Letters From a Hospital Bed #37: 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.
July 28, 2022
As I have been reflecting in these past weeks on both our need for, and the mechanisms of, the Lord’s healing of our emotions, I am drawn to a reality that has shaped my own life profoundly; the emotion of fear or, as I have often voiced inwardly, of timidity. Recently, I was reading in the fourteenth chapter of Proverbs, to help me reflect and then write further concerning fear and its corollaries. I am beginning to see how, in this chapter, we see many dimensions of fear being explored: fear of the Lord, fear of others and fear for the future, to name but a few.
Again and again, in this text, the writer upholds a desirable fear of the Lord. In verse 2, “Whoever fears the Lord walks uprightly, but those who despise Him are devious in all their ways”. As we know well, from our own experiences, devious people are like snakes slithering around us, not knowing when they are going to try to poison our relations with other people. They are like the serpent in the Garden of Eden that caused the cosmic Fall of Mankind in distrust and fear, and indeed, leading to madness. Those who ‘trust themselves’ are so blinded that no one can trust them!
As a youth, I thought the Bible was a boring book. We heard it read, or read it on Sunday, totally unaware that the whole of Creation originated and is sustained by the Word of God. This verse is telling us that people who despise God are as mad as the mad-hatter in Alice in Wonderland, or as Shakespeare’s Falstaff. Alas, we are so surrounded by such madness in this age of secularism, that I find myself irritated with the crowds around me, "who have no fear of God”. Certainly, most of us live around “normal, nice, kind people”. Yes, we do, because all mankind was created in God’s image and likeness. But when sin entered into the world, we all became mad, without God’s Holy Spirit renewing our minds to become wise. We can only 'walk upright’, when we do so with integrity, yet also in being right-minded, and right-related with God and Man and we are cautioned to, “stay away from fools, for you will not find knowledge on their lips.” (v.7).
There are other affirmations to fear the Lord. In verse 16, I read “The wise fear the Lord and shun evil, but a fool is hot-headed and yet feels secure". And again in verse 26, “Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress, and for their children it will be a refuge. While these two verses affirm a fear of the Lord, they also hint at two other fears that beset us. Why does the hot-headed fool feel secure, I wonder? Here is the one whose affirmation comes from what others think, from the feedback of others, from the affirmation from others, from a sense of belonging that is earned through reinforcement of (foolish) behaviour by others. Just recently, in a conversation with one of my daughters, I was exploring with her how I have been shaped by my attention to what others thought, of wanting to be associated with those of stature, even to prize scholarship and its credentials for their own sake. So many of us experience some sense of ‘imposter syndrome’, alleviated only by the approbation we receive from others. This first text challenges this foundation of our identity as if to say to us “Do not fear the opinions of others who might exclude you from their foolish company, but instead, fear the Lord. Hold Him in highest esteem!”
The second verse sets up another contrast for us; fear of the Lord and fear for the security of our children. There was a time earlier in my life, when culturally and economically everything seemed to be opening and expanding and growing. There were wars and rumours of war to be sure, but the post-war period seemed expansive and hopeful. Our own journey as a family to Canada opened huge opportunities for our children through which we have each been immeasurably blessed. But that has shifted and I sense the fear for future generations in the life of our children and our grandchildren. Whether the macro forces of climate change, secularization or culture wars or the more micro forces of relationship fragmentation, economic pressures or the creaking angst from grinding pandemic. This verse challenges my anxiety for my children, their children and now their grandchildren. Rather, to fear the Lord, is to enter a fortress that will be a refuge for my family. How can it be, that at 99, with limited ability to walk, bounded by a lovely but small room in a hospital, I can shelter my family in a ‘fortress’ where they are ‘secure’? This is surely a strange wisdom! Our Proverbs text continues for me with “The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death. (vs 27). A moral reasoning is that God himself supplies ‘the water of life”, so that we have Jesus’ promise as He gave to the Samaritan woman at the well, “He that comes to me, will never thirst again”. (John 4:13) Then the “snares of death” are the unbelieving thoughts of doubts about God and of His existence, which certainly cause death. As I find my body aging, I see how clearly ‘death’ can occur long before the heart stops beating or the brain waves are stilled. We can each face a death of hope, locked in a cell of fear, not of the Lord but fear of others and their opinions of us, and paralyzed by a fearful future.
In some translations, this chapter 14 is entitled “The Wise Woman”. It is not without cause that the book of Proverbs concludes with an epilogue that praises the ‘wise wife’, a woman that is wisdom. So much of what fear drives us to pursue are fleeting and of little significance in the end. As my son Chris has said to me “I have spent an entire life fearful of so much that never happened!” The writer of Proverbs reminds us…
“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Honour her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring praise at the city gate. (Proverbs 31: 30)
So ends this remarkable book. It closes with a wise woman, wise in all her ways. In the Greek culture, Diana was the goddess of Greek culture, but to the God-fearing Hebrews, the epilogue of the book of Proverbs describes the Wife of Noble Character. She is the epitome of some ten blessings and virtue, both to her family and indeed to the whole community, extolled as she is by the rulers of the city. The pagan Corinthians might riot and stone the apostle Paul for defaming their goddess Diana, the goddess of Greek culture. But what is Greek culture when it is ignorant of God, the God, Creator of the whole Cosmos, and of everything that exists! These reflections on the healing of our emotions and, for me, especially the emotion of fear, have been very helpful. They have been a turning point for me as I have grown to appreciate more the central virtue of seeking wisdom for my life. Yes, wisdom as human shrewdness for living in our workaday world, all of us need. But wisdom as the fear of the Lord, is quite new in my life to-day. I am so grateful to the Lord for granting in my very few remaining years to have awareness of what is “the Wisdom of God”. So, for you and for myself, I pray “Lord, may we all, as writer, editors, and readers, dwell more and more in the environment of being in the Fear of the Lord!”