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.
May 26, 2022
Editors Note: In the fall of 2021, I sat with Dad during a prolonged hospital stay. We were discussing his death, it's likely imminence, his enthusiasm for rest from the weariness of body that had overtaken him and, naturally enough, the arrangements for funerals and memorial services and other related matters. It was challenging and a hard conversation, but not overly so, just something that needed to be done well. As it turned out, Dad and Mark Twain had much in common as rumours of death turned out to be much exaggerated! Nonetheless, during our conversation, Dad had said that, instead of the customary photograph at the ‘front of the church’, near the casket, he wanted a copy of Psalm 1. I asked Dad for his reasoning and what, apart from the obvious disruption of tradition that he rather favours, he might be wanting to convey by such a choice. In more recent weeks, Dad has been drawn back, once again, to the Psalms, which will serve as our focus for the next few letters. The gateway to the Psalter is Psalm 1 and in light of Dad’s request regarding his memorial service – should it occur in my lifetime or yours! – we begin this series with an understanding of what Dad sees in this significant first Psalm. You will also find attached a copy of a new piece of calligraphy prepared by Tim Botts, which your scribe recently commissioned, to serve later as Dad requested. Tim’s beautiful rendition captures the essence of Dad’s sense of the Psalm’s meaning, for him.
Our entry into the Psalter is Psalm 1 which begins with this simple word “Blessed”. The Psalm is a doorway to the psalter, but it is much more, it is a doorway to a life path, a doorway to two fundamental choices, to a fruitful life or a life characterized by ‘chaff’. The psalm has echoes of the Genesis garden, of tree with fruit, some welcome and some forbidden. There are limits. As we are bound by the choices of Adam and Eve, so ours and other's lives become bound by our choices. For some, this combination of blessings and curses that we find in this psalm are a problem. The language of the psalmist is harsh, uncompromising; it draws sharp distinctions and harkens to a memory of expulsion from an Edenic garden.
As inheritors of this ontological garden place of Adam, we all find the choices reflected in this first Psalm are before each of us. What will characterize our lives? What path am I still on, even now, as nearly all my life is behind me? I find the first Psalm to be like a diamond with many facets. I can see it as a proverb that reveals what is wise or foolish. It reminds me of the parable of the foolish virgins who waited, some to find they had enough oil and some to find they had run out. Last year, I thought that I had run out of oil. I hoped that I had. I wanted to go ‘home’, but the Lord had more life for me to live, so I find I must not run out of oil too soon!
The psalm also seems like biography to me, for it tells two narratives, of some who live wisely and of some who choose not to and have a horrible death. Daily, I must still decide which road do I want to take. Sometimes, it seems like a guidebook for a lifelong pilgrimage where we stop on the way many, many times and ask “which way to go”, or “which road to take”. For me, this first psalm still helps me choose daily a proverb, a biography, a pilgrim path. I am reminded of Holman Hunt’s famous painting that hangs in Keble College chapel, in Oxford, of Christ, with the lamp, and His thorn-rimmed brow, at the door. Evangelically, the painting is interpreted as Christ knocking at the door of our heart, but I prefer to go far beyond that mere beginning of “I believe” to anticipate Christ’s promise; “I go to prepare a place for you”. I embrace Jerome’s analogy of the psalms as a vast mansion and so, this first psalm is our door, a lantern lit entrance, with Christ my guide. I hope you will come with me to venture within. I like the way my friend Mark Anderson has paraphrased the Psalm in his poem, “The Choice”.
Psalm One – The Choice
How blessed are those
who don't follow the advice of the self-seeking,
subscribe to their twisted values
or join in their empty sneering.
They delight instead in following Yahweh’s law.
Drawing on its wisdom day and night,
they thrive like trees beside clear flowing streams
bearing fruit without pause,
growing old but not weak
and flourishing, always flourishing.
But not the self-seeking!
They’re like tumbleweed in the wind.
Without a leg to stand on before God’s law
they find no place among his people.
Because God stakes out the path
of those who please him
while the road the wicked choose
leads to doom and disaster.
© Mark Anderson – used by permission
Next week, I will share further the richness of this psalm with particular reference to the beautiful work by Tim Botts that he has prepared and which now hangs in my room before my bed. I hope you can enjoy this vibrant image and let it speak to you a welcome as we enter in and learn to ‘sing a new song’ with the Psalter, together.