Updated: Jan 29
When I was a senior in college, I needed an elective course to meet the graduation requirements. Due to a full course load, I sought a course that would not require much work.
A classmate recommended I take “Hand Molding,” saying it was “a crip course.” So, I signed up for that course my last quarter at school.
Hand molding was a class offered by the School of Art. I had never taken any art courses where I had to actually produce works of art. I had only taken (and enjoyed) one Art History class. I was worried that I might be expected to know preliminary basics of hand molding, which I knew nothing of. That inexperience made me worry that it might be difficult to get a good grade and maintain my honor status. I was worried that I might have to drop the class and find another to replace it at the last possible moment.
At that time in my life, having returned to complete my degree in my early forties, I was under a lot of stress. I had made many sacrifices so I could go back to school. I changed from one full-time job to two part-time jobs, which allowed time for class and homework, but had me working seven days a week. I had taken from my savings to subsidize my income, so I could continue to support my family financially. My well-planned path to the future, via a bachelor’s degree course scheduled and mapped out over 2.5 years (at two colleges), had hit a major road block: my marriage fell apart as I began my senior year and divorce was a fork in the road that I could not ignore. On the verge of graduating with honors, I was suddenly struggling to concentrate on my studies.
On the first day of my Hand Molding class, the teacher alleviated all my fears about needing to have any experience. She said it was a beginner’s class, it would be fun, and the grade would be based on turning in five projects. Each would be based on different hand molding styles. She assured us that no one who completed those tasks would fail.
After going out and buying a 25 lb square chunk of river clay, a plastic tool box, and some assorted gadgets for working with clay, I was ready for the first assigned project. It was called a pinch pot.
The assignment was easy. Take a piece of clay, ball it up, push your thumb into the ball and then make it make it look like an ashtray. It took me 5 minutes.
“That’s it?” I asked the teacher.
“Yep. That’s it,” she said.
I loaded up my books and walked past all the others in the class who were still working on their projects. Getting out of class early let me do some textbook reading and note taking. I liked that crip course.
The next art class, a couple of days later, had me back looking at my puny ashtray and comparing it to all the other works of art my classmates were creating. Everyone else had made elaborate variations on that basic theme, with some still adding delicate details to theirs.
The teacher told us to leave our finished project out to dry when we were done. Otherwise, we were to spray it with a mist of water and keep it covered with plastic so it would remain pliable. That way we could keep working as long as we needed. However, the project had to be completely dry before we could paint our work with glaze and then fire it.
I don’t know if any of you are familiar with pottery glaze, but it is painted on dried clay, so both the clay and glaze give zero luster or shine to a piece of work. The pinch pot would be painted with glaze the art school supplied, because that project would be fired in a simple kiln – Raku style. We were instructed to buy small bottles of regular glaze for use on our future projects. Either way, glazes don’t go on looking like what they will look like after being heated, especially the Raku glazes. Once the glaze is applied to dry clay it dries to a dull, flat state, almost void of color.
Due to the style kiln our first project would be fired in, and the special type of glaze used for that process, there were no guarantees what the finished glaze would look like. We were told to experiment. Often, the teacher told us, the finished work often yields surprising colors.
The firing process used for the pinch pot projects was outside, with propane torches shooting flames into an long, low brick oven. All of the class’ works of art were placed inside that, via the top having a removable lid. After the projects were set inside the oven, one set on top of another, the lid was put in its place.
After a number of hours of flames being forced into the oven, from both ends, the torches were turned off and the top lid was removed. The projects glowed with a translucent appearance. Wads of newspaper had been placed in large metal drums and the glowing works were set into them with care, igniting the paper. That got a lower level burn going to activate some chemical process in the glaze. Finally, using metal tongs, goggles and heavy gloves, the pots were carefully picked out and set it into a shallow pool of water, for the works to cool. Cooling only took a few minutes.
My simple little ashtray was transformed into a beautiful rimmed dish that had an array of bright, shiny colors, making it appear to have had much more effort put into it than it really had.
Not my work, but you can get an idea of the finished look.
Something that was small and less artistic than any of the other works of art in the cooling pool had morphed into a feature of remarkable colors that made it sparkle with beauty. For some reason (unknown to me), my combination of glaze colors worked so well that the results made my other classmates envious. Their glazes had not produced that same radiance.
This firing part of hand molding was exciting. It made me committed to putting more effort into the other projects that were to come. Seeing the result of that changed state made me elated and anxious to do another project.
The days of the week my art class fell was scheduled such that I did not have another class until several hours later. Hand Molding officially started at 11:00 AM and lasted until 1:00 PM, with my next scheduled class at 5:30 PM. Still, art classes are only set up with schedules to satisfy school needs, as art students work on projects whenever they feel like it. That feeling can go well beyond a 2-hour scheduled window. For that reason, the art building where the kilns were located had a coded entry, so all art students could choose when they needed to work on projects, anytime of day.
The hand molding class was indeed for newbies. We were set up in a loft that overlooked where the wheel throwing work was done. That was where the real art students would work towards becoming true potters. We walked past entire sets of china that were stored along walls and under the wooden stairs leading to our loft. Those pieces were the degree projects of dedicated artisans. As I would go to my bench to work on my projects, I could see all the “master potter” works that were set carefully around the workroom, in various states of drying, glazing, and finished ceramics.
I began coming in early and staying late. I became mesmerized by working with my clay. It was truly therapeutic for me and just the feel of the clay had a healing and uplifting effect. All of the weight on my shoulders felt lifted away, as I got lost in my projects.
All of our remaining projects were fired in one of the large oven-type kilns, which were inside, in a kiln room. Different types of glazes were required for that type of firing, which were truer to the color shown on the glaze bottles.
I made a bell pepper that was bigger than a pumpkin, with variations of greens and black. I made a highly symbolic bust that depicted my personality, trying to mimic a veined grey marble; and I made an Old English cottage, with brown, grey, yellow, white and green giving it a realistic look.
Much more professional than the one I did, but I took the same shoulder-head approach on my bust.
I got A’s for all those projects, with my final grade also A, primarily because the teacher saw how much effort and enjoyment I got from the class. Regardless of how artistic my projects were – and the other classmates would remark about my work, along with the teacher – the reward went far beyond grades and recognition from others. I felt so much personal enjoyment that I never wanted my Hand Molding class to end.
I remember more about that one art class than I remember learning from almost all other classes I took in college. I was emotionally moved by that experience.
I tell you this story now because this Advent season we should all see how we are like unmolded clay. We are all like 25 lb bags of river clay, sold in pottery stores as raw material waiting for caring hands to mold into something functional … something remarkable … and something beautiful.
Therefore, when I read Zephaniah say, “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion … Rejoice and exult with all your heart!”, that reminds me of my experience with hand molding.
You see, “Zion” means “Dry Place” and “Very Dry,” with another meaning seen as “Fortress.” This aspect of drying relates to a finished state of pottery, where if a master potter makes a flawed piece that is dried and gets fired, it cannot be reshaped so the flaw gets corrected. Thus, we read it said, “[God] will break them with a rod of iron; [God] will dash them to pieces like pottery.” (Psalm 2:9)
We are meant to be kept moist, like clay, such that our emotions towards our religion keep us pliable. From that state of faith, we are also meant to be shaped by the hand of the master potter, who is Christ. The hands used by Christ are our own, but the Holy Spirit moves them so the finished project is another Jesus.
When that project is assigned and when we respond with a desire to see beautiful changes come upon our raw states, we “sing aloud” and “rejoice and exult with all our hearts” because “the king of Israel, the LORD, is in our midst.” When we have received the Holy Spirit, our own “hands” begin molding us into shape, as we follow the insights of the Mind of Christ.
We then act and see the unexpected results that we never thought were possible from our hands. From human beings going through the motions of basic requirements, always seeking the easy way … the “crip course” of life … we take a new delight in doing more and seeing what else is still to come.
We enter into a personal Advent when we want to see ourselves do more. We want to see more beautiful results.
When Paul wrote to the Philippians, saying, “The Lord is near,” he meant “the LORD, your God, is in your midst.” So what if you have no experience making pottery projects? “Do not worry about anything,” Paul said.
Making one’s self into a project for Christ brings about “the peace of God.” What you do not know is moot. The Mind of Christ feeds your brain in ways that “surpasses all understanding.” Just by doing … ACTING … “your hearts and your minds” are duplicating that of Jesus Christ.
In the Gospel reading, it is easy to picture John the Baptist standing in the River Jordan, with a line of people on the shore waiting their turn to be baptized with water. I can imagine him standing on a rock that is under the water, for stability and balance. Perhaps, near where the people wait to wade out to John is where the master potters would find river clay.
When John said, “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham,” he was referring to the hard earth that had long dried as rock. Water flowed over stones. John stood on sand and stone rubbed smooth by the water’s flow. However, John saw the “vipers” as lifeless, like a stone.
Rock can be quarried and cut into blocks for building temples, or it can be chiseled and smoothed into monuments as “Very Dry” reminders of what was; but it is lifeless. Stone cannot be molded and formed into purposeful vessels.
The “vipers” who John saw waiting to be baptized were (according to Matthew) Pharisees and Sadducees. They were supposed to be molded by the hand of God, as useful tools that would serve the people, showing others how to also become clay in the hands of God.
The serpent molded Cain into a viper, as one who preys on the people rather than serve God.
Thus, when John told the people he was not the Messiah they hoped for, because there would come one who “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire,” he was saying, “all I am doing is spraying moisture on you to keep you from drying out and becoming too hard to become shaped as God wishes.”
Jesus would come to be the model of a perfectly shaped piece of fine china, made by God, and from that form would all others be made. While still pliable clay, once in hands moved by the Mind of Christ, one could take that same form and transform into another righteous servant to God. Perfection being consistently reproduced over and over.
Then, when one has shown to be unflawed AND “Very Dry,” as a “Zion” made by God, then one can be glazed by the Holy Spirit and fired by Christ. One becomes a “Fortress” for God and Christ, as a vessel that is no longer shaped by external influences. It becomes one that is capable of being filled with the wine of Christ, as a holy chalice from which others can drink.
Just as the Jesus used the analogy of a winnowing fork being used to separate the grain from the chaff, done on the threshing floor of a granary, the same effort goes into changing raw clay into a useful container, with the glazing and firing done in the potter’s shop. The raw state of clay is refined into usefulness.
We cannot claim to be saved because of the works and deeds of others before us. Just as John called out the pretenders who claimed, “We have Abraham as our ancestor,” we have no right to claim favor as descendants of Jesus Christ. We must produce our own works.
My hand molding teacher gave me a C for my Raku ashtray, even though it had remarkable colors. I got a passing grade because I turned in a finished project; but she knew how little work I had put into that project. I got an A for the course because I did more than the minimum from then on; and God, likewise, knows our works and our heart’s desires. Being an ancestor of Abraham is like spending five minutes to make a crappy ashtray. Being an heir of Christ is like losing all sense of time in a potter’s workshop because you feel God holding the clay with your hands, while talking to you like a loving Father. An heir to Christ longs to start another project, never wanting the fun and reward to stop.
The Advent message is today telling us that there is “one who is more powerful than I coming,” and that none of us blocks of river clay is “worthy to untie the thong of his sandals.” There is work still to do … but the work will be fun and all worries will be lifted away.
Christianity is a “crip course” in the sense that everyone can make an A grade, but only IF Christians can see the beauty of early results and then take delight in doing more.
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