Tag Archives: purpose

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?


Enduring Vanity

Vanitas PaintingRecently, I shared a few thoughts about the fleeting nature of human beauty, looking at 17th century Vanitas paintings and everyone’s favorite retired body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather than thinking further about Arnold, I’d like to revisit that painting for a moment, looking a bit more closely.

Take a look at the painting. Go ahead and click on it to get a bigger version. I’ll wait.

Remember that the idea of the vanitas painting was to play out the ideas of Ecclesiastes on the vanity of human endeavors. We all die, after all–which is the big, unsubtle message of the skull–and most anything we do is just vanity, just meaningless.

But is that the whole story? I suggested in the previous post that the purpose of the violin in this painting was to evoke the strains of music that are played and then fade away. Look, though, at what lies under the violin and the skull. That appears to be printed music. A song played today will fade away quickly, but a piece of music preserved in musical notation can be preserved for generations. Some of the hymns of the church have been sung for generations. Isn’t that a slight taste of cheating mortality?

Then look over to the left of the painting and the shiny ball. What is that? It looks like a giant pinball, but is, I believe, a convex mirror. A mirror can certainly be a symbol of vanity and the fleeting nature of things, but look at this particular mirror. What do you see? That’s apparently the image of the artist captured in the midst of creating the canvas. Although dead for more than 300 years, Pieter Claesz achieved a tiny bit of immortality by painting himself into that mirror and a bigger one through the enduring value of his paintings.

Besides reminding us of the folly of things that perish, the Vanitas paintings also underscore the value of those things that last. As I write this, I just finished watching the Kansas City Royals play a baseball game. Time well spent? I’d have to chalk that one up in the “meaningless” column, along with the overripe fruit and soon-to-wilt flowers. It is my hope that most of my time is passed on things that will have more enduring value than that.

We have each been allotted a certain number of days on this earth. We can pass them in pursuits that are meaningless or those that are meaningful. More than likely, we’ll have some in each category. But how is your day to be spent today? Which of the Vanitas painting’s messages will your day tell? That’s a question we should ask ourselves each time we roll out of or into bed.

The Vanitas Painting and the Bodybuilder

Vanitas PaintingHave you ever wondered why so many artists, especially Dutch artists in the 17th and 18th centuries, painted still lifes of skulls, flowers, and over-ripe fruit. Okay, you probably haven’t wondered that, but the next time you go through an art museum and see one of these paintings by somebody like Pieter Claesz or Adriaen van Utrecht, you’ll notice it.

Those paintings are products of the Vanitas school, focused on the ephemeral temporary nature of life. Think of them as the canvas-based enlargement of 1 Peter 1:24-25 and “all flesh is grass.”

In the painting above, we have various common elements of a Vanitas painting. The skull, obviously, represents death and mortality. The watch in the lower left suggests time passing. The lamp, just extinguished, speaks of the transitory nature of life, while the violin evokes music being played and then fading away. Reflections, bubbles, candles, flowers, and fruit all show up frequently in these works.

What brings this painting to mind, oddly enough, is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The undisputed master of bodybuilders, now 67 years old, no longer has the body that allowed him to play Conan the Barbarian so effectively. I won’t link to a photo of the not-so-svelte Arnold, but you can Google it if you like. Many 67-year-olds should look as good as Arnold, but when you’ve seen Mr. Olympia, the current body is hard to see.

The reality here–and it’s a reality that we don’t always want to face–is that every one of us is a living, breathing Vanitas painting. When Arnold had that Pumping Iron body, we all knew, even if we didn’t admit it, that he would eventually decline. The muscles would atrophy, the body fat would increase, and, somewhere down the road, that body would be placed in the grave. Even Jack Lalanne died eventually.

Does the fact that “all flesh is grass” mean that Arnold Schwarzenegger wasted his time creating that highly sculpted body? Given that he parlayed it into a considerable fortune, a movie career, and two terms as California governor, it doesn’t seem like a waste. (I’m not applauding all of his life choices, just to be clear.) All flowers will fade, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t grow them. All bodies will deteriorate, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make the most of them while we are here.

The Vanitas painting conveys two messages. Most obviously, it reminds us of the inevitability of death, but it also conveys the preciousness of what life we have. Live what life God gave you to the best of your ability. It will end.

Is It Meaningless?–Ecclesiastes 1:2-3

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What do people gain from all their labors

    at which they toil under the sun?—Ecclesiastes 1:2-3
What gets me up in the morning? Why do I roll out of bed when the alarm sounds? Isn’t everything meaningless, as Ecclesiastes says? I feel good about my professional life. If someone earnestly works with me in a writing course, they can acquire and hone skills for reading, writing, and thinking that will make their lives better, but so what? They’re going to die. I’m going to die. Smart or ignorant, things will work out pretty much the same, won’t they? Isn’t it all meaningless?
Albert Camus suggested that the primary philosophical question should be “should I kill myself?” In other words, Camus suggested that a human being needs to ask whether life is worth living, or, to put it less drastically, is bed worth rolling out of when the alarm sounds.
I rise in the morning and eat healthy food to prolong and improve a life that is, apparently, meaningless. I run or bike or otherwise exercise to improve my body for its meaningless existence. Off to work I go, pursuing tasks that are meaningless, paid with money that is meaningless, and provided with medical benefits that allow me to do all of this meaningful stuff in a healthier, longer way. Meaningless.
I’m working to get my weight back under 185 pounds, but I recognize that this is meaningless.
I’m training to run a 5K in less than 23:30 and a marathon in under 4 hours, but these things are meaningless.
I’m putting money into retirement accounts so that when I leave the college’s employ, I’ll have enough money to live well. Meaningless.
Or is it? Jesus healed dozens of people, but those people eventually died. Was that meaningless? Jesus fed 5,000 men on one day, but they got hungry again. Where was the meaning in that? Paul planted churches all over Asia Minor and Greece, but every one of those churches has since ceased to be. Were his efforts meaningless?
Sometimes, my students think that the tasks I set before them are meaningless, “busywork.” I don’t give busywork. The work I give them is designed to lead them to something worthwhile. I trust that the work God puts before me is worthwhile as well, even when it seems trivial. If all the meaning in rolling out of bed lies in it pleasing God, then that action is worthwhile. When we do things for the glory of God, they are never meaningless.