The Potter

November 18, 2020

Broken pottery cross

Chapel has been a consistent part of the mission of George Fox since our inception as a college in 1891. We have always been committed to the importance of coming together in worship of our Lord. Over that time, you can imagine that there have been thousands of sermons preached.

In my 22 years at the university, some of the most meaningful chapel addresses have been given by professors who know and relate to the students personally. Mark Terry, one of our finest professors, addressed the students at least once every four years until he retired recently. I always found his presentations poignant and memorable. 

I will never forget hearing him for the first time. Mark is a potter and an art professor. As I walked down the aisle in Bauman to find my seat for his chapel, the one thing that was easy to notice was that a potter’s wheel was center stage in place of the usual podium. I immediately knew that today’s conversation was going to be unique and personal.

Following a time of music, Mark walked to the stage, sat down and began to talk as the wheel began to spin. You could see he was so comfortable with his craft. He rarely looked down as he began to share his heart and place clay in the center of the wheel. Slowly, he began to use his hands to mold the clay, applying water when needed, and use just the right amount of pressure to form a beautiful clay vessel. As he worked, Mark talked about how God forms our lives similar to the work of the potter.  

And yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, and you are the potter. We all are formed by your hand.

Isaiah 64:8

The visual metaphor made the gospel real to anyone with ears to listen. Then, in the midst of his creation, Mark crushed the pot. It was something I did not expect. In that moment, Mark noted that even though we have been created in God’s image and likeness, we often reject the form he has provided to us. In the gospel we call that rejection “sin.” I do not know how others felt in that instant, but I could literally feel the pain and loss of the potter’s creation.

What was even more amazing was what happened next. Slowly, Mark took the same clay and began to lovingly recraft the vessel – making it even more beautiful than it was before. Our God is a God that works with broken vessels and tirelessly works to restore and give his creation its purposeful form – the work of redemption. As Mark finished his presentation, I looked around the chapel, and it was obvious that he engaged the community. The message was clearly presented. 

Visual representations of God’s work help remind us of his constant presence in our lives. This past summer, I asked Mark if he would be interested in crafting a Celtic Cross to be placed as a visual reminder of God’s work in our community.  Professor Terry immediately said yes and engaged a student, Ben Cahoon, to work with him in the creation of this work.

I chose this form of the cross for very specific reasons, including the unique nature of its inclusivity. The Celts were tribal groups that occupied the Irish and Scottish areas prior to Roman arrival. Under St. Patrick’s missionary effort, the Celts converted to faith. What later historians called the “High Cross” (or Celtic Cross) became a unique way the local tribe contributed to an old Christian form. The crosses in Ireland and Scotland incorporated unique Celtic Symbols into the cross and redefined them to embrace Christian commitments.

For these early Christians, symbols were vital in reflecting one’s commitment to the faith. In addition, the High Crosses of Ireland and Scotland were primarily attempts to teach, in visual form, the basic story of the Bible. Thus, one side of the cross usually examines creation and the other redemption. Without a Bible to read, the cross defined the basic theology of the church. Church leaders placed the crosses toward the front of the church and the parishioner would have to walk by it and see all the visual symbols. Together, with stained glass, they presented believers with important evidence of God's work in the world.  

We wanted this new cross on campus to serve the same purpose for the George Fox community. Mark and Ben worked all summer and into the fall building and crafting a cross that would reflect the gospel. I was able to see early versions of the cross in clay when it was still wet, and their work was simply beautiful.  

This past weekend the cross was going through the final stages of “firing” in preparation of its formal installation near the bridge on the George Fox campus.  We set the date of installation for Nov. 12, and we were excited to celebrate the completion of the project. In the middle of a Saturday, I received a text from Mark: “It has been a difficult weekend for the Terrys. In the last stages of the firing process, the cross cracked and we cannot recover it.” A picture was attached to the message, and although the form was still beautiful you could see where the cross itself no longer held together. In that moment, all felt genuine heartache.  

In the midst of the genuine pain for the loss of this beautiful creation, we were reminded of the words of the Psalmist:

Praise the Lord How Good it is to sing praises to our God, How pleasant and fitting to praise him! The Lord builds up Jerusalem,  He gathers the exiles of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted And binds up their wounds. 

Psalms 147:1-3

We are moving into Advent, when we reflect on the coming of the Christ as God’s redemptive answer to a broken creation. As God’s heart breaks for the state of his creation, he also is at work recrafting his people for all who hear his voice and submit to the potter’s wheel. Meanwhile, Mark and Ben are back at work creating a visual image of the power of God that will remind all those who stop and gaze of the power of God’s story from generation to generation. We wait anxiously for its arrival.  

Robin Baker President George Fox University