Empty Hands
Christmas Reading 2021 for my California church.

Ever been to Bethlehem? Usually it’s a nice, quiet town. Not too busy. Nothing of great significance happens.
But now?
Now, Rome has taken over. Some great man from Rome, Caesar, by some, has demanded all return to their place of birth to be registered and, of course, taxed. 
Now the little town is expanding more than any clay should ever be stretched.
Caravans don’t even enter the city, but set up camp outside the walls.
Merchants see money—Rome, Jewish, or even Egyptian, from these poor travelers.

Well, I shouldn’t judge. I definitely sell more of my pots to them too. But most of my customers share one drinking vessel per household. 
I should have made more jugs and drinking vessels. 
They’re what breaks first. 
With these Roman soldiers present,  they demand their own vessel—with undiluted wine. 
Don’t know how these inn-keepers keep up with their demands. 
While on-duty, solders have rigid discipline.
Soldiers aren’t supposed to mingle with the town’s people. They’re to stay in their tents outside the city until called for duty. 
But (shakes head) they do not. 
Inns are full of ‘em. Demanding this or that.
My people learned not to look them in the eye. That only brings more demands. Or a beating for disrespect.
Most who come do not travel for leisure, but to pay their tax so they can return home.

I normally stay to myself. 
Living outside the city walls makes it easier to do that. 
Except that I have one small boy who follows me.
My occupation tends to be a “dirty” business, especially when the smoke from my kiln can ignite a fire that could burn the city.
People are less threatened and bothered by the smoke, if I live outside its walls.
Usually I do not sell much anymore. The more I sell, the more Rome and the city tax. It pays not to work! 
If I could just get food for nothing. 
Yet now with this new tax, they charge for being born! 
I cannot avoid that.

When the Roman soldiers came, I paid my tax early before these crowds came. I cannot imagine the lines now as the city can’t hold anymore.

By the way, I’m Hezekiah, known by the townspeople as the best potter around.
Well, (laugh) the only potter, therefore the best.

We are approaching, what my wife describes “the gloomy time of the year.” 
The rains come. And with them, clouds settle over the area, dropping their contents before disappearing around the mountains around us. 
For me, it’s time to dig. The soil’s perfect for it.
I go to the hills with my shovel and my donkey pulling a leather sled. 
Digging into the moist soil excites me, like a child on feast day. 
Last year at this time, my boy, Samuel, came with me. 
He’d watched me in the shop many times, but that was his first time digging for the clay. 
Looking at the dirt I shovel on the leather sled, he asked, “How can you do anything with that? Looks like dirt to me.”
I knelt by the shovel and fingered the dirt fondly. “Know what I see? I see a pot some family will depend upon to bring water from the well.”
His eyes widened. “It doesn’t even look like the clay you use, Papa.”
“It’s called potential. You must learn to evaluate what the dirt has in it to be a good potter. 
“But the dirt’s value is never in the dirt. It’s in what the potter does with it.”
He finished my lesson proudly, “Because a potter can make anything!” 
I smiled. I had taught him well. 
I looked around me with satisfaction. “God knew what we needed when He made these mountains. He provides what we need.”
It’s good to be a potter.

My family has been potters for a long time.
Maybe since the time when the Prophet Jeremiah spoke of going to one.

The shovel hung heavy on my shoulder as I tugged the reins of the donkey to pull the sled back home. 
Samuel walked beside me.
“Papa, I’m so tired.”
I grabbed him with one arm and swung him on the back of the donkey.
He chattered the rest of the way home.
How could he be so tired and talk so much?
He made me tired just listening to him.

When we returned, I said, “We’ll leave this alone.”
“Why, Papa! No one can drink from a pile of dirt!”
I smiled, “We must wait. Clay must be weathered and dry.”
“What happens to it?” 
“As the dirt and clay dry, the dirt separates from the clay.”
“Why don’t you just dig it when the weather is hot and dry?”
I rumbled his head, “Have you ever tried digging in the hot days? Too hard.  I dig in the wet season when I can dig deep and reach the clay— then wait for it to dry.”

We had waited six months, then Samuel helped me scrape the piles into a submerged pool dug underground. Other potters use wooden troughs. 
He helped me cover the clay with water and stirred.
Stirring forms a silt on the top of the water, like a slurry, as the fine particles of clay dissolve in the water. 
He slipped his arms into this solution and raised his arms covered in this clay mixture. “Look Papa, I’m just like you!”
I laughed, potters are known to always be covered in a thin clay silt that marks their trade.
In fact, besides the threat of fires, the townspeople don’t like the mud I track into the city—much like my wife doesn’t like cleaning the clay silt I leave in the house, because it’s so hard to get out of the cracks. 
If it was easier, wouldn’t I wash it off my skin?
But that is what the potter has, clay covering his hands, arms, and feet. It turns my skin the red-brown of the clay. 
It’s marks me as a potter—for that I am proud.

I continue to stir. For the stirring brings all the clay into solution.
Samuel hovers over the pool, “Can’t we be done?” 
I promised he could make something with this clay. It’d be his first attempt.
“Not till all the clay blends with the water.” My paddle moves rhythmically through the waters.
He soon tires of stirring and find something else to do as I continue to stir. 
When the water holds all the clay in suspension, the water is thick—like a gravy without any lumps.
I collect the water from the top, leaving the rocks and sticks. 
This thickened water is poured into a settling tank. 
And we wait again.
“Notice a potter’s job can never be hurried. If I hurry any part of this process, the clay won’t be uniform. Pockets of impurities will weaken and cause it to break under the heat of the kiln.”
Samuel hears but does not want to wait.
In time, the clay particles settle out of the water. When the water clears, I siphon it off, without Samuel’s help—lest he mix it again. 
What is left is uniform clay.

I admire it as my hands massage the mass—No lumps, no stones, all uniform.
Samuel touches it too. But he doesn’t appreciate the quality as I do.
Those mountains do supply what we need. 

“Now can we make our pots?”
I shake my head, “You know what comes next.”
He has helped me with this part. This uniform clay is stomped until the consistency becomes like dough when forming a loaf of bread. 
I point to the water basin sternly.
“Why do I wash my feet to get ‘em dirty?”
I raise my eyebrow. “Do you want to get the clay filthy with those feet?”
He looks at his feet.
I know he doesn’t see the dirt, for I was once young too, but dirt will mar the clay. Even oils from our skin will affect the clay.
Once his feet are cleaned, he trudges through the clay, like a baker kneads his dough. 
Only dough will last just a meal; a clay jar must last many years.
He soon grows tired of walking. 
I encourage him, by washing my feet and stepping inside the basin with him. We march, tip-toe, trudge, and step many times. 
I am breathless; he is laughing and we are finished.

Other potters use a mallet to pound the air bubbles out of the clay. 
By stepping on them, they pop the bubbles, same process.

I point again to the water basin for him to clean his feet.
“But the clay was clean!”
“Do you think your mother wants you to walk into her clean house with those feet?”
I can see him almost form the words “you do,” but I know he holds back his words.
I also slip my feet into the basin and pat them. “Here,” I hand a well- used towel, covered more in clay than clean enough to dry.
He dries his feet.
I collect the trampled clay forming a lump to age, much like cheese to acquire that perfect ‘usability.’ 
It will age six months on the shelf untouched, but made right for use. 

My boy sighs, “I still can’t make my jar.”
I gather him on my lap. “The dirt is useless without the potter’s intervention.”
I see he’s not listening and pause to consider. “Go get a shovel of dirt from out by the tree.”
He looks at me to make sure, for I never want dirt in this area, then hurries to drag the shovel load of dirt to me.
I finger it, as I had done the clay in the mountain. “This is good. What do you want to make with it.”
“My very own drinking vessel.”
I laughed. As if every potter could be so rich as to provide his family with their own drinking vessel! “All right. Bring a handful here.”
I sat at my wheel. “Place it on the center.”
“But it has dirt on it.”
“It’s good enough.”
“But I don’t want to drink dirt.”
“Don’t you want to get it finished?”
He nods.
I positioned him between my legs, drawing my arms around him to control the dirt as I spin the wheel slowly with my feet. 
The movement causes the treadle to move, moving the dirt on the raised wheel. 
I add water from a bowl at my feet and guide his hands to form a vessel. 
As the mud spins, I guide his fingers to make a hole in the center of the mud pile. The mud would not support a hole and fell.
He smashed it down. “Papa, mud won’t work.”
I turned him so I could look into his eyes. “And that is why we must wait for the clay to be ready for use.”
He now understood, though didn’t like it.

“Jeremiah the prophet, spoke about us as clay in the Lord’s Hands. 
When we think about it, the dirt is not anything special, it’s the potter’s hands that give it worth. 
That’s what God does for us. 
We are worthless, until He works us. 
We cannot be made into anything valuable until the Potter separates the dirt, cleans away the dirt, removes the rocks and sticks, removes the water and then tramples it to make it malleable. Then the clay is set aside.
It’s all the potter’s doing. 
The clay does nothing. 
And so with God. He must do it all.” 
Samuel fidgets.
His lesson is over.

My lesson continues, as a potter has much time to think.
How long would the Master Potter work me before I become a vessel He wanted? 
Was I malleable clay? 
I still had too much dirt in me to be considered useable.
But what could I do with the dirt?
Or how could the Potter remove it?

My thoughts were interrupted when a noticed a couple approaching the house.
Why weren’t they with a caravan?
Don’t they know how unsafe it is to travel alone?
By their lack of companions, I was wary. 
Too many thieves.
They appeared poor. Could they even afford to look at my jars?

I acted busy as they approached.
The man looked lost but struggled to appear confident probably for his wife.
He caught my eye and nodded. 
I nodded hesitantly. 
I would not give my products away. 
I wiped my hands down my tunic as I stood. 
The clay, an indication of my trade, always clung to my skin and under my nails.

His eyes glanced over my vases and bowls, and rested on the well.
He licked his lips, “Mind if I get a drink?”
I nodded, still wary of him.
He carefully ladled the water and offered it first to the woman.
It was then that I really noticed her. 
She was young. 
And great with child.
She gulped the water down. And thanked him.
It was only when she was satisfied, that he drank—a lot.

“Coming for the tax?” An obvious question. Who would be traveling, especially alone without a caravan? But by asking questions, people talk about themselves.
But not this man.
He returned the vessel to the well. “Shalome.”
They wouldn’t buy anything. Their garments were more than travel-worn. There would be no sale with him.
But I did not need a sale.

He had gathered the reins of the donkey to leave, but turned back. 
His shoulders drooped. “Know of any place where we could stay?”
I looked at Bethlehem’s wall, the gate was barely visible because of all the tents pitched in front of it. 
The city was packed already. 
“Most have already come.” I didn’t mean to insult. But why had they came alone and so late?
He started to reply, but the woman groaned, holding her head down, her arm across her bosom.
The man’s attention turned completely on her.
When he looked at me again, the anguish in his eyes was unmistakable. “Thank you” and walked away.
I stood there, my hands unable to move. 
My hands were usually always doing something. 

What had just happened?
Where would they stay?
Who would have room?

When I looked again, the couple had disappeared into the crowd. 
There would be no place for them to stay.
The man had known it. That’s why he had come here.
Guilt rushed over me.
I shook it off.
I did not know them.
I had no obligation to help them.
The dirt in my clay felt more than heavy, too heavy to bear.
But what could I do?
They would find a place soon.

As we ate, Samuel retold our attempts at making a drinking vessel from the dirt.
“Papa said we’re like the dirt and God makes us clean.”
Maybe he had listened.

I was distracted by his other stories and listened only half-heartedly.
My wife questioned, “Anything else happen today?”
I shrugged.
She stopped pursuing.
But my thoughts did not.
Why had I not asked them to stay? 
What harm would they do?
I shook my head and tried to focus on just eating.

After dinner, when my wife was putting away the bread and wiping the dishes clean with sand and a towel, I finally voiced my thoughts. “There was a couple who came to pay their taxes.” 
Samuel asked, “What did you sell them?”
I shook my head. “Nothing.”
My wife turned back to the table.
“Nothing?” My son asked. “But you always sell something.”
I shook my head. “I sold nothing. They needed nothing.”
“Then why’d they come?”

I looked out the open door, but I did not see out it, I saw farther away. I saw the dirt in my clay so very clearly. 
How could I ever be useful to God with dirt?
My voice sounded distant even to me when I answered, “I needed something.” 
My son wrinkled his face. “You? Papa you don’t need anything.”
I glanced at my wife, as if she would help me answer Samuel. 
She was listening intently. And waited, too.
I laughed, but it didn’t sound genuine even to me. “They asked for a drink. Then left.”
“What did you need, papa?” Samuel persisted.
I wished I hadn’t spoken my thoughts out loud.
So much went through my mind before I could finally answer him. “What I need, my son, is to know God.”
He answered, “But isn’t that why we go to synagogue?”
“At synagogue, we hear a glimpse of God.” 
“How do you hear a glimpse?” Samuel was listening today.

I didn’t even make sense to myself.
 I wondered out loud, “What would it be like to be Moses who saw God face to face? 
“I’m like the clay straight from the mountains—all full of dirt and rocks, not good for anything.”
I shook my head, “When the couple left, that man knew he wouldn’t find a place to stay. And I didn’t offer mine.”

My wife, defended me, “But you didn’t know them!”
“But I knew their need.” 
My wife  caught my arm. “Go, look for them. Maybe you can find them. I’ll prepare their bedding.”
My wife was good. We had no extra bedding, we would do without for this couple, but she was willing.
I left with determination.

Though I searched every caravan, asked every possible inn—and was cursed in the process, I could not find them. And there was no room anywhere.
Where could they have gone?
They seemed to have vanished.

I returned well after sundown. 
The gates of the city were left open for the night. 
Who would invade with the Roman army camped at its wall?
As I walked down the hill toward my house, I heard the sheep in nearby mountains. Sound travels well in the mountains. Their presence brought none of the calm and peace they normally do.

Troubled, but resolved I could do no more, I prepared for sleep.
But sleep would not come. When I closed my eyes, I saw the man’s anguished eyes and heard, “Know of any place I could stay?” 
I threw off my goat’s blanket and finally gave up sleeping. 
With my cloak over me, I stepped outside.
The moon was high in the sky.
The air clear, crisp, and cold. 
It’d be a cold night, especially if one lay unprotected. 
I shivered thinking of them.

I gazed into the sky —unusually bright for as late as it was. I glanced behind me to reaffirm that night was still upon us. Then back towards the light.
It was too bright. 
Instead of stillness of night, the night seemed charged with something.

I heard something and strained my ears for its source.
It was coming from the mountains away from the city.
That’s where the brightness was most intense.
As I strained my ears, I could make out:
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
My hair on my arms raised on end.
I shook my head to dispel any sleep—could I be dreaming!
The brightness faded. 
Darkness took its place. 
Stars twinkled clearly in the crisp air.

Had I only imagined it?
But the words were so clear! 

I remained standing there, watching the sky when I noticed movement on the horizon. 
As the movement materialized, I recognized shepherds. They were running
I called to them. “Where are you going”
One in the front spilled out words between gathering gulps of air. “An angel told us our Savior has been born in the city.”
He gestured with his rod, “Come with us.”
I followed them, running to keep up. 
My thoughts ran with me. What was I doing? Was I dreaming still? 

We entered the city’s open gate. 
The city noise had calmed down.
The streets were deserted.  
Darkness penetrated over the streets. Not even a candle gave direction.
Those shepherds in front hesitated for their eyes to grow accustomed to the darkness. 
It was then I could, not only smell the city street’s waste that had been thrown into the middle of the street, especially with so many more people, but I smelled the men I was with. 

Shepherds were outcasts. Their smell repulsive.
How else could they smell, sleeping with sheep and goats?
Yet wasn’t I too an outcast? Allowed to live outside the city walls.
Looked down on for the color of dirt I always wore.
The dirt of my clay pressed even more on me.
But this wasn’t the outside clay, this was the dirt on my inside.
Would the Long Awaited One allow me to see Him?
What could a baby do for me?
But my need pressed me forward.

The darkness of the street without the stars was intense.
How would we know where to go?
As I questioned, one street became lit, as a star peeked through the dark streets, guiding us to follow. 
We hesitated no longer, but followed the light.
As I caught up to the one who had invited me to come, he explained, “The angel told us we would find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
I stopped for a moment. Could it be? “No!”
The man stopped and glanced at me. “It’s hard to believe, after waiting so long. But I do not lie.”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry. I don’t question you, I question whether it could be the same couple I saw early this evening. She was great with child. The man was looking for a place to stay. I didn’t offer him room.” My shame at such neglect of an obvious need made me hate myself. Why hadn’t I just allowed them to stay?
The shepherd nodded. “It’s hard to trust people today. So many would slit your throat and take your money while you slept.”
I nodded. But thought, “Not this couple.”

The star led us through a maze of streets through Bethlehem.
The streets narrowed into harsher neighborhoods.
I had not looked down these streets earlier that day.
We kept to the doorways to avoid walking in the sewage down the middle of the street. 
Until the light finally hovered over one place. 

My heart jumped in my throat.
Those in front stopped short.
I almost ran into them, but caught myself.
Those tough, hard-working, unacceptable shepherds fell to their knees.
When they did, I saw the Christ Child.
He was wrapped in cloth used to wrap the dead.
For the Most High to send our Messiah—the One promised to Adam who would bring salvation to His people—as a baby that must be born in a stable and placed in a manger—
I could have provided warmth, goat blankets and a fire.
Yet I had denied Him.
No excuses seemed adequate now.
My Savior!
My shame!
I dropped to my knees and worshipped.

I don’t know how long I stayed on my knees. 
It seemed time before this One stood still, as if it didn’t matter.

When I raised my head, the shepherds had presented him with offerings. One shepherd took off his cloak; the one that protected him from the wind and cold of night and the heat of day. It was the one thing a shepherd could not do without. Yet he offered it to the mother who tucked it around the baby.
Another presented a sheep, pure and blameless—a true sacrifice for these who depended upon them for their very food.

I looked at my empty hands.
Always I had something in them—clay, dirt, a bowl that I formed without my wheel. 
But on this night there was nothing.
Not only did I not offer him a place, I had brought nothing!

The shepherds seemed not willing to leave, yet their sheep were left alone.
I caught the one who had told me, “Thanks for telling me.”
He grinned. “We will tell all as we leave!”
Even as he spoke the shepherds began shouting through the quiet streets that the Savior was born that night.

I listened as the shepherds left, envious at their gladness.
The man approached me and smiled, “Shalome.”
How could he smile when I caused the Messiah to be born in this?
I stood not knowing what to do with my hands. 
I rubbed them down my cloak. It only emphasized their emptiness.
Without something in my hands, I could not form words either.
I finally looked him in the eye. “I searched for you after you left, to offer a place for the night—you disappeared.” My voice dropped.
What more could I say?
Except that I had failed God.

He put his arm around me and drew me closer to the manger.
“The Lord of Hosts put me where I needed to be.”
I shook my head. “But I didn’t offer you my home.”
He laughed. “Yeah, well, I was nervous, for His time was coming.”
To put me at ease, or maybe because he couldn’t help himself, he told how the angel told of His coming. 
He motioned to his wife. “Tell him, Mary, about your angel visit.”
I listened overwhelmed and humbled to know this story.
If another had told it, I would not have believed.

I looked at my clay smeared hands and arms. Nothing.
I did not bring a gift.
The man responded to my quietness, “You gave water, when I thought she wouldn’t make it.”
I hung my head. It did not seem enough. 
But a thought came to mind, “But you will need more—once you settle here—” Their poorness would not allow them to make another trip anytime soon.
The man smiled. “I know where you live.”
I nodded. “You make sure you come by.”

I left that night whistling. I could have shouted, but the shepherds had already awakened the town. Those who wanted to come were making their way to where the babe lay.
That night awakened a hope in me that my clay would someday be clean enough to know God.

While most left after paying their taxes, the family settled in town. 
They sold their donkey to buy provisions for his carpenter’s shop.
I provided what pottery they needed without charge. It would not be gift, it was an obligation of what I should give.

My little Samuel came to me one day, “When will my clay be ready?”
I looked at the sun, and calculated how long it had sat. “It is time.”
After all that preparation—digging, cleaning, sorting, stomping, stirring, and waiting, the clay is next chosen.
I feel— I don’t need to see it in the storage trough where it lay waiting 
—for the right size and consistency for the vessel I have in mind.
Samuel wanted to feel too. His little fist full would never be big enough.
I added it to mine.

“Always make sure your hands are wet. Like mama uses flour with bread to make sure the dough doesn’t stick to her fingers, our hands must be wet so we don’t stick to the clay.” 
We both dip our hands in the basin of water at my feet. Then I offer the linen cloth tucked in my belt for him to dry the drips off his elbow.
Samuel squeezed between me and my wheel. There’s barely enough room, but it is enough.
My feet move the wheel that makes the treadle move which moves the wheel at my waist when I sit. 
Samuel remains standing.
“We work with the clay, not against it.

 “We’ll start with a small piece that is not for your vessel.” I show him a small piece of clay.
“But papa, it is too small to make anything.” His excitement leaves.
I nod. He has watched me carefully. “You will see why.”
I point to a broken pot beside the wheel, out of the way. “Put your clay here, ”
I put the practice piece in the center of the wheel. “Make a cup with your hands around the clay. There you go. Good.”
“See papa, I do not need practice.”
I laugh, “So you don’t.”
Slowly at first then with greater speed, I move the bottom wheel.
His hands fly around the wheel. So does the clay. It flies off the wheel.
He’s no longer boasting.
“Go get it.”
He returned with more determination.
I dip the clay in the water basin. “Keep your hands firmly around the clay.” 
His hands are rigid. 
“Soften them, so they don’t crush it.”
I start my feet slowly. 
He’s determined to keep the clay in the center. 
This time he smashes it in a lump. 
“Oh, papa! I’ve ruined it.”
I smile. “It takes more than that to ruin a piece of clay. Your hands must protect the clay, like a guide—firmly with gentle pressure.”
He bites his lip as he tries again. This time the clay forms a worm.
I encourage. “Good.”
“But I cannot drink from a worm!” He’s almost in tears now.
I hug him. “Nor will you. Pretend you hold a little chick. It must be held with great gentleness or you’ll crush it, but you must also surround it with strong, ungiving hands or it will escape. Let’s try again.”
We practice until a round basin forms.
I clean my wheel with the linen cloth tied at my belt and place the practice piece aside and take the piece we had selected.

This time I put my hands around his as I start the wheel.
The clay responds to the master’s touch.
The lump forms into a useable vessel.
He tightens his fist and the clay responds by becoming lop-sided.
“Relax your hands and your shoulders.”
I feel his small shoulders relax. 
The clay almost flies off, but I contain it.
“The clay responds to whatever you do. See you can bring back the shape.
The wheel rhythmically turns.
I whisper, for loud noise seems to hinder his concentration. “Place your thumbs gently but firmly on top of the clay.”
He hesitates, but obeys.
A  hole begins to form.
“Oh papa! I can drink from this!”
“Yes, son. You will. Concentrate.”
For as he spoke, the round vessel became squashed.
He breathed deeply against my chest.
“Bring your hands in a cup shape again. We must start again.”
When the desired shape came, I urged, “Put your thumbs gently on the top.”
He hesitated too much, barely making a dent in the clay.
I put my thumbs over his and apply pressure. 
The vessel begins to hollow out. 
The sides rise.

By feel I know how much pressure is needed inside the vessel to keep the clay from caving or being too weak to hold anything.
If I do not apply steady, consistent pressure, the inside of the vessel will be lop-sided and won’t set on a table. 
I temper the thickness of the walls by the pressure from within. But with internal pressure, outside pressure must remain constant or the wall will fall.
It’s a delicate push from inside and outside simultaneously.
Samuel’s hands become like the clay as I push and release pressure.

If the clay does not respond well, I smash it down and start over.
This can be done any number of times as long as the clay is malleable.
Until I am satisfied.
“What do you think?”
Samuel looks at it, his head tilted, his hand on his chin.
I laugh, “Why do you look like that?”
My wife must have been watching from the house door, “Because that’s exactly how you look at a piece!”
I squeeze Samuel. “You did it!”
“Yes, I did.”
“We will set it on the shelf to harden while I make enough to fill the kiln.”

He is finished with his lesson. But my lesson continues.
I am reminded of our Creator Who took a lump of dirt, not even cleaned and purified, and fashioned man! 
What a skillful Potter!

Jeremiah our prophet went to the potter in Jerusalem.
He watched the potter make and destroy a vessel and started over.
He likened it to God with us.
We are definitely in His Hands to do what He wills.
He does all the work.
I’m grateful for that. For with all these taxes and problems that Rome and even our own countrymen bring, I cannot face them alone.
God must make me into a vessel most useful for Him.
But I still fear how much dirt my clay holds. 
How can that ever be removed?

Do I ever throw out clay and start with another lump?
I‘ve invested so much already in the clay.
I will work and work and work to make that clay into the vessel of my choice—as long as the clay is malleable.
If the clay ceases to be moveable under my touch, I can no longer use it.
It must be discarded.

Much like God. Who works and works with us to make us into what He chooses. 
Unless we do not allow Him. 
Then He must put us aside. 
Not that we are no longer His, but we are not useable for what He wanted.
Once removed from the wheel, the clay may have delicate details, trim and decorations added.
Then air dried as more vessels are made, enough to fill my kiln.

When I have enough pieces to fill my kiln, they are placed without touching one another into the shelves of the kiln.
Fire is started underneath the shelves.
Heat rises and surrounds the vessels.
Though I can’t measure exactly how hot it is, I can gauge by the clay’s response to the heat how much time and heat is needed.
This is a critical time of the process, also why the townspeople prefer me to live outside the city walls.
Too much heat can build quickly. 
Explosions are costly.
But I do not fear the process.
Without heat, my vessels would be worthless.
They would not last nor hold water.
What good is a drinking vessel that can’t hold water?

Once the kiln has done its work, the vessels may be painted or stained for added beauty. 
I think the clay color has a beauty all its own. 
My fingernails and skin are constantly coated with this fine color.
But those from expensive homes request other colors that add to the expense, which they are willing to pay.

Samuel is pleased with his drinking vessel.
I am too, as his father and as a potter.
He has done well.
He is one of the few children in Bethlehem who has his own drinking vessel!
But I wonder about how pleased God is with me.

How would this Child save us?
Even if He could save us from Rome’s tyranny, I’d still have this dirt in my clay that I cannot change. 
Who could clean me from that?

One day when the Christ Child was almost two, I watched a caravan approach the city. They weren’t the normal merchants haggling for better prices; they carried themselves like princes. 
They stopped at my place for water and to water their camels. 
I had learned my lesson with the couple and offered them a place to stay. 
This time I felt the one poor.

They smiled, but motioned to their loaded camels. “We have our own provisions.”
I knew their provisions would far excel mine.
The speaker continued, “But we follow this star that led us here to the newborn king.”
“I know about stars.” And I told about the night with the shepherds.
I pointed the way to where the family now stayed. 
It was no longer a manger but a house.
I watched for when they left, but they didn’t return the same way they came. 

Shortly after they left, during the night, I was awakened by the man who I now knew to be Joseph.  “What is it?”
His eyes held concern. “I had a dream. We must leave.”
He had sold his donkey to move his family to a house. 
They would need one for this journey.
I led them to my shed where our donkey was stalled.
I put reins on it and handed the reins to him. “He’s yours. Go quickly. Shalome”
The man’s eyes held gratitude as he took him.
I watched their lone silhouette disappear in the moonless night. 
My hands were empty at my side, but I did not feel them. 
For my heart felt full. I now could erase the shame of no room, no gift, nothing.
Without that donkey, that clay sled would be heavy. 
I’d need to make several trips instead of one, but I had given what I needed for my Savior.
But even with the gift, I knew my clay was still unclean.

Several weeks after they left, a band of soldiers approached.
Had they been dispatched to calm riots? I had heard of none.
They demeanor alarmed me. “Samuel, go inside now.”
“But papa, I want to see the soldiers.”
“Do as I say.” My voice held an edge to it out of fear.
The sternness succeeded in encouraging him to run to the house.

The leader remained on his horse as he approached me.
I sat spinning my wheel and molding the clay. 
Having something in my hands helped me think more clearly and calmed me.
I nodded to him.
He motioned toward the house, “Do you have any young children?”
My thoughts moved to a couple with a young child fleeing in the dark.
I stood now, fear gripping my heart. 
My wheel continued to spin. 
My clay rolled off and plopped to the ground at my feet. 
The dirt would make the clay unusable.
I looked the leader in the eye. 
If I lied, he’d kill us all. “One, he’s six.”
The leader looked toward the house.
I did too. 
Samuel’s head peeked through the open door.
My heart sank. Could he not stay hidden?
The leader looked relieved. He motioned for his group to move toward the city. “No need to search this house.”
When they had disappeared into the city, I went to hug my son.
“What was that about?” my wife asked.
I shook my head. “Whatever it was, it wasn’t good.”

We found out later. 
Herod, threatened by the Savior’s birth, had decreed all children under two in Bethlehem to be killed.
The entire city mourned.
I thought of the night the couple with the Christ Child had left.
Did Herod not know God would protect His own Son?
He was the Master Potter, Whose Hands now cradled our Saviour.
Nothing could take Him from His wheel.

When Herod died, I listened for news of the return of our Savior.
I heard nothing.

Years passed.
My son apprenticed with me to become a potter in my stead.
My hands are again empty. 
I cannot make my hands do what they must to make useful things anymore 
Although many times I hold a piece of clay; it is just to fidget. 
But you cannot make things for a lifetime and stop when your hands are tired.

But more than empty hands, I listen through the years for the return of our Savior. 
When news of a man who could heal the blind and lame, I knew He had grown. 
I craved news of Him, but I was too frail to make any journey to see Him.
I encouraged my son to take the trip. 
When he returned, he spoke of a Man who rebuked our religious leaders because they did not care for what His Father wanted.

I knew Who His Father was.
I longed to know Him more.
And my clay seemed more dirty than ever.

When news came He had been crucified.
I was in disbelief.

Yet before that news could be processed, more news came that He had risen.
That I could believe!

I finally understood.
Only empty hands, needy hands, could ever accept what God had to give.
He did not want anything from me but for me to acknowledge my great need of Him.
He could clean my clay.
Wasn’t He the Master Potter, Who formed man from dirt and now cleans man from the dirt he has inside him?
Empty hands so He could fill them.
The true wonder and thrill of it brings me to praise Him.
My hands reached toward heaven giving Him glory.

I heard how our leaders persecute those who are Jesus followers.
Herod burns them as lights for his garden.
Even now, the armies search for those who believe.
Jesus’s followers have scattered.
There is nowhere for me to go. 
I would hinder others.
Not only are my hands but my feet are slow to move.

I remember my kiln. 
Clay without fire is useless.
Fire purifies and hardens to a tempered clay that can withstand liquids and abuse.
I smile.
The Master Potter, who has cleaned my clay from all its dirt, must now fire it for His use.
I will trust in the Master Potter’s Hands.
And He will be satisfied.

Author of Biblical fiction, married to my best friend, and challenged by eight sons’ growing pains as I write about what matters.

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