Apologies for the two posts in two days- I will never normally be this keen. But it was 4am and I couldn’t sleep, and this happened:
This is Caraveggio’s The Conversion of St Paul. It’s not elegant; there’s a horse’s rear-end in prime position, Paul has been thoroughly humbled and thrown to the floor. The guy leading the horse looks a little bemused. Where’s the decorum, where’s the Sunday Best?
One of the principal things that I want non-Christians to know is that faith is so horrendously messy, that I, and the Christians I know, don’t spend time in church just to pat ourselves on the back but to be challenged, encouraged, revitalised, find new hope, spurred on. It’s all action and movement- but sometimes that means steps back. I wonder if in America the idea of Church as ‘a hospital for the broken’ has become a cliché; here, I think the image of the sanitised parish church still prevails. But one of the things that I find so immensely dissatisfying in reductionist accounts of religion is their assumption that it’s so easy (and so dead). If I was to indulge in self-delusion- and speaking as someone who had- I’d make it a whole lot more simple. Anorexia was a pretty straightforward self-delusion: eat less, count more, ignore everyone else. Simples. But being a Christian includes believing what I find hard, not believing what I want to, trying to believe but not quite getting it, knowing something in my head but not my heart, times of doubt, times of spiritual drought, as well as joy, growth, the sense of love and praise.
So praise God for the psalms. Haydn White, a post-structuralist literary scholar, peeved a load of historians off when he said that all narrative was fiction because it’s inherently selective. And it’s so true- that’s why my ‘conversion story’ is a clear-cut vision of progress. But the psalms don’t impose narrative. They are just outpourings of emotion, sometimes with resolution, sometimes not, and often jumping back and forth across emotions.
How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, O LORD my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;
my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall.
But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.
The way Hebrew poetry works- by putting together pairs of reinforcing lines, paralleling ones, or directly contrasting ones- actually works to capture the messiness of the human experience. And what’s so amazing is that, by the very nature that they are in the Bible tells us that God knows. If God could raise a cheeky eyebrow when we cry out ‘you just don’t understand’, He would. When we just can’t make sense of why we feel how we do, and not the way we want to, He does. So the psalmist doesn’t provide solutions always. But, because they are where they are, he presents us with a relationship as a stand-in for a direct answer. So even when they end utterly bleakly, we can presume that there was still a hope in the psalmist’s mind because it was GOD that was worth addressing; he didn’t just tell himself to pull his socks up and crack on because God clearly wasn’t listening. He just kept trusting even when that felt like the daftest thing to do. I think it’s okay to tell God you’re angry with Him, that you feel far away from Him, that you don’t understand what He’s doing, and that you can’t feel His love. The Bible says: tell Him- He hasn’t got commitment issues, He won’t be miffed with you, He’ll rejoice in that you took your mess to Him.
So when I am frustrated and I don’t know why, when I am attached to things I don’t want to be, in prayer I just lift myself up to God. I don’t bother translating because I can’t. I am a paradox. And Paul was too:
Romans 7:15 “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do”
The normally so eloquent Paul just reduced to frustration.
I am a mess, a paradox, but there’s nothing to hide from God. He knows, He knew, He forgave, He forgives, and He loves me anyway.