Good Materials – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith Nelson

Jeremiah 18:1-12
Matthew 20:17-28

At various points in my life I have learned things about the artistic process from people who are genuine masters. As a student and an amateur (that is, a non-professional lover of art) I have admired several traits that masters seem to have in common, especially when they have swooped in and lovingly rescued my work from disaster. A master of any art will not let her media dictate the results of her intended project. Neither, having painstakingly chosen her materials, will she forsake the medium and its potential if it proves sub-optimal once the artistic process has begun. A master has the training, the inner resources, the perspective, and the tools to respond and to adapt, to re-calibrate his vision and expectations if the block of marble or batch of gesso or piece of wood reveal faults or surprises. This is a powerful and mysterious dance to witness: the artist’s respect for the material calls forth a genuinely two-sided conversation. If the student is too deferential or too dominating toward the materials (and I have been both), the result is either a monologue or an argument. Neither produce good art. 

Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.

These words from Jeremiah have the potential to land upon our ears and our hearts as distinctly comforting… or distinctly terrifying. To be the materials, or the medium, might seem to imply that we do not bear any responsibility – that we can abdicate our role in the conversation in deference to the divine artist. On the other hand, the image of the potter and the pot might seem to imply a passivity on our part that deprives us of any agency we would hope to legitimately exercise as children of God. If we bear some dim reflection of the Artist whose master work we are created to be, how can we be lifeless lumps of clay at the same time?

But following Jeremiah’s lead, we can choose to adopt the perspective of the master rather than the student artist. There is a creative synergy between God and God’s people: though God is entirely sovereign, the maker of heaven and earth, we are called to be collaborators with God in the working out of our salvation. God desires our sensitive response in a two-sided conversation. If you are a potter, or have watched a skilled potter at work, you’ll know that the centrifugal force of the spinning clay on the potter’s wheel exerts its own pressure against the hands of the potter. This pressure is a necessary, dynamic element in the process. 

Instead of fearful deference, we are called to mature surrender in love. Instead of anxious domination, we are called to speak and to listen in a loving and balanced interchange. Because God is a master artist, God’s skill and resourcefulness are capable of bringing about a positive outcome – a whole and useful vessel – no matter what the quality of the clay. But the kind of shape that emerges is a result of the dance or the conversation rather than the sheer willpower of the artist. 

With clay, the flexibility of the medium is at its most extreme. As long as the work has not yet reached the glazing and firing stage in the process, even a pot that has been shaped in great detail can be submerged in water, collapsed, and once again become an amorphous lump pregnant with unseen potential. In this season of Lent, the practice may be to see ourselves as good materials in the hands of a master artist – as both surrendered and responsive; deeply respected by our maker; and flexible enough to be formed and re-formed as often as the work requires. 

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