When I was a campus minister I always told my students, "Do the God thing first. Then everything else will find its proper place." This is a hard thing to hear when there never seems to be enough time to study, when the papers are due and the exams are pressing, when each professor acts as though his or her assignment should take precedence over every other thing going on in your life. I knew I was asking them to do something counter-intuitive: to spend time being present and available to God first, before anything else had a chance to influence their day. Yet I also knew that this priority had the power to guide all other priorities, helping them succeed in ways they could not when relying on their wits alone.
My world has changed since then. I find myself struggling with the demands of life, as I guess they did. What comes first when so many necessities are pressing in? Yet I know time is too pressing not to give priority to God's priorities in my life, even when it makes no sense.
Let me warn you. This will make no sense.
It happened last spring. I picked up a book from the library called Generation T. Each page outlines a whole new way to cut up a t-shirt and make something of it. Flipping through those pages ignited a creative fire in me--initiating conversation with the discards in my bottom drawer, refining my vision so that I began to see the contents of my closet with fresh eyes.
Soon I found myself cutting stuff up and re-stitching, combining the scraps of old garments to create new pieces that reflect an emerging style I frankly had no idea I cared about. Apparently style does matter to me. And wearing unique pieces that reflect my personality matters greatly. It has puzzled me, this burgeoning passion for fashion. But after the last couple of weeks, ruminating on the power of mosaics, I began to understand that what has been coming forth from my imagination and through my hands has powerful significance. This creative endeavor has been a God-Thing. It has been prayer. It has been a reweaving, a reworking of me into something new. Someone new.
That sermon on brokenness begetting beauty catalyzed my thinking. I don't have the skills to mend broken pottery the way it's done in Japan. But I do know how to sew. And as I thought about what God can do with broken pieces I began to understand this emerging need within me to make old stuff into something new.
Especially the most recent project. A patchwork skirt. To literally take the pieces of things that no longer work and combine them into something lovely, every fragment making its contribution. The need to get this thing done pressed in on me, God asking me to do this one tangible thing so that the unseen quality it points to would be realized. People could ask me what I did in my prayer time. I could tell them I spent it at my sewing machine. Told you it wouldn't make sense.
But this stitch by stitch praying has been making some sense out of me. Showing me the unfolding of God's purposes for my life. What has been, what is coming.
The original articles of clothing were constructed from velour. There was a blouse, made of red on black print, etched with roses and sparkles, stunning on the hanger. Too big, too frumpy looking when I actually put it on. There were some sleek black trousers. Sassy and smart with a slit in the back at each ankle. Something I never have the occasion to wear. They were snug anyway. And then there was the teal fabric, in storage for years. A leftover from my days before children when free time was abundant and life revolved around my own whims.
I poured over images on Pinterest, hoping to find a picture to guide me. Some of the things I saw came close, but none really matched the vision of what I wanted. I finally decided to make a sketch so that I could see on paper what so far only existed in my head.
Once I got that down I made a quick pattern for the skirt panels. Then I put the pattern to fabric and started cutting. I knew I only had one chance to get it right. There was not enough shirt to cut twice. In the past I would have talked myself out of the whole thing, never believing in myself enough to cut right, believing my fear of failure more. This time I risked failure and instead found satisfaction: It worked. And I was generous with my measurements. Even though I had to re-sew my side seams (a couple of times), I was able to come out with something that was exactly what I wanted.
Lessons from the sewing table:
Lesson number one: If I really want to live a custom-made purpose, then it's time to start trusting my own instincts, to listen to my own intuition. To trust that what God has instilled in me for this time and purpose is trustworthy. For years I have second-guessed myself, done most of life someone else's way. And it has sometimes worked. But it has never fit. Just like those original pieces of clothing, I was dressing in someone else's wardrobe--never comfortable, just making do with what was.
Lesson number two: If I really want to live the life I was made for, then I must be willing to surrender the life I have. That shirt and pants and yardage had to die. There could be no more shirt, no more pants, no more yardage. Thinking such as "maybe it will fit someday" had to go. So did the "I might have an opportunity to wear something a teenager would wear" thought. And the hardest of all--"there might be something better I could use that yardage for; I should save it." Letting go can be painful. In my deepest self I realize this has nothing to do with clothes and everything to do with life. Who I used to be. What I used to do. Expectations I had of myself that never seemed to pan out. I had to let some important things go that I truly loved. What I didn't realize then was that this letting go created room for something better to come forth. Which leads to . . . .
Lesson number three: all that has come before is still useful. It's not that we surrender what has been to an empty void. It's that we surrender our broken dreams to God's hands, and He reworks them into something that is truly for us. I realize I never lost anything; those scraps just came back in a surprising, yet more wonderful way. Those original pieces of stretchy velvet, not quite right on their own, worked beautifully together. I couldn't have accomplished the vision in my head without them. And the same is true for all those life experiences that were painful, difficult, full of challenge. Those times that I got burned are what God used as the fire that refines. Those times that I got hammered, became tools used to fashion strength and wisdom that could not come any other way. Nothing has been wasted. There are no wasted years. There are no wasted efforts. There are no wasted mistakes. God has bundled it all together into the raw materials used to construct something remarkable and extraordinary. How the old thing is used makes all the difference. Piece by piece God is able to take seemingly unrelated things and bring forth something honorable and worthy of the highest regard.
It's hard to explain how I feel when I wear these clothes refashioned into something I truly love. To say I am happy doesn't tell the real story. I feel beautiful in the way that I find my own life story beautiful now: joyful soulfulness taking hard times in hand and dancing until the rhythm transforms the hardness into a deep cadence, pulsating wonder and grace into every waking moment. The memories no longer bring pain but deliverance. These old rags have been transformed into something rare and exquisite. I believe I am wearing art in the same way that I am a work of art. It doesn't matter if others don't like it. It doesn't matter if the stitches are straight or not. They are my stitches. Put together with love. And when I wear them I feel lovely, regardless of how I look.
I am reminded of my favorite scripture . . . Isaiah 61. There is this part that I have puzzled over for years, the thing that has finally made sense:
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation. Isaiah 61:10
Before now I simply thought God simply stripped us clean of everything we believed to give us value, so we may come to know our value comes from Him alone. I thought this was our salvation. But my sewing machine has taught me so much more. I've learned that once the false things are removed, God takes our every heartache, brokenness, anguished moment. In Tender Hands He reworks them, trimming and cutting, stitching and mending, until the finished product is revealed, beautiful and custom made for the wearer. A new life filled with joy and purpose and meaning.
So now as I feel the weight of stretchy fabric in my hands, I realize: These fibers are heavy with meaning. God has been reworking, remaking, re-stitching all that has been for a new purpose I couldn't have even guessed at a few years ago. I'll need every experience I've had. I will draw upon the years of wisdom that have been garnered through lesser things. All has been preparation. All has been resource and raw material. These are the garments of salvation.