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I recently got back from a week in the Texas Hill Country, where I was keynote speaker for the Mo-Ranch Women’s Conference. We had a Tuesday-Thursday session and a Friday-Sunday one, with about 300 women total between the two groups. (I also got some running done, as you can see!)
I usually prefer it when event planners come up with the theme themselves, and this one was a winner: A Durable Fabric: Frayed But Not Afraid. The fabric imagery provided numerous opportunities to explore the theme—threads, if you will…
Our leadership team (music leader, worship leader/preacher, and me) met several times via conference call. From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something with burlap. We ended up cutting a bunch of burlap squares, which we gave to the participants on the first night of the conference. The first night’s keynote was titled “A People A-Frayed,” and we explored various aspects of our frayed-ness: a polarized country, brokenness in relationships, information overload, the pace of change, and a sense of overwhelm. Participants were encouraged to “worry” their burlap cloth—fraying the ends, removing strands, creating holes.
At the end of the first evening, our worship leader invited us to hold the burlap up to the light and look through. It is in our frayed places, she said—the holes, the unraveling spots—that the light is able to shine through the brightest. (A nod to Leonard Cohen!) And for the remainder of the conference, we made an intentional choice not to talk in terms of repairing our frayed places. Instead, we explored various tools that we have at our disposal as we live within the frayed-ness that on some level is always with us. Our lives are complicated and imperfect—there’s no simple way to patch them up. Better to embrace what is, and to seek God’s healing and grace in the midst of it all.
These tools for the journey included faith, empathy and courage. I talked about faith as a practice—a process of embracing mystery and living within limitations. After all, if we know exactly where we’re headed, and we have everything we need to get there, we don’t need faith!
We viewed and discussed the wonderful TED talk from artist Phil Hansen, called Embrace the Shake. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth the ten minutes to see it. (It’s also very entertaining to watch!)
For the next keynote, we turned to the practice of empathy. I told the amazing story of Keshia Thomas, an African-American high school student from Ann Arbor who threw her body on top of a white supremacist and shielded him from attack during a protest. And we watched a video featuring Brené Brown in a discussion of empathy, and talked in small groups about how to show authentic compassion for ourselves and others:
The final tool we explored for living within frayed-ness was courage. Our worship leader/preacher took the lead on this session and preached a dynamite sermon based on the Pentecost scripture text—the story of the Holy Spirit being poured out upon a bunch of unwitting disciples.
Throughout the weekend, participants were invited to embellish their burlap with buttons, beads, feathers and yarn. We displayed these burlap creations, which turned out more beautiful and poignant than we could possibly have imagined:
One woman who had recently been laid off decorated hers with detritus from her purse, including a now-outdated business card (obscured for privacy) and a bandaid to represent the need for healing:
Another woman came to the conference with a knitting project, a prayer shawl for a loved one. During the weekend she felt moved to knit strands of the burlap into the shawl—a visual representation of the frayed-ness we all experience, and the ways that those frayed places can still be woven into something whole.
This is why I love what I do. During retreats, people leave their everyday world behind, breathe deeply, and engage their lives completely differently, and I hope, return home renewed and ready for the transformation of the Spirit. It was a joy to be part of this gathering!
No retreat on the calendar? How about a DIY option? I invite you to spend some time thinking about your own frayed-ness. Maybe find a piece of cloth and “worry” it. Decorate it with symbols of your life. And consider the tools you might need to move forward: faith, empathy, and courage.
Peace, joy and Yes.