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When I was about 10 years old my mother signed me up for a pottery class which I absolutely. I loved the feel of the clay in my hands. I loved rolling it into a ball and pounding it flat with my fist. I loved learning the various techniques involved in shaping and forming the clay into a variety of useful and decorative items.
First I learned how to make a simple pinch pot and then a pot made out of a clay coil and eventually I learned how to throw a pot on the pottery wheel. I remember how our instructor taught us how to take the clay and center it on the wheel, get the wheel going, then carefully, but firmly shape the sides of the pot. Then, she told us, you place your thumb in the middle of the ball of clay, pressing down into the center to form the interior of the pot, drawing up the sides of the vessel.
She made it all look so simple, in nothing flat she was able to produce a beautiful vase. Then it was our turn. I carefully placed the clay in the center of the wheel, started the wheel spinning and then watched as the clay wobbled in my hands and eventually flew off the wheel in protest and hit the wall. It was ages before I made anything that even remotely resembled a pot.
Today is the first of four Sundays we will be reflecting on the topic of change. To start us off, our scripture reading offers up an image of how we are like clay in a potter’s hand able to be shaped and molded into beautiful vessels and re-shaped into something new when we get out of shape or things don’t go the way the potter had envisioned them to go. It’s a wonderful image to remind us that we were made to change and for change.
The Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem we just heard also reminds us of that reality but we don’t actually need scripture or poetry to tell us this truth. Look at any photograph of yourself taken 10 years ago and I promise you will see that you were made for change. And it’s not just individuals that change, society changes as well. For example, ten years ago Encyclopedia Britannica stopped making printed editions in order to go entirely digital. In 2012 Tesla only produced 2,400 electric vehicles. They have produced 365,000 so far this year. 10 years ago Barak Obama was the President of the United States, Stephen Harper was our Prime Minister and Gangnam Style dancing was all the rage.
Despite the old saying “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose” change actually is one of the only constants in our lives. So I wonder we resist it so much even when things are not going well and being re-shaped into something new might actually be good for us.
Lillie Brock, an ordained minister and author of the book “The Change Cycle” talks about an experience she had when she worked in the corporate world. She spent a year interviewing people across her organization asking them what changes they wanted to see. The next year she and her team started to implement those changes only to bump up against wall after wall of resistance from the very people who asked for them. So Lillie Brock decided to study the subject of change. What she discovered was that although we resist change, we are actually quite capable of making changes and being changed.
Her research showed that three things motivate us to change: 1) Crisis 2) Chance 3) Choice. Guess which one motivates us the most? More than anything else, crisis motivates us to change. Earlier this week I heard someone say “everything changed during the pandemic, nothing has been the same ever since.” Now that’s not actually true but it sure feels like that some days doesn’t it? And we did change didn’t we? I started posting reflections on You Tube and you starting attending church online and the word “pivot” was ubiquitous. We can actually change when push comes to shove. So if it’s true that we were made for change isn’t it possible that allowing ourselves to change and to be changed or even choosing to change might actually be a faithful thing to do?
After the clay went flying off my wheel that first time I tried to throw a pot, I learned an important thing about making pottery. Although clay made be soft and supple, easily shaped with the touch of our hands, to actually create a beautiful and useful vessel that is congruent with the vision the potter has of that object in their mind takes patience, focus, skill and perseverance. You really do need to get to know the clay. You have to sympathize with its properties. I learned early on that clay is not always easy to control and it often seems to have a mind of its own, just like us, we who are clay in the potter’s hand.
In the passage from Jeremiah, it appears the potter is in total control of the clay, especially in the verses that follow the portion we read this morning. In those verses God the potter is building up and plucking down entire nations. But there are also indications that the potter is sensitive to the way the clay responds to the potter’s touch. When the clay yields itself to being shaped and fashioned by the hands that hold it, something beautiful and good emerges. When the clay resists the potter’s touch it spoils.
Life, it seems is sensitive to our response to it. How we yield ourselves to one another, or resist, how we give ourselves over to life and its many changes or hold ourselves back affects the shape life takes. We either give ourselves over to Divine will or we fight it. That applies both to our personal lives and the life around us.
When we are collectively out of sync with the movement of the sacred, or the movement of life itself, we become distorted.
Presbyterian minister Jared Wit talks about the spiritual practice of flexibility, learning how to bend without getting bent out of shape, how to stay soft and malleable without becoming hardened, dried up and brittle. He talks about doing that in concrete and in emotional ways. So how we do that?
One of the things that Lillie Brock learned about change when she set out to study it is that our response to change is tied into our neurological system. The definition of change is simply to experience of something new. Every time we experience something new, our brains have to create a new neuro pathway. No wonder it feels harder for us to change as we get older!
In order to create those neuro pathways, Brock says we have to work through the various layers of our brain to get there, through our primitive brain which is about survival, and our mammalian brain which is about our perceptions and creativity all the way to the complex layer which allows us to see the big picture and actually implement the change. Another way of describing this is to say that in order to change there are six movements we go through as human beings: Loss, doubt, discomfort, discovery, understanding and integration.
Lillie Brock says that organizations often want everyone to be at the complex level, the level of understanding and integration right off the bat, but our brains don’t work that way, which is why we resist. So, she says, we get a choice to work in harmony with our brains or out of harmony with them, kind of like working in harmony with the potter or out of harmony.
And that makes me wonder if we were made for change and it’s actually faithful to make changes in our lives, if slowing down and allowing ourselves to yield to the sacred touch of the potter will help us be people who are more flexible, more open and willing to change.
Yesterday, our Council met for our annual retreat to review the year that has past and make plans for the year to come. One of the things we celebrated as we looked back on the past year is the way that we as a community have been adaptive and open to change. As I reflect on the story of the clay and potter I can’t help but wonder if that is because as a community we have been intentionally deepening our life of faith together and because the crisis we have been in as a world has been forcing us to change, so we’ve become more used to it.
One of the interesting things about this story about Jeremiah and the potter is that we tend to think that it’s all about God shaping and re-shaping our individual lives. In fact, it is a story about God shaping and re-shaping the life of the called community, the community of the faithful because the life of the society around the community of the faithful is in dire need of re-shaping.
We so often resist change, but we were made for it. Thank goodness that is true because the beautiful thing about being made of clay is that even if we do become hardened or dry as a bone, distorted or bent out of shape, we can still be reconstituted and re-worked into something new.
*** Quotes and ideas from Rev. Lillie Brock and Rev. Jared Wit taken from sermon notes and interview with Dr. Marcia McFee, Worship Design Studio.