Keep On Truckin’

I am teaching a student for whom English is a second language, and a recently acquired one at that. He is soon going to take a test that is far too advanced for his current level, and so he muddles through impossible readings and pretends to understand “communism” and “altruism” when really he needs a much more concrete and basic vocabulary. He needs “radiator” and “glacier.”

“Tell me what you don’t know,” I say, and he often doesn’t, but when he does, I reach deeper and deeper into my vocabulary, every word leading to another word he doesn’t know. Bringing me to where there are sounds instead of words, gestures, my hands thumping against my chest and pulling at each other, slamming a pen to the table and then setting it down with a soft caress: teaching the word gentle. Then we look at the rest of the sentence. He wants to give up, and sometimes so do I.

This Sunday’s readings have an almost maniacal focus on persistence. Moses has to keep his hands held up in the air in order to win a battle, and, unable to do this on his own, he enlists people to actually hold his hands up for him! This is a delightful image, but it’s also a little strange. It sort of sounds like God is one of those vending machines that you can only get the candy out of if you jog it in just the right way, but then if you’re lucky you’ll get two! Except in this story, what you get is mowing down your enemies with a sword, which is far less sweet-sounding.

The Gospel has a story that I love, about this judge who doesn’t give a damn about God or anybody, and the persistent widow who keeps after him to give her a just decision. As with the Moses story, I can picture it perfectly. It is basically the strategy my mother has taught me for dealing with difficult people, especially in a customer service context—just keep calling them until they have to do something about you. Persist where God’s concerned, this story says to me, just barrel forward, and things will come out all right in the end.

“[B]e persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient,” the letter to Timothy insists, and for a moment I am heartened—but I can’t help but feel a bit intimidated, too, and it’s not just by the striking number of things I could potentially persist in. It’s by the idea that someone is always also going to be persisting in opposition to me, that what I see as remaining faithful to what I have learned and believed will be someone else’s something to persist against. What if the other guys keep their hands up longer? What if somebody else is there knocking on the judge’s door before I get up in the morning? What happens when we all think we’re the beleaguered widows, and we just keep pushing and pushing against each other?

I know it’s supposed to be a good thing. Just keep praying, don’t stop. God will hear you. But I’m feeling a little on edge. Midterm elections are coming up, replete with the steel edged righteousness of this whole Tea Party business. Kids persecuted for their perceived sexuality are killing themselves (I always think of the parents, of the impossible transformation of a room in your home to this place of death). Gay men were tortured in the Bronx (Every time I see a train going to the Bronx I feel a little strange, like it means something different now, or it should, like I don’t know exactly where I live anymore). A match is poised to be struck near Sudan’s powder keg. I’m worried about all this mowing down with a sword going on. I’m not feeling so brave. I get a bit of a chill when I hear how persistent we should be with our prayers, because I know what some people are praying for, and it scares me half to death. And I know that my prayers might do the same for them.

“Our help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth,” the psalm tells me. “Pray always without becoming weary,” the Gospel urges, calling it a “necessity”. What would a just answer to everybody’s prayers even look like? Would I know it when I saw it? Would those praying so earnestly in opposition to my prayers? It would have to be something strange, I’m sure, something barely recognizable, except by the wild crackle of grace, like static electricity in a sheet just out of the dryer, transforming your mundanest of chores into this new, surprising risk. What else could give justice to us all?

Persist, the readings say, persist in prayer. I think of teaching that student. We both swim in a sea of meaning. I draw an awkward picture of a radiator, and wave my hands wildly to delineate the vast iciness of a glacier. Again and again we cannot understand each other, we cannot meet, but I find new words, get to the bottom where there are no words, flail and draw and gibber and describe. He listens, frowns, smiles, lies and says he understands. At last his eyes light and he says, “I know! I know that one.”

Persist. God, it’s me. I’m feeling so persecuted and so unworthy of your attention and so pissed off at you for your apparent distraction. I’m feeling so helpless and attacked. I’m feeling like I should be doing something and it’s as big as a glacier and as urgent as a battle, but I don’t know what it’s called, do you? I’m afraid you love the others more than me. When I was a child I was so sure of you. Save everyone, ok? All of us. And all of them. God, it’s me. It’s me. God? God. I’m here. I’m here.

Rebecca Lynne Fullan finds tutoring, doing the dishes, getting up in the morning, writing, and prayer all lessons in persistence. As is spelling persistence, which she persistently tries to do with an a at the end.

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