One day out of the blue, I got a phone call that startled me to my core. It came from Paris Health Care, the facility in Paris, Tennessee, where my mom resided. There had been an incident there; Mom wasn’t hurt, but they needed to let me know as her power of attorney that something had happened. They are investigating and would have to determine what would be next. It involved my dad and the care he provided my mom while she is there. They said it was hard to tell what had really happened that day in May many years ago. Happy Mother’s Day.
It was, in part, further evidence that dementia has a communal effect. The ripples circle out and wash over many of us. The threads that bind us together get tangled and twisted, sometimes broken or at least frayed to a breaking point. Sometimes we say and do things, even to those we love, that have nothing to do with them. But the threads have us so tangled up that we don’t know where the pain is coming from. All we know is that we hurt and wish it would stop. And every question feels like an accusation, every comment like a threat. It isn’t logical; it isn’t rational; it isn’t even right; but unless we are Vulcans like Mr. Spock, we rarely respond purely to logic. Those threads that bind us to others, family and friends and members of the body of Christ, get us so tangled up we don’t always think straight.
Take Mother’s Day, for example. You know that to ignore the holiday on a Sunday morning is to commit something akin to blasphemy in the minds of many people. You’ve had your ear bent by passionate souls on that score. Mothers are certainly due all the honor we can give them. I know I want to honor my mother, and I want to honor my wife as the mother of my children. And there are so many mothers who occupy our pews who deserve a little thank you, a little symbol that we know how important they are to us and to the community as a whole. What’s wrong with giving a little honor?
At the same time, I know that an emphasis on saintly mothers would grieve those who suffered with a mother who didn’t epitomize the kind of love that Hallmark sells to us on their cards. I know that calling motherhood the desire of God for every woman would wound those who have chosen to be childless or who suffer from infertility, or who lost their children in some heart-rending tragedy. And because within our community there are some from all those categories, a Mother’s Day celebration in worship is a tricky proposition. The threads that bind us together make us want to be sensitive to those to whom we are bound.
It’s hard to navigate among all these competing themes, hard to bring a word of hope in every situation. But there it is. And the more you wrestle with it, the more the only sensible response is the Monty Python Holy Grail response: “Run Away!” Cut loose those binding threads, shake off those relationships. “I am a rock, I am an island,” sang Simon and Garfunkel many years ago.
Except . . . I don’t want to live as an island. And rocks are just too . . . hard. I don’t want to cut the threads that tangle me into the lives of those I love. If anything, I want them to be stronger, tighter, more binding. I know it doesn’t make sense; it is potentially too painful. But oh, how I want those threads to stay connected. The threads from my mother that were growing so thin they were almost transparent—how I wish they were strong and vibrantly colored with her love and her teaching and her reproof and her forgiveness. The threads from my kids that are stretching longer and farther with each passing day it seems, how I wish they were shorter and younger and so full of the life we used to share. The threads that bind me to a congregation and are strained to the breaking point, how I wish they were like it was before so many mistakes, so many decisions, so many choices were made putting us in different places. How I wish we could hold on to what was.
Like the members of a little church on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, Joppa First UMC lost one of the pillars of the church; no, of the whole community. And they decided to grab a desperate hope. You know their story.
The threads that bound Tabitha to the community were many and they were strong. And when the illness and death came to sever those threads, the community was bereft. Their hearts were broken, so they reached out to one who might be able to retie those threads, to reweave the tear in the tapestry of their community. They sent runners to Peter the apostle, who had just performed a miracle. And they thought maybe . . . possibly . . . But you notice they didn’t ask for anything in particular—just that he come, quickly. It wasn’t like that father who hoped Jesus could get there before his little girl died. No, Tabitha was dead. They washed her and laid her out in the upper room. They just wanted Peter to come.
They washed the body but didn’t prepare it for burial. They didn’t anoint it, didn’t wrap it. Maybe they did hope, a wild desperate hope. Maybe they hoped for something they couldn’t even bring themselves to speak out loud, or the sheer ridiculousness of it would ring in their ears and cause them to lose heart. Just come quickly, they asked. And, well, just come.
He did. Drawn by their threads, Peter came, quickly. And they fell all over themselves trying to tie him to her. She was a servant, they said, a devoted servant, lived in two communities, didn’t just care for us in the church, but for folks in the wider community. They called her Dorcas, ‘cause that means “gazelle” in Greek, just like Tabitha does in Aramaic. They called her gazelle, the folks out there, the ones she clothed. “Like this,” they pointed to the clothes that they wore, proudly pointing out the straightness of the stitch and the line of the seam and the perfection of the fit. They did a twirl like they were on a Paris catwalk. Peter smiled at their love for their sister and friend.
But then they stopped twirling as they caught sight of the body lying on the table in the middle of the room. How dare they smile; how dare they take pleasure in anything, even the work of her hands, in a moment like this. Peter felt the mood change, and he sighed, then shooed them out of the room and got to work—on his knees.
He prayed. What did he pray for? Who knows? He prayed for the threads to be binding. He prayed for the sake of the community who loved her so much. He prayed for her lying there washed and cold and ready for what might be next. He prayed for the will of his Lord to be done. Then he stood up and remembered another room with a body laid out. He was there with Jesus that day, saw him reach out his hand to the dead girl and whisper, “talitha coum – little girl rise.” So, Peter reached out his hand and said, “Tabitha rise.” And her eyes opened and locked with his, and the smile on his ruddy fisherman’s face caused her to sit up at once.
He opened the door to their joy and disbelief and thought to himself with a wry smile, “Now where have I felt that before?” Nobody seemed to notice when he left. He just passed by them, hugging and crying and laughing; and he smiled when he heard Tabitha say, “That seam is coming undone; where is my needle?” And he walked down to the seaside and knocked on the door of a man he hadn’t seen since they were boys. He never would have made this re-connection before, against the law, you know, because of the business that took place in this house. But he shrugged and thought, “Things are changing everywhere,” and he made himself at home with Simon the Tanner. And somewhere a face familiar to Peter lit up with a massive smile and then thought, “He has no idea. No earthly idea. Yet.”
Sometimes miracles happen, and those we thought gone are returned to us. More often, the miracle is that the threads remain, but they grow and change and become something new, something holy. And we find we can continue on after all. I am who I am because of my mother a disease can’t take that away, can’t undo the threads of my being. And whatever the future holds, I will honor her for what she has stitched for me, stitched into me. We are the lives we touch and that touch us. We are the threads we wear. Thanks be to God.