Have you ever looked at something, but not taken the time to really see it?
Case in point. I drive by Sixth and Iowa all the time, but there was this moment this summer where I saw something for both the first time and the millionth time. You may know that there are a bunch of hotels there on that corner, but when I drove by on my way from one place to another, I saw one that I had never noticed before. It wasn’t new. And no one tore down a building so that I could see it for the first time. But I –and we – spend so much time looking without seeing. Driving by from one place to another without really stopping to see what we are looking at. On one hand, it is a symptom of our busy lives, filled with so many activities and so many distractions that we aren’t really seeing what we are looking at. But perhaps there is a timeless quality to this looking without seeing. I think it is more than just cellphones and music on our car radios. I think that it is often hard for us to slow down enough to really see the world around us.
I would suggest, for example, that this is the case in the time of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a special prophet in that he lived and spoke on behalf of God over a long period of really important events in the life of the nation of Judah. He was a prophet during the last years before the Babylonian Exile, where the armies of Babylon destroyed the capital of Jerusalem and moved its inhabitants as exiles back to Babylon with them. Jeremiah tried to tell the people that this destruction was coming, and he worked to tie it to God’s anger at them for worshipping other idols and failing to keep the covenant, for failing to take care of the poor, to release those in debt…all these things that they had promised to do and basically failed to accomplish. For a few years, his words had an impact. The king Josiah listened and tried to return the people back to the covenant. But by the time that chapter 18 rolls around, Josiah is dead and the next kings have no interest in continuing these reforms. So, Jeremiah is back to telling the people the bad news: that their unfaithfulness is leading to the destruction of their society, and eventually to the destruction of their nation.
But, the people cannot see the truth of his words. It’s like they are driving by the Econolodge every day, but don’t even notice what they are looking at. They are missing the signs right in front of their noses. In fact, if you read the whole book of Jeremiah, you’ll see that he is fighting against these other prophets, who tell the people what they want to hear: “Oh, the Babylonians will not hurt you.” Or “Egypt will be our savior…they will take care of us.” Or “Sure, Babylon might rough us up a little bit, but it’ll only be a couple of hard years, and then we’ll be back to normal.” They listen to these words and it blinds them to the truth. It feels good because it is what they want to hear. So they are willfully looking but not seeing.
So, Jeremiah has to step up his game here in chapter 18. And the way that he does this is a picture. An image. Teachers have for generations used images as a way to share truth. Aesop has his fables where stories about animals taught these morals. Of course, Jesus was known for teaching using images: the kingdom of God is a mustard seed or a flock of sheep or a woman cleaning her house to find a coin. Later the book of Revelation will use images of dragons and lambs and four-headed beasts to teach about the current political situation. So, Jeremiah is in a long legacy of teachers who use images to make a point. And the book is filled with these images. There are baskets of figs, and wine jars, and a yoke for oxen, and soldiers and war horses, and loincloths. And today, this beautiful image of a potter and the potter’s wheel.
At the beginning of the chapter, God tells Jeremiah to go to the potter. And when he does, he sees this image of the potter at the wheel. Now, I could imagine there were a ton of images that he could have noticed at the potters shop. Beautiful bowls and jars and vases that have been created and fired and painted with all kinds of decorations. But what Jeremiah noticed was this lump of clay. It was a lump of clay that the potter had started with, but somehow things didn’t go according to plan. The jar didn’t look right or it was lopsided or too big or too small. So the potter changed his mind, took it and crushed it down and started over and made something new and beautiful. And bam…in that moment was the image that Jeremiah was looking for.
Because it was a perfect metaphor for God and God’s relationship with the people of Judah. Here were these people who had messed up. They didn’t care about each other, or especially about the most vulnerable in their midst. So God was ready to take the whole lot of them and throw them in the trash heap. But something stopped God from giving up on the people. And instead, writes Jeremiah, God changes God’s mind. God re-makes them. Starts over. Re-makes something beautiful. Redeems the messed-up lump of clay and makes out of it a beautiful work of art.
For Jeremiah, this is a word of hope. He reminds them that it is a foregone conclusion that Babylon is going to destroy them. But, he says, using this image of the potter, that is not the end of God’s story with them. There will be a re-making. There will be a redeeming. There will be a starting over…IF and when they change their behaviors and act according to the covenant. That is really the main point to this passage, and probably from the book of Jeremiah as a whole: open your eyes; change your ways; receive the transformation that God wants to give you.
So by now most of you know that I have been on sabbatical for three months. And I hope that most of you know that one of the things that I have been doing is exploring the practice of photography as a spiritual discipline. This is obviously a newer spiritual discipline…more recently possible than reading the Bible or prayer or fasting or other spiritual disciplines. But I would argue that what Jeremiah was doing with the potter’s wheel or the baskets of figs is a similar practice. He obviously didn’t take out his Nikon and snap a photo, but he created this image for people to see the point that he was trying to make about God and God’s relationship with us. If he had had a Nikon in that moment, I would suggest that he would have used it to make his point.
Because Jeremiah teaches us something about looking and seeing. Jeremiah could have cruised right by the image of the potter’s wheel, and missed it entirely. “OK God, I showed up at the potter’s shop…now what?” But he opened his eyes and saw this perfect image. Why, because he took the time to stop and look.
This summer, I began this practice of photography in the same way that a lot of us do. We see something beautiful and we want to capture it, so we take a picture of it, or a thousand pictures of it, so we can remember it or show it off to our friends. We did this before we had camera phones, but now that we have pretty decent cameras with us wherever we go, we do this even more. But over the summer, I learned to think again about how I see the world around me.
And I grew to learn this practice. I called it my “four gifts.” I don’t know what was going on in Jeremiah’s head when he saw this image, but if it was me, I would probably have used this practice. Let me quickly explain it:
- First, I perceive something in the world around me. Something of beauty. Something that tells a story. Something of simple or stark clarity. The way the light plays on the wall. Or a colorful sign. Or a pattern or texture. A flash that catches my attention somehow. I quickly came to realize how that moment was a gift.
- Now, naturally what I would do would be to run over and take a picture of it. Snap a hundred pictures of it. And then look at all of them later and ask, “what is that thing and why did I take a picture of it?” But now what I try and do is discern. Pause. Wait. Sit with that image for a time. Ask what is God saying to me in this moment? Why did this perception catch my eye? Of course, the traditional language for this is prayer. A moment to pause and reflect. That chance to sit and reflect and discern was a gift as well.
- Thirdly, there were times when I was able to receive an image of that perception. I use that language of receive intentionally. CVP and others have noticed how often the language we use with photography is the language of acquisition. We take photos. We capture images. But, if we really believe that these images are gifts from God, then we are not acquiring. We are receiving. And that is a gift to be able to record an image with a camera or phone, but not one that I always had. There were moments this summer, and often, that I don’t have any device with which to receive this picture. I didn’t always have my camera. I don’t always have my phone, especially when I am running. Or sometimes it was too dark or the phone camera wasn’t quite sophisticated enough to receive this image. In those cases, I paused to thank God for the first couple of gifts and moved on. In other cases, I was able to receive some amazing images.
- Which leads me to the final gift. Sometimes, I am able to share these gifts and others get it. They see the beauty that I see. They are brought into a moment of gratitude like I was. Now, this sharing is not always as profound as Jeremiah, who some 2,500 years later we are still sharing his image and finding transformation from it. But if one person find themselves closer to God when we share an image, then it was worth it.
By the way, this process doesn’t only work for using photography as a spiritual discipline. It works for a thousand different ways that we can stop, open our eyes and see God at work in the world:
- It works for reading Scripture. As we are reading along, something catches our attention, so we pause and reflect and ask for wisdom and discernment, hopefully finding a bit of awareness in that moment, and hopefully able to share that awareness with others.
- It works for the way we see others. Instead of rushing past people in the grocery store or at church, we catch something about a stranger or a friend…a new haircut or new outfit or a look of pain or anger in their face. So, we ask for wisdom to discern what is going on, and hopefully find a bit of awareness that we can share with them or use it to learn about ourselves.
So my hope is that this is a discipline that you can practice regularly. Begin it this week. It takes some time to get your head wrapped around it. We aren’t used to slowing down like this, and we have a hard time making ourselves do it. But when we do, oh the beauty that we see. May we learn to open our eyes and see what God is speaking to us!
And may the words of the ancient hymn inspire us:
Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best Thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light
High King of Heaven, my victory won
May I reach Heaven’s joys, O bright Heav’n’s Sun
Heart of my own heart, whate’er befall
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all
May it be so.