…I do not think it means what you think it means.
—paraphrase of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
I keep returning, over and over again, to the images of transformation I read in the Bible. Not the “do not be conformed” phrases, but the metaphors. Humans as clay in God’s hands. Humans washed of sin the way dyers in ancient times prepared their cloth. Humans prepared like beautiful metals. I run into these images repeatedly in contemporary religious life, so on the one hand I’m in a lot of company. On the other hand, I really wonder.
Maybe those songwriters fully, truthfully felt what they were singing. But I have often wondered whether the folk standing around the campfire on a church retreat would sing so earnestly if they knew what they were invoking— “You are the potter / I am the clay / Mold me and make me / this is what I pray” or “Refiner’s fire: my heart’s one desire” ? Maybe the folk who find beautiful landscape photographs, then format verses about “white as snow” on top of them, feel the stress of the fuller’s process in their lives. Do the ones who re-blog them?
Extensive reading taught me by example that one should be very careful what one asks for. Here are some definitions, or object lessons, for why I am thoughtful before I quote these Biblical images in my prayers and readings.
potter and clay
Throwing a Bowl with Emily Reason
Jeremiah 18:3-6 New Revised Standard Version
3 So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel. 4 The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
5 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 6 Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord.
“Making white cloth involved bleaching it in the sun and ancient Woolite, which probably contained vinegar and caustic soda (mentioned symbolically in Proverbs 25:20) as well as urine, which apparently sudsed up nicely when it came into contact with wool’s natural oils. Roman clothing manufacturers even kept pots outside their doors for passersby to pee in.”
read the original from haaretz.com
Other historians point out that the bleaching process was hastened by pounding the cloth as it soaked in the urine. In Biblical times, it was slaves’ stomping that provided the pounding. A ‘fuller,’ by the way, is a person who prepares fibers and cloth for further use, including dying.
Psalm 51:7 New Revised Standard Version
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Malachi 3:2-3 New Revised Standard Version
2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.
Watch until the 7:00 mark
Zechariah 13:9 New Revised Standard Version
And I will put this third into the fire,
refine them as one refines silver,
and test them as gold is tested.
They will call on my name,
and I will answer them.
I will say, “They are my people”;
and they will say, “The Lord is our God.”
Now you know.
Even knowing what they mean, I too use these images. Knowing what lies behind them makes them even more comforting to me—in a backwards way. I may not find my experience fun, or pleasing, but if God’s intention is made real by dropping me in a trough of urine and having someone stomp on me
perhaps the whiteness of my resulting cloth will be beauty enough for God’s purpose…and maybe even my comfort.