Ruth Pattison: Don't Let Go

Jacob was left alone.

There on the banks of the Jabbok, in mud and rock under the night sky, bone and sinew, muscle and bloody sweat, the grit, and gravity, and the weight of glory compels Jacob. He would not let go.

This human form that twists and tangles with, limb for limb, nose to nose, breath for breath, and Jacob would not let go. Hearts pounding in syncopated rhythm, beating and thumping echo, and Jacob would not let go. A crescendo with blessing, naming, as one who has been just born. What shall we call you? For you have striven with God, and you have lived. The God-man says: You shall be called Israel. And he would not let go.

Jacob names the earth of this lovefest, the ground of their wrestling, Peniel. Face. Jacob marks this holy ground; he has seen God face to face, and yet he did not die. Salvation came to him in this wrestling, for he says, “his life was preserved.”

This holy one who wrestles in human form - God is known to us in material things. The earth God scooped up to make Adam from the dust of the ground; and God breathed into him and he became a living being. The young woman’s womb quickened with holy spirit, and word became flesh.

How else would we see God? How would we know his appearing but in the beloved form, the human form that makes him manifest?

Jacob wrestled with a man until daybreak. And the man did not prevail against Jacob, so he struck his hip out of its socket. By the light of dawn Jacob limped, again alone by the Jabbok, and he knew he had seen God face to face.

It is a window into the gospel for me. I think Jesus is hinting to us, whispering perhaps, “Don’t let go.” I think Jesus wrestled with Jacob and lived to tell us, “Don’t let go.” Jesus turns up with Gospel stories to tell us God is here to wrestle with you – wrestle for all your worth. Don’t let go until the dawn breaks in on your horizon and you have been saved.

We have a wandering neighbor - no roof over his head, no pillow beneath it. A man with no home, but he is our neighbor and lives in our neighborhood. A Moses in an urban wilderness. I sit on the porch or work in the yard and he trudges by. We eat at La Fonda and he circles the block. We study at the Hodgepodge coffee shop and we see him through the window. He never stops walking. A sheet draped over his shoulder; a rag wrapped around his head. One day he looks like the pope, another day an ancient prophet walking down the middle of the street, nonchalantly stopping traffic. And he doesn’t care. He is an image of God for me conjured by today’s Gospel.

The easy read of this parable is that God is the judge and if we bother, pester, and nag God enough, and don’t let go, he will answer our prayer. Because that’s what we think about God, isn’t it? That we have to hound. And we are the beggarly widow, and we knock and wait and leave and come back again and again. And that, that is what Jesus is saying about prayer. We pray and we wait for God to do, to bring, to act on our behalf.

We believe God executes justice and prayer is our pounding away. We don’t let go, and if we bother him enough, he will answer our prayer. And we are the powerless beggarly widow, with no station, no name. We are the oppressed.

The intrigue and indirection of parables suggests another possible read. Because that’s how parables work. They twist and turn and pop up with surprises. It’s the left-field quality about parables. It suggests that God could be the beggarly widow, so that you and I, then, are in the judge’s seat. And God comes asking, knocking at the door again and again. God needs and God does the bidding. And God circles the block and trudges by and walks down the middle of the street so you have to wait, and asks for help at your door. And knocks loudly. Persistently. And talks in ways that you can’t understand.

God is the beggarly widow. And we are in the seat of the annoyed. The ones worn out by her showing up over and over again. And ours is to open the door. Or not.

Luke has us as judges with no fear of God and no respect for people. In Matthew’s version, we’re already asleep in the bed and all the family and animals too, and the doors are barred. But there’s the knocking again! Bothersome, annoying knocking.

But we have the power to decide her justice, or simply to decide about the inconveniences of getting out of bed, because God is bothering us. We are in the position as the judge to determine if justice can or will be granted “quickly,” like Jesus says in Luke that it will be.

Justice is slow and long-suffering in its arrival when no one answers. No one opens the door. When Walter calls me at church for assistance or 17 times on my cell while I’m grocery shopping, or Benjamin shows up again – this time with a broken front tooth and a knife wound in his side – the challenge for me is to see theirs as the face of God, and to acknowledge to myself – as “the judge” – that I do not fear God, nor have respect for people.

The challenge for me is to admit that I am not all that altruistic, or compassionate, really – just bothered. The challenge for me is to locate my feeling of being bothered because I can find God in that, and I can actually find relief that God is still showing up at my door.

But maybe, on the other hand, the part of the judge and the role of justice is just a curve ball in the parable – Jesus trying to make you swing. Maybe justice has nothing to do with his lesson on prayer, but Jesus just needed some characters for his story, a foil for the beggarly widow.

Could this be his lesson on prayer, that it is to listen for the whisper “don’t let go”? Or could prayer simply be to answer the door? Annoyed or not, bothered – so be it. But just open the door. Or prayer could be to wrestle with God in human form, until dawn breaks and your bones are out of joint.

Once when our neighborhood prophet came to the door and nearly knocked it down with his pounding, and I couldn’t decipher what he was telling or asking, he wriggled with a wrist bracelet for me to look.

He often wore a papery bracelet, his story telling of a recent incarceration or emergency or his woundedness. But I read the bracelet in detail this time, and learned his name. I kid you not: his name is Emmanuel, and he was born on Christmas Eve 1959. Emmanuel, who walks our street. God with us.

If only we could whisper “Peniel” and name the street corner, coffee shop, and porch for the tread of God’s broken shoes and his glory-riddled face and gnarled chin, his garbled speech, another heavenly language, a tongue of angels, and wanting for subtitles, so as to hang on every delicious word.

And the beggarly widow, this face of God who walks and walks and knocks and knocks and asks, do you see me? Oh, that like Jacob, we would fear dying if we look upon a beggarly widow. To think that if we absorbed the lightning of divine materializing / revelation in her gaze, in her wrestling and wrangling us, in her bothersome pounding.

Manifestation - the Holy One in beggarly widow. Does her heart beat with ours, can we hear it pounding, can we feel its quake? Is hers the “heartbeat of God”? Is her heart beating, the same that John heard when he leaned in to Jesus at the last supper – leaned at his breast to whisper about these dreaded events to come? Leaned into incarnation? Leaned in to the one he loved and would not let go?

Maybe that’s what Jesus whispered to John then, in his last night’s wrestling. “Don’t let go.” Wrestle till dawn breaks and you have trouble walking. And you can tell me your name then. Tell me who you are.