Isaiah 29: 16
Almost anything can be a spiritual practice if you let it. I know people whose spiritual practice is running or writing or watching the sunset each night. I know people whose spiritual practice is baking or hiking or feeding the homeless. Some of us read a book this spring that included spiritual practices like getting lost and praying naked in front of a full-length mirror. The point of spiritual practice isn’t how “spiritual” what you are doing might seem to any onlookers. The point is the practice.
The point is showing up over and over again, paying attention. How does it feel to run when I am angry? How does it feel to run when I am angry with God? How am I called to greater humility when I spend time with someone who is homeless? What do I notice about God there that I don’t see so well in other places?
The point is showing up, over and over, paying attention, and letting yourself be changed in the process. Changed by the process. Formed. Molded. Shaped. Made.
For the last year, I’ve been taking pottery classes. After a lifetime of admiring and collecting pottery, I took the plunge and started showing up every week to see what might happen between me and the clay. I made the chalices we are using for Communion tonight and the gifts we are giving to our graduates. It’s been such a grounding, Spirit-filled practice for me. Working the clay each week works something in me, too. And while I feel there are findings – insights – I can’t quite articulate yet, there are a few that presented themselves early on. They seem fitting for tonight’s occasion. These are all straight from pottery class, things my teacher tells us, three findings from this spiritual practice.
First one: Centering is the first thing you do. Before you can make a cup or bowl or pitcher or chalice – before you can do anything else – you slap a ball of clay on the wheel and you try to get it centered. If it isn’t centered from the beginning, it will get worse and worse and be really wobbly as things go on. Like a cereal bowl made by Salvador Dali.
So many of my days are “cereal bowls” like that, days when I skip prayer, skip my morning quiet time on the porch, days when I think the “to do” list is more important than the one who has to do all those “dos.” When I don’t work on centering myself, I get pretty wobbly and unstable as the day goes on. You have to center first in order to make anything – coffee, friendships, life decisions, a productive day.
#2. When I was learning to make bowls, my teacher said over and over again, “Focus on the inside shape. Don’t worry about what the outside looks like. Work on making the inside look like you want it to.” When you’re making a bowl, you work the clay right side up, so you focus on creating a continuous curve, a shape that seems to work for whatever type of bowl you want to end up with. Later when the clay is drier, you turn it over and use a tool to trim any excess away from the outside of the bowl, matching the eventual shape to the inside and creating a foot for the bowl to stand on. At that point, when you are working on the outside, all you can do is tidy up the outside; the inside is set.
I am so thankful for and inspired by students who work on their “inside shapes” at Wesley. During a time when there is a barrage of “outside shapers” trying to tell you that the very most important thing in all your life is your GPA or the grad school you get in to or having a job before graduation or triple majoring…at a time when the outside shapers want you to focus on all manner of important and unimportant things but not the most important thing, Wesley folks are concentrating on the inside. Who does God want me to become?
Last lesson: Just because things are moving fast doesn’t mean you have to also. Generally you want to start with the wheel going very fast to center. Once the clay is centered, the first few pulls up are also on a fast wheel. It’s only at the very end, when you are smoothing the edges and mopping up extra water from bottom of your pot that the wheel gets much slower.
When I first started throwing I matched myself to the wheel’s pace. When it was fast, I tried to keep up. When it was slower, I felt like I could relax and take more time. Then my teacher started saying things like, “slow wheel, fast hands” and I realized I’d had it all wrong. The speed of the wheel does not dictate a matching response. In fact, a sure, steady, slower hand on a fast-moving wheel can move a lot of clay.
I’m going to say that one again for the students and this weekend’s graduates: Just because things are moving fast doesn’t mean you have to also. When it feels like this are fast and almost out-of-control the one thing you can control is yourself. When it feels like things are coming at you in rapid fire, too many decisions, too many choices, you have the ability to sit and watch the wheel spin before you jump in to make something. I’m not sure how this weekend feels for you. It could be one of those coming-at-me-quick times or it could feel surreal and underwater-slow. Either way, you can notice and feel that but move at a pace that suits you, whether it matches the speed of life or not.
Why am I telling you all this? Yeah, I know, I picked a scripture about pottery. But in that passage we are the clay and God’s the potter. There are many biblical passages like this, when God’s people whine and moan and tell God how it’s supposed to be and God firmly and lovingly says, Just who do you think you are? Did you make all this? Do you think you made yourself? Might I remind you whose wheel you are on – and do you see my hands covered in clay?
I’m telling you all this because it’s easy to get confused about this. Americans talk about “self-made men” (and women). We like to reinvent ourselves – as if we invented ourselves in the first place. Maybe even this weekend people will ask you what you want to “make of yourself.”
We had an interesting discussion this past year about the United Methodist Church’s mission statement: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Young adults in particular tend to have a negative reaction to that phrase “to make disciples.” To many of them it sounds imposed, forced, overstepping.
I get that. But when I think about pottery and how that spiritual practice has been re-making me, I want to reclaim the word. Made. Made in God’s image. Made blameless. Made into the person I am meant to be.
I began working on the pottery I brought tonight in early January. About 3 weeks ago it had finally made it through every part of the process and through firing in the kiln. It takes a long time to be made.
You have to respond to the Maker’s hand, changing shape, allowing yourself to be smoothed out. You have to let the thick, unshapely parts be trimmed away so that what’s there underneath can show up and take form. You have to be hardened through the passage of time and by fire.
You have to eat dinner on a lot of Thursdays and share the peace on a lot of Sundays. You have to push beyond your comfort zone on mission trips and pray over and over again with your prayer partner. You have to put in some serious time in Study Camp, whether you ever end up studying there or not…. You are shaped differently than when you got here. You have engaged in practices of shaping in the Wesley community.
I urge you tonight to keep up your spiritual practice. The personal, idiosyncratic ones like running, coffee at midnight, and reading poetry to trees…and the hard-won, effortful practices forged in community. There is only one Wesley but there are many places to meet God. God’s hands are already goopy with clay and it’s not time to get off the wheel yet. You’re still being shaped into what God will make of you.
Thank God for our time together at Wesley, where we’ve been slapped onto the wheel and it’s been moving fast. Thank God for the inside shapes we have seen being formed, the shapes of disciples being made and re-made. Thank God for this time to be centered before being sent. And thank God for the Spirit that enlivens this community and never stops moving within us — and that will blow you out into the world this week, to the next phase in your making.
Thanks be to God!
©2012 Deborah E. Lewis