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.
September 15, 2022
(Editors note: the theme of our next few letters, I think, will be what Dad has referred to as being ‘heavenly minded’. For those of his readers who knew my mother and his wife, Rita, you may not find it hard to imagine that the term ‘heavenly minded’ quickly conjures memories of her Glaswegian burr intoning her perspective on those ‘so heavenly minded that they were no earthly good’! It has required of your scribe a discipline to persist beyond the mischievous banter, and either/or orientation of my Mum (which she herself did not in reality practice, but it made a good one liner) and dig deeper into the meaning of what Dad is actually on about. He has himself described various stages of experiencing the thinning of the ‘veil’, as he would put it, and while his age helps to prescribe a certain preparedness, I think he is encouraging us to live now in two realities, one which is bound by space and time and the other not.)
In these past weeks, I have been reflecting on the significance of our need as Christians to live as those who are ‘heavenly minded’. In my letter last week in which we reflected on much of the Lord’s Prayer, I was struck again by the invitation from Jesus for us to live aware of two realities, ‘on earth, as it is in heaven’. Actually, Jesus instructs his followers through that prayer we are to use, to invoke the will of God in two realms, on earth and in heaven, both, at the same time. But what does this mean?
C.S. Lewis writing in "Mere Christianity”, said: “If you read history, you will find that the Christians that did most for the present world, were precisely those who thought most about the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this”. Jesus promised His disciples before His ascension into glory: “I go to prepare a place for you. In my Father’s house there are many mansions”, which we might interpret as God having many realms of reality. Indeed, as Creator of all realms of reality, God intends us to live in more than one sense of reality. Since we bear His image, as ‘imago Dei’, while we might find that immensely challenging, we are already wired, as it were, to do so.
My son Chris has recently been describing to me his visits to his gym. As many of my friends well know, athleticism is not a family trait, but Chris is learning from my own aging experience that sustaining movement is critical. As his instructor intones, ‘motion is lotion’. In his classes, what proves most challenging is to apply intentionality to the movement of specific muscles so that they move in ways he intends rather than as they have become accustomed through lack of use. He reports the frequent experience that asking certain movements of certain muscles is akin to meeting old friends with whom you have long since lost touch. Gone is the familiarity of interaction between mind and body that made childhood movements so fluid, and old connections must once again be first discovered so that they can be re-activated. Similarly, many of us have lost the child-like ease with which we lived by faith, and become overly dependent on our very limited sight.
Many commentors have reflected that the rise of science through the enlightenment disabused the parishioner of the threat of ‘eternal damnation’ or the promise of ‘heaven’, and so accelerated the rise of secularism which, today, only further advances. When ‘conversion’ was seen as some kind of ‘celestial plane ticket’ to glory, the notion was quickly debunked by even simple science, much less the more sophisticated astro-physics and molecular biology of the late twentieth century. As a teenager, I recall the horror of being invited by the father of one of my friends to join them at a ‘night show’ accompanied by the assurance that all was OK because we had our ‘tickets to heaven’ and so could act with impunity on earth. Such ‘faith’ was sheer lunacy. It is perhaps just as well that we do not know the confessions of ‘christians’ with such thinking. As a real human being, and yet also the unique Son of God, Jesus revealed his dual identity in the earthly experience of the transfiguration. Strangely, in all my life of almost a century, I have rarely heard a sermon preached on the transfiguration. In this hyper-scientific age, it is an awkward text. What do we do with it? Do we avoid it, as Lewis suggested, because we have so little interest in the next realm of reality? Yet, the apostle Luke, the well-trained physician does, (in Lk. 9: 28-36) and writes both his Gospel and also reports The Acts of the Apostles. From his experience of hearing the report of the transfiguration from the three disciples, and having experienced himself the event of Pentecost, Luke’s report on the transfiguration, seeks to unite the two natures of Jesus Christ as “the Lord of Heaven and earth”. Origen (c.105-254), one of the most learned of the early fathers, comments on, as he succinctly describes Jesus Christ’s two natures, as both human (Jesus) and divine (Christ). “Those with glory appeared in glory to the disciples. Moses showed the face of the Law, and Elijah showed the face of the prophets. Jesus himself was Lord of the Law, and of the prophets. So, whoever understands the spiritual law and the wisdom hidden in mystery in the prophets, sees Moses and Elijah in glory”. He goes on, “and they conversed with each other, - that is, they say things that are in mutual agreement.” Origen clearly joins the men of the Old Covenant to the apostles, because, at the second coming of Christ all will be joined together. (‘Origen, Homilies on Luke, trans. Joseph Lienhard, The fathers of the church vol. 94, 1996). In his report of the transfiguration, Luke tells us in 9:30: “When Peter heard that Christ was going to suffer thinking he had found the right time [and place] today that he did not want it to happen, he asked the Lord to remain always above (i.e hidden above in the mountain), lest the Jews find him and kill him”. Origen, in his interpretation of Luke’s report, recognizes that Peter does not know the good things that will come from the Passion and the Resurrection, for all men. He writes, “As he said this, a cloud put an end to their eagerness seek something beyond their power. Through this event he prefigures the truth that all the saints, - both those before the Lord’s coming, and those after his coming - will be together. The Law and the prophets and the Gospel will set up the same tents - three in number - but looking toward one goal. At the Resurrection, the saints will be “taken upon the clouds to meet the Lord and to be with Him forever” (Origen, p182).
For me, at this stage of my life, the message of this transfiguration narrative, an event where the pressing needs of the moment that Peter senses are held in such tension with the enormity of God’s redemptive intervention in human history, this message is highly instructive. Both realities have an urgency. Both have their own clarity. Both are equally intense and real at once. This is where Christ invites us to live our lives, like the sailor and his hammock at sea, slung between the two anchors of the ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’. That we should be confused and moved in practical ways, as Peter was, seems only to be human. That we should have steely clarity as Christ facing the cross, is to allow the imago Dei that burns within us all to resolve ‘not my will, but thine’. To be heavenly minded is not to live pushing non-scientific delusions, it is to respond to live in both realities, heaven and earth. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1910), who was like the Apostle Luke, a medical practitioner and indeed, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, composed this hymn in 1859:
Lord of all being, throned afar, Thy glory flames from sun and star: Centre and soul of every sphere, Yet to each loving heart how near! Sun of our life, thy quickening ray Sheds on our path the glow of day; Star of our hope, thy softened light Cheers the long watches of the night. Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn, Our noontide is thy gracious dawn
Our rainbow arch thy mercy’s sign; All, save the clouds of sin, are Thine. Lord of all life, below, above, Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love, Before thy ever-blazing throne, We ask no lustre of our own. Grant us thy truth to make us free, And kindling hearts that burn for Thee, Till all Thy living altars claim, One holy light, one heavenly flame.
My prayer for each of you is that as you are, like the Apostle Peter, caught up in the enormous demands of the very real practical exigencies of your lives, that you might sense and respond to Christ’s persistent invitation to also join Him, beyond the mere boundaries of space and time, in a reality where Love reigns supreme and that so anchored, your engagement here might all the more fruitful be.
In friendship Jim