Quick in the Past; Quick in the Future

Psalm 22 comes up in the old 30-day Psalter in the evening of the 4th day of the month. So on Tuesday, April 4, those of us who use that Psalter had an early taste of Holy Week. Psalm 22 famously begins, “My God, my God, look upon me; why hast thou forsaken me?” But it goes on from its bleak despair to several verses that soar with hope.
    It is an interesting dynamic, that if we are willing to open ourselves to the depths, we can find that hope comes in and lifts us back to life. I often say to myself something like, Victor, don’t be afraid to go down; Jesus has already gone down there—and been raised up.
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    One of those hopeful verses in the latter part of Psalm 22 is this: “All they that go down into the dust shall kneel before him; * and no man hath quickened his own soul.” On first reading this seems an odd coupling. What does the second half of the verse have to do with the first? It begins with the hopeful claim that everyone who goes “down into the dust,” which is to say “everyone who dies,” will “kneel before” God: that all the dead will worship the Lord. And then it says that no person ever “quickened” himself. To “quicken” is an antique way of saying to “give life” or to “make alive”; “the quick and the dead” of the creed are “the living and the dead.” It is an obvious point: Life is something that we are given—it comes to us from outside ourselves. We might want to say that we receive life from our parents’ intimate embrace; they give us life. It is still more deeply true to say that God, working through them, gives us life.
    But why make that point (that we are not authors of our own existence) right after saying hopefully that the dead will praise God?
    The answer is that it is a hopeful thing to realize we are not the authors of our own existence. For, if our own coming into existence does not depend on us (the second part of the verse), nor must the future hope depend upon us (the first part of the verse). It’s as if an interlocutor spoke to the Psalmist:
    Psalmist: “All they that go down into the dust shall kneel before him.”
    Interlocutor: “How can they do that? They’re dead; they no longer have life.”
    Psalmist: “Their own life was given to them, and just so this future life can be given to them. It’s all God’s work.”
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    The short version is this. God gave us life to begin with. So God can give us life again on the far side of death. As we can worship God now, so please God we may be granted to worship him then. 
    The pioneer of this human path is that completely human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who went down further than any of us will ever have to go. He cried out with a loud cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Those are the depths. And he is now the center of the praise of myriads upon myriads of saints.
    One need not fear going down to the dust.
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    Out & about. I am to preach at the 6 p.m. uptown contemporary Good Friday service at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas.

The Old Interrupter

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    Sometimes with the suddenness of a Mack truck, other times with the gentle erosion of breaths that slow down oh so gradually until finally there are no more: suddenly or slowly, sooner or later, death comes. And when it does, a nexus of life is interrupted.
    A friend told me once about the day after his father died. A boy then, my friend stayed home from school. He looked out a window and saw other school children and adults and, I suppose, buses and cars, all going about their morning activities as if everything were the same. But for my friend, life was not at all the same. For him, for his family, and for those within the circle of their life, death had interrupted everything.
    It is essential that death interrupt. And it is wise for us not to try to tame the interruption, but to allow it to come to us; wise, that is, to let our own lives be interrupted. As we say at the top of the burial liturgy, “In the midst of life we are in death.”
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    We employ a lot of our technology in order to try to gain control over things. Roads, bridges, airports, rail lines—these are technological achievements to gain control over space, so that we can move about more widely, more often, and with more predictability. The technology of medicine not only repairs injury, it works to make health itself more secure, more under our control. I could multiply examples, but the point is clear. Our society as a whole seeks to bring more and more of human life under control.
    Death, some have said, is the final frontier. And in the effort to bring death under our control, to take away from it the uncertainty of its coming, and the uncertainties of pain and confusion and just plain lingering that may be the way it would approach, our society is increasingly thinking with approval about assistance in dying. This is to employ technology to help people take charge of their own deaths, to name the point at which their life will come to an end.
    And if we humans were able to achieve that, to bring death under our control, to take away death’s essential character of an interrupter, then there is one word only that would be appropriate for us. That word was spoken by Jesus in a parable. It is “Fool.”
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    He was a great planner. His crops had flourished, his wealth increased, and his aspirations were unlimited. He said to himself that he would tear down his existing barns and build new ones. Just at that moment, the word came to him: You fool! Tonight your soul will be required of you.
    His world was interrupted.
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    I mentioned a few weeks ago that my father, Marshall, is in a nursing home. Death seems not far away. I don’t like this uncertainty. I want him, first of all, not to die. And then, recognizing the frailty of his flesh, and rejoicing in his love of Jesus, I want him to go to the Lord. I pray that each day has a blessing for him. 
    Reader, you may understand this. You’ve been there, or you will be there, with someone who is dying. It seems to me of the highest importance that we neither avoid this encounter with death nor try to take control over it. There is something profoundly human, and respectful, and humble—and pious—that we find only by going through the waiting.
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    Out & about. In the meantime . . . Friday, March 31, at St. John’s Church in Dallas, at the 7 p.m. service of Stations of the Cross, I am to give a meditation on “Jesus Falls the Third Time.”
    Sunday, April 2, at St Mark’s Church in Mount Pleasant, at 6 p.m., and then at noon the next day (Monday, April 3), I am to give two talks on “The Awfulness of Our Good God.” I plan on Sunday to give an overview of the problem of God and the sufferings of life, and to talk about my experience and why I love God still. Monday’s talk is to be more focused, looking at Jesus on the cross, his death for our salvation.
    And looking a bit ahead, I am to preach at the contemporary 6 p.m. service on Good Friday at Incarnation in Dallas.

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."