Thursday, February 15, 2018

Loving Lent: An Annual Detox For My Soul

Me and My Friend Karen, Ash Wednesday Selfie 2015
Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, the official kickoff for the Christian season of Lent.  The silly Ash Wednesday selfie above is from a few years ago, before I chopped off my long hair.  (I'm the goofball on the left).  

Now, I love me some Christmas and Easter, don't get me wrong -- but Easter makes no sense to me without Lent in the same way that Christmas makes no sense to me without Advent.  And I wanted to talk about that today because there are so many misconceptions out there about Lent and what it means to Christians today.  In case anyone's interested, here's what Lent means to me.

On Ash Wednesday and throughout the forty days of Lent, we as Christians are called to take a long, hard look at ourselves in a ruthless magnifying mirror.  But instead of examining our faces for wrinkles, sun spots and blemishes, we're examining our hearts and our souls and taking stock of the many ways in which we have fallen short spiritually.  


"The Picture of Dorian Gray," oil on canvas, by Alvin Albright (1944), Art Institute of Chicago
Remember Oscar Wilde's 1891 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray?  It was about a handsome but morally depraved, evil man whose true character was reflected in a portrait like the one above (painted by Alvin Albright for the 1945 film).  The Bible tells us that we are ALL hideously disfigured by sin, just like Dorian Gray, and no amount of Botox,  cosmetics or Photoshopping could ever hide the ugliness of our sins from God.


Romans 3:10-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

10 as it is written:
“There is no one who is righteous, not even one;
11     there is no one who has understanding,
        there is no one who seeks God.
12 All have turned aside, together they have become worthless;
    there is no one who shows kindness,
        there is not even one.”
Lent is when sin gets really personal, when we acknowledge our own brokenness, admit to ourselves and to God that we personally have an addiction to sin that we cannot overcome on our own, ask for His forgiveness and surrender to the gift of His grace and mercy. I am in bondage to sin and cannot free myselfI am the one who has sinned against God in my thoughts, in my words, and in my actions -- by the things I have done, as well as the things I should have done but left undone.  I have not loved God with my whole heart, and I have certainly not loved my neighbors and my enemies as much as I love myself.  



So on Ash Wednesday, the greasy ashes on our foreheads are a visible reminder of the brevity of our time here on Earth.  The ashes symbolize our repentance for our sin and our desire to be freed from our earthly desires and fit for eternal life in Christ.

Sounds like a bummer, doesn't it?  No trumpet fanfares, no "Joy To the World," no pretty poinsettias or fragrant lilies for Lent!  But there's still beautiful music, like the anthem "Create In Me" by Terre Johnson that our choir sang last night, based on Psalm 51.



Because we go into Lent looking inward and discovering that our hearts look like this:


My Heart At the Beginning of Lent
...and then, after forty days of reflection and prayer, we come out of Lent on Easter Sunday with a deeper understanding of why we need a savior so badly in the first place.  God loves us so much that, when we repent and seek His forgiveness and guidance in our lives, He takes our bruised, broken and battered hearts and mends them with His mercy and love.  


My Heart on Easter Sunday
Without Lent, Easter Sunday is just an excuse for new dresses, pastel marshmallow bunnies and hunting for painted eggs.  Meaningfully observing the season of Lent is a necessary catharsis that humbles us and enables us to begin to comprehend the magnitude of God's love for us.  The enormity of Christ's sacrifice, taking on the sin of the world, accepting the punishment for OUR sin, yours and mine, is awesome in the original sense of that word: Stunning!  Breathtaking!  Mind-blowing!  Overwhelming!  The gift of Lent, a time set aside for reflection and repentance, allows us to rejoice in the paradox that only by surrendering to God's will can we ever truly be free.

So...  How will I meaningfully observe Lent this year?  Am I giving up wine and chocolate?  No meat on Fridays until after Easter?



Well, if I really felt like wine, chocolate and meat were distracting me spiritually, I might give them up for Lent.  You don't have to necessarily give ANYTHING up for Lent to be a "good Christian," by the way -- a lot of Christians I know like to ADD something to their lives for Lent, like daily Lenten devotions, attending additional worship services, 40 acts of kindness of charity...  Anything that makes them feel closer to God and more spiritually focused.  


"Cypresses," oil on canvas, by Vincent van Gogh (1889), The Metropolitan Museum of Art
I really like the Biola University Lent Project daily devotions.  I signed up to get them emailed to me every day throughout Lent, and each devotion has accompanying visual art, music, and poetry incorporating a broad range of styles.  The art and music really help me to connect spiritually and emotionally with the scripture and the devotional text.  Today's devotion was a reflection on Jeremiah 17:5-10, contrasting the bush withering in the desert (he whose heart has turned away from the Lord) to the tree with leaves of green, planted near the water (the man who trusts in the Lord).  The multimedia devotion included van Gogh's Cypresses painting (above), a poem by M. Vasalis, and a contemplative piano composition entitled "Methuselah Tree," by contemporary post-classical minimalist Keith Kenniff.  

So I'm adding these daily Lenten devotions, but not as an end unto themselves.  I'm using the devotions to help me stay focused on the season of Lent amid all of the shiny distractions and earthy mirages that lure us away from what is real, what is true, and what really matters.  One "golden calf" I know I'm guilty of worshipping is materialism.



I'm not talking about diamonds and furs and judging people by how much money they have...  I'm talking about my weakness for buying specialty quilting tools, patterns, books, magazines, baking gadgets, and ACTUAL material -- FABRIC!!  Now, baking, quilting and reading are not activities that threaten my relationship with God in and of themselves, but I'm thinking about how enmeshed these activities have become with our consumer culture and how much (or how little) of this stuff I actually need.  And I'm mindful of the warning in the parable of the rich man in Luke 12:16-21.  How close am I to tearing down my own barns  kitchen and studio and building bigger ones to hold all of my posessions?  So I'm going to try really hard to give up consumerism for Lent this year.  I'll still shop for groceries, but I'll be trying hard not to buy anything that we don't really need, at least for the next eight weeks.  No new baking pans, no new fabric, no new specialty rulers...  and no new shoes!  It will be interesting to see how that plays out and, by the time Easter rolls around, I should have a much better idea of whether and to what extent my relationship with instant gratification shopping has been spiritually compromising.  Let's all be clear -- I am not giving up shopping FOREVER!  In fact, in order to make it through eight weeks without "retail therapy," I will be including these food staples on my list of Lenten grocery necessities:


Wine and Chocolate: What I'm NOT Giving Up For Lent!
So, what about you?  Are you giving up anything for Lent this year?  If you are of a different faith that has a similar holiday or festival focusing on repentance and renewal, I'd love to hear about those traditions, too.  Happy Lent, everyone!



Sunday, February 11, 2018

Design Wall Monday: In Which Tenacity Triumphs Over Tricky Triangles... And Rebecca Sings With Kristin Chenoweth!

Although I've been more consumed with Italian opera choruses than sewing over the past week (more on that later), I did continue working on my Tabby Mountain quilt in fits and snatches.  I have finally come up with a method for matching up those 30 degree triangles that gives me reasonably good precision on the first try, without slowing me down to a crawl.  My OMG (One Monthly Goal) is to get this one on the frame and QUILTED.  The month is nearly half over and I have some upcoming travel at the end of this week so I'm trying to keep my eye on the prize and resist my the temptation to get bogged down in pursuit of perfection.  


As of Sunday Afternoon
I have the whole quilt laid out on my design wall.  Despite the pattern directions to press all seams open, I'm pressing each row to the side in opposite directions.  I discovered early on that I have better visibility at points if I'm able to press each completed seam allowance AWAY from the next seam to be sewn.  So I'm working from right to left on rows 1, 3, 5 and 7, and I'm working from left to right on rows 2, 4, 6 and 8.  Those triangles that you see flipped upside down on the wall are the next triangles to be sewn in each row, so I've only sewn about 25% of the triangles together so far.  I flip the next triangle over onto the pieced section to which it needs to be attached and then take the whole thing to the sewing machine like that, to keep from getting confused about which triangle goes where.  It is NO FUN to sew a perfect seam, press it open, and realize that you sewed the wrong pieces together!

I've modified the marking template that I showed you last time.  Marking the ends of all three seams on each triangle corner was taking too long, breaking the tips off my mechanical chalk pencil over and over again, and was also fussy and fiddly, trying to stick pins through little dots to line the two triangles up for stitching.  Then I remembered the little notches on my isosceles triangle die for my Accuquilt GO! cutter, the same kind of notches that you find on garment patterns.  So I printed out the last page of the Tabby Mountain quilt pattern again at 100%, the page with the optional cutting template for those who don't want to rotary cut their triangles.  That template includes a blue dashed stitching line that I could see through my paper.  Holding the paper up to the window so I could see through it, I carefully folded each seamline in half so the points matched up, creating a perpendicular crease at the exact midpoint of each side seam.  


I've Marked the Seam Intersections in Green
In order for this to work, you need to be matching the seam intersections together when you fold the paper template in half -- NOT matching the points at the cut edges of the triangle.  I've marked the points I'm matching together in green on the photo above.  After creating that perpendicular fold line at the exact center of each side seam, I went over the fold line with pencil and then transferred those markings to my plastic triangle template as you see above.  The little dot at the end of my Sharpie-marked midlines on my plastic template represents the exact midpoint of each quarter inch side seam.


Skinny Channels Cut With Pattern Notcher
Then I remembered this nifty little pattern notching tool that I had bought for dressmaking patterns a long time ago (and have never used).  It's like a hole puncher except, instead of punching a hole, it punches a narrow 1/4" long channel, just wide enough for a chalk pencil point to draw a line.


See How the Chalk Line Completely Fills the Channel?
Now, instead of trying to draw and match up three tiny dots on each triangle, I'm just making one little alignment mark on each side seam.  To make it super easy to line them up, I mark my dash on the WRONG side of the top triangle, and I mark the line on the RIGHT side of the bottom triangle so I can see both sides at once when I'm matching them up.  It's much easier to line up two little ticks at the raw edges of the fabric than it is to try to line up three little dots that are inset from each triangle point!


Straight Edges Perfectly Aligned, Triangle Point 1/4" Away from Raw Edges
So here's how I lay these pieces out for stitching.  I've just taken this partially stitched row down from my design row and I'm about to add the Disco Kitty triangle with the blue background, so that piece is upside down (right sides together with the pieced strip):



I want to sew this with the new triangle I'm adding on the BOTTOM, though, next to my feed dogs -- otherwise I won't be able to see that seam intersection that creates the triangle point, and I really want to see that to make sure the seams are transecting at 1/4" from the raw edge.  So I flip the whole thing over, like this:



I've shifted the triangles slightly apart so I can see both of them at once.  Then I lay my plastic triangle template over my green triangle and make a little chalk mark in the seam allowance on the WRONG side of the fabric that is facing me.


See That Little Blue Chalk Mark?
And then I flip my template around 180 degrees and line it up with the exposed side of the kitty print triangle underneath:


Marking the Bottom Triangle On the RIGHT Side of the Fabric
See how I'm keeping both triangles facing the way they'll be sewn together the whole time they're off my design wall?  That way I can be sure I'm sewing the right pieces together, each one facing the right direction, without having to use sticky notes to keep track of what goes where.  I've got three different chalk pencils that I'm using -- pink, yellow, and blue, so I have a chalk that I can see clearly on any color fabric.


Pink Line Matched to Blue Line
Now I slide the marked edges back together, matching up those two chalk lines the same way I match the center of a quilt top to the center mark on the canvas of my quilting frame (don't you love how everything is connected to everything else?).

This works because I'm matching up the center point of the SEAM line, not the center of my fabric edge.  With the midpoint of one triangle aligned with the midpoint of the other triangle, the edges of those fabric pieces automatically get "jogged apart" by exactly the right amount every time.  


Pinned for Stitching
The other thing I wanted to show you is how I'm pinning these pieces together prior to stitching them.  I always pin quilt pieces with the points facing the raw fabric edges and the glass heads pointing to the left.  That's so I can use my 97D 1/4" patchwork foot with the foolproof screw-down seam guide that butts up against the right toe of the presser foot.  The first pint goes in right at the marked center point, and then I carefully smooth the two fabrics until the raw edges are aligned to the left and right of center.  I mark the two ends of the seam next, fill in with an extra pin at approximately halfway between the first pins, and then add an extra pin through just a pinch of fabric at the very tip of the intersecting triangle seams that I'm about to stitch, to keep them from wiggling apart before they reach the needle.  


Meet My Best Friend, Spray Starch
With the addition of these alignment marks, this quilt project becomes easy enough for a beginner.  The only thing to watch out for is that the long bias sides of these triangles are very easy to stretch out of shape, which is why I'm handling the triangles as little as possible.  I have no water in my iron, pressing the seams to one side without any distorting steam, and then I'm starching each seam immediately after pressing it, before putting the pieced unit back on my design wall.

MEANWHILE...  The only other sewing I accomplished over the past week was that I finished the reverse applique centers of all of the tulips for my eight remaining Frankenwhiggish Rose applique blocks.  I've been doing Old School applique for this project so far, needle turning the edges of each piece as I stitch them down, but I think I might switch to prepared edge with freezer paper, to hopefully speed things along. There are so many things I want to do, and so few hours in the day to do them!  I would love to show you my first finished block for my Queen's Garden applique BOM. Heck, I'd love to show you even a partially begun first block for that quilt, since Block 2 is due to be released any day now.  I'd love to show you a finished pineapple block, or something nifty on my quilt frame...

But instead, I'll just have to show you this picture of ME with Kristin Chenoweth, right before we sang together onstage in front of thousands of cheering fans on Friday night:


Oh, YES, That's Kristin Chenoweth!  I'm the Smiley Blonde on the Far Right
Okay, it's not QUITE so glamorous as that.  It's not as if she and I were singing duets or anything (I wish!).  Some of us VOX singers were asked to join Opera Carolina Chorus in singing with Andrea Bocelli at his concert at the Spectrum Coliseum -- hence my remark at the beginning of this post about working on Italian opera choruses all week.  Kristin is currently on tour with Andrea Bocelli as a Very Special Guest performer (that's how she's billed in the program) and we got to sing backup on one of her songs, too.  


My View From Onstage
Look at all those PEOPLE!!  I couldn't resist snapping this photo at the end of the concert (I would not dare to take a photo DURING the concert!)  The chorus was at the back of the stage throughout the entire sold-out performance.  I'm tall, so I was in the center of the back row of chorus in the Soprano section.  The orchestra is in front of us (those two gentlemen in the picture are percussionists) and then the featured artists (Bocelli, Soprano Nadine Sierra, Chenoweth, and violinist Caroline Campbell) were down in front.  

I just have to tell you all how beautifully gracious Kristin Chenoweth is.  At rehearsal, the other featured artists practiced their pieces facing the empty coliseum, just like they would do for the performance, getting used to the space, the sounds and lights, etc.  But when Kristin came onstage to rehearse with us, she turned around and faced the orchestra and choir.  She serenaded us with our own private performance, and posed for a few pictures as well.  She even thanked US for singing with her -- like SHE was the lucky one to be onstage with us instead of the other way around.  Isn't it wonderful to find out that someone as brilliantly talented as Kristin Chenoweth has a heart as amazing as her voice?

48 hours later and I'm still giddy!  Okay.  I'm off to accomplish less exciting things, like laundry and grocery shopping.  I'll be linking up with:

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