By Jessica LaGrone —
My friend Ryanne is a colorful Christian. Her home is colorful. She often paints a wall or ceiling or the whole front porch on a whim, based on some color that has drawn her fancy. Her family is colorful. Her children’s skin colors are a glorious variety of hues. Her language is sometimes a little colorful. As she stands yelling at her four kids and two dogs (and yardful of chickens, to boot) from her multicolored porch, she sometimes uses words that attract attention and occasional alarm from her aging neighbors. She stands out in her neighborhood, and pretty much everywhere else, which is clearly the way Ryanne likes it.
She especially stands out when she and her kids pull into the church parking lot on Sundays, her ancient station wagon covered in bumper stickers that range from humorous and whimsical to edgy and political, surrounded by all the matching minivans. It can be hard at first to tell who the adult is in this brood. Ryanne is shorter than her oldest and matches him in cropped hair and faded jeans. She looks a little more like a teen headed to detention than a mother of four on her way to worship. Her church attire is a special T-shirt – one of her favorites to wear to church has “I love Jesus, but I cuss a little” printed across the front. “Just because I don’t dress like a church lady doesn’t mean I don’t believe like one,” she laughs.
Does someone whose life seems so messy fit into the orderly picture of God’s good creation? Do we need to be a people of sterile, ordered lives to be a people of God?
Honestly, Ryanne has one of the most solid faiths of anyone I’ve ever met. Her house and car might look a little odd, but she and Jesus are tight. He was with her when the child support was late again. When the electricity was about to be turned off. When her middle kid wanted to go live with his dad. When her daily life was as torn and beat-up as the old carpet on her back porch, where we sat as she told me how Jesus helped her put the pieces back together.
Just because he made her whole again didn’t mean he ironed her personality flat.
Order and chaos. One mistake we make when we talk about order and chaos is to assume God’s call to order is a sentence to bland uniformity. He didn’t tidy up the vast expanse of creation expecting us to fall marching into line. Looking around at the world he made, we can see that his creativity is unmatched. Whether or not we wear it on our T-shirts, all of us are a little colorful, made up of stories and opinions pasted over a bit with life and humor and politics that would entertain some and shock others.
But God’s idea of order in this vast universe wasn’t meant to keep the riffraff out, to place plastic covers on the couches, or to send uniform Christian soldiers trooping into churches dressed up and combed up and polished into essentially the same model with a slightly different minivan.
The design of order in creation was never meant to decree uniformity. Creation by separation was never meant to make clubs of those who belong and outcasts of those who don’t. There’s no sign or secret handshake that Christians have to give in order to be truly accepted. The mark of a life lived faithfully with Christ isn’t some outwardly visible thing that shows up in our homes, our dress, or the shape of our family portraits in the church directory. It doesn’t matter if you wear a suit or a faded T-shirt. Those are only outward appearances, after all, and God looks at the heart.
In his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton’s take on the discipline and order found in the Christian life was that “the more I considered Christianity, the more I found that while it had established a rule and order, the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.”
When God, on the first three days of creation, laid out one environment after another, creating space to swim and fly, to run and walk, to breathe and sing and dance, he was preparing a space ordered for the things that would come to live in it. When he looked out at each created space and named it “good,” surely part of the goodness was the intended purpose – the goodness to come, as wild things, humanity included, would enjoy this place to its fullest.
Room for play. There is something appealing about order, about pristine gardens and manicured lawns. Why risk letting anyone in to mess it up? If order is the highest value, then why allow play? Put up signs on the field that read, “Keep Off the Grass!” Fertilize it to green perfection. Manicure the heck out of it. Mow it in careful parallel stripes and guard it from pests, especially those big enough to run and kick a soccer ball.
What does it say about God that he didn’t put a plastic cover on the couch of creation? That he didn’t put up a “Keep Off the Grass” sign and shake his fist every time we came near?
We’ve bought into the lie that there are only two options: to either keep everyone off the field so they won’t mess it up, or to let it all go to seed, to descend into a wild space overtaken by weeds. The creation story paints a shocking alternative. God took the dark, empty chaos and made a beautiful space. Then instead of hiding it away, he decided to share it with us, knowing that our footprints would mess the field but that our play would be the ultimate fullness, the thing he made it all for.
Sometimes we tell ourselves the lie that the life God loves is a sterile, empty picture of life where there’s no room for human error. But anything that doesn’t allow room for human error doesn’t allow room for humans, and the whole point of the creation recipe culminates in putting humans in the environment to flourish in their relationship with God and each other. A place for God’s children to bring their imperfect and chaotic selves into his presence to commune with him is just the glorious chaos he ordered. A creation empty of messy inhabitants would be a different kind of chaos – the chaos of puritanical sterility, lacking the vulnerability that always comes when we open ourselves to sharing life and space with others.
Signs of Life. When life comes pouring in, all kinds of accompanying miracles and mayhem come with it, even in places we wouldn’t expect. That’s exactly what happened when Dr. Bill Thomas became the new medical director at Chase Memorial Nursing Home in New Berlin, New York.
Upon his arrival, Thomas found a tidy, well-run facility. The staff members were focused on keeping patients safe and comfortable in their last years of life, and they were doing it well. But Thomas noted that while the environment was quiet and safe, the light had gone out in many people’s eyes. The excellent job the caregivers had done in providing order and minimizing risk had also succeeded in producing a dead calm.
Dr. Thomas began to wonder what it would look like not just to keep patients alive, but to give them a reason for living. He wanted Chase to feel like a real home, not an institution. He found the inspiration for what was missing when he went home at night to his own household: plants, animals, and children – untidy, unpredictable, and utterly alive.
The plan Thomas formulated and presented to the administration was called, appropriately, the Eden Alternative. If you’ve been imagining the Garden of Eden as a serene and tranquil paradise, you might not have pictured every kind of creature bursting onto the scene with all of their predatory and procreative instincts revved up and ready to go. As the old Lucky Strike cigarette ad used to quip, “Nature in the raw is seldom mild.”
Dr. Thomas first proposed removing all the artificial plants and adding live plants in every room of the facility. He wanted to pull up the back lawn and plant vegetable and flower gardens. Then he proposed housing one dog and two cats on each of the home’s two floors. He was going to have to lobby the forces at the state capitol for waivers to work around the rules and regulations that stipulated no more than a single pet per nursing home. But the menagerie was only getting started. Thomas proposed a flock of laying hens and a colony of rabbits on the grounds. A hundred parakeets in cages would be brought into living areas and residential rooms.
Oh, and he wanted the staff to bring their kids to work so they could spend time around the residents too, and he proposed opening an after-school program for the community.
Surprisingly, the administration signed off on the proposal – mostly because they assumed Thomas would never get the approval he needed from the authorities to put his plan in action. How wrong they were. Dr. Thomas was awarded not only the grant money he needed to accomplish the plan but also all the waivers needed for the rules he wanted to bend. Now they were going to have to see if it all worked.
The residents at Chase Nursing Home had been existing in a state empty of light and life. The staff’s efforts to produce a calm, safe environment added up to an empty existence that actually accelerated the end of life for many residents rather than giving them something to keep living for. This little corner of creation had order but no fullness. It was formed, but not filled. But all that was about to change.
The prescribed dose of what Dr. Thomas had gleefully called “total pandemonium” arrived so quickly that no one was really prepared for the consequences. A greyhound named Target and a lapdog named Ginger were both getting settled amicably on their separate floors, figuring out how to share space with two cats each. Staff members’ children were dropped off at the door by their school buses each afternoon. The back lawn was dug up and transformed into a garden and a playground next to the rabbit pen and chicken coop. Things were getting a bit crowded.
And then, in the midst of it all, the birds arrived. One hundred parakeets, all delivered on one day in one truckload – with the birdcages nowhere to be seen. The staff locked all one hundred birds in the center’s hair salon until the cages arrived later the same day – some assembly required. Through the glass picture windows of the hair salon, the residents gathered, watching and laughing as the staff spent hours assembling birdcages and chasing the loose parakeets all over the hair salon, grabbing at feathers and ducking as birds flapped around their heads. “Glorious chaos” had arrived.
(You can read about the Chase transformation in greater detail in Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books, 2014).
The pandemonium caused by all these changes was not all humorous. I can tell you personally from years of helping to stage live nativity scenes in the back parking lot of our church each December: when you get live children and live animals together, there’s no telling what’s going to happen. The staff pushed back at times on their new duties. Some felt that if money could be spent on animals, then someone should be hired to care for them all. But gradually, someone else did begin to take over the animals’ care – namely, the residents.
Many of the elderly residents agreed to host a pair of parakeets in their rooms. They helped water the hundreds of new indoor plants and demanded a say in the planting of the flower and vegetable gardens. Residents who had previously been nonambulatory said they’d take one of the dogs outside for a walk. Light began to dawn in people’s eyes. Even some of those with advanced forms of dementia seemed to take joy in the burgeoning life and noise around them. They could recognize birdsong, run their fingers through a pet’s fur, turn their head when a child ran shrieking down the hall.
Over the first two years of Chase’s Eden Alternative, researchers watched the center’s vital signs carefully. Their study found that the number of medicines being prescribed at Chase fell by half, especially those prescribed for agitation. The number of deaths fell by 15 percent. The immeasurable changes were even easier to witness: life came back into residents’ eyes, and the number of smiles grew daily. Instead of simply waiting for death, they were jolted back to life as it ran and chirped, hopped, and grew all around them.
God’s vision of order is not one where chaos is ironed flat, but a place where good things run wild in each of our lives, as holy and messy as the day is long.
Jessica LaGrone is the Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. She is a member of the Transitional Leadership Council of the Global Methodist Church. LaGrone is the author of numerous books. This article is excerpted from her latest book, Out of Chaos: How God Makes New Things from the Broken Pieces of Our Lives. Photo: Shutterstock.