By Emily Stambau
“For the fates of both men and beasts are the same: As one dies, so dies the other—they all have the same breath. Man has no advantage over the animals, since everything is futile. All go to one place: All come from dust, and all return to dust.”
It starts with dust.
Primordial soil pulled from the ground, refined of its impurities, and mixed with water becomes a supple and velvety substance,
ready to be pulled and rolled and shaped by a firm touch: a curve here, a curl there.
Seasoned hands, weathered by age and the harshness of stone, unleash will and whim onto wieldy clay,
fingers falling into familiar rhythms, both delicate and authoritative.
From the shapeless, anonymous earth, a vessel begins to appear
as empty expanse breaks the continuity of earthy red mud.
That vacant space, adamantly wishing to contain,
whether it be food, water, secrets or precious memories,
will be subject to being emptied and filled again and again.
It finds itself at the heart of our rituals;
Young mom, bleary-eyed, stumbling for coffee each dawn, grandmother stirring honey into evening chamomile, priest lifting wine towards the ceiling,
“Cup of salvation, poured out for you.”
Over its lifetime, it is held to many gentle lips, touched by many fingertips.
Until finally, a slip of a hand leads to a shattering of stone,
And, left to degrade, shards become slivers become soil,
And all returns to dust.
On the first day of an introductory college art class taken on a complete whim, I found myself moved to reverential tears just watching my professor push and pull clay with ease on a pottery wheel; from that moment, I knew it was the medium I most wanted to master. Subsequently, the rest of the year was consumed with clay; I dreamt about it, read about it, and spent hours upon hours in a pottery studio learning and marveling at the transformative process that turns a pile of mud into a work of art. For months, my focus was solely on technical improvement-- mastering the skill of centering clay on a wheel, creating aesthetically-pleasing forms, and structuring the movements of my hands to change the flow of wet dirt. However, as the tasks of pottery-making became less laborious and difficult with time and practice, my attention began to wander from the mechanics of wheel-throwing to the qualities present in clay beyond the physical. During that time, I was in the midst of some significant life changes, and the pottery studio became a place to process the shifts occurring in my own heart and in the world around me. As I worked away at the wheel, I started to feel connected to the pieces I was making, and without realizing it, some of my biggest personal and theological questions were being worked out in the ripples and curves of the dirt.
One of the most wondrous characteristics of clay I came to appreciate during this time is that it is so easily recycled and reworked. It is a shockingly forgiving material, given the fact that clay begins and ends as stone. This lovely cyclical nature takes soil through an amalgam of stages: from rock, to dust, to a slurry of mud, and eventually back to rigid rock and then dust once again. During the precious middle stages, this once-brittle substance becomes supple, lending itself to mistakes and changes-- with proper care and storage, one could spend an entire lifetime reworking a masterpiece until it bears the likeness so desired by its maker. Alongside clay and all of Creation, we too are malleable in this way. We are being made new by a risen and victorious Christ (Rev. 21:5), and are often begrudgingly in need of direction and formation by a God who honestly beholds us and knows our idiosyncrasies intimately, a craftsman who knows the best ways to fashion us into masterpieces. When I push back against the guiding hands of my Maker out of stubbornness, I am reminded of the words of the prophet Isaiah (45:9):
“Does the clay say to the potter, 'What are you making?'
Does your work say, 'The potter has no hands’?”
It is quite humbling to acknowledge that, despite the impulsive and strong desire for complete autonomy and self-direction, we are indeed created beings. Of the many metaphors used to describe God, the title “Creator” is brimming with such richness. It implies so much more than ownership, and feels even more intimate than the relationship between a parent and a child. To create, to birth something into existence out of pure imagination, carries with it a deep sense of love, deliberation, inspiration, and affection towards the created.
It is not uncommon to feel this kind of fondness towards an inanimate piece of pottery as it is pulled fresh from the fire, glistening from the intense heat that turned mud into stone. Moving raw clay through a multi-stage journey to a finished product requires several days of shaping, drying, and firing in a kiln, and an immaculate vase or teapot can fill the maker with sheer delight at the end of this process. Even the simplest piece carries the cherished memory of the creative process that went into it, and will serve as a sweet reminder of its emergence into the world every time it is used, whether it be as a soup bowl or a soap dish. While some pottery is made to be exclusively decorative, much of it is destined for kitchen countertops and windowsills, created to be filled with coffee and daffodils, ready to serve a lifetime of daily function and crafted with a situation in mind.
We are God’s quality craftsmanship, His magnum opus, His final flourish at the end of a truly good Creation. At the end of an intense outpouring of creative energy that resulted in the sweetness of raspberries, the lilt of a nightingale’s tune, and the crystalline configuration of an infinite number of snowflakes, He spun humans from the dust and breathed life into our bones (Gen. 2:7). Unlike many great masterpieces, however, the splendor of the human body is not meant to be hung on a wall and admired from ten feet back; we are innately utilitarian. Our lungs are meant for a deep, steadying breath before a speech that alters the course of a nation; our fingers are nimble in order to push miniscule seeds into garden beds and carefully nurture tender stems and leaves; our eyes are fashioned for gazes that express unadulterated love to a newborn child when words are incomprehensible; our arms are designed to be stretched out in spacious and exuberant hospitality to strangers, foreigners, and anyone in need of rest. We were created to be co-creators, image-bearers, and peace-bringers, and we are being continuously molded by strong and tender Hands into vessels made to be filled with the Spirit of God, made to pour out shalom into a hurting world.
The movement of clay under my hands pulls me into a posture of gratitude, knowing I am an intentionally-created being. It leaves me with a fuller awareness that all humans were pulled from dust, molded into the likeness intended by a masterful Potter, and are made to be repeatedly filled and emptied and filled again with breath, water, bread and wine. We are brushed by the lips of others, cherished and held close by the hands of parents, friends, children, brothers and sisters. And, despite the emotional distance from death that can be quite comfortable to exist in, we are indeed finite. We get chipped and cracked by the harshness of the world, but can be pieced together again to contain life and joy. As we are weathered by time and experience, our bodies start to return to a state of fragility; our bones become more brittle, our minds less malleable, and we are less responsive to the firm push and pull of the world around us. In this state, the dust from which we were crafted more poignantly stirs in the heart.
Rock. Dust. Moldable mud. Rock. And eventually, we too return to dust.
Yet, as we settle to rest, we have the opportunity to relinquish a desperate clinging to our previous state. In the midst of a downcast and mournful aching for the beauty that has been lost, there is a quiet, expectant hum in the air. We can fall gently and untroubled back to the earth from which we came, for we hold fast to the memory of divine breath pouring into our nostrils from a Creator who loves resurrection, and thus wait patiently for the dust to stir again.