The Irvine Tartan • My monthly column in The New Brunswick Anglican
Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you
and devising a plan against you. Jeremiah 18:11
Playing in mud had an attraction for me from an early age. After a fresh rain, I’d head out with a kitchen spoon and a pocketful of tin soldiers and my imagination. Along backyard pathways I’d find the grass worn down and the surface clay moist and waiting for molding.
I’d dig up the clay with my spoon and with my fingers and hands I’d shape roadways and walls and towers. Hours would slide by as I played in the slippery mud.
When I was called for supper, I’d gather my toys and follow the path back home. The clay roadways and the walls and towers would fall to the footsteps of neighbours and the erosion of the next rainfall. But no matter, I’d reshape them again.
Jeremiah saw the renewable character of clay and every generation since has drawn on his allusion with profit. And not a little confusion.
Samuel Beckett helped me set aside the confusion and understand the metaphor in my life.
As the potter would beat down clay, how might I find myself refashioned? As best as I could make out, this was a good mental exercise but I hadn’t seen the truth of it either in my life or in the lives of folks I know. It seemed a good story. I’ve thought about it. And I’ve even preached about it. But I hadn’t seen it. That is, until I was reading Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot recently as background for a Bible Study in my Parish.
I came across a simple exchange in Act 1 where Vladimir says: “Two thieves, crucified at the same time as our Saviour. One—.” Estragon, his companion replies, “Our what?” and Vladimir answers, “Our Saviour.” Perhaps you’re familiar with the scene.
That was all. Nothing more. But it was enough for me and the epiphany struck me in its simplicity. I began to see the renewing character of clay as a metaphor that had clarity and purpose. Allow me to explain.
“Our Saviour” is a phrase that we might pass over because of its familiarity but Beckett, as a wordsmith is deliberate in its use. He might have had Vladimir use the phrase, “your Saviour” when he addressed Estragon, his friend. Had he done that, Vladimir would have imposed faith on a friend and excluded himself from the consequence and effect of what he said. Distance would have emerged between them; a great gulf would have been fixed. On the other hand, he might have used the phrase, “my Saviour.” That would have raised a distinction with its own bias. Vladimir would have excluded Estragon and would have exalted himself in a relationship that demonstrated both difference as well as indifference.
Beckett deliberately avoided both “your Saviour” and “my Saviour” as neither reflects the warming embrace of him who is Saviour. But neither does the playwright place on Vladimir’s lips that dreadful phrase, “the Saviour.” Had he done that, he would have given voice to today’s heresy of recognized indifference of God.
Theism remains in tact with “the Saviour” but it ceases to have application in the sphere of our lives. Jesus as Saviour is not integral to our lives! We’ll recognize Jesus as “the Saviour” for others… our children, even our grandchildren… and allow him to be held out as an option for others to engage. But for us, he remains an option we might consider and one day may choose.
That is the clay of our lives. We use the inadequate phrase, “your Saviour” now, “my Saviour” then. At one turn the clay is punched down and we replace one pronoun with another. But the form taking shape in the hands of the potter remains inadequate and the clay is punched down again. A third remolding has us echoing the phrase “the Saviour” where exclusion is replaced by indifference and “evil is shaped against us” once more and we are yet once again beaten down.
Vladimir’s words have the clay take on shape again, “our Saviour.” Estragon included now, not with his concurrence or even his agreement. Jesus is no less “our Saviour” because of disagreement. Jesus is neither promoted nor demoted in the redemptive drama of God by faithfulness or my indifference.
“Our what?” asked Estragon. “Our Saviour,” answered Vladimir, presenting a truth each of us needs to engage, knowing that we are included by Jesus’ initiative of forbearance, and forgiveness. We sometimes call it love.
Copyright © 2001 James T. Irvine
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