The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook notifications when the On This Day feature sent me a photo of what I was doing this time last year: waiting to board a flight to Italy for an extravagant two-week Mediterranean cruise. I’m sandwiched between two friends, smiling a million-dollar smile, which is approximately how much it cost to go on this adventure.
Had the photo been taken 15 minutes earlier, it would have shown me on the terminal floor—sobbing, arms wrapped around my knees. Opposite me sat my friend Jess, listening as I relayed the latest details of a close relationship turned sour. It was only May, but 2016 had already been the hardest year of my life.
Eventually I got up off the floor, posed for the photo, and boarded the plane. I’m embarrassed to admit that I did not have the time of my life on that trip. Grief and anxiety escorted me from port to port like two prison guards while we roamed Greek islands and toured the Acropolis.
But Turkey was different. Like an impatient 3-year-old, joy tugged at me from the moment I saw the sun rise in Kusadasi. And as one does with relentless toddlers, I gave in. Our group met our tour guide Emre and spent the morning gallivanting around the ruins of Ephesus. After lunch, we headed to a local pottery shop for a demonstration.
Now, it’s no secret that God has a thing for pottery—if He were signing Himself up for summer camp, you know which arts and crafts class He would choose. Paul, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Job—it is apparently really important to God that we understand that He is the Potter and we are the clay.
And clay does not challenge the Potter—that’s Prophetic Pottery 101. But as soon as I took my seat for the demonstration, I just could not help myself. I dare You to teach me something I don’t already know. Oh, the arrogance that comes with growing up in church and hearing countless sermons on this very subject.
It was only May, but 2016 had already been the hardest year of my life.
I turned my attention to the white-haired man entering the room. He was tall and slim with a kind, weathered face that seemed full of wisdom and experience—the perfect narrator for my living parable. As he took his place behind the pottery wheel, I leaned forward, ready for his monologue of insight. Except he didn’t speak English.
Wordlessly, he rolled a mound between moist palms before smacking it down in the center of the wheel, bits of wet clay splattering his already crusty apron. Under those experienced hands, the mound became a cylinder, then a bowl, and finally a vase. Satisfied with his creation, the potter sliced it off the wheel. Our group applauded, and I smirked. Nothing to see here, God! Just your average Sunday school lessons on staying in the center of Your will and allowing You to shape me. I yawned for emphasis.
But the demonstration wasn’t over.
Our guide Emre explained that after being formed on the wheel and dried, the piece undergoes bisque firing. As the temperature of the kiln creeps up to a blazing, 1,730 degrees Fahrenheit, the brittle clay dehydrates, transforming into hard ceramic. Up until this point in the process, the clay could have been recycled and repurposed into another shape. But the conversion wrought by the fire is permanent.
The conversion wrought by fire is permanent.
Next, Emre held up a giant painted platter. Turquoise teardrops chased each other around the rim, and beneath them, ochre buds unfurled in a light blue sky crisscrossed with white contrails. My eyes traced every curve, lingering on the chaotic symmetry that seemed perpetually suspended between cacophony and euphony.
I was mesmerized. Emre explained that artists can take several days to finish painting one piece because the designs are so intricate they must rest every 15 minutes or risk their hands cramping.
Once that paint dries, the piece is dipped in a quartz glaze. It emerges from the vat a matte white, all of the painter’s painstaking handiwork obscured by the opaque glaze. If you hadn’t seen the piece before this baptism, you would think it had never been painted. Unbidden, grief over this loss surprised me. What was the point of all the effort?
When Emre told us that after the glaze dries, the piece must enter the kiln again, my grief erupted into indignation. It’s already faced the fire—how is this fair?
But once again in the kiln, the quartz glaze vitrifies, transforming from a dull shroud to lustrous glass, revealing and sealing the underlying paint. According to Emre, the stress of the heat produces something nothing else could: maturity.
Truth frees us to surrender to the process and trust the Potter to finish what He began on the wheel.
Stunned and humbled, I reviewed my life. What if the crises plaguing me weren’t a result of my failures? What if they were simply part of the process? I’d been familiar with the language we Christians use to talk about sanctification, but I never expected refining to feel so like destruction. Maybe this is what “beauty for ashes” actually looks like in practice. And we won’t have ashes to trade without first going through fire.
We spent one more day in Turkey before heading to Italy. I’d like to say that this new perspective dissolved all my pain, but it didn’t. Truth doesn’t numb us; it frees us—to surrender to the process and trust the Potter to finish what He began on the wheel. And at least for me, that journey, while longer and more difficult than anticipated, is worth it.
A deep turquoise mug from that pottery shop sits on my desk at work. On its surface delicate blooms intertwine with winding vines, their contours punctuated by raised patterns of swirls and paisleys. These floral patterns are traditional in Turkish pottery, where in some parts of the country they call the ceramic craft “the art of flowers blossoming in fire.” Every time I drink from it, I rub my thumb over the warm Braille of its surface, and I remember. Sometimes moving forward looks like taking a giant step backward, and some beauty can be revealed only by fire.