There Is Endless Potential in the Clay: A Lectionary Reflection on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139


Welcome to the tenth and final post in a special summer series of guest posts featuring lectionary-based reflections on health. We offer these reflections in the hope that in these weeks, you’ll consider the lectionary readings in a new light — one of health and wholeness. We post the reflections on Wednesdays, a week and a half prior to the Sundays on which the readings fall.

Our tenth guest post is by Ed Moore, reflecting on Jeremiah 18:1-11 and Psalm 139.* 

When I was a student at Duke Divinity School, I considered becoming an archaeologist. I had toyed with the idea as an undergraduate (religion major, as many “pre-mini’s” were back then) and then attended a lecture by Duke’s renowned Eric Meyers on his recent dig in the Middle East. I was fascinated as Meyers explained that strata in a ruin inhabited across millennia by different peoples could accurately be dated by identifying the various types of pottery.

With just a few shards, an expert could give a fair estimate of the date when this or that group “owned” the place. I thought my interest in archaeology had been shelved when I opted for the pastoral ministry, only to discover within a few months of arriving in my first appointment (a congregation founded in 1788 – Asbury preached there several times, the locals were quick to say) that identifying strata in a congregation’s past was nearly as demanding as digging up Nineveh. And some of the pottery shards were, well, surprising.

9371760700_d5ac835f13_hJeremiah knew about potters, their wheels and shards. In the reading for September 8, he imagines Yahweh sitting at the wheel, shaping the destinies of nations, just as a potter would a common vessel. As preaching technique, this is powerful stuff. Everyone who heard Jeremiah had seen potters at their wheels, and watched them gently form the wet clay into the desired shape. Occasionally the potter would be dissatisfied with the way the work was going, would collapse the clay back into a lump, and would start all over again. The shape hadn’t been right, and the work needed a fresh beginning. Just as Jesus’ parables drew upon the commonplace to connect with his listeners – lost sheep, prodigal offspring – so Jeremiah used everyday imagery as a vehicle for the prophetic Word. If you heard Jeremiah describe God at the wheel, you would remember the sermon next time you passed the neighborhood potter’s shop.

This time of year tends to evoke memories for United Methodist pastors, since many of us began serving new appointments on the first of July. It is inevitable that, as we leave one place of ministry for another, we reflect back upon what was good – and not – in the place we’ve been. If we’re not careful, we begin to dwell upon the “if only” scenario: if only I had been more pastorally sensitive in that situation five years ago, I’d have avoided serious conflict. If only I’d been more decisive in dealing with that difficult staff issue, the congregation would have been healthier. If only I’d been a better listener, preacher, counselor, manager, fund raiser . . . you get the idea. Yes, of course, the New Jerusalem would have descended had I only gotten my act together.

But I didn’t, and now it’s moving time again. This sort of selective remembering is really an archaeological dig. As we go down through the layers of ministry, we find shards of what-might-have-been. We gaze fondly upon them (as the Puritans loved to say), pick them up, and allow their sharp edges to wound us afresh. Each one is a stark reminder of some brokenness, either in ourselves or in the parishes we served. Stratum after stratum, year after year, they surface, each a relic of some shortcoming or missed opportunity.

When I was assigned the lections for September 8 and read again that passage from Jeremiah, I remembered a church camp experience from years ago. At the end of the week we had a consecration service (the planners weren’t clear about the meaning of that theological term, but meant well), in which we were asked to recall some sin we needed to confess. We were to write it down on a piece of paper, fold it up, and toss it in the campfire as we all sang, “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” You know the lyrics, straight from Jeremiah, “Have thine own way, Lord, have thine own way! Thou art the potter, I am the clay. Mold me and make me, after thy will . . .”

8329324494_2572067fa7When we allow those freshly re-dug shards from the past to wound us, we miss the grace the Psalmist understood so well when she wrote, “O Lord, you have searched me and known me . . . and are acquainted with all my ways. . . In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them yet existed.” It’s helpful to hear the Psalmist’s words through the prism of that old hymn. God, as Jeremiah imagined God at the potter’s wheel, is constantly about the work of re-forming when something gets out of shape, because there is endless potential in the clay. Lord, help us wait, “yielded and still,” for the gracious, reshaping touch of the Spirit.


Ed Moore is the Director of Educational Programs for the Clergy Health Initiative, and an ordained elder in the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Questions for Reflection

• Our memories are imperfect, and as such they can wound long after the fact. Why is that shard from a past ministry still hurting you? Why do you dig it up so often? The process of remembering can itself can become unhealthy, overweight with baggage that dulls the spirit. How can the healing of your memories begin?

• Sometimes it is helpful to note what scripture does not say. In this passage from Jeremiah, the prophet doesn’t mention the importance of water in the potter’s craft; he assumed everyone knew it. The potter always works with wet hands, shaping the clay until it yields to his skill. The waters of baptism are on the Spirit’s hands, too, molding the clay of your life and shaping it gracefully. How can the memory of your baptism be a means of healing and wholeness for you?

* These reflections first appeared in the collection, “Connecting the Mind, Body and Spirit: Reflections on Health,” produced by the Duke Clergy Health Initiative in summer 2010.

“Nothing is lost, Jesus says”


The spiritual discipline of Lectio Divina ( is a practice that was part of the winter workshops held for our final cohort of Spirited Life pastors. Kept alive by the Benedictine monastics, Lectio Divina’s four traditional steps are read, meditate, pray and contemplate. In the slow, deliberate reading of a selected passage, Lectio Divina is not used to gain scriptural information but “as an aide to contact the living God”.

DSC_0114The passage used at the workshops was John 6:1-14, the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand. Since we were in a corporate space, we dimmed the lights and invited the pastors to listen as the scripture was read slowly and thoughtfully. After each reading of the passage, the pastors were invited to speak a world thought or phrase that resonated with them. The full exercise was concluded with prayer and a moment of silence.

Rev. Dr. Tom Steagald, a Cohort 3 Spirited Life pastor, wrote a blog entry about his personal experience with Lectio Divina while attending his Spirited Life winter workshop. Through his experience, Rev. Steagald invites us to consider this passage in an interesting way. Instead of considering this story through the lens of Jesus or the boy that provided the fish and loaves of bread, Steagald invites us to consider that perhaps we are “the leftovers” collected after Jesus had fed everyone. He poses the question this way:

“But what if, on the other side of that, I am the “leftovers”: one of the scraps cast aside when the crowd is sated? A piece of what I used to be, just a crust? The best part of me, after all these years, just eaten up by the crowds; there is nothing much left to be done with me but to be cast aside, on the ground, away?”


Here is the link to his full blog entry entitled, “Nothing is lost, Jesus says” and read just how Pastor Tom’s experience with Lectio Divina revealed a different perspective for him.

-Angela M. MacDonald

(Top image by Donn Young for the Clergy Health Initiative, lower image by flickr user hoyasmeg via creative commons)


Be Opened


Don’t miss the news about the winner of this week’s giveaway on Monday’s post, and check in with us next Monday for another fun giveaway!

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Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.  -Mark 7

5568630893_f507c93bac_bSometimes I come across something—a poem or a prayer or a piece of artwork—and it just sort of undoes me. I just had that sort of moment, and I’m struggling to wrestle something big and glorious and TRUE into this space here, because I’m excited to share it with you.

This morning a co-worker sent me a link to this sermon delivered yesterday by Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber at the Festival of Homiletics that took place this week in Nashville. In his email my coworker wrote, “I thought about it as a blog post, but I’m not sure what I’d pull out or what I could add to it. The whole thing is terrific.” And that’s just it. What more can you say when faced with words of truth that knock you clean off your feet? But I’m going to try, because I’m stubborn like that.

What Nadia is getting at in her sermon is the ways in which we all tend to look for the most “broken” person in our midst, and get all holy, praying for God to heal THAT person over there. She examines the otherwise-unnamed “They” in the passage above, and how “They” begged Jesus to heal their friend.

Hey Jesus – we, the people who are just fine brought you the broken guy so you can fix him… I can’t help feeling like it would have been more realistic if all of the THEYs who brought the deaf man to Jesus would have also sought healing for themselves… But that’s not how we operate, see. We tend to let the obviously broken people carry all the brokenness for us. 

The scripture doesn’t tell us what the deaf man himself wanted, but it does tell us particularly that Jesus took the man aside “in private, away from the crowd.” And what Nadia points out is that the words Jesus uses to effect healing in the deaf man is not “be healed” but “be opened.”

We so often think healing is about identifying what’s wrong and then having that thing cured, but I wonder if spiritual healing has more to do with being opened than it does with being cured.

Because, let’s be honest, it’s usually easier to not change and it’s painful to be open and healing can hurt. Like a frostbite patient … when the blood comes back into the extremities it’s incredibly painful.  It can actually be more comfortable to allow parts of ourselves to die than to feel them have new life. Because sometimes healing feels more like death and resurrection than it feels like getting a warm cookie and glass of milk.

4830635905_a95577a3cd_bRev. Nadia had me at “be opened.” Part of my own story is that I lost my father to cancer earlier this year, after months of dear and faithful friends praying for his healing. Now, cancer is an evil disease, truly, and praying for healing is a good thing to do, but for my dad, he wasn’t healed—at least not from the cancer—which caused a lot of pain for those who were faithfully praying for healing. But you know what he was?—he was opened. He was fully opened to the love and presence of God, in a way that I’ve never seen him, even after six decades of good and faithful Jesus-following. And that was truly a miracle that I got to witness.

Beyond my own story, though, is the reminder that this sermon was explicitly crafted for and delivered to PASTORS. It’s important, I think, not to miss this point, because it’s those of us who spend our lives working for the care and healing of others who often miss how deeply in need of healing WE are. So I invite you to click on this link, invest the six minutes that it takes to read this piece thoughtfully, and prayerfully consider what Jesus is saying to you today. I am praying with you, for the healing of us all.

Be opened to what Jesus is saying to you.

Be opened to the idea that your value isn’t in working 60 hours a week for people who might not even be paying attention.

Be opened to knowing that your own brokenness doesn’t need to be hidden behind someone else’s brokenness.

Be opened to the idea that you are stronger than you think.

Be opened to the idea that you aren’t as strong as you think.

Be opened to the fact that you may not ever get what you want and that you will actually be ok anyway.

Be opened to this whole Gospel of Jesus Christ thing actually, actually, actually being real. And actually being FOR YOU.

Because maybe that’s what healing really is.

Since the radical reign of God that Jesus ushers in destroys the systems of designated sick people and designated well people so that all that is left is a single category of people – children of God. 

–Caren Swanson

Top image by flickr user Vincent_AF, lower image by flickr user Jenny Downing, both used with permission via Creative Commons

My Shepherd will supply my need


3572328047_c6a43d6cdb_b (1)-001I found myself so moved and comforted by the lectionary readings at church yesterday. What beautiful reminders of God’s sheltering love for us! After a week of feeling so vulnerable, I needed the reminder that God prepares a table for me, right in the presence of my enemies. God doesn’t wait for the world to be perfect to show me hospitality, care, and provision. At my church we sang the hymn, “My Shepherd will supply my need,” which really brought the truth of this home. I hope you enjoy the lyrics, written by Isaac Watts, and the lovely rendition below by the Baylor A Cappella Choir, this time (ironically!) with beautiful accompaniment including an oboe (one of my favorites!)

my shepherd

Caren Swanson

Image from flickr user harold.lloyd via Creative Commons, with text added by Caren Swanson


Collected tears


photo-001I have been struggling all week with today’s blog post. Monday’s post went up in the early afternoon, before the tragedy in Boston, and the post scheduled for Wednesday was on the topic of reconciliation, which felt appropriate to post, but here I am, at nearly 2 on Friday afternoon, and I still don’t have anything that seems right to share for today.

The truth is, this Boston thing has shaken me. Partly because I’m from New England, and Boston is “my city.” Partly because I have numerous friends who live there, and many who were involved with the marathon in some degree or another. Partly because I have loved ones who are runners and have run or are working toward running the Boston Marathon. Partly because it was such a beautiful, perfect day, and in some naive part of me, beauty and evil just don’t mix.

Monday found me home in New Hampshire for a long weekend visiting my mom and my sister and her family after the recent arrival of my niece. I literally spent the day cradling the tiny body of my 13-day-old niece and chasing after my two young nephews, and the news of the attack sent a shudder through my body. What kind of world are we raising our children in? was my first frantic thought. What will I tell my 8-year-old when she asks me why everyone is talking about Boston?  

The only answer I can give is that this is a broken world, marred by sin, by that line between good and evil, which runs through the heart of every one of us**. This world is one in which too many people live every day “in the valley of the shadow of death,” rocked by violence and destruction, wrecked by poverty and lack. And yet this is the world that that God “so loved… that he sent his only begotten Son.”  This is the world where people ran toward the bomb explosion on Monday’s sunny afternoon, in the hope of saving others. This is the world where I get to jump on a plane and fly a thousand miles away to spend days snuggling a sweet newborn.  This is that very same world.

And even though Boston is in lock-down today, leaving that beautiful, vibrant city a ghost town, and even though West, Texas, was nearly blown off the map by a terrible explosion two days ago, God does not leave us alone to muddle through all of this. God sees our tears, counts them, even. And the Holy Spirit works mysteriously, even through such things as the lectionary, whose assigned Psalm for this Sunday is that old favorite, and source of so much comfort in times of trial: the 23rd. For all of this, and so much more, I am grateful.


Caren Swanson

Top image by Caren Swanson. Lower image created by Caren Swanson, with the original photo by flickr user 55Laney69 used with permission via Creative Commons.

** “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
― Aleksandr SolzhenitsynThe Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956