The Potter’s Hand

Sometime during the 1968-69 school year at Ridgecrest Elementary School, my fifth grade art teacher told us that she was going to teach us how to make pottery. I conjured up visions of a wheel with a lump of clay rapidly spinning around through my hands. I was going to apply my hands and shape a lovely piece of pottery.

Instead of using a wheel, she taught us how to make “snakes.” We took the first one, laid it out, and fashioned it into a coil. Then we made more snakes and looped them around the edge of the coil. One by one we shaped a “pot.” Where was the smooth vessel I had envisioned? This looked like a pile of skinny clay donuts, not to mention that they were not uniform. “I can fix this,” I thought. We learned a new word, “slip” I think it was, to describe a runny clay-like substance used to glue the levels together. In vain I tried to fill in the gaps between the differing levels with “slip,” but it was too runny. I did the best I could. I tried to smooth it and make it uniform.

Next it went into the kiln to be fired. Now the solid shape was fixed unless I accidently dropped it on the linoleum floor. Paint would make it look better. The yellow “glaze” went on. At least that made it look better, I thought to myself. How it disappointed me when the “pot” came out of the fire. Most of the color had disappeared even though it now had a shiny glaze to it. “It needs another coat” the teacher said. So another layer of glaze and back into the fire it went.

It was a pot only a mother could love, a mother who loved her son more than any pot he could make. It disappeared for many years, and I forgot about it. Somewhere it appeared again and now it holds pens and flash drives on my computer desk at home.

Was I a poor craftsman? Were the materials defective? No, I just did not have the proper tools, equipment, and processes to shape it properly.

In Jeremiah 18, God sent Jeremiah down to a potter’s house to watch the artisan at work. Jeremiah watched the potter shape a lump of clay in his hands. Jeremiah watched only to see the vessel become ruined in the potter’s hands. The potter reshaped to clay into a different kind of vessel as he saw fit to fashion it.

What shapes the clay? The potter’s hands apply the right amount of pressure as the vessel spins on the wheel. He or she takes the clay and gently pushes it where the clay needs to go. At times the potter takes a knife and cuts away unnecessary clay. Little by little the vessel begins to take shape. The potter applies water to his or her hands to keep the clay from becoming too dry, marred, or misshapen. Finally the vessel achieves its shape. It simply submits to the potter’s shaping hands.

After a period of drying, the potter fires the clay. It passes through a fire hot enough to melt the colored glaze into a glass-like surface. The vessel goes in dull and comes out shiny depending on the type of glaze applied.

God often works in our lives the same way. We are born as lumps of moldable clay. God kneads us then begins to shape and fashion our lives. He wants to make us into an object of beauty. He begins to apply pressure to our lives at various times, pushing us in certain directions so we take on shape. He applies only enough pressure so as to build up rather than to crush us down.

Then we go through times of firing where the final touches are made on our lives. He makes us objects of beauty in his eyes. We are vessels for the service he chooses for us. Not all vessels serve the same purpose, but all are necessary for God’s plan. We are at various stages of development, but eventually God will finish with us.

Yes, he can take even the vessels that break and put them back together again. He picks them up and brushes them off. He then reassembles the pieces and puts the vessel back into service. All we must do is submit ourselves to the Potter’s hands. Even though it may not seem like it now, he will make something beautiful of your life.

“Something beautiful, something good
All my confusion He understood
All I had to offer Him was brokenness and strife
But he made something beautiful of my life” –Bill Gaither

God can make something beautiful of your life if you will let him.

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God’s All-Sufficient Grace

I would be rich if I only had a nickel for every time someone said to me over the last thirty years in ministry, “I used to go to church, but…” or “I used to go to your church, but…” But someone was mean to me. But someone looked at me wrong. But someone thought they were better than I was. But the church is full of hypocrites. But they just want your money. But,… you fill in the blank. I have heard every excuse in the book and several of them many times. The trouble is that none of them is a valid excuse. Not finding the perfect church is no excuse for dropping out.

First of all, if you are searching for a perfect church, remember Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares in Matthew 13:24-30. A farmer sowed good seed in his field, but an enemy came during the night and sowed worthless seeds among them. When they both began to grow, the laborers noticed the weeds among the wheat. Rather than allowing them to tear out the weeds, the farmer told them to leave the plants until the harvest. That way they could easily distinguish between the good crop and the weeds.

Although Jesus’ parable referred to the world, the same principle applies to the church as well. Not everyone who attends church is a true believer. Some may know that they are simply seekers striving to learn the truth. Others may sincerely believe that they are true followers of Christ, but their actions do not show it. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). Not everyone who attends church is a Christian, even in church leadership. So we will have weeds mixed in with the wheat.

Even among Jesus’ closest followers, he had two that turned against him. In another passage, Christ warned about wolves in sheep’s clothing. Judas, who betrayed him, never turned back. Peter also disappointed Christ by denying him, yet Peter repented and came back. So if Christ had two among his twelve who were less than perfect, why should we expect any less in the modern church?

Where would we be today if Christ had given up on the church because he had problems among his ranks? Even though he was treated harshly by religious people, and he cleared the hypocrites and money changers out of the Temple, he never turned his back on it. He never dropped out. The disciples noticed in John 2:17 that the Messiah would be noted for his zeal for the temple. Quoting Psalm 69:9, John wrote, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” What if he had said, “They’re not worth dying for”? The Apostle Paul said that Christ loved the church and gave himself for it, in spite of its weaknesses and problems. When you give up on church you are saying that you love yourself more than the church.

Paul’s life story is also filled with difficulty from following Christ. Read his own account in 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea. I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.” Surely none of us has ever suffered as harshly as this while serving Christ, yet it did not diminish Paul’s capacity or motivation to serve. He continued: “Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.” Paul never gave up on the church.

Paul also faced some type of ailment, which he called a “thorn” in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7). We do not know exactly what it was, but it was severe enough that he asked God three times to remove it. Three times God refused. Paul suffered in many ways, yet he never gave up on the churches. He returned as often as he could to review their progress. He wrote letters either to encourage or chastise as the case warranted, but he never quit. God’s grace was sufficient for him to make it through until the end of his life. Tradition states that he died a martyr’s death at the hand of a Roman Emperor.

Like any other relationship, church relationships have problem as well. Somehow we get the idea that churches will be perfect, that there will be no problems or conflicts, and that everyone will be happy all the time. Unfortunately, reality is not so. Instead of giving up on the church, “we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Romans 15:1). The author of Hebrews said, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24-25). So when we stay at home refusing to attend church because of the hypocrites or whatever, we are actually being disobedient to God’s will. As they say, if you ever find a perfect church, don’t join it. You will mess it up.

The Benefit of Self-Control

In the summer of 1968 I began to experience some troubling physical symptoms. I suffered from extreme thirst and hunger. I ate a lot of food and drank a lot of water, but that never satisfied my hunger or my thirst. In spite of all that I ate, I was rapidly losing weight. I always felt tired and nauseated. Nothing alleviated the symptoms.

Extreme dehydration set it. I looked like a skeleton. I became so weak I could not walk and could scarcely stand. When it got to where I could not even sit up, my parents took me to the emergency room. After hearing my symptoms and examining me, the doctor told my parents that I had juvenile diabetes. Today this is known as Type 1 diabetes. It is not the type you hear about most often in the news. Type 1 diabetes results from the body’s inability to regulate the level of glucose in the blood due to a lack of insulin production.

Normal people control their blood glucose levels through their pancreas. When blood sugar levels begin to rise after a meal, the body produces a hormone which stimulates production of insulin in the pancreas. Within a short time, blood glucose levels fall to a normal range. You do not usually have to think about it. You just eat and your body takes care of itself. It controls itself from within.

My body, however cannot control itself internally. Something caused my pancreas to stop production of insulin in my body. From the time shortly after my tenth birthday, I had to learn to control my blood sugar externally. I had to learn to give myself regular insulin injections every day. As I got older it went to twice, then three times a day. In addition I had to test my urine for sugar and other by products as well as carefully regulating everything I ate. That meant no more candy, no more fried foods.

That first Thanksgiving and Christmas for me were very difficult. I could not eat sweet potatoes with marshmallows, no more pecan or pumpkin pie. I could eat meat and green beans and a small amount of dressing. To top it off, I had to exercise regularly.

For the last almost fourteen years I am connected twenty-four/seven to a machine that continually pumps man-made insulin into my body. I now wear a blood glucose monitor that checks my glucose levels all day and all night. Still I have to prick my fingertips several times a day to calibrate the blood glucose monitor. All the while I have to be concerned about the short term effects of low blood sugar, which can result in loss of consciousness. I also worry about the long term effects of high blood sugar, which in time, can result in blindness, amputation, and dialysis.

How much better and easier my life would be if I could self-regulate those levels. Because I cannot control myself internally, I must impose control externally. All the painful sticks and prods constantly remind me of the need for self-control.

In the same way as a society, if we cannot control ourselves from within, control must be imposed from without. Today we hear lots about control of various types. We hear of gun control, riot control; and some want internet control.

Children at home must learn to respect and obey their parents. If they do not learn that at home, they will not respect and obey their teachers at school. If they do not learn respect and obedience there, they will not respect and obey the police and governing officials. That may result in criminal behavior requiring external control as well. Finally, if respect and obedience are not learned there, they may rebel against the ultimate Authority Figure—God.

A society that cannot self-regulate may wind up in a police state where control is imposed externally. That could result in the loss of many freedoms that we have taken for granted for decades. We could lose our freedom to speak, freedom to assemble peacefully, even the freedom to worship openly. It has happened in several places around the world.

In Galatians 5:22, the Apostle Paul spoke of the fruit of the Spirit. Part of that fruit was the fruit of self-control. As followers of Christ particularly, we should show the fruit of self-control in our lives, moderation in drink, moderation in eating, moderation in dress, moderation in entertainment. I am not talking about censorship. That would be external control. I am talking about internal monitoring. Just as the body monitors blood glucose and then kicks in insulin, so we need to monitor ourselves for lack of self-control. When we see an area of our live that is out of balance, we need to exercise self-control.

We will not be able to survive as a free society if we keep blaming everybody and everything else for our troubles. Guns don’t kill people. Spoons do not cause obesity and pencils do not misspell words. We need to strike the right kind of balance in our lives. We need to take responsibility for our own actions. After all, if we do not learn to control ourselves, someone else will.

Why No Peace on Earth?

In the 2000 movie Miss Congeniality, Sandra Bullock played an undercover police officer going behind the scenes in a beauty pageant to uncover a terrorist threat. She posed as a beauty contestant. The comedy ensued when a dowdy police officer trained to become a beautiful contestant. She had never been in a beauty contest before, so she had to learn how to behave like a contestant. During the interview portion of the contest, she was asked what she wanted most. Many of the other contestants had said “world peace.” Sandra’s character, on the other hand, requested stiffer penalties for repeat offenders. This did not fit the pattern of beauty contestants. The crowd sat there stunned, then they follow with silence. Finally, she changed her answer to “world peace,” and the crowd cheered. Everyone wants world peace.

At the announcement of Christ’s birth, the angels said, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14). So everyone believed that once Christ came, there should always be peace on earth; but wars and unrests have been a regular part of most of recorded human history.

As we enter this New Year, skeptics may be asking, “Why no peace on earth? If God promised it, then why aren’t we experiencing it? ” The misperception comes because we misunderstand the angels’ message. When we look at some of our favorite Christmas carols, we see the repeated theme of angel choirs, of angels singing in chorus. We sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Angels We Have Heard on High,” and we have developed the idea that angels are bunch of choirboys.

Luke 2:13 says, “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host.” The word “host,” does not indicate a choir. Rather the Greek word indicates several strata of military beings, in other words, an army. This passage also does not say that they were singing. It says, “Praising God, and saying,” not singing. Nothing here says anything about “Angels sweetly singing o’er the plains.”

Many times in the Old Testament, God was called, “the Lord of hosts.” The Hebrew word “hosts” there also means an army. It means people prepared for battle. When referring to the angels, it does not refer to a choir, but rather an army. Isaiah 36 tells the story of the Assyrian King Sennacherib leading an army of 185,000 soldiers against the people of Judah. Judah’s King Hezekiah turned to the Lord his God and asked for protection. God sent one angel; and that one angel killed all 185,000 soldiers at one time. God does not lead choirboys, but soldiers.

Before an army would conquer a city, they would send representatives to the king or leader of that city. They would give him time either to surrender or face battle. When an army came, the leader of the city wanted to know if they came for peace or for conquest. If you are living in a walled city, and you saw a large army coming over the horizon, that would give you reason for worry. You would wonder what their intentions were—war or peace.

Why did Luke describe the shepherds as “sore afraid”? Why be afraid of choir? If one angel could destroy 185,000 soldiers, imagine what a band of angels could do. Do you see now why shepherds were afraid? Were these angels coming in peace, or to destroy the earth? So they announced their intentions. “Peace on earth, good will toward men.” They were coming only to bring a message, not war. The Luke passage does not indicate that there would be peace on earth and an end to war. It was simply the angels stating that they had come in peace.

Another term for the Messiah found in Isaiah 9:6 was “Prince of Peace.” Many think that when the Messiah had come, the world should experience peace. Even though this refers to the Messiah as the Prince of Peace, Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to ‘set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law’” (Matthew 10:34). As a sword separates, so he would separate people from one another.

There will be no peace on earth until the Prince of Peace begins his reign on earth. Now he rules in the hearts of people who have received him as their Lord and Savior. This is one way he divides people. We choose either one of two camps, either to serve our own purposes, or to renounce all, and serve his purposes. When all are serving him, then peace will reign.

Until that time we will experience a lack of peace. In Matthew 24:6 Jesus said there would be wars and rumors of wars until the end. As long as people are self-serving, there will be unrest. When we come under Christ’s control, he will bring peace. He brings inner peace, and one day he will bring world peace. In the meantime, we need to respond as the shepherds did. They responded, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us…And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.” (Luke 2:15). So go tell the Good News of Jesus’ coming to die for our sins and rising again so we could experience true peace. Jesus said, “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

THE BABE IN THE MANGER

Around this time every year, various traditions celebrate the birth of Christ, whether we celebrate in December, or January in other cultures. In many places you can see manger scenes of the Shepherds, Mother Mary and Joseph standing over a babe in the manger with the Wise Men in the background. Though some may dispute the accuracy of such a scene, it is embedded in our culture.

We call Christmas celebrating Jesus’ birthday. In every scenario, He is a baby. Imagine if we celebrated our birthdays the same way we celebrate His. Suppose that every year on your birthday, your parents pulled out your baby pictures and showed them to all your friends, and they talked about all the people who came to see you in the hospital. You might protest, “Hey, I grew up. I’m not that baby anymore.”

I wonder if Jesus ever feels the same way when we celebrate His birthday. As a baby, He does not intimidate us. As a baby, He cannot command us. As a baby He gets all His needs met through His mother. All we can do is look on and admire, and be happy that we have no other responsibility to that babe in the manger. As a Baby, He can make no demands on us.

We need to remind ourselves that He grew up. He did not stay in that manger long. At age twelve He went about His Father’s business at the Temple. At age thirty He began His public ministry. At age thirty-three He died for our sins on the cross. As the ascended Lord, He demands our allegiance. As the returning Lord, he demands accountability.

In Luke 14:26-27, Jesus laid out His demands to follow Him. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” He is to be our top priority in life. Following Him requires renouncing the self-direction of our own lives. That is intimidating.

Christ is no longer a babe in a manger. He came to earth to be our Lord and Savior. He is coming again to establish His kingdom on earth. In the meantime, He is calling people to follow Him. In this time of grace, He gives people the choice to follow or not. So this year as you are celebrating Christ’s birthday, remember that He grew up. He taught and accomplished great things. He invites you to take up your cross and follow Him in service. Will you pick up that cross and follow him?