“The Play-Doh Lesson”
Rev. James Rausch
I don’t know if things are the same for kids today, but for me, a brand-new carton of Play-Doh was a rare treat. TV commercials showing all the fun things you could make with it always caught my eye. For me, it was one of the neatest toys you could ever get . . . it felt squishy in your hands, you could shape it one way, then change it. Getting your first tub of Play-Doh is right up there on a kids’ list of neat things that can bring smiles to an otherwise ordinary day.
Which is why the next day was sometimes such a downer. Because that’s often when the discovery is made… With the memories of the new, gooshy toy still fresh in his mind, the child sees the lump of Play-Doh right on the floor between the chair and the coffee table where he left it, and with great anticipation he reaches out . . . picks it up . . . and then the awful revelation. This colorful lump of fun that yesterday had felt so good to moosh between his fingers had now become a rock. How did that happen? Think of all the parents who have had to say at some point to their teary-eyed youngster, I’m sorry, but that’s what happens when you don’t put the Play-Doh back in its container. It’s one of the most devastating surprises of childhood. At least it was for me. But I was a touch on the sensitive side as a kid. I still remember the pangs of devastation when my first ever helium balloon slipped from my fingers and flew off into outer space.
Such developments caught kids like me completely off-guard. At that age, we hadn’t studied science or physics yet. So, the Play-doh lesson was a hard one. The concepts of moisture content and evaporation were simply beyond my grasp. And just as suddenly, what was perceived as no less than a tragedy for the child on the one hand, was seen on the other hand by parents as a golden opportunity to lecture on the virtues of putting things away when we’re done with them. What a sad experience for a young child. It was soft and shapeable one day, brittle and crumbly the next. Now, if the parent is an especially gifted lecturer, the poor kid might start to wonder what other things might harden up if they weren’t put away properly. Omigosh, what if mom or dad forgets to let the cat in at night? The Play-doh lesson left its mark on me for sure.
Life confronts us with lots of lessons. For example, we’re taught lessons about keeping ourselves physically fit. And for all the talk there has been in recent decades about the importance of getting in shape to prolong our lives and improve their quality, there has been, for a much longer time, an even deeper focus on the importance of our spiritual health and well-being. That’s something we all deeply crave. And what we discover is that it’s not so much about getting in shape spiritually as it is about being shaped. Getting in shape is something we control. Being shaped, on the other hand, is about turning control over to another.
And so, the prophet Jeremiah was led to understand his own and his country’s relationship to God. And from him we hear this message that God inspired him to proclaim about the potter and the clay. In addition to hearing God’s Word this morning, let’s try to feel God’s Word. Take the clay in your hands and roll it around, push it, pinch it. If you do it enough, you’ll feel it become softer, and it will start to feel warm as the heat from your hand penetrates it. Now think of yourself as clay in the hands of God. When we place ourselves in God’s hands, think of it as God actually transferring some of God’s own warmth over to you.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a work of art being made by God? You should. I’m told that often artists don’t dream up a vision and then find some material that they can shape into that vision. Frequently, instead, they look at the unshaped material first and wait for a shape already existing in it which is calling forth to simply be brought out by the artist.
This passage about the potter and the clay is one of the most wonderful in the Bible. You could put the first part of it on a beautiful plaque and sell it in a Bible gift shop. So why, then, was Jeremiah torn apart so when these words came to him? What image could be more beautiful and comforting than that of being shaped personally by God’s own hand? I can certainly see my life that way. God holds me, not too tightly, but applying pressure in certain areas to mold me into God’s vision. And as I am difficult to work with and don’t respond as I should, God, like the potter, wads up the lump of clay and tries again. Potters are generally very patient.
So, what’s the problem for Jeremiah? The problem is the disastrous reality that prompted these words in the first place. Jeremiah’s country, Judah, was all that was left of what was once a united Israel, God’s chosen. Essentially only two tribes out of twelve remained after conquering armies wiped out the whole Northern portion of the kingdom. And what Jeremiah saw was that the very same thing about to happen to his own country. What’s worse, he knew that they could have prevented it. All the people in his country called themselves Jews, but the way they lived their lives showed otherwise. They were allowing themselves and their nation to be shaped alright, but by forces other than God: Greed, paranoia, pagan worship, ignorance, apathy, and an amazing capacity for forgetting who they were and who gave them all they had. And Jeremiah knew that the message was, chosen people or not, if we don’t change, we will fall just like the other ten tribes before us.
Remember, getting in shape is something we control. Being shaped is about turning control over to another. There are any number of forces that can and will shape you. How many times have we heard people say, alcohol really made me a totally different person. Or her job is her life. Parents are afraid for their children in a society where cultural and even criminal forces are actively working to mis-shape them in more ways than we can count. Parents know it because they have felt it themselves, or have seen it in some form either in their own lives or in the lives of those around them. Many children are afraid for their parents because they may have seen them in the grips of destructive patterns and hateful behaviors. Can you recognize what forces are shaping your life right now?
Sadly, some people point to biblical images like the potter and the clay with disgust. They imagine we believe in a manipulating god who willfully causes innocent people to suffer, a god who controls everything we do, down to the slightest muscle twitch. Surely, scared people in Jeremiah’s time asked, “Why is God letting everything fall apart the way it is?” And today, how often do we look at the awful things our world is capable of and ask the same thing?
But we should not fail to see just how much human freedom wasemphasized in Jeremiah’s words. He was trying to get people to see that God had a vision for them and would gladly shape them accordingly, if only they would let him. Even after Jeremiah said they were on the same path as the tribes who went before, there was still the message that it did not have to be that way. There was still hope if only the people would let God be the one to shape them. But Jeremiah saw that their minds were made up to go a different way. Their hearts were no longer malleable, but instead were hardened like day-old Play-doh, and it was devastating to see. It’s why Jeremiah was called, “The Weeping Prophet.”
How does the metaphor of clay relate to humans after all, since clay has no power of choice or ability to act? There are at least two valid comparisons. One is that clay is always shaped by something. And to realize that we are like clay is to understand that something will shape us. We are free to choose what that something will be. The other comparison is that clay is bound to harden, eventually. That’s its nature. At some point it takes a shape which will be the one that sets. If it is shaped specially and beautifully by an artist before it hardens, its value is tremendous. If it hardens without having been shaped properly, it is thrown away. Nothing more can be done with it.
And the point of Jeremiah’s vision is that eventually the same is true for us. At some point our time of being shapeable will be over, and how we’ve been shaped will matter a great deal. As I have said, getting in shape is something we control. But being shaped is about turning control over to another. The good news of the Gospel is that God in Jesus Christ revealed decisively that the vision God intends for us all is one of lasting beauty and fulfillment. Furthermore, it promises that no force can separate us from the divine and loving hands that would shape us that way. It remains only for us to choose. The God of love is a God we can trust to shape us. And as long as we remain pliable, shapeable in the Father’s hands, we are in a place of hope.
No matter what our lives have been, no matter how badly we may think we have failed, no matter how much we are in need of forgiveness, God remains willing to reshape us and will do everything in His power to do just that. Imagine a hardened heart in God’s hands. How, like the child who cries at the awful discovery of the hardened Play-Doh, must God feel. And yet hope remains. Think of the baptisms we witnessed last week, and hear these words from Ezekiel, chapter 36: 25 “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
There are things we can do in our lives to try to remain pliable in the hands of the Father – to allow ourselves to be shaped – to remain pliable in God’s hand, and not hardened.
There’s another helpful perspective on the shaping of clay that can provide more insight. On Hyunmi’s recent trip home to Korea, she and Hal visited her brother’s pottery shop and took turns at the potter’s wheel. The pictures and videos on Facebook were fun to see.
They reminded me that I once attended a conference where the keynote speaker gave her address while working at a potter’s wheel on stage. She began working a lump of clay that she intended to shape into a bowl, and she talked to us about the process of throwing pottery while she worked. As she began to work the clay it moved off-center on the wheel and had to be taken up and repositioned.
A potter carefully centers the clay in order to be able to work with it, and to do so properly takes time and patience. She made a comparison of the off-center clay to our lives and encouraged us to envision the way in which God will patiently bring us back to center.
The potter then explained how she shapes the clay from the inside. Anything done to the outside can wait but the inside determines the structural integrity and the shape of the piece. With this in mind, she observed how the world focuses on outside appearances, but noted that God’s attention is on shaping us from the inside out.
The rim, she said, is of critical importance because it is where the inside meets the outside. She told us that clay has memory, so you work up first and then out. As it dries, it will “remember” the elevated rim from which it was first shaped and hold its form. To work out first and then up would make the piece prone to sagging.
Finally, the potter noted that no finished piece of pottery is ever perfect. But regardless of imperfection, the pieces are well-suited to the functions for which they are made, and they are each beautiful. Traces of the potter’s touch are found inside and out. Understanding God as a potter shaping and re-shaping us, provides a helpful perspective for considering the great perplexing questions of our lives. Consider what or who is attempting to shape you, and invite God to brush aside any of those that are not his loving hands.