Letters From a Hospital Bed #51: 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.
November 3, 2022
I confess that for very few days in my life did I ever imagine that I would be writing letters to friends, all over the world, in the month of November 2022, a century after the month of my birth. Like most good things in life, they are not planned, they just seem to show up with virtually no help from us at all, which makes the theme I now want to explore, all the more vital. My focus now is gratitude.
Some years ago, my son Chris and I were teaching together in Brazil, at a conference of business leaders who also were followers of Christ. We had the opportunity to answer questions from the audience and one was addressed to me by virtue of my age. I was asked “to what, Dr Houston, do you attribute your long life?” Without much thought and with no reference to matters of nutrition or genes or an absence of unhealthy indulgence, I simple replied with one word, “gratitude!” I do not believe it was what was expected by my questioner, and I wonder what they took away from my response which simply came from my heart and out of deep conviction.
As my children have each grown into adulthood, they have noticed that I spend very little of my life considering the past, my own past that is, and no time wishing I were somehow transported back. They tease me that some of my best friends have been dead for millennia, and that is quite true…Origen, Augustine, Teresa, and long before them, the prophet Jeremiah caught my attention and affection as a young teen. But to reflect on and explore the past is not to live there, not to regret its losses, not to find the present and the future less compelling than some distant and now gone past. I think the practice of gratitude is what allows us to leave the past and its hurts, its wounds and even its joys as belonging to a past that is gone and to anticipate a future that has not yet unfolded. Yet, some of us find the practice of gratitude deeply troubling because we are in such emotional pain from past wounds. Perhaps, if I might encourage you, the pursuit of gratitude and the revealing of its obstacles, might lead you to places that need and can be healed by the Great Physician.
Our God has a remarkable quality that pertains to our need for gratitude; He makes all things new. Much of what we consider loss, once in His hands, becomes gain. Some of my deepest discouragements in the life of Regent were to become the source of new life. When I was fired as founding principal, I found a profound richness in the lives of so many students with whom I could now more freely interact, once relieved of the administrative duties. Getting there was deeply painful, but it may have been one of the most life-giving transitions of my professional life. Loss with Christ is gain. Envy can beget gratitude. In a similar vein, I vividly remember leaving Oxford and my academic career in Geography in which I had worked to seek for personal legitimacy, for over 30 years, only to barely hang on to a part-time lecturer post at UBC to augment our meagre income. Yet, out of what seemed to be at the time so emptying, flowed a bounty for our family that today leaves me speechless. Loss with Christ was gain.
But it is not always that way. Sunshine does not always follow rain such that we can easily give thanks with good reason. Today, as I write, I know of deep struggles in the lives of many for whom I care, both within and outside my own family. I find many in my place of residence are hampered in their practice of gratitude by the overwhelming sense of loss that being ‘old’ has inflicted. There is much that I can no longer do that was once much easier or even possible at all. Yet, the invitation still sounds to enter each day grateful for sleep, for breath itself, with a sense of what it is that is good, not what is missing, lost or even bad. There is something profoundly simple and yet essential in giving thanks for food before we eat. I hope, in some way, where you are in time and place, you can join me in simply giving thanks!
Brian Wren in his hymn of 1936 writes in the fifth verse,
Thank you, God, for making planet earth
a home for us, and ages yet unborn.
Help us to share, consider, save and store.
Come and renew the face of the earth.
In friendship Jim