Life as a Clay Rembrandt

There are days I don’t feel like much. I’ve never been much possessed of a sense of my own strength or ability or beauty. I have days of introspection and self doubt. But it was in such a period recently that I stumbled upon Paul’s words in his second letter to the church of Corinth, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay…’ (2 Corinthians 4:7) They’re words I’ve kept on returning to.

There’s a painting of Paul I love; a Rembrandt. It’s a beautiful piece. It might be my favourite painting. Paul the Apostle sits at his writing desk penning part of the New Testament. Pen arm slung over the back of his chair, he seems to be contemplating what to write down next.

De apostel Paulus aan zijn schrijftafel

Saint Paul at his Writing-Desk Wikipedia

The composition is perfect, the play of soft light and shadow is masterful as is, above all, Rembrandt’s sensitivity to capture the heart and soul of someone in their face and posture. Rembrandt’s love affair with brown doesn’t always pull off but here it’s just right. But a confession: although I always thought of it as a lovely picture itself I didn’t, until recently, really think it quite worked as a picture of Paul. Paul the intrepid traveler, crossing dangerous terrain and seas to spread the message of Jesus, shipwrecked, attacked, jailed is, in my mind,  a fiery, steely eyed bull dog of a man who fought hard. Here though he looks, to be honest, like he’s just about had it. Maybe Rembrandt foisted his own particular glumness onto him.

But as I’ve chewed over those words of his I’ve wondered if it hasn’t actually been me who’s brought my own assumptions and laid them over Paul. There would’ve been plenty of days Paul would’ve felt just like this. He doesn’t describe himself as a bull dog but as a clay jar.

Clay is wonderful stuff. I remember at uni discovering the joy of working with it. It’s a warm and intimate material. It can be shaped into whatever you want. I have a friend who makes really lovely and meaningful objects with clay. I like it.

jars

But clay isn’t fancy. Part of the joy of working with clay is its messy tactility – for the childlike part of you that never quite got over playing in the mud. Clay isn’t that far removed from soil, really. Maybe Paul had in mind God’s creation of humanity from dirt in Genesis 2:7, ‘Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground…’ It certainly isn’t gold or diamonds. It’s easy to come by and cheap. As I pondered all this and thought of buying a little clay jar to sit on my desk as a reminder of it all it struck me that my house and garden are full of clay vessels. A shelf in a kitchen cupboard is packed with mugs. All sorts. There’s a few lovely hand made gifts but most are mass produced $2 gear. On the other side of the kitchen are a couple of shelves of multiple sets of plates. Outside, my little cactus sits in a tiny black pot and a stack of dead plants sit in bigger ones. They’re all used for ordinary, every day tasks.

And it breaks. My goodness, just last night I pulled another mug out of the dishwasher to discover a crack up the inside. Why?! What’s next, my beloved Picasso mug? Is there no hope? As I get older that brittle fragility begins to resonate more.

IMG_1046

Beloved Picasso Mug

Mainly, what’s really important about most clay vessels isn’t they themselves but what they hold. As Paul looks at himself; pretty ordinary, not impressive by the standards of the church he’s writing to, starting to crack with age and normal mortality and just tired, he isn’t despondent. In fact he’s alarmingly confident. I’m trying to learn what Paul knew. Within a culture that finds the value of a person in what they’re able to achieve, a humanist worldview proclaiming ‘Yes you can! And you need to…’ and worst, a proud heart that wants all this to be true, what I am learning to hold onto is the truth that the clay pot isn’t the treasure itself… but there’s treasure within.

 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6)

The message of Jesus – that God is known in Jesus Christ as he hung and died on a cross – that’s treasure. The message of forgiveness and new life for everyone who trusts in Jesus’ death in their place. It’s that message which is light shining in darkness. That message which brings life to the dead and hope to the hopeless. Not my skills and ability. Not my health or strength. Not my personality.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

That, and that alone, drove Paul on when he no doubt felt like a Rembrandt painting. Not his abilities, skills or traits. But that he had a message in his heart through which God gave him life that can’t be crushed and through which God gives life to others. And so he spoke it. And so must I.

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John Donne: A Hymn to God the Father

This poem struck me when I first read it, and many times since. It captures the Christian’s heart so simply and beautifully and has been my prayer. I won’t go on about it – I just wanted to share it.

I
Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun,
Which is my sin, though it were done before?
Wilt thou forgive that sin, through which I run,
And do run still: though still I do deplore?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

II
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I have won
Others to sin? and, made my sin their door?
Wilt thou forgive that sin which I did shun
A year, or two, but wallowed in a score?
When thou hast done, thou hast not done,
For I have more.

III
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thy self, that at my death thy son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And having done that, thou hast done,
I fear no more.

1633

a good friday to you

By George Herbert1593–1633

Love bade me welcome, yet my soul drew back,
               Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-ey’d Love, observing me grow slack
               From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
               If I lack’d any thing.
“A guest,” I answer’d, “worthy to be here”;
               Love said, “You shall be he.”
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? ah my dear,
               I cannot look on thee.”
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
               “Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marr’d them; let my shame
               Go where it doth deserve.”
“And know you not,” says Love, “who bore the blame?”
               “My dear, then I will serve.”
“You must sit down,” says Love, “and taste my meat.”
               So I did sit and eat.
How incredible that love should shine so brightly on so dark a day. When we think of love it’s usually so sunny and carefree – love sweeps us up and chases the clouds away, makes it all better etc. But real love has a cost, and had a cost, which I still cannot fathom.
This poem by George Herbert doesn’t dwell on the events of that dark day, but on the outcome. How is that so many of us take for granted the idea that if God does in fact live up in heaven we should be able to assume that we can have access to him and his help and love, despite never acknowledging his presence except when it suits us. we wouldn’t treat another like this, and wouldn’t expect a warm reception if we did. But we do with God, if we don’t completely reject him altogether.
And here the wonder-full love of God, that Jesus should take the blame. That by placing my trust in him I could come in to God’s house and eat with him… many say this demeans us. The fact that someone so incredible should pour such incredible, costly love onto me begs to differ.
There’s much more I could say about this delightful poem, perhaps another time. Today I want to simply remember such love that calls me, yes even me, to come in and eat, to turn away from my broken past and know him.

I need not deny my guilt and shame to try to live without it… I take it to him, and he has done away with it.

What about you? Does Good Friday mean anything to you?

a short lament

I don’t want to fight, raise an argument, make a case. Christopher Hitchens died today age 62 from cancer. I did pray for him. I haven’t as some apparently have, been praying that he would burn in hell. To such people I have little to say except that despite carrying his name they neither know nor understand the friend of sinners they claim to follow, nor understand how much they themselves deserve to burn in hell, as do we all. It is for sinners like them and Hitchens and myself that Jesus came to die.

No, I simply want to express grief – I feel compelled and think it’s appropriate – at the death of this man but even moreso that he wasn’t reconciled to the God who offered reconciliation on a bloody wooden cross. I didn’t agree with his views, I didn’t enjoy reading his book, but from one sinner to another I had hoped he might even at the end have accepted the offer of forgiveness and new life held out to us all, if we but take it.

…God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us! 
Romans 5.8

a thought

Just want to throw something out there into the vast electronic ether, from one collection of dirt with breath to any others out there:

My whole life is just a cry for mercy from beginning to end. And I’m so thankful my cry for mercy is met with mercy.

That’s all.