eye and talent.
Adorable animal-themed cereal bowls my mom (Patti Seachrist) designed and created.
But, God, why would you plant that little seed in my mind? What does pottery have to do with being broken and redeemed?
Looking back over the last several years (decade!) of my life, I am sometimes amazed at what I have come through. It has not been an easy road. I am not saying I have had a bad life. In fact, I love my life. I have an amazing husband who loves me just the way I am. I have the most supportive family and friends. I have three beautiful children who are each a very special miracle. I am a blessed woman, and I know it.
But there have been trials of fire. Years of infertility. Years spent waiting in silence. Years with no answers at all. A failed adoption followed by more dead ends and dashed hopes. Finally bringing a child home and being slammed with an incredibly difficult transition. Wading through the deep, murky swamp of clinical depression and anxiety (I am still navigating this dark space, and many days I still feel very broken). Waiting months and months and months for our son to become unstuck from a tangle of nightmare paperwork so that he could join us. Being stretched to learn to love in ways that often seem simply impossible.
These trials are not as horrible as some face. In many ways, I sometimes feel that I make much ado about nothing. But life can be and IS hard. And hard is hard. Pain is pain. Most of us, if not all, will face things that leave us bloody and bruised. Things that leave us questioning all we thought was truth. Things that challenge the very core of who we thought we were.
Enter the pottery metaphor. Since my brain processes things in pictures, I thought I would illustrate with some photos.
This is what I feel like on many, many days.
A big, shapeless blob of ugly, gray dirt. Useless in and of itself.
Then, the Potter gets ahold of me.
He pushes and pulls. Squeezes and squishes. Turns and tumbles. All in an effort to soften the clay so that it is ready for what is coming next.
The wheel. It makes beautiful things. But it’s no carnival ride for the clay. It spins at dizzying speeds. The Potter must put pressure on it to make it take shape. A lot of pressure. Pressure from all sides. This must be done so that the clay is centered and balanced. If the clay has not been moved to the center and is not formed and changed by the Potter’s hands, it will fall. The image I dearly love during this centering time is that the clay is completely under the palm of the Potter. The hand rests on the clay, pushing it to the center, feeling for the clay to yield and balance. It is an act of molding and patience on the part of the Potter and submission to the Potter’s hand on the part of the clay. But the Potter’s hand never once leaves the clay. It stays completely in contact, guiding and holding the entire time.
As the Potter forms something lovely, often times the excess has to be removed. The Potter uses his hands to remove the extra clay. Without this stripping away, the pottery could be too heavy and clunky. The walls would be too thick. It is in the letting go that the delicate beauty of the piece is seen and felt. The expert Potter knows just how much to strip away. Too much and the piece crumbles. Too little and nothing changes…it remains a big lump of clay. Sometimes, sponges or even sharp tools are used to cut away the unneeded parts.
These tools almost look like objects of torture. They are sharp. They cut. They tear. But when used lovingly and purposefully in the Potter’s hands, they reveal great artistry. Each cut has a purpose. Every pierce a greater good. All the carvings add to the character and quality of the work.
And, then, you have something pretty that looks like this:
Oh, but that’s only the beginning of the changing and molding and cutting for the clay.
That’s not the end of the story.
Next comes the drying. The moisture in the clay must dry out so that the piece can hold its shape. It must sit and wait. It must become parched. It must enter a time that surely feels like waiting in a desolate desert. This is when it is the most fragile. When a piece of pottery is in this drying and fragile state it is called greenware.
Just when the pottery is at its most fragile, it is carefully loaded into a kiln to face the next phase. The heat. The immense, intense, unimaginable heat. And clay does not go through the fire only once. Clay pots are first bisqued. When pots come through this first fire, they are utterly bone dry and ready to be painted. It is only after this first fire that they are ready for the beginnings of color and character. The fire has also strengthened the pottery enough that it is less likely to crack during the glazing, but it still must be handled with care.
Adding the color is an interesting process. Sometimes, pots are submerged in the glaze. Drowned. Brought low. Sunk. Covered.
And the glaze is not the color it will be in the end. Its true purpose hidden. Its true luster not yet seen. In fact, it’s really not all that pretty. Only the Potter knows what the true colors of the piece will be.
For the pottery to come into its full elegance and function, there remains another fire.
Being burned again.
And after all of that – all the crushing and squeezing and spinning and pressure and cutting away and drying and drowning and burning and fires – there is nothing left except for what was meant to be.
What remains is what the great Potter always intended.
And it is completely beautiful.
Finished piece – used as a bread bowl. This is the items that was seen being glazed earlier.
Right now, I feel like I am freshly bisqued. A little stronger from the fire but still tender from the flames and a tad fragile. My colors are not yet revealed.
And here’s the thing…I think in many of our lives, we might go through several rounds on the wheel. Several fragile greenware and bisque states. Several glazings. More than two fires. We might even be more than just one piece of pottery. Maybe we are a tea set. Several pieces that go through separate processes and, in the end, all come together.
Making a tea set can take a long time. And maybe some of our pieces will crack and chip and break. But our Potter is very patient and caring. He keeps working and keeps forming until his work is completed. He doesn’t throw any of us away. He doesn’t ever give up. His grace and mercy are unending. Some pieces just need a lot more work than others.
I know I do.
But I take so much comfort in this: The great Potter will always finish the work he started in us (Phil. 1:6). That work will likely be painful for us. It may involve a lot of yielding and cutting away and burning fires. But how else does one take a lump of dirt and form it into something strong and usable – a piece of great refinement? How else does a lump of dirt get traded in – redeemed – for something exponentially better?
But I know it’s hard to wait for redemption. Oh, how I know this! I know how you sometimes want to throw yourself off the wheel and scream profanities and give up on it all. Because sometimes the pain of transforming into what you were always meant to be seems impossibly hard, and it is more comfortable to stay rolled up as your warm ball of clay. It’s easier to be nothing and do nothing and to stop trying and to stop yielding to the Potter. It seems safer to stay in the ground, hiding. I know.
You know what else I know? I know that Jesus himself had to put Himself in His Father’s hands and yield to the Potter. He begged to get out of it. Remember the garden? Remember the prayer? The sweating drops of blood? The anxiety over the fire He knew was coming? If it wasn’t easy for Him, I better not expect that it’s going to be easy for me! And yet, He yielded. He became the center. The center for us all. Jesus was God’s most glorious work. The work of the cross and, most importantly, the empty grave.
And why did Jesus go through all of that? Because He desperately loves us. When I think of that love and how hard I fight against it sometimes…how hard I fight the changes He is asking me to make or the trials He asks me to walk through even though He promises never to leave my side…oh. I fight against it so hard. It drops me to my knees.
I am one stubborn piece of clay, I’ll tell ya.
And yet, this Potter keeps working with this hard ball of dirt. He patiently waits for me to become moldable. He cries with me when cuts have to be made. He stands with me in the fiery kiln. And He rejoices over me every single time a brilliant color starts to peek through the haze. He never gives up on us because He has promised to complete His work.
I am not sure when it is that we fully see the final result of His good work. I’m not sure when our jars of clay become fine, precious china or when our true colors are put on vibrant display. I have a sneaky suspicion, though, that it isn’t until we meet the Potter face to face.
Oh, how I long for that indescribably wonderful day.
Until then, I will remind myself daily that I am a work in progress. And so are you, my friend. And so are our children (and friends and spouses and extended family…). We are not hopeless causes or disasters too big to fix. The Father would not be working so hard on us if we were not worth it to Him. We are stunningly gorgeous, messy lumps of clay just waiting for our amazing colors to be revealed. And, in His time, it will be so.
We are the precious works of His very capable and very loving hands.
Keri Altland is married to her amazing, high-school sweetheart. Together, she and Nathan love and parent their three rambunctious miracles. Mason, a sensitive and funny little man, was conceived and born right after the medical professionals told them they most likely would never have a biological child. Quinn, a determined and gorgeous beauty, came home from Ghana in February 2013. Seth, a quiet and brave little guy, came home from Ghana in September of 2013. Keri spends most of her time shuttling her loves from one activity to another or chasing them around the yard and down the street. In her spare time, she likes to sit quietly with a hot cup of coffee and ask God a lot of questions. Sometimes, He answers quickly. Other times, He makes her wait…and wait, but He has always proven to be incredibly patient and gracious with her impatience. Some of her other time is spent volunteering at a therapeutic horse-riding farm, Green Meadow Farm (www.greenmeadowfarm.org), where she interacts with children and families who are dealing with emotional struggles and trauma. She also writes occasionally on her blog, Worth It All.