The hour has struck

Book o’clock has arrived at last!

I will probably make a more festive post later, but first, a meditation. There are special reasons why I chose to set the release date of Ryswyck to Memorial Day. Quite apart from the logistical convenience of launching my book on a, well, memorable date that dovetailed with my project schedule, the theme of bearing witness to the loss of comrades and loved ones in war is a significant thread in this story.

For those who have given “the last full measure of devotion,” the moment has already been folded and purled under the current of the river of time. But for us who bear witness, the moment demands ongoing recognition and respect. To lay down a token offering, to strike a light, to gather up prayers: these seemingly futile acts are the breath of our humanity. If we have forgotten to breathe, they revive us.

Among other things, I wanted to bear witness to the necessity of bearing witness. I wanted to show how indispensable each person is to both the waging of war and the making of peace. It’s no accident that the one character whose sacrifice provides the turning point in the darkest hour is the most ordinary person in the cast.

This and other sacrifices are irreparable losses. But they are not irredeemable gifts. I’ve excerpted a moment of bearing witness from a moment just after the midpoint of the novel, in which Douglas lights a prayer for a lost comrade.

He’d promised Speir he would do this. Not that he knew what he was doing. His mother was no contemplative, and his siblings had scarcely had time to teach him anything but the rudiments of keeping a household light burning. All offerings are acceptable, said the sage. Douglas hoped that was true. There was a saying that paired with that: Only offerings are acceptable. That left out displays for others, gifts secretly intended to be temporary, and counters for negotiation, Douglas supposed. His hands were empty, even of the means to negotiate…

Douglas took his light to an empty cleft in the undressed rock. He tipped a few hot, clear drops onto the rock and the crusts of older prayers, and held his light in the cleft until it was anchored.

“He died as a soldier,” he said quietly to his flame. “But he wasn’t killed as a soldier. I’m bearing witness to that.” A crushing pressure, hardly an emotion, gripped him; he drew a breath against it.

“Their names are eternally spoken,” he finished. Then he bowed and left his offering of defiance before the burning lights.

Full, perfect, and sufficient

It’s funny how you read something referencing a particular text or situation, and then lo and behold, you run into another reference to that thing soon after. There’s a word for this, a Greek one, I think, which basically says that the only thing funny about it is that you noticed it. But never mind that.

So last month I picked up Fleming Rutledge’s massive book on the Crucifixion — which includes a whole section devoted to rehabilitating Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo? — and yesterday I ran across a link to this article by Elizabeth A. Johnson, a theologian I greatly admire, dismissing both Anselm and the whole theory of substitutionary atonement, root and branch.

Now, I’m not sure I really want to get in the middle of this. I like both Rutledge and Johnson, and I agree with much of what each has to say, and enjoy engaging with the rest, and if they were guest speakers on a panel together I would happily sit in my seat and not trouble myself to go to the audience mic with a question.

But this is my blog, and it’s Holy Week, and not only have I been thinking about the exigencies of forgiveness for a long, long time, it’s baked into the original story I told myself that then eventually became Ryswyck. So I guess we’re doing this. If theology is not your thing, feel free to jump back onto the platform before this train pulls out.

One of the arguments that Fleming Rutledge made so powerfully was that when we talk about sin in this context, we’re not talking about an aggregate of discrete and somewhat arbitrary infractions, to which God’s wrathful response is equally arbitrary. No, what we’re talking about is the Power that moves us to gloat over others’ misfortunes, to torture, dehumanize, and deface — in defiance, seemingly, of social and mental health — both collectively and in the secret of our own hearts. I could pull ten headlines at random from today’s news in illustration of this, so I won’t belabor the point. Today and every day, things are being made horribly, infuriatingly wrong: and on more than one level we are helpless to put them right.

I doubt Johnson has a serious disagreement with this. But Johnson isn’t the only one to find the narrative theme of substitution-as-atonement dissatisfying, arbitrary, and facile. It’s made worse by contemporary evangelistic churches who insist that this narrative theme is the only theme of the cross that has any theological meaning. If you don’t acknowledge that Jesus died for your sins…well, you know what awaits you.

So far so obvious. But one of the problems I wound up having with Rutledge’s book is her dismissal of “forgiveness” as an ineffective response to the gravity of the evil we are wreaking on this world and on one another. And “forgiveness” as generally understood really isn’t adequate: but even before reading Rutledge’s book I have long thought that the general understanding of “forgiveness” leaves people not knowing what forgiveness really is.

So for this here blog I am going to outline the narrative theme of forgiveness as I’ve worked over in my mind for twenty years.

It started with a reread of Hannah Hurnard’s allegory Hinds’ Feet on High Places. In this story, Much-Afraid is brought by the Shepherd’s path to the Precipice Injury. At first she refuses in panic to try to climb it, but eventually she obeys and toils her way upward. Halfway up the cliff she rests in a cleft, where she meets a small flower growing from a tiny crack in the rock. When she asks the flower its name, it says, “My name is ‘Bearing the Cost,’ but some call me Forgiveness.”

That name stuck with me, more than anything else in that story did. I hadn’t really thought of forgiveness as bearing the cost before, but I could see that it was true, that when someone wrongs another, it’s the hurt one who has to pay the damages. Even on the grossest monetary level, if you empty my bank account, you may be sorry and give the money back later, but in the meantime I still have to figure out how to pay my rent and buy my groceries. And if you do harm to my soul with physical or psychological abuse, it might make things easier if you were sorry, but it would still have to be me who cleans up the inner mess.

Forgiveness isn’t anything to do with repairing a relationship with the wronger, or finding a sense of compassion for them, or even acknowledging the wronger in any way; it isn’t about devising a comfortable way to think about the situation, or superficially dismissing the charges, or contorting oneself into believing it’s one’s own fault after all. No, it’s definitely the wronger’s fault. To forgive is to say, “I am not going to wait for an apology; I’m going to own this mess and get on with cleaning it up.” It is entirely possible to forgive a wrong and still be angry at the person who did it. And sometimes the hurts we do to one another are so great that we just don’t have the wherewithal to repair the damages. We seek for help wherever we can find it, with varying success.

We can’t hurt God in the same way we can hurt one another. But sin is damage that God cares about and has to fix. So then, narratively speaking, it makes complete sense to understand the cross, “an instrument of shameful death” that takes to an extreme all the public degradation, dehumanizing, humiliating, torturous abuse we humans can devise, as God’s way of “bearing the cost” of not just our “sins,” our discrete and piddling infractions and dishonesties, but the power of evil that has roots in every one of us.

So why doesn’t Anselm discuss the resurrection in his treatise? I don’t know, maybe because it’s implied? How many thousands of people were tortured to death on crosses? To take all that cost upon oneself and then rise victorious — that is what the Christian draws upon for hope. Not just hope for the wrongs they have done, but for the wrongs done against them, that they are too poor to pay the damages of. Our insurance policies are a mockery of this divine subsidy; there are no premiums, no deductibles, no schedules of benefits. Give us today our daily bread, and forgive our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. It’s all one thing.

So I don’t subscribe to crude notions of arbitrary sacrifice, no. But anyone who’s ever had something to forgive knows that it is a labor and a struggle, even without the question of reconciliation. This is how the story goes.

It’s a story that has fascinated me for as long as I can remember, and it’s the kernel of the story that Ryswyck is now. When I first conceived this story, I sketched the character of General Barklay as a simple monster, and the story as being about the struggle of various characters to forgive his wrongs. But as I wrote, Barklay himself refused to be that simple. He insisted on being a mix of decency and selfishness, honesty and mendacity. He wanted both to repent and to hold out for justification. His wrongs are both personal and systemic, not his fault and entirely his fault. No mere substitutionary sacrifice could address his situation. Yet the costs are really there, and have to be borne.

There are endless stories to be written on this theme. Because it’s written on the walls of the world itself.

Postscript from the John Spencer files

Further to my last, I heard back from the SET Game customer service. It turns out they have decided to remove QRE from the dictionary of valid words altogether. So the change is not arbitrary, and I’m not crazy thinking it’s not really a word.

Meanwhile, I have given up recreational complaining for Lent. It’s amazing how when you give something up for a time, you realize just how much you were doing it. It turns out rants are a significant part of my day, go fig. I’ll have to provide genuwyne quality content without!

And finally, I am getting close to a cover reveal! I have seen a draft of the cover for Ryswyck and it’s going to be awesome. Watch this space!

Catgut my tongue

One of these days, I keep thinking, I’m going to write one of my snarky posts for this blog; I mean, it’s not like I don’t have anything to be salty about. But today is not that day.

The approach of Christmas is always one of those prismatic times, where we touch the meridians of previous experience and feel them thrum. I wound up plucking and strumming a lot of my own inward strings this week, some for the sake of sermon composition and some because, well, because it’s just the nadir of the year and I wind up doing that in the holy dark. So for my post this week I will just share two of the things in the cedar box of my heart and let them stand as commentary on the whole.

The first is a poem I wrote several years ago, as a response and counterpoint to Psalm 80. That psalm is one of the readings for this day, and while I was working on my sermon I remembered that I had written the poem, remembered the inward aridity that had begged for expression; and so afterward I dug the poem out and reproduce it here.

Flower Cross (Psalm 80)
The real problem with determinism
Is the hardening of allegory into concrete.
All those lessons I failed to learn,
All those unhappy endings that meant even less
Than I thought, all the glacial grooves of pathology
That started before me and will not end with me,
And which I fought so feebly and uselessly,
Become the antarctic mutterings
Of ice shelves scouring themselves
Over and over. In heat or in cold
The aridity is all.


I could crumble to dust where I stand.
At one time I could taste the hot salt
Of my own tears; then I could taste
Only the memory; then nothing at all.


Oh, look at me, look at me,
Let your face open to me in recognition
Like the doors that do not exist
For me to beat my fists on.
If you know me, tendrils will rise
And curl over the dust, running
With warm green sap, twining about me,
Threading below my fingers and over the palms
Of my open hands outstretched, dripping
In pale green finials of blossoming filigree,
Heavy with nectar, ringing with scent
Like the cicada’s song from where I stand
To the sun-sparked newborn shore.


Like new evening and new morning I would be
In the moment you saw me.

Yet even in such a time, one can be shaken into real tears without warning: I remember during that same period, one morning close to Christmas, I was driving alone on a country road eastward into the rising sun, and NPR was interviewing Eric Whitacre about his virtual choir. Then they played the piece he had written for it, and all of a sudden I was shedding uncontrollable tears, the gold-white light flaring as I wept and listened.

This kind of thing is so not like me. I am contained whether I want to be or not, my emotional reaction time slow, my sense of awe or worship or grief always slightly out of orb with my surroundings. Even music, which often reaches me uninhibited, doesn’t unhasp my control. Except, obviously, for a very few pieces. I don’t know what it is about this piece that does it to me, but it nearly always does. I get the sense sometimes, when people talk about this piece, that it fails to be truly highbrow in some unspoken way — a little embarrassing, maybe, a little overearnest. That could all be true. But it will never matter, not to my guts and tear ducts.

May the light break over you, like the songs of the morning stars, this holiday.

People look east

Stars, keep the watch. When night is dim
One more light the bowl shall brim,
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together.
People, look east and sing today:
Love, the star, is on the way.

Even though I’ve been blogging on various platforms on and off for close to twenty years, it’s been a while since I made a regular practice of it. After all, it’s not one of those things one has to do. And twenty years ago I had a lot of youthful assumptions about the significance of my chronicles of daily life that I don’t have now. Now, of course, people upload pictures of their meals to Facebook — including me, sometimes — and microblogging is now a thing. Long-form blogging has sort of taken on a sepia tinge.

But now that I have my own space for it, I’m taking it up again. Because it’s not so much the chronicle as the gestalt that seems significant to me now, and the less pixellated the better.

Today is the second Sunday of Advent, a season I have loved since I first came to know it, in part because it speaks to our true condition at this time of year. Advent doesn’t pressure us to be merry. It doesn’t center itself on consumer connectedness, and if it plucks at the elbows of our priorities at all, it is to draw our attention to what’s outside the stream rather than plunge us more deeply in it. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, it gives full weight and acknowledgment to the narrowing range of sunlight as winter solstice approaches. It’s the cool, crisp shadow to the frenetic joy of the holiday season.

Every people who experiences this contraction of daylight has a tradition like Advent, that braids together a thrumming sense of anticipation with the recognition of darkness. And my characters, I reasoned, would be no different. So I fashioned for them the solstice holiday of Lightfall, complete with chant and bonfire and the Midnight Reel. And a bawdy songbook. And a cadenza in the darkness, sung in each community by a chosen voice:

This was the hour, she sang, when darkness seemed to have mastered all. When all that had been home was a country of forgetting. When the air was a burden and the ground an uneasy resting place. An hour when even the balefires were dimmed to ashes, swallowed in the wake of the poisonous inferno.

The bad times had made it so that the only possible worship was to make a virtue of loss: in the long generations since, every people had crept their way out of darkness little by little, but no one ever forgot that the love of wisdom was found in making offering. And there was always something one could give over. To make an offering, even of defeat and loss, was to kindle a light. All darkness apprehends its own ending.

From that moment of offering in the darkness, the light opens out again, little by little: both literally, in the reel of the earth’s axis, and figuratively, as we find our way and recover our lives, our breath, our joy. In Ryswyck, events drive on and the light contracts to its deepest dark; and from that moment hope and possibility widen out again, invisible at first but gathering its strength. 

It’s the days after winter solstice that I find my creative resurgence, after the losses of the fall. And this is the sort of image I steel myself with when reading the news headlines, when workday business closes after sunset, when I contemplate the uncertainties of my own life and the lives of my communities and the fruits of my daily efforts.

All darkness apprehends its own ending.