This post-election week, I am reading and watching the news, but I don’t want to. I want to stay distant. I want to turn off my computer and silence the radio. It’s costly to listen. It’s wrenching to look at photos and hear stories of racism and harassment. It’s frightening to see the haters emboldened. And Trump’s terse admonition to “stop it,” uttered on 60 Minutes falls absurdly short of what is needed.
I live thousands of miles away from the rest of the country, so why not rejoice in my isolation and blithely dance through my own lovely life?
I can’t. Because of wrestling season and a funeral. And some little thing called “the gospel.”
It’s almost wrestling season. Forgive me for writing about wrestling, but I’ve earned it. With five sons, all of them wrestlers, (and a daughter who wrestled one year as well), I’ve logged 22 seasons years on gym bleachers. I figure I’ve got the right to speak, even if I still know little about the sport. But here is what I DO know: It’s the most tortuous sport for parents. 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. It’s a little war. 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, capturing a moment of art in the spar.
I thought, too, of the essential role of the artist and journalist as a witness, a dispassionate recorder of the often unpleasant.
I needed no further justification. I was now safely and objectively documenting my sons’ pins, wins, and losses. It saved me a section of stomach lining and led to some interesting observations.
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 (and faraway Christians) as objective observers and just didn’t cut it for me this day. Or ever. The gospel will not let me. The Jesus Creed will not let me. Yes, Jesus’ yoke is light, but it is also heavy. The gospel does not always simplify my life or the lives of any of his followers. If we are listening well, it rends us first. It shatters us. This new life with the Holy Spirit within pummels my heart as much as soothes it. He adjures us to love the unloved, to clothe the unclothed, to pray for those who persecute us. I am constantly rocked from self-sufficiency and determined ignorance into longing for others’ freedom and healing.
Here is the paradox of the gospel: it brings peace and fellowship with God himself, but it doesn’t allow us to be satisfied with our own good fortune. It awakens us to the world and its afflictions, and our own afflictions multiply because of it
What will we do, then? How shall we live right now, in this time of chaos and fear?
A few years ago. A woman I knew lost a child to suicide. This was her fourth child to die tragically. 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! All that I had to offer her was 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 wrestling himself 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! How and the haters’ hate. 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 are persecuted, who feel abandoned, who suffer from the slings of the mean and the small 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 wanting all of us who carry the name of Christ to do more than hope. At my son’s wrestling tournaments this new season, I will put my camera down and climb from the bleachers sooner, with water or a hug for someone alone. I know many will step from our houses and lives to the mat, to stand with the embattled, our hands, our legs, our feet praying as we come close: God with us.
God with us.