Memorial

Yesterday our church met for the first time in a couple of months, for a drive-in service. The parking lot was arranged, six feet between cars, facing a slope on which those leading the service could be seen by all. Kiddos on the roofs of vans or pick-up trucks, individuals on top of cars, couples in their all-windows-open seats—all gathered to sing, pray and hear the Word of God preached. A very sweet time of distant joyful greetings, seeing much-loved faces not mediated by screens. While some were missing, I think attendance was about what it is on any Sunday.

Behind that slope is a cemetery—the one where our bodies may someday lie for a time—and many headstones shared the limelight with waving American flags: a touching reminder that someone had been there, placing those flags to honor folk who had served, and caring for those who grieve. On our drive home, the hospital’s flag was at half-mast, and I asked “Why?”

When I was a child, Memorial Day was a holiday of no school, a parade, and a barbeque. I remember asking my dad more than once the “Why?” of Memorial Day, to clarify the differences between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day, and to tell stories of The War. He did not fight, but served as the radio voice of the Merchant Marine, announcing and singing for broadcasts from Catalina Island, off Southern California. His memories were fresh, steeped in years. So I learned the rage, the fear, the tensions, the losses of that season through his eyes. I also saw his shame at not fighting, not suffering as much as others, though he had left young wife and home and was fully part of the war effort. And he had lost friends.

Today I woke with a fresh remembrance of our own time, and of my friends. A few years ago, a friend from high school did me the great honor of sending me his journal from years in Vietnam—full of horror and loss and pain. He, seriously injured, was the only one of his unit to survive, and has had sorrows and loss and nightmares to fill a life. Another friend from high school focuses his energies on helping those with enduring PTSD from Vietnam, Iraq, the Gulf, Afghanistan—other places of deeply scarring violence. I think of another dear friend whose service as a Ranger in the Gulf has left compromised health and deep sorrows. And a younger friend whose service as a medic in Afghanistan shapes his current life in medicine—but with haunting private memories. And a young woman friend who daily remembers watching, from her gunner’s turret, the tank where she was gunner the day before blown up with her best friend in her seat. Their trade had been ordered that day—and the grief doesn’t go away. And there are more. Blessedly, each of these know the comfort of a present Lord and Savior.

So as we note this day—for David and me the day we traditionally plant our garden—I am praying for my dear brothers and sisters who have given so much with so little thanks or relief. As we plant dead-looking little seeds, in hope of a crop, I’ll pray in hope of the resurrection. When facing his own tortured death in my place, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him.” (John 12:24-26) Today I pray for my friends that they’ll see in their service eternal meaning, the One in whose sufferings they share, and with that have both comfort and hope. Thank you.

Silence

“Let This Mortal Flesh Keep Silence….”

A five year retrospective

Sharon has been suffering a siege of recurrent laryngitis, making speech difficult and sometimes impossible. Speaking and singing normally fill our lives from morning Bible reading and song, to shared reading and conversation, to lives rich in friendship, community and church. Her current struggle drew me back to my own in a season of required silence, calling me to review and reflect.

The Fourth Day of my Silent Week, December 14, 2014:

 “Minimize speaking,” instructed my surgeon; “VOCAL REST, VOCAL REST, VOCAL REST” enjoined our dear friend, a knowing speech pathologist. I’m listening.

I long to sing again, after seven months of vocal brown-outs, and now a whole week of imitating (sort of) Harpo Marx. It’s hard. Still, silence is doing as much good for my soul as it is for my minimally-scarring left vocal cord, where that cyst used to hang, sounding like a knot of perpetual phlegm.

I wrote (not said) that this silence is hard. We do without. Sharon and I read the Bible together every morning, including responsive delectation of a Psalm. Starting last Thursday, her voice alone intones both parallel phrases. Ordinarily, I read aloud to Sharon in the kitchen while she prepares supper, usually a familiar novel. My mom and I have grown accustomed to a regular phone conversation, now temporarily replaced with email. (It’s not the same.) Then, just before the lights go out, I used to read aloud to Sharon from novel and Bible, then we pray, and sing “Lighten our darkness…,” a family prayer I set to melody. Not this week. Real losses, but temporary, and with restoration just around the calendar. Not bad, really.

Another loss, more obvious, is starting to look like a gain. I can scarcely hold up my end of a conversation, like at lunch yesterday, with two guests at table. I had pencil and paper, and someone staring over my shoulder at every jot. A reader! But after jotting a couple of remarks that necessarily rewound the topic by at least a minute, I started to “look them over,” as batters do pitches: is this observation worth the effort and delay of a written “swing”? I started letting nine out of ten go by. Before the bowls were cleared, I was listening only, trying to compensate by making eye contact. It was a great conversation!

Graham, who came to help repair our fence, also helped in the usual way to make that conversation pleasant. As he and I returned to our snowy labors, I reflected how singular was his help: few beside Graham could have worked with me, without speech. He needs no instructions, asked almost no questions, grasped my fumbling signs. I know how those little clips work (aren’t I important?), but he needs no pointers. Experienced and helpful, he can figure them out. He figured out a better way to brace that tricky end post. I listened, and we braced it together.

Although we won’t know until Tuesday’s follow up appointment what my voice can do after a week’s rest, I may renew my semi-vow of silence. God knows how my prayers may profit, how my friends and family may profit, from a second week of my silence. Later, God help me swing only at one pitch in ten.

David A. Covington

More: An Anniversary Poem

All this—
This daily opening of the eyes that bless the sight of you;
This squandering of minutes to transform a simple meal into a heavenly-leaning feast;
This daily plenitude of passion, service, beauty, joy and grace;
This ordinary so extraordinary—

And more!
More than confidence, than water-eyed gratitude,
More than lover’s soft rebuke, than sweet refreshment shared,
More than two exalted frames in one delight,
More than flash of fire at hearing distant humming.

We believe the promised bliss is more than this.
It is the freshest, nearest filling-up of “A, and what’s more, B,”
A blessed eschatology
Of all that we have known and grown to be
In Christ, the pioneer of all our happy traffic
These thirty-seven years.

All this—how can the coming years compare?
All together they are merest seed and shadow
Of More, more to come from this same hand of grace,
From this same eye of holy love,
From this same distant glimmer that has warmed us near to burning
All these golden, glorious years.
God’s gift:
All this, and this, and this and this, and

More.

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From your grateful and devoted fellow-servant and husband David, with all my love.

For Sharon, my darling wife, on our 37th anniversary, March 21, 2007

A Gift of Christmas Oranges

In the week before last Christmas, a friend stopped by our place with a gift of fresh-picked California oranges from his family’s orchard. Thanks, Shane! (We seized the opportunity to send him home with a bottle of our just-released 2018 Blackberry wine.) As I peeled one the next morning, my thumbnail spurted that aromatic orange peel scent, with delicious whiff of memories of my early years.

Our orange orchard surrounded our home, right up to the back yard. We were contract growers for a major orange packing company in southern California. My sister and I made forts with the harvest boxes, climbed the trees, ate all the fruit we wanted. We learned to tell a Valencia from a Navel. We learned how to peel without a knife AND with dry fingers. Try it sometime. (I bet we could take lessons from Shane!)

That fragrant spurt also brought back Mom’s story of orange orchards during the Great Depression. When she was a little girl, the hoboes pilfered a lot of oranges. Growers couldn’t stop them. They pooled their money and posted a reward for tip-offs—who was stealing oranges, when and where.

The reward incentive worked: tips rolled in, rewards rolled out, orange-pilfering hoboes were arrested regularly. Each one spent the night in jail.

Police began to notice repeat offenders. Tipsters themselves were getting arrested for stealing oranges, and last week’s overnight guest was back, this time as the tipster. Payback? They wondered.

The clever hoboes, catching the drift, teamed up in pairs to squeeze the most juice out of this new opportunity. One would turn the other in and collect the cash; the other would get a meal of oranges, and then a meal in jail, and a cot for the night. Then, they’d trade roles, working the system the other way. Both get food, one even gets a bed. Everybody wins, except the busy police, and the disgruntled growers. Mom told me there were many such teams.

Can’t help admiring these creative souls, who turned threat into opportunity. Still, we see the same old story of human nature: self-interest motivates people more than righteousness does. Animals rise no higher than self-interest. My dog will obey—for a treat.

God made people to be different from animals: generous, like God himself. He drew Satan’s attention to Job’s righteousness, but Satan fired back: “But you bless him for it! Job’s loyalty to you doesn’t prove that you deserve it, only that he can be bought. As long as you have to buy your friends, they’ll never be more generous or righteous than animals. I perverted them so badly that you can’t fix them.”

Even God’s real friends—and He has many—can get squeezed into this bad bargain that Satan loves. One of them, Asaph, asked, “Why, when I walk in my integrity like Job, do I get stricken and rebuked every day? What about those blessings that are supposed to come to those with clean heart and innocent hands? And look at those arrogant abusers! They’re living it up! What’s up with that?” (Psalm 73:1-15, author’s paraphrase)

While Asaph reminds God about his earlier frustrations, other worshipers are listening in. We’re there, too. We get it. But Asaph, like Job, took his complaint to God, and God showed him that the wicked won’t get far. Even more, God showed Asaph that, by asking, “What am I doing this for?” he had accepted the terms of Satan’s accusation: “Does Job serve God for no reason?” (Job 1:9) “Will obey for treats.” “I was like a beast toward you.” (Ps 73:22)

We couldn’t obey for treats, no matter how hard we wag our tails. Our only hope to escape cycling between a fistful of stolen oranges and “three hots and a cot” is to follow Asaph toward Jesus Christ. Jesus was with Job (“I know that my Redeemer lives….” Job 19:25). He came to Asaph and stayed, to comfort and encourage him: “I am continually with you…. Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” “But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” Catch the scent of orange peel. Would you like a segment? Taste and see!

By David A. Covington

Lowly.

Bubbling up? Settling out the dregs? Clarifying?

For me one word: Lowly.

Do you ever tear up your journals? I do.

I tore out pages, one-by-one, as I read. Day-by-day, year-by-year, falling into the wicker trash basket. Another journal thinned by pruning. Disturbed and disturbing records of life one doesn’t want to leave as a legacy. Narrow reflections laced with gratitude and growing wisdom (I hope) remained.

I don’t write often. A sporadic journalist, pen and paper work me through troubled times, beginning with outpourings that segue into prayers. Disgruntled, distressed, grieving. Like the Psalmists, complaint drives me to the one who hears, who answers. But the answers are seldom recorded—only the disturbance that drove me to write.

The writing and pouring out of trouble does its work: I voice my sorrows and grief and discontent, God hears, equanimity restored, strength returns. I close the book. Until next time.

So in this season of what passes for maturity I ponder the editor’s trimmings: What would I rather not have others read, when I can no longer explain, put in context, resolve tidily? What me would I prefer to keep quiet? The one who is utterly dependent upon the rescue of a Savior? The one needing forgiveness, redemption? Am I still that young woman, passionately converted yet like a city without walls, easily overthrown? Do I still entertain fantasies of being omni-competent, self-sufficient, smart, creative, kind, somehow magical? My young heart was full of these ideals and hopes, so enthralled with doing everything right because, well, I’d become a Christian, I’d been changed. And I was changed.

And I’m being changed now. Here’s how the wine looks in the glass….

That Saturday evening in early December when I last picked up and thinned some stumbled-upon journals was followed by a Sunday morning message in which the lowliness of Christ’s coming stopped me. Not just the familiar “babe in the manger”—though that is a lowly moment indeed for the God who created all. But “lowly” kept slapping my face. Zechariah, an unimpressive priest, humbled into dumb silence for his unbelief. Elizabeth, an old woman afflicted with the barrenness that was shame in her culture and grief to her soul, becoming pregnant and hiding from view the weirdness of it all. And Mary, an unlikely young girl—14 maybe?—no status, bearing not only the child conceived by God himself, but the shame of that unbelievable story. And Joseph, engaged to that young Mary, believing the unbelievable from the angel, and bearing Mary’s disgrace. Sheltering in a stable with pervasive animal smells and no comforts or clean water to welcome blood and baby and birth mess. Then there were angels. Where did they go? To shepherds—such a disreputable crew their testimony wasn’t even accepted in court—and angels told them they were “witnesses.” The angel said, “Don’t be afraid. I bring YOU news of a great joy…” and “Unto YOU is born this day…a savior…” You lowly shepherds, you insignificant sheepherders. Then they head to the stable to see the wonder and tell its residents the news, what the angels said. How likely is that? In every scene, every character portrait, the word that jumps out at me is LOWLY.

Well, I confess, I didn’t see it on my own—the preacher told me that Sunday and the several that followed. Everyone in that story was lowly, unimpressive, unimportant, without status, prominence, success. God does what he wants his way: countercultural, counter intuitive. Wonderful.

What did it say about my journals? Well, I considered my prunings. So much torn out reflected my disappointment in me, my failed sense of being wonderful, capable, adequate for my own paltry standards. God has long been saving me from that longing for significance; this is not new. I have known for some time that the gospel of the Cross is not the path of being impressive, a mover-and-shaker, a leader, a winner.  Jesus won through what appeared a colossal failure.

But I am beginning to own being lowly—I am in fact lowly, you know–and to delight to be identified with my Savior in his lowliness. What a privilege. Pride and self-sufficiency have never done me any real good; dependence is the real honor. I get to be with Christ, who became lowly. Simply amazing. I may just have to stop pruning my journals. Cheers!

Sharon Covington

First Bubbles

The ferment inside must come out, like new wine—bubbling with life from the very first. Even from long before my time.

O God, from my youth you have taught me,

and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds.

So even to old age and gray hairs,

O God, do not forsake me,

Until I proclaim your might to another generation,

your power to all those to come.

Ps 71:17-18

We two gray-hairs will write here about God’s wondrous deeds. Sharon and I will each write, even write together sometimes. We are asking God to bring to our site the people of his choice and keep all others away. An American missionary couple in Switzerland asked God to do the same for them in hospitality sixty years ago, and our hearts burned there, too. So, welcome! Come on in! We believe God has brought you in answer to prayer. Take a seat with our family (and a few indulgent friends) at your elbow—a dance student, a van driver, a hiker, and a fairy princess. They may have been here first, but they’ll scoot over!

“Write what you know,” they say. I know a little, and I want to know less. Let’s narrow this down: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2 ESV) Still we’ve got this single ferment going in lots and lots of pots. What yeast brings life to biblical counseling, farming, winemaking, home hospitality, aesthetics studies, small engine repair, family stories, songwriting, fire safe forest management, Bible study, and frozen blackberries on homemade granola? The kid in Sunday school comes to mind, who, when his teacher held up a picture of a squirrel, asking, “What is this?” answered, “Jesus! I know it LOOKS like a squirrel, but in Sunday School, the right answer is always Jesus.” So, yes, Jesus. Jesus, the new wine who needs new wineskins, sparkles in all of these. More on that parable (Luke 5:33-39, if you must know) in a later post. Sharon has agreed to write next week’s post.

“Is this a theology blog?” you ask, suspicious as Fred Savage, scowling, asks, “Is this a kissing book?” Relax. Real people might find something to bubble about here. And someday you might not mind so much.

So, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, here goes—I mean, Amen.” (For extra credit, who said this? Comment your answer to us. We’ll announce the answer next week, and a winner, if we get one.) Cheers!

by David Covington