Chaos All Around

Is chaos the natural order of things? Should we be surprised when things don’t go as expected? Where should we focus in chaotic times? At this service with Rev. Sue Browning we’ll reflect on our sense of vulnerability in times of disruption and the ways our UU faith helps us see our possible responses when in the midst of chaos. The choir will sing.
Sermon by Rev. Sue Browning, November 10, 2019

Chaos All Around

Today let’s start at the beginning. At least one way of thinking of beginning.

Genesis Chapter 1 – In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

The story starts from the formless – the yet-to-be organized earth.

And Then God said,

‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

In his taking charge (side note – for today we’ll call God him, but this taking charge to get the world made does make you wonder…) …

God continues adding order and organization to the formless.

Water is separated from sky

Land and seas divided.

Vegetation added.

Then day and night.

Then living creatures – birds and sea monsters.

That’s through day 5, and finally living creatures of every kind and humankind.

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’ 29God said, ‘See, … I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. … And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. … And he created a seventh day for rest.

A productive week. God had moved from formless to order. This is also explained as moving from chaos to good.

A few take-aways from this Genesis creation story:

For creation to work well there needs to be order.

Humans are given dominion over ‘it’ all, so it’s on us should a mess occur (and it will) to expend energy to restore to order. Order is valued.

If we picture chaos – in the Bible, or in our lives – as utter confusion and inherent unpredictability, our instinct when faced with chaos is survival. By nature, we yearn to end chaos. We are pulled to move to greater safety and comfort; to restore order.

When I imagine pure chaos in more modern terms, I think of the last hours on the Titanic, or mass evacuations from wild fires in California, or unprecedented numbers of families waiting at borders. In these scenarios, the individuals face the unknowing where reliable vessels, and processes no longer serve.

Returning to Genesis, chaos does not stay at bay after the seven days of creation. As people fill the earth there is sin in the garden of Eden and  then Cain murdering his brother Abel – examples of corruption. God had expectations and was crazed. Reckless behavior was everywhere. Chaos was an affront to all God had created. God defines this chaos as ‘evil’ and is God angry.

On first thought God has regrets he has created this all and decides, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created…for I am sorry that I have made them.” But then God has second thoughts. He reminds himself of Noah, a good man; a righteous man. God moves to Plan B and instructs Noah to build an ark. God offers very specific instructions on the ark – on size and pitch and tarp.

From here, you know the basic story – God has planned for chaos to be released upon the world. God is upfront with this plan. He’s not going to quite back to formless, but will wipe life (other than Noah and group). He tells Noah to bring his family and two of every animal onto the ark. Noah trusts, not knowing how this would all play out. God has told Noah a covenant would come at some point in the future, though he provides no details.

The flood comes. On the earth for forty days and forty nights. God’s plan, “every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground.” We hear, … “the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth. The waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth; and the ark floated on the face of the waters. The waters swelled so mightily on the earth that all the high mountains under the whole heaven were covered…fifteen cubits deep…for one hundred fifty days.”

“Then God said to Noah, ‘Go out of the ark…’” So Noah went out with his sons and his wife and his sons’ wives. And every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that moves on the earth, went out of the ark by families.

Then God said to Noah … “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, … that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth…for all future generations: …”

God promised not to inflict evil; not to again use chaos in this powerful way.

Chaos – utter confusion and inherent unpredictability.

I hear often that people sense we are living in chaotic times. What might that mean in modern times. In an article Bruno Marion finds three big contributors to a modern sense of chaos. First, the number of people has grown exponentially – from about 1 Billion just 150 years ago to 8 Billion today. And more people combined with speed – the ability to reach one another with ease, plus greater connectivity which has information pounding us all the time.

With the continual disruption that comes from ‘all of the above’ we live in anticipation. We sense a need to respond and so our defenses are up. We each feel societal risks and pressures in different ways. At a personal level, disruption encroaches on each of us at different times, with varying intensity – at times such chaos sustained over long periods.

Whether the natural state of the world is stable or chaotic is a philosophical a question. There are natural laws, and there is a randomness in life – each division of a cell is unique, as is each combination of genes. There is also complexity and interdependency in the many systems around of. Whatever is ‘natural’ state of life seems less important than acknowledging much of life is spent in a times of disorder – times of chaos, or if not chaos, disruption.

In chaos we are vulnerable. We are open to being harmed.

So how do we react?

We can respond by spending all our energy to return to stability – to order. And we often do. Not only do we want order – we want the order we know – the order we’ve conjured up in our nostalgic brain. Wanting order means we stress over the undone – the piles needing our attention. We want compliance with the rules we know. We’re willing to pull all those around us back into order –the order we know.

With ‘order’ we imagine productivity will again come. With ‘order’ we will be ready to create. A cycle to be sure, but is it helpful to use energy this way?

Let’s go back to Noah.  How did Noah respond? He was not Job wrestling with God to make some logical sense of the world. Noah did not know what the new normal (post the chaos) would be. Risk, unpredictability, and disruption were all around Noah. With chaos pending he did two basic things. First he built the ark to spec. This was the urgent and important need – where we often need to first respond in chaos. The rest of Noah’s response was a relational response to God. Noah stood in readiness to listen, and was steadfast in his trust.

Lots of references to God this morning, and while we have many ideas of the divine here this morning, I sense we can all learn from the way Noah responded. He was present to his predicament, but his energy went toward relationship and not worrying further into the future than made sense.

I do wonder how well our UU values serve us when we sense chaos? I wonder how our white supremacy culture – the culture all around us impacting everyone that leans upon with its hierarchy and patterns which preserve power – I wonder how these values function in times of chaos? Might they encourage a tendency to rush through vulnerability straight to order and predictability? Are we maybe afraid to pause in the midst of chaos and ask new questions? Do we yearn for the ‘fix’ before we learn?

Our UU values tend toward action – a strength in my book. UUs are not side-line folks. We are problem-solvers. We design plans, implement and deliver. We’ve got that part of the Genesis instruction down. Order is valued. Yet, as with any strengths, there is a shadow side to even our most productive and caring of responses.

Let’s pause together. If these feel like chaotic times to you, where is your attention drawn in times of chaos?

What feels chaotic? What feels like major disruption? I can picture first images and quick answers flashing through your heads. Not all the same answers; some community and society, some personal images of chaos. Some current, some past experience of chaos.

Pause. What if anything feels chaotic? (Play Hymn 352 – Find a Stillness)

In the pause – in the trusting of the pause – listen for a sense of what is behind the chaos, if there is chaos for you? Maybe you aren’t sensing chaos or disruption at this time. Also, good to know. When everyone around you says the sky is falling, that might not be your experience. Take a moment, imagine others who are experiencing chaotic times? Who in society is at greatest risk?

Pause – breathe. (Play Hymn 352)

Is the chaos you can feel Titanic-like chaos, or what I’ll call ‘fresh-perspective’ chaos? The latter a less imminent danger, and more a sense of the core assumptions being challenged. I think it matters which type of chaos. There is unpredictability in both, yet at times we have more control than others.

The news talks of impeachment, and the Ukraine matter. Who will vote how, and why? Of late we’re drawn to these concerns. Behind these specifics we ask is basic ‘rule of law’ being honored? Being modified? Are the checks and balances which we believed were inherent in our processes (checks and balances uses for what we agree with, and what we disagree with) under threat? A sense of confusion and unpredictability.

Sometimes I sense we feel risk akin to the formless earth at the beginning. Possibly that is how it feels. But that is not where I see we are. In the imperfect ways of life, the bigger story is playing out; there is a challenge of rules and process. Not a back to the beginning – the formless – push, but a jarring of what we know in our democracy.

Rather than grasp for a return to order, what if chaos is understood as a window of opportunity for change?  Maybe a time to reflect and clarity what we each value most?

Organizer adrienne maree brown wrote ‘Emergent Strategy.’ She challenges us to not to fight so hard to return to order, but to “feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen.” She notes, “It is so important to cultivate patience, our thoughtfulness, our willingness to slow down and seek the wisdom of those not already part of our movements – not to get them in step with our point of view, but because we need their lived experiential wisdom to shape solutions that will work for the majority of living beings.”

Hers is a call to think locally; it is a call to behave relationally and take incremental steps. It is a challenge to learn to be present to the seeming chaos, and to then take our vulnerable, challenged selves and others to a next step; to fewer rules, and to more collaboration and agreement. Slower in a way, and yet with the potential for a new way of being.

Each generation faces times of chaos. Whether the story of Noah, or those who endure war, and disease, or natural disaster. It’s our turn now, and while we can’t control all of what’s around us (chaos makes that impossible), how we respond in the midst of disruption matters.

Where we sense chaos and disruption, may we first breathe – deep. May we then as partners in conversation, together ask the ‘why’ of the chaos. And may we know too have options for response – at times jumping in, other times as witness or partner. In these moments may we be looking for the fresh perspectives – the chances to learn. May we try to imagine  maybe life with little less order, or a different nature of order, and a greater focus on connection and relationship.

In chaos, may we walk and not run in a direction –  solid in our step as we again and again move ot align with a greater good – a greater good named in many ways – a greater good which embodies Love.

May It Be So


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