This post is dedicated to my mother, Deborah Elizabeth Mitchell (née Vestal), whose faith, hope, and love will always sustain me.
Yet you, Lord, are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand. –Isaiah 64:8
Growing up, my mom, née Vestal, would sometimes remind me that my fourth-great grandfather had been a prominent 19th century potter. Born in 1828 in Washington County, Virginia, Jessee Vestal was a member of the Great Road tradition, best known for his stoneware vessels. His masterpiece, which dates to 1849, is a large, hand-inscribed brandy jug. Its face bears his name and an original poem:
Long and lazy
little and loud
fair and foolish
dark and proud
a splendee branda jug
In 2016, I was hired to work for William King Museum of Art in Abingdon, Virginia, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Jessee’s “poem jug” was among its collections, the first item to be acquired for the Cultural Heritage Project. I had never seen the jug, nor even a picture of it. I learned that it had been found broken in pieces under the porch of a country house in Chilhowie, Virginia, not far from Jessee’s lifelong home in Alvarado—a small community on the South Fork of the Holston River. The shards were reassembled and, some years later, the restored piece is now on display at the Museum.
The name Vestal is of French (Huguenot) origin. An altered form of Vassal, it was a status name for medieval retainers. In medieval historiography, a vassal was a personal follower of a landowning lord. The vassal and his lands were subject to the sovereignty of the landholder, yet he was considered to be part of the lord’s household. In Christ, as vassals of our Lord, we are members of His household; subject to His rule, yes, but willing followers, confidants, and brothers/sisters in arms—not of sword and shield, but of love.
Vestal/vassal also conjures the vessel. As dust-born creatures, God makes His home with us by pouring out His spirit into these earthly bodies. The Author of life chose Jesse of Bethlehem to establish the house of David, the earthly conduit and vessel from whom Christ would come (Psalm 89:4; Micah 5:2; Mathew 2:5-6; Luke 2:4; John 7:42). Jessee of Vestal’s craft as sub-creator is meaningful in small yet significant ways. We have no way of knowing Jessee’s lyrical intent, but he was likely not writing merely about the jug itself. The final line masks some deeper muse: perhaps the one that God, in His mercy, works to redeem.
The jug would—in some act of neglect or carelessness—be broken and forgotten. I imagine a slip of a hand, the bump of a table, a moment of horror as the vessel fell to the ground and shattered. Or perhaps its end was met with indifference, the culprit drunk on its contents, unable to recognize the magnitude of the loss. The fall of man takes many forms. However we fall, the result is the same: broken and lost until, by His grace, we are found, restored, and glorified for all to see. Little and loud, dark and proud we may yet be; but God’s work in us is, in the end, quite splendee.
As educators, at times we can get caught up in seeing the fruits of our labor manifest in clear, concrete ways. We write annual reports documenting our teaching, research, and service activities, with an emphasis on measurable impact. We obsess about the particularities of our research and hope large audiences attend as we present at conferences. We wonder if and how our work benefits students in real and lasting ways, and we celebrate/lament student evals at the end of each term. We want to know how our efforts are making a difference NOW.
Yet the work of our hands—the spiritual fruits of our labor—will not be fully revealed until the end. Like Jessee Vestal, we have no way of knowing when or how our work will affect others. How could he have imagined his fourth-great grandson pecking out a blog post (a what?) on a keyboard (a what?) about his pottery in 2021? He could not have, nor could he have imaged the spiritual sustenance his poem jug has given me—and, I hope you as well. I look forward to discovering, in the fullness of time, what God has in store. I wait for the day when the work of my hands is made manifest through the work of His hands.