Showing items filed under “April 2017”

Snapshots

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 My parents were still living in the home they bought when I was eight years old. There are pictures here and there, in little frames on random flat surfaces throughout the house. Many of them were taken by me on an old Minolta SLR.
    One shows my son, about two years old, being held by my father. My wife, Susan, is standing there, along with both my grandmothers and several great aunts. They are outside a restaurant, lined up in the midday sun. I look at that black-and-white and think, “She has died . . . and she has, and she, and she . . . and now he” (my father).
    There’s a color picture of my farming grandparents, both with sun-darkened skin, he with a hat. They aren’t smiling; people of their generation tended not to smile for pictures. I think this one came from the late 1960s. I think: I’m now close to the age they were in this picture. They look healthy, solid, as if they will last forever. But of course, today I can see them only in pictures.
    Those images caught on a negative, transferred and enlarged into a print: they seem to point to something real and permanent. In this they lie. A snapshot in time is stolen from time. It captures something that was not there to be captured.
    We all know this, know that every day there is a little bit of aging going on, that change is continuous, that the flow of time is relentless. Snapshots seem to catch something that cannot be caught. Before the image on the paper dries, that which it is an image of has already changed.
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    Why is this so hard to grasp? I know that I was once smaller than that son of mine in my father’s arms. I needed care throughout the day, every day, as human offspring do. And I know that, quite likely, I will need care sometime in the future, care given throughout the day, every day, as old humans typically do. 
    But what I want to think is that I as I am now, the man in the middle, the man who can walk and write and talk and travel: this man is the real me. The child wasn’t yet me, not fully, I like to think. And the old man who is not yet, the one who won’t be able to take care of himself, I want to think that he won’t be really me, either.
    I want to think that the self-sufficient man, the man, as we say, in his prime—that man is the real me.
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    It is hard to grasp, but in truth the real me is all of these. The little embryo, smaller than my thumbnail: he’s me. The baby in diapers: me. The boy in school, the husband, the father, the priest, the Ph.D., the widower: all me. But also, should it transpire in this way: the man with the cane, the slobbering guy at the table, the weakened body who cannot get himself out of bed, the one who is confused and doesn’t know why he is where he is: that’s me too.
    The real me is all of these, because the real me is not a snapshot out of time, but a character with a narrative. I have a story, and it’s me in that story from beginning to end.
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    In his book Last Testament, pope emeritus Benedict XVI says he was blessed to be able to accompany both his parents as they came to their deaths. He uses the verb “accompany.” This is important, and it needs to be added to what I’ve said above. I have been accompanied through my life, by parents, by friends, by professionals, by children. The someday-finished story of me, please God, will not be the story of one who is unaccompanied.
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    I want to think more about accompanying people as they come to death. My father made it easy for us. He spoke frankly that he was dying of cancer, and that he was grateful for his life, and that he looked forward to seeing Jesus. He did not deny he was dying, nor did he try to hasten the process. He let it come, and he let us come along with him.
    It seems that part of accompanying is being able to speak truths like this, not welcoming death but neither denying it. There is also a focus, in accompanying, on the things that are most important. My father lost interest in politics at the end. I heard him say to a telemarketer: “Sir, I’m dying, and I don’t care about that any more.” The TV was off more than it was on. He liked prayers, and Bible verses. He liked hugs.
    In the midst of all this, a friend sent me a message of her father, who is also dying. He had been recently visited by an old theologian-friend, who chose to read to him. What did he read? Augustine’s Confessions.
    That’s a picture of weakness and accompaniment. Thinking about it, I picked up my father’s King James’ Bible and started reading to him the Psalms. Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly . . . his delight is in the law of the LORD . . . he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water.

    And my question is, was I accompanying my father, or was he accompanying me?

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 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."