I find the question, how did I get here? utterly fascinating. As a person of faith, tracing the myriad trajectories of my past becomes a theologically important exercise. How can I make sense of my life thus far? Where do I see God’s hand? See, we Christians are not free to believe that our lives are merely the sum of our choices. We really believe we worship a God that intervenes, even intrudes into our lives in subtle, unexpected ways. I cannot answer how did I get here? with, “because I as a free, moral agent willed it.” Sometimes, the chief culprit is most likely “the God Variable.” I recently became acutely aware of its influence, but only in hindsight. Let me explain.

How did I get here? The question comes rushing at me. I scan the classroom of uniformed women and glance at James, my teaching partner, dear friend, and fellow MTS student at Candler. We are in prison. Namely, the Arrendale State Prison about an hour’s drive from familiar, cosmopolitan Atlanta. Coming from California, living in the South is strange enough; teaching at a women’s prison in rural Georgia only compounds the strangeness. We’re also reading a strange story. “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson. It’s a story about a pleasant, homey town that holds an annual “lottery” in which the “winner” is immediately stoned to death. The reader doesn’t find out until the end of the story—which is now rapidly approaching. I chuckle nervously. The story suddenly seems inappropriate. I’m not entirely sure how the women will react to the story’s bizarre, violent denouement. Seriously, how did I get here?

See, being here at Candler is unsurprising. My father is a religion teacher, I majored in religious studies, Candler is a good school, I didn’t want to find a real job after college, etc., etc. But teaching here in prison—that is unprecedented. I just don’t do things that interesting. I came to Candler to get on the fast-track to a Ph.D; dusty scholarship was in my future. But something happened, or better yet, somethings happened, and the future is suddenly more mysterious than if I had been left to my own devices.

As it turned out my worry was entirely misplaced. The women in our class attacked “The Lottery” with gusto, incisively assessing the text from all angles. But still, how did I get here? The question lingered. I could point to a few things I remember: the women’s choir performance from the prison at chapel last year, James and I excitedly discussing classes we would want to co-teach some day in the future, seeing the ad soliciting teachers in the Candler Chronicle—none of these adequately explains how we got here. Only something as radical, as wonderful, as grace-filled as “the God Variable” can account for our presence here in this prison. The truth is, about a million different coincidences had to occur to lead me to this very moment. And like Jesus’ signs, if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

Mathematicians may insist that attempting to detect patterns of divine prescience is absurd—what I imagine I’m seeing is merely the unraveling of an infinite series. Ergo, an unlikely event (even one as unlikely as a California boy teaming up with a North Carolina mountain man to teach literature at a women’s prison) is actually likely to occur. This illogical habit of theological retrospection is what makes me an “innumerate,” colloquially and pejoratively speaking. As the great Plutarch observes, “It is no great wonder if, in the long process of time, while fortune takes her course hither and thither, numerous coincidences should spontaneously occur.” I respectfully disagree. The God Variable is always present.