In Philip Gulley's Harmony series, the Friendly Women's Circle of the Harmony Quaker meeting is dedicated to "Uplift and Preserve All That Is Magnificent." It also serves as the personal fief of Fern Hampton. This episode, from "Home to Harmony," recounts the genesis and highlight of the women's circle's quilting fundraiser.
So that's what they've done every year since 1974. They meet every Tuesday morning at nine o'clock. They ease down the stairs, hunker down at the quilting frame, and stitch for three solid hours. Every January, February, and March.
Their husbands want to spend the winter in Florida and play golf, but these women wouldn't dream of it. There's work to be done. Quilts to be made. Indians to be shod. How can you think of golf when there are shoeless Indians running around? Now is not the time for play; now is the time for duty; now is the time to uplift and preserve all that is magnificent.
They have it down pat. They assemble at nine, then at ten-thirty, take a fifteen minute break. Fern times them. They drink coffee, way across the room, over by the freezer. Fern won't allow them near the quilt with coffee. Then she makes them wash their hands, then they're right back at it-uplifting and preserving all that is magnificent.
My first year as their pastor was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Friendly Women's Circle quilt sale. It was also Fern's turn to be president again. It being an anniversary year, Fern and the ladies were especially concerned about magnificence.
Way back in October, Fern called the Circle together.
"We want this one to shimmer," Fern told the ladies. "Fifty years from now, we want people to think back on this quilt and quiver. Let's aim for the heavens."
They spent the next three months drawing sketches. No store-bought pattern for this quilt. The Lord Himself would provide the pattern. They set aside a morning to pray over the quilting frame. They laid their hands on it and began to pray. Fern started to shake.
"It's a sign," she told them. "God has great things in store for this quilt. I can feel it."
They began stitching in January. Worked all the way through February and into March. On the last week of March, they came to the basement every day but Sunday.
By that time, Fern had dispensed with the coffee drinking altogether. She told them," Caffeine makes your hands shake. It'll cause crooked stitches. No more coffee."
They finished the last week of March.
That quilt was magnificent. It shimmered. They carried it up from the basement and hung it from the wall at the front of the meeting room, in back of the pulpit. It pulsed with beauty
People walked into worship talking about sciatica and rheumatism and gas mileage, then saw the quilt hanging there and fell quiet, awestruck. Such magnificence.
I could barely bring myself to preach, for fear my common words would detract from such beauty. I cut it short. They weren't paying attention anyway They were fixed on the quilt. We settled into silence, waiting for the Lord to speak. Five minutes passed, then ten.
Then Fern's voice rose from the sixth row. "I see Him," she said. "Look. He's right there. Look at the quilt. He's in the quilt."
All across the meeting room, people raised their eyes. I heard more gasps. And then I saw Him, dead center in the quilt. A man's face. But not just any man. The Man. Jesus. Right there on the quilt. At least it looked like Jesus. Then, just that quick, He was gone.
Fern said, "I knew it. I knew God had something in mind for that quilt. I told you. Didn't I tell you?"
We were so startled we forgot to take the offering. Instead, we brought worship to a close and the elders went to the basement for an emergency meeting.
Dale Hinshaw said, "The Catholics are good with this kind of thing. Let's call the Vatican and get the pope out here. Me and the missus'll put him up at our house on the pullout sofa. He'll know what to do."
"We've got to keep this quiet," Miriam Hodge advised. "Otherwise, this place will get crazy. People will come from all over to see the quilt. We don't want that. We have to keep this quiet."
But it was too late. Fern Hampton had already phoned Bob Miles Jr., who came and took a picture of the quilt and ran a story about it in the Herald. "The Shroud of Harmony" read the headline.
The Associated Press picked up the story and within a few days a line of people stretched out the meetinghouse door, down Main Street, past the Coffee Cup. Vinny and Penny Toricelli at the Coffee Cup began using a cookie cutter to shape hamburger patties in the shape of an angel. They served Angel Burger Value Meals: one Angel Burger, Halo Rings-which were actually onion rings-Angel Food Cake, and your choice of beverage for $5.99.
Dale Hinshaw organized the ushers to serve as guards. People stood before the quilt and watched for Jesus. Every now and then, when the sun would crest the trees and shine through the windows onto the quilt, someone would see Him.
One day, when Dale Hinshaw was guarding the quilt, he reached up and touched it and was cured of a head cold.
"My sinuses just opened up," he reported. "I could feel 'em draining."
There was talk of taking the quilt on the road, showing it at other Quaker meetings. Maybe charging admission and using the money to buy shoes for the Choctaw Indians.
Fern wouldn't hear of it. "You don't just haul the Lord from place to place. It's unseemly" So the quilt stayed put and the people kept coming.
Then certain items began to disappear from the meetinghouse-hymn books and cardboard fans compliments of the Mackey Funeral Home. Total strangers began chipping away pieces of our pews. They were stripping us clean. Things were getting out of hand.
I took to working at the meetinghouse early in the morning, before the crowds arrived. I came to my office one morning to find Miriam Hodge waiting for me.
She said, "This has gotten out of hand."
I said, "I know. But I don't think we should stop it. It might be from the Lord. We have to be careful."
Miriam said, "Sam, I have something to tell you. I came by one evening when we were finishing up the quilt. I wanted to finish a section. I was by myself. I was drinking my coffee and I spilled it all over the quilt. I took it home and cleaned it as best I could and brought it back the next morning. Sam, that's not the Lord we've been seeing- that's Maxwell House."
I was struck dumb.
We called Fern on the phone and asked her to come to the meetinghouse, which she did. We told her about Miriam spilling coffee on the quilt.
Fern took it better than we thought. She cried a little, then she sniffed and said, "It's still a beautiful quilt."
"It is that," I told her. "It's pure magnificence. And you can leave it up as long as you wish."
She said, "Just until the Chicken Noodle Dinner. Then we'll raffle it off. It'll buy a lot of shoes." Then she left.
I called Bob Miles Jr. and told him it wasn't Jesus, it was Maxwell House. He ran the correction that very week. The lines dwindled. Dale Hinshaw dismissed the guards, though he still swore he'd been cured of a head cold. Things got back to normal.
The Monday before Easter, I woke up early and went and sat in the fifth row and looked up at the quilt. A small part of me wished it had been Him. I found a certain joy in watching people step carefully into the meetinghouse, their hands clasped, seeking out the divine. Witnessing such raw hope, such sure belief, was a quiet thrill.
But in my more thoughtful moments, I'm glad it wasn't Jesus. It troubled me that folks would drive three hundred miles to see Christ in a quilt, but wouldn't walk next door to see Him in their neighbor.
I talked about it in my Easter message. I told how we always look for Christ amid magnificence. But that Christ has a history of showing up amid the unlovely. Born in a dirty stall. Crowned with thorns. Died gasping on a shameful cross atop a jagged rise.
We don't need to be beautiful for Christ to take us in. He is equally at home when we're broken-down and dirty. It's like George Herbert wrote:
And here in dust and dirt, O here,We think magnificence is in short supply, that dust and dirt choke out the lilies. But that's not true and never was. Lilies may root in dirt, but they reach for heaven-and in the reaching, reveal their magnificence.
The lilies of God's love appear.