Ascending From Chaos by Taryn Strauss

Welcome to the apocalypse, says Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber.  Here we are. In the revelation. The uncovering. The crumbling of dominant powers.  The dominance of the North America as a diplomatic and economic superpower appears to be deteriorating.  Our fragile democratic institutions are coming apart at the seams, rife with corruption, fascist ambitions, and a misanthropic loyalty to greed that the best American satirists have barely captured with all their alarm bells. Oh, and the seas are rising.  Apocalyptically.

With the advance of the #metoo movement, structures of power and institutional safety have begun to crack, forming fissures of reckoning, fraying at the seams of honesty.  Who knows what more will come. The Catholic Church may not survive my lifetime. That is a real possibility now.

As for me?  Well I’ve never had much use for peaceful, tepid waters.  I’ve never thrived under passive allegiance to structures of power and institutions.  I’ll be the first to chip away at a foundation built on the backs of people who are kept poor, forced into servitude or silence just to maintain structural equilibrium.

I’ll never forget when it was my turn to say the Pledge of Allegiance at my elementary school, I had waited all year to read the morning announcements, and then when it came time for me to lead the students in the Pledge, I said in my clearest teacher’s pet voice, “It is now time to say the Pledge of Allegiance.”  I cleared my throat dramatically, inhaled deeply, and said. . . nothing.

I kept the mic on.

The principal nudged me.

I looked her in the eye and said, nothing.  The seconds ticked by. I gripped the mic with all of my strength.

What ensued next was a struggle, it was pandemonium, well, it was. . .

Chaos.

One chaotic aspect of chaos its multiple definitions-mathematical, linguistic, mythical, and on and on.

Which definition should we tackle?  There’s the chaos theory of physics, defined as:

the inherent unpredictability in the behavior of a complex natural system (such as the atmosphere, boiling water, or the beating heart)

I prefer the Biblical definition, of the Setpuagint, the original Greek translation of the First Testament.  The Greek term Chaos refers to the void state preceding the creation of the universe or cosmos in the Greek creation myths, or to the initial “gap” created by the original separation of heaven and earth.  I’m glad we are in the TreeHouse for a year, in this way we are thrown into Chaos. If Chaos refers to the gap created by the initial separation of heaven from earth, then perhaps we are taking a “gap year.”  

This early Biblical image of a chasm model of a primordial state of matter has been opposed by the Church Fathers from the 2nd century, who posited a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing)  by an omnipotent God.

So, the early scriptural Greek concept of chaos is not nothingness, instead it is a wide chasm, a fissure between heaven and earth, between the place we live, and where we hope to go, our potential destiny.  Rev. Bolz-Weber affirms that Dominant powers are not ultimate powers. In our #metoo moment, our #blacklivesmatter moment of uncovering,

It is time to justify our dignity, rather than use it to protect dominance.  What has been revealed here is the chaos of where we are versus where we thought we were, or where we hope to be.   Bolz-Weber suggests the origin of the harm can be the most powerful source of healing.

Once chaos has knocked on your door, see what happens if you let it in.

Work with, rather than against chaos.  I am not suggesting we prolong this stage of chaos.  Living in this gap space between where we are and where we wish we were is not a fun place to live.  But we work with it, we recognize it as a naturally occuring chasm, like a canyon, before we move through it and find each other again, resting finally in true community.

Recognizing when we are in chaos is central to befriending it and creatively moving through it.  Just this weekend, I have noticed chaos manifest, widening the gap between people who holding up the process with their own narcissistic defenses, and the entire community that needs healing.  They are keeping us all in chaos.

Chaos is when the comedian Louis C.K decides for himself enough time has passed avoiding the spotlight since he admitted to sexually harassing his colleagues.  His self-appointed return to comedy, evidenced by a fifteen minute set at the Comedy Cellar this past weekend, threatens to throw us back into the chaos of a society that not only accepts but now actively celebrates male dominance over women’s bodies.  Will we cover up what has been revealed to us? The psychologist M. Scott Peck would describe that move as PseudoCommunity, where people rest in small talk, and use it to maintain structures of power that degrade each other, all the while insisting it’s “no big deal,” or “he’s atoned for his sins, he said so himself!”

Chaos was generated by the eulogist at Aretha Franklin’s funeral on Friday, an Atlanta-based pastor who preached from the pulpit these words: “as proud, beautiful and fine as our black women are, one thing a black woman cannot do, a black woman cannot raise a black boy to be a man.”

Rev. Jasper Williams described the idea of children being raised without a “provider” father and a “nurturer” mother as, and I quote, “abortion after birth.”   He preached this to an audience that included Ms. Franklin’s four adult sons who she raised, mostly as a single mother. My dear friend, a woman who was born and raised in the Black baptist church eloquently shared her experience of chaos, and cognitive dissonance of those listening to this pastor who preaches degrading messages about women, and out-dated, self-shaming messages about the African-American community.  She observed how so many of the ladies in the pews looked embarrassed and ashamed, even as they clapped and cheered for this pastor. This internal confusion and external experience of chaos makes her want to leave the church, she said. It just feels too broken.

There are groups, particularly in Quaker educational settings, who experiment in praxis with M. Scott Peck’s stages of intentional community.  As a graduate of a Quaker educational institution, I have participated in these experiments, which are typically in a facilitated classroom environment over the course of a semester, or a facilitated workshop over the course of a long weekend.  Decades later I am still processing everything that happened during these experiences, and much of it was too personal to share in a sermon, but others have written eloquently about their praxis of chaos.

Writer Jerry Hampton offers his experience of chaos in a community-building workshop:

Each workshop has its rhythm and chaos is the staccato at a very high pitch when the cymbals clang. Participants learn they are different and start to explore the differences. This may begin with a big bang if pseudocommunity has been long or highly inauthentic. In my first workshop as a facilitator, about 2 hours into the process, a man was relating some sweet story about his mother and a lady suddenly jumped to her feet and proclaimed: “all this talk is sickeningly sweet and its all fake!!! You are a bunch of phonies. If I hear any more of this I’m just going to puke.” Chaos had begun. Most people avoid chaos as if it were some life threatening disease. It is a dis-ease.

In chaos people let go of their manners and blurt out their prejudices, opinions and judgments. There may be transference or projection toward others but often this about a person or situation outside the workshop.

In chaos people often try to fix, heal, and convert each other and this only adds to the chaos. “Now if you will only do what I did, your life will be much better.” “If you believe what I believe, your life will change.” People do not like advice and mostly reject it.

In chaos, people exhibit chaotic behavior. The talking pace speeds up. The shy people can’t break in, There is no space. People often feel an urge to speak when there is nothing to say. They do not listen much and often speak to hear themselves talk. This is chaotic behavior and the opposite of being “moved to speak”. But this is necessary for the group to learn what being moved to speak means.

Chaos is full of avoidance. This can take many forms. One is to scapegoat another person. This causes the focus to the scapegoat and away from those doing the scapegoating. Another ploy is to attack the leader for not leading more. They may ask the leader to lecture or do some exercise. They may also attack the guidelines and try not to use some or all of them. Sometimes a participant will try to take over the leadership and attempt some from of organizing the group or to get a vote to do something different. This is only flight from the task. I’ve seem many attempts to get a vote to do something different, but I’ve never seen a vote taken. The people seem to know that this is not the way out of chaos. The only way out of chaos and into community is through emptiness, which is the next in our sermon series.

As much as we want to escape chaos and get to emptiness, we must sit with it.  Make a friend of chaos.

I will say this about my experience:  If you can find a way to reveal the evil that you fear lurks within you, in front of your community, the epiphany and the release is more exhilarating and transformative than anything you can imagine.

Chaos is painful to experience, but if the community can empty themselves of their defenses, and be open to each other’s differences in a fresh and curious way, it can be a powerful source of healing and complete transformation into a rich and  intimate sense of belonging, which feels a little bit like surviving each other.

How do we survive each other?

I looked to various teachers to find an answer.  I looked to Anne Bogart, the famous stage director who encourages conflict in her theatrical rehearsals because it generates revelation, authenticity, and innovation on the stage.  I believe church is the rehearsal for the Beloved Community. This is the place where we can engage in conflict, and face it differently than we would in our families, or our jobs, or navigating enraging traffic patterns.  I am not encouraging conflict here, but I believe we need not avoid it either.

I turned to Buddhist practices for a methodical answer for how to work with chaos.  Buddhist nun Pema Chodron in her seminal book, When Things Fall Apart, suggests that because times are difficult globally, we don’t’ need to add more depression, more discouragement, or more anger to what’s already here.  It is becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times, she says. She offers us three traditional Buddhist methods for relating directly with chaos as a path of awakening and ultimately, joy. The first method, is. . .surprise!  Meditation. Connect with breath, and the present moment, and connect with self, releasing bias, releasing negative self talk, remembering the gratitude of being alive.

The second method of working with chaos is using poison as medicine.  Chodron knew a Tibetan yogini who trained with this view of not exorcising demons, and instead, treated them with compassion.  The next time you are in conflict, or pain, instead of trying to get rid of it, breathe it in. Breathe in the feeling, name it, and let it connect you to others who may also be feeling that identical pain.  We move through our personal connection to the feeling, and breathe it in for everyone in our community who is feeling it too. Seek out kinship, and a desire to heal and care for others who are sharing your pain.

I didn’t read a comic book until my early twenties, and even then I think most comic book readers would discount this particular text.  It was Lynda Barry’s autobiography 100 Demons.

In order to explore some chaotic times in her past, she researched an ancient painting exercise called One Hundred Demons.  Barry found a handscroll of inner demons painted by a zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku, in 16th century Japan. She used an ink stone, an ink stick, much in the Sumi style of ink brush painting, and the demons began to come.

But they were not the demons she expected.  At first, they scared her, but then she started to love watching them come out of her paintbrush.  Her life became the stories of these demons, such as head lice, hatred, bad boyfriends, her first job, cicadas.  Rather than conquering her demons, she made room for them in the story of her life. She felt compassion for them, and for herself.

If we can identify our demons individually, then we can invite them in, show them compassion, and reduce their power over us.  Our behavior habits can be our demons, ways of reacting to people that we created out of trauma, and out of crisis. Perhaps you tease others and make jokes because your parents teased you too much and made jokes the instrument of their dominance over you, and you maintained some semblance of dignity by laughing with the joke.  Maybe you are quick to anxiety and scarcity because your family of origin was one of conflict, always moving from crisis to the next crisis.

However, The problem is this:  What served to protect us during times of crisis in our life is not going to serve us as an overall life approach, especially when we are in community with others.

Let go of your crisis response.  Create a different, more compassionate, considerate response.

Don’t ignore your demons, or they will become louder and louder until they are all anyone can see or hear.

Name your demons, see them for who they are.

Learn to love them, and better yet, laugh at them.

What are our communal demons?  How do we, as a community, invite them in, and honor them, and make them a healthy and creative part of our story?

May we creatively engage our demons, befriend, them, and not allow them to dominate us.

We need to make art together, and to play together, and to explore our demons together.  We need a ritual of naming our demons, and having compassion for them, as we try close the gap between how we are responding in chaos, and who we want to be together.

The third method for working with chaos is to regard whatever arises as the manifestations of wisdom.  Everything that occurs is sacred, even the misunderstandings, the difficulties, the pain. I spent a few months as a chaplain in the Emergency Department of Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan, and I know something of this sacredness.  Chodron says the Emergency department is grounded in some honesty about how the human realm functions, how it smells, bleeds, how it is full of unpredictability, and at the same time, it is radiant wisdom, acts of grace, and opportunities to help.  It is an energetic and awake environment, rife with drama and intense communication all in the service of life. It is a confusing, disordered collection of moments, when people are perpetually asking themselves, which we do we go? How do we relate to the raw material of our existence?

Chaos is beautiful because you are beautiful, and it is full of pain because you are in pain, and it is full of wisdom because you are wise.

Chaos awakens us to each other, and to the gap between where we are and where we are going.

In Chaos, we have a choice:  avoid what’s underneath our defences, or identify what is behind the door of protection.

Each interaction with chaos is a choose your own adventure book, an active choice to embrace honesty, though it is messy and painful, or cover it back up and return to something false.

Chaos is naturally occurring when we are ready to release ourselves from the systems that uphold dominant powers, and we yearn to arrive somewhere beautiful and true together.  Name your demons, know them, and take the leap between the gap from where we were to where we are going. Once we recognize we are struggling through chaos, we can also experience the sweetness and glory of knowing we are in it together.  We will come through to the other side, armed with compassion for our demons, and for our shared pain, and we will carry each other across the gap between earth and heaven.