One of my dearest friends is a potter. She wasn’t always. In truth, it’s what she turned to after a grueling season of chemo followed by neuropathy. She managed to get her last child through graduation and off to his military career, and while still suffering from excruciating pain in her hands, she took a ceramics class at our local community college. And healing happened. The process of creation brought her through those early empty-nest months and through the years the doctors experimented and changed meds, through the sleepless nights and the recheck days.
So when I needed gifts for two women who had gone through the fire of affliction and came out the other side unbelievably strong for the Lord, I knew where to go. What I didn’t know, until I toured my friend’s studio, is how much everything changes in the heat of a kiln.
The carefully crafted clay is brittle until it is baked in the fire. And the glazes that look so polished and refined don’t start out that way. Many aren’t even the same color. A piercing blue may look red when applied to the clay. Green on the mug prior to baking may be tan when it comes out. All the glazes, without exception, look dull and bleak prior to the drying and baking that happens in the kiln.
I saw the process and the many attempts to get colors just right, and I couldn’t help but think of God and the way he molds us. Those fires of affliction he allows us to go through are purposed to make us more beautiful on the other side. Sometimes it takes a long time to see it.
One night at the nursing home where I work, I was getting a resident ready for bed. She is frail, and her body is in its final season. Though it was close to a hundred degrees outside, she struggled to keep warm. That particular evening, she was wearing a turtleneck and a sweater.
The night before I easily removed the turtleneck, but this time it got stuck and she looked very much like a turtle with that fabric squeezing her head.
She was the first to laugh, and pretty soon neither of us could pull because we were laughing so hard.
When I finally freed her, she lamented how little strength she has left. And I was able to tell her about my bout with pneumonia when pregnant with my fourth and how I went from being completely healthy to barely being able to move from the couch to the bed. I didn’t recover until I was seven months pregnant and feared labor with so little strength. When I told a friend my concern, that friend listened and a few days later I received a package. In it was a necklace. On one side of the necklace was a cross and on the other side the word Believe. I wore it to the hospital and all through labor and in the days following labor and for at least two years afterward.
And in recounting that story, my dear little resident nodded and was reminded that God will be with her in her final days. How could I have known that terrible season would teach me to be empathetic with the weak or that my friend’s simple act of stopping by the gift shop where she worked and putting a necklace in the mail could encourage someone else?
When we’re in the fire, we can’t see the glaze turning from a dull, unimpressive paint to a vibrant, stirring color. We can’t see God chipping away our selfishness or our arrogance or so many preconceived notions about the weak. God in his grace does good work through our trials and sufferings so that later on our character possesses a beauty we would never have known.
That’s why James said, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (1:2-4).
If today you are going through the fires of affliction, you may not be able to imagine anything good coming out of the pain. Let the process work. On the other side of this experience, you will be more beautiful in ways you could never imagine.