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Out Of Chaos
June 2, 1996


After my sermon a few weeks ago about how American Indians have been treated by the whites and how they can teach Christians about God and the earth, Ellie and I were given a gift certificate to see the play Black Elk Speaks. We drove to Columbia this past week to Fallon House to see the impressive production. A large cast, most if not all of which were of American Indian descent, portrayed on a small stage a gripping story of American Indian history.

One of the episodes told was about Colonel John M. Chivington. During the Civil War, he was transferred to the Denver area where he felt his mission was to kill Indians. His most notorious and cowardly achievement was to attack Sand Creek where some Cheyenne Indians had been offered protection by the Army. Colonel Chivington sent most of the braves off to shoot buffalo, and then attacked the fort, slaughtering hundreds of women and children. Congress reprimanded Colonel Chivington for his dastardly act, but he was treated as a hero by the populace.

The play did mention that Chivington was a minister. What was thankfully omitted was that Colonel Chivington was a Methodist lay preacher. Last month, in Denver, the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, which meets every four years to decide policy and speak for our denomination, issued an apology to American Indians for the barbarous acts of one of our clergy. 132 years after the fact, we apologized.

The play described what it might have been like. Hearing the sound of hoofs in the distance, they assumed it was a herd of buffalo, but as the sound grew closer and louder, they realized it was the sound of horses not buffalo. Someone shouted, "They're soldiers!" Panic and Pandemonium set in as all hell broke loose. That's an interesting expression. All hell broke loose implies that hell is being reined in-- contained, held in place-- until, suddenly, hell breaks loose of its chains and causes havoc and chaos. All hell broke loose is the image portrayed in the first chapter of Genesis.

The magnificent poem pictures a formless void and darkness. According to Genesis 1, God did not create ex nihilo (out of nothing), but out of chaos. Formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep raging waters. Hebrew for formless void is tohu wabohu-- chaos, confusion. Even the sound of it is dark, forbidding, distorted and muddled. Tohu wabohu. Then God breathed the wind, which is the Hebrew word for the Spirit we call the Holy Spirit. The wind swept over the waters and God created light to illumine the darkness. This was the first day. On the second day God put in a dome to hold off the chaotic waters. God called the dome sky.

There is a popular image of God where God created the world and now sits off somewhere on a throne, dictating the course of events and people's lives. God directs and decides what happens to all of us. When something bad happens, they say, "It is God's will. Oh, we don't always understand why things happen the way they do, but someday it will be made clear." This theology overlooks evil and the intrusion of chaos, the tohu wabohu.

Contrast that theology with the image portrayed in Genesis, where God is constantly creating and holding off the chaos. Creation is not a one-time event, but an on-going process where God is actively at work in everything that happens, at work holding back the forces of tohu wabohu. Picture a dome. The early people looked at the horizon, and it looked like a dome. Every now and then, chaos breaks through the dome, and/or bubbles up through the ground, and all hell breaks loose.

Have you ever experienced chaos in your life? Hectic schedule, accident, cancer, loss of job, fire? Certainly the Indians at Sand Creek experienced chaos. When chaos breaks in upon you, it doesn't help to blame God, or assign the chaos to God's will. God is still creating. God never stops wrestling with tohu wabohu, bringing something out of nothing, creation out of chaos. In the face of tohu wabohu, God creates a dome-- a dome around you, a dome around us-- so we can live in hope and confidence because of God's creativity and power. The forces of chaos, the forces of evil broke through and hung Jesus on a cross. But, God, constantly creating, brought hope out of that tragic event, and raised Jesus from the dead.

You are enjoying a pleasant, sunny June day. Your world is in order, everything in its place, the schedule is working. Then, the telephone rings. A voice says, "I'm sorry, I've got some bad news for you." You are in shock. You place the telephone receiver back in its cradle. You stagger towards the window and now, there's no more sunny June day. What once seemed an ordered, idyllic world is now slowly sinking into chaos, the tohu wabohu. You can smell it, seeping through the cracks in the floor, a silent, foreboding rumbling underneath what began as an ordinary, orderly day. What seemed like such definite, certain, secure dry land, such an orderly, clockwork universe of cause-effect predictability, begins to malfunction, gears grind, and things fall apart. The utter fragility of it all overwhelms us. In such moments when the earth shakes, mountains crumble, and chaos bubbles forth, turn like the vulnerable, fragile children that we are to an old story,

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep. Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light... And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters." ..And it was so.

When chaos breaks in, turn to the light, put yourself under the protective dome, and trust in God to see you through. Psalm 46,

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change,

thought the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountain tremble..

the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.

God is our refuge from tohu wabohu..

Psalm 23, You prepare me a table in the presence of my enemies. In the presence of my enemies is another way of talking about chaos. In the midst of chaos, in the presence of enemies, our Lord prepares us a table, invites us to feast with him and with one another. This morning you are invited to the table, to receive the life of Christ, in the presence of enemies.

© 1996 Douglas I. Norris