Is the New Year really a time for resolutions and for beginnings-again, or will 2013 be no more than a retread of the year which has nearly ended?
Last weekend, BBC1 screened a two-part documentary fronted by actor David Suchet (best known in the role of Agatha Christie’s Belgium detective Poirot) on the life of St Paul, whose life highlights the fact that Christian faith holds out the offer of a new beginning.
St Paul was a fanatical Jewish opponent of the first followers of Jesus, who went to extreme lengths to stamp out this fledgling faith movement within Judaism. However, while travelling to Damascus, he had a life-changing vision of the living Jesus, after which the passion with which he had previously opposed Christianity was harnessed to advocate faith in Christ.
Paul wrote many of the documents in the New Testament and, seized by the vision that Jesus was not simply for Jewish people but for the whole of humanity, he travelled extensively in the Mediterranean area sharing his faith and establishing churches.
Many of us have stories to tell of Christian conversion. Stories of finding hope when overcome by despair. Stories of discovering robust answers to questions about the purpose and meaning of life. Stories of being arrested by the reality of God’s presence in the middle of perfectly contented and untroubled lives. Stories of realising for the first time the implications in everyday life of long-held beliefs.
David Suchet has his own story of conversion in which St Paul plays a part. Suchet’s Damascus road moment came in 1986 when he was 40, in a hotel room in Seattle. As he read the letter St Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, the Apostle’s teaching resonated with him. He was particularly arrested by Paul’s insight that meaning, forgiveness, wholeness, access to God – everything involved in the word ‘salvation’ - is available through faith in Jesus Christ.
Though Suchet’s father came from a Jewish, and his mother from a Christian background, neither had a living faith, and religion was not part of the Suchet family’s daily life. But like so many who came of age in the 1960s, David was asking deep questions. He feels that he had been ‘searching for something’ all his life, and that in opening St Paul’s letter to the Romans, he found himself ‘reading about a way of being and a way of life that I had been looking for all those years.
Evidence is as important to David Suchet as it is to Hercule Poirot, who solves crimes by scrutinising the details, reading the evidence. ‘I just can’t have blind faith,’ says the actor. ‘I have to find out for myself.’
In the years following his Seattle moment, he tested the evidence, and was eventually confirmed in the Church of England in 2009. ‘It took me that long to say “I fully commit.”’
Comparing St Paul and David Suchet’s conversions you notice both similarities and differences. But that’s the point – we experience turning and re-turning to God in many different ways. However the God we encounter and the redirection of our values which accompanies that encounter are the same.
And comparing St Paul and David Suchet’s lives reminds us that as Christians we are each different too. The actor is not sure if he would have liked St Paul. ‘Such was his zeal, if you like, that he never suffered fools gladly.’ ‘This was a man who had a mission and anybody with a mission can be frightening.’
Unlike Paul the pioneer missionary David Suchet, though a man of firm faith says ‘I don’t try to convert anyone.’ Yet he acknowledges that there is in society a great longing ‘for spiritual peace’ and his sharing of his experiences must have pointed many to Christ, the well from whose waters of peace the actor has drunk deeply.
When he was preparing to play Hercule Poirot for the first time, Suchet read many of Agatha Christie’s novels, studying the detective and his mannerisms and tried, in recreating Poirot on the screen to get him just right.
In one sense this is a picture of us as Christians as, having been converted to Christ, we seek to reflect on Christ and represent him faithfully in our lives. Yet in another sense Suchet playing Poirot is nothing like us as Christians inviting Christ to embody himself in us.
It is true, as David Suchet says, that as a Christian ‘one must abandon oneself to a higher good’. But that doesn’t mean losing our uniqueness. For we are not Christian clones, each identical. Rather, the grace and love and sternness of Jesus is to be seen in our personality and temperament, so that we are not acting a part – we are real.
The turning-points in our lives are not usually marked by significant calendar events such as the turning of the year, but are the unpredicted moments of clarity such as those which arrested St Paul and David Suchet. But the point is that whatever situation we are in Christian faith offers hope if we will turn to God for the first time or the ten thousandth time, and live life as a journey of on-going conversion.
(Christian Viewpoint column from the Highland News dated 27th December 2012)