An Ode to Clay: Thinking Metaphorically about Ministry

As far as versatile substances go, I can think of no better material than clay.  Its flexibility meets with all number of circumstances with ease and agility, and it can form into almost anything under any situation.  Practical things such as bowls, cups and plates are made from clay; ornamental things such as vases, bracelets and statues are made from clay; monumental things like landscapes and dry riverbeds; cracked, dry flats of what once used to be seas and moist, supple, down-in-the-depths-of-the-earth, after-a-hard-hard-rain Georgia red clay.  As a versatile substance, clay is pretty amazing.

Yet as a metaphor for ministry, clay takes on a more human timbre: yes, it represents every instance of ministerial diversity and flexibility (every bowl that maintained substance and weight under the gentle pressure of a potter’s hands; every Hammurabi’s Code throughout history, with their codified give and take of transgression and consequence stippled earnestly onto their curved sides); but clay also represents every instance of inflexibility and rigidity (those dry riverbeds of washed up confidence and too much self-sacrifice; those cracked dry flats of what used to be a vast, hospitable generosity).  Clay, as a metaphor for ministry, is both a promise of fulfillment and a warning against defeat.

I say “fulfillment” and “defeat” instead of “success” and “failure” intentionally.  Asking for “success” in ministry is like asking for civility at a strained Thanksgiving table; though there might be a semblance of it, at its core it is but a façade waiting to crack (and this “success” often does crack, sometimes as a hairline fracture that silently undermines the entire façade or as a tectonic break tearing the whole thing down).  Rather, “fulfillment” points toward more of what I understand ministry to hold for those who are sincerely called.  Fulfillment is that state of satisfaction realized through loving and intentional cycles of introspection and action; defeat is that state of despair in which the cycle of introspection and action is lacking careful love and attention: when the introspection takes a back seat to reactionary action, or when any action whatsoever is deferred in favor of judgmental or myopic introspection.  When not held in careful and nurturing balance, introspection and action walk precariously on the precipice of defeat.  However, when balanced against one another in a tender cycle, this introspection informs the minister’s actions, and her actions lead her to further introspection.  She is never done; she is always in some kind of motion or being formed into some new usefulness.  She works hard not to allow the flexible surface of her clay-like persona to become cracked with hardened self-critical introspection, just as he works hard not to allow his actions to meander unintentionally or to become meaningless and formless like clay holding too much water.

It is here that the metaphor of clay comes into clearer focus: for as the dry riverbed and the moist earth settled at the bottom of a rushing stream are both properly “clay,” the character of the clay and its ability to be flexible rely primarily on its character as either moist or dry.  Moist clay is able to bend and form with relative ease, and though it often takes a skilled hand to work that clay into something useful, ornamental, or magnificent, it is the moist quality of the clay that allows such a beautiful thing to be crafted from its firm substance. Without this moisture, this flexibility, the clay is but a dry lump of stiff almost-dirt: still earthy, still “clay,” but not able to bend with the circumstances of its surroundings or to be formed into that thing most appropriate for its situation.  When utterly dry, clay simply cracks or crumbles under pressure.  When completely devoid of flexibility, the only marks of the potter that the clay bears on its skin are the violent cracks and fractures of its dissolution, not the soft, earnest fingerprints of an artisan whose diligent work produces something beautiful.  At the other side of the spectrum, clay that is too watery lacks all form and figure: it lacks the firmness that allows moist clay to become something of substance and weight.  No matter how hard the potter works, she is never able to craft this watery mess into anything useful.  Instead, this clay defies use, meandering from one attempted form to the next while never quite forming rightly, thoughtfully, or with purpose.

As with any metaphor, this metaphor of clay can only be stretched so far.  The passivity of clay, when clay is taken on its own, essential terms, does not do justice to the tender balance of introspection and action that fulfillment in ministry requires: material clay does not “act” nor does it “introspect,” but is more properly said to be acted upon.  Here we might refresh this metaphor with a reminder of the biblical metaphor of clay used to describe our nature as creatures: God breathed life into passive, receptive clay that God formed into human figures.  From this breath we receive our breath, and yet we remain creatures: created and animated by the loving, moist respiration of the Creator of the universe, we now breathe through our own moist lungs.  Our passive nature is that we have received our life from something else… receiving that life, we now live.  We move from passivity to activity, but we are never completely severed from our status as created beings; we always require the sustenance and moisture of that first creation if we are to be made into anything at all.  We return our breathing to God’s sustaining breath when we enter loving cycles of introspection and action, and in doing so, we remain flexible enough to admit to our creatureliness and to allow ourselves to be clay.

This balancing act of flexibility is precisely that quality of clay that provides me comfort and imaginative vision as I think about what it means to be called to ministry.  Too brittle, and I break under the everyday pressures of a life of service, of usefulness; too soft and I am unable to be of any use whatsoever.  Too much introspection and I balk under my own judgmental gaze; too much unintentional action and I cease to feel purpose and meaning in any of my commitments.  Clay, as a metaphor for ministry, allows that creative imagining of the self as not the self (controlled and self-determined), but of the self as creature whose life is dependent on the sustenance of the Creator, and whose ability to move in this creaturely world requires a measure of sturdy flexibility and a willingness to be changed.  As a versatile substance, clay is pretty amazing.

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