DSC07425{Holy Week…2017…a Tuesday without much going on, and a mug that fits just right.}

There’s not much going on with this mug. It holds no printed message, no child’s art, nor any design that says, “Hey, write about this!” This mug isn’t even drunk from. It’s purely decorative, occupying a shelf in the kitchen. Where did we get it? Isn’t there some story to tell?

I turned it over, and etched into the bottom of the mug it says, “Williamsburg.” And it’s in the trademarked logo script. So that makes it official. And probably expensive, at least compared to most of the other mugs in our kitchen. Nice design. Love the color. But what does it prompt me to write about as this forty day retreat into the wilderness of my imagination heads toward a conclusion?

Unlike some of the other mugs we use for daily coffee and tea, this one is real pottery. I suspect it’s handmade, out of clay. Earthenware, we call it. Imagined, then shaped and molded, formed into a useful vessel, and then painted to make it more attractive. I’ve never been to a pottery class, and I won’t try to write about the creative process that puts hands to wet clay, tactile art, sensuous touch, massaging earthly elements into some ceramic shape, artistic or practical or both. I’m mostly interested in the clay.

When I was in youth ministry, so long ago that those teens may be grandparents now for all I know, I led a retreat at a lovely place in Virginia called Shrinemont. Located in the northern reaches of the Jefferson National Forest, the conference center is operated by the Episcopal Church. The weekend focus was the gift of music, and one activity I planned centered on using art materials to interpret some of the songs we were listening to. One teenaged guy used pipe cleaners to sculpt a rock band! I had bought a lot of modeling clay, the kind that was non-drying, non-hardening, so it could be reused after our event.

Obviously, it wasn’t pure clay from the earth. More like some plastic goo from a factory. But it met our needs for the weekend. I really got into that exercise. As is the case with some sculptors some of the time, I had no preconceived plan. I just grabbed a big hunk, and worked it. Yes, it was therapeutic, I’m sure. All the tension and anxiety of programming and leading a retreat for over a hundred teens dispersed as I squeezed and pressed, and gouged and shaped that ball of clay into…a head. Eventually, an old man’s head. Long face, deep set eyes, a weary look, a few lines here and there.

It was no masterpiece, but I liked it. Then I saw that there was a bit more clay left. I rolled it into a ball, and sculpted the head of an infant, to contrast with the old guy. When the retreat ended on Sunday afternoon, I packed up the art supplies and saw my creation(s) there, waiting for me to mash them into a shapeless lump, art recycled. I had told everyone that they could keep what they had fashioned if they wanted to. So, I listened to myself and carefully packed the old man and the infant in a box to take home.

Those clay heads remained in my office for years, and the manufacturer was right: the clay never hardened. When it was time to move out of state to new work, I made the hard decision to finally blend the two lumps together, and leave them for someone else to play with. That ended my sculpting days.

Thankfully, some art is permanent, as lasting as anything on this planet Earth can be. The paintings of the masters, massive cathedrals, The Pieta, castle tapestries, and great-grandma’s quilts. The words of published authors and the music of whatever is considered “classic” these days — words and music live on, for generations. And carpentry, too. The old family hutch and the hand-carved pulpit.

But some art is temporary, too. And intentionally so. At a Montreat, NC, conference a few years ago, huge paper banners, perhaps 20 feet long, decorated the cavernous auditorium. The designs were religious symbols, intricately cut into sturdy paper, letting the light shine through the patterns with stunning effect. The uninitiated wondered aloud how the artist would roll up the huge sheets without damaging the delicate creations. But for those who were present when the plain sheets were first unrolled to be scissored into art, the artist had made it clear: this was to be tempoarary art, inspiring only for a few days, much like sand art on a beach, ice sculpture in winter, or a sand mandala of Tibeten monks. It was a celebration of the temporary.

As were my plastic clay figures.

[It just occurred to me that if there were any “art” to my years of producing music-oriented radio programs, with sometimes, not always, thoughtfully-written scripts, that was temporary too. You hope to write creatively, join the script to popular music, voice it with sensitivity, edit the tape, and then it all airs. Within a few minutes, the tape could have been erased, and the effort begun for the following broadcast. And before we ministers could preserve our sermon manuscripts on the church website, blog them, or at least print them out for the reading public in our pews, what we preached was surely a temporary art too. OK, many of my radio programs and maybe most of my sermons didn’t achieve the status of art, per se. This paragraph was inserted for only illustrative purposes.]

But back to clay. It’s a cousin to the dust and ashes of Mother Earth. It’s related to the soil that brings forth crops, and to the mud we track in on a rainy day. It’s red there, and black here, and gray, too. The earliest use of clay? Pottery. We date civilizations by the remaining shards we dig up. But clay was used for bricks, too, to build structures that sheltered and memorialized. Archeological discoveries included toys and idols made of clay. And, of course, clay tablets preserved ancient writings.

When Jesus gathered his disciples together in an upper room to break bread with them one last time, that bread sat on clay plates. There was some gravy in a clay bowl. And wine in pitcher and chalice of clay. Maybe today we would consider doing pottery, bread making and wine making as “arts,” but in Jesus’ time, it was just the customary stuff of a meal shared with friends. Except when it was a ritual meal, like Passover. Except when it was transformed into what has become a sacramental meal, when Jesus took bread and wine and said, “Remember me.”

There on the table was the clay-ware. Nothing sacramental about it, but the same elements as gave life to the grain and the grapes and to humanity, for in the second of the creation myths in Genesis we read, “The Lord God made man from the dust of the earth.”

On Maundy Thursday, look for that day’s “mug” to look more like a chalice, clay pottery with sacred meaning.

Until then, remember that all the ground we walk on is holy.