Wrestling season will begin soon. I’m thinking of it now because this week I’ve been teaching one of the strangest passages in all of the scriptures--- God wrestling with Jacob. It is not strange that Jacob would wrestle God, but that God would wrestle him! (God, what are you doing here?) And in all of this, I learn something about fear.
I can write and teach about wrestling all I want. I’ve earned it. With 5 boys and 19 years logged in on gym bleachers watching my sons (and one year my daughter), and with 7 years to go, I figure I’ve got the right to speak, even if I know hardly anything about wrestling. But here is what I DO know: It’s the worst sport possible for mothers. Let me summarize its joys for those unfamiliar: Two people wearing nothing but a singlet and flat sneakers circle each other like panthers, trying to vanquish the other by pinning him or her, helpless, to the mat. Spit, blood, and sweat are often involved.
It's primal and intense, a display of strength and athleticism nothing short of astonishing. And if you are a parent of one or two of those ripped, twisted bodies being taken to the mat, it's sheer fear. Necks aren't supposed to bend that way. (Please stop!) Backs should not fold, and bloody noses deserve more than a coach ramming a twisted piece of Kotex up the nostril. O child of mine! I can hardly watch.
At the last tournament, tired and desperate, I took up my camera. Thus armed, I stood at the edge of the mat, 20 feet from the action, with the lens to my face, but all was changed. Now it was about snapping a decent photo, not worrying about the other guy snapping my son's back. It was about recording a drama, trying to capture a moment of art in the spar.
I thought, too, of the essential role of the artist and writer as a witness, a dispassionate recorder of the often unpleasant.
I needed no further justification. I was now the photographer safely and objectively documenting my sons' pins, wins, and losses. It saved me a section of stomach lining. It was so much easier.
But the longer I stood there at the end of the mat, the more my objectivity shrank. By the eighth hour, I had put my camera down to watch the blind wrestler tapping his white cane to his next match. I cheered on the gutsy girl wrestlers (“You go, girl!”). I brought my embattled sons bottles of water. In short, I drew close.
The whole notion of writers and photographers as objective observers and witness just didn’t cut it for me this day. Or other days.
I remember a terrible day a few years ago. A woman I knew lost a child. This was her third child to die. I could hardly think about it. I did not want to go to the funeral (Please! Anything but that! Please let me keep a safe distance, far away! Let me just stay home and pray!) What did I have to offer her but what she possessed too much of already: tears, despair, unanswerable questions. And I knew once I began crying at the service I would not be able to stop.
But I could not stay away. It happened as I expected. I wept through the entire service. And after, as the casket was loaded into the hearse, I had no idea what to do, but stand there, hovering near my friend, my face bitten with grief. Just before it left, I looked into my friend's ruined face, hugged her hard, and left.
I am haunted still these years later. I am haunted because I believe in presence. I believe in a God who did not stay coolly distant and "objective," but who came close enough to us to spend his own blood and spit, a God who came so close, he took our place so that we "who once were far off have been brought near." Look, there he was with muscled arms and legs grappling with Jacob on the night plain. He came THAT close! I think of Emmanuel, "God with us," who ate dinner next to the possessed and dispossessed, who expended his presence extravagantly to the near and far-off alike.
But does this really help? I am not Christ! How puny my hugs and my tears before the magnitude of my friend's grief. Haven’t you felt this? Is this all our presence can offer? Is this it?
In my own helplessness now, I remember Jesus' words: "'For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them'" (Matt. 18:20). We usually speak these words before we launch into lengthy supplications in large gatherings. But I am beginning to understand that maybe my silent presence with her was a prayer. Maybe Jesus' words are really true. Maybe our physical presence beside those who grieve, who feel abandoned, who wrestle against the muck of life is itself an embodied prayer that invokes—or somehow actually becomes—"I am there among them." God with us.
I hope this. But I am trying to do more than hope. This season, I will step off the bleachers sooner now, with water or a hug for someone alone. My hands, my legs, my feet will be praying: God with us.
God with us.