A phrase that has proved rich for me and my experience of pioneer ministry was given to me by Bishop Graham Cray when he came to launch Poole Missional Communities. As we got up to leave the restaurant prior to the service he was to speak at he took the opportunity to speak two words of wisdom on the nature of pioneering to me, it is, he said, ‘glorious chaos’.
Nobody enjoys chaos. Few people choose it. We run from it because our self-centred selves like form, we like structure, we like consistency. They give us a sense of safety, stability and control. All too easily we get rather accustomed and unhealthily attached to our structures, and when they are threatened we will fight hard to preserve them. And so rarely do we choose to break them up, sink them or voluntarily leave them. In fact such is our desire of comfort, safety and control we might even rather die than be forced beyond these limits and into the unknown. WH Auden once wrote, ‘We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the present and let our illusions die’. And yet it is in these spaces, structureless, chaotic, out of control that we stop reigning with our counterfeit crowns and allow God to reign. In these spaces we also have to drop our pretence of success, or self-satisfaction and recognise our continued need to be transformed.
None of wants to change, really, because deep down we know that real change requires death. Something inside of us needs to die in order for something new to come to life. The thing is that everything in us rages against this truth and we fight tooth and nail to avoid it. We employ all sorts of elaborate mechanisms and neurosis to avoid it. We are so good at this that for the most part we think we are fine and can argue against this truth with great clarity. Until the storm comes. Which it inevitably does.
What we seem as humans to want to negate is that life is essentially tragic. Written into the truth about the universe is a pattern of death and resurrection, suffering and transformation, chaos and order that we struggle to embrace. Richard Rohr calls this the ‘tragic sense of life’ He argues that for us 21st century westerners imbued with modernism and Newtonian physics we find this truth even harder because we expect life to be ordered. We have lived in a culture that has placed its faith in a causal view of the world that says that if I apply enough logic and determination into a given situation progress can be made. Things can only get better, and through our own effort.
But the Biblical world view is quite different. This ‘tragic’ world view is that it is precisely at the point where we have lost control, where we have come to end of our resources, where we have tried everything and failed – at that point there is life, new and exciting. The truth of the world is that it is in fact more disordered than ordered. Life is the constant tension played out at the edges of chaos and order, in the liminal spaces between death and new life. In this life, in this age, to cling on to order and structure is unrealistic because the truth, the reality of life is not like that. Life is found when we let go of order and comfort and confront disorder and death. The pinnacle of this theology of course comes in the gospel; Jesus enters the chaos and darkness of death only for the new life he came to bring to emerge at the resurrection. John’s gospel, in speaking of these events, speaks of Jesus ‘entering his glory, the glory of life transformed by apparent failure, with followers scattered and in disarray – chaos – but glorious chaos nonetheless.