Knit, Purl, Me

 

Yesterday I took a piece of my life and wrapped it in cotton-candy-colored tissue paper. The attached note, tied on with matching ribbon, declared that in this gift — this prayer shawl — every stitch was a prayer.

This is not exactly true. It is true that when I take up the needles, I pray — if it is someone I know, I pray for the specific ways this shawl will bless them. If it is for a stranger, I pray for God’s peace and love to surround them.

But every stitch a prayer? That’s a bit of holy hyperbole.

You see, woven in with the prayers is my life. Like a second strand of yarn, the pattern also contains whatever spiritual vibe comes from binge-watching Monk. My intercessions are for the friend who will receive this shawl, but sometimes they are also for my anxiety du jour. The steady breathing of the cat who sleeps next to me is as much a part of this undertaking as the sheep who has offered his fine coat to warm another. I fear the frustration of ripped-out rows or the impatience of wanting to get on with the next project also becomes part of my offering.

All of which is to say, it’s not all spiritual ecstasy and choirs of angels. It is simply hour after hour of my life.

Perhaps that is why I feel an emptiness when a project is wrapped in its beautiful paper and given away. I am proud of the beauty I have created and anxious to see it wrapped around someone who needs the joy and comfort of knowing that they have been prayed for. But I also feel like I’ve given away a chunk of my life, hours that do not seem as abundant as they once did. Wrapped in that tissue paper, tied up in that beautiful raffia bow is nothing less than months of prayers and petulance, intercession and impatience, and the discipline and occasional tedium of showing up, day after day, row after row, and committing to the work.

People who have received shawls often comment that they can feel the prayers embracing them. I wonder if they can also feel all the other things that have been absorbed into the strands. I wonder if I am now spiritually connected to this person in ways neither of us can fathom.

Of all the shawls I have made, some stand out.

  • The shawls I gave to my friend Jean when her mother was so gravely ill — one for her, one for her Mom. Jean and her Mom are both gone now, and I wonder where these pieces of me are now.

 

  • The one I gave to one of my oldest friends on the eve of her first chemo. In the months that followed, when I felt frustrated at being so far away, I imagined the shawl was an adequate stand-in for me.

 

  • The one that was left behind on one of the trips to the emergency room that were too commonplace in the last year of my father-in-law’s life. I like to think that part of me still rides around Kansas City in an ambulance with others who are afraid and in pain.

These invisible bonds between knitter and knitee bring to mind Dorcas, a woman we meet in the book of Acts. Dorcas was a seamstress who formed a community with needle and thread. She sewed tunics for “the widows” — women who were vulnerable, forgotten and often in need. And when she died, the widows held her legacy in their hands — all those simple, everyday garments that at first glance were unremarkable. Until the widows told their story — how they were made with love and how they bound Dorcas to them, and them to each other. As I work on my latest project, I wonder if when I’m gone, my “widows” will show their shawls to the other mourners and say, “See how she loved us.”

The story of Dorcas goes on to include a miracle. Their grief was so intense that they sent for Peter, who raised Dorcas from the dead, restoring her to the community, mending the fabric torn apart by death.

When I die, I do not expect to be miraculously resurrected as Dorcas was, at least not right then and there. But I do expect that the same power that brought Dorcas back to life will be active in me today and will allow me to serve others. I do expect that same power that brought her back to life will one day do the same for me.

Until then, I bind myself to people I love and people I will never meet with the softest wool and the smoothest needles, weaving in prayers and To Do lists, fervent intercession and mindless sitcoms. I will sit alone, hour after hour, like a busy little spider creating webs of connection between me and the world.

I will give myself away and find myself mysteriously replenished.

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Are You Ready?

 

I stood in her kitchen, holding a pan of lasagna.

She was a new mother and she had the disoriented look of someone who had just parachuted into enemy territory. I guess you could say that’s exactly what had happened to her, because this was not the homecoming she had planned. For one thing, after spending an extended time in the hospital, her newborn was already a month old. For another, his head was held in place by a metal bolt through his neck.

My friend who was involved in a ministry to parents of babies born with major cranio-facial abnormalities asked if I would bring this new mother dinner, since we lived in the same town. Even more than most new mothers, this woman had very little time or energy to worry about such mundane tasks as making dinner. So there I was, making awkward small talk with this woman I had never met.

After thanking me several times, she finally asked, “Why did you do this for someone you don’t know?”

I blathered on about how happy I was to help, that I knew she needed one less thing to worry about. All that was true, of course, but I could tell it wasn’t a satisfying answer. After all, why would a perfect stranger walk into her house bearing dinner?

I offered something bland and vague, along the lines of “I’m happy to help,” but even I knew that was inadequate.

Here’s what I wished I had said:

“I’m here because God loves you and I am just His caterer.”

“I’m here because God wants you to know that you and your son are perfect and precious to him.”

“I made you lasagna because God has rescued me from pain and confusion and exhaustion and I want you to know that he will do the same for you.”

Most of all, I wished I had said that I didn’t bring dinner because it was the nice thing to do. I didn’t cook for her because, as the Dalai Lama is often quoted as saying, ” My religion is kindness.”

The world can certainly use all the kindness it can get; I’m not discouraging it.  God knows (and I mean that literally) that we need to be more tolerant, compassionate and helpful to one another.

But the kindness of bringing dinner fills your belly, but not your soul.

Kindness can offer kinship and fellowship, but it doesn’t offer hope and it doesn’t comfort you when everyone has gone home and you are alone with your pain and fear.

No, my religion isn’t kindness.

My religion is belief in a God who sees beauty where the world sees deformity. My religion worships a God who knows what it means to be human, in all its glory and all its pain, and never leaves us.

My religion is in awe of a God whose Holy Spirit could overcome my fears and allow me to hold this mother’s child, looking past the rod in his neck, and smile at his sweet face.  I brought her a meal and she was appreciative.  I cooed at her baby boy and she was joyous.

Still, I regret my silence all those years ago. I take comfort in the possibility that maybe someone else was bolder than I and told her all the things I should have.

I’ll be ready next time.

Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you;  yet do it with gentleness and reverence.   

                                                                                                       1 Peter 3:15-16

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A Threefold Cord

rope-1468951_1280“Never visit anyone empty-handed.” This was one of my mother’s inviolable rules of etiquette. When you rang the doorbell, you’d better be packing — a nice babka from the corner bakery, a book or magazine, or flowers from your garden.

I broke this rule recently.  I didn’t have any choice. The friend I visited is in prison.

I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything — no babkas, no books, no bouquets. The solid metal door slid open and I walked in empty-handed with nothing to offer but myself.  I felt like Wonder Woman without her bracelets — stripped of power and protection.  

In difficult situations, The Present is a welcome social lubricant. The book can be a conversation starter. The cake is an excuse for some distracting busy work as plates are fetched and tea is brewed. Your friend can marvel over the intricate stitchwork of the prayer shawl. But there would be none of that here; I had no props that could give me the illusion of being useful or any tangible sign of my care to leave behind. Like Alice’s Cheshire Cat, all that would be left at the end of this visit would be my evanescent smile.

If I couldn’t bring a present, I still hoped I could offer some magic words — words of explanation, exhortation, words of wisdom. I came up empty there, too. So I sat. I listened. I talked a little. We laughed. It hardly seemed enough.

And yet. Without the protective cover of a present, I was forced to consider the gift of presence. It is easy to minimize the power our “mere” presence can hold, and yet when I think of the hardest times of my life, what I remember are the people who sat with me, who let me grieve the way I needed to, and who were simply there. I think of the time my friend Peggy cajoled me into leaving my dying mother’s hospital bed to go for a walk. We went to the St. Patrick’s Day parade and it was an hour of respite, a reminder that outside that hospital room, there was life. Baton-twirling, bagpiping, beer-guzzling life. It didn’t change anything. We returned to the hospital to the same diagnosis.

But I returned knowing that whatever was coming, Peggy would hold my hand, make me laugh, let me cry. It was a small thing. It was everything.

This is all we really want and it is all we need. In times of crisis, we stand in a long line of sufferers stretching all the way back to Job who cry, “Why?”  There are theological arguments that address this question, but often we have to be satisfied with mystery. Ultimately, we make peace with “Why?” and instead ask, “Who?” Who will stand with me? Who will be brave enough to share my pain? Who will let me cry and listen to my darkest thoughts without shifting uncomfortably in their seat? Who will be Jesus to me?

This is one of God’s enduring promises: I will be with you. And while this is true in a cosmic sense, it is also true in the most literal, boots-on-the-ground sense. God was with me because Peggy was with me. God was with my friend because I was willing to walk into that prison, sit down and offer my presence, as inadequate as it seemed.  God is with us through us.

“Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

                                                               Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Our presence can seem like an insignificant offering, all that is left after admitting that we can’t fix the problem, take away the pain or heal the illness.  We couldn’t be more wrong.  It is nothing less than the gift of God to the people He loves.

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