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Matti Kangasoja – Counsellor of Education

Matti Kangasoja – Counsellor of Education

Before the time of faith, however, we were kept in the prison of the law until faith came. Therefore, until Christ came, the law was our overseer. When we believed, we became innocent in the sight of God. (Galatians 3:23-25).

In ancient times, children were raised and educated by slaves, who also chastised them.  Of course, these overseer slaves were not the best educators of children.  Paul must have had an overseer slave in mind, when writing about how law and legalism can be the overseers of a Christian.

The law was not and could not be the spiritual educator or guide for the Christian, for “Faith is born of hearing, but hearing is born of the word of Christ.”  (Romans 10:17).

The life and walk of the Christian for the glory of God and for the good of his neighbors are the fruit of the Spirit of new life, they are not brought about by an overseer keen on fulfilling the law or its requirements.  In ancient Sparta, young Spartans were demanded uncompromising loyalty to their comrades and Sparta by their overseers.  If a young man finished his training well, he was a top soldier at the age of 18.  If he failed, he was pushed out of the community and had to spend the rest of his life outside the community as a reject without family, home, and land.

In his faith life, the Christian must constantly choose whether to submit to legalism and live according to the requirements of the law, or to a life set free from all requirements of the law by the grace of God.  An assessment may be necessary as to whether the Christian wants to live in a legalistic or merciful church community.

Professor Heidi McKendrick’s book Secrets of Broken Pottery, Seeing the Great Potter – Being Seen by Him, presents this contradiction in the early church between the freedom of the gospel and the deeds of man.  That is why Paul wrote his harsh letter to the Galatians.

The book addresses the question of how religious communities can understand, teach, and regulate the essential content of the Christian faith in a variety of ways.  These include grace, atonement, forgiveness of sins, questions of the Christian way of life, and other visible manifestations of the faith. Between Paul’s theology of freedom and the demands present in our churches today, a balance may not always be easy to find.

McKendrick’s main theme follows that of the book of Isaiah: “We are the clay, and you are our potter”.  She discusses the life of a good, beautiful, and usable clay pot, made by the Great Potter, in the kingdom of God.  The clay pot can break for one reason or another, even for surprising and unforeseen reasons.  The Great Potter always takes care of his clay pots – even when shattered.  From the pieces of a shattered jar, God makes a new, usable one.  Finally, the clay pot feels whole again, mended by the goodness, grace, and love of God.

McKendrick has experienced all this.  Already as a child, her clay pot shattered in the coercive culture of a legalistic church.  However, the Great Potter did not abandon her.  He collected all the pieces and shaped them into a new pot, fitting and usable for a new kind of purpose.

The book is based on McKendrick’s personal experiences and is thus a very thought-provoking piece.  At the same time, it is her own growth story, a story of how the Great Potter can make something new out of a shattered jar.

McKendrick was born a third-generation member of the legalist congregation, and her  grandmother was one of the founders of the congregation.  She could not choose a church for herself;  rather, she was placed, as she puts it, into this tiny chamber that allowed no room to do anything but what I was told and not do anything strictly prohibited.”  The experiential credibility of the book lies in the fragments of McKendrick’s own shattered clay pot, in the pieces of a broken spiritual life.

McKendrick also examines faith and religious norms as well as people’s lives and interrelationships in the context of man-made performance requirements and control of the legalist church.  Underlying this may well be the legal spirit of the church with its sanctions of success comparable to Spartanism and without the righteousness of faith and the freedom in following Christ.

McKendrick covers various cases of how a clay pot can break under the pressure of various requirements and performance-monitoring.  A person can break their own clay pot, which can happen for a wide variety of reasons.  It can be sheer stupidity or irresponsibility, but it can also happen consciously, when one no longer cares about possible consequences.  We are capable of smashing our own clay pots if we forget to take care of ourselves.

A person may knowingly, intentionally, out of incompetence, or even when meaning good, break another person’s clay pot.  One knowingly doing so not only smashes another person into pieces, but may also end up destroying elements of fundamental nature such as the person’s trust in others, their sense of justice or security. Such experiences can leave deep scars for a lifetime.

Thus, the one who breaks another clay pot may not always understand the consequences of their actions.  If aware of such consequences, they might be ashamed of what they had caused even if they only meant to do good.

McKendrick says she is sure the pastor of her childhood congregation had only the best of intentions in teaching that God will drop hot stones from heaven upon those who disobey.  Neither did her Sunday school teacher mean anything bad when he taught a five-year-old that God reads secret thoughts: if they are not pure, she will not be let in when the trumpet sounds and Jesus takes his own to Heaven.

McKendrick addresses the question “who or what broke the clay pot and why?”  in the lives of numerous people in the Bible.  Their pots were broken by interpersonal problems, distortions of facts, religious problems, scheming, fraud, adultery, rape, or murder.  Although the Bible is usually very sparing with words, McKendrick has managed to portray the feelings of people in a credible, understandable and reasonable way, even without embellishing. She also addresses the various contradictions and everyday realities of life regarding faith, the calling of God, and the religious community and living in it.  In other words, covering all the elements of how and why people have done harm to each other.  In doing so, they have intentionally or unintentionally broken their own or someone else’s clay pot.

The reader will realize that the people of the Bible have lived in greatly varying circumstances and they have sometimes lived very wrongly and against the will of God.  The range of their wrong-doings is wide.  Yet God has forgiven, accepted them, cared for them, and finally repaired their shattered jars.

McKendrick deals with human errors, mistakes, clay pots being smashed by people themselves or by someone else, the human nature in itself. She does so without criticizing or blaming anyone. The Great Potter turns shattered jars into new ones as the following case of force majeure will show, where her understanding and encouraging style is evident. There is nothing one can do to prevent a pot from being shattered, the event in itself has nothing to do with you or anyone else. Nothing that could have been done would have changed the situation and its development until the pot was actually shattered.  Then one can only ask why such a terrible thing has happened “to me, even though I put my trust in the Great Potter and thought about the future with confidence and enthusiasm”.

According to McKendrick, in the event of a sudden breakage – as with other causes of breakage – one realizes that from now on, life will not return to its former state, that is, a broken pot will no longer be the same.  Awareness of this can lead to a crisis of faith where one ponders how to believe in the Great Potter when He does not seem to care.  Or why does He not answer my prayers when most needed?  If He is omnipotent, why does He not help?  Why does He allow this?  Why doesn’t He express Himself when He is anticipated the most?

According to McKendrick, a great crisis is easily blamed on the Great Potter, other people or oneself, one’s own faith, its lack, or the sins one has committed.  When surrounded by shattered pieces, other people may encourage us to trust God and to humbly submit to His will. But to the broken person that, as McKendrick notes, may often sound just like a Christian cliché, like the often-heard “Praise the Lord.”  In the middle of the broken pieces, it is quite difficult to imagine that everything is part of the Great Potter’s plan and that everything has been under His control all along.

But then – sooner or later – and at the right time, “The Great Potter will collect the broken pieces from the floor and place them on his desk. He will mix them with the carefully chosen new clay of his love, grace, and faithfulness.”  And the author continues, trusting the Potter; after shaping the new pot, He places it in the incinerator, adding glaze and color.  “In some cases, He may even add gold to the fractures in praise of your own name and to emphasize the breaking of a pot assembled from pieces as evidence of its survival and endurance.” McKendrick encourages and continues to remind us that the Great Potter gives hope and a future (cf. Jeremiah 29:11), though it would not feel like it at that moment. The Great Potter will take care of the new clay pot as well – even if it does not feel so at that precise moment.

The book has been used extensively to describe the lives of people in the Bible and the breaking of their pots.  In each of them, you can see how differently these people have put themselves in a situation where they were forced to admit that their clay pot is now broken.  The reader can find in each individual story the potting processes described earlier in the book from the breaking all the way until a new pot made of its pieces is ready.  The reader finds something that may have happened to the clay pot of his own life or similarities in how things have proceeded.

David’s behavior and actions are a good example of how “easily” a person can break their own clay pot.  Nathan came to David and made him realize that “I am that man”. David drifted in his life quite by chance, and continued onward guided by his own desires, but very deliberately, with determination, and with the power of a king.  He did not care about the consequences as long as he got what he wanted, and that too in a seemingly acceptable way.  David broke his own clay pot, but the reader can find many individual reasons, even omissions, where David did not take care of himself but rather gave into his own will and let his life be led by it.

Indeed, the phenomena discussed more generally in the previous chapters of the book, or even the author’s experiences, as well as the passages from the Bible, take on a deeper meaning as the reader gains new insights into the many colors of human life.  McKendrick’s way of covering and examining broadens the reader’s own interpretations, helping the reader move away from the familiar and often repeated interpretations towards recognizing the very different experiences of very different people. McKendrick builds interesting and educational stories from the breaking of clay pots, spread of chips and how they are finally restored into a new life purpose. In the reader, these stories awaken the urge to ask themselves questions that deepen their own understanding.  And at the same time, the stories inspire the reader to go back to the earlier pages of the book and to open the Bible to examine the book’s rich biblical references.  They too show McKendrick’s familiarity with the almighty works of the Great Potter and the Word He gave in His loving kindness!  Therefore, almost everything in the text is supported by a rich reference to the Bible not only in the verses associated with each case, but in the overall revelation of the Bible.  It speaks of God’s goodness, love, tolerance, grace, and complete forgiveness and forgetfulness over our mistakes, errors, and evil deeds.  On the other hand, the abundant other source material in the book makes it possible to satisfy a different kind of interest in information.

Whether a clay pot breaks for its own reason, caused by other people, or for some other, even unforeseen reason, McKendrick hopes everyone understands that each of us will break one way or another.  There is no one who has not questioned why our good and almighty Great Potter allows all this pitiful pain for me and will not stop breaking our pot.  But at the same time, it is important for us to have a deeper understanding of what we decide to do once we have been shattered into pieces.  Our decisions matter.  The author asks, “Do you let unforgiveness and bitterness determine the rest of your life?  Or do you trust that the Great Potter will take the pottery he has begun in his love until the end of the restoration, so that you can be in his service again ”.  This is the very same Potter who says to his clay pots, “I will stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and we will eat dinner together.”  (Rev. 3:20.)

What would we like to say to the Great Potter when in His presence and what would we ask of Him? After all, he himself has urged us to leave everything to him, promised to take care of us and bear our burden.  The amount of empathy of the Great Potter is infinite: McKendrick writes about the importance of showing empathy to one another, as we all are broken clay pots in a way or another.  We can bear one another’s burdens, as Paul calls us to do in his Letter to the Galatians. The experiences we all have in our own lives of being broken can help us in showing empathy towards others who have been broken.

“The apostles returned to Jesus and told him what they had done and taught.  Jesus said: Let us go into a quiet place.  You can rest a little. For the people came and went in all the time, and they had no time to eat” (Mark 6: 30-31).

McKendrick stresses that none of us, the broken clay pots, will survive if we just take in the burdens of others.  We must also receive something from the Great Potter for ourselves and let Him take care of our own burden: “Think of the Great Potter.  All the stories about Him in the Bible.  He felt emotion, sadness, disappointment, frustration, betrayal, rejection, pain or agony. ”

McKendrick’s theological insight, scientific competence, therapeutic experience and trust in God, the Great Potter, put together leave a distinctive mark on the whole book that lasts until the very last page of the book.  It challenges the reader, but at the same time, McKendrick challenges church communities, pastors, or us Christians to realize the complete freedom brought to us by grace, the freedom to which we have been called.  As churches and Christians, we have also been called out from under the obligations of the law and the pressure to excel into freedom.

“The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”  (John 1:29) does not mean, according to McKendrick, that there is only one possibility, one short moment of forgiveness, but that “His grace never faileth, it is new every morning” (Val. 3: 22-23). The author emphasizes that we must understand the content of free, undeserved grace.  If we do not understand this, we will quickly begin to see the Great Potter as impatient and frustrated by our brokenness.  We will then see Him as punishing and condemning.  It is difficult for us to trust Him.  We feel insecure about approaching Him.

McKendrick is remarkably open in describing the various contexts of how her own clay pot has been broken.  Foremost, she wishes to help others by covering and sharing her own experiences.  At the same time, the therapist’s and successful scientist’s own life story about breaking and repairing her clay pot is both experience- and research-based and Bible-based therapy for the reader.  After reading the book, right from the very first pages, the author’s own experiences create a supportive and credible foundation for the reader.

At the same time, the therapist’s own life story on the table of the Great Potter is quite biblical. Because of this, too, the reader will be extremely convinced.  McKendrick constantly emphasizes how the Great Potter forgives, heals, repairs and makes anew.  At the same time, she reinforces the reader’s belief that the Great Potter keeps constantly taking care of his clay pots.  He does not seek or approach the broken past to punish.  He never leaves the broken one alone but he wants and has the power to put all the pieces of the broken pot together and build a new pot.

The book does not offer successful theological blessings or promises of legalism and righteousness based on Christian accomplishments or responsibilities.  The book also does not promise that problems or internal breakdowns will disappear.  They may not go away even if a person has enough faith  or if he prays fervently or does this and that or avoids this or that.  No, the book exalts in all our Great Potter, Him who wants to create a loving, caring, and secure relationship with His clay pots through His church as well.  And grace is enough.

McKendrick’s book  is rich in its vocabulary and use of language.  It also has a strong and well-argued critique of the Pharisees of church life and a well-founded critique of such law-based teaching or leadership that crushes. However, she leaves it to the reader to draw the ultimate conclusions as to why so many Christians and their leaders have been crushing the clay pots of others with their own performance requirements.

The book compels us to ask about the roots of the spirituality of our own church community and the conditions for enabling healthy and safe spiritual growth!  Indeed, one of McKendrick’s main wishes is that the church should not be like a prison.  One prison is legalism, which still holds many Christians chained.  Salvation based on deeds, that is, the Christian’s own attempt to earn the approval of the Great Potter by following the customs, prohibitions, or rules set by the church, is far from what Christ meant when he liberated us from the bondage of the law!  “As many as are justified by the law, ye are fallen from the grace of Christ” (Gal. 5: 7).

“At the beginning of the service (in the midst of my gracious seminars in a foreign country) I was told,“ You have already corrupted too many churches with this message, so we will not allow you to speak today. ”  I have to admit, it felt almost surreal when my husband had to pick up my PowerPoint projector and laptop from the pulpit in front of hundreds of parishioners before he was taken out of the church hall! ”

It is possible to find balance between Paul’s theology of freedom and the demands placed on the Christian today.  After reading Heidi McKendrick’s book, one will surely be closer to finding such balance!