Quilting advice from Nietzsche

I made my first quilt when I was eight. I say I made; I did make quite a bit of it, but it was something of a training-wheels quilt, made with a lot of help from my mom and Sue, the family friend I’ve more or less adopted as grandma. I still remember the excitement of going to the neighborhood Joann’s or, even better, a local quilt shop to pick out block patterns and patterned fabric for what became a twin-sized sampler quilt.

Even then, I was a glutton for punishment – some of the block patterns I chose to make had bucketloads of tiny triangles and squares that my unskilled fingers eventually had to pass off to Mom to sew together. And in the end, when all of the pieces were sewn into blocks and the blocks were sewn into strips and the strips were joined together to form the quilt top, we still had to quilt the whole thing. Surprisingly, it wasn’t my first time quilting by hand, having already lent my justifiably timid fingers to another quilting project at church, but thankfully I had two more-experienced quilters both supervising and contributing. It got done, and lived on my bed through high school.

My second complete quilt project was a bright, oversized bedspread that now graces the dim atmosphere of my basement-level apartment bedroom, and I had the brilliant idea of quilting the whole thing, by hand, all on my own (still a glutton for punishment, years later). That sort of thing is best to do in cold weather, because sitting under the weight of a thick quilt bent over an embroidery hoop for hours on end gets really, really warm. While quilting, I periodically plead for neck massages from my dad and watch listen to the A&E Pride and Prejudice (5 hours, 27 min) or The Lord of the Rings Extended Edition trilogy (11 hours, 22 min), usually more than once per quilt.

Hand-quilting is one of those things that never gets faster, no matter how good you think you are (or maybe I’m still just not very good yet). Every time I think I’m doing really well, I look down and realize my thread is all knotted, or it breaks off, or I flip to the backside and see stitches that could pass for sutures on Frankenstein’s monster. My basically-grandma Sue says that if you can’t see the mistake from the back of a galloping horse, then it’s probably fine, but some of my stitches you could probably see from the Space Station in orbit. What is there to do, but rip them out and redo it?

Otherwise, I might get done faster, but the end result will not be what I wanted. No one sets out to sew a crappy quilt any more than a follower of Jesus sets out to be a bad disciple, but you know what they say about good intentions as paving material. The difference is not in intent, but in how faithful we are in the minute, seemingly insignificant details. On a quilt, it takes matching corners and placing stitches with almost anal-retentive care to do a beautiful pattern justice. In my life, it means following through on my commitment to follow Jesus in every area, even in those that don’t seem important.

How can I cultivate a relationship with God if I’m not doing what it takes to spend time with him, whatever that looks like? I’ve never been much of a runner, except for this one misguided high school cross-country season, but I’m always impressed by the faithfulness and discipline of people who do get up and make time to go for a run on a regular basis. I can’t say I always manage the same level of discipline when it comes to prayer, or reading God’s word, or worshiping on my own or with my community. It’s something I will never be finished learning how to do, and it’s not going to happen without intent and purpose.

This applies in a lot of other areas, too. For example, this summer I have been realizing that no matter how much I want to be good at Arabic grammar, I will probably not memorize vocabulary and verb forms and case endings by accident. I have to put in the hours of studying and practice that are necessary to retain those things even after I’ve taken my last exam and gone home. Stitch by agonizing stitch.

Similarly, I am not going to accidentally become a person of integrity; it will happen in the moments when I choose not to cheat on an exam, when I choose to come clean with a friend and apologize for wronging her, when I own up to my mistakes day to day and make a good faith effort not to repeat them. Sacrificial love is not a habit that one develops easily – it requires a daily determination to seek the good of those around me, sometimes in unconventional ways. And I won’t become a good youth group leader simply by showing up at my church and saying, “I’m going to be a good youth group leader today.” It might take me years of learning to listen well in the moment when it’s needed, and practice encouraging my students to follow Jesus and practice loving them anyway when they don’t. Stitch by bloodletting stitch.

As Eugene Peterson wrote in his 1996 book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction:

This [pastoral work] turned out to be slow work. From time to time, impatient with the slowness, I would try out ways of going about my work that promised quicker results. But after a while it always seemed to be more like meddling in these people’s lives than helping them attend to God. More often than not I found myself getting in the way of what the Holy Spirit had been doing long before I arrived on the scene.

One of the earliest verses I remember learning from my mom when I was a kid is Luke 16:10: “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much.” I’ve always thought that this meant economies of scale, as in, “If you’re faithful to do the small thing well, then you’ll do the big thing well, too, and vice versa.” “If you’re good at being a governor, then you’ll be good at being the president.” Et cetera.

But I’m beginning to think that there’s another way to look at it: If you’re faithful to match your corners and stitch in the ditch, then the whole quilt will end up looking better. In other words, the little will always add up to the much in the long run, and there is no much without all of the little components.

Peterson again, from A Long Obedience: “There is a great market for religious experience in our world; there is little enthusiasm for the patient acquisition of virtue, little inclination to sign up for a long apprenticeship in what earlier generations of Christians called holiness.” This “long apprenticeship” of becoming more like Christ is a lifelong one, and it’s worth devoting faithful attention to the moments and details along the way. The title of Peterson’s book comes from, of all people, Friedrich Nietzsche, whose quote is included in the epigraph:

The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.

This is not just a Christian thing. It’s not just a quilting thing, either. Investing time and attention in the most important and usually un-glamorous things each day is what yields the results we’re looking for, every time, and the rewards of that patience are greater than we imagine – that which makes life worth living.


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