“Behind, Before, Below, Above”
Psalm 139:1-14; Philippians 4:4-9
Rev. Dr. Deborah L. Clark
November 19, 2017
“You should go out for lacrosse this spring,” Coach Michelle said to me after a hard-fought squash match. “Lacrosse? I’ve never played before,” I admitted. “In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever even seen it played.”
Michelle wasn’t deterred. “I’m sure you’ll pick it up fast.”
It was a vote of confidence from a coach I admired. Michelle was the women’s squash coach at Amherst College, and she had helped me learn squash–another sport I had neither played nor seen before coming to New England.
I was a tennis player. The countless, often frustrating, hours my parents spent hitting buckets of tennis balls to me when I was a child began to pay off in high school. By the time I went to college, I was good enough to play on the team.
On a rainy day when practice was canceled, the tennis coach took me into the gym and showed me how to play squash. It was a blast–tennis on steroids, with the added challenge of a very hard ball to dodge and walls to avoid crashing into. My tennis skills transferred readily into the squash court. By the time the winter sport season came around, I was ready to join the squash team. With Coach Michelle’s help, I continued to improve.
Michelle was also the women’s lacrosse coach, and she clearly thought she had found a new freshman with a lot of potential. If I could pick up squash so easily, she thought, surely I would quickly become an asset to the lacrosse team.
Coach Michelle was mistaken. I did go out for the lacrosse team. I went to all the practices, running wind sprints and doing all the stick work drills. But everything about the sport felt foreign. A lacrosse stick is nothing like a tennis racquet, and the strange cradling motion you have to do to keep the ball from falling out of the basket wore out my shoulders. The hardest part was that, while I had played individual sports on teams, I had never before played a team sport.
On the tennis court, it was all about positioning myself in relationship to where the ball was going–guessing where my opponent might hit it. On the squash court, I had to position myself where the ball was going, with the added complexity of not running into my opponent. On the lacrosse field, it was much more complicated–eleven opponents and ten other teammates as well as a ball and a whole bunch of sticks.
I struggled to learn how to work with a team on the field. At any given moment, I had teammates in front of me, behind me, and on either side. Somehow, I was supposed to be aware of all their movements. If I had the ball–a blessedly rare occurrence–and an opponent was coming to stick-check me and steal it, I needed to know where my teammates were and where they were going. Or if my teammate had the ball, I needed to move to a spot where she could see me, but not the same spot where another teammate was heading.
I watched my more experienced teammates coordinating seamlessly with each other as they passed the ball down the field. For many of them, it seemed instinctive. Without even thinking about it, they knew who was moving where and how to position themselves to be most helpful.
It never became instinctive for me. Maybe, if I’d stuck with it a few more seasons, I would have moved beyond how overwhelming it felt to take in who was before, behind and beside me at any given moment. But the next year, as the winter squash season wound up, Coach Michelle gently suggested I might enjoy springtime without an organized sport. This time she was right.
I hadn’t thought about my less-than-impressive lacrosse career in a long time…until we chose our stewardship theme, “The Giving Team.” I went home after that meeting and thought about my history with teams. Tennis, squash, swimming even, and then there was Math Team and English Team in Junior High. I realized that my one season on the JV lacrosse bench was my only experience playing as a team.
Suddenly our theme, “The Giving Team” felt overwhelming. What does it mean to work together as a team? It means sharing a strategy and conveying it to each other in the moment. It means noticing who’s behind and before and beside, passing responsibility back and forth, backing each other up. It takes a long time and a lot of practice before it becomes instinctive.
Two things happened this week to move me from experiencing our theme as overwhelming in a daunting way to claiming it as overwhelming in a wondrous way.
The first thing that helped me was the sneak peek I got of our Church School students’ Team Edwards T-shirts. We’ve got the puppy police and future deacons and teachers. We’ve got team members who help people not feel sad, and others who serve bread. Central to our Christian Education program is helping our young people recognize that they are part of The Giving Team. We make sure they have lots of opportunities to practice, so that it can become instinctive for them.
Their T-shirts remind me that all of us, whatever our age, can develop the instinct to work as part of a team. It just takes practice. We practice every Sunday. We practice when we work together to plan a Gifts that Give Holiday Fair. We practice when we rake leaves together, when we give each other a call or offer each other a ride. We practice as we dedicate our pledges, as we put our gifts into the offering plate each week. I didn’t have long enough, in a single lacrosse season, to develop an instinct for how to be part of that team. Here, together, we have plenty of time to practice being the Giving Team.
The second thing that helped me was when I pulled out our anthem for today and paid attention to the words. One line jumped out: “For behind us, before us, below and above, we are always surrounded by God’s mighty love.” That, I thought, is what is means to be part of the Giving Team. Behind us, there is always someone who has our back, who is watching out for danger, whether it comes in the form of a stick-check or a discouraging diagnosis. Before us, there is someone else, urging us on, clearing a way toward the goal of serving God and God’s people. Beneath us and above us are those who have gone before us, who ground us in our faith and who inspire us to stay in the game. Behind us, before us, below and above are our teammates, each one of them an expression, an incarnation, of God’s mighty love.
It is still overwhelming, this Giving Team thing. It still takes a lot of practice to develop the instincts needed to be part of the team. Now I experience it as a joyous kind of overwhelming. Now it is the overwhelming awe of the Psalmist who revels in confidence that nothing can separate us from God’s mighty love. Now is it the overwhelming peace that Paul promises, peace that comes from being part of the beloved community.
Today, on Thanksgiving Sunday, I give thanks for this Giving Team. I give thanks for the reminder that I don’t get to do this on my own–and the relief that I don’t have to. I give thanks for the opportunity to practice together, over and over again, until working as a team becomes instinctive. I give thanks for my teammates–the ones who are behind me, supporting and encouraging; the ones who are before me, challenging and clearing a path; the ones who are beneath and above, grounding and inspiring. I give thanks that through each one of you I experience the presence of God. I give thanks that when we come together as the Giving Team, we are all surrounded by God’s mighty love. For that, let us pour out our thanks and praise. Amen.