“A Vast Conspiracy of Life”
Or, we could tell the story like this:
Two thousand years ago, another row of stitches: complete. On a quiet capsule planet in a quiet solar system, here we are in the aftermath of so much interstellar chaos. On a planet brought together by collision, with a moon formed of cosmic spin-off, on land cooled from magma, then warmed again and again from the clutches of ice: here we are.
And here in the bleak midwinter, birds complete their migrations, scattering seed where they feast and leaving gleanings from their nests. At night, photosynthesizers exhale, releasing unto us an air that will not choke us. Pill bugs relieve the soil of its heavy metals – its cadmium, its lead. Earthworms reclaim our refuse. Oyster mushrooms remediate land polluted by oil. And dung beetles undertake the rest, rolling away the matter that might otherwise entomb us.
Restore us, God; make your face shine so that we may be saved.
We are caught in a vast conspiracy of life, and despite our best efforts, death in its finality eludes us.
We could tell the story like this, and you are a part of it – descended from mayhem, from primordial soup. All of us from the same elements. Arisen from the same lightning, the same oceanic womb, the same breath brooding over the waters.
And you are also descended from a species that made a choice one day to begin to carry its wounded. And we know this from fossil records: the skeleton of an old woman whose broken femur had healed. She was beloved enough, her people were beloving enough, to carry her as they traveled, lest she succumb otherwise from a certain death sentence. Yours is a lineage of peoples who decided to risk a little weakness for love.
You are descended from a species that buries its dead and that painted delicately, lovingly, in caves where the painters would not return. From Creator and creators, made in Their image, who put ochre to rock and asked us not to forget them.
The mycelium – the mycorrhizal network – is not only the nervous system of the mushroom kin-dom; it is a transport network, a superhighway of connectivity through which plants exchange nutrients and bacteria are stimulated. It is the wire through which trees gift each other food. Once we dig a little, we find unexpected interconnection. Togetherness out of loneliness. Community out of chaos.
And God said, “Let us make humanity in our image, after our likeness.”
And so it may be that the image of God is not you and is not me but is us. It may be that the image of God is the synaptic leap, the gulf between neurons where signals make meaning. The image of God may yet be the mycelium. And is that so different from a species that decided to stop being alone: to, instead, carry its wounded, bury its dead, and paint a reminder into the future that they were once there?
We are made in Their image, which is another way to say that I, alone, am not Their image, which is another way to say that you, alone, are not Their image. But we are.
You are descended from secrets, from love that did not start out as love, from pain that did not start out as pain. You are descended from people who crossed lines they said they never would. You come from train track crossers and ocean walkers.
And wouldn’t you know it? You have your great-great-great’s brow, your great-great’s lisp, and your great-great-great-great’s plucky sense of humor. How they survived is how you will, too: none of us alone. Look how much greatness is distilled into you.
How many sets of greats do you come from? How many great-greats and great-great-greats? And if we repeat it, if we trace back our greatness, the greatest of all is the source of all life. It is also from Them you’re descended.
You are descended from dreams. Aren’t we all? Either from dreams for which we had hoped or visions unbidden in the midst of waking hours. Someone, some-great, dreamed that someday you’d be here against the odds. They dreamed that you would step into your inheritance: eons of chaos still being tamed and smoothed and braided. They dreamed of life, that you would not forget them – and that dream took the shape of you.
And somewhere along the way, someone told you the great, great story of Jesus. A story descended from many retellings. A story from a scripture that is inescapably communal. A story from a people who came to know it through its telling. All of our early experience of this scripture is communal. It was not a hidden-away quiet time or a solitary practice. It was and remains a many-voiced library of spiritual experience. It takes the shape of us.
In a small Palestinian town in an age of chaos – an age of violence: the queerest of parenthood stories. An incomprehensible child from an incomprehensible conception. A willing gestator, the willing spectators. A second-parent adoption. There was choice in every step along the way. The tenderness with which God asks again and again: do you consent to this vast conspiracy of life?
Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.
In the beginning and in the end, the child is helpless, cradled by his mother. He belongs to family, to community, to the earth that sustains him, the river that rebirths him, the air that co-mingles his breath and others’. (And he belongs also to the earth that entombs him, the river that washes him, and the air that becomes him, fitted with his spirit. But that is a story for a different time.)
Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled.
It is the web of it all, the web of him, that saves us. It is the web of us. And however outstretched your hands are as you draw the web, draw it farther still. A vast conspiracy of life, God-with-us, and despite our best efforts, death in its finality eludes us.
Ophelia Hu Kinney (she/her) is a storyteller most frequently translating experiences of divinity and wonder into word and art. She is a child of immigrants, a spouse, and a sister. She serves as the Director of Communications at Reconciling Ministries Network and the Worship Coordinator at HopeGateWay, a Methodist-inspired community of faith in Portland, Maine.