25 April 2010

A Holy Mess

Genesis 1: 1-2 & John 1: 1-5, 14-18; John 21: 1-14

Fourth Sunday of Easter/ April 25, 2010

Eugene Peterson is Presbyterian minister and well-loved writer. He served for a time here in Baltimore Presbytery. Eugene Peterson once led a retreat for seminarians and was asked what he liked best about being a pastor. Immediately, without thinking, he answered, “The mess.” It just rolled off his tongue. It caught him by surprise, as well as the students. He later reflected upon this exchange and acknowledged that it was both true and not true. It was not true because Peterson really doesn’t like the mess of ministry at all. He said he, “Hates the uncertainty, I hate not knowing how long this is going to last, hate the unanswered questions, the limbo of confused and indecisive lives, the tangle of motives and emotions [in the parish].” (1) One has to be good (or at least adequate) at multi-tasking in ministry because there’s so much going on every minute of every day. There are always lots of lose ends. Ministry is messy.

Now, by messy ministry I’m not talking about the condition of a pastor’s study. This is not a commentary on the state of my desk or Dorothy Boulton’s desk – or the floor in her study (which was very messy last week). We both go through cycles of order and chaos. But this isn’t the kind of mess that concerns Peterson.

Despite our Presbyterian fascination – dare I say obsession (!) – with order, ministry is anything but orderly. There are days in ministry when everything and everyone seems to be so out of order, with no clear indication that what we’re up to here has anything to do with what God is trying to accomplish in the world.

However, what Peterson was pointing to in his response, the kind of mess that he loves about being a pastor, the part that is true – true for pastors, for all Christians, for congregations, is the mess which, as he puts it, “is the precondition for creativity.” (2) I love Peterson’s approach to ministry. His ideas and writings have kept me as a pastor for almost twenty years now, during periods in my life when I’ve said to God, “You can have all of this back, I don’t want this. This is not what I signed up for.” Several years ago, I was in Chicago and had the chance to thank him personally for keeping me in the pastorate. Peterson’s vision of the gospel and the Christian life, his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit cuts through all the cultural trappings that come with being a minister in today’s culture. Listen to this statement: “The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol – a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal,” Peterson declares, “Holiness is blazing.” (3)

It’s precisely because we’re dealing with Holiness, dealing with a Holy God; because we’re up to our ears in Holiness that ministry is messy. The apostle Paul might have called us to do everything “decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40),” but the Holy One of Israel, whom Walter Brueggeman calls the Wild One of Israel, is not afraid of disorder, is not afraid of things being out of order, is not afraid of the mess. I’m not trying to make a case for clutter or justifying disorganization or excusing what at times might be bad habits. Those blessed with organizational skills are invaluable in the world and in the church. Instead, I’m trying to make a case for the kind of messiness required for something new to emerge. Mess can be the precondition for creativity. The Holiness of God loves messy situations because out of the mess something new comes into being and takes shape. Isn’t this what we find at the beginning of Genesis? God playing with the primordial soup, a primordial chaos over which the breath, the spirit, the ruach of God moves and creates.

It has been assumed that when God moved over the formlessness and void and called life into being that order was valued over disorder; that the formlessness and void were lesser or lower than the forms that followed after the breath of Yahweh. But we forget the value of what was there before there was light – chaos. Without chaos there would be no creation. Formlessness and void – tohu v’bohu in Hebrew – this primordial chaos is the “stuff” from which Yahweh creates the universe. “The primordial chaos serves as the reservoir or the storehouse upon which God draws for variety,” an infinite variety which yields creation. (4)

Genesis 1:2 tells us that chaos is not to be feared; it is needed in every creative act. Cosmologists and physicists are showing us this in chaos theory; even within chaos there is a creative orderly component. Chaos is a necessary component of the creation. Margaret Wheatley writes in Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World that chaos is not to be feared. (6) She encourages leaders to embrace the chaos. Only when we embrace the chaos, enter into it will we be able to be creative and innovative enough to meet the demands of our day. Psychologists seeking to understand the source of human creativity have discovered that messiness is good and needed for creation. Just think of the artist in the chaos and mess of his studio. Think of the scholar in her study surrounded by a chaos of books and articles and paper. Or think of a child playing in the dirt or mud or a child with finger paints. If all of this is invaluable for creativity, then we Presbyterians need to learn that chaos is not the opposite of order. In fact, there are moments when our “blessed rage for order” puts us at odds with the creative intention of the Spirit. (6) For is not the void and chaos a part of God's creation, the stuff of existence, over which the ruach of God moves and calls life into being?(7) This leads me to wonder: does the Spirit “need” the mess in order to create something new? If we’re never messy, never out of order, does that mean we at some levels are hindering the Spirit’s act of creation within us, closing ourselves off from being creative?

The same creative God who was there in the beginning was infinitely creative when the Word took on flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. Taking on flesh and blood, becoming human, getting caught up in human affairs is messy. The beginning of John’s Gospel intentionally, “In the beginning was the Word (John 1:1),” intentionally links the work of God in Christ with the primal creative act of God, “In the beginning….” The God revealed to us in Jesus Christ is always doing a new thing. This is the God whom we serve.

Consider the scene in John 21, of the resurrected Jesus cooking fish and making some toast for the disciples who have just come in from a night of fishing. All that fish, the charcoal of the fire, the sweat, it must have been a dirty, messy sight, and smelly with all that fish (153, to be exact, according to John). It’s so real, honest. They aren’t in their Sunday best before the Lord. It’s in the “mess” of that scene that Jesus can offer forgiveness to Peter, a man who made a mess of his life in denying three times the one he claimed to love. Jesus loves to work with the mess of their lives.

To be Christ’s disciple means being open to the new and amazing things the Spirit of God is creating and achieving in the world. We don’t have to be afraid of the chaos. We don’t have to be afraid of disorder. We don’t have to be afraid of the mess.

The Holy One whom we serve is inherently creative and with creativity comes a Holy mess. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s a mess that we in the church, especially the Presbyterian Church, need to become more familiar and comfortable. The church of Jesus Christ is calling for creative Christians, creative congregations, creative leaders who are not afraid of getting messy with and not afraid to enter into the messiness of life in order to see what Christ is trying to accomplish in the world through us.

Peterson reminds us that “creativity is not neat. It is not orderly. When we are being creative we don’t know what is going to happen next. When we are being creative a great deal of what we do is wrong. When we are being creative we are not efficient.” (8) These words pose a considerable challenge to every congregation today. God’s good news is creative and the gospel calls us to be creative, and in order to be creative we need to learn to deal with the messiness of life. Life is not orderly. This means we don’t have to worry whether or not everything in our church life is neat and well-planned. In order for churches to be creative we need to take risks. We have to stop trying to play it safe. We need to take risks and fail. Did you know that at Disney, perhaps one of the most creative organizations in the world, six out of the ten great ideas they come up with in a given year actually fail? Two out of the four ideas do okay. Only two out of ten actually rock, actually succeed. The question for, then, is: Why is Disney more creative than the church? Why does Disney get to have all the fun in being creative?

Ministry today requires and demands taking risks, to do things never tried before, to do things that are unpopular, counter-cultural, and maybe even radical. But it also might mean trying new things, even if they fail. Being faithful to the gospel requires this. This approach might even mean making some folks unhappy and uncomfortable. The church doesn’t exist to make people happy; we’re called to follow and be faithful to Jesus Christ (who certainly ruffled a lot of feathers and had no respect for the status quo); we’re called to be faithful wherever that might lead us. Sometimes it’s difficult for those of us in the church to realize that the challenges facing the church today are immense. We’ll be exploring some of these challenges over the next couple of Sundays leading to Pentecost. The challenges facing our beloved Presbyterian church are enormous. The challenges facing our world are immense. Our age requires new ways of doing ministry. We spent some time talk about this at the presbytery meeting on Thursday. Our executive presbyter, Peter Nord, challenged the presbytery to have the “guts” to make the changes needed for the church to be faithful in this age. We cannot “do” church the way we’ve done it in the past. This change will require risk. For as our Constitution states, the church is called to do its work even at the risk of losing its own life.(9)

If we’re going to be more comfortable with the mess and if we’re going to be creative, then we need to be more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit who is wild and free and not afraid to take us to challenging places, but also life-giving places. The Spirit can be trusted. The Spirit doesn’t care if you fail – because very often “failure” is defined by what the world deems “failure.” The Spirit’s only concern for you and me is that we come alive! The Spirit is not afraid of the mess but seeks the potential within it for something radically new to emerge, something new that has the capacity to glorify God. We need to trust the process and be open to where the Spirit is leading us.

“In any creative enterprise there are risks,” Peterson notes, “mistakes, false starts, failures, frustrations, embarrassments, but out of this mess – when we stay with it long enough, enter it deeply enough – there slowly emerges love or beauty or peace.” (10 We can trust the process, stay with the mess, the chaos, and the unknown; don’t run from them, but enter into them and find there the face of God.

As we move toward Pentecost, perhaps we can think of May as Holy Spirit Month. Or, maybe, “This month is brought to you by the Holy Spirit.” (Although, every month should have this label.). Maybe this can be our tag line: Holy Spirit Month: Watch it Change You.

One of the oldest prayers of the church is Veni, Creator Spiritus. “Come, Creator Spirit.” I’m often praying this prayer. Theologian T. F. Torrance (1913-2007) once said it’s a prayer of “open surrender to the absolute creativity of God.” (11) I love this. The Spirit of Christ is at work in the world. There is much for us to learn, much for us to do. The Spirit has much to accomplish and create in the world through us. Yes, it’s messy. But oh what a mess is it is! It’s a holy mess. For in the mess we encounter nothing less than the Word made flesh, the holiness of God becoming enfleshed in our lives!

Image: The Lorenz Attractor, named for Edward N. Lorenz(1917-2008), father of chaos theory.

1. Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), 163.
2. Peterson, 163.
3. Peterson, 5. Emphasis added.
4. James E. Huchingson, Pandemonium Tremendum: Chaos and Mystery in the Life of God (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2001), 119.
5. Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1999), 115ff.
6. This is a reference to the title of David Tracy’s, Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).
7. Huchingson, 96-115.
8. Peterson, 163.
9. The Book of Order, G-3.0400. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.).
10. Peterson, 164.
11. Thomas F. Torrance, Theology in Reconstruction (London: SCM Press, 1965), 245

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