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 31, 2022
Next Sunday, the fifth Sunday in Lent, is set aside by my friends in the ancient Armenian church, as the Sunday of the “Unjust Judge”, a reference to the parable that Jesus told, that is recorded in Luke 18: 1-8. In other traditions, the text is referred to as the parable of the “persistent widow”. As is so often the case, perspective is everything. And at a time when everywhere and everything seems more discouraging than hopeful, I am challenged to reflect on how we are invited to deal with our perhaps very legitimate discouragement, concerning the state of both our own affairs and especially perhaps, those of the world. Through this parable, we are encouraged to pray and not lose heart. It reminds me of a time when losing heart seemed to me a much more sensible interpretation of events!
While I am generally not given to depression, there was a time when I think I understood, for a while, what countless others experience as a deep blackness from which no light escapes or breaks in. In the very early days of Regent, we had emigrated as a family from Oxford with our four children, then in their early teens. My brother-in-law was most displeased because I had taken his sister away from her family ‘to another continent’. My fellow Christian leaders were displeased because we were pursuing a ‘trans-denominational’ character and eschewing the preferences of any one denomination. A well-intentioned ‘Job’s comforter’ told me as he resigned, that I had made a huge mistake if the college went bankrupt, but that I could at least count on a land of opportunity for my children! The various Christian voices of what Regent should become had become a veritable ‘tower of Babel’ and to cap it all off, the University Senate was on the verge of rejecting our affiliation request. Only our brave faculty seemed ‘on side’.
As I look back on this period, I have this sense of having risked all and looking into an abyss of God’s abandonment. There appeared no solid reason to think that I had not made a disastrous mistake. I could not go forward and I had no way back and I felt miserably trapped by it all. All I remember praying was “Lord, though you slay me, yet will I trust you”. It was not a prayer of real hope, just one of resignation, of deep dependence, of abandonment, not to despair, but into the arms of Christ. I trusted because, like the disciples, I had nowhere else to go.
As we know, the story of Regent that follows has a ‘happy ending’. But that was not the reality of my discouragement in those darkest of days. My reality was that all was coming apart, that it seemed as nothing was about to work together for good. My son Chris has asked me to reflect on what provides encouragement at this stage of my life and I have answered his question, not with a theory of encouragement, but with this experience of deep discouragement. To really know encouragement, we have to know despair, to know a coming to the end of ourselves that is so complete, so absorbing, that we find we have no-where else to go but to our knees.
Chris and I share a precious memory of a time when our youngest child, Jonathan, was struggling for his life, in the years before we came to Regent and Vancouver. Chris, then in his early teens, found me, late one night, weeping in prayer, in our living room in Oxford, wrestling over a decision on whether to operate; to seek to save the life of our young son with Down’s Syndrome. His survival would change the life of our family irrevocably. Immigration to Canada would have been impossible. Together, Chris and I wept before the Lord, recognizing that ours was to choose life, and live in and on the mercy of God. Again, with the disciples we prayed “Lord, to whom can we go!” The Lord took Jonathan home and years later, dear Rita met the surgeon’s wife who recounted how her husband had fought to save our Jonathan’s life, only to see it slip from his skilled grasp.
Over our years of friendship, many of you have shared with me the stories of your own deep discouragement. To be at the end of ourselves, at the end of our hope, is but a part of what it means to be truly human. What we learn at those moments defines how and from where we seek encouragement in the years that follow. As I reflect on my own life, I see these defining moments of deep despair as just that, defining. They have shaped me. Through them God has molded me, even changed me so that even now, when so much that I would love to do is not possible, I am content. “Lord, though you slay me, I will trust you!” The widow in Christ’s parable persisted, even against the unjust judge, and so must we.
With great certainty I pray for each of you, that our lives, that your lives, would embody the exhortation of the apostle, encouraging one another and building one another up.