Pulling the Loose Thread

I still have a few articles of clothing from back in seminary days when I used to shop at the consignment shop on campus—which means they were already old enough for someone else to get rid of them when I got them. Consequently, those pieces tend to have loose threads. Most of the “nicer” stuff I got rid of along the way (like a too-small green shirt that never really buttoned properly but somehow worked just fine for a poor student thank you very much), but there are still a few loose threads waving around my closet. Because the clothes were old and nearly free, I don’t take care of them as well as the other stuff. I know loose threads should be carefully trimmed with scissors, but the way I usually treat them is to wrap them around my finger a few times, grip the fabric end firmly, and YANK!

Needless to say, that method hasn’t always worked so well. Sometimes a thread separates itself cleanly and without argument. Other times, it stays connected like a gaberdine fishing line, resentfully dragging several more inches of fabric with it. “That’ll teach you,” it seems to sneer back, and you suddenly cotton on to the fact that if you keep pulling, the entire thing will unravel. The loose thread was the flaw; but its stubbornness at being pulled ruins the rest of the article because it’s connected. Maybe you didn’t realize it at first, but it is. You just wanted to help the sweater look nicer, but the sweater preferred the flaw. It rebels against the pull.

In some youth ministry somewhere, I had a kid who suffered from a combination of late puberty and developmental issues and therefore was decidedly defensive around his much taller peers. At the slightest hint of a short joke from them, he would fly into a Hulk-like rage. Really, this normally sweet kid would just snap on a dime: face red, spittle flying, screaming threats. I kind of felt bad for his peers, who thought they were playing around with their friend and were rewarded with a right hook. But I definitely felt bad for the kid, because his adolescence precluded him from realizing that such defensiveness was not about his size so much as his feelings of inadequacy stemming from a worthless father who abandoned him. It was complicated, it was valid, and worst of all he didn’t realize it. It was a run in the stockings that couldn’t be stitched up at youth group. Psychoanalysis aside, this is the reality: you pull a seemingly innocent loose thread, and the whole shirt unravels.

I knew a pastor who spoke with a woman who went to church about five times a year. He called her because word on the street was that she was angry with him because he encouraged her in a letter to worship more frequently. I thought it was a reasonable encouragement (especially coming from a pastor), but he had pulled a thread and she unraveled in rage. After letting her spin her yarn for several minutes, which included not a few sob stories and negative phrases hurled at the church’s direction, he said, “You know, it sounds like you aren’t really mad at me for inviting you to go to church more. It sounds like you really miss church and are just kind of embarrassed that someone else noticed.” Her words caught in her throat, she realized what had happened, and the conversation pulled a 180. From then on, her church attendance at least quadrupled. She had pulled on that thread so many times that when someone else did it she realized her clothes were threadbare. She needed a new spiritual garment, and snapping at the thread-puller wasn’t going to help.

The lesson is two-fold: if someone snaps, it is almost never about the intended tug, but something (or somethings) deeper and layered. Similarly, if you find yourself in that position, it’s a good idea to back up and examine the cause (or causes) before you hurt someone. 

Sew what’s your loose thread? Something that, wittingly or unwittingly, pulls the fibers apart when tugged. It can be as small as a thimble, or severe enough to rip you apart. The scary thing is, you can’t always tell the difference. But something that really bothers you or sets you off is often indicative of a richly woven issue that has never been resolved. You need to watch for it, because everything is connected, whether you find the thread an immediate threat or not. Your life and your experiences are interwoven, interconnected, and irreducible. Everything bears on everything. The bleeding woman touched the hem of Jesus’ garment in secret because she was afraid. Nicodemus came to Jesus in the dark of night because he wanted to protect his prestigious position and reputation. The men walked away from the stoning because they couldn’t cast the first stone. Herod killed the boys of Bethlehem because the Magi said, “King.” Ananias needed divine intervention before he met and baptized Saul, because the latter had literally been killing Christians. Only Jesus can peer into the hearts of other men and know what and why they are thinking and acting the way they are. (Incidentally, that made him distrust everyone (John 2:24).)

Garments of trauma, memory, personality, pet peeves, everything and anything can manifest itself in the smallest poking thread, and everyone has them. Whether you pull it yourself or someone else pulls it for you, caution and charity are warranted in every case. You always have a choice: locate it, and carefully snip it free to protect the rest of the garment, or leave the thread alone. 

Better yet: let’s all wear new garments. Wedding garments. Let’s wear the free clothes we had white-washed in the blood of the lamb. And next week in church the laundromat is wide open.