“The kiln tests the potter’s vessels…” ~~ Ecclesiasticus 27:5
I was baking cookies all day Friday, my oven never going higher than 375
degrees Fahrenheit. This is a great test for butter, sugar and flour: leave it in that heated box too long and the smoke detector just outside the kitchen door will start its screeching. Pottery however, gets tested at much higher temperatures in the kiln. When I was in Turkey recently, I visited at the Firca Ceramic Shop in Avanos. The craftsmen there work in a cave that was carved out in the middle ages and have been plying their trade for over two hundred years. They make museum reproduction pieces as well as their own creative work done in the Turkish decorative style. Their artists learn their trade by producing first the trade or tourist goods, and then progress onto the craftsman’s level and then to the artist’s level at which they sign their work.
The quality of the ceramic ware may vary, but all the pieces are subjected to the same testing in the heat of the kiln: very high temperatures to turn the fragile clay into hard and durable pottery. In fact, the whole process of making a pot or dish is one of pressure and stress upon malleable clay. First the clay lumps are slammed upon a plaster slab to drive the bubbles of air out. If these stayed inside the clay during the firing, the air trapped inside would expand and explode the pot as the kiln heated up. Then the clay is slammed upon a wheel. The potter dips her hands into water, applies pressure to the sides and the top and begins to raise the cylinder to a certain height. Then holding the sides with one hand and pushing in with a thumb, the potter pulls the clay in a firm and even motion out to the desired width. Only then does she raise the pot to its final height. Once the clay dries out, it goes to the oven/kiln for the first firing; this makes it hard enough to work on for the glazing/painting so that it won’t break. The final firing at the highest temperature (2400 F) sets the glaze. Even here, the results aren’t predictable: the glazes can slip, they can give off gases that discolor other glazes on other pots, or the kiln can cool too quickly and break the pots when the cold air hits their hot skins. The stress of being made into a beautiful pot is sometimes too much to bear.
As I was baking sugar cookies, I was cutting the next batch into stars, snowflakes, and bells. I would pull out the cooked batch and let them cool on the pan for a minute. Then as I took them up with a spatula, some of them would break. Since I was giving these away, I was forced to eat the broken ones. It is a rule in Cornie’s Kitchen: “only the best goes out for others.” I know that no one forced me to do this, but someone had to do it, and I wasn’t waiting for volunteers. Even a sweet cookie breaks under the stress of the heat of the oven. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is the old saw that gets repeated during times of stress.
I have noticed that this holiday season has been a time of stress for many people. I remember that when I was in active ministry, I used to clear my calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I would be handling a lot more counseling for people having seasonal meltdowns than at any other time of the year. I have felt the stress in the air even though I don’t have a church of my own now. The Kroger clerk told me how she really felt about the guy in produce who didn’t mark all three of the brands of blueberries that were on sale that week. I have friends that I had to recommend to a “real counselor” because they were using me as a therapist and weren’t ever talking to me about anything else anymore. They no longer were “friends” for I never heard about their lives, but only about their sickness. It was stressing me out to the point that it was impacting my health, for I was starting to have the auras that warn a seizure might be imminent. At least I have an early warning system, and can take counter measures in defense.
But what about the people who are tied into the news 24/7? Their stress levels are off the wall, for every event is part of their immediate pain and suffering. And what of the people who are mentally unstable, who feed off the constant attention given to the intense interest and glorification of the victims of mass shootings? There have been 62 mass shootings in the last three decades, and 24 in the last seven years alone. Mass shootings are those in which four or more people have died. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/why-are-mass-shootings-becoming-more-frequent/)
These people may not be able to set boundaries on their obsessions and then they finally give into them. The fact that they have a gun is what makes the carnage so devastating. The sad thing is most of these mass shootings were done with legal guns. Perhaps the only answer is to have armed guards at every public gathering place, but then we would be living in a police state. I don’t think most Americans want that to happen.
Perhaps I am lucky in having a physical condition such as a seizure disorder that can send the “flashing yellow light” that warns me to slow down. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, so too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can cause my brain’s electrons to misfire. I don’t know what sets off a mass murderer, but I do know what stresses out the average person: things that are out of control. I remind everyone I meet, we are not in control of how anyone else receives our words, our actions, or our intentions. We are only in control of what we do, think, say, act, and intend. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.
As someone living with epilepsy, I know that if I smell things that no one else can smell, I need to cut back on anything that causes stress in my life. In ancient times, folks would have screamed “demon possession!” Today, we modern people are beyond that, and realize that the kiln of life is just “testing this cracked pot.” I can either keep on going and ignore the warning signs and explode into a seizure, or I can back away and stay seizure free. I choose the latter.
Our lives “explode” sometimes, though most of us don’t become mass murderers. We have fights, fusses, dramas, and all the other distresses of the human condition. It seems all the worse at Christmas because we have the expectation of an idealized and serene family experiencing a blessed birth.
Most of us don’t realize that the reason “there was no room for them at the inn” was because no one wanted Mary and Joseph and their “inconvenient truth” which was “conceived out of wedlock” to be born at their hotel. People were cruel then too. They stayed in a stable because one innkeeper wasn’t so hardhearted. God gave the message of the Christ child to the shepherds and to the foreigners, but not to the Israelite priests or the middle class merchants, for God’s love for human kind includes the poor outcasts and the aliens. The king and the priests conspired to kill all the baby boys, but the Holy Family had already fled into Egypt. Does the early life of Jesus sound like a sweet innocent Hallmark or Lifetime movie now? (Luke 2, Matthew 2).
Jesus’ life was more like ours: full of stress and pain, not all sweetness and light. Remember that the baby in the manger doesn’t bring the faith you need to get through the days like these, but the Christ who endures the trials of the kiln, the Savior who tests his love for you on the cross.
As an artwork to process your pain in the midst of darkness, consider Christ as the Light that comes into the World. Chiaroscuro is the term we use for strong contrasts of light and darkness. Set your subject in a strong light, so that the shadows are equally intense. Have only part of your image appear against the darkness. Use paint, crayon, pastel, pencil or photography. Consider how goodness in this world is sometimes obscured by evil, and how we have to find the silver lining in every cloud.
Meditate upon this verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” ~~ Romans 8:28