Letters From a Hospital Bed #53: Reflections From a 99 Year Old
Updated: Jan 5
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 17, 2022
In just a few days from now, on November 21st, I will celebrate my 100th birthday. My mother, to whom I was born when she was 40 years of age, had been told at the age of eighteen that she had but a few years to live. So much for prognostications about life expectancy! It seems her genes and those of my father were tougher than expected. But this milestone causes me to ask more than a few times, “why did God spare me to now, to live for over a century instead of my ‘allotment’ of ‘three score years and ten’?” I have outlived all my peer colleagues and nearly all my friends from my own generation – though clearly not any of you who are still reading my letters! Just over a year ago, I entered this hospital, also a hospice, where dear Rita had died and where I hoped to soon follow her. So certain and so eager was I to return to the Lord, that I gave my children instructions concerning my funeral arrangements, including the substitution of a traditional photograph with the version of Psalm 1 that I have shared with you before and is reproduced here.
The psalmist David uses this psalm as the entry point into the transparency of his heart before God, that unfolds through the poetry that follows. The image you see with this letter hangs before my table as I write, with the bed in which I will likely breathe my last on one side and a window out to the adjacent park filled with vibrant life, on the other. Here I sit before the psalm, slung between my own eternal rest and the continuity of life outside my window. The literary center of the psalm before me, its focus, its heart, is the simple word “fruit”. Fruit that is borne by the well-rooted tree through the choices of one that follows the way of the righteous. A third of the poems that follow in the psalms are laments. Many psalms contain language that seems wholly inappropriate, even rude, unless they are being spoken, in deep distress and honesty, to a loving and personal God who really wants to hear what we say. This book, this Word is where I choose to focus my attention as I give thanks for the grace of 100 years, such that it may one day be said that my life was fruitful.
Not until we arrive at the New Testament text, do we really understand the nature of the fruitful life promised for the well-rooted tree. The Apostle Paul, writing his letter to the Galatians, describes what these fruits are: they are; “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control”. So that when we are in the presence of others, our “presence” can become “a therapeutic presence”, for others. The Early Fathers saw the fruits as being from the healing of our souls, that Jesus Christ has become our Eternal Physician and through His healing of us, we become bearers of the fruit of His Spirit. None of us yet are fully ‘healed’, but the journey to ’soul health’ is now in progress, until in the eternal presence of His glory, we shall be like Him, fully healed, fully fruitful. Then we shall be restored to be God’s Delight, like His Beloved Son, who at his baptism was as acclaimed as being well-pleasing to His Father.
Importantly, these fruits listed by the Apostle, that we should produce, are not us, but from us. For they are only to be found fully in Christ Jesus, produced through us by His Holy Spirit indwelling in us. The Apostle Paul, himself, once so proud of being “a Pharisee of the Pharisees”, (i.e. “the Reformer of Reformers” of Israel”), is himself arrested not by ideology in words, but by the blinding light of the Word, even as he journeyed to Jericho, considered to be the oldest city of trade in the ancient world. So disruptive was his encounter, that the one whom all looked to for leadership ‘in a religious sense’ is now made totally submissive to God’s revelation. “Lord”, he said, “what do you want me to do?”. Later, in his epistles, Paul writes 166 times, that becoming a Christian, one must become a new person, now wholly “in Christ”. Many decades ago, I had the great privilege, after attending the Urbana Inter-Varsity Conference, to be encountered in such a way that, like Paul, I have never been the same since. The first night we arrived back from the conference in Winnipeg, where I was a visiting professor, I was awakened early in the morning, by a great light at the foot of my bed. Spontaneously, I responded from my heart: “Lord, what do you want me to do?”. With no clear answer, I simply waited for six years before I knew what to do. I was to give up my career, as a Professor at Oxford, and without promises of any substantial financial support, to start Regent College with a few friends. My pulse-beat every moment since that mystical appearance was like that of the Apostle’s witness, before the Roman Leader, “O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision”. That has been my heartbeat too, ever since. I became unconscious of ‘any fruit-bearing’, simply of having a new identity, “In Christ” and a deepening desire that I would never grow faithless to His heavenly calling on my life. If we do bear any fruit for the Kingdom of God, that is God’s assessment as Judge of all the Earth, not ours. His calling to us is to a rootedness in Him, responding to His call for faithfulness, not to our desires, however noble, for success.
Dear friends, as I celebrate my birthday next Monday, surrounded as I will be by my loving family, I can think of no greater joy, no greater blessing, no greater desire of my heart, than that you each push your roots deeper into Christ. If I have desire for having a life “well lived”, it is that Christ should bear much fruit for the sake of His Kingdom in the lives of those whom I have been blessed to call my friends. The ‘well done’ for which we all long comes not from our efforts, but from the fruit, borne through Christ, in the lives of others. And so with Francis I pray “make me a channel of you peace…and forbearance, and kindness, and goodness, and self-control and love.”
In deepest friendship
(Editors Note: This concludes our series of “Letters from a hospital bed”. We set out to travel the 99th year of Dad’s life, and it is done. What follows will be different and carries the tentative title “Musings, Meanderings and Meditations”. Publication will be episodic rather than weekly and thematically more varied, hence the name. We hope you will ‘stay tuned’ as Dad continues to reach out and encourage you in your journey of faith. We thank each of you for your faithful readership!)