by Karen Turner.
In the last couple of months I’ve been facilitating a Zoom book group for some students who wanted to explore what the New Testament says about women. They are from diverse backgrounds and often don’t agree with one another and so the conversation has been rich. The students from more conservative churches speak about their belief that God created a universe of order, and this applies, for them, to pattern of male headship that was pre-ordained for human flourishing.
We’ve learned to listen well to one another and so I’ve tried to sit with their conviction that, not only does God create order, but God rejoices in a particular kind of order. Even without knowing anything about Bach’s musical rules of composition, or without deep knowledge of maths or science, I can see that creation is delicately balanced, creatively woven with relationships, and that it miraculously is, when it might not be, held in God’s hand.
But I find myself resisting the idea that God is quite so orderly. And, although I want God to bring peace to places of conflict, reconciliation to broken relationships and forgiveness to the chaos of my own sin, it’s hard to see ‘order’ as God’s motivation.
Perhaps another student story expresses something of God in this. I attended a student-organised vigil about sexual violence this week where there were hundreds of students and strong language and emotions as people went up to the open mic to share their pain and their anger. I’d spotted a quiet Christian student I knew in the crowd and asked him later about his experience. I was astonished by what he said. ‘After you left, I decided to go up to the mic and to pray for everyone. There was so much hurt; I wanted them to know that God cared.’
I’ve been remembering another vigil this week – the first Easter vigil I attended, in my early 20s, living in a Christian community. So many things were new to me: the Easter fire, the paschal candle, the epic readings, the alleluias, the incense. But I think it was the jarring congregational bells that made the biggest impression – the jangling signalling a new reality that felt slightly terrifying.
We generally keep the startling part of Easter out of greeting cards and songs, preferring instead a picture of calm after disruption, life beginning again. We are quick to put the chaos of Holy Week behind us and move on, everything back in order, even if that order is actually a totally new reality.
I wonder if Judas’ betrayal was an attempt to bring on the new world order he’d heard Jesus talking about? Perhaps following Jesus was more chaotic than he could cope with; crowds, healings, confrontations, moving from place to place, impossible to predict or budget.
Little did Judas know that further disruption was coming: earthquakes, angels, bribes, heavy objects moved, ‘unreliable’ witnesses, lack of recognition, apparent ghosts, walking through walls, fear, and of course, lots of doubt. Doubt, everywhere you turn. But also belief.
Our lives together can be messy, but maybe there is a way of seeing this as a sign of life. Ian Mobsby recently summed up for me the whole purpose of rules for community life by saying ‘we create structures to stop people from hurting one another’. [i]
Christian community isn’t about controlling people nor is it about creating order for the sake of it. It’s certainly not about establishing power roles. We can’t guarantee that people won’t be hurt, but order might help us to be kind, and to protect the weak, and that’s the only reason for rules; choosing to live in a way that isn’t blinkered by our self obsessions.
The household codes in the New Testament, and the references to the ways that worship should be conducted show that order was a concern of the early church. However, I wonder if these statements say more about the enthusiasm and life of those communities, rather than, as we might see it later, a need to exercise control. If there is an emphasis on order, it’s only because there is so much apparent life in the chaos. There would be no need to talk about order if what they were experiencing was a traditional hymn sandwich.
We have plenty of order. I wonder if what our churches might need most, post-pandemic, is less fear of chaos? As Mike Pilavachi says, ‘It’s messy in the nursery but it’s neat and tidy in the graveyard’. [ii] Jesus greets his friends with peace after the resurrection, precisely because this is what they don’t have, and this is where we can meet him, too.