“Considering Chaos:” the less-anxious presence and the presence of god

You may have recently seen or heard news about Christian Eriksen. He is one of the stars of Denmark’s soccer team. During a match against Finland, Ericksen collapsed while walking along a sideline. Players quickly called for help and formed a ring around him for privacy as medical staff performed CPR. His heart had suddenly stopped beating. Players and fans were in tears. When CPR failed, staff quickly used a defibrillator and Erickson’s heart achieved a sinus rhythm.

This, my friends, is chaos. Christian Eriksen is in the peak shape of his adult life. He is only twenty-nine years old. Doctors confirmed that he was dead, and then one use of the paddles brought him back to life. One hour later, Ericksen awoke in a hospital, where he is still being examined. In one breath, a twenty-nine-year-old soccer star leading his team against Finland; in the next breath, without a heartbeat.

I cannot imagine what it must have felt like to have that gap of consciousness – closing his eyes on the field and opening them later in a hospital room. I think about Elijah ascending into heaven in II Kings and immediately descending upon Mount Tabor in the gospels. I think about the man who drank too much the night before, and woke up not knowing where he was or how he got there.

Chaos is defined as:

cha·os /ˈkāˌäs/: complete disorder and confusion; behavior so unpredictable as to appear random

Someone watching a soccer game for the first time might perceive chaos on the field, only to see the order and preparation that was waiting on the sidelines when a player’s heart stopped beating. Television stations might perceive the feeling of chaos when a game between Denmark and Finland pauses for two hours, and then discover the order that was community support and solidarity. In a world connected by smartphones and 4G networks, they immediately saw the order of support and care on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Chaos fills our hearts and minds with confusion and disorder, before order is eventually perceived or achieved. In the heart is a sinus node. The sinus node is a collection of cells in the upper right chamber of the heart that controls electrical impulses. These electrical impulses cause the heart to beat. The heart of a perfectly healthy twenty-nine-year-old can stop beating, and God’s natural pacemaker inside the body can cooperate with the external stimulus of the defibrillator. The world can gasp and hold its breath in the chaos of the soccer field, but further investigation shows that at least 197 other professional soccer players from around the world have also died during matches. Consider Luyanda Ntshangase, of South African club Maritzburg United, who was struck by lightning during a game; or Abdul Rahman Atef, the Egyptian player who died after swallowing his own tongue. It is gruesome, death while playing soccer, but common enough that it is now a pattern and no longer unpredictable.

Chaos causes us to self-examine and audit priorities. When the news of Christian Eriksen hit, I considered my own age, my own level of physical activity, and what I had eaten and drank over the week. A year after the death of George Floyd, we remember the chaos that ensued in cities across the nation, the people whose anger had purpose, and the others who were indiscriminately angry. Those whose anger had purpose called for order in the chaos that exists at the intersection of race, law, and order in this country. Live tweeting the insurrection at the nation’s capital on January 6th, my heart raced as my sinus node and its electrical impulses reacted to my elevated anxiety.

Confusion and disorder. Unpredictable behavior. We have our fair share right now in the global United Methodist denomination. Two of the great leaders of the Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation died; one in a car accident (Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone), and the other of pancreatic cancer (Rev. Junius Dotson of Discipleship Ministries). As a global Church, we have acknowledged the global nature of COVID-19, a pandemic presenting itself in waves or phases across the entire world.

General Conference is postponed. Again. When General Conference is postponed, Jurisdictional Conferences are postponed. When Jurisdictional Conferences are postponed, the election of bishops is postponed. When the election of bishops is postponed, the voluntary and mandatory retirements of bishops create top-level vacancies that can only be filled by duly-adhered to elections and consecrations. When these top-level vacancies are left unfilled, existing bishops must take on additional annual conferences for episcopal supervision and leadership. Now, bishops in the South Central Jurisdiction are all receiving the two-point and three-point charges they never wanted. Bishop James “Jimmy” Nunn of the Oklahoma Conference – my bishop – is currently the bishop of the Oklahoma Conference, Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference, and Northwest Texas Conference.

When General Conference is postponed – again – the Protocol for Grace and Reconciliation through Separation cannot be acted upon by the only legislative body of the Church. The Wesleyan Covenant Association/Global Methodist Church, The United Methodist Church, and any other progressive movements seeking exit from the United Methodist Church, cannot formally divide.

Continue to rip the scab off of a wound and the skin will never heal.

By most accounts, the Protocol is now all but doomed to fail. It was the action heralded by the papers, mediated by Kenneth Feinberg of BP Deep Water Horizon, 9/11 Victim’s Compensation Fund, and Aurora/Virginia Tech/Boston Marathon acclaim, and kept all sides at the negotiating table. Many of the sixteen people who gathered to formulate the Protocol did not trust each other, though they trusted Christ and trusted Feinberg.

They did not speak for the denomination, though the New York Times thought they did. They were not the voice of the UMC – only the General Conference carries that weight; yet, they were the people gathered around the chaos praying fervently for order.

Sixteen players, coaches, and staff gathered around Ericksen and the health professionals trying to revive him.

Sixteen lawyers, bishops, pastors, and laypeople gathered around an idea sparked by the likes of Tom Berlin, Thomas Bickerton, and John Yambasu using the external stimulus of Kenneth Feinberg to interact with our spiritual sinus rhythm.

Sixteen teammates, coaches, and Euro 2020 staff gather around Ericksen and the health professionals attempting to revive him
Sixteen bishops, lawyers, bishops who were once lawyers, and laypeople attempting the impossible because of their faith in Jesus Christ

Chaos is confusion and disorder, with behavior unpredictable and patterns seemingly random. The United Methodist Church is the soccer player walking the sidelines whose heart stops, and who receives resuscitation. She will be released from the hospital as many things: Global Methodist, United Methodist, Liberation Methodist, and as bands of independent churches who loosely affiliate for the group insurance. Yet, out of chaos comes order, an equilibrium. Yet, regular check-ups will always be needed. Bringing order to the chaos of division over human sexuality, marriage, and ordination does not mean that each new expression of Methodism will not carry with them the knowledge that one day while walking down the pitch our heart stopped beating. There will still be passionate arguments and debates about what Nicene-Chalcedonian faith really looks like, how “open” is open enough, and if U.S.-centric, predominately White denominations are truly global in an age when more people are going to brunch at 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning than are going to church.

There will still be chaos, but out of less-anxious presence – if practiced carefully – will come order.

Order is the bishop who provides institutional continuity and exerts the influence and power of appointment that keeps annual conferences healthy so that local churches may continue to be born, grow, die, and live again. Order is the district superintendent who encourages the young candidate for ministry to keep walking to the end of the flashlight. Order is the local church pastor who mixes the right amount of severity, humor, urgency, and vision; scripture, reason, tradition, and experience that keeps people engaged in making disciples and transforming the world. The pastor who acknowledges that COVID-19 has erased average attendance as the church’s sinus node, and the people who – with miraculous audacity – are actually coming to church on Sunday mornings again or are making their way through one more Zoom small group. Order will be the beginning of the Global Methodist Church, the endurance and continuing mission and presence of the United Methodist Church in the U.S. and around the world, and whatever other expressions form taking their shape and walking their path. Order will be something like the Protocol happening, and clergy and laity living out their faith in the way they are being called to live it.

It is gruesome, church schism, but it has happened enough that we know this is not unpredictable. Like the 197 professional soccer players who have died mid-match since 1987, struck by lightning, swallowing their tongues, and having heart attacks, the people called Methodists are no strangers to new movements; from Aldersgate to Azusa Street; from a bishop who refused to give up the slaves that came with his wife’s dowry to a bishop who married two men at a church in Birmingham; from thirty-two people who tried to find A Way Forward to sixteen who sought the Paul and Barnabus way of Grace & Reconciliation through Separation.

We are in the gasp after the collapse, holding our breath. We are in the liminal space – we cannot go back to where we were because where we were doesn’t exist anymore. We also cannot go forward to who we will be because who we will be doesn’t exist yet. We’re waiting on a word, a sign, a sinus rhythm.

Denmark, Finland, and fans the world over waited for three days in fear and trembling and then received this message:

“Big thanks for your sweet and amazing greetings and messages from all around the world. It means a lot to me and my family. I’m fine — under the circumstances. I still have to go through some examinations at the hospital, but I feel okay. Now, I will cheer on the boys on the Denmark team in the next matches. Play for all Denmark.”

Christian Ericksen

The man whose heart stopped beating sent out a message of hope. With a smile and a thumbs up, he practiced the less-anxious presence from a hospital bed.

Talitha koum! Little girl, I say to you, “get up!” Overhearing what the crowd was saying in Mark 5, here was the response of Jesus:

“Don’t be afraid; just believe.”

Jesus, Mark 5:36

There has to be calm in the storm. There has to be a less-anxious presence in the room. There have to be people who live through crisis and establish order. It isn’t fun. It isn’t easy. It is, however, worth it.

I know General Conference is postponed again. I know that you have friends and family on both sides of the theological divide on sex, marriage, and ordination. I know you are struggling and trying to find your way in all of this. I know your brain is in a fog from one of the most tumultuous years of your lifetime. I know it all seems like a lot, often more than can be handled.

Hang on. Keep going. An external stimulus is going to interact with your sinus node. Your heart is going to beat again.

Something good is going to happen. Don’t give up. Don’t be afraid; just believe.

One comment

  1. Truth spoken through your words. And it brought this Danny Gokey song to mind.

    “You’re shattered
    Like you’ve never been before
    The life you knew
    In a thousand pieces on the floor
    And words fall short in times like these
    When this world drives you to your knees
    You think you’re never gonna get back
    To the you that used to be
    Tell your heart to beat again
    Close your eyes and breathe it in
    Let the shadows fall away
    Step into the light of grace
    Yesterday’s a closing door
    You don’t live there anymore
    Say goodbye to where you’ve been
    And tell your heart to beat again
    Just let that word wash over you
    It’s alright now
    Love’s healing hands have pulled you through
    So get back up, take step one
    Leave the darkness, feel the sun
    ‘Cause your story’s far from over
    And your journey’s just begun
    Tell your heart to beat again
    Close your eyes and…”

    Once again, thank you, Adam

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