Where Has He Gone?

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I am fond of saying of my late wife that she is “asleep in Jesus.” It’s a biblically-inspired way of speaking of the departed. While their mortal remains lie in a grave, their souls are with the Lord until the day of the general resurrection.
    But if she is sleeping in Jesus, where’s Jesus?
    In chapter 14 of Saint John’s gospel, Jesus says he is going to the Father, and that he is going to prepare a place for his disciples/friends, and that he will return to take us there. Presumably, at the Ascension Jesus consummated this journey: ascending, he returned to his Father, and went to his Father as a complete human being, both body and soul. 
    But where is his Father?
    This is hard. Sometimes I wish Jesus had told his disciples he was going to Polynesia. They wouldn’t have had the foggiest, but they could have written down that odd word “Polynesia,” and eventually someone would have figured out the way to get there.
    Or he could have said he was going to Mars. We don’t yet know how to get there, but it’s mostly worked out, and soon we will.
    Or he could have said he was going to Dallas. That would have been fun: Dallas didn’t even exist then. But we could all have been waiting for its creation, and once it was there, off we would run to find Jesus. 
    But no . . . he didn’t say he was going to a place, neither to a known place nor to one unknown, neither to a place on earth nor to a place elsewhere in the universe, nor yet to a place somewhere in the future. He said: I am going to the Father.
    When God became man, the author of the story became a character in the story. Then at the end of this character’s life he left the story and returned to the author. But he did so without ceasing to be the character. So now, within the author’s being there is a fully human character.
    Jesus is there, with the Father, which is to say he is in no place but is with the one who is the author of all places. 
    And that, it seems to me, is where we should think of the souls of the departed: they are in Jesus. Jesus is preparing a “place” for us with the Father—“there” in the Being of God. They are waiting, for they are there only in soul.
    And when all the waiting is over, at the end of all things, there may we find ourselves, not only in soul, but (like Jesus) in soul and body together: human creatures dwelling in God’s very being.
    By the way, the film “Stranger than Fiction” plays with the idea of a character and his author being in the same world together.
    Out & about. Sunday, May 21, I am to speak at the adult forum at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Dallas, at 9:15 a.m.
    On Ascension Day, Thursday, May 25, I am to preach at the 7 p.m. service in the Ascension Chapel of Church of the Incarnation, Dallas.


Human Success

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 What makes a good human being? It’s a notoriously difficult question to answer. 
    First one notes that “good” is a peculiar sort of adjective. Compare it to, say, “red.” If we have a red apple, a red face, and a little red book, those three things have something in common, namely, redness. I might be red in the face because you caught me with Mao’s little book, or because you caught me eating an apple I was not to eat—okay; but even without such a story linking the things, you could say my red face and the red apple and the little red book had a common color.
    “Good” is a different sort of adjective. A good apple is tasty to eat, but a good little book is not. Herbert McCabe has a nice contrast between a good grape and a good chair. A good chair will hold me up when I sit on it. A good grape won’t.
    I once started an ethics class by asking the students what would they say if I told them I had eaten bad scrambled eggs for breakfast. “Why were they bad eggs?” Because, I said, they didn’t tie my shoes. What would you say, I asked them.
    (One fellow said: “I’d say that’s why I like this class!”)
    You’d say, Poor old Father Austin doesn’t know that it isn’t the job of eggs to tie his shoes.
    A good “X” is an “X” that succeeds in doing what it is supposed to do or being what it is supposed to be. It succeeds in living up to its nature or essence. A good “X” is a good example of what we mean by “X.”
    So if we know what eggs are, we know a good egg when we see it, and we can tell a good egg from a bad egg. Eggs have, as it were, definitions. Likewise apples and books and chairs.
    Now back to my first question. What is a good human being? Is there something a human being is supposed to be or do? Does it have a definition? Is there a human essence or a human nature?
    The question of saying what’s natural for human beings is notoriously hard. I’m writing this blog at 30,000 feet, on my way to visit grandchildren who live a thousand miles from my home. Until just a few decades ago, no one would have thought it natural for humans to fly and to jump across continents within hours. We aren’t made to fly, and we aren’t made to spring almost instantaneously from one place to another.
    But it turns out, we can make airplanes and build up economies of organization and scale such that flying is as ordinary as taking a bus, and going from Dallas to Phoenix takes not much longer for me than it took those early disciples to go from Jerusalem to Emmaus. When I’m at home in Dallas, I like to walk wherever I can, which leads people who know me often to scratch their heads. It’s as if they want to say, “It’s not natural to walk to the doctor’s office.”
    What’s natural is hard to discern, because it’s easily taken to be the same as what’s common or ordinary. 
    Furthermore, what’s natural is hard to figure out, because we humans are endlessly creative. We keep making new things, like airline corporations. Those new things seem to be products of our nature, insofar as we are creative and thinking. Yet we also know that some of the things we might create are unnatural, or at least anti-human-nature, in that we can create things that are harmful to people.
    I would want to say, for instance, that instruments of torture are anti-human, and thus unnatural, even though they are the products of ingenious human thought.
    Herbert McCabe (you can tell he’s one of my favorite theologians) thinks he has a definition of what a good human being is. We are most fully exemplars of being human when we are able to live with others in friendship.
    You could say: a successful human being is one who lives with others as friends.
    This definition is significantly open. There are uncountable ways to live in friendship, and in a sense every new friendship is a new expression of human creativity. 
    And yet, I think, this definition gets to the heart of who we are. We are meant to live with others, and to do so in love. 
    Jesus was a successful human being. And at the end of his life he made it explicit. “I have called you friends,” he said. His life culminated with the establishment of a society of friends.
    Out & about. Sunday, May 14, I am to preach at St. John’s Church in Pottsboro, Texas. The Eucharist is at 10 o’clock.

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The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: