Letters From a Hospital Bed #18: Reflections From a 99 Year Old
Letters from a Hospital Bed is a series of reflections by Jim Houston, now entering his 100th year, in which Jim seeks to capture and reflect new insights of his ever-discoverable God, revealed through his own hospitalization, for the encouragement of all care givers.
March 20, 2022
Editors Note: Today, as I write, is the anniversary of Jim and Rita’s wedding. They were married on March 20, 1953, in Glasgow, and a remarkable collaboration began. For those of you who knew Rita, our Mum, you will no doubt recall the uniquely ‘harmonious’ way in which Jim and Rita found a grounded equilibrium between ‘heaven’ and ‘earth’. If Dad was a balloon in the sky, Mum was the anchor, rooted on the ground. That cable, that was their link for 60 years, preserved us all from too much sky or too much mud. Today, we honour their union.
During this Lenten season, Dad has written about Lent. He has told me of the Armenian Church and his visit with Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian, an encounter he describes in his notes as “the most remarkable Christian experience of my life”. I can see Mum’s eyebrows lifting, her throat being cleared to deliver in her broad Scots a point of view on Dad’s choice of ‘remarkable experience!
Today, March 20, 2022, a school of children was bombed in Mariupol. It is Lent, soon Easter, and as your scribe I struggle to connect the bombed earth of today with my father’s spiritual insight for our time. In honour of both Mum and Dad, this letter seeks a harmony that has nourished many of us for decades.
Today, is the third Sunday of Lent in which we reflect upon the Prodigal Son. The Lenten days of fasting were established in the year 325, in Nicaea, at the first ecumenical council. Since then, the Armenian Church has dedicated 160 days to fasting within which there is the “great fast” of forty days that Jesus himself practiced. This has always been a time to review one’s deeds and behaviour, just as an author reviews her text or an accountant his money. On this third Sunday, in the midst of the “great fast”, we are invited to remember the son who found in his rebellion against his father, a deep unhappiness, who ‘was lost, then found by his father’, to help us learn how great is the Father’s love for us, indeed, for all humankind.
In Old Testament times, the Lord called Israel with the call of a trumpet. Sometimes, to celebrate. Sometimes to fast, or on occasion for war. The trumpet call was for serious occasions when a response was urgently required. “Blow a trumpet in Zion, consecrate a fast” says the prophet, Joel. This warning signal calls us to fast in a holy manner, to take the moment very seriously, recognizing that God has pleasure in holy people, not just holy acts. (Editor’s note: In our childhood home, the sound of Mum clearing her throat, usually a harbinger of some withering phrase, was our ‘trumpet sound’. It will echo for decades yet!)
Some twenty years ago, I was in Armenia and met with Archbishop Nerses Pozapalian who, at that time, had recently stepped away from an opportunity to be a candidate for the Catholicos – leader of the entire Armenian Church - encouraging his own former student to be elected instead. I was deeply moved by his story. Shortly after my visit, he wrote to me, including in his letter the exhortation that…
“at the present moment, the world is in turmoil, so we Christians have to find new ways and means to restore the desired tranquility to the world, in order that we may give hope and faith to the people of the world. Everywhere, secularization dominates over the churches and our communities. We must then have a special message for ordinary people.”
My encounter with this selfless leader has been the most remarkable Christian experience of my life. I was so moved by his renouncing of self-interest, that I held his hand, as if I was in the presence of one of the Apostles. He seems to me Apostolic indeed, for his church originated only three centuries after Pentecost! My own journey through such renouncing came less through my choice and more by the choice of others, when I lost my role as Principal of Regent College. This time was for me a deep, dark night of the soul. A time when, like the prodigal, I could only throw myself helplessly into the arms of my heavenly Father. I was stripped of all the dignity I cherished and yet, in His mercy, He placed new robes on me, and led me into a life in the classroom with students and with the ancient saints in the cloister.
This is our calling as followers of Jesus in this time of “the great fast”, to give up far more than mere chocolate, or even fine wine, but to yield up our pride, our demand for our will, to relinquish our place to another, to even be emptied. Our gracious Lord calls us to this place uniquely, even tenderly, but relentlessly, for such is His love.
Today, is the anniversary of my marriage to my dear Rita. I miss her and yet we are so close, for the veil that separates us grows thinner by the day. Some days, when I had invited yet more guests to our home than perhaps I had remembered to tell Rita, I found myself with the prodigal son, ‘sent to Coventry’ as the English might say! And yet, our covenant ran deep. She loved me fiercely. And she loved her Lord and His Word. How much more, though, we are each welcomed as the ‘prodigal’, when we come empty to our Heavenly Father’s heart. In this Lenten season, may you each know His warm welcome upon your return.