My best friend’s late father, Jerry, was a potter. I got to tour his studio and see hundreds of examples of his work and hear all sorts of stories about the vagaries of being a professional artist, but there’s one anecdote in particular that sticks with me.
One day Jerry and his partner Deb got a note from a customer who loved Jerry’s work and had a somewhat… “unorthodox” request. Her grandmother had recently died, and she was wondering if Jerry might be able to make a special pottery glaze from Grandma’s ashes? Jerry and Deb thought it would be possible, so a deal was struck. There was just one catch: shipping human remains across state lines was illegal. So they devised a workaround: when the local postmaster asked her to declare what was contained in the package she was sending, the customer simply said, “Pottery supplies.”
The image of God as potter can be found throughout the Hebrew Bible. It’s in Isaiah, Lamentations, and this week’s reading from the Prophet Jeremiah. But if we take a look at the Hebrew root word for potter, the verb yatsar, it makes its very first appearance in the creation myth of Genesis 2: “then God the HOLY ONE formed [vaiyitzer] the human from the dust of the ground, and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life; and the human became a living being.” (2:7) Like a potter, the ONENESS shaped an earthling, adam, from the dust of earth, adammah.
Jeremiah finds God back at the potter’s wheel, remolding ever-forgetful Israel into a new and (hopefully) better vessel. It’s a parable that resonates with the psalmist’s meditation on the sheer wonder of existing: “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb.” (139:13) The same God who made the first human being is still at work, on my community and even on me. We are forever and always works in progress, “fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Ps 139:14)
We are, in short, pottery supplies. Pottery supplies in the hand of a loving God.
Just a few days ago, my Facebook feed told me that a new nonprofit called the TransFormation Project SD had formed and gone public. The group, whose leadership team includes several friends and colleagues back home, exists to educate South Dakotans about transgender issues and give a voice to trans people, especially trans youth, in our state. Which is, as you might imagine, suuuuuuper important work. SD has seen an ungodly amount of transphobic legislation in the last several years, with a number of “bathroom bills” being submitted to the legislature, defeated, and then brought back to the floor again and again. It’s almost like the people writing these bills can’t stop thinking about what the people in the stall next to them have between their legs… which is, let’s be real, a little weird.
I can’t speak for all of them, but I suspect that many of these folks have been taught religious justifications for their transphobia. “Male and female God created them,” the argument goes. (Genesis 1:27) And God doesn’t make mistakes. You can’t just change the person God created you to be, all willy-nilly. You can’t be a man and “make yourself” a woman – and God forbid you land somewhere in the middle, or outside the binary entirely! For any attempt to do so—through gender-affirming surgery, for instance, or gender nonconformity—I nothing short of blasphemy. You are what you are, and you can’t change it.
That’s not what I hear God saying through Jeremiah this week. The HOLY ONE is a potter, constantly working on each of us. It’s not simply a matter of being “made” one way or another, a predefined reality that we must either accept or reject (and, consequently be rejected on account of). Rather, God is a craftswoman, taking the raw material of our lives and always shaping something new and beautiful out of it – and, as in Jeremiah’s parable, inviting us to take an active role in the process with our choices. (This, incidentally, is why I love the term “gender-affirming”– it’s a decision to affirm the person whom God is creating us, in this very moment, to become.)
It’s a dynamic, fluid model of identity formation. It’s a model that goes right on back to Genesis – a story in which, by the way, God engages in a fair bit of trial and error, going back to the drawing board several times before They hit upon a suitable companion for the first human being. And it tracks a hell of a lot better with the struggles and stories and glories of the trans people I know and love than does the simplistic, static, either/or espoused by certain members of the South Dakota legislature and the faith communities that lend them support.
So to the folks at Transformation Project SD and their allies in the ACLU, Sioux Falls Pride, Watertown Love, and all the rest: thanks for lifting up oft-unheeded and yet much-needed voices in a state that I both love dearly and am regularly infuriated by.
And to all my trans beloveds, in South Dakota and elsewhere: you are fearfully and wonderfully made, that I know very well. Thank you for teaching me the beauty of being a work-in-progress. For teaching me that identity is not merely a given, but is found and re-created anew in every season of life, as a potter makes and remakes the pot until she finds the design she’s been searching for.
Pottery supplies, indeed.