“Out of Chaos;” Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12; September 14, 2014; FPC Holt

“Out of Chaos”
Isaiah 45:18-24; Romans 14:1-12
September 14, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

Audio Available Here: http://www.fpc-holt.org/images/stories/downloads/9-14-14.mp3

As I preach today, I’d invite you to consider two questions:

W2014 9 14 Slide02here in your life do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you experience the most emptiness? We’ll reflect on this a bit later, but for now I’d like you to hold on to those two questions as we dig into our texts together.

2014 9 14 Slide03Chaos. It’s a word that’s used quite a lot. Maybe you’ve used it in reference to your own life: in the business of work, the start up of a new school year, or in the midst of a time of upheaval or transition.

I’m sure I’ve used the term a time or two in the last few months as I’ve transitioned from my last ministerial position, planned a wedding, and moved to a new state. The way we usually refer to the word “chaos” we mean overly busy or disordered. While this is certainly a valid definition for this word, it takes a different meaning when we look at it in Hebrew.

2014 9 14 Slide04In our passage in Isaiah, what we read as “chaos,” is the Hebrew word “toehoo.” “Toehoo” carries meanings of formlessness, confusion, unreality, emptiness. It also can be a figurative negative attribute as in being morally empty or purposeless.

It is the tenth word in the Hebrew Bible, setting the scene for the start of all creation. In Genesis beginning at verse 1, we read:

2014 9 14 Slide05“In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was toehoo and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” This place of chaos provides the raw ingredients from which the entire creation came into existence.

2014 9 14 Slide06We read in our text from Isaiah (45:18) today, “the LORD, who created the heavens did not create it a chaos, [but] formed it to be inhabited!”

Our world and our lives have not been created for emptiness, but for formation and transformation in the fullness of God. Through God’s creative acts, the toehoo of Genesis is transformed into the fullness of creation: water and land, fish and birds, people and plants. In the same way, God desires to fill our lives with joy and peace, hope and love, grace and redemption.

2014 9 14 Slide07I came across an interesting historical study of this word, “toehoo” in an article by Professor of Theology, Catherine Keller called, “The Lost Chaos of Creation.” In this article she details out the history of translators’ exclusion of this word in the Genesis narrative for hundreds of years, with it virtually disappearing from theology by the fourth century, because it was thought to negate the theological understanding that God created all things from nothing. Those translators wanted to run from the chaos present at creation, from the mess that is so integral to our beginning. As the verse was added back into translations as late as the early 20th century it was confrontational to the theological scholars of that time.[1]

SLIDE 8 - DistortedIt is hard to hold in our heads the knowledge that we can both be created in God’s image and created out of chaos. It does not seem that God would choose to make this entire creation that God calls “good” out of what was chaotic, but yet, God takes all that is chaotic and unformed and transforms it into a beautifully ordered universe.

Similarly it can be hard to hold in our hearts the knowledge that we are both imperfect sinners and redeemed children of God.

As part of the Presbyterian pastor call process we’re required to write a statement of faith. And your Associate Pastor Nominating Committee was in turn required to read many a statement of faith. In mine I wrote:

2014 9 14 Slide09“Our Creator desires that we live into God’s intentions for our lives. God has joyfully set out plans for all of creation, and specifically for our lives, yet waits with a deep patience for us to respond, for us to be formed into who God has created us to be.”

If our beginning place as God’s creation is chaos, that is emptiness and lack of purpose, our fulfillment means being full of life and energized with purpose.

And so let’s revisit my questions from before.

2014 9 14 Slide10 First, where do you experience the most emptiness? What in life causes you to experience this toehoo, chaotic void? Are there relationships or activities that make you feel withdrawn from God’s fullness? Are there places in your life you need to seek healing or forgiveness so that you can better feel the grace, mercy, and love of Jesus Christ? Are there aspects of your routine that have become so routine that you struggle to experience God’s presence in the midst of them? How might you invite God into that experience, those perhaps unacknowledged relationships?

2014 9 14 Slide11And for our other question: where do you experience the greatest sense of spiritual fullness? Where do you feel the most fulfilled in God’s purposes? What relationships vest enable you to acknowledge God’s presence? How can you nourish and sustain these experiences of God’s fullness? How can you fill your time, your head, and your heart with the goodness God has shown you? How can you expand into the joy that God has in store for you?

While we seek to grow in our faith we can take comfort knowing that while our God created the world, God does not leave us simply to fend for ourselves. 2014 9 14 Slide12In fact, God sent God’s only son, Jesus Christ to come and live in this world among us. Jesus demonstrated how to live a full and purpose-filled life through his ministry and mission on earth, one which we are called to imitate.

Our passage in Romans reminds us of our eternal place in Christ’s care. 2014 9 14 Slide13We read in verses 8 and 9, “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again.” Christ died so that we may be saved from the chaos of sin and lived again so we might know God’s abundant power.

2014 9 14 Slide14God made us out of chaos, but does not leave us there. May our lives be filled with purpose in the knowledge and experience of God’s great love. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1] Catherine Keller “The Lost Chaos of Creation,” The Living Pulpit (April – June 2000): 4-5.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth; Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; March 3, 2013, FPC Jesup

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth
Isaiah 55:1-9 and 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
March 3, 2013
First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

Children’s Message
I am posting this mainly because this was something I was unable to find in other resources. I hope it will be helpful for you!

Click here for handout. First I showed the kids the maze we talked about what a maze is like (dead ends, objective of reaching the end). I then showed them the labyrinth and told them how the labyrinth only has one path which winds around itself. We read the description on the handout that I wrote up:

Labyrinth, a maze where you never get lost: For hundreds of years people have been walking labyrinths as a way of focusing on how God walks with them. Some people use the different parts of the path to be different parts of prayer. Walking towards the middle can be like walking towards God’s presence. You can use this time for confessing things you’ve done wrong. When you get to the middle you can use that time to thank God for all the blessings in your life. When you’re walking out of the middle back to the beginning you can pray about how you will share God’s love with other people in the world.

We lifted up our own confessions, thanksgivings, and prayers for others.

“God Along the Way,” Lenten Practices: Traveling the Labyrinth

Slide04We are now about halfway through our Lenten series on Spiritual Practices. So far we have discussed iconography, seeking God’s presence in this world; fasting, hungering for God’s will; and prayers of petition, crying out to God from our helplessness. Today we are continuing on with another practice: traveling a labyrinth.

Slide03In the book “50 Ways to Pray,” Teresa Blythe explains what a labyrinth is:  “A labyrinth is an ancient prayer practice involving a winding path that leads ultimately to a center and then winds back out to the point where it began… The path is symbolic of the journey inward toward God’s illumination and then outward, grounded in God and empowered to act in the world.” [1]

Slide07Many labyrinths are outdoors: constructed of rocks on the ground, the way grass is cut, or in hedges.  Some outdoor labyrinths are made of paint on pavement. There are labyrinths laid out in the stone, marble, or carpeted floors of churches all over the world. There are also fabric labyrinths that you can rent and lay out a floor. Any church with pews can be walked as a labyrinth, winding in and out of the pews and back up the aisle. A familiar neighborhood can also be walked as a labyrinth as long as your don’t get lost. There are also smaller labyrinths, such as the ones you have in front of you that can be traced with your fingers or even followed with your eyes.  There are labyrinths nearby in the Cedar Valley Arboretum, at St Luke’s Episcopal in Cedar Falls, and at Camp Wyoming.

When I was in seminary I took a class during my first year called “Spiritual Formation.” In our class we worked through different prayer practices. One of these practices was, as you might have guessed, praying through the labyrinth.

Slide12At Union Presbyterian Seminary we had a labyrinth on the edge of campus out behind the campus apartments that was made with stones in the ground, so that you couldn’t really see it until you were right up at it. For my class assignment, I went to the labyrinth and walked the path.

Slide13I knew that the correct thing to be doing was to walk along the path, mediate as I walked, and seek God’s guidance. This was supposed to bring me peace and quiet in my heart, connection with my God. However, as I walked that path I did not find transcendence. Rather, I found myself getting more and more annoyed. I got to the center of the labyrinth and let out a big sigh and stomped off in frustration. When I got to class that week I complained to my professor saying, “Labyrinths are everything that’s wrong with organized religion! Everyone just walking around in circles looking at their own feet! Everyone’s just following others in their faith and are afraid to make their own path!”Slide05

I was angry. I was annoyed. I felt let down by my own inability to be meditative. As others in the class shared how they had enjoyed themselves in their labyrinth walking, I was jealous. Why couldn’t I experience God in that way?

Slide15When I left class that day I went into work at the seminary library where I worked the desk and shelved books. There was a full cart of books to be sorted, a challenge that I enjoyed; creating order out of what was sometimes chaos. And then, I took those books around the building to the stacks, going up and down the aisles making sure things were straightened up, and placing the books from the carts on the shelves where they belonged. Though this task was mundane, it also brought a lot of peace. I did my best thinking as I was walking down around those books.

Slide16About halfway through shelving books I stopped myself right in an aisle and nearly laughed out loud. An hour ago I had been complaining about walking a labyrinth. Complaining about having to walk around in that patterned path. And now, here I was walking another patterned path and I loved it. I felt God’s presence around me. I prayed prayers, talked to God, and was able to clear my mind and reach that transcendence I was trying so hard for in that labyrinth path. God had already been working through me in a labyrinth practice and I hadn’t noticed. It’s a funny thing to be in a school where you are being trained to think theologically and to stumble quite by accident into the very spiritual practice you’ve been resisting. God certainly has a sense of humor.

In our Old Testament passage we heard:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55: 8-9)

When we seek to follow God in our lives and fully place our trust in God’s direction we are often led in ways we could never expect. Labyrinths are a place where we are forced to trust that we will end up where we need to be. As we allow God to lead us in our daily lives we are transformed. Following God in the labyrinths of our lives takes us to a place of wilderness, but with God as our focus it is also a place of hope and transformation. In the desert, the people of Israel were transformed into the children of God. Jesus went into the wilderness in the forty days before his crucifixion, was tested and tempted by the devil, and came out on the other side fortified for the horrors of his atoning death.

Our New Testament passage today speaks of God’s presence guiding people through the wilderness, emphasizing the many ways the people stepped off the path and failed to trust God’s guidance. Paul exhorts his readers to strengthen their trust in God saying in 1 Corinthians 10:12-13:

“So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall. No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Corinthians 10:12-13) In our labyrinth experiences, there is always a way out, and God desires to lead us through it.

Stephen Cottrell, Bishop of Reading writes of his first experience walking a labyrinth, “I was both held by the inevitability of the journey – one step in front of another – and also vulnerable: I knew where I was going – the pathway wound inexorably to the centre – but I didn’t know what I was going to find when I got there.”

Slide20At first glance a labyrinth looks like a maze: twists and turns on a defined path. The difference is, while one can pick the wrong direction in a maze and become lost, the path of a labyrinth never branches off. While in the labyrinth you might be confused by the twists and turns of the path, as you are getting closer to the center it may suddenly take you back right by where you started. But if you keep moving forward along the path, you will always make your way to the center, and will always make your way back out again.

Sally Welch, author of “Walking the Labyrinth,” writes: “It is quite a brave thing to do, to step on a labyrinth for the first time… The centre is plain to see; the way to reach the centre is not so obvious. I have seen many people pause at the entrance, look, hesitate as they tried to follow the path with their eyes, and then walk on, not daring to risk themselves on something for which the outcome does not appear certain. And yet, once that first step is taken, the rest is physically straightforward and spiritually can be transforming.”

Slide22So what are we supposed to do as we walk a labyrinth, or trace one with our fingers? Some recommend praying through the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed, or any other familiar prayers. However, I think the danger with any sort of prayer practice is we become convinced that our experience needs to look a certain way, or feel a certain way, and we close ourselves off to the outcome that God intends from our circumstance. For some, having a checklist of prayers to run through can seem like another distraction. Allow yourself to pray whatever you need to pray, and to be comfortable with silence. One of my favorite prayer suggestions was by author and labyrinth expert Jill Geffrion who suggests to simply pray “Your will be done,” at the beginning of the labyrinth, and then walk with intentionality to your own movement and pace.

This Lenten season I would like you to try a labyrinth practice. Allow God to work through the winding paths, to provide wisdom and clarity in the silence. I would also like you to open yourself to the purpose of this practice: allowing prayer to be rise out of movement, allowing meditation to surface in the seemingly mundane tasks of your everyday life. Slide28This may happen for you in the piecing together and sewing of a quilt, in filing files in an office, perhaps in plowing rows in a field, or as I often find it, in knitting. These patterns of your life can be adopted into labyrinth prayer practices. As you work through these activities pay attention to  your movement, quiet your mind, and see what God may be saying to you. Remember Paul’s urging to the community at Corinth, traveling through life’s path is requires trust in God. This Lenten season, may we move forward as God leads us. Amen.


[1] Teresa A. Blythe, 50 Ways to Pray: Practices from Many Traditions and Times (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006), 92-93.