Anvil journal of theology and mission
Reflections from the pottery
by Trevor Withers
Our pottery is set in a disused factory building on the training campus of Youth with a Mission in Harpenden. The site is open to the public and has a very popular cafe.
One day a worship leader, who would happily lead hundreds, stood frozen in the doorway of our cobbledtogether pottery studio. I had no idea I was witnessing the beginning of my long interest in the paralysing “shame” culture. She muttered, “I am not artistic and can’t come in.” As the words left her mouth, the tears started to well up in her eyes. This culture of shame that is now so prevalent in our western world is robbing many of a “life that is lived to the full” as Jesus promised.1 This is particularly true for, and taking a grip on, our young adults. Brene Brown highlights from her extensive research that “shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behaviour”.2
Gill, who shares the pottery with me, took this tearful girl’s hand and firmly but kindly said, “You will come in, you will put spots on this bowl and most importantly you will have a cup of tea with us.” Whatever lie had been spoken over this musically talented lady had embedded itself deep in her heart. Over the following weeks we saw a true artist emerge; brushes and glazes went missing as she was beavering away decorating pots at home. However, the greatest gift for Gill and me was the laughter – a releasing laughter and an emerging self-belief.
One of the areas that is shut down by shame is our creativity. Any sort of creativity involves vulnerability. The loss of value that we experience through shame makes it difficult for us to be vulnerable and, therefore, creative. This is the case because we put so much of ourselves into what we create and then in some way offer it to a watching and often critical world. Curt Thompson very powerfully connects creativity, vulnerability and God:
But naked vulnerability is not merely a representation of our having been created to be in relationship. God desires us to live like he lives. Thus, to be created in God’s image also refers to us having creative dominion within the world. And to be maximally creative also requires that we are vulnerable.3
We often think of vulnerability as a sign of weakness; however, it takes great courage to be vulnerable, which is often displayed when we are young and childlike, but is eroded away as we step into adolescence.
Ask any class of young children, “Do you like making things?” Every hand in the room will go up simultaneously. The air will be filled with anticipation and excitement at the prospect of making something! I experienced this as I helped an infant schoolteacher with her craft and tech lessons for a few weeks. However, if you ask the same question of a group of teenagers, let alone adults, the response is very different! A few sheepish hands may be raised, tentatively. The excitement generated in the younger setting is replaced by nervousness at the thought of being found out by their peers. So, something happens to us as we grow up; we lose the dimension of fun and freedom to be creative. Thoughts like it not being not cool to make things or an overwhelming sense of possible failure now loom large in our minds.
Genesis records that “God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”.4 The dominant word in this verse is “created”. This is emphasising what it means to be made in the image of God. Therefore, if we are to be like him then being creative will be one of the signs of this. Now before you think I am saying we should all become artists, let’s broaden the view we have of creativity. Each of us will have different and unique ways in which we connect with and express our own creativity. Sir Ken Robinson puts it this way:
I define creativity as the process of having original ideas that have value.5
This definition expands the horizon for creativity and hopefully draws us back into the space that many have stepped out of, either because it was not perceived as cool, they were told they would never get a job doing that or they were simply made to look foolish in front of others as their creating (usually painting or drawing) didn’t meet the teacher’s expectations.
There is something intrinsically buried in each of us; it rests in the core of our being. It is our desire to emulate our Creator God who makes us in his image. It sets a battleground for many where the weapons of words spoken over us many years ago have won long-held victories in keeping these treasured gifts buried and moribund.
Another dynamic here is the realisation that is highlighted by Jordan Peterson in an interview with Marc Mayer, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, that “systems do not nurture creativity. Telling people what to do and putting them in boxes is counterproductive.”6 The effect of some of our education system and parts of church life, which have often adopted this approach, is to restrict artistic and creative endeavour. Our experiences at the pottery studio have confirmed this in many cases. We have lost sight of the fact that we are created to be creative. Instead of joy, we find crushed self-belief.
Having our pottery as part of church life provides a counter to the systems approach as it runs more along creativity and community lines, both of which provide the nurture and healing required for battling shame.7 This, as you can imagine, looks quite chaotic on occasion with mess being made with the clay and conversations over cups of tea going in all directions as people find a sense of ease and open up on all sorts of topics! We need to learn to live on this rather chaotic edge and not give in to the all-too-often dominant call to pin things down and create organisation and order. Scott Peck highlights this tension beautifully:
An organization is able to nurture a measure of community within itself only to the extent that it is willing to risk or tolerate a certain lack of structure. As long as the goal is community building, organization as an attempted solution to chaos is an unworkable solution.8
So, pre-lockdown Gill and I opened up our pottery every Wednesday for two hours in the afternoon for families to enjoy our chaotic space. Then we would reopen for the evening and over and over again marvel at the hidden and long-buried talent that emerges in a noncritical, non-competitive atmosphere for adult groups. We have a “we will fire anything you make” policy in our pottery. It doesn’t have to meet a “standard” or be “good enough” to go in the kiln.
We have stood by people when deep grief has been allowed to flow just by handling the clay. There is immense joy when self-esteem is rebuilt and celebrated. The pottery is run on a mixed diet of much prayer, tea, biscuits, tears and laughter.
We have the privilege of taking part in retreat days for 15- to 16-year-olds, which are designed to break exam tension and are hosted by our local schools’ work team.9 Our bonus is to see these “cool dudes” become children again and revel when we say it is just for fun. We take our portable potter’s wheel on these days. I will often tell the story of Jeremiah going to the potter’s house as I throw a pot. There Jeremiah saw the potter working on the wheel; the clay he was throwing was marred, perhaps by a small flint, some solid clay or splinters of wood. The potter may have grumbled, but he didn’t give up and in some versions it even says “he made something even more beautiful” from it. Jeremiah felt God was showing him that he will not throw away the damaged person but is committed to transform us all: such a powerful message for each one of us as we grapple with our shame.
Go to https://cms.org.uk/potter to watch me throwing and telling this story.
Providing ways for shame to be overcome will need to be part of our church life in some way if we are going to see people encounter the fullness of the gospel and discover that they are loved. The pottery is one way that this has happened for us. What might it be for you?
I am publishing a book on shame and the gospel. For information and availability, email Pam at email@example.com.
About the author
Trevor Withers is the team leader of Network Church in Harpenden, which is part of the Pioneer group of churches. He also co-leads Cell UK, which encourages the development of holistic small groups in churches around the UK. He is married to Pam and they have four grown-up children and three granddaughters. Trevor runs a pottery studio with a friend with the aim of encouraging people in their creativity. He has a heart to see our faith lived out in every area of our lives. He spoke about the gospel in a shame culture at the Transforming Shame conference.
More from this issue
1 John 10:10.
2 Brene Brown, TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012, accessed 27 April 2021, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_ listening_to_shame.
3 Curt Thompson, The Soul of Shame: Retelling the Stories We Believe About Ourselves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 122.
4 Gen. 1:27 (NRSV).
5 Sir Ken Robinson, Out of Our Minds, (Chichester: Wiley, 2017), 129.
6 Jordan Peterson, “Exploring the Psychology of Creativity,” filmed interview with Marc Meyer, YouTube, May 2017, accessed 27 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KxGPe1jD-qY .
7 https://www.networkchurch.org, accessed 27 April 2021.
8 M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (London: Arrow Books, 1990), 93.
9 https://www.stepschoolswork.org.uk, accessed 27 April 2021.