In Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler writes:
…Kindness eases Change.
Love quiets fear.
…Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe. …(T)hat makes it the most powerful reality, and just another word for God.
…It’s a hard truth. Too hard for some people to take, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
…(I)n the Bible, God does things. Things happen and he reacts. He makes things. He gets angry. He destroys things…. To take action is to change. It’s to go from inaction to action. …It is no good to say that something is true because the Bible says it is true and then forget that a few pages later the Bible says — or shows — something completely different.
…Every time any god is accepted by a new group of people, that god changes.
…(W)e can do something no other animal species has ever had the option to do. We can choose: We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up.
As far as I’m concerned, Octavia Butler was one of the few actual prophets of our day. In her two “Parable” novels (1993 and 1998), she predicated Donald Trump to a T. That specific prediction is another blog post for another time. For now, I’m most interested in what those novels have to say about “Change” — and how I connect her thoughts with the altered world we’ve experienced in the past 18 months as a result of COVID-19.
In the Christian denomination I grew up in, one of the most collectively beloved (and, in my opinion, mostly unexamined) beliefs is: “God doesn’t change.” Sometimes this is phrased as “God doesn’t change his mind” or “God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” and so forth. The idea is to emphasize that in an ever-changing, tumultuous world, humans can find comfort in knowing that God is steadfast as a mountain in a storm. Stable, secure, safe. Unassailable by human question.
But then we have what Butler points out: in the scriptures, God changes from inaction to action; God changes from calm to wrathful; God changes from creative to destructive; God changes from gentle to harsh. God adapts to the humans God interacts with. In the scriptures, God changes almost constantly.
In my head, I can hear my old training (dare I say “programming”?): “well, that’s God changing behaviors according to the situation; that’s not God changing personality. The essence of God does not change.”
But maybe so.
“Yeah,” says my programming, “everything in the physical universe changes. But God isn’t physical. Spiritual is eternal.”
But what if “spiritual” and “eternal” don’t mean what tradition insists they mean?
One of my favorite quotes I came across last year:
And an image from one of my favorite shows, too. *rejoices*
I have never subscribed to the idea that “it’s always been done this way, so we should keep doing it this way.” I have never believed that “if the King James Version was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for us.” (Please accept my apologies for this very inside joke.) My M.O. has always been to look at A Thing We Do and ask myself, “Is this Thing in its nature a Good Thing To Do? Or is it actually A Neutral Thing and we’re doing it only because that’s how our brains are accustomed to thinking? And might it even be A Bad Thing?”
Along those lines, you should know: I am not writing any of this because I want to talk anyone into agreeing with me. Beyond Butler, I’m not citing sources; if y’all want them, you can use Google just as easily as I can. One of the most liberating ways-of-being I have learned over the past few years is to relinquish the drive to convince anyone that what I believe is right or that I believe the right things.
The Christian denomination I grew up in considers itself “conservative” (for the most part), by which I mean that a great portion of its members would define themselves by that word, and most church practices and teachings fall into the “conservative” category. When I got old enough with enough experience and enough vocabulary growth, I realized that no one had ever explained to me exactly what we were conserving.
Me: So…what exactly are we conserving?
Them: The will of God. The commands of God. The Christian way of life. Morals. Values. Ethics. Good. Truth. Justice.
Me: …What about these actions of the church/these Christians?
Them: Well, those people might call themselves Christians, but they’re obviously not really Christians.
Me: But that’s not our call, right? Isn’t that between them and God?
Them: Yes, of course.
Me: Okay, so if we’re conserving morals and values and the will of God, then shouldn’t we speak out against the Bad Things those so-called Christians are doing?
Them: We don’t need to stir up that kind of trouble. God knows we’re doing The Right Things, and that’s all that matters.
Me: But isn’t standing up for truth and right also A Right Thing?
Me: So, can we do this thing right here? I know it’s New, but it’s also Good.
Them: Of course it’s Good. But that’s not how we do it here.
Me: Does God say no?
Them: God says no by implication. And God doesn’t change.
One time, all I wanted to do was paint the main auditorium white, because sitting in its dimness felt like hunkering inside an oppressive cave. I asked the preacher what would have to happen for me to get permission to do that. His reply: “Frankly, all of the old people would have to die first.”
You see how “God doesn’t change” naturally feeds into “we won’t change?”
But what happens to things that don’t change? I am looking out the window at my garden for inspiration.
A seed lies in the ground, waiting. In spite of water and sun saturating the fertile ground, the seed remains inert. The seed doesn’t change. The seed might be dormant…or it might be dead.
A seed sprouts, and two cotyledons emerge. They unfold to the sunlight. They rejoice in the rain. They remain as they are. They don’t change. They wither and die.
A sprout puts out new leaves, more leaves. It lengthens its stem. It grows no further. It withers and dies.
Let’s make it personal.
Cells divide inside of a woman’s uterus. The cells form an embryo. The embryo doesn’t change. The embryo dies and is shed in bloody uterine lining.
An embryo grows into a fetus. The fetus doesn’t change. The fetus dies and has to be forcibly expelled or removed.
If life does not reject and eject what has died inside it, then the toxins of death will poison life and life dies.
A baby is born. The baby receives care and nourishment. The baby does not change. The baby dies.
An adult reaches a particular stage of mental and emotional growth. The adult refuses to change further. The adult dies on the inside without ever realizing it.
Where there is life, there must be change. Otherwise, what once thrived and grew will die.
“Change is the one unavoidable, irresistible, ongoing reality of the universe,” writes Butler. “(T)hat makes it the most powerful reality, and just another word for God. …God is Change.”
Change happens constantly and must happen, otherwise stagnation and sterility and death follow. Growth happens slowly, imperceptibly — or all at once, in a season beautiful and hungering and nourished and glorious. Growth must happen, lest Death take possession.
Death is not the worst fate.
But if we as a species want not only to survive but also thrive, we are going to have to change.
We have to change our dependence on fossil fuels. We have to change our dependence on governments bent on nothing but wealth acquisition. We have to change our own bent toward acquisition. We have to change our desperate clinging to items in our possession. We have to change our focus on self to the exclusion of others’ needs. We have to change our practice of fearing the Other. We have to change. We are a species in its infancy and we have to grow up, or we are going to die.
The past eighteen months have proven that humanity hasn’t grown up yet. Among so many other things, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed our species for the craven, change-fearing creatures we are.
Wear facemasks and social distance? No! Inconvenient! Change our personal habits for the protection of the immunocompromised? No! Against my rights! Get vaccinated against a pandemic-inducing virus? No! MY body!
“I can’t wait to get back to normal.” So many members of our species have spoken those words with longing over the past year — wholly ignoring those among us for whom our previous “normal” was untenable, miserable, compromising, oppressive. “I can’t wait to get back to normal” — ignoring the few significant, beneficial changes that have come out of our collective pandemic response. “I can’t wait to get back to normal” — ignoring the potential for further movement along the positive course-alterations we’ve made.
“I can’t wait to get back to normal” — ignoring the fact that “getting back to normal” would mean moving backward against the momentum of the entire universe, which is always expanding outward and more-ward.
Change is inevitable. Change is good, because it brings newness and freshness and thrivingness. Lack of change stunts curiosity and growth and expansion and inclusion. Lack of change is antithesis to the essence of the universe.
We must change. Or die.
But kindness eases Change.