But who are you, O man, to talk back to God?
“Shall what is formed say to him who formed it,
‘Why did you make me like this?’
Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump
of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?”
—Romans 9:20, 21
(with references to Isaiah 53,3,4; John 2:1-11;
Philippians 2:5-8; John 4:34)
I’d spent the day with one of my daughters in the hills of Brown County picking a cake, flowers and tasting food at a rustic inn where she is planning a small wedding a few months from now. We drove back to my house in heavy snow dodging slidden vehicles and she wisely opted to spend the night instead of risking fifty miles further to her home.
Finally snug from the storm, my daughter consented to watch the very first episode of Downton Abbey with me. I’d already watched through all three seasons badgering another daughter who still lives at home to be a viewing companion, but it had been to no avail. Now I had a potential convert in my clutches and I was a happy woman. But I guess the day had worn me out and I promptly fell asleep.
I awoke during episode four. It was late and I supposed my daughter was asleep on the sofa. “Do you want to stop this and go to bed?”
She was not asleep. “No, Momma. This is like crack!” (For the record, my daughter has no personal knowledge of the addictive effects of crack. She was only making an analogy in her typical high-drama fashion.) I got my second wind and we made it through all seven episodes ending our marathon at 2:30 in the blessed a.m. And we both made it to work a few short hours later.
There may be a number of elements that make the Downton Abbey series “like crack” for so many. Maybe it’s the characters … flawed and vulnerable in ways that remind us of ourselves or noble in ways that inspire and touch us or in the case of one or two chronically evil characters, redeemed by a surprising act of selflessness or contrition. Perhaps we are intrigued with Lord Grantham’s recognition, despite his lofty social standing, that his title comes with responsibility to perpetuate the estate that is a primary employer in his small part of the world and his sense of each person’s dignity and value at every level. Perhaps it is Carson’s exuberant self-giving as butler to the care of the house, his touching and fierce devotion to its people and his flawless management and perfectionist demands of its staff that speaks volumes in this age of mediocrity. It could be the fast-paced storytelling or costuming that effectively completes the mood for the grand English house in a gloriously beautiful landscape. We might be fascinated by the historical turbulence that effectively ended a way of life for the nobility, ushered in a new era for women, ruined fortunes in the Great Depression and killed bodies and maimed souls in World War I.
All of this appeals to my hunger for a rousing story, but my addiction to the Abbey arises from the fact that it addresses a subject I have meditated upon much of late. How do we embrace the role to which we’ve been cast? And please … I am not speaking social class or fortune here, though practically speaking the manifestation of a role is often seen at least partly this way. I speak of our roles in every sense, whether spiritual, familial, vocational, material or otherwise and Downton Abbey is my metaphor.
I confess the first time I read the Apostle Paul’s words in the ninth chapter of Romans I prayed, “Lord, make me a vessel for noble use.” Then I immediately got busy trying to make it happen … as if I could. The part about what is formed trying to tell the One forming it went in one ear and out the other. Nevertheless, it’s human nature to seek significance. We try to perform whatever gymnastics we think will conjure up some importance for ourselves. Depending upon what we see as valuable, it might be education, money, marriage, power, notoriety, religion or a long rambling list of other things.
Early on, I hungered for relationship with God, and that hunger has shown itself in some good and some not-so-good ways. At times I have held myself to obsessive spiritual disciplines that I somehow believed would impress God enough to use me nobly. I have worked to the point of physical and emotional exhaustion in the effort to appear serene and wise, but made myself a hypocrite given to inner turmoil. It sounds strange to say, but I have also kept a death grip in prayer on my people for fear that they might somehow get past God’s notice or that my family might fly apart like the one into which I was born. (Incidentally, I think Job was guilty of this very thing. “Early in the morning, he would sacrifice a burnt offering for each of them, thinking, ‘Perhaps my children have sinned and cursed God in their hearts.’ This was Job’s regular custom.” Job 1:5). God forbid that I should suffer familial failure or spiritual failure or failure in any of a dozen other ways. Just how significant would I be then?
I haven’t been lazy, but many times I have completely missed the point of my earthly existence. When I look back on life, I can see that some of Satan’s most insidious insinuations went something like, “This is a waste of your time. This is not your gift. You’ll never achieve what God meant for you if you let yourself be interrupted or distracted in this way. Delegate it.” Just so you know, I rarely delegate. I almost always do the thing and then pitch myself into the mental complaining that turns the dreaded foot washing that could have been done nobly with and for and in Christ, back into a common drudgery. If we are always striving for the noble activities and positions, we can easily miss the beauty and necessity of the common that becomes noble in the way we do them.
It’s true that pursuing significance sometimes … okay, often … rises from pride or vanity or self-promotion or even fear, but I’ve also come to believe that there is a pure yearning that springs from a place within us that God has put there on purpose. It is an authentic and spiritual craving to answer the Father’s call. In doing so, we find our significance and our peace. Nevertheless, discerning it demands focused distancing from the worldly, the material and the selfish, none of which is easy and all of which requires overcoming desires for importance. If we think we are the Ladies Grantham dressing for dinner instead of the maids dressing them or the cooks cooking the dinner, we won’t be ready when Life in its reality happens and God calls us into service. Sometimes … many times … most of the time it is really about wiping noses and helping with homework or covering for a co-worker whose old father is sick again or watching the neighbors’ kids so they can get marriage counseling or changing the dressing on a parent’s heart surgery wound or a laboring in lonely midnight prayers for all the desperations and devastations around us. Once in a while it’s about a job promotion or a book tour or achievements and accolades or going on mission in the third world … but we shouldn’t hold our collective breath for those times.
It matters not whether we are called for noble purposes or common. Some might argue that those used nobly have a built-in significance and automatic fulfillment. Perhaps that is so to a degree, but the rich, the famous and the powerful seem just as prone to internal unrest. Achievement in those areas may satisfy certain longings, but until a soul surrenders to God’s precise call it is subject to continued searching and weary wandering. The same is true of the poor, the unnoticed and the weak, though it seems harsher and almost unfair to say. Still, to deny that any of us in this second group has just as much responsibility and just as much to offer negates the potentialities and realities that shine forth from the flip side of worldly significance. Obligation to be vessels of service for the Potter in life’s daily drudgeries is a condition of rich and poor alike … of the healthy and the infirm, of the influential and the unnoticed, of the gifted and the weak, of those who soar and of those who suffer. Frederick Buechner refers to it as taking up the burden of one’s life and following after him.
It is God who determines if we are most useful standing with our skills before kings (Proverbs 22:29), washing feet (John 13:5, 12-17), praying for others as we lie in a hospital bed or the infinite number of in-between services that God ordains and humanity requires for the perpetual turning of the world. Incidentally, washing feet is commanded for any follower of Christ. It may be literal or it may be figurative, but it is the attitude that determines the essence of the act.
Last week, I hurried into the grocery store feeling frustrated that buying food was on my long list of to dos. Instantly, I was humbled. I was behind a man about my age, pushing an elderly woman, presumably his mother, in a wheel chair and pulling a grocery cart behind him. Back in the day, I did the same except with a stroller and fussy children. It is a hard job just getting the train from the car into the store and then to maneuver it all up and down aisles avoiding other carts and impatient, grumpy people … and that was when I was younger and more energetic. Now I was following someone older like me and no doubt more tired like me, ministering not to the up and coming, but to the down and dying. I felt like I was watching Jesus. As his mother spoke and gestured, he leaned down and listened. Once I saw him laugh with her at some private joke. Another time, he squeezed her shoulders affectionately. He was engaged and present, clearly viewing that time spent not as duty or drudgery, but as fulfilling an important call in those moments. I wondered as I watched. The task he was engaged in was common, not something that would earn him big money or fame. It wouldn’t gain him power or worldly significance. Nevertheless, he performed it lovingly. His tasks were common, but his heart was noble.
Abba, please help me to do everything you give me to do just like that.
Yes, the man, in his loving kindness, reminded me of Jesus. Speaking of Jesus … and he is the one behind and through and in everything here … his story in us and ours in him is the point. He lived in glory with the Father, but for his mission on earth left glory behind. He came to dwell with us commoners in the clothing of a commoner … a baby born in the muck and mire of a stable to working class parents in a small town. His life was filled with common activities like eating and sleeping and working and touching lepers and the eyes of blind men and bleeding women and prostitutes. He washed dirty feet, healed the sick and spoke the dead back to life. And then he took our infirmities and sins upon himself and died a bloody, disgraceful death on a cross between criminals and was laid to rest in a donated tomb … hardly the trappings of a king.
Yet, three days brought resurrection and transformation. All his offerings that the world viewed as foot-washing water were revealed for what they were … wine … rare and wonderful wine. The trappings of earth meant nothing to the Son. It wasn’t his true home. If we are his, our trappings don’t matter either. They are only the extraneous circumstances of our journey as we care for younger brothers on our way home. When our food, like Christ’s, is to do the will of the one who sent us, we can be at peace with how we are formed and how we are used. Lying still in the Potter’s hands is painfully difficult at times, but when we do God life flows into these jars of clay and the common waters we pour into marriages, families, work and worship he turns to wine.