Stepping Into Chaos

Australian readers may have seen the tragic but equally faith filled "Australian Story" on the death of Dr Khulod Maarouf-Hassan in Noble Park in 2006. Dr Maarouf-Hassan, who had come to Australia from Syria, was attacked by a mentally ill patient from the local Sudanese community. Yet this was not a tale of racial division but of extraordinary grace.

On the day of the Dr Maarouf-Hassan's funeral, which my wife attended, I was speaking at a local faith community in Melbourne and the funeral framed my reflections that day - as an invitation to "step into the chaos" in our church life.

Long as it is, here is the address....

Bring on the Chaos - June 25, 2006

You've no doubt noticed that my wife is not here with me this morning. Instead she finds herself at a funeral for a colleague - someone for whom she had great respect. Indeed, though their contact was only occasional, I suspect from my wife's comments that she had great love for this colleague - a real desire to nurture and grow her in her professional life and as a person. A love - again I can only suspect - borne of the colleague's sense of resilience and generous spirit. This colleague I speak of was killed last week in an attack that is somehow related to the work she does. Like all members of the helping professions, as we call them, she had accepted an extended sense of vulnerability as a professional norm.

I don't know the facts of the case. But a possible scenario is that, in trying to help someone to quiet a chaos in their own life, she too has been consumed by that chaos. - conquered by a client's rage that could not be sufficiently contained and which boiled over with due finality.

But was she conquered? Is the outcome so final? Final, yes, in terms of the presence that we cherish ...and that is where our grief arises. But not final in other ways...

Today family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances and community gather to celebrate the life and mourn the loss of someone whose presence in this world they deeply treasured. And who can say - touched by the story of commitment and compassion of this woman - whether someone who hears the story will not be moved to tackle the chaos in a new way - to research the chaos, appreciate the chaos, immerse themselves in the chaos, publicise and demystify the chaos, bring compassion to the chaos, quell the chaos. The struggle to calm the chaos lives on.

Of course in post-modern times chaos can have a number of meanings, good, bad and indifferent. I should point out at the outset that I am talking here of the sort of chaos that seems bereft of the good; bereft of love. And this chaos is not only present in the wild eyes and actions of an enraged attacker. The chaos is present here in this suburb, in this street, in this block ...yes even in this congregation. It's present in history and it is present now. It is present with the Muslim woman walking along Melville Road. It's present as she's verbally assaulted and sprayed with the vestiges of last night's alcoholic excess from a passing car. It's present with the student supporting himself by working at the local corner store - risking the graveyard shift to earn a little extra and make those ends meet. It's present with the corner store owner - whose desire for financial deliverance has grown so acute that he short-changes that student by a few cents every week. "He'll never notice." he thinks. It's present with the copper on the local beat, whose homosexuality he conceals because of "some business way back with his father." It's present with two of his colleagues who have sensed his secret and who call him "Chris" behind his back (because "people like that" need an ambiguous name). It's present in the mind of the girl living just a few blocks from here who sees her salvation in the gospel of fashion and figure. She's learning how to pilfer the tops and skirts of her favourite labels while she starves herself to look the way she's told she should. It's present in the community that exclaims "that old girl down the street is a bit too old and a bit too mad to put up with anymore." It's present with the old lady who yearns for another human's voice, just once in her day. And it's present ....well it's present with me in the myriad ways I search for the shortcuts towards security. - the ways I seek the low road; the ways I conspire for my own comfort - the ways I make that comfort a far superior goal to the collective needs of community - the ways I seek to wrap a safety blanket around myself, to be an island entire of itself, to isolate and individualise myself and ...well die. To limit my bearing or impact or legacy and to spiral down to true finality. Ironic isn't it.

You no doubt have heard the quote commonly attributed to Nelson Mandela but actually a quote he himself took from the 1992 book "A Return to Love" by Marianne Williamson.

"Our deepest fear" wrote Williamson, "is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We are born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others."

Seen in the light of my opening remarks this is not just the stuff of trite self-help literature. In fact it cuts to the heart of what it means to be conspiring ("working with the spirit - with God") to calm the chaos. It cuts to the heart of what it means to have faith - to believe that our goodness can shine through to build a realm of love. And it tells us that to have faith we will have to overcome fear - the fear that we will make a difference and that then the forces that accentuate such chaos (sometimes even within ourselves) will pursue us and deride us and seek to ensure that we do not succeed. They will do that but faith must keep us going. And like my wife's colleague - like thousands who have stood up and said they will be a source of light in the World - sometimes the shadows of chaos will loom over us, seemingly extinguishing our flame. But will it be extinguished? Not if our conspiring with God (working with the spirit) becomes inspiring (breathing in the spirit) for others. The light keeps shining.

Last Sunday I listened to a radio program about other intelligent life-forms in the cosmos. The program explored the work of scientists in this area. The scientists were attempting to find signals in space that might come from such life forms. Eventually, the question was asked that if we do find life - that somehow parallels human existence - will that life have the capacity to be friendly or will such beings seek to destroy us? A scientist offered the view that they are most likely to be friendly. His rationale was as follows: If "intelligent" beings are inherently evil (his word), the likelihood of us finding them as a surviving society is miniscule. If all of the beings in a society are inherently unloving, then the focus of such beings is also inherently inwardly focused. Eventually, he concluded, they will destroy each other.

The psychology behind that is of course not new. It may not be particularly profound or meaningful for you. But, in this scientific context, I find it a wonderfully refreshing way of looking at the nature of faith and the need for love. It's just a wonderful example of "the rational" so beautifully shot-through with "the faithful." And it's obviously not just the case for beings beyond our planet. It's the case for us. We heard a reading from Job this morning and you probably already know something of Job's struggle and his attempts to understand whether the ways of society (accentuating the self) or the ways of God (accentuating other, love) ultimately bear fruit. This morning the Joban storyteller has God poetically exploring the way to tame chaos. And God's creative efforts at this taming prepare a place for us to go on taming - as images of God, as co-conspirators with God.. And the Gospel reading takes this theme further. The story has the Christ character - human infused with God - setting out with disciples to tell the story of faith at another place, across the sea. Another place, across the sea - in the context of the storyteller's culture it's an environment ripe for chaos. And, surely, the chaos comes. The Christ initially sleeps through the chaos, perhaps an indication that he does not fear it, that he is comfortable within it. Then, when awoken, he does confront the chaos ...and stops it. Such "confronting" and "stopping" seems fairly painless but when we place them in the context of the whole Christ story we know that they are not. The forces for chaos seek to exterminate and succeed in exterminating the one who quietens the storm.

But do they exterminate, do they extinguish the flame, do they conquer? There is that question once again. We are told that, though the chaos has been quietened by Christ, the disciples look to him and are fearful. What do they fear? Could it be that they are inspired to be like the Christ - to be the force for love whatever the consequences? And could it be that they know what those consequences are - and that they fear them? And could it be that we know, as "the body of Christ," as the ones who called on to carry on the inspiration in this time and in this place, know the consequences? We need the support of each other to face the fear. We need the support of each other to have faith. We need each other to help us inspire each other with love, whatever the consequences keep us from looking inwards keep us from destroying what God has crafted for us from the chaos.

I want to conclude by considering the ramifications of all of this for our worshipping communities. What does it mean, for example, for a small congregation like this in middle Melbourne? On thinking deeply about this question you might significantly revise your plans for mission and your ways of resourcing that mission in this place. You might completely reconfigure this physical space. You might bring some of "spaces of potential chaos" closer to you with a mixture of community, supported and paid residential and sensitive commercial around a hub of community and gift-sharing or worship space. You might use that space to create a sense of enlivening mission around:

- relationship building (you can't engage with a community and it's chaos unless you relate to them)
- exploration of the Gospel and how it informs choices for twenty-first century community
- spaces, places and ways for seeking God and searching for spirit and
- specific, helping actions in our local community and world.

Let's say you do all of this in some way and things seem to be bubbling along nicely. Then one of your members notices a group of teenagers who have a particular talent, who are somewhat maligned for their talent and need a space to practice it. It doesn't matter what the talent is. It is probably something that most people over thirty would say "What do they need to do that for?" Use your imagination. Nevertheless they have this talent and your member identifies that talent and sees the need to develop it. Your member also feels that one of the spaces in your newly configured property is just perfect for them. At a tense meeting the Church Council certainly expresses concerns that these teenagers may get up to "no good." But working through the difficulties the Council is finally convinced that if you are to be a loving, mission filled community, you can't step back from the possibility of chaos. You have to be amongst it if you are going to engage with it, understand it and calm it.
The program runs for a little while and certainly some of the chaos eventuates, but at the same time this community seems enriched by the experience as do the teenagers. Then a couple of locals become the self appointed "concerned residents society" with respect to what is "going on here." They canvass other supporters and exaggerate claims of what has been going on. More people come on board to support them. The local press gets involved and Kim Cain has to come from the UCA Centre to help manage the media attention. Public meetings are held. A resident at an aged care facility, just five blocks away, busses in twenty fellow residents to protest against "youth activities in our neighbourhood."

What do you do? Do you pull away from this new chaos. Or do you engage with it? I think the message of today is that being the body of Christ is inherently messy, dirty, chaotic BUT if we are to be co-conspirators with God, if we are going to inspire another generation to be the body of Christ, if we are going to avoid being the chaos ourselves and destroying ourselves, we mustn't pull back from the chaos.

Author Kester Brewin writes, " the Emergent......Church we would expect to see a very blurred boundary between local community activity and specifically church activity. For many this will be seen as dirty - as infecting the good and pure activities of the Church - but it is precisely this blurred boundary, with no hard line between in and out, that will be allowing the Church to sense, respond to and shape the community. For others this blurring will be viewed as rocking the boat - upsetting their equilibrium and their comfortable place with 'no alarms and no surprises.' Too many people currently scatter themselves on pews for a sense of comfort and tradition - an escape from the outside - and to suggest that the outside should be brought in will be very threatening. But the closed system churches with ageing and unchanging congregations are literally dying and wilting, entombed in buildings with massive potential to resource local community life - yet which are clad with citadel doors and iron locks."[1]

Let's break the locks. Let's step into chaos and let the chaos come to us. Let's be full of faith that God resources us to be there and to be co-conspirators and inspirers...And let's do all of this ....whatever the consequences.

[1] Brewin, K, The Complex Christ: Signs of Emergence in the Urban Church, London 2004 SPCK p77

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