Ordered Chaos

February 5, 2017
Reverend Meghan K. Gage-Finn

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29

The middle of last month we had a most exciting event at Westminster. For weeks in advance we’d heard rumors about it, then marked our calendars, and planned our day accordingly so that we wouldn’t miss a moment of the action. I am talking about, of course, The Big Pour. This was the day when the entire first floor of the new parking deck was to be poured in concrete, a continuous process that would start before sunrise and go on until after dark. When the day finally arrived, 66 trucks came through in rotation all day long, delivering 660 cubic yards of concrete. At one point I looked out from the second floor education wing and down onto the site and counted dozens of individuals in yellow reflective vests, spread out all over the length of the project from Marquette to Nicollet Mall. Some were up to their kneecaps in wet concrete, spreading and leveling; others were checking things up on the road as the concrete left the truck, while still others controlled the pump to place the concrete in the correct areas. At first glance, the whole thing looked like a jumble of material and machines, and neon vests- people and movement and things everywhere. But as I watched more closely, I saw the precise arrangement of the whole endeavor, the sequence and structured pattern of each individual’s actions. No one looked frantic or confused or unsure of what to do or where to be. In fact, they appeared to be engaging in a carefully choreographed dance on a wet and increasingly hardening concrete dance floor, barely talking at all, each piece fitting together into an elaborately orchestrated whole.

Earlier this week I had the chance to sit down with Pat Block, the Project Manager from Mortenson Construction who helps to coordinate all the big and small pours, and all the other details for the building aspects of Open Doors Open Futures. I asked him how long in advance they had been planning for The Big Pour, and he showed me the charts guiding them for months in advance toward that one day. They had 5 crews of ten people pouring the deck, and to make it all work he said, “We drive to dive down all the way to the last person in the process, the one running the shovel or the hand trowel. What tools do they need to do their work? Where do they put their lunch pails, how do you get them water during the process? You have to count on every single person to do their job the right way.” What to me appeared as possible chaos, was a highly ordered and organized progression.

In a time of uncertain footing in our nation, when our stance with the global community seems precariously held, when it feels like structures of leadership, office, and process are being destabilized, I was not at all surprised that we became so fixated on something that was literally- concrete! It felt reassuring to see a firm foundation expand and harden before our eyes, because then at least something in our environment could be fixed in place and ordered. But inevitably we had to turn away from the Big Pour, and set our gaze again on the headlines, fix our ears to the cries of protestors, and let ourselves feel again the stormy chaos of the world around us.

The image on the cover of the bulletin today is called the Three-Winged Bird: A Chaotic Strange Attractor. This image comes from Margaret J. Wheatley’s book, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. In her book she uses scientific principles to help us see new relationships and gain new understandings of how the changing world works. While I never imagined I would be highlighting poured concrete in a sermon, I also never imagined I would be so engrossed in chaos theory and quantum physics as to include those either- but stick with me! I think I have found deep theological connections.

Wheatley describes strange attractors as “computer-generated pictures of swirling motion that trace the evolution of a system. A system is defined as chaotic when it becomes impossible to know what it will do next.”[1] Wheatley goes on to say that a chaotic system never behaves the same way twice, but as chaos theory shows, “if we look at such a system over time, it demonstrates inherent orderliness. Its wild gyrations are held within an invisible boundary. The system holds order within it, and reveals this self-portrait as a beautiful pattern, its strange attractor.”[2] And that is what this image is on the cover of your bulletin and I invite you to turn to it now, and if you are joining us through the live stream, to click to download the bulletin so you can see it as well. This is an image of a chaotic system’s behavior plotted by a computer over millions of iterations. This shape emerges from information being fed back in on itself while changing in the process.  And this process succeeds in creating something new because it takes place in a system that is non-linear. As Wheatley explains, “The system appears to be wandering chaotically, always displaying new and different behavior. But over time, a deeper order- a shape- is revealed. This order is inherent to the system. It is always there, but not revealed until its chaotic movements are plotted in multiple dimensions over time.”[3]

It is only natural for us to look for linear patterns and sequences in our lives, especially in the midst of a shaky political landscape or personal upheaval. We may hope to approach our lives and the world in a linear fashion, but as scientist Ian Stewart notes, “life is relentlessly non-linear.”

Wheatley makes the point that all across the universe science reveals to us that order exists within disorder, and disorder within order. Structure is found in the boundless, and boundaries within the unstructured. To me it sounds like she might be describing Genesis 1.

We often hear this story of creation from Genesis 1 and think that God created the world out of a formless void, out of nothing, but Luther Seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that “the first few verses could be translated, ‘When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth was wild and waste, utter darkness covered the deep, and the Spirit of God was brooding over the face of the waters.’”[4] She goes on to say, “This is a story not so much about creation-out-of-nothing but about creation out of a world that is something- it is wild and waste.” She makes the point that it had form and that the watery abyss, the primordial waters of Genesis 1, are in fact a symbol of chaos. We see in the first verses of God’s story for us as the people of God, a story of God’s creative activity in the midst of chaos. Here God initiates the first Creative Time and we have simply rebranded it for our Open Doors Open Futures purposes here so many thousands of years later!

Over this raw stuff of the primordial watery abyss sweeps God’s Spirit. The text uses the word “wind,” but the Hebrew word here ru-ach, is the same word for breath, spirit. From our first introduction to God in the Bible, as God and God’s power and ways are being revealed to us, we can wonder that the Spirit of God stretches over and through chaos, and God makes something good out of it. Life, every kind of life, swarms and flies, creeps and swims, grows and yields fruit. God didn’t create good out of nothing; God created good out of chaos. And when we look only for good and calm and concrete, the linear and the bounded, we miss this wild, wind-swept and creative activity of God in our lives and our participation in it.

As Presbyterians, we are inherently people of order. We do things “decently and in order,” and preferably through the work of a task force, a committee and a council. Our polity, the system of decision-making of checks and balances in the church, is in the Book of Order, but our society hasn’t ever, and certainly is not now, following any manual of order, nor do most of us find order in our personal lives. Mental health struggles, financial realities, strained relationships with family members, job loss- any one of these can leave us feeling tossed about in the waves of tumult. So we are left to question where we find God in the turmoil and why God has placed us in the midst of mess and confusion.

But we do well to remember that God never promised us order and certainty, that goodness and new life of creation came out of a chaotic abyss, and that most of all- God’s Spirit was present and active in it from the very beginning. And in a few minutes we will hear again the familiar words of Jesus first inviting his friends to share in bread and cup at a time of chaos and upheaval in his own life.  He offered them, as he offers us, new life, guidance for the way forward, and connection to one another in the midst of the disorder.

To return to Wheatley, she speaks of the importance of remembering how critical interdependent relationships are. She says, “The new science keeps reminding us that in this participatory universe, nothing living lives alone. Everything comes into form because of relationship. We are constantly being called into relationship- to information, people, events, ideas, life. If we are interested in effecting change, it is crucial,” she says, “to remember that we are working with these webs of relations.”[5] She then shares the image of a spider. “Most of us have had the experience of touching a spider web, feeling its resiliency, noticing how slight pressure in one area jiggles the entire web. If a web breaks and needs repair, the spider doesn’t cut out a piece and terminate it, or tear the entire web apart and reorganize it. She reweaves it, using silken relationships that are already there, creating stronger connections across the weakened spaces.”[6] As Wheatley and the spider teach us, “if a system is in trouble, it can be restored to health by connecting it to more of itself. To make a system stronger, we need to create stronger relationships.”[7]

So while it may be tempting to pull back and disengage from the chaos, or focus only on the concrete, linear and predictable corners of our lives, we need to trust in God’s creative Spirit as present in the chaos, we need to trust in God’s Big Pour into the open and wild spaces. And we need to participate in the reweaving of stronger relationships into something new. Just like the Three-Winged Bird, we are somewhere in the beauty of the panicked gyrations of the current chaotic system, and so is everyone else. We need to look at who is next to us and across from us, who is out at the tip of the wing, far from our reach, and remember we are all connected to one another and to God the Creator at the center.

As our sense of how the world is to be ordered and controlled changes, we prepare to come to this table, knowing our invitation to and our place at this meal never changes. And as policies change, as Justices change, our need to be fed from this table and sent forth to further justice into the world never changes. As the country moves more to the right or to the left, our central place at this table remains. As talk of walls and bans fill our news feeds, the unbounded and radical welcome of this table remains.

When I look at the Three-Winged Bird, I don’t see in it that there is beauty in the current chaos in our country, or in our world, or expect that we could find beauty in any of our inner, personal chaos. But I do see that God yearns to be at work and present in the chaos, that God will create light out of the dark and call it good. And God calls us to do the same. In Sunday school this February for Arts Month our children will be forming with their own hands art as they reflect on Genesis 1, proclaiming through felt and stained glass, film, puppets and wind chimes, that we worship a creative and life-giving God, and that there is beautiful and interconnected diversity and intentionality in God’s creation.

Just as God’s good creation took time, so does our active participation in the chaos and order, as we reweave tender and silken relationships through the broken patches we see in our midst. May we bring this all to the table and to one another, as we take God’s promises out with us from this place, to be God’s people in a chaotic and ordered world.

Thanks be to God.



Pastoral Prayer ~8:30 and 10:30 am Worship

It is a right and joyful thing to stand in the presence of God and one another, trusting as we do that where the Spirit of God moves among us, we are beckoned as those who love God and neighbor.

In the words of the prophets you comforted your people with the promise of the Redeemer, and gave hope for the day when justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.  You formed the universe in your wisdom, and created all things by your power.  You set us in community on the earth to live with you in faith.  We praise you for these good gifts of bread and fruit of the vine, and for the table you spread in the world as a sign of your love for all people.

We praise you, most holy God, for sending your only Son Jesus to live among us, full of grace and truth.  He made you known to all who received him.  Sharing your joy and sorrow, he healed the sick and was a friend to sinners.

Obeying you, he took up his cross and died that we might live.  We praise you that he overcame death and is risen to rule the world.  He is still the friend of sinners.  We trust him to overcome every power that can hurt of divide us.

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us, that this bread and this cup may be for us the body and blood of our Lord, and that we, and all who share this feast, may be one with Christ and he with us.  Fill us with eternal life, that with joy we may be his faithful people until we feast with him in glory.

Now, Holy comforter, healing Spirit, grant your peace to those who are sick, and to those who grieve this morning.

Sermon Footnotes

[1] Wheatley, Margaret J. Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World. 3rd ed. San

Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler, 2006, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 22-23

[3] Ibid., first picture plate

[4] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2328

[5] Wheatley, 145.

[6] Ibid., 145

[7] Ibid., 145

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