Palimpsest on faith

I learned this week that a palimpsest is a manuscript from which an earlier text has been scraped away and the vellum or parchment reused to write something else. It was a common practice before the invention of paper when vellum (made of animal skin) was costly; in fact, sometimes the vellum was used more than twice. What makes palimpsests fascinating to historians is that, as the manuscript with the second (or even third) overlay ages, the original writing begins to be decipherable again. The original text is often discovered to be quite ancient. Some of the oldest manuscripts that we have of the gospels or early Christian writings have been palimpsests, as I discovered reading The Sisters of Sinai by Janet Soskice.

Imagine trying to read two (or three) manuscripts one on top of the other. What a challenge!

The palimpsest became a metaphor on faith for me this week as I worked through Habakkuk, one of today’s worship readings. Studying Habakkuk helped me realize that one’s faith can express itself in very different ways at different times, or even at the same time, for that matter. It’s like different texts being written over each other on one manuscript…the manuscript being me or Habakkuk or you, if you want. Sometimes these varying ways of trusting God all mingle together: each true, each genuine, sometimes contradicting one another, and sometimes hard to decipher as faith when one is in the middle of trying to trust God. I may think I have no trust at all when actually the mustard seed of faith (to use Jesus’ metaphor) is quite sufficient. In case you’re totally confused, maybe I should explain Habakkuk better.

Habakkuk (chapter 1) cries out and challenges God about all the violence and corruption around him. He laments that those who ignore God are flourishing while the few righteous struggle. His lament, though, is really an act of faith: by his crying out and challenge, he actually is linked with God’s own concern over injustice and sin and disease and death.

Habakkuk wrote something different about faith (chapter 2). After lamenting, Habakkuk sat down on a high lookout and waited to see what God would do. How long he sat there, we don’t know, but while he waited for God, he was told that God still had a plan that would become evident when the time was right. God’s plan would not lie; in other words, God would keep all God’s promises. God told Habakkuk, “If my plan seems to take a long time, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.” It’s true, isn’t it, that we can only see a tiny part of what God is doing at any given time?

Finally something else is written (chapter 3) that really amazes me. Habakkuk says that, no matter what the circumstances, he will rejoice in God who saves him. Listen to it:

Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails, and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold, and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will exult in the God of my salvation.
God , the Lord, is my strength.

Like a layered palimpsest, faith had been written onto Habakkuk in 3 texts..written into my life too. At any given day (or hour) the voice of one faith text may be more prominent than another. But thanks to Habakkuk, I am recognizing all three of these texts for what they are…faith. Lament is not skeptical doubt. Waiting is not inertia and lack of leadership. Rejoicing is not foolishness. Instead, sometimes faith laments because, as God knows, what is wrong needs to be changed to good. Sometimes faith waits because God’s plan comes in God’s own time. Sometimes faith rejoices in God no matter how bad the circumstances because being known and loved by God is worth absolutely everything.