The wrestling season is finally over (cheer)! Its duration—and my 16 years spent in the bleachers for this particular sport—always test my heart and stamina. Wrestling tournaments bring a special kind of torment to both spectators and participants. 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. 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.
From that vantage, Russian author Anton Chekhov's famous prescription for writers came to mind:
"A writer is not a confectioner, not a dealer in cosmetics, not an entertainer; he is a man bound under compulsion, by the realization of his duty and by his conscience. To a chemist, nothing on earth is unclean. A writer must be as objective as a chemist."
I thought, too, of the essential role of the artist writer as a witness, a dispassionate recorder of the often unpleasant.
I needed no further justification. I was now the photographer-witness, 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 cane to his next match. I cheered on the gutsy girl wrestlers. I brought my embattled sons bottles of water. In short, I drew close.
Chekhov's brilliant short stories often ring true, yet these particular words of his feel a poor prescription for writers and for believers living in a suffering world. This month brought another death in our church family, the daughter of a friend. This was her fourth child to die. I did not want to go to the funeral. I wanted to keep a safe distance. I had nothing to offer but what she possessed too much of already: tears, despair, unanswerable questions.
But I could not stay away. I wept through the entire service and hovered around my friend as the casket was loaded into the hearse. Just before it left, I looked into my friend's face, gave her a hug, and left.
I am haunted still. 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" (Eph. 2:13, ESV). I see him with muscled arms and legs grappling with Jacob on the night plain. 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 I am not Christ! How puny my hugs and my tears before the magnitude of my friend's grief. Is this all my presence can offer? 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 tend to invoke these words at prayer meetings and church services before we launch into lengthy supplications. But I am beginning to understand that maybe my wordless 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.
This is more than a hope. As I 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, be with us. I know he will.
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Additional Christianity Today articles on athletics and God's presence amid pain include:
God of the Schizophrenic | Rediscovering my faith amid the ravages of mental illness. (May 2, 2011)
The Joy of Sports | There are a lot of Christian athletes who care about the Cross, the gospel, humility, joy, and sanctification. (February 1, 2010)
Amen, and a Foul | It is important to distinguish between individuals in sports and the system of sports. Both are broken due to the Fall. (February 1, 2010)
Three Gifts for Hard Times | What I've learned as life has taken a turn for what most people think is the worst. (August 28, 2009)
Previous articles and columns by Leslie Leyland Fields include:
The Power and the Glamour | Searching for Beauty amid Hollywood's beautiful people. (July 25, 2011)
People of the Nook | What Bible smartphone apps tell us about the Book. (May 16, 2011)
A Feast Fit for the King | Returning the growing fields and kitchen table to God. (November 5, 2010)
The Myth of the Perfect Parent | Why the best parenting techniques don't produce Christian children. (January 8, 2010)
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