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Like a cancer, we spread across the land,
stretching ourselves to the furthest extent,
crowding out
and devouring
all else
in our beautiful, mysterious home.

It doesn’t have to be this way.
There’s a better way of living:
one that doesn’t exploit
or ravage
or waste.

We can live
and move
simply,
slowly,
graciously,
intentionally
upon the land:

This good gift from the God
who loves us even though
we are bent toward wreckage,
who sees us in our quiet and our despair,
who knows us in our ugly and sublime,
who calls us to be filled
and live
as new creations
within Creation.

That is our only hope.
That is our only path forward.
As a new kind of humanity.

The ink is for me

I can’t quite remember when it first began,
but I’ve returned to the practice again and again.
I write out my prayers in ink on a page,
but I simply write over the previous days.

Words cover words, and colors collide.
But God sees and He knows all the meaning inside.
I can never go back to recover what’s written,
can’t gather the words or take back what I’ve given.
The Trustworthy One reads sense in this riot
of thinking and inking, of words in the quiet.

Even when all of my ink pots are empty,
and despair has arisen in darkness to tempt me,
my God will still hear me and read what I’ve penned
though no marks are made with the pen in my hand.

Holes

Holes pierce me
mostly through.
Each goes deep,
loosing what’s within.
It pours from me,
rich and thick and beautiful.
It cuts through the haze
and whirl around me,
setting off each shade
of the brand new sky.
These holes, you see,
expose the me,
that no one else
can grasp or see:
the me
that is made
entirely
of light.

The Sound of Stillness

This.
This is where I belong:
Amongst the birds
and streams
and skittish squirrels.
Out here where wind
through leaves is more 
common than human voices,
where the noise is a susurrus
that does not break
the quiet, 
but amplifies it,
and makes it more
complete.
This quiet is not silent,
and is better for being filled.

I wonder if the quiet of God’s voice might flow from non-coercion. God will not force our hand, and so he will not shout. God will not demand our attention, will not force himself upon us.

And noise is a kind of force. It demands attention, distracts us, and forces its way through our defenses. God speaks for all who would hear, but does not draw attention to it.

The speech of God is no assault.

We Sow Echoes

I am limited.
Finite.
Closed and constrained by many things:
entropy,
the “law” of diminishing returns,
embodiment.

And yet,
I am bounded by abundance.
A world spun out in space
with all it needs for everyone to thrive.
There is more than enough to go around,
if only we could see it so.
If only we would see it so.

And so, these words fall
from open hands.
My small share.
These few seeds cast
in faith and hope and love
into the dirt
to see what grows.
Words sown like those
that spoke forth everything
in a concussion of sound
splitting the silence like an atom
to irradiate the nothing
with all this abundant gratuity
we call
Life.

Words, small as seeds,
sown in good soil
can change everything.
They have before
and will again.

So,
sow generously,
abundantly,
gratuitously!
There will always be more
to give,
to receive.

We sow echoes
that somehow bring new things.

In Progress

This post is a little glimpse into the way my mind works. Not intentionally so, but more as a natural side-effect of me sitting down with a pen and paper to record my thoughts in the moment.

So, I’m reading a few books right now, and one thing I love about doing that is seeing connections between them in ways that feel immediate and fresh, unforced and natural in ways that prolonged, intentional reflection can’t achieve. Don’t get me wrong. I love prolonged and intentional reflection. It’s where some of my best and most transformative thoughts have come from. But there’s something powerful about immediacy and spontaneity.

So, I want to pay attention right now to how captivated I am by the books I’m reading (particularly Nona the Ninth and The Citadel of the Autarch) and see where that leads me.

The first thing I see is the use across both stories (and their predecessors) af the term, lictor, which makes me pause to look up the word. What does it mean? Essentially, a lictor was a Roman bodyguard, a specially-selected civil servant with the right to carry out capital punishment. This makes sense for Severian. That’s his job. But what about the lictors in Nona’s (and Gideon’s and Harrow’s) world? Since I’m not done with Nona and so much of the book is told in flashbacks to John’s early days (or at least dreams in which he tells the story of those early days to Harrowhark), I think I’ll get there.

But the prevalence and importance of death to the stories is the next thing that stands out to me. In neither story is death a thing to be avoided at all costs like it is for most of us in 21st century America. It reminds me of my PhD research and the beautiful train of thought that sees death as a mercy, rather than a punishment, as good part of a good universe. A part that will (perhaps) eventually be no more. But as hard and painful as it is for those left behind, it is a profoundly natural and necessary part of God’s good design.

After all, life comes from death. New growth from destruction. And this connects to a third thing I’ve been reading: Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman. I have in mind the prodigal, Destruction, also known as Olethros, which has the connotation of destruction that leads to regrowth or rebirth. Not wanton, but targeted with future flourishing in mind. It’s the same idea as that of pruning the vine so the remaining branches will bear more fruit. Destruction with a positive connotation. Destruction which precedes renewal.

What a thought.

And it’s a thought that feels especially appropriate given the state of the world today. How much in our world needs to be destroyed so renewal can occur? How much must crumble, be torn down and destroyed, so that what is good and true and beautiful can emerge? So much. So much.

Within the Church and without.

Lord, Olethros is hard, but it is needed. It will hurt, but sometimes pain is required for healing to take place. And that is what the world needs today: healing. But the boils must be lanced so the infection can be cleansed. The festering rot of racism and systemic injustice must be healed. The strip-mining of creation must be stopped and salved. The inequities of capitalism run amok must cease so that a new and better world can emerge.

Lord, help us dream better dreams. Dreams of a world made whole, where everybody belongs and peace (which is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice) prevails. We need to dream your dreams—imagining what you have envisioned and sub-creating and only we can—in partnership with you who are the True Dreamer and Creative among and over us all. Let us join you in imagining the world as it could be, sot hat all can flourish and thrive, bearing good fruit that feeds us all.

The Tomb

There is a grief beyond words,
a finality
found in this tomb.

The Giver of Life
and Defeater of Death
has died
and lies here
shrouded and buried.

The hillside’s open maw
has swallowed not just my Lord’s body –
broken and bloodied by senseless torture –
but also every last scrap of my hope.
Nothing remains.

So here I’ll sit
in the dark outside His tomb,
and weep
for the loss of his light
and the death of my dreams.

What else can I do?

Who can do for my Lord
what he did for others?
Who but he can reach
down into death
and raise him up to life again?
Who but he?

The Broken Earth Trilogy

In her brilliant short story collection, How Long Til Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin’s lead-off story “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” riffs on Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” to devastating effect. I’m not a crier under most circumstances, just ask my wife and she’ll confirm that. But at the end of Jemisin’s story, I cried because her vision for how life could be was so beautiful. LeGuin’s story essentially asks the question: “If a society’s thriving required the exploitation and suffering of a single individual – just one – would that be worth it?” For those who can’t agree to that condition, their “only” choice is to walk away. And I use those quotes because Jemisin’s response is exactly the right one when presented with binary options: look for a third way.

I remember my hermeneutics professor in seminary encouraging us to walk that very road. It’s very rare that there are only two options, and typically when given only two options to choose from, neither is adequate. So, find a third way.

Jemisin’s third way is to stay and fight. Fight the system that demands either submission or exploitation. Neither option is good, so let’s fight for a third way. A way in which justice and mercy meet, and everyone has the chance to truly thrive. No one needs to be excluded or exploited. No one.

The Broken Earth trilogy feels like an extended meditation on the same theme. What would we do if an entire group of people is subjugated, oppressed, made into chattel, feared, controlled, and lynched for the benefit of everyone else? Does that sound like any society in the primary world? Mmhmm.

Would we buy into the system and seek our own personal thriving within it? Would we remove ourselves and live isolated from everyone else? Or would we break the intentionally flawed system and build something that works for everyone?

Unsurprisingly, most people in Jemisin’s world make the same choices that white America made throughout its sad history. Buy in wholesale, or pretend the problem doesn’t exist. But we don’t have to choose between maintaining the status quo and burning the whole thing down. We, like Jemisin’s characters, can choose instead to bring justice. That will require burning. It will also require maintaining parts of the status quo. But the end result needs to be a new thing entirely.

You see, Jemisin brilliantly places her readers inside the perspective of people within her world’s exploited group. We see how they feel when they are bred like cattle, threatened with death for simply being who and what they are, when their emotions are manipulated and twisted against them, and a whole host of terrors are inflicted upon them. And she does this by laying the groundwork in book one. She shows how the exploited participate in their own exploitation, and believe the lies that this way is truly what’s best for everyone. We see how they are taught to buy into the system as the way things “have to be.” In book two, she spells out the options and makes the sides clear. And because she recognizes that this is not a binary decision that is stuck in a duality of warring opposites, there are more than two sides. Finally, in book three she advances the story to its beautiful conclusion while narrating the history that brought us to where her story started.

Since I just mentioned the ending, let me digress for just a moment to say that Jemisin’s ending is one of the best I’ve ever read. Wrapping up a series in a satisfying way is hard. I know this, not because I’ve done it, but because I’ve read enough series to see that not every one can do it well. But the ending to The Broken Earth trilogy is so good that I reread it several times, and I teared up each time. (I know! This, from the guy who rarely cries!) Jemisin’s ending is just so fitting, so relevant, so necessary. When it comes to making the world better, “Don’t be patient. Don’t ever be. This is the way a new world begins.” (Man! Even typing those words gets me again.) Channeling Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, Jemisin emphasizes that we cannot wait for a “more convenient season.” (And yes, I feel the resonance between the imagined convenient season in Dr. King’s quote and the Seasons in Jemisin’s world.)

Because of course there can’t be a more convenient season when the third way – the way of justice – requires a breaking. The old way must be broken for a just way to emerge. Would the city of Castrima be what it is without the magnitude of this Season? No. Would any see the need for roggas and stills (I’m deliberately using the in-world, offensive slang here – and you don’t need to try hard to hear the phonetic resonance between rogga and a different slur in the primary world) to work together if not for the destruction Alabaster brought about? Not a chance. But the destruction opens the door to a new world. No Fulcrums. No Guardians. Just people.

The destruction of this trilogy is not senseless. It is like rebreaking a bone so it can set properly, so real healing can take place without further pain and deformity. It is not wholesale, wanton destruction. It is targeted. Intentional. Hopeful.

The same can be said of the entire trilogy, in fact. It is targeted, intentional, and hopeful.

The exploitation built into the system of Jemisin’s world goes all the way down and all the way back. Society in the present is structured around use castes. It’s incredible. Because the earth is broken by an exploitative system, even the way humans view themselves and each other has been broken. The focus shifts from personhood to utility. And this is narrated powerfully in the story’s main character. In her story, yes, but mostly in her names. You see, she was given the name Damaya by her family, but that family feared her and didn’t know how to love. So, they gave her away to the Fulcrum where she was given the name Syenite. But at the Fulcrum she was exploited and treated like an animal that could be bred and controlled. Finally, there’s Essun, the name she chooses for herself, the name she is called by those who come to know and love her.

Going back in time, Syl Anagist used the lowest caste as literal fuel for their progress, and when they recognized that those resources would eventually be used up they began to adjust the definition of who fits in that lowest caste. Who can be used and who cannot? But they know, too, that even with an ever-adjusting and expanding lowest caste, their resources are finite, and so they need a new option. They have a chance to choose a third way, one that refuses systemic exploitation. But instead, they are unable to see that such a system is evil, even when it no longer exploits people (now, the lowest caste probably wasn’t seen as human, and in the backstory we’re given Houwha, Kelenli, Gaewha, and the others like them certainly aren’t). So, they direct their exploitative system toward the Earth itself – the very source of their life and their magic. Oh yeah, magic! Tons of it.

And it’s at this point, that Jemisin draws a line between social justice and environmental justice. It is the same culture of oppression and exploitation that treats people, plants, animals, water, land – all the things on which our lives depend – as mere things to be used. It is a system that cannot see other living beings as worthy of dignity and respect because they have lives of their own and because we all have creaturehood in common. The environmental drama is the sea in which the drama of social justice swims (forgive the sloppy metaphor). Oh, and by the way, the only people who can avoid the Seasons (unavoidable environmental catastrophes that occur about once a generation) are those who are truly in power. The Guardians alone have the luxury to retreat from the Seasons and are therefore unaffected by them. So too, the rich and powerful in our world continue to exploit and strip-mine our planet while believing they will be insulated against the consequences.

This is one of the reasons I love good fantasy. It takes reality in the primary world and makes it strange. And in so doing, it helps us see the primary world more clearly. In The Broken Earth trilogy, Jemisin repositions the direction of oppression and exploitation to roggas (those who can do magic), while imagining a world where the social construct of race isn’t a thing and everyone accepts people we would place within the LGBTQ+ community. In this world, people are people, unless they can do magic. Then they’re dangerous and in need of exploitation. A narrative must be created that will convince roggas (orogenes, magic-users) that they are dangerous and must be controlled for the safety of the world. By clearly transposing the direction of fear and hatred from race and sexual identity to magic in her secondary world, Jemisin makes the parallel unmistakable. I can’t read the trilogy and miss the tragic parallel with the primary world. We have done and continue to do to people of other “races” and “sexual orientations” what they did to their orogenes. We too are exploiting the planet so that some can experience short-term gains. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

We can make a better world, one that works for everyone. It won’t be easy, and it will be costly. But a world built on cooperation rather than exploitation is worth it.

Chiang, Julian, and the Story of Our Lives

​”Nothing erases the past. There is repentance, there is atonement, and there is forgiveness. That is all, but that is enough.” Ted Chiang closes The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate with these simple yet profound words, wrapping up a nested set of time travel tales in a radically different – and radically human – way.

​This lesson is at the core of emotional and spiritual health. For the characters, it was gained through heartache and regret, making it a message for all people, in all times, regardless of faith tradition or lack thereof. We cannot move forward into the future as healthy, whole individuals unless we have looked honestly at the past, not seeking to erase it but to integrate it, owning the hurts we’ve caused and facing the hurts inflicted upon us. But we can’t stop there. We must proceed to repent (or turn from a hurtful way and toward a better one), find atonement (reconciliation, restoration, or “at-one-ment” in Richard Rohr’s wording). And both give and receive forgiveness. That is all we can do with our past, but that is enough.

​I’ve been thinking a lot about Chiang’s stories, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate and The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling, for the past few months. Both stories revolve around wrongs done in the main characters’ past that have direct and dramatic impact on their present and future, and­ – to my mind at least – they have a clear connection to an idea found in Julian of Norwich, St. Bonaventure, Thomas Aquinas, and others: that sin – or hurt in the case of these stories – is behovely or coveniens.

​These two words essentially mean that something “‘fits’, it is ‘just so’ and that there is something it fits with.”[1] Theologian Denys Turner writes that:

the understanding of the conveniens within high medieval theology was of what we might call a ‘narratival’ kind, or perhaps equally, of an ‘aesthetic’ kind. Think of it this way: the conveniens, that which is ‘behovely’, possesses not a law-like intelligibility – of that kind which one provides when explaining something against the background of the causal mechanisms and sequences which generate it, but rather that which you provide for a particular event, or kind of event, when you provide a place for it within a particular individual’s story. It is conveniens, therefore, not on account of being explained by a universal and timeless causal hypothesis, but on account of its fitting within a narrative bound by the particularities of time and place. We grasp the convenientia of an event when we grasp how it is ‘just so’ that it should happen that way, that ‘just so’ being something which we see when we have got hold of the plot which makes it just right that it should happen thus.[2]

​So, if one of the people of Tivland from The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling were to explain this concept, they would say that sin – or the hurts in our past – are mimi rather than vough. It is right in the narrative of our lives, it fits just so, and attempting to erase it would be attempting to erase part of the story of our lives (and speaking of Story of Your Life, isn’t this also the key insight about time that Louise gains from the heptapods?). The hurt fits within our narrative so that removing it, even if we could, makes our story senseless. Every piece, every person, every action taken or not taken shapes the person we become. As Turner continues to say, “[E]ven if everything in a narrative could have, logically, been otherwise, when we say of what does happen that it happened convenientius, we say, because we see, that it was just right that it should happen so, and not otherwise. It ‘fits’. There is a plot to it. Its contingency is not that of the arbitrary.”[3]

​In other words, hurt and pain fit in the plot of humanity’s story, but that does not mean things had to be this particular way. There is no element of logical necessity to sin. In this sense, reality is, by definition, conveniens because it is the story we – or the characters in Chiang’s stories – are living in.

​Julian of Norwich asks the question of why things are this way, but calls it folly: “in my folly, I had often wondered . . . why, through the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the beginning of sin was not prevented; for then, it seemed to me, all would have been well.”[4] Julian’s folly exists in believing that only by preventing the beginning of sin could all have been well. The problem in Julian’s thinking was the belief that only in a sin-free world could all things be well instead of seeing “that in whatever world God has created, ‘all manner of thing would be well’; consequently, in a world in which there is sin, in which sin is inevitable, all can be well too, and sin’s inevitability is part of the picture, or if you like, part of that plot, of all manner of thing being well.”[5]

Turner believes that this “is the theological meaning of ‘behovely’ and of conveniens: that sin is ‘behovely’ means that sin is needed as part of the plot – or, if you like, that the plot needs sin.”[6] Clearly, there is no plot to Chiang’s stories without the hurt the characters experienced, and Chiang helps us to see that the same holds true for the story of each individual human life. He narrates stories that help us grasp the reality that our inability to change the past, as he says in the story notes for The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate, isn’t necessarily a cause for sadness.

Turner proceeds to explain that in Julian’s thinking “it is only if we know that everything that happens, for good or ill, is part of the plot which God has scripted, that we can know that it is conveniens that it did happen.”[7]Even if, we cannot or do not want to say that life is following a script, that does not change the fact the life has happened in the particular way it did and no other. We will remain forever stuck in regret over the past or trapped in the malleability of our memory if we cannot honestly grapple with the past in the clear light of day.

It follows for Turner’s reading of Julian, and applies to these two stories from Chiang, that “the amount and intensity of sin in the world is exactly right, exactly as it should be, conveniens, ‘behovely’: none of it necessary, all of it freely done, and all of it part of the plot, all of it part of what was intended.”[8]

When we look at the world in this light, look at our lives, we are empowered to see along with The Truth of Fact’s narrator that “The point is not to prove you were right; the point is to admit you were wrong.” We are freed up to say – and honestly mean – “if you think I’ve been less than honest, tell me. I want to know.”

In light of all this, what else can we do with our past but repent, atone, and forgive? That’s all we can do, but it’s enough. 


Story of Your Life is available in Chiang’s collection, Stories of Your Life and Others. You can find The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling in his collection, Exhalation. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate appears in both collections.


[1] Denys Turner, “‘Sin Is Behovely’ in Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love,” Modern Theology 20, no. 3 (2004): 409.

[2] Turner, 415–16.

[3] Turner, 416.

[4]  Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, trans. Barry Windeatt (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015), 74 (LT 27).

[5] Turner, “Sin Is Behovely,” 418.

[6] Turner, 418.

[7] Turner, 418.

[8] Turner, 419.