“A threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). These words celebrate the power of friendship and relationships in life. Two together creates a third, strong entity that can withstand stress and strain. It is an image of holding it together. To hold it together, according to an online dictionary, means “to remain calm, composed, and ready to do what is necessary, especially in the face of adversity or crisis.” Perhaps you’ve been counseled, in the face of a significant challenge, when you feel yourself anxious and unraveling, to “hold it together.”
If Ecclesiastes offers here an image of strength and of holding it together, its more consistent themes focus on how things often fall apart. “Merest breath, said Qohelet, merest breath. All is mere breath,” begins the book as translated by Robert Alter. In the introduction to his translation, Alter notes the peculiarity of this book that invites us “to contemplate the cyclical nature of reality and of human experience, the fleeting duration of all that we cherish, the brevity of life, and the inexorability of death.” The book makes one wonder about holding it together “before the silver cord is snapped, and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was” (12:6-7a).
Hold together not only has that inner, emotional, and spiritual connotation. It also means literally keeping things together whether that be parts of a piece of furniture that should adhere or working to keep a group of people united.
Isn’t that our challenge as the church, as followers of Jesus, as leaders, to hold it together while holding things together? Hold it together while holding things together—this would fit in Ecclesiastes, or in the mouth of Yoda.
General Conference has been postponed again. We are in a time of waiting, and yet the church needs to keep moving forward in mission and ministry rooted in Jesus Christ. We need to keep creating, by God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit, a vibrant post-pandemic church that nurtures love of God and neighbor, that reaches new people, and that helps heal a broken world through ministries of justice, compassion, and reconciliation. Hold together waiting and moving while holding it together emotionally and spiritually.
We know that until decisions are made at General Conference, we will have in our churches people anxious to create the future United Methodist Church on the other side of whatever re-structuring/division/separation might happen, and we have people anxious to create another expression of Wesleyan Christianity. Hold together these disparate movements and people while holding it together emotionally and spiritually.
Leaders, in the church as in other organizations, are looked to for vision and direction. Good leaders, helping organizations address adaptive challenges, know how to give the work back to the people in ways and at a pace that does not overwhelm (Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky). Hold together interventions and giving the work back while holding it together emotionally and spiritually.
Seamus Heaney once wrote in a poem, “History says, Don’t hope / On this side of the grave.” There is much in history to confirm that: the persistence of racism, increasing economic inequality, deepening social divides, division within the church. We want to be truthful people who look these realities straight in the eye. And we are people of tenacious hope. Hope is something that remains, along with faith and love (I Corinthians 13:13). We know that there are times when “hope and history rhyme” (so said Seamus Heaney in the same poem) by the grace of God. Hold together realism and hope while holding it together emotionally and spiritually.
Theologically, there are a number of other “hold togethers”—faith and works (compare Paul and James) or repentance and grace, God’s grace is available to all and accepts us as we are and there are things in our lives that need to change. As followers of Jesus, we want to hold these together in ways that help us hold it together.
In the spirit of Lent, let me confess that sometimes it is difficult to hold it together as followers of Jesus, as leaders, as clergy, as a bishop. Sometimes we feel the silver cord snapping, the golden bowl breaking, and the pitcher breaking at the fountain, and the wheel breaking at the cistern, and the dust returning to the earth. We want to be part of holding important things together, of holding people together, and that can be more difficult when we feel like we are not holding it together very well, when we feel like we are in a Samuel Beckett novel (“you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on,” he writes in “The Unnamable”).
Lent is a time to acknowledge that we don’t always have it all together, that holding it together is a challenge, and that sometimes we fray and unravel a bit. It is then especially that we need to hear the good news. The most important holding together is God’s holding of us in grace and love, holding us together in our lives, holding us together in the community of Jesus.
With you on this joyful journey holding together and held by God.
Bishop David Bard is interim bishop for the Minnesota Conference. He also serves as resident bishop for the Michigan Conference.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church