A Beautiful Order

Sermon given by Rev. Frank Clarkson, July 15, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I made a list of things I want to get done before I head off on vacation. Things like clean out my e-mail inbox, catch up on correspondence, update our parish record of weddings and funerals; generally clean up my life. So the last few days I’ve been on something of a tear—I deleted or filed about 2500 old emails. I cleaned out the bag I carry my stuff in, and tidied my desk. I’m not done, but there’s some order emerging from the chaos!

It’s been observed that the problems in our society are mostly problems of excess. Unlike some other parts of the world, where people don’t have enough, here we have too much: too many choices, too much to do, too many channels, too much stuff.

In this more spacious time of summer, I’m feeling this urge to bring more order to my life. To clean up and clear out. To have less clutter; around me, and in me too. But I have mixed feelings about this. Too much order can feel limiting and rigid, leaving little room for flexibility and spontaneity. Strictly enforced order can result in oppression and injustice. “Law and order” can be code for a targeted and unequal enforcement of the law. 

But if you look around, if you pay attention to our beautiful world, you see patterns, you see a beautiful order of things. The rising of the sun and its going down. The turn of the seasons, the patterns of a flower, a leaf, a bird. We heard this in Psalm 19 (an improvisation by Christine Robinson) this morning:

The being and beauty of the universe
declares the Glory of God.
No words are necessary. 
Contemplation of nature revives my soul.

When I view this as unspoken teaching, I am wise. 
When I align myself with Love my heart rejoices
This enlightenment is more to be desired than gold. 
It is sweeter than honey, and my great reward.

There is a beauty in this kind of order, and there is an order, a pattern, in this kind of beauty. A balance, a belonging, a relatedness, a rightness. And when you’re in the presence of it, you know it, and it feels good.

But for much of my life I have resisted being too orderly or ordered. I wanted to be more spontaneous than that! But it’s not very liberating or spontaneous when you have to keep looking for your stuff: “Has anyone seen that scrap of paper with a phone number written on it?”

The invitation is to align ourselves with the Spirit and Source of life itself, to be part of that flow:

Cleanse me of my secret faults and presumptuous sins
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart
Be acceptable in thy sight, O God my strength
and my redeemer” (http://doubterpsalms.blogspot.com).

Help me to be attuned to the beautiful and life-giving order that is all around, if I will only notice. Help me to find the right way, by listening to the longing that’s always there, that quiet voice within.

A year or so ago, our daughter Emma lent me the book by Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Do you know this book? A New York Times bestseller, it’s about the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing. The idea is to get rid of things you don’t need, to let go of things that don’t “spark joy.” There was a cartoon in the New Yorker last fall: a burglar is standing in a house, holding a boom box. The caption repeats Marie Kondo’s mantra: “Do I need it? Does it spark joy?”

Last summer I read her book, and felt inspired by the more organized and ordered life it promises. But I’m just now starting to clean up my life! On my computer desktop I have this beautiful photo of the Yellowstone River, in its canyon where I love to fish, but  these days you can’t even see the photo because I have so many documents on that computer desktop!

So this is a sermon that I myself need to hear, an invitation to embrace order, the beautiful kind of order, to trust that we are meant to live good and grounded and holy lives, and the way to do this is to deal with the stuff and noise in our lives, se we can then listen to what is going on underneath the surface; to get past the daily clatter so we can ask the bigger questions: who am I? What am I here for? And I spending my days the way I want to? And if not, what’s keeping me from that?

Listen to these words from the writer Annie Dillard:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

A schedule can feel constraining sometimes; but it can also be liberating. You have to figure out what is the right amount of order for you. How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. The question is, are you spending your days the way you want to, the way you are meant to?

There is a beautiful order in our world that we do catch glimpses of from time to time. The stars in the night sky, the meteor shower that comes around every August. The moon waxing and waning, which causes the tides to ebb and flow.

There are patterns in human life and community, for good and for ill. There is order that liberates and order that oppresses. Martin Luther King, Jr, said “Never forget that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal.” In this faith tradition we hold to the promise that we live in a moral universe, and that it does, as Theodore Parker said, bend toward justice.

What is needed, the William Stafford reminded us this morning, is that we be awake, and clear about our intentions and commitments:

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
      our star…  (William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”)

What are the patterns we need follow, and what are the patterns we need to push against and disrupt and change? What are the patterns that will keep us healthy and happy? Are there ways you want and need to reorder how you spend your days?

For me, I’m going to stop acting as if I don’t have enough time to get my life in order. I’m really going to try and keep on top of my email inbox. Yesterday I got started, by cleaning out my sock drawer! It’s a start—and I expect that these small acts of tidying up will help me to feel a greater sense of spaciousness and even more grace in my life. 

I share this tendency toward disorder with my mom. We also share this longing for more order. She has this quote on her refrigerator: “Order is a lovely thing; on disarray it lays its wing” (Anna Hempstead Branch). I knew a minister who loved standing at the kitchen sink, washing dishes. “There’s enough in life I can’t control,” he said. “But this problem—dirty dishes—I can fix. Order out of chaos,” he said, with a smile.

This may not be your issue. You may be someone who’s too attached to order; maybe you need more flexibility and more spontaneity in your life. Maybe you have too much calmness, and you need to stick your neck out, take some risks, spice things up! What I know is that you have the answer to what you need within you, and if you ask, you will be answered. If you seek, you will find.

The invitation in these summer days is to feel the grace and blessing of our world, the beautiful order that is there, that is always there, in spite of the ways it has been desecrated. To be awake to the gift that is your own particular life, and to be attuned to the call of your own soul. To trust it will lead you by the right way.

In these days, may we be open to the Mystery that surrounds and companions us. Let us bask in its Presence, so that our days and our lives will be shaped for good. In this changeable life, let us trust that what Whittier wrote is true:

“The letter fails, the systems fall, and every symbol wanes;
the Spirit overseeing all, Eternal Love, remains.”

Now and forever, Amen.