Thursday, 19 May 2011

To sleep or not to sleep

As I get older, and work becomes busier and more demanding, sleep becomes a precious commodity. And as I think more and more about it, and read the psalms alongside my wakeful moments, I've been struck by the psalmists' obsession with sleep. They crave it, it eludes them, they are attacked in the deepest parts of the night, but when things are at their worst, it is God who comes to them in their sleeplessness. God alone, it seems, is the giver of sleep.

The starting point is the gift: I lie down and sleep; I wake again, for the Lord sustains me [3.5]. In 4.8 it is God alone who enables me to lie down in safety. Already here there's a hint that all is not well with the dark watches of the night. Without God, the night is the place of demons, inner and outer.

So that I may sleep, God doesn't! He may rest or be still, or take time to contemplate the wonder of his creation, but not sleep: He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep [121.4] That's why, when the psalmist feels that s/he has been abandoned by God, God is accused of being asleep: Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off for ever! [44.23]. The opposite, however, is the case: It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved [127.2]. Don't waste your time, the psalmist says, staying awake and worrying. Don't even worry about God falling asleep. You just fall asleep, because God won't, and he will take care of you.

So far, so good, but I can't will myself to sleep. 3 a.m., wide awake, prey to worries that are apocalyptic in the dark. What then? When I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping [6.6], well then, I must tell the truth and not dissemble. And then, having admitted my fears, and my fears that you will know that I fear, and despise me, why then In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted [77.2].

There's a double-pronged approach in this psalm. On the one hand I will stretch out my hand. There's a desperate, dogged determination to prop my hands up when by rights they should collapse, and I should fail. On the other hand, I will not be comforted until all is well. This isn't a refusal of God's mercy. It's a refusal to cheapen the gospel: until there is no more crying, no more pain, I won't pretend that all is well. That is my hope, that keeps my going, but while there is one person left suffering in this world, I will not be comforted.

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