My hands are still reddish and damp after a morning’s dish washing. I’ve chased every crumb out of my little ship’s kitchen, set lunch in the oven, and plumped myself down at my kitchen table for some contemplation. Coffee steams at my elbow (thank goodness). A book of haunting Advent poems awaits (next post, Advent booklist). My journal sits open in a depth of comforting, white-paged silence, ready to receive the scratch and scramble of my thoughts. But I’m not yet sure what those will be.
The cloth on my table catches my eye. It’s new to me, a wedding gift from a mentor here in England. A large, capacious cloth of aged ivory, it covers my small table with cheerful elegance, the hand-worked flowers of summer gold and September blue sky worked neatly in amidst bright green leaves. This is a sturdy cloth, made not for just for delicacy but for service, for jostled teacups and emptied plates, a thing of workaday beauty that comes with quite a story.
During the second world war, countless British women joined the war effort by nursing. Their work was the kind that breaks both back and heart as they mended wounded bodies at speed and saw the way that violence can shatter a human being, was likely shattering many they loved. Even so, when they sat up in the long, night watches, the threat of another Nazi bomb at the edge of thought and shadow, they were not allowed to be idle.
At least, my mentor’s mother wasn’t.
She and the nurses with her were required to keep their hands at work even when they sat at rest. So during the long, exhausting midnights, amidst chatter and talk and tears, they kept their hands busy and minds taut by working tea cloths and table cloths in vivid, bright rings of small flowers whose beauty was an innocence in the darkness. And now, one of them belongs to me.
I’m aware, this morning, of the way this gift has laid a claim on me, one that stares up at me from the loveliness it brings to my table. I sit in the presence of this beautiful, crafted cloth whose existence bears witness to another woman’s fortitude and I am touched to the heart. How can I receive this heritage of hands that worked through weariness, of a heart that kept a disciplined calm, of beauty brought forth in the darkest of hours and saddest of years… how can I accept this without a sense of the faithfulness it enfleshes passing in challenge to me?
But it is a challenge. I’ll make no secret of the restless angst I could easily set in that waiting journal. The world is a wild place at present and the voices I hear of late all seem at odds. I’m startled by much that has happened in the past week. I wonder what it means for me, living abroad with a European husband, what it means for my family, my home country. I wonder what it means for the church, the face she shows to the world, her bringing of Christ’s kingdom to the hungry and poor and lost. I wonder what part I can play, I wonder, urgently, achingly, what I’m supposed to do.
All I have managed so far is the comforting, but unconstructive work of fretting.
I look at my journal. I look at the cloth. I glance at my Bible. It too sits open on the table, where I’ve been trying to ignore it. I want Advent poetry and angst, I want big answers to impossible questions, but the words that stare up at my again, (oh again, you have no idea how many times this Psalm has reached out with an almost physical insistence to stop me in my brooding steps) are the old ones from Psalm 37:
Do not fret. It leads only to evildoing. Trust in the Lord. Do good.
I am always a little startled at the way that Psalm rebukes my worry. It’s not even a casual, ‘trust God, don’t worry, be happy and smile,’ it’s a smack in the face to the angst that seems so innocent and reasonable and yet will lead, so the Psalmist claims, to ‘evildoing’. I’d pay less attention to this dramatic claim if I wasn’t so convinced of its truth. Angst and fear, they’re poisonous things that seep into sight and conversation, they tinge moments of joy, and steal trust. Fretting leads to suspicion, to insecurity, to shut doors and a shrunken world that keeps at bay any person or thing that may threaten my sense of well-being. Fretting leads to disintegration, of self, of hope, of healing.
I look again at the cloth on my table and think of all that those women had to fret about. Husbands, lovers, sons in the same war that sent soldiers bloodied and broken into their care. Bombs stalking the night air, rubble piled outside, hunger gnawing at stomach and soul. And yet, they, like the Psalmist, did good. Not only professionally, but in the secret moments of the weary night they crafted a beauty that sits, radiant, in my hands today. They filled the shadows with colour, stitched hope into the silence with their worked and woven faith.
And ah, they were very wise women. For if you are working you don’t have time to panic. When you craft and create you cannot so quickly unravel, and so, you become one more thing in the world that will not disintegrate. If you’re working, you’re already a force against the undoing that causes you to fret. I wonder if hope comes a stitch at a time as we put ourselves to the mending of the world. For that’s in the Psalm too. Instead of fretting, we trust and ‘do good’.
I think of all the people I have witnessed this week whose continued, faithful goodness has helped me to participate in a trust I do not feel, a hope that is sometimes hard to grasp. I think of the communion service I went to the day after election, when three different seminaries came together for a termly affirmation of fellowship. I think of the worship we gave, so many different nations and traditions, joined in hearty praise. I think of the sermon I heard the next day, our weekly college ‘exposition’ of a chapter of Proverbs in which our principal taught one of the best sermons I’ve ever heard on marriage, fidelity, and wisdom.
I think of the priest at my church, whom I will find at prayer morning and evening every single day. I think of his lovely wife, whose efforts weave the voices of a rowdy dozen children into a happy harmony of a haphazard choir. I think of Thomas, up to his ears in Greek with one long essay due every week still washing dishes, holding his wife, hosting a youth club with me and sitting for three hours with a couple of teenagers, chatting, laughing, helping them to know they’re seen in a world that feels immensely big and dark so much of the time.
In the good that each of these people does, the world is moved toward wholeness and you see this in the Psalm. This trusting action, offered right in the face of the circumstances that could lead them to fret leads to what the Psalmist describes as a ‘righteousness that shines like the dawn’. That glimmers like embroidered flowers stitching hope and beauty back into a bombed-out world. And those who ‘hoped in the Lord’ (instead of fretting) will ‘inherit the land’. And while I am aware as a student of theology that ‘the land’ here has all sorts of historical meaning in this context, I am also aware as a long-time disciple of Christ that this inheritance is not something we merely receive, but something we participate in making.
When we trust God, we assent to his narrative of the world; that evil will end, that the darkness has not, and will never ‘comprehend the light’, that love will prevail over death, and beauty will conquer destruction. When we trust God, our enacted faithfulness makes us characters in his story, and our actions become the plot of his kingdom unfolding on earth. Stitch by stitch, minute by minute, we tell the tale of redemption in the embodied words of our trusting lives. We do good, because we believe that Goodness is the last word and we live toward that happy ending.
I smile now, though my heart aches with all that needs to be set right. I lightly stroke the flowers stitched in the night shadows of a war-time hospital. I pick up my pen because I’ve left my journal open. But not to fill the pages with fretting. There’s good to be done, and I need to scratch into that welcoming whiteness just how I plan to begin. I need to continue the story told forward by the woman whose faithful stitches reach down through the years with a hope that only gathers in brightness…