When I was a kid there was this popular t.v. show called “Get Smart,” a comedy about secret agents, where the bad guys belonged to his organization called “chaos,” and the good guys to one called “control.” But life isn’t as simple as that. Though we know that total chaos is destructive and hurtful, we also realize that total control is lifeless. There is no room for growth or creativity in absolute order. Our tendency is to prefer one over the other (some prefer order, others chaos), but chaos and order are a dichotomy that need to be embraced.
As I’ve mentioned before, our family had an unusually good Thanksgiving together. It was unusual simply to have us all together; Andrew back early from his semester off spent in Thailand, and Kate back home from college in Indiana. The whole family came to worship on Thanksgiving Sunday, which, like the return of Haley’s Comet, is another great rarity.
When we got back home, Sarah got the idea into her head that before we all got out of our nice cloths and went in different directions, we should all sit down to have our picture taken together. There was resistance and grumbling in various quarters. My suit was already off before the request was fully formulated, and my Sunday afternoon nap was calling to me, but nonetheless we gave in to Sarah’s request. Andrew put his camera up high on a tripod, set the timer, and we all plopped down on the sofa, taking a total of two shots before we all dispersed. The dog even made it into the photo, lying down in front with Bobby happy to have her tummy scratched, though the unsociable cat was having nothing to do with the photo op.
Remarkably the second shot came out astonishingly well. It was nicely balanced with this almost supernatural glow, and nobody was blinking or scowling, and immediately it was clear we had the kind of photo you send out in your Christmas cards; an almost boasting kind of photo — one that says, “Look, see what a wonderful family we have, with such attractive, happy people who love one another.”
There was truth in that photo, for at our best we are indeed that, but there is always more to families than love and happiness.
Because of an unexpected illness, we had Andrew home for two months straight — it had been over ten years since we’d had that kind of extended time with him; and Kate came home for Christmas for three weeks, and Andrew’s girl friend came for two weeks as well, and so we had a full house, including the dog and cat, and you can be certain that over time in close quarters there are other things besides love and happiness that show up: things like jealousy and resentment — things like essentially grown, otherwise competent “adult” children regressing into helplessness, expecting to be waited on, and parents repressing their resentments about such regressions and lashing out at one another instead.
And so craving order and solitude, there was a good deal of relief for me this past week when the “adult children” began to clear out of the house: Kate leaving Tuesday to drive back to school (a couple of days early) and Andrew and his girlfriend Friday on a plane that would take them back to college in New Mexico.
A significant part of me was really looking forward to the return of a less chaotic and stressful house, and so I was caught off guard as I drove Andrew and his girlfriend to the airport to discover that tears were welling up in my eyes, insofar as I am someone who rarely cries. I realized anew that I really do love these people — am deeply connected at the heart to these people — would be lost without these people, even as they bring much chaos to my life, contributing mightily to my stress level, in various ways wearing me down.
I was suddenly struck by the fact that it was quite possible that this would be the last time we would ever have this kind of extended time together as a family. Andrew is looking to settle down for a time in New Mexico, a place where he has prospered, and Kate is talking about going off to DC after she graduates this Spring, and then possibly back to Tanzania. And so with the tears rolling down my cheeks it was all I could do to get the words “I love you” out as I hugged Andrew goodbye at the curbside of Newark Airport.
We struggle throughout our lives to balance this great dichotomy of order and chaos. Families bring forth both sides, (and what I am saying here applies to church families as well.) Though we can try our best to contain the chaos element, our success will always be limited. Families are messy — downright chaotic at times — no getting around this fact. But what I remembered as the tears rolled down my cheeks is that they bring a deep order to life as well.
When I ask myself, where do I belong in this vast universe with so much empty space, the most grounding answer I can give is here, in this particular network of human bonds that reach deep into my heart. Apart from these bonds my life would be “a formless void.” (Genesis 1:2)
The Gospel lesson echoes the story from the beginning of creation. Once more there is water — the water of the River Jordan where John the Baptist is dunking people. Water represents chaos. It is a substance you cannot shape or control, and in the deep darkness of which it is quite possible to lose your life. It’s curious, when you think about it, that in his call to repentance, John invites everyone to step back into the chaos.
When the order that has been created in your life becomes deadening to the soul — which eventually over time it becomes again and again, then like it or not, a good dose of chaos is precisely what’s needed to bring about new possibilities of life and creativity.
There in the watery chaos of the River Jordan, the Spirit hovers above once more, this time coming in the form of a dove, creating a new, more life-giving order.
And there is Jesus willingly joining us in the chaos of the water, and we are invited to hear with him once more as the voice speaks that brings forth light. “You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased,” the voice of a familial connection of the deepest kind.
And perhaps the tears roll down our cheeks, and we know once more who we are, and where we belong. And we say with the Creator, “It is good.”