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.
October 20, 2022
Editors note: it is quite remarkable that in the weeks that your scribe fails to produce a letter on time and finds himself pre-occupied with matters others than faithfully interpreting Dad’s reflections, that many write to see how he is. Remarkably, while the rest of us, his children in particular, find themselves aging gracefully in the manner to which most of us are accustomed, Dad just keeps on getting younger. We are alarmed at how these trajectories might play out over time. Rest assured that any interruption in letters is not related to failing health, just his fragile support system! Thank you for your concerns for his welfare, but as he approaches his 100th birthday on November 21st, his vigour is increasing!
I have been reflecting of late on the subject of ‘Christian Fellowship’, made all the more relevant as we find such darkening of the times. In our worst moments of fear, we are inclined towards ‘huddling together’ as in a reflex of mutual support. The early Christians in catacombs and the bombed victims in the Blitz in London drew comfort from their interdependence, just as we see such bravery in young girls in the streets of Tehran. Yet it seems as if what we might call Christendom is becoming much more fragmented, at the very times that cohesion and real fellowship are all the more vital, as darker times are here and darkening still. I have been pondering why this might be so and how we might encourage one another.
Some years ago, I was exploring what it means to live in friendship with God. Abraham was called a friend of God as also were Isaac and then Moses. This is language we don’t use today. People do not make claim to being a ‘friend of God’. We might think it strange if they did! To be a ‘friend of God’ is simply to trust Him, fully, and live in obedience to His Word, the same Word that brought creation into being. Jesus, at the Last Supper, as He prepared for the cross said to His disciples “You are my friends, if you do what I command you”. The apostle Peter, even though he had seen the glory of the Lord at the transfiguration, broke that friendship when he did not want Jesus arrested and later when he denies his friend. This kind of intimacy that I am calling ‘friendship’ disappears from the life of the Church, in the writing of the Desert Fathers, as they focused first on asceticism and their hermetic life, but reappears later.
In the beginning of the 14th century, a remarkable German mystic, Rulman Merswin, wrote among other writings, the parables of human relationships, called “The Book of Nine Rocks”. It describes the nature of nine categories of society from the ruling class to the poor, all contributing to the alienation of ‘Christendom’. Many of you will be relieved that I will refrain from sharing the details of all nine rocks (much as I find them fascinating!) but each represent stages or places we might ‘inhabit’ on our journey to a deeper life in Christ. Of the ninth rock and most to be desired, he writes that it is, “more necessary to Christendom than everything else written in this book. The reason is that if anyone decides to join the company of those on the rock, he will be dearer to God and help Christendom more than a thousand other men (and women) who live on the lower rocks and who are disobedient and live after their own self-will”. Those who live on the ninth rock “are ’the righteous’, who truly pray to God in spirit and in truth.”
From our human perspective, the true binding force that holds Christendom or ‘Christian Fellowship’ together is our own deepening friendship with God such that we become ‘dearer to God’ with each passing day. This now is more and more my desire to simply be His friend, to become dearer to Him and to know that intimacy. Out of that place of deeper and deeper dependence, not from my projects, but from my friendship, I can offer to others in Christian Fellowship a richness that my activity could never yield.
More recently, the English hymnist, Fred Pratt Green, has written…
The Church of Christ in every age beset by change but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage and keep on rising from the dead.
Then let the servant Church arise, a caring Church that longs to be
A partner in Christ's sacrifice, and clothed in Christ's humanity.
We have no mission but to serve in full obedience to our Lord:
To care for all, without reserve, and to spread his liberating Word.
My prayer for us all is that we each seek such friendship with God that our lives can the more fully strengthen the bonds of Christendom in these darkening times we live.
In friendship, Jim