July 1, 2018
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In the land of Patagonia — a land east of the Andes mountains stretching down to the southernmost tip of South America and washed on its eastern coast by the waves of the South Atlantic — in the land of Patagonia, there are no trees because the desert plateaus are swept constantly by a harsh wind. The wind carves the rock. It creates express-lanes in the skies for soaring hawks and seabirds. The scrub brush that clings to the plateau suffocates in piles of silt gathered by the furious wind as it whipped across the dry land. The wind scrapes fossils from the sea cliffs and scatters them like shot across the tin roofs of the few sheep-herders and biologists who settle in Patagonia. One of those biologists, Roger Payne, wrote of his impressions of the region when he came to study the whales that swim and breed in coves off its rugged shores. As any good biologist would, however, he also observed the animal life on the land around him. It didn’t take much of his time because there are few animals that dare to live in the harsh climate of the Patagonian wind. You might get a glimpse of an occasional lizard battling the gale like a salmon swimming upstream in its attempt to return to a bit of shelter on the leeward side of a bush, or a fox might skitter by, it’s fur standing on end in the gusts, but there isn’t much else to see Payne said, unless you put your face right next to the ground. There, he said, you will see an animal undisturbed by the wind, or more literally, thousands of them. The ants of Patagonia carry on their work with such disregard for the gale around them that it is as if they have suction cups on their feet. Don’t, however, Payne said, attempt to pick one up to look more closely at how it is maintaining its grip because as soon as you reach your hand toward the hurrying ants, they disappear. The ants don’t have suction cups on their feet but live in a thin boundary layer between wind and earth: by walking in careful trails around bushes and rocks, the ants manage to live in the tiny calm spots of the landscape where the wind is blocked and held back. It is a fragile truce and the smallest disturbance can tear through their protective cushion allowing the wind to rip them away. If you lean down to look at the ants, if you reach out your hand or place a finger before them, your body will create swirling eddies that will suck up those ants and whisk them away in an insect-size hurricane, the thin shield between chaos and order broken.
Sometimes our lives feel like we are the ants of Patagonia living in a fragile truce with chaos. As we go through the orderly routine of our day, we are all too aware that there is wind whistling just beyond, and we know just how fragile that order is. Society churns and sways as ideas and beliefs struggle for dominance and whole people hunker down hoping that that turbulent winds will not catch them up and toss their lives into chaos. The winds may feel stronger right now in 2018 but they have always been there, throughout history, licking at the edges of order and sometimes breaking through the comfortable cushion of safety to grab people up in their swirling whirlpool. At times that comfortable cushion needed and needs to be broken — the status quo of slavery, or segregation, our easy acceptance of abuse, racism, poverty, or today, the hurt done to migrant children in the name of national sovereignty. Such comfortable places need to be challenged, but at other times, the winds suck up innocent people as our basic social contract with one another is threatened, as civility breaks down, and the powerful trample the weak. Whether good or bad, winds of change are always at the periphery of our society, and we walk constantly in a thin shield between chaos and order.
How much more are we aware of that fragile truce between order and chaos in our personal lives? One day you drive to the doctor feeling that you are a healthy human being with a predictable daily routine but you drive home with a diagnosis of a serious illness, and suddenly everything is in turmoil. Those who have lost jobs know the feeling of confusion and disarray that follows: everything you took for granted about your life, about yourself, is suddenly thrown into question. And relationships are full of perilous ground. A woman is told by her husband that he is having an affair; a couple discovers they are medically unable to bear children; a teenager becomes involved in drugs; a trusted colleague sabotages you behind your back. Rejection, hurt, and anger batter our hearts as a fierce wind and the fragile truce between chaos and order is broken.
We spend every day of our lives knowing that just beyond the edges of our current existence, the winds are howling. So how do we cope with that reality? How do you cope with the knowledge that life as you know it today could be upended and in complete disarray tomorrow? How have you coped when it has happened to you? How do we live with the wind always at our door?
Unfortunately, many of us cope with the threat of chaos by trying to batten down the hatches, lock the doors, board the windows, and hunker down. Our fear of the winds of change cause us to become increasingly uncomfortable with anything new and determined to hold to the old ways of thinking and behaving. We become entrenched in what is familiar and increasingly authoritarian in our relationships. We demand that others accept our way of thinking and doing, so that we won’t have to deal with the discomfort of having to change ourselves. In our personal lives, we become obsessed with trying to ensure our health or our loved ones’ safety, and we live in a cloud of constant anxiety over the future. Even though our present life may still be a place of peace and beauty, we can’t appreciate it because our minds are always on those winds of chaos that we know lie just beyond the periphery. We live in sorrow at a past that is gone; fear of a future we can’t control; and blind to the present with its possibility of meaning and joy. We know that none of this is healthy; we know that we are driving ourselves crazy with our worry; and driving others crazy with our need for control or our entrenched ways, but we don’t know how else to handle our fear that if those winds break through our carefully constructed world, we will be swept away into the chaos.
The Psalmist tells us that there is another way. Instead of denying the power of chaos, he says, let’s go ahead and imagine the very worse that can happen. Let’s imagine that tomorrow the earth should change, the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; the waters roar and foam, and the mountains tremble with its tumult. Let’s imagine that your entire world is turned upside down. Enter into that place of deepest fear and worry and let yourself consider the possibility that in spite of your careful planning; in spite of your precautions, in spite of your retirement accounts and your insurance policies and your exercise plans; even in spite of your deep faith life and your constant work at being good and coming to church and serving others and spending time in prayer, the chaos still broke upon you. What then?
Psalm 46 declares, “Know that even then the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge.” God says, “In the midst of the swirling winds of chaos, be still and know that I am God.”
When we first hear these words, they don’t sound like much to hang our lives on. “My world is falling apart and your advice is to meditate?!” But the Hebrew words that we translate as “be still” are better translated as “Cease and desist!”
“Cease and desist your attempt to hold back the chaos with your bare hands and trust that I am there in the chaos with you. I will be your strength and your refuge.”
In the book My Old Man and the Sea, a young man named Daniel recounts his journey around Cape Horn with his father in a twenty foot sailboat named the Sparrow. His was only the second boat of that size to travel the perilous journey around the southern tip of South America, and Daniel describes the ferocious winds of Cape Horn that rip around the circumference of the globe unhindered by any land and pile the water of the Cape Horn passage into 16 to 20 feet tall waves. The Sparrow, only 20 feet long itself, could fit its entire length on one side of a wave! As they sailed into these treacherous waters, father and son had to take turns at the helm while the other caught a few moments of rest because the sailing was so exhausting. One night, Daniel took the helm in a particularly ferocious wind while his father went below, and as he was guiding the Sparrow through the troughs of waves, a huge gust of wind caught the boat broadside crashing a wall of water over the deck and sweeping Daniel overboard. He wrote later in his journal that it was only when he saw the deck railing 15 feet above his head that he realized he wasn’t treading water on a swamped deck, but in the open sea. Fortunately, the two men never went on deck without wearing a harness and Daniel was kept from being swept away by the tether around his waist, but before he could pull himself back on board, another wave catapulted him over the deck and into the sea on the port side. A third wave washed him back onto the deck itself where he grabbed hold of the railings, regained his footing, and went back to the business of sailing the ship through the gale. His father was aware that the boat had been hit by a large wave but by the time he came up from the cabin, Daniel had the Sparrow back under control and it wasn’t until days later that Daniel told his father about being temporarily washed overboard.
God is your tether in the gale. We cannot stop the chaos from breaking upon us and there are times in our society when we should not stop it; when we should have the courage to let it break us out of our comfortable cushions for the sake of a more just way of living with others. We cannot let our fear keep us from necessary change; nor can we allow our fear to bind us to a bygone past or consume our hearts with anxiety over an unknown future. Instead, we need to attach ourselves securely to God, trusting that God will be our tether; God will give us strength to stand, a hand to hold, a presence to lean on. God will comfort us in our pain and give us a place to heal. God will bring us love through your friends and church, and when even they tire of listening, God will still listen and will never turn away from our tears. If it takes a week, a month, a year, ten years to find a place of order again, God will stay with us through it all in infinite patience and constant guidance.
God is your refuge and strength; a very present help in trouble, so give up your attempt to hold back chaos. Cease! Desist! Be still and know that God is here with us. Trust that with God as your help, you will always be able to find a place of peace even in the midst of the storm.