“For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.”
–2 Corinthians 4:6-11
Last Saturday, I sculpted with clay for the first time.
[Well, that’s not entirely true. I vaguely remember an elementary school art project involving some muddy red clay and a kiln. I painted my poorly sculpted cross black and gold, and my mom hung it up on the wall. It stayed there in my parents’ bedroom for years, until as a surly teenager I asked her why she kept it. She said she kept it because I made it. No longer surly, I told her she could get rid of it. She did, and I didn’t mind one bit.]
I was at a mandatory school “retreat” held at school, an irony that didn’t escape me. Saturday morning is the one time each week where I have nothing scheduled. I usually spend the majority of that short time with no responsibility unconscious, so the fact that I had to be at school on a Saturday morning earlier than I usually arrive there for class had me acting like a surly teenager again.
The retreat involved art and prayer. I’m not particularly creative; art frustrates me because I can dream up incredible concepts that my inept hands can never bring into existence. I expected this frustration to be present.
It was. We tried a few different media, and ended our time with an hour or so spent working with clay.
I was quickly reminded why I haven’t sculpted since I was a child. If you haven’t ever tried it, working with clay is extraordinarily challenging. See, clay is stubborn and cold and not very pliable. It gets everywhere, and it requires the perfect amount of water to keep it moist but not wet.
As I tried and failed to execute several ideas for this mound of earth, my hands, unused to that much strain, began to ache. Just as I was ready to give up, the leader of the retreat began to read:
This is the word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Go down to the potter’s house, and there I will give you my message.” So I went down to the potter’s house, and I saw him working at the wheel. But the pot he was shaping from the clay was marred in his hands; so the potter formed it into another pot, shaping it as seemed best to him. Then the word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. -–Jeremiah 18:1-6
Oh. I began to see. This exercise wasn’t about art. It wasn’t even really about prayer.
The leader had given us the clay so that we could be reminded how difficult it is to mold and shape something that resists being molded or shaped. Wet, cold clay was put into our hands to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return. We were given a piece of the earth to remind us that with patience and a firm hand it can be made into something beautiful. We were told we were potters so that we could step into God’s shoes and walk around in them for a little while.
What a poor God I would make.
And what poor clay I must be. So cold and resistant, refusing to be moved this way or that.
Although my spiritual exploration was by far the most valuable result of my time spent sculpting, I ended up with a “sculpture” of an eye. Rough and flawed, it was the best I could do.
Part of me is proud. I took a lump of clay and made it into something distinguishable. It really couldn’t be mistaken for anything else, and despite its imperfections, it has grown on me.
The other part of me is tempted just to take it outside and shatter it on the ground. It is so fragile and useless. It took so much work, and it isn’t that great.
This, I think, it how it is to have hope.
Part of having hope is taking something seemingly hopeless and forcing it into the shape of hope. Imperfect though it may be, it becomes a treasure.
The other part of having hope, though, is wishing it was gone. Hope is painful, and dangerous. Hope creates ample opportunity for heartbreak. Hope takes a long time to take root, and it has no tangible value. Hope seems delicate and impractical, like a jar of clay.
The most common spiritual complaint I hear these days actually regards a lack of hope. There is just too much happening in the world that seems contrary to what is good and right. This sort of gloom and doom has all but taken over our culture. Somehow it has also permeated the Church. Even amongst the people of God, hope seems to have no place to call home.
I admit to falling prey to hopelessness, too.
Here’s the thing about hope. Hope doesn’t disregard current circumstances. Hope doesn’t pretend like everything will be okay, even when nothing seems to be. Hope isn’t naïve, or stupid.
On the contrary, hope is powerful. Hope looks around at the world and dreams of something better. Hope rises out of ashes, new life out of dead earth.
Still, hope is this fragile thing, so easily disregarded or even crushed underfoot. Hope is a new plant with small, shallow roots, threatened at every turn by the harsh elements. Hope is the last bit of daylight about to be engulfed by the coming night.
The world is a scary place that is inhospitable to hope. The state of affairs is such that even the most positive of optimists is struggling now to see the silver lining.
But Christ offers us a treasure to keep within ourselves. This treasure is the light of the knowledge of the glory of God found in the very face of Jesus Christ, which is turned toward us even in our darkest struggles. This treasure is hope.
Hope, Paul says, doesn’t exempt us from the world. We are still subject to being afflicted, perplexed, persecuted, struck down. In fact, if we are anything like Paul, we can expect all of those things.
But within us, we have the very power of God. Hope is not a fruit of the Spirit, but rather it is the very substance of God’s presence inside of us. The Holy Spirit dwells in us like treasure inside of a clay jar, like a small light in an otherwise dark world.
For many, it seems like this light of hope is almost extinguished. It seems like the last light of the sunset is being snuffed out as the darkness of the night sets in.
But friends, have no doubt: this is the sunrise. If you ever watch a sunrise, it is sometimes impossible to tell whether the sun is actually rising or setting. Wait long enough, though, and you’ll see the sun imperceptibly peeking out over the horizon. Light is gaining ground all the time, even as it seems to be diminishing.
The Kingdom of Heaven is near, even as we struggle to see it. The Kingdom of God is coming, even as the earth seems to be in peril. The treasure is ours, even as it is held in rough, chipped jars of clay. Keep watching, and I promise you’ll see the sun rise.
Grace and peace,