I was recently asked to speak on the connection of quilting and theology at a Luther Seminary event. I was not quite sure what avenue I was going to take until someone asked, “What is a theology of quilting?”
Here was a wonderful woman wondering how the experience of working with fabric, of pondering and creating beauty and never quite getting it perfect has something to teach us about God. Maybe you are wondering too.
I share with you my top ten list of things I have [re]learned about God from quilting. Today we affirm we learn a lot about God from how we are neighbors to one another. We also learn a lot about God from how we create with the things of the world God has given us. I humbly explore with you a theology not of quilting, but from quilting, ways I have come to a deeper love of God and a richer sense of truth from quilting.
#10: You have to cut fabric to make a quilt.
I once heard a joke in which two men are talking about their wives quilting. “I don’t get it,” one says. “She takes a perfectly good piece of fabric and cuts it up into little pieces so she can sew it together again!” My husband thought it was funny. Maybe it is. But it is also true about all creativity.
Pigments must be found, ground to a fine powder, and mixed with oils which are taken from perfectly good whole trees before there is paint. Stone must be taken from the ground and the big chunk refined and cut for sculpture. Metals need to be found in rough ore and refined, melted, and cast. So, yes, we take a whole and re-shape it, just as God saw a whole void as it was and began to add pieces and re-shape it, and fill it with life. As God takes tiny parts of whole human beings and birds and mammals, all creatures, and combines them to make a new person or bird or mammal. Working with what we have, re-fitting it, re-shaping it into something beautiful and useful. It is what God does with all creation.
#9: Quilting may hurt (hands, eyes, backs) and needs to be balanced by other activities, breathing, at least.
God has made us full-bodied, real flesh and given us whole selves that we can dedicate to all kinds of work. But God has created our bodies to demand rest, balance, food, water, sleep, movement. Quilting hurts when we forget how God has created us.
#8: Your quilt will demand your attention, even when you are unaware of it.
This is about creativity. This happens at levels we work at and at levels of our being we have no access to. Like the two stories in the Bible of how God created the cosmos, the stories in Genesis, that are regular, planned, carefully laid out and visible even to us creatures. And the very different story in Job, where God reminds Job that there are things in creation that are beyond our comprehension. But “comprehension” is not even the right word. That Behemoth and monsters of the deep are about God’s joy and we will never be able to fully “get” that.
But it is real. As creation receives God’s attention on every level, so we attend to our work both in careful, logical ways and in the ways that wake us up at night with the perfect solution to a difficult problem.
We live our creativity and so does God. We are, the whole cosmos is, in God’s mind and heart all the time, forever. This is what it means that God does not sleep, that the cries of God’s people arise to God’s ears. That God “remembers” the prayers of Cornelius. Because we all are God’s creation we live in God all the time.
#7: Your quilt will tell you what it needs.
We are called to listen deeply to our creation, even as God listens. Sometimes the Bible speaks of sighs too deep for words, of God who knows the heart. As your quilt in its own individual development, its own set of colors and combinations can surprise you, call you in different ways than you expected, try your patience, so God’s creation speaks to God…and even to us. Listen, listen, listen. I am so bad at this, but quilting reminds me this quilt is real and will not just go according to some plan I have. It has a voice, an existence of its own. So we are to one another–our neighbors. So we are to God, and God and our neighbors to us. This is about an existence that does not abide by our plans.
#6: You may have a “reason” (birthday, graduation, wedding), but joy is really why you work.
This is about calling. This is about the Holy Spirit given to you so that you are skilled, at whatever level. You could always be doing something else. Many people never quilt! But it is to this that you are called as an expression of joy in creativity, akin to that of God’s joy.
#5: Patience is rewarded (you will find the right pattern color or whatever else you need).
You cannot rush this. Again, it is about our not seeing what we need or having what we thing we need in the moment, but trusting that it is there for us, that we will find what is required for well-being. Really, this is a word about faith, a kind of confidence that finally, whatever disappointments and trials may intervene, some creative harmony is there. This is the very heart of our faith.
#4: Nothing is beautiful or ugly on its own; it is all about community and fit.
Because I grew up looking at fabric with my mother and sisters, I was used to making judgments about beauty (or lack thereof) and colors that I liked or did not like. So it was a great surprise to me in quilting that the fabrics I had thought were just perfect could not be used in a certain quilt just because they were beautiful on their own. Even a gorgeous fabric can deaden a quilt, still its voice. And fabrics that I had thought I just could not stand (dark mustard yellows for instance), brought a quilt to life and came to life themselves!
It was not only about my preferences. It was about that larger picture, the combination. A fabric gorgeous in one setting did not work in another and vice versa. It was all about the combination, the community, the setting. This was, and still is, a huge learning for me. Each of us can shine and bring a group to life somewhere. Each of us is an essential piece in creation. Not one of us is ugly or beautiful independently.
#3: Attention to details is everything.
We claim somehow that God counts the hairs on our heads! What can this mean? It means paying attention to ¼ inch seams, counting squares, pressing seams to one side or another. It means paying attention to details all the way to choosing, creating, and carefully stitching the binding because every piece matters. It means deciding how to turn your kaleidoscope and deciding that a particular shade of purple turns out to be just too bluish. It means that what we do and how we do it matters to us and to God. It matters not only who God is, but how God is. It is not only the big promises of God, but the way God keeps promises matter.
#2: The Big picture is everything.
The opposite…the word to Job (Were you there when I…). This is the place for humility of course, because in the life of the cosmos of God in Christ, you and I simply cannot see the whole picture. We are too shaped by how we grew up to be able to get past our own convictions of beauty and ugliness. Yet, we know from our own work of making a quilt, that even attention to all the details may not help us create a wonderful quilt.
We have to tap into some vision, catch what the quilt can be, be caught up by just the right fabric, have energy, and have a dream. So we stand, in patience before God’s dream for us all. God’s shalom. We pay attention to the details we can see, keep on catching new glimpses of God’s vision and never quite get the whole thing.
The danger for quilters, and for Christians, is two-fold. We can give up on details and because we cannot see the whole picture right now, just stand back and wait for God to do whatever it is we think God will do. Or we can attend so passionately to details that we forget we do not have the big picture. Our details become our idea of God’s big picture and we no longer hear creation speak, we no longer see new places for what we thought did not fit. So both attention to details and confidence in the big picture are everything.
#1: Nothing is wasted.