“They look like they are playing tag”

Author’s note: On the evening of Wednesday, November 24, I had the privilege of speaking at the Thanksgiving Eve Service at my church, Trinity United Methodist, in Richmond, Virginia. I was honored to participate.

I am honored to be with you this evening.

As you know, Thanksgiving is tomorrow.

I worry about Thanksgiving.

Our national day of giving thanks is sandwiched between an unforeseen rise in popularity of Halloween, and the maddening rush to Christmas. Seems to me that Thanksgiving is being slighted.

During the next few minutes, it would be very predictable for me to reference the short story by American writer, O. Henry—“Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen.”

Or site John Hughes’ classic holiday travel movie—Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Yes, I could take you to Mayberry.

Maybe, I could share some “brain sludge” with you about musicians who speak to my soul.

Perhaps, we could go back to the fall semester of my sophomore year of college, and I could recount for you the Thanksgiving lecture from my biology professor, Dr. Kemper Callahan.

I’m sorry to disappoint you. I’m not heading into those comfort zones.

No, I want us to think about two verses from chapter four of Ecclesiastes. Listen to verses nine and ten:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor. If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.
But, pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

I am no theologian. I am not going to get all tangled up in a deep theological discussion about these two verses.

But, I do want to cite some thoughts to the introduction of Ecclesiastes from the 1973 edition of the Revised Standard Version of The New Oxford Annotated Bible With The Apocrypha.

The editors state: “Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a philosopher rather than a testimony of belief. The author seeks to understand by the use of reason the meaning of human existence and the good man can find in life.”

This past summer, my wife found some good in life—a beach cottage on Topsail Island, North Carolina that could hold our family.

There were twelve of us. In that twelve are our four grandchildren. Of course, those grandchildren have been spoiled rotten by their grandmother, who they with great affection call Nana.

Our grandchildren and our son, Topsail Island. Photo by Bill Pike

We had a good week of weather. Only one day was lost from the remnants of a frustrated tropical storm.

There was lots of beach time.

The ocean provided multiple experiences for our grandchildren. I enjoyed watching their reactions as their confidence increased a bit each day.

Most mornings, a section of the beach had several connecting tidal pools. The rise and fall of the tide also brought frantic minnows into those pools to scurry around.

Armed with a net and a colorful bucket, our oldest granddaughter, Caroline, was determined to catch some minnows.

She splashed in the tidal wash and lunged with her net toward the unsuspecting minnows. Her determination paid off.

Caroline snared a minnow. She promptly placed the minnow in her bucket.

For several minutes, Caroline watched the panicked minnow in the confinement of that bucket. It wasn’t long before she released the minnow back into the wilds of the Atlantic.

Another low rolling breaker filled up a tidal pool. Caroline watched three tiny minnows swimming aimlessly. As we watched their antics, Caroline said to me, “it looks like they are playing tag.”

Her observation was correct. My old brain held on to Caroline’s cherished words.

Right now, I think I could apply those words to our current human condition. No matter where I look, I sense we are playing tag with each other. We are disconnected, divided.

Our scripture from Ecclesiastes makes it clear— two connected are better than one. If we believe that wisdom, then why are we so committed on being disconnected and divided?

I’m an earlier riser. This past Veterans Day, I woke early. Just before I began my routine of reading the daily Upper Room devotion, something nudged me to turn on the television.

Our local PBS station was showing a four-part documentary: American Veterans. This segment was called: The Return.

I watched for several minutes. One Veteran’s story lingered with me. This young man described an important constant lesson from Sniper School training.

He shared this essential requirement—“never be further than an arm’s length from your partner.”

Currently, in our neighborhoods, cities, and states, we are further than an arm’s length from each other.

Why is this so hard for us to see?

Why are we reluctant to correct this distance, this divide between us?

Remember our friend, Ecclesiastes, tells us two are better than one.

My heart tells me our divide, our disconnect, our disunion is linked to a tiny four letter word—fear.

Yes, fear is often at the heart of how we respond.

Fear is powerful in its controlling grip.

And I have come to realize, that fear is well aware of its ability to impose its will on our thinking and our response.

In my role at Trinity, this cantankerous old building feels me with fear.

When is the cooling tower going to implode?

How much longer can we cheat this building from making much needed improvements to our infrastructure and aesthetic appearance?

I can’t tell you how many days I want to rush out to the front lawn along Forest Avenue and post a huge sign that reads— For Sale.

But, in reality, the most important fear driven question is not our grumpy building, but this—when will our congregation implode?

That’s right, I said it, when will our congregation implode?

Yes, COVID-19 has turned the world upside down.

No doubt, this pandemic has impacted churches.

But, churches in America and around the world were already facing challenges before COVID-19 appeared.

If you think Trinity is immune from the challenges facing churches, we are not.

We are impacted by what church observers call the “death tsunami” which means the passing of the greatest generation members. Often, these members were the financial sustainers of churches.

Our Sunday attendance is down.

Our financial giving is down.

Yes, we have lost members because of our response to the pandemic.

Yes, we have lost members because our United Methodist Church is not really united.

Yes, we have lost members because of our inability to live up to this Methodist motto: open hearts, open minds, open doors.

Right about now, I know what you are thinking.

You are thinking, Bill, give me a break.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. I want to hear something uplifting, not your whining about fear and Trinity.

I appreciate your suggested course correction.

But, I want to give you one more thought for your heart to ponder.

My heart tells me that the most urgent challenge we face at Trinity, in our neighborhoods, our state, our country, and our world is this: our stubborn hearts are disconnected, divided, and unity feels impossible.

Remember that last verse from Ecclesiastes: “But, pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.”

We have fallen.

We know that two are better than one.

If we really know this, then why are we so unwilling to pick each other up from our disconnected, divided disunion?

Could it be that we are afraid to change our stubborn hearts?

My wife, the Commander Supreme, has tolerated my multiple stubborn habits for 46 years.

I am a pack rat. I hold on to things that touch my heart. Yes, one of my imperfections is my soft heart.

Since August 8, 2010, I have held in my Bible the bulletin from that Sunday worship service at Trinity.

Judy Oguich delivered the sermon that morning. The title of her sermon was “Loving Our Enemies.”

I held on to that bulletin because of the words in the opening prayer. I’m going to read the prayer now:

Holy God, as we gather for worship, we re-dedicate ourselves to Jesus, our Savior, and we re-discover ourselves in relation to you.

Re-orient our will with your will; renew our commitment to your purposes and revitalize our faith by the power of your Holy Spirit.

In your strength, enable us to drop our burdens and set aside our anxiety about life.

Let the confused find clarity; the sad, comfort; the frightened, boldness; the successful, humility; and the judgmental, compassion.

Soften and prepare our hearts to hear again your command to love even the unlovable and those at odds with us, and then help us to follow this and all your commands with joy and thanks. Amen

Every morning, I read a section of that prayer to myself. Those words speak to my imperfections.

I want to be better at being two rather than one.

I love Trinity, I love you, and even though quite often I struggle to understand God, and I know he struggles to understand me, I love God.

But, we can no longer be like minnows playing tag in a tidal pool.

We can no longer be at arm’s length from each other.

If you, me, we, us, all don’t come to our senses, this disconnect, this division, this disunion will be our end.

We must push our stubborn hearts to embrace the wisdom from Ecclesiastes: “If either of them falls down, one can help the other up.”

Our path forward must be to help each other up.

The good Lord is counting on us to take this step.

There is no other choice.

Two are better than one.

Now, I haven’t forgotten that tomorrow is Thanksgiving.

No matter your plans, I hope it is a good day.

And I hope that at some point tomorrow, you will find a quiet moment to reflect and to be thankful.

And when you pause, if you really think about Thanksgiving, you will come to realize that Thanksgiving in its own unique way is grounded in Ecclesiastes.

Thanksgiving isn’t one.

Thanksgiving is two.

Almost fifty years ago, when I was a clueless sophomore college student that’s what Dr. Kemper Callahan was planting in me.

I can’t be clueless any longer.

Like those minnows in the tidal pools, I can’t keep playing tag.

Two are better than one.

Fading sunset backside of Topsail Island. Photo by Bill Pike

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s