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.
January 13, 2022
I have been increasingly sensing the need to pay attention to the simple rhythm of the calendar and to ask, ‘what day is this and how then might I live in the company of others who have gone before?’ My own book, Letters of Faith through the Seasons has been a helpful guide. Last Thursday, January 6 was the first day of the Epiphany season and it led me to ask, “what does this day mean for me today?”
Our word, Epiphany derives from the Greek word epiphaiea which I interpret as ‘manifestation’. Just as Christmas is the season of God becoming human, so Epiphany is the manifestation of God, the very human Christ, starting to have an impact. His human presence in our world has stirred three astrologists, deemed wise in their culture, and so ‘magi’, to go and seek where He was located. What made them wise, was that they sought a ‘reality’ that was beyond the assumed knowledge of their contemporaries. They were wise because they recognized what they did not know, what they did not comprehend and so their hunger drove them to seek for something beyond themselves. The heart of their wisdom was a mobilizing awareness of their ignorance, and they left all to seek what they knew was there to be found but which they had not yet discovered. They saw but they had not yet fully seen.
On this day of Epiphany, in a small village church, with Norman origins, a community gathered to lay to rest my niece, Sheila. As with the Magi, most of the world did not notice. Sheila was born with her umbilical cord around her neck which briefly but critically starved her of oxygen and so harmed her new-born brain, irretrievably. As a result, there was much that she could not do, that others could. It was an injury that set her apart and required much specialized care throughout her 63 years of life. Yet, Sheila was wise for she lived like a philosopher, seeing things that others did not see. She saw, with joy, the lovely image of God that had been planted in all whom she met, and so she loved much. She saw, with wonder, all that her Heavenly Father had made in creation, even in the ‘postage stamp’ of her garden, and so she rejoiced much. She saw, with delight, the vast reservoirs of Jesus’s love for her, and so she worshipped much. Sheila was the Magi.
As I now find myself in bed, ‘on the horizontal’ more than ever before, I am perhaps beginning to see as Sheila saw. It is this horizontal plane that opens my eyes, not the vertical. In being more still, more unable, I see more…and I want to be wiser. Like Job, I am also surrounded by the influences that are represented by Job’s friends, in this ancient text. When Job finds himself stripped of all his material ‘wealth’, his friends ask, “Why would a Good God do bad things to good people?” Surely, where there is effect, there must be cause, as any good historian would tell us. Eliphaz searches for faults. Bildad searches for secrets. Zophar searches for the legitimacy to argue with God and demands of Job “would you answer with useless words”?
For over a thousand years, no-one answers his question, until, atop Mars Hill in Athens, the apostle Paul, defending himself against the might of the Greek philosophers, answered for us all. “What eye has not seen”, he answers Bildad, “nor ear heard”, he answers Zophar, “and what no human mind has conceived”, he challenges Eliphaz, “the things God has prepared for those who love Him”. Against all the false standards of wisdom and revered competence, the Magi sought what they alone knew they had not yet seen. Against all the false standards of success, my niece Sheila entered gloriously the presence of her Lord with immense and profound confidence. From this place of seeming diminishment through age and physical limitation, I see from the horizontal what I could not see so clearly when more active. May we too, each in our own ways of hunger, seek for Him who can be found, and so join the Magi.
This is what we celebrate with this season of Epiphany!