Praying for the Dead

A lot of confusion comes from mistaking “one-way” things as “two-way” things. Perhaps we get this from the continuing imaginative hold of relativity physics, according to which time and space are merely aspects of a single continuum that embraces both of them. Obviously, we can just as well drive from Denton to Dallas as we could Dallas to Denton. But I can’t wake up and have it be yesterday. Space, unlike time, is a two-way thing. You can move to New York, and you can move back. You can make the biggest mistake of your life and go to Florida, and you can reverse that and come back here. (With apologies to Floridians!)

But (despite images drawn from the space-time continuum) we cannot go backwards in time. There might be subatomic particles that do so, but humans don’t. Time is one-way.

Which is why this life is eternally important. What we do between our conception and our death is decisive for who we are forever. Life is never a straight line: we make lots of turns, including turnings back. We repent. We ask for forgiveness. But all our turnings and returnings are in time: we can never utterly erase a period of our life. What we do, going forward, can recontextualize our past; we can, say through sincere repentance, let God reshape us into new people. But forgiveness is not obliteration.

It is a fundamental Christian claim that this life matters eternally. And this life ends in death, that moment which is the period at the end of the sentence. In some transformed way it turns out that our death is not the end of our existence. Yet what goes on thereafter never goes back on what happens before.

Our prayers for the dead are prayers based on two things: the acceptance of their life as they lived it, their actual life that has ended in their death; and our complete hope in God’s grace, that he holds them in the bosom of Abraham, that they rest in Jesus, that he continues doing for them better things than we can ask or imagine. We cannot pray that time go backwards, that their life be different than it in fact was, or that they somehow become un-dead. But we can and do pray that God continues to hold them in his love, that he sees them through the cross, that Jesus embraces them in his solidarity with every human being.

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Out & about. Sunday, November 6, I will be preaching at 8 and 10 a.m. at All Souls’ Church, 6400 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Oklahoma City. I will also be teaching classes there at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m., Monday through Wednesday. The morning classes will be on why the book of Job is the best book of the Bible. The evening classes will be on suffering, caring, and dying.

Sunday, November 13, I will be preaching at Church of the Incarnation, 3966 McKinney Ave., Dallas, at the contemporary services at 7:30, 9, and 11:15 a.m.

They Knew They Were Naked

I had a bishop once who said that the most creative thing he had done in his life was to rear his children. When I repeated that comment to a (single male) academic, his retort was instant. “Of course; he’s never written a book.”

. . . A good story, no? And it’s literally true, as well as deeply revealing. I can’t see how any object of our making, whether it be a book or a symphony or even an important public institution—I can’t see how any made thing can be compared to a living human being. In a fire, you save the people first, and then, if you can, you rescue the other things.

And yet our children (for those of us who have children) are themselves no more to be the repositories of our importance than those objects we have made. We say that people live on in their children, but saying that, we fool ourselves.

For what we should see, when we see our children, is that we are mortal dust. And it is to dust, and not to a secondary immortality in heirs or productions, that we shall return.

            . . .

Biblical narrative is highly reticent; it refuses to explain itself. The first couple in Genesis 2 had no shame in their nakedness. Why, after they ate of the forbidden tree, did they know they were naked? What did they know, and how did it give them shame?

One might say that the original man and woman were meant to be immortal: the tree of life was not forbidden to them. Their sexuality would have been the joy of reuniting that, which, originally, had been one being, the “Adam” that God had made. It was found that that original human needed a helpmate, but also that no other animal or bird in the world was fitting. So the original human was divided, and the other that he needed to see before him was originally part of himself. Sexual union there was the sheer joy of reunion.           

But after their disobedience, they became mortal. Hardship entered the world, and struggle, and death. At this time we first read about childbirth; at this time that first couple first learns of childbirth. Now, when they see each other’s nakedness they understand that they will have children, and that they will die. Children are thus, in a sense, a replacement for a lost immortality.

            . . .

You may have written a book, or not; you may have had children, or not; but in some way it will be true for you, that you have sought a replacement for your lost immortality. Such is indeed our duty and our privilege in this world; the “curse” of toil and labor is also a blessing to fallen humanity. There is joy in work, joy in art, joy in children; the toilsomeness of it all does not remove the joy. But what is hard to see is that the joy becomes superficial if we forget that we are naked, i.e. mortal.

Salvation is not to go backwards and recover immortality. It is to move forwards with consciousness that we will return to dust. But, of course, not only that! Salvation is living with the consciousness that there is one who has gone before us into death and through death. He now reigns over all things with true knowledge of good and bad, alive and never to die again.

            . . .

Out & About. I will be at St. Augustine’s in Oak Cliff this Sunday, October 30, preaching at the 8 and 10:15 a.m. Eucharists and giving a talk at 9:15 on “God and the Caregiver”: 1302 W. Kiest Blvd., Dallas.

On Wednesday, November 2, I will give the homily at the 7 p.m. Requiem for All Souls’ Day at Church of the Incarnation: 3966 McKinney Ave., 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."