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Chaos: Ain’t it Lovely?

I recently preached this at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Eugene.

Have you ever had a day that was so bad… so frustrating that it made you question everything? You got a phone call or had an epiphany about something that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, and suddenly you were ready to quit your job, to start a new life by driving across the country fueled by nothing more than those little powdered sugar donuts and Tic-Tacs and mountain dew?

Good. If you did, I’d be worried because that was fairly specific.

Chaos.

The word makes me uncomfortable to even say. On a few occasions, *life* has really shown up at my door – you know the way it does that sometimes…. One minute, you’re cruising along, reasonably happy, the AC works in the car, your friends and family are making good choices, you’re thinking of taking up a new hobby – maybe trombone lessons, and then in an instant, someone or something hits a giant reset button and it’s as if the oxygen has been sucked out of the room. On your heels, not knowing what to do, everything you thought you knew about how life was supposed to go turns out to be wrong.

I’ve used the word “Chaos” to describe this state… randomness, disorder, “when things fall apart.” It turns out that, strictly speaking, I was wrong.

Recently I saw an article titled, “Is the Universe Conscious?” published by NBC News. The article was triggered by an amazing paper by veteran physicist Gregory Matloff called, “Can Panpsychism become an observational science?”

This was one of those, ‘down the rabbit hole’ experiences that saw me swept up in research around astrophysics, chaos theory, and the parallels between science and religion.

Now, we’re at church and I just said the word astrophysics. This is one of my favorite parts of our faith. We get to worship while honoring our fourth Unitarian Universalist principle: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” and living into one of our sources: “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the result of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.”

My other favorite part of our faith? Proving that we’ve got it all wrong too! “…Heed the guidance of reason and the result of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” … As if science, and mind, and spirit can’t coexist or can’t all be looking at the same thing from different angles!

It’s Chaos!

Wait…. No it isn’t … it’s what I thought chaos was…

According to Ralph Abraham, PhD, and professor of mathematics at U.C. Santa Cruz,

“The word chaos occurred for the first time in Hesiod, around 800 B.C., at the beginning of the Orphic tradition of ancient Greece. The word appeared in his Theogony, which was about the creation of the gods and goddesses one by one. The three main deities were Chaos, Gaia, and Eros.
This first time the word appeared in literature, it had nothing to do with what we now mean by chaos in the English language and in ordinary life. At that time, it meant a sort of gaping void between heaven and Earth out of which form emerged. Creation came out of chaos, but chaos did not mean disorder or anything negative; it only meant a gaping void.”

A gaping void between heaven and earth….

So, our lives sometimes descend into chaos, but chaos isn’t necessarily what we think it is…

Fast forward to a more contemporary topic: chaos theory. Currently one of the more scintillating topics at cocktail parties everywhere!

According to the non-profit Fractal Foundation, Chaos is the science of surprises, of the nonlinear and the unpredictable. It teaches us to expect the unexpected. While most traditional science deals with supposedly predictable phenomena like gravity, electricity, or chemical reactions, Chaos Theory deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on. These phenomena are often described by fractal mathematics, which captures the infinite complexity of nature.

This is all heady stuff. Names like Johannes Keppler, Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr devoted careers to searching for the meaning of it all…. The one theory or answer to that oldest of questions: Where do we come from? Sure, the question looks different, depending who’s doing the asking, but this branch of science is fascinated with what I think of as a religious question… So, as an amateur theologian, I had to laugh when I read this by Astrophysicist Robert Jastrow:

“For the Scientist who has lived by faith in the power of her reason, the story ends like a bad dream. She has scaled the mountains of ignorance; and is about to conquer the highest peak; as she pulls herself over the final rock, she is greeted by a small band of theologians, who have been sitting there for centuries.”

Theologians can be quite convinced of our divine origins, you see…

So what does this mean to the person around whom their predictable, well-planned world has just been collapsed by a cancer diagnosis, or betrayal, or by violence?

One of the truths to which we are called is that we humans, while far from having all the answers, are not without hope. When we get it right––or are just plain lucky––when we come to one of life’s inflection points where everything changes in an instant, there is love.

Maybe it’s because we’ve given ourselves to this communal experience and invested in meaningful relationships with others. Maybe it’s because we’ve driven away every single friend and loved one in our lives, and yet, a stranger is there anyway- with a cup of coffee, or a napkin to wipe off the powdered sugar from all those donuts that’s now mixed with tears.

Chaos theory says, “No matter what you think, you don’t have this figured out”

Love says, “yes, and I don’t have to.”

Do you remember that NBC article, “Is the Universe Conscious?”

In it, the author cites Gregory Matloff’s paper which argues that, “humans may be like the rest of the universe in substance and in spirit.

First, the “in substance” part: Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “We are made of star stuff…. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” Sagan was a brilliant scientist who loved making the connection between the origins of the Universe and our own origins.

Though he died in 1996, he was prescient in that statement… “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Because Matloff’s paper goes on:

“A “proto-consciousness field” could extend through all of space, he argues. Stars may be thinking entities that deliberately control their paths. Put more bluntly, the entire cosmos may be self-aware.”

What would this mean? It certainly brings new life to the notion of an interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part!

If the universe itself is conscious / consciousNESS, then the divide between science and theology is an artifice. Imagine an all-pervading field of energy from which our consciousness arises, and to which it returns. This kind of metaphysical research may point us to greater knowing of the nature of existence. Carl Sagan explained that we are made of the very same hydrogen that was present at the beginning of the Universe. Imagine! You and I are made of the same basic material as the cosmos. And yet, there may be more… This field of science is just starting to entertain an idea that has been a core tenet of almost every religion we know of.

In Hinduism, Brahman is the infinite, unfathomable truth, source, and mystery from which everything springs. A tiny piece of this vast unknowable truth coalesces or condenses in each of us as we are born and is our Atman. Like one facet of a gem, Atman is simply a unique outgrowth of Brahman.

Sounds curiously similar to a universal proto-consciousness field that extends through all time and space, no?

So, got all that? There will be a test at the end of the service and you cannot leave until you pass. We have: Chaos Theory, Astrophysics, Proto-consciousness, and the Hindu notion of Brahman.

And you thought the Intern just liked to talk about God ; )

Well, in times of trouble, I often to my beloved Rumi’s words:

“I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.
A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.
Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!
Dear soul, if you were not friends
with the vast nothing inside,
why would you always be casting your net
into it, and waiting so patiently?”

That Chaos – the vast chasm between Heaven and Earth – between knowing and not knowing can be a scary place….. and…. Let us not forget that it can be incredibly insensitive… arrogant… to presume to tell someone that the pain and confusion they may be experiencing is merely a passing thing…. that chaos is normal. In fact, what good is any of this to someone who doesn’t have enough to eat? For whom a traffic stop is a life-threatening reality? Just as we seek understanding ourselves, let us not lose human perspective.

As a people of faith, we are called to live lives that are both humble, and also centered in hope and love.

As a people of faith, grounded in our principles, we are called to be that stranger who shows up when no one else will to provide a loving and compassionate presence.

Friends, chaos describes the natural state of things. It’s not to be feared, it simply marks the transition between known and unknown. In all existence, evolution or progress or change has only happened by moving from the known into the unknown. If change is inevitable, and if change represents the only opportunity for humanity to reach its highest potential in love, and if chaos is the name for this process of birth and rebirth, then let us embrace chaos.

Change finds us, ready or not. Things fall apart. Plans change, new truths are spoken for the first time, or heard for the first time. Whatever the reason, or if there is no reason at all, there is work to be done and we are not without the tools to do that work.

There is a world to be healed and we are not without hope.

Our Universalist forbears knew that there was a single truth so powerful, so redeeming, that it overcame any threat to ever face it.
James Vila Blake said:
“Love is the spirit of this church,
And service its law.
This is our great covenant:
To dwell together in peace,
To seek the truth in love,
And to help one another.”

We may not ever get the answers we so desperately seek.
We may not ever understand why bad things happen to good people.
We may be heartbroken, but as long as we have life to live, and love to give,
May we give it.
May it reflect from us as though we were a mirror to the cosmos – sending back the life force redoubled and filled with goodwill and gratitude for what moments of beauty we each held and shared in this life.

Beloveds, the path ahead will be both bitter and sweet. May we be reminded to comfort each other and to rejoice in community.

Through the chaos, there is love.

And love calls us on.

Amīn, Ashay, and Blessed Be

Life is what happens when…

Have you ever heard the saying, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”?

The bitter taste of failure and disappointment is still fresh and nearly overwhelming as I write this from St. Petersburg, Florida back in the US.

If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that I decided, along with my wife and 2 daughters, ages 7 and 16, to leave our longtime home in Cincinnati, USA to travel and explore the world. We bought one way tickets to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and set out to travel Southeast Asia for an indeterminate amount of time.  It turned out that “indeterminate” proved to be shorter than I’d hoped.

Because not everyone in the family was able to adapt to the traveling lifestyle, we were forced to change plans after a little more than a month and look for something different.

With stops in Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, we lived our goal of traveling slowly, staying in places that allowed us to see things through the eyes of those who live there. This is either a laudable goal, or a laughable one – maybe both. The more we traveled, the more I realized that it’s difficult, if not damn-near impossible for a westerner to really live like a native Khmer from Cambodia, or anyone who has grown up living in a developing country. We could get close for a short time, but growing up with luxuries I didn’t even realize were luxuries has made me soft. Staying in inexpensive guesthouses and a few even more modest digs gave me a whole new level of respect for those who have no other choice.

I’m trying to tell myself that I knew when we set out that there was no guarantee of success – no certainty that a family of 4 people would all be so in-tune that we would be able to function in a dizzying world of constant change and the randomly interspersed moments of ecstasy & boredom, of gritty discomfort and stunned amazement that are a part of long term travel on this earth.

Dealing with a teen who was not doing well with all the turmoil was a challenge I just could not overcome. The thing about being a parent is that – no matter what – it’s your job to make sure your kid is ok.

Imagine: The one thing you’ve wanted most for as long as you can remember turns out to be the thing that wrecks the confidence and emotional well-being of one you love dearly. My desire to go out into the unknown and explore the world firsthand was something that was simply too much for one whom I am sworn to protect and nurture.

The conflict and turmoil I am feeling right now is overwhelming. I wasn’t up to the task. I couldn’t overcome the obstacles. I failed at my goal. There it is.

Nevertheless, if there was ever a situation I was cut out for, it’s dealing with a defeat. So, here we go.

As a parent, part of the deal is that no matter what, your kids come first. Their long-term needs trump your short-term plans. Every time. They deserve our love and support. They deserve the very best us we can give them, so we’ve tried our best to make some lemonade out of this particular lemon. Though we could have continued to parent and do the best we could alone, we found that our emotional reserves had been depleted (silly in hindsight that we didn’t anticipate this), and we knew we needed some support around us.

Like a quarterback who finds his offense ill-suited to execute the play that was originally called, we’ve changed our plan midstream – called an audible, if you will.

We headed back to the US, and to St. Petersburg, Florida, which has a (for us) magic trio of a walkable urbanism, access to ocean beaches, and soul-replenishing sunshine. We are still proudly car-free, and have stumbled on an amazingly flourishing homeschool community. We hope to become a part of this community and contribute to what is an emerging creative class here. We don’t know how long we’ll stay – only that it feels right here for the moment, and that is enough.

There you have it. As a writer, I try to highlight the best and brightest of what I see, but sometimes life isn’t what you plan for. It isn’t always good or all that bright. Sometimes life, uncaring and ruthless, hits unexpectedly. So we get back up, wipe off the dust, patch the wounds, and move forward. Always forward. Where else is there?

Make no mistake, our travels yielded some amazing discoveries, beautiful moments, and good memories that will last forever. I’ll tell some of those stories and post pictures of some of those sights as I move through this process. I need to heal a little. I think sharing more of the experience will help with that.

In the meantime, I know that many of you have faced challenges and setbacks that make mine seem laughable. I honor those defeats and setbacks. I honor the courage and strength it has taken for you to face them. Only if we embrace the setbacks and struggles, do we earn the privilege of savoring the victories.

Here’s to the shitty view from down in the valley.

Here’s to the amazing view from atop the next peak.

What say we all meet there over a drink and talk about the climb up?