This piece is really just for fun, so don’t expect any lofty theological or biblical insight.
It’s also about parental pride.
It’s about our son Sam and about how proud Channa and I are of his effort last weekend. She and I were talking about his effort afterwards, and she made a point that got me thinking both about Sam and also—oddly enough—about the apostles and about the prophets.
I’ll tell you Channa’s point in a minute, but, first, here’s why I was thinking about prophets and apostles.
The apostles were a team, and they played a team game.
Their Coach brought them together, showed them The Way, kept their spirits up when they were doubtful or downhearted, chided them when He was tired of their unremembering what He had told them before, applauded them when they got it right, and kept letting them know that a time would come, soon, when He would not be beside them and they would need to play the game by themselves.
Which, of course, later, they did.
On the other hand, the prophet (any prophet) was a loner.
He was out there on his own. No one helped him; he wasn’t honored in his own country—to be biblical about it.
Nor did he know whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune or to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them—to be Shakespearian.
What was he to do?
All he could do was to tell the truth—devil take the hindmost.
Each of them told the truth, the apostles and the prophet. Each competed against the enemy. Each sought to win in battle. And—what we are assured—each does win.
All things work together for good—this is what we are assured. “All things work together for good, to them that love God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” This assurance appears in no less a place than in Romans 8:28.
So…two different types of soldiers are breasting their way into battle.
There are soldiers who work as a team, and there are soldiers who do battle alone. It’s possible that those whom we have come to call apostles and those whom we have come to call prophets would not have chosen that particular role, if they had been given a choice. Yet each one faithfully did that which was thrust upon him to do.
So that’s how far my thought went about the Apostles and the Prophets before my thought turned back to Sam.
Sam is not a soldier, but he is a dedicated Special Olympian. Over the years, he has competed in basketball, softball, track-and-field (long jump and 100-meter dash), alpine skiing (modified giant slalom), bowling, 50-yard snowshoe racing, bocce, and swimming (freestyle and back stroke).
Here’s Channa’s idea. Some of these are team sports—basketball, softball, bocce. The first two of these are won by making instant tactical decisions based on the ever-changing circumstances on the court or in the field. Bocce does not require instant decisions, but tactics and team play are needed to prevail.
The other sports are based on individual effort (unless it’s a relay).
Sam likes team sports because he likes to be part of the team, but instant decision-making about where it is tactically best to throw the ball right then is not one of his skills.
On the other hand, he knows how to go fast. Get in the water—and GO!
The majority of Sam’s gold medals have been earned in swimming or in alpine skiing.
The important event last weekend for our family was the Virginia Special Olympics Swimming Tournament, held at an enclosed aquatic center near Richmond. Seven swimmers from the Roanoke club were chosen to compete, Sam being one. Channa and I attended also, so we could watch the competition and have a weekend away.
Sam was selected to swim in three races, 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle and also 50-meter backstroke. All three occurred on Saturday, with about an hour-and-a-half between the two freestyle races but only about fifteen minutes between the longer freestyle race and the backstroke race.
Competing that weekend were hundreds of swimmers, in hundreds of heats, and assisting them were many coaches, volunteers, service providers, and parents. The aquatic center ran the event smoothly. It takes a day-and-a-half to run all the heats. It’s a noisy, echoing, crowded, humid, hot and wonderful time of upholding the spirit of Special Olympics.
Sam’s first race was the 50 free—eight swimmers, paired up as best as possible on the basis of their results last year and on any time trials available. Sam took a silver. The winner was in a class by himself, so Sam was the best of the other seven swimmers by about a length. Good fellow!
After a rest, Sam’s next race was the 100 free. Again, a field of eight. Again, one very competent swimmer dominated throughout.
So the placements I was interested in were second, third, and fourth. These three were evenly matched swimmers. Sam was an easy second until the first turn, when he lost a length just turning. By his second turn he had faded to a likely fourth. He was fourth during the third leg. Starting the fourth leg, second and third were neck-and-neck, and Sam was a length-and-half behind. He was flailing a bit.
Then two things happened. One of the neck-and-neck swimmers just seemed to give out. He dropped rapidly from contention, so Sam had third wrapped up. Then—with about fifteen yards to go—Sam earned his second silver medal of the day.
He was a length-and-a-half behind. He put his head down and churned and churned, gaining with every stroke. A half-length behind. Even. A foot ahead, two feet, a half-length. Go, Sam, go!
Sam won his second silver medal, with a flat out effort, by a length and a half.
Proud parents! Last year, Sam took a gold in the 100 free. I was ecstatic. But his competition was less last year than this year. This year was a different event all together. We saw Sam determine himself to win his battle…and win it he did.
The biblical prophets did the same. Sam is not a prophet—except about what he suspects his mother might say he may have for lunch.
Why the Special Olympian and the prophet came together in my head, triggered by Channa’s idea about the difference between the genius of the team player and the genius of the solo-sport player, is that I saw Sam make his determined effort to tell the truth about what he knew was to be the way of the world during the fourth leg of his 100 free.
Some prophets deal with the entire functioning of God’s sovereignty and of the universe He created. Sam’s scope is smaller. But what Sam made happen was truth.
And he held onto a glimmer of that truth when, about fifteen minutes later, he swam a 50 back. “Oh, he’s so tired,” Channa commiserated, watching. All I could think was, “Hold that place, hold that place, hold that place.”
He did, and he took the bronze.
Cover me over, clover;
Cover me over, grass.
The mellow day is over
And there is night to pass.
Green arms about my head,
Green fingers on my hands.
Earth has no quieter bed
In all her quiet lands.
That’s the poem that I recited. I recited the poem slowly.
Among the attendees--you can see some of us in the distance, in the picture--among the attendees, there was silence while I recited. Wind blew through the pinion pines, and when I finished reciting, a shaft of sun came out from behind a cloud and colored us bright.
The poem was carved into the gravestone. The grave was that of my uncle who had bought the ranch in the 1930s.
When he died in 1969, his wife and family determined that this poem should be carved in his gravestone because it was written by my father, my aunt’s brother, and because it had been used as a blessing at almost all family funerals since it had been written, inspired as a memorial to my father’s and my aunt’s own mother almost one hundred years ago, in the early 1920s.
We were gathered at the top of a slope at about 7,000 feet of elevation in the Sangre de Christo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Hermit’s Peak, at 10,267 feet, was just a mile or two higher up the canyon’s crooked way.
We had gathered at this New Mexico family’s burial plot to memorialize another death.
My uncle’s stone is the largest stone of the plot, at its back. In front of it, there is another stone memorializing his wife, my aunt, who rests with him.
As I recited, we were all of us aware of the lovely wooden box that sat on two planks across a newly dug hole. The box contained the cremated remains of my uncle and aunt’s middle child and one of their daughters, my cousin.
The ranch is in the Gallinas Canyon, and it is where, when all of us cousins were children and either from New England, from Chicago, or from this ranch, we were immortal. Being immortal, we loved to pelt out of the ranch house to ride, ride, ride.
This cousin, the one who we were burying that day, rode bareback. I didn’t; I was scared to.
The ranch has no horses now, but there’s wildlife to be seen across its distances—elk, bear, turkeys, even a mountain lion has been caught snarling in a motion light.
Another cousin lives at the ranch. He is the youngest of my uncle and my aunt’s three children. He was the State of New Mexico’s Electrical Inspector, keeping people powered up and the grid safe, and, now retired, he and his wife spend the winter in Belize.
When we were boys, this cousin taught me to trout-fish in the stream that runs through the canyon—when we caught them, the trout were so fresh they curled instantly into circles when they hit the fry pan.
The eldest of my New Mexico cousins lives in Albuquerque. She is a poet and the author of a mystery novel that takes place in a place very much like this canyon, the plot of which turns on a theft from a church very much like the church that is below the graveyard where we stood. This cousin is a teacher and has a great heart for Native American individuals, culture and art.
The woman we were burying had followed her husband to his farm in Alabama but her career was intake specialist working with the homeless and the mentally ill, at social service agencies.
All of them helpers, these—my New Mexico cousins—and that doesn’t count another cousin who is a minister and whose husband is also a minister, nor does it count yet another cousin who married a minister and was deeply active in his ministry.
Back at the graveside, after Cover Me Over, I read a fine poem that my Albuquerque cousin wrote as a farewell to her sister. It was a blessing that she had been able to read this poem to her sister before she passed. Then the grandchildren chimed in, either with poems of their own, or with prose—but all with heartfelt emotion.
Without any priestly attendance, we recited the 23rd Psalm and the Lord’s Prayer—no other liturgical apparatus than that.
Perhaps thirty graves were there in that spot among the pinion pines. It is a public grave site, but there was no officialdom present. Several of the men in our group had dug the hole and had placed the box across the planks just so.
The scattering of graves had carved wooden or stone markers and most graves were casually separated from other graves by boundaries of round stones. Some grave sites were more elaborate, for instance with a fence around. Here and there clusters of wild flowers had sprung up. But it had been a dry spring and undergrowth was sparse. Many plots had artificial flowers to brighten them.
Pinion pine cones were everywhere, to be trodden on and made to crackle.
When the prayers were finished and the silence was over, the husband and two other men carefully lowered the wooden box which he had built into the earth. Then we all passed by the spot and crumbled some earth in our fingers and tossed it onto the box. When done, the husband and the others shoveled the rest of the earth over the top, and then the grave stone with its carved identification was placed on the earth and patted down.
A filigreed iron cross was already set in the ground at one end of the family’s burial plot. At its other end was the stone that marked the resting place of the father. Now, in between, buried with him, were his wife and one of their daughters.
The husband of the cousin we had just buried stood next to me. He had seemed bowed during the previous two days while many of us flew in from far places to attend this event. He brushed off his hands from the dirt. “Finally,” he said to me. “It’s at last a relief.”
On the other side of me was my minister cousin. “You read so well,” she said to me. “Thank you.”
I was pleased she thought so, having wanted to.
But I was most aware of two things. I was aware of the relief in the husband’s voice. My cousin’s death had been a long struggle while her lungs ceased to bring her air. I was grateful for him, for his relief.
Physically, I am almost exactly the spit and image of my father. I was aware that I had recited his funeral words with his own cadence and with his own intonation and with his own rotundity of voice, just as I heard his voice in my head while I recited them.
It was a relief to invoke him for the attendees, who loved him and love his words. Sometimes, though, I must struggle to keep track of which one of us is which. I am not him; except when seeming.
Cover me over, indeed, dear cousin.
Cover me over, indeed, dear Dad.
Cover me over, all of us, when our times finally come and when our struggles are finally done.
May the Lord receive us, if He will.