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.
Editors Note: The genesis of this letter was an email soon followed by two phone calls from Dad to provide him with the website address for Wikipedia. Then he called back again, forgetting that I had provided him with what he needed, to tell me, again twice, that he did not need me to worry about getting him the website. He had found it on his own. In the end, he wrote just 35 words from his urgent research. What had caught Dad’s attention was the western custom of making new year’s resolutions. Coming so close on the heels of the all-too-secularized Incarnation celebration of Christmas, Dad was bothered that we were all losing the plot and he wanted to refresh his own memory as to the origins of the New Year’s custom of resolutions. While his capacity for rigorous research has largely faded to a quick reference to Wikipedia, his passion that we should at all times and in all circumstances think ‘Christianly’ – as he once would have put it - is as vibrant and vigorous as ever. This letter reflects his urgent sense that we must enter the newness of this next year not with the resolutions of our own capacity but with a deepening dependence on the Lord, the giver of all Life.
December 28, 2021
As a child, I have vivid memories of Christmas yet I have always wondered why it was that I was taught so much about Christmas and so little about New Years. I had heard from an early age that the celebration of New Year involved the making of promises that I would be good, and yet I have no recollection of anyone being able to explain why such promises should be made. Nevertheless, and as a good Scot who knew to celebrate Hogmanay, I always had a sense that the event was important but I had never bothered to explore this question…until now!
It might strike you as odd that at 99 this should be the subject of my curiosity. My son Chris has a sign up in his office in his home that says “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” I suppose that, were I not curious, I should be bored and so, instead, I am curious, in this instance, about a festival that has been celebrated around me for nearly a century and I had never once stopped to wonder about its origins. So, thank you for all the Wikipedia contributors who help us all!
There, on-line, I learned that the origins of the ‘new year’s resolutions’ are Roman, at least, perhaps earlier. It became customary to make promises to the gods to repay debts and return borrowed objects. The Romans made promises to their god Janus from whom we find the month January named. Later, in medieval times, the knights reaffirmed their commitment to chivalry in the “peacock vow”. Still today many of us make such resolutions. Sadly, most do not keep them. It all seems like rather a frivolous waste of time and I can now well understand why it remained a mystery for so long. And so I have been wondering: what do I do as I enter this new year that marks this moment in my life?
We live today in a culture of rampant individualism and fierce personal independence. Our personal capacity to choose independence is celebrated, fought over, hyped in ads and in political speeches. Everywhere I am encouraged to be my own god. Yet, as I lie here in my hospital bed, dependent on others to serve many of the needs of my own body that I used to address for myself, there is something quite absurd, quite laughable about all this celebrated individualism. As if, now that there is so little that I can choose alone, I am somehow dead, of less value, even less ‘human’. Far from it! I am reminded of a trip that I took with dear Rita where together, early in our lives together, we visited Mars Hill in Athens. I can hear her voice reading from 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s confident declaration of the historical resurrection of Christ. And of the text in the Acts of Apostles where Paul speaks “men of Athens…what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you”. We have no need to make promises we cannot keep when the Lord has made a covenant with us that “gives us victory through our Lord Jesus Christ…Let nothing move you!...give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord. (1 Cor 15: 57-58)
In many respects, December 31 is in no way particularly different from January 1, especially here in the senior’s hospital home where I live. The daily routine will and must continue and yet, 2022 may well mark the year that I return to an eternal presence with the God that made me unique, who knew of my days when there were none and who knows the time and moment when my time is complete. Many know the marked time of cancer or other disease that inexorably consumes the available days and while we soon will mark a new year, it will be as unknown as the many before. And so, I find myself marking the new year not with grand promises – most of which are never kept – but with a resolved stillness and a patience to wait expectantly for Christ to come.
I am reminded of the exhortations of Gregory of Nazianzus who, in his 38th Oration encourages us “not to adorn our doors with garlands, or lead dances nor decorate our streets but…to feed on the delicacies of the law of God, and with those discourses which are particularly appropriate for this present festival”. May we pray that the festivities of this week not crowd out the true celebration of the Christ Child, singing with George Herbert the 17th century poet “Jesu is in my heart, his sacred name is deeply carved there”. (from The Temple, by George Herbert, 1633)
In earlier months this year now ending, I have been far more eager to die than I find myself now. It is not that I am no longer weary with the work of this life, but as long as the Lord gives me breath, I want to use it to be urgent for His glory. Isaiah reminds me to “seek the Lord while he may be found” and so as we enter a new year, I urge each of us not to make false promises to long dead gods, but to seek Him who knows us each so well and holds our identity safely in His hands.
Go well, dear friends, into this good new year, not because you have resolved much but because your Heavenly Father, through Christ, has redeemed much.
With my blessings;
(Editors Note: Dad is just loving your letters to him, they have invigorated his life in many of the ways in which you have described that he infused your own. This is a very reciprocal mercy! God has built a very circular ‘economy’ in your lives as his friends.)