Mark Bair March 2021
Note: This is a tribute on the occasion of my dear friend Tom’s retirement from his formal pastoral role.
Most of us have probably had the experience of riding in a car with someone who does not keep their hands on the wheel. Maybe they’re eating, fussing with the radio, or reaching under their seat for a lost item. And we’ve ridden with some who have a steady hand on the wheel. Someone you can relax with. I’ve been a passenger with Tom on the way to Kokosing trail to ride bikes. Tom’s an example of the latter—a steady hand.
Having your hands on the wheel is a common picture of stability and alertness. It has some value as a metaphor for good leadership. However, being a faithful leader is not about being in the driver’s seat. And Tom knows that, when it comes to Christian service, he’s not the one driving. Tom knows the value of keeping his hands off the wheel. In a hands-on-the-wheel culture, it’s so tempting to be a hands-on-the-wheel Christian. But Tom has resisted that urge—even though he has been thrust into fiery crucibles.
To appreciate the value of keeping one’s hands off the wheel, consider the example of learning to drive. Perhaps you were taught by a nervous parent who had a habit of grabbing the steering wheel because of a fearful impulse to control. But what you really needed was a good driver’s ed teacher. A good driving instructor’s car often has controls on the passenger side the teacher could use. But a wise facilitator will avoid using them, choosing instead to give the new driver an experience of growing confidence. He tries to be a calming presence in a complex learning process. Drivers ed, once out of the classroom, is not about supplying information and advice. The seasoned instructor is there to empower the student as her eyes, feet, and hands put her knowledge into action, feeling the vehicle make contact with the real world of the road. A good instructor, unless it’s absolutely necessity, doesn’t grab the steering wheel. Learning and confidence would be short-circuited.
Tom is like a brave driver’s ed companion, willing to risk his personal comfort so the people in his life can learn things that can only be known by experience. Such help is like the ancient art known as spiritual direction, which is not about directing but being a sacred companion on a spiritual journey. Each friend is looking for signposts of God’s presence. Tom has been this kind of sacred companion for me. He creates a safe space, shares his real self, listens, asks good questions without judgment, and makes observations.
Thank you, Tom, for letting me “drive” unsteady—swerving and coming to abrupt stops as I told stories of my shame. Most people, with good intentions, shamed my shame by saying, “God loves you—you shouldn’t feel that way.” Thank you that you kept your hands off the wheel. You knew I wasn’t ultimately the one driving. Thank you for listening as I worked the pain into stammering redemption stories.
Helping someone learn to drive is a helpful image, but the real “wheel” image I see for Tom is the potter’s wheel. In scripture, God the potter forms and shapes the clay on that spinning wheel. His people are the clay. In a passage from Jeremiah, God asks:
O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this Potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the Potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. (18:6)
Echoing his making of Adam from the clay of the earth in Genesis 2, God employed the language of the Potter when he called Jeremiah to be a messenger of disruptive beauty, encouraging him that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born, I consecrated you…” (1:5)
In addition to helping us understand our fashioning, the image of the Potter illustrates God’s sovereign wisdom:
Shall the Potter be regarded as the clay,
that the thing made should say of its maker,
“He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of him who formed it,
“He has no understanding”? (Isaiah 29:16)
Tom knows that he and everyone he interacts with are on God’s Potter’s wheel being thrown, spun, and shaped. And he knows that he has not been authorized to reach in and put his hand on that wheel, to take possession of the clay. He knows he can’t rescue the clay from the Potter or re-form the clay in his own image.
Tom knows the Potter and he knows clay. He knows his own clay. He has learned about clay and learned to trust the Potter by submitting to be clay in the Potter’s hands. Tom embraces the shape that the Potter has made and continues to make him. He realizes that if you don’t accept the realities of your clay, you will try to make yourself into iron to avoid vulnerability in this scary broken world.
When Tom is with people, he watches the Potter very closely, looking at the Potter’s fingers, trying to see how He’s shaping. He encourages people to stay on the wheel and let the Potter have his way. He tells stories about being clay. Through chastening, he has acquired the instinct to resist jumping in to take over the Potter’s work—to mistake himself for the Potter.
Tom knows that keeping his hands off the wheel is far more difficult than grabbing the wheel—especially when his own son was on the Potters’ wheel. At the time, it looked like the Potter had thrown Tom’s boy too hard—that He flattened the clay. And the wheel seemed to be spinning too fast! Putting his hand on the wheel also seemed necessary when Norma was on the Potter’s wheel going through cancer. But Tom learned to use his hand to cling to God and be present for her.
Tom also knows how the Potter works with broken clay—that He does not replace the broken pots but mends them—highlighting the cracks with molten gold so that the earthenware is even more beautiful! He helps people see that their brokenness is not to be hidden but becomes a facet of the art God is making.
As I learned from Mako Fujimura, there is an ancient Japanese practice called Kintsugi (“Kin-soogi”) that actually engages in this kind of repair. Tom helps people face their shame, grief, and fear—the cracks that God wants to mend, not erase.
Some will mutter against you, brother, calling this posture “hands-off” leadership. But it’s not hands-off. It’s just a matter of where your hands are placed. Yours are occupied, holding fast to the Divine Wrestler, like Jacob, refusing to let Him go. Your hands are off the Potter’s wheel but clinging to the Father.
I’ve enjoyed the gift of walking and lingering with Tom over the last ten-plus years. I’ve never felt like I was clay for him to act upon as a fixer. I never thought I existed as his project. I didn’t feel he was exerting his influence. He made a safe place for me to tell my story and sing my laments. He helped my craziness seem sort of sane. No agenda. And yet, I’ve been deeply affected. Tom helped me lower my guard toward the Potter and let Him shape my mud.
Seven years ago, I was facing a financial meltdown and went to share it with Tom. I knew that he was financially responsible, and he did not know what it feels like to be a 54-year-old and heading to bankruptcy. Yet, he did know how it feels. Because he knows he, too, is but dust. A few years later, I confessed to Tom that I was addicted to wine. Tom is very self-control regarding alcohol—never more than one drink in a setting. But he understood. He knows clay. He knew the Potter was already at work.
Thank you, my friend!
Tom and Norma, I wish you well in the coming season. I am confident you will embrace the surprises and strains that come with new opportunities. I want to encourage you as you look to your future with two encouraging images for all of us who are passing beyond middle age. The first is from Isaiah. The prophet paints a picture of idolatry, which someone called “making a good thing a god-thing.” We all feel the appeal of domesticated gods like comfort, work, success, human approval. When we serve them, we are like beasts carrying heavy loads. But relief is available:
These things you carry [idols] are borne as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.
Listen to me, O house of Jacob…
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb; [that’s your story!]
even to your old age, I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you. (Is 46:1-4)
Be carried, my friends, though you feel weak and helpless. Be carried.
The second image comes from the poetry of Ps. 92:
The righteous flourish like the palm tree
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
They still bear fruit in old age;
they are ever full of sap and green… (Ps 92:12-14)
You are trees planted in His temple Jesus Christ. Dwelling; you in Him, He in you. Stay planted, my friends, stay planted in the Lord’s sanctuary, beholding his beauty. It seems like the Lord highly values aging! A different kind of vigor and passion is available for those who are willing to go slow enough. Keep doing what you have been doing, the same old things for the first time—drinking from the river of life, watching the Potter, and keeping your hands off the wheel.
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