Fragments of Clay
By Rev. Kathryn Ray
About 10 years ago, I was reflecting on the story of the potter’s house in Jeremiah, and I wrote the following prayer in a journal:
“You are not the potter, and I am not the clay. Clay can only be molded for a time, and then it hardens, never again to change form and evolve, until it ultimately breaks into shards to be thrown away. If I am to be sculpted by a divine hand, let it be as Play-Doh in the hands of a child. Bright and soft, morphing and transforming, from rocks to pizza to dinosaurs. May the limits of my being be the limits of an imagination at play, made into something new with each passing day.”
I still find inspiration in these words. God continues to imagine new ways for us to be, and invites us to try them out, try them on. That is the Good News According to Play-Doh: that we can be recreated, and reinvented, joyfully and playfully. We must be, if we are to be a people of redemption and transformation.
And yet, then years later, I find I am more sympathetic to the clay than I was at 21. Personalities set over time. Values become firmer. Habits, like bodies, become a little less flexible. It is inevitable. But that is important, too. Clay is not terribly useful until it hardens. It cannot serve a purpose while it is soft on the wheel. It cannot carry water, or hold food. It must become solid. And so must we. We must take form.
At some point, we each come to decide that we will be this person, and not that person. We declare that certain values are more important to us than others. We discern and pursue callings that align with the deepest aspects of our being. Becoming solid- claiming an identity, naming oneself in this way-also takes its own kind of courage. Once the pot is solid, the way it changes its being is by breaking.
I went to social work school alongside many brilliant, passionate, idealistic people who felt convicted to help those struggling with poverty and to change systems that crushed human life. They warned us all about just how many social workers burn out within the first few years. And of course it’s not just social workers. Ministers, psychologists, teachers all face burnout, as well.
It’s not always just an emotional crisis, it can be an existential one. If I feel something so strongly as to experience it as a call, as an identity, what happens when circumstances become so overwhelming that I feel I cannot continue? Was it not a call?
The pot is broken. I am left with a fragment of an identity that I don’t want to throw away, because it was precious to me. But it cannot function like it once did.
That doesn’t just apply to the helping professions. It doesn’t just apply to careers. We are also called to other people. We identify ourselves with our relationships, whom we love and whom we care for. And when those relationships evolve, end, or break apart, we too can break apart.
But it turns out I was wrong ten years ago, when I wrote that clay ultimately breaks into shards to be thrown away. I was wrong about the uselessness of the broken pot. Because the word from the Prophet Jeremiah declares that a broken pot does not need to be thrown away. This perhaps, one could also call the Good News According to Pinterest.
When broken clay fragments come together, they are a new creation. They are mosaics, they are art. Those mosaics, fragments of pots glued together, are the most human of things. We are not singular works made of only one thing. As Walt Whitman said, we contain multitudes. And multitudes of things that don’t always fit together.
We are parents and lovers and children. We are courageous and fearful. We are loving and open and deeply judgmental. We have bodies that are able in so many ways, but in other ways are so deeply broken. Every day, we walk around trying to hold all of this together, and inevitably, something breaks. Yet somehow, miraculously, counterintuitively, God is there working the jagged edges of our brokenness into something that we could not have previously imagined.
I’m not saying that there is blessing in every heartbreak. Not every trial makes us stronger. I heard a preacher once say that broken bone is stronger after it heals. That is just not true. Medically or metaphorically. And yet we are in always in a process of becoming something new. The power of God is at work not through pain, but in spite of it, to bring something beautiful that we could not ask or imagine.
The text from Jeremiah is a prophetic one. Like many prophets, Jeremiah is speaking to a nation. And if an individual becomes hard over time, how much more so a nation! Nations harden into patterns of being and interacting that are much harder to break. And as often as not, nations harden into unjust patterns of being, that take great strength and courage to smash apart.
And sometimes, the sharp and mismatched corners of our own lives are just the thing we need to smash apart injustice. We are in a deeply polarized environment that calls us to be singular entities, to check single boxes for race, gender, political affiliation. And then we are expected to conform to socially prescribed standards for what that box represents.
Yet God calls to be all that we are, in its contradiction, and complexity, in its fragmentation and multiplicity. To be healed and broken. Aflame and burned out. That in itself, I think, is a testimony that has revolutionary power.
May we, with each passing day, live into the fullness and beauty of leading lives made up of fragments of mismatched clay, these beautiful, blessed, jagged-edged mosaics of our being.
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