“Chaotic Balance” – April 25, 2004
Jim Sherblom


Our lives seem to periodically swirl out of our control!
We lose our jobs, experience accidents, are victimized by others.
Our children suffer unfair and life threatening diseases or setbacks.
Our parents physically decline or die, leaving us to suffer alone.
We suffer unfair and life threatening diseases and adversities!
Our loved ones hurt us or leave us and we are left utterly bereft.
How can such a world be considered just or good or even fair?
How can we maintain stability, rationality, and a sense of peace
In the midst of all of this chaos that appears to be our lot in life?

One of the defining scientific discoveries of the late 20th Century was the emerging understanding of the interplay between chaos and complexity in the very nature and structure of the universe.
The bad news is we can’t escape chaos no matter how we try,
it is in the very fabric of reality, what separates life from non-life.
The good news is we can maintain our balance within this chaos.
For those of us who weren’t following the scientific developments, the book Jurassic Park introduced Chaos theory to us dramatically.
Foolish attempts to be the creator of order lead inevitably to chaos!

The Santa Fe Institute was at the core of this work, beginning in the 1980’s by trying to accurately predict the weather and creating theories of chaos and complexity that illuminate our life and death.
Chaos emerges wherever we try to artificially interject order. Yet the universe doesn’t totally break down (as we fear it will).
New complexity emerges spontaneously out of the chaos, and we must be open to perceiving and welcoming this new complexity.
We are not in control of our lives, too much order equals boredom and death; too much chaos means disruption, disintegration, death. We live in the interplay between order and chaos. We live our lives on the chaotic edge, where growth and freedom emerge.

Many of you know that I spent the 1980’s as a young executive, desperately trying to create order from the chaotic growth of young companies. We built great biotechnology companies, but only by letting go of even the illusion of control over their success.
So I offer five lessons this morning on maintaining chaotic balance lessons learned the hard way in the crucible of success and failure.
The first lesson is to accept chaos as intrinsic to our life, it is reality, accepting this reality frees us to truly live into our lives.
Our houses need repair, yards need tending, old cars break down. Marriages need renewal, children need tending, old relationships break down. We all experience deaths and renewal in our lives. Rejecting death from our life is like trying to grasp the whirlwind.
However if we let go, we can live happily in the eye of the storm.

The theologian Catherine Keller spoke last year at GA about her “theology of becoming” which she names the Face of the Deep.
She reminds us that even a child knows how to comfort himself by singing softly in the dark, finding a calm center in the heart of chaos. She writes: “Perhaps the child skips as he sings, hastens or slows his pace. But the song itself is already a skip: it jumps from chaos to the beginning of order to chaos.” We live in this flux.
We are not the proper center of our lives, grounding lies elsewhere.
So the second lesson is that we must find our grounding center, order in the midst of chaos. This is why all twelve step programs begin by placing ultimate control and meaning outside ourselves.
Creative serendipity allows new order to emerge when we let go.
We are not in control but must learn the rhythm of this dance.

Who knows this chaos better than a 13 year old coming of age?
My daughter Sarah, as she entered her teenage years, introduced me to certain Coming of Age movies that speak to this challenge.
Deep heartfelt movies like Dirty Dancing or Save the Last Dance.
In each of these deeply theological movies the protagonist, always a young woman emerging into her life, learns to dance to fully live.
The life provided by her parents becomes restrictive and boring. Or in Save the Last Dance her mother dies tragically in an accident. Life loses its meaning and importance until a dangerous young male antagonist teaches her how to let go and dance into her life.
In Dirty Dancing, Jennifer Grey embodies this human longing for growth and freedom, for learning to engage the chaos and live life.
She wants to come into the fullness and joy her life can embody.
Patrick Swayze here is an incarnation of the divine, a little scary, and yet exciting, luring her into the dance in the midst of chaos.
There is something wild and dangerous at the heart of reality, and we must learn to trust the wildness in order to dance through life. Patrick Swayze as your incarnation of the divine, somewhat dangerous, but luring you into greater joy and your emerging self.
In a sense we all are this young woman, emerging into the fullness of our lives; and we all are this young man, true incarnations of the divine in each others lives, so we teach each other how to dance.
Yet a key aspect of learning to dance is that she doesn’t get to lead,
we must learn to trust and to follow our partner’s lead in the dance.
And this is truly the nature of our lives, we do not get to lead, but if we learn to respond and match the rhythms, we can indeed dance!

Which brings us to poor Job; God’s whipping boy of biblical fame.
When God, through his agent Satan, robs Job of his wealth, his family, his health and his reputation, Job curses his own life, and ultimately challenges the very nature of God and all of creation.
The book of Job is a poem of moral outrage at this chaotic life.
This God that Job confronts is a particularly cranky incarnation, yet God cannot resist responding to Job out of the whirlwind.
“Where were you when I planned the earth?… Unleash your savage justice. Cut down the rich and the mighty. Make the proud man grovel. Pluck the wicked from their perch. Push them into the grave. Throw them, screaming, to hell. Then I will admit that your own strength can save you.” But of course our own strength cannot do any of these things, we are at the mercy of life’s chaos.
We don’t get to choose our life experiences, to lead the dance, but can only learn how to follow the lead of our antagonists with flair.
When we have the courage to define our relationships, we define our lives, and this is the third lesson for dealing with the chaos.
Catherine Keller calls this “the courage of our connections”.
By being in community we collectively respond to the trials of life.
We can learn together how to follow the dance in our unique way.
Job experiences great pain: material, physical and spiritual.
Few of us will suffer the trials of Job, thank God, yet each of us will know pain: some of it material, some physical, some spiritual.
Job is ultimately vulnerable because he has lost his family and friends, yet he finds the courage within to challenge life’s injustice.
Our families and friends represent our best defense against despair.
For most of us, it is our family and community connections
that provide us with a context to deal successfully with the chaos.
These connections are often our calm center in the heart of chaos.

The fourth lesson is learning how to let go and trust the process.
Richard Gilbert captures this in his story about going over the falls.
He writes: “there is something to be said for letting go, for risking the uncertain, for putting oneself in strong life currents with a mixture of faith and fear. Unknown pools sustain us, buoy us;
Forgotten instincts stretch our spirits to the surface
where the air is clear and the water cold and refreshing.”
I too have lived this mixture of faith and fear, and lived to tell of it.
When my sister Pat married, it was to a young man who lived up on the coast of Maine. He taught us how to harvest fresh mussels from the ocean tide pools, and how to leap from the cliffs along the shore. His favorite diving spot was from a cliff that seemed ten stories above the sea and plunged into the deep dark ocean depths.
He encouraged us to try it and showed us how with a death defying plunge hurling himself out from the rocks into the deep sea below.

As a risk taker of course I had to try it along with my siblings.
I remember my heart racing as I climbed the ascent, my stomach churning as I looked into the abyss, and that combination of joy and fear as I threw myself out into the air and plunged to the sea.
Upon struggling back to the surface, I swam to shore and climbed back up to plunge once again. With repeated experience it became clear that the exhilaration came from letting go and simply falling.
Life is like that, to enjoy the chaos we must learn how to let go,
to plunge into each experience with every fiber of our being.
Though I must confess, as much as I enjoyed the experience of those dives into the sea, I shredded the underside of my toes from an instinctive effort to claw onto the rock just as I leaped into the void. At some level, I continued to fear falling and the rocks below, yet letting go is necessary to experiencing this life’s dance.

In February, Loretta and I went to Tahiti to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. One night on Moorea, our hotel offered a pool side demonstration of Tahitian song and dance and I snared us front row seats. About two thirds of the way through their performance, the lead dancer approached us and invited me to join her on the dance floor. Now this may not be a big thing for you, but for this middle aged white guy this was a plunge into the unknown. I never guessed I would dance the Tahitian hula before the assembled hotel guests but she guided me through it. Loretta later pointed out that as a young executive 25 years ago, I would have died before you would have convinced me to risk the dance floor in such a public fashion. Yet there is a certain joy and exhilaration that comes from letting go and following your partner in the dance. We do not get to be the lead but we can dance.

So this is the fifth and final lesson: when our lives swirl beyond control, we lose even the illusion of control, when we don’t get to lead but only to follow as well as we can the gentle or tumultuous dance that represents our very lives; then let it be a joyous dance. Let us engage fully with life and enjoy where the chaos takes us! Like the flaming chalice, symbol of our faith, we flame anew.
We can face the God of the whirlwind and come away laughing. Trust the process. Creative serendipity, which some call divine, will somehow emerge and guide our steps so we can truly dance.
Chaos engaged leads inevitably to new complexity and new life, new opportunities for joy, for growth, for relationships in our life.
It will not always be easy, nor pleasant, or even free of pain, but let it be a dance, not necessarily the Tahitian hula, but what it will be for each of us to enjoy and fully engage with our lives. Amen.