The Ultimate Alpha Dog–Jeremiah 18:6

O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.–Jeremiah 18:6

id-10032215A few months ago, Penny and I procured a new dog, Beau or Bo–I’m not sure how we spelled it. Beau is a standard poodle, but before you start scoffing at the idea of a poodle, let’s be clear. A standard poodle is a cool dog. He’s about the height of a golden retriever, lean and athletic. We don’t keep his hair cut in that ridiculous poofy look at you see sometimes. Trust me–real poodles are great dogs.

But like any dog, Beau came into our home and tested the boundaries. He wanted to establish exactly where he stood in the grand scheme of things. Most of all, he wanted to establish that we weren’t the alpha dogs, the bosses of his pack. It took a while, but I think we have pretty much succeeded. Beau now cooperates and goes to his kennel at that word. He’ll mostly come when called, although he’s still terrified of Livie’s boyfriend Sam.

Dogs are wonderfully sensible. When they learn the hierarchy of things, they’ll live within it. If Spike is stronger than Fido, then Fido will mostly fall into line and yield to Spike’s leadership. People can be sensible in that way. That’s why we pull over when the police turn their lights on. We know they have the power and so we yield. That’s why we file our taxes every April, knowing that the IRS can make our lives miserable if we don’t.

However, we don’t always assume that the police or the IRS are right or all-powerful. I have argued successfully with the IRS on a couple of occasions. I’ve never gotten into a high-speed chase with the police, but there’s still time for that. Realistically, we only fight the power that we think we can overcome. We fight when we think they’re not really the alpha dog.

While you might beat the police or the IRS, you will not beat the ultimate alpha dog. When God asks Israel if he doesn’t have the power to overturn them like clay, he’s not really asking a question. He’s asking them to see the reality of it. What can God do with us? Anything He likes. Can we resist His will? Only as far as He allows.

If we cannot manage to behave like clay, yielding perfectly to the potter’s hands, perhaps we should at least try to be sensible like dogs.

Don’t Be An Egg–Jeremiah 18:3-4

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.–Jeremiah 18:3-4

id-10032215“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” I’m not sure why Humpty Dumpty got up on that wall in the first place. He was, after all, an egg, but he did get on the wall. And being an egg, once Humpty was broken, he couldn’t be re-assembled. All Humpty Dumpty was good for at that point was a cautionary nursery rhyme–or perhaps a plate of scrambled eggs.

All too often, it seems to me, we look at life from a Humpty Dumpty perspective. Something bad happens and we feel that we’re doomed. And let’s be clear, life can, for a variety of reasons, not all of them our fault, drop some pretty egg-crushing events into our laps. Your marriage explodes. Your child dies. You find yourself a quadriplegic. You lose your job, your house, or your life savings. Bad news comes your way from your doctor, your plumber, or the IRS. If those or similar things have not reached you, then count yourself blessed and wait for next week. The Buddhists have this one thing right when they say, “Life is suffering.”

The problem, however, is that we think of ourselves as Humpty Dumpty, fragile little eggs that, once cracked, are forever ruined. But in Jeremiah’s analogy, we are clay. Clay can be endlessly worked and reshaped. In the hands of our Master Potter, our disastrous lives can be remade. What seemed like egg-crushing tragedy can be the first step in re-forming the very earth from which we were formed. Painful? Perhaps. Disorienting? Definitely. But how else can a mangled pile of clay be turned into a beautiful pot?

What then do we need to do? There’s a reason that God spoke to Jeremiah  about clay. Clay doesn’t have to do anything except yield itself to to the hands of the potter. The clay has no choice. We, of course, have a choice.

If we’re wise, we’ll not exercise that choice. Don’t be an egg; be clay.

Keep Your Hand to the Clay–Jeremiah 18:3-4

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.  And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.–Jeremiah 18:3-4

potterEvery semester, as I calculate final grades, I encounter a handful of students who receive a grade that’s either lower than what they should have earned or an actual “F.” Occasionally a college student will fail because of a lack of ability, but far more often, those F’s (and the underperforming B’s, C’s, and D’s) come for a simple reason: the student simply did not do the work. Sometimes that lack of effort is shown in the grade book by a zero; other times, it will be camouflaged with a real grade that simply should have been higher. Just last week, I had a student who should have easily received a B but who scuttled his chances by knocking together a “research” paper that involved precious little research and even less thought.

The problem with a student like this is that he probably exchanged the time he should have spent studying and writing for time watching The Walking Dead or playing Minecraft. In short, if had had gone down to this student’s house, he wouldn’t have been studying. It would have been like Jeremiah  going to the potter’s house to find him not making pottery.

Just so I don’t sound too prideful, let me be clear. Most of my failures come from when I am not at whatever pottery wheel I should be tending. When my teaching is less than it should be or my writing assignments don’t get done on time, it’s not a lack of ability. Instead, I just haven’t had my hand on the clay enough.

Jeremiah’s potter was found at work, and the potter whom he represented, God, is also found always at work. Since His redeeming work is always going on, since He is always faithful to provide and protect and guide, shouldn’t we respond with the same measure of diligence? Can we honestly offer any less than to keep our hands on our clay?

 

Head to the Potter’s House–Jeremiah 18:1-2

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord:  “Arise, and go down to the potter’s house, and there I will let you hear my words.”–Jeremiah 18:1-2

id-10032215Supposedly, the famous photographer Weegee, Arthur Fellig, when asked about the secret to taking stunning photos, shared this advice: “F/8 and be there.” The f/8 part of that, if you’re not a photographer, refers to the aperture setting on the camera. Frankly, I don’t think that the f/8 part was what Weegee meant to emphasize. Instead, he wanted to impress on his hearer the notion of being there.

Do you want to take a great picture of a sunrise in the mountains? You’re going to need to be in the mountains, ready to shoot, before the sun breaks the horizon. Do you want to get fabulous shots of wildlife? You can’t expect to step out of your minivan, snap a couple of exposures, and step back in. Good photos come from photographers who go to the trouble of being there and shooting lots of shots while they’re there.

I’m reminded of that today as I read about Jeremiah’s encounter with God. I have to admit that, had it been me, I’d have probably been saying, “What? Go to the potter’s house? But the Royals game is on! Can’t you just tell me here? Maybe I’ll go there tomorrow when it’s not raining. That’s okay, isn’t it?”

But to get the word of the Lord, Jeremiah had to do it on the Lord’s terms. He had to go to the potter’s house. Why? I don’t know, but what rational person argues with the creator and sustainer of the universe?

How often do we miss out on the messages and blessings of God because we resist going down to the potter’s house? We want things according to our own desires and our own conveniences and our own expectations. Perhaps the first step in allowing the potter to make a beautiful vessel of us is to acknowledge that we’re nothing but clay.

 

Rule #6: Eliminate Excessive Choices

torah-scrollAs I continue my march through Joel Harper’s “Ten Rules that Fit People Follow,” examining each rule in the light of biblical teaching, I find myself arrived at rule #6. (You can read my musings on rule #5 and before here.) The sixth rule is “Eliminate excessive choices,” which is described as follows:

Chocolate croissant or steel cut oats? Grilled salmon or a quesadilla? When you have to make these types of dietary decisions all day long, you may end up exhausting your willpower. Planning your meals in advance, however—even just one meal per day—can make it easier (and less stressful) to eat healthy.

My initial reaction to this rule is that it is nonsense. Do people who plan their meals in advance actually eliminate any choices? I’d argue that as a ‘no.’ They move the choices to a different time, but they don’t eliminate anything.

On the other hand, I think there is something to be said for actual elimination of choices. Think of what Jesus said to the rich young ruler: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” This young man went away from Jesus sad. Why? He couldn’t let go of his wealth. Wealth, you see, indicates choice.

When I receive a pay check, I send a text that initiates a gift for 10% of that check to my church. Do I have to give that tithe on the first day I receive the payment? No, but by doing so, I eliminate the choice and thus the temptation not to give it. In fact, if my pay came in consistently, I’d set the thing up to go automatically twice a month.

In reality, I think that this rule should be “Surrender your will to God’s will.” Was there ever a better example of that than when Jesus willingly allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured, tried, tortured again, and then murdered? If I could demonstrate that level of surrender, then I could easily choose the oats over the croissant.

The problem, I think, with Harper’s rule is that his elimination of choice is an illusion. If I eat the grilled salmon, I can easily enough opt to eat the quesadilla later in the evening or allow my wife to talk me into ice cream.

This so-called elimination of choices is actually just an exercise in reinforcing will power, but humans have shown for millennia that we’re not particularly good at will power. Surrender, on the other hand, takes will power off the table.

 

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.