Order, Chaos and a Night Sky

I grew up 25 miles east of the World Trade Center, which we called the Twin Towers. My father didn’t much like them. He preferred the stately Empire State Building to their squarish contribution to the New York City skyline. My dad was born in Manhattan. He was four in 1929, when they began construction on the Empire State Building, and six when they completed it in 1931. He lived in Manhattan until the Depression pushed him out to a small, fifth floor apartment in Queens, where he slept in a trundle bed in the living room.

When I was a boy, maybe twelve or so, I would spend the night in that apartment and, with not much else to do, sit at my grandmother’s kitchen window and watch jets in a holding pattern over Kennedy Airport. They flew in long circles, lumbering, lingering, as they waited to land. These jets were tidy, tiny dots in the night sky, obediently awaiting their turn.

They remind me now of what ancient thinkers thought about the stars—angels willing to stay in place for the sake of the created order, the common good. The renowned scribe Ben Sira, who taught and wrote two centuries before Jesus lived, described the night sky in this way:

There was plenty of space for them to stand side by side without feeling the slightest pinch. … Every blessed, vital, living, created thing went on parade, after which they returned to their proper place.*

Earlier still, one of Israel’s poets put it this way:

God’s glory is on tour in the skies, God-craft on exhibit across the horizon. Madame Day holds classes every morning, Professor Night lectures each evening. Their words aren’t heard, their voices aren’t recorded, but their silence fills the earth: unspoken truth is spoken everywhere.**

Watch those planes looping over Kennedy Airport, examine those stars standing still in the sky, and you understand stability. From a distance, they give wordless testimony to the power of order. Up close, however, they are aflame with deadly energy. Engines roaring. Flames bursting. And there’s the rub. The tension between stability and change, order and chaos is what powers our world.

Too much change, unbridled energy, and we cease to be.

Too much stability, absence of energy, and we cease to become.

This is the tension we have to hold in balance. That’s why the Bible begins with a nod to the power of chaos before we gain any glimpse at all of order:

First this: God created the Heavens and Earth—all you can see, all you don’t see. Earth was a soup of nothingness, a bottomless emptiness, an inky blackness. God’s Spirit brooded like a bird above the watery abyss.***

Sometimes we sense the order deeply, the rhythm of peace. Stand at the kitchen window. Turn your face to a summer sky. Breathe. There are lessons to be learned there.

Sometimes we feel the chaos deeper still. Clench at the stab of sickness. Stand, shaken, in the shadow of death. But even here there is tension between order and chaos, pleasure and pain. There is birth, and there is death. There is sickness, and there is health. This, we understand, even if we don’t like it, is part of the order of creation, the way life is.

But then there is a chaos that is altogether different–a chaos that turns things back to soup, nothingness, abyss. This is the chaos of a dozen years ago: September 11th, 2001.

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*Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 16:28, 30 in The Message

**Psalm 19:1-4 in The Message

***Genesis 1:1-2 in the Message