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.
July 21, 2022
In this past week, I have been exploring more deeply what I find it means for me, to know the healing of the Lord in the realm of my emotions. So much of my academic life has been grounded on what I think and can ‘fathom’, intellectually, yet as those faculties continue to wane, I find I must more deeply cry the prayer of Augustine, “let me know thee, Oh God, let me know myself” and that leads me to allow the healing grace of God to reach deeper into my own emotional life than I have allowed before. These past days I have been wrestling with the dimensions of pride and humility that shape the ground of so much of what we experience emotionally, for in the journey out of pride and into humility we are carrying a ‘payload’, as it were, of our identity and our sense of whether we need to protect and enhance that identity, or whether it is held by an Other. As I came face to face with the choices of others that have gone before, I felt a deep conviction that I had still so much to learn. So exhausting was this encounter with the revealing humility of others, that I slept for an entire day afterwards.
As we explore the health of an emotion and invite the Lord to grant us insight as to our own soul health or sickness in that regard, we find that it is by examining antithesis that we can learn much. Certainly, this is true of pride and humility for humility is, by its very nature, opposed to both vainglory and pride. I think you will find that your most real, and trusted friends are the humble. For the humble are never in rivalry with others, while the proud always are. That is why the proud are always isolated, not knowing others, nor themselves. So, the proudly impetuous disciple, Peter, not knowing himself, could not really know who Jesus was. In a strange way, he was honest in saying to the servant girl in Herod’s palace, he did not’ know' Jesus, asserting this three times, which is a way of bluntly and flatly contradicting her assertion. Later, Jesus asked Peter, three times, “Do you love me? Peter had to learn painfully, what he later wrote that yes indeed, “God gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter: 5:5). The Psalmist David, having committed three terrible sins; sexually with Bathsheba; as a murderer of her husband by putting him as commander of his army on the front of the battle where he was slain; and worst of all, in having a census made, of his armed force, which was forbidden by God, as showing a lack of trust in God’s Word that He would always defend Israel, then repentant, now declares early in his lists of lamentations, that God “forgets not the cry of the humble” (Ps. 9:12). For now, David had experienced human intimacy with God, as a humbled man. Now, David no longer experienced the distance and separation produced by pride, which had generated sin, which Adam and Eve had cosmologically caused “The Fall of Man. Two more recent examples have moved my heart such that I want to share them with you for your encouragement. In early 17th century England, after the confusion of the Civil War, was George Herbert (1593-1633) set out to be a reforming pastor. We saw last week how he welcomed his parishioners to the porch of the church with a holy sprinkling. His parish was not in a grand place, and he eschewed fame. He did not even publish his outstanding poetry. This was done after his death by his friend Nicolas Ferrar, who suggests, concerning Herbert’s humility, that Herbert was quite indifferent to his professional status preferring to be a ‘country parson’, a choice that cost him more stately appointments. He even once set out to take on a church that was in ruins and in dire need of repair. Indifferent to the qualifications Cambridge University required for ordination, he took his time in getting any qualification. Today, no doubt, he would be horrified that any should be called “a Master of Divinity”, marvelling instead at how little of the mysteries of God could be fathomed much less mastered! Ferrar notes that “next to god, Herbert loved God’s Word, magnifying it above all else”. This contributed to his own cultivated brilliance of language whether in speech or in poetry. Thus Herbert stood apart with no interest whatever about preferment or advancement, for his passion for God’s word, his devotion to serve God’s people, and by embodying the essentials of Christian living together, by the daily practice of praying with his wife, and three nieces, daughters of his deceased sister, twice a day. In his poems he has only six that focus on humility. In the first, he sees that as congregants enter the church, its floor has a mosaic with the word ‘Humility’ designed on it. He shows the humility of Mary Magdalene a repentant prostitute wiping the feet of Jesus, “in pensive humbleness would live and tread”. (poem “Mary Magdalene”). Finally, he directs the congregants’ attention to the humility of the Son of God, “for what Christ in humbleness began, We, Him in glory call, the Son of Man”. At this stage of my life, I find myself deeply challenged by Herbert to reflect on a pattern in his life that I have too often resisted as a marker for my own. I am humbled by his example. A second exemplar is Martin Luther, reformer of the 17th. century. In great irony, we depict him, as a giant figure of a man, defying the Roman Catholic emissaries at the Diet of Worms in 1521. “Here I stand, I can do no other”, we famously hear him say. Some see him as the “icon of the individual”, as Ronald Rittgers, observes. in his essay (Ronald Ritters,” Martin Luther, the selfless Christian” (in “Sources of the Christian Self, ed. James M. Houston & Jens Zimmerman, pp. 379-391), 2018). Ironically, Luther is the exact opposite. Rather he is like George Herbert one of the humblest of men. For Luther scarcely saw he had “a self” at all. In Luther’s early years of ministry, he had learnt and taught the Psalms, seeing how David abases himself as a repentant sinner. He learned that the goal of human existence is to come to non-existence like Adam now is, and be renewed as Christ has been resurrected, to be now no longer “in self", but “in Christ”. His identity is no longer “in Luther”. In his lectures on the Epistle to the Romans (1515-16), he states, “the purpose of this letter, is to humiliate the proud, and teach them they need grace, by which to live. As Ritters notes, this is still so shocking to scholars today, that there is still enormous controversy, about the role of humility in our salvation. All this arose from Luther’s view of God as depicted in the psalms. For Luther, this humility is not a word that can be defined in a dictionary but can only be witnessed in the saints of God, like George Herbert and Martin Luther. I have been personally deeply challenged by my brief reflections on these two men and how they allowed the Lord to shape in their emotional life, a deep humility of spirit. And so, as my friends, I pray for you…
Dear Lord, we are beginning to realize that it is only in the communion of saints, where saints like George Herbert and Martin Luther abide eternally with Thee, that we can voice with the words of Martin Luther, that it is not ‘I’ that lives any longer, but that it is the new identity of ‘Christ in me”, that we have our identities. Forgive us Lord, for putting so much distorted emphasis on “My ministry”, or “I am me”. Amen.