January 21, 2024Preached by Tim Hughes Williams at Light Street Church, Baltimore, MDSermon: The DeepThe Hebrew Scripture Reading: Psalm 29:1-111Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,[a]ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.2Ascribe to the LORD the glory of his name;worship the LORD in holy splendor.3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters;the God of glory thunders,the LORD, over mighty waters.4 The voice of the LORD is powerful;the voice of the LORD is full of majesty.5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars;the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon.6 He makes Lebanon skip like a calfand Sirion like a young wild ox.7 The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire.8 The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness;the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.9 The voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl[b]and strips the forest bare,and in his temple all say, “Glory!”10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood;the LORD sits enthroned as king forever.11 May the LORD give strength to his people!May the LORD bless his people with peace!The Hebrew Scripture Reading: Genesis 1:1-51 When God began to create[a]
the heavens and the earth, 2
the earth was completechaos, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God[b]sweptover the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there waslight. 4And God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from thedarkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there wasevening and there was morning, the first day.
Sermon:In a little vignette about the creative process, Malcolm Gladwell breaks down the waycreative people and less creative people relate to chaos. 1The phrase ‘less creative’ might sound insulting – but that’s not how Gladwell intendsit. You could just as easily say ‘goal-oriented.’ A goal-oriented person identifies anobjective and then pursues it. In fact, a major factor in their success will be theirability to tamp down the chaos. They need to actively ignore distractions – howeverinteresting they may be.“If you’re at Proctor & Gamble and you’re the head of Ivory soap,” Gladwell writes,“your job is to sell more soap and if you get distracted by some interesting, but
ultimately marginal subsidiary issue you won’t sell as much soap.” It’s that straight-forward.
On the flip side – chaos is an essential ingredient of the creative process, and creativepeople know that chaos must be protected and preserved, no matter how messy. Justthink about the last time you went into an artist studio. Maybe there were piles ofrandom fabrics. Paint on the floor and the walls. An indecipherable pile of post-itnotes stuck to the wall. Chaos.“Their imaginations are messy,” says Gladwell. “Why, because they don’t want tothrow anything out. Why don’t they want to throw anything out? Because theybelieve on some level that there is always something of interest or value in whateverthey encounter.”And of course, this is not a binary. Creativity is actually essential to the workplace ifit’s to be cutting edge. Steve Jobs is the perfect example. 2 One biography of Jobsdescribes his relationship to facts as ‘pliable.’ At first, coworkers at Apple would thinkhe was just lying as he described a product that was literally impossible. We’re going tomake this next quarter, he would say, blithely unbothered by the fact that thetechnology didn’t yet exist. And then – probably because he surrounded himself withnon-creative executors as well – he did create the thing that was rattling around in hisimagination.
1“Malcolm Gladwell On Embracing Creative Chaos,” by Linda Naiman, The Art Of Leadership,January 5, 2015.2“Creativity And The Chaos Rainbow,” by William Todd Schultz, The British Psychological Society,February 2022.
The tension between chaos and creativity is fascinating and it’s entirely present in theGenesis story – a fact that has been minimized and obscured over time.Let’s start with the fact that there are two separate and distinct creation accounts inGenesis 1 and 2. I was an adult before I learned that simple fact, despite having spenthours in church, inches from my Bible. In Genesis 1, God speaks various elements ofcreation into existence in orderly fashion, day after day, culminating with humanbeings. In Genesis 2 and 3, God creates the world again - and then fashions a man outof clay and a woman from the man’s rib.Two separate accounts, side by side. A little bit chaotic, if you ask me. Could have
benefitted from some editing before publishing. But maybe that’s just the non-creative side of my brain talking.
Especially in the West – the story of God creating the world has been rendered as amovement from chaos to order. You can certainly get that vibe from the tidy accountof Genesis 1. God separates light from dark, the first day. God separates the air fromwater, the second day. God separates water from land, the third day. And so on.Everything in its box.
There’s a theological doctrine undergirding a lot of this – a doctrine that most of ushave heard of – even if you wouldn’t know these words: creatio ex nihilo is the beliefthat God created the world from nothing – ex nihilo being Latin for ‘from nothing.’This doctrine is important to many Christians because it suggests that God createdeverything from scratch. From pure divine imagination. Each thing has its purposeand place.
4You can see how this is appealing. And also, it’s not exactly in the text. In fact, thetext is more chaotic.You’ll recognize the first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning, God created theheavens and the earth. The earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the faceof the deep.” How nice that the first words of the Bible are ‘In the beginning.’ So thisalternative translation in your bulletin is a little troubling, isn’t it: “When God began tocreate the heavens and the earth, the earth was complete chaos, and darkness coveredthe face of the deep.”See the difference? Here, the Hebrew word for ‘beginning’ is applied to God’s action,rather than the time in which God’s action occurred. There’s a case to be made for thistranslation. “In the beginning” firmly places God’s action at – well, the beginning.“But God began to create” puts the Holy Presence right in this middle of this churning,chaotic darkness, a darkness which precedes the beginning of the story. Onetranslator called it the “beginningness” of God, which I quite like.
The Hebrew words translated here as “formless void” are so much fun to say that Iwill not deprive you: tohu va bohu. You get a sense of the chaos just from themusicality, right? Verse 2: A ‘wind’ from God swept over the waters. That word‘wind’ is the Hebrew word ‘ruach,’ which also means Spirit. So in the chaos, in thetohu va bohu, the Holy Spirit moves and hovers over the surface of the waters – and thewaters conceal something else – the Hebrew word tehom, which means, the deep.
5The theologian Catherine Keller has constructed an entire theology around this word,tehom.3 She suggests that the deep is not just a scary, empty void that God fills.Instead, she imagines the deep as a churning, chaotic pool of possibility. The Spiritmoves and glides over the deep and the result is language: “Let there be light.” Ourtradition renders these first Divine Words as an order, a conquering of the rowdydark. But it could just as easily be a synthesis, a work of art, a song. Just like our vocalchords create music when they are moved by the breath of our lungs, the world flexesin the movement of the spirit and music results.
Why does this matter? Well, the implications of tehomic theology are many.The idea of a God who creates everything out of nothing fits very neatly with the idea ofdominion – that the world is just a resource for human use and consumption. Godmade the whole world out of scratch cloth and gave it to people to use however wesee fit. And how do we see fit? Pipelines, deforestation, asphalt. Infinite progress,infinite growth. We stay focused on what matters – the bottom line – while keepingthe chaos at bay.But if the creation story is about give-and-take, a weaving of chaos into beauty, thenyou have a much more nuanced picture of what it means to move through the world.What if like God, we’re not masters but co-creators, working with the people andthings who happen to be here in our time and place, the tohu va bohu of Baltimore,Maryland, 2024? I find that a hopeful – and perhaps more honest - image of how Godmoves through the world.
3“Dark Vibrations: Eco-Feminism and The Democracy of Creation,” by Catherine Keller, CRSCLecture at Vanderbilt University, April 6, 2005.
6I can’t be the only person here who at some tender moment in my life, took a look atthe tohu va bohu and thought: well, this is irreparably broken. If God created everythingout of nothing and then organized it just so, and if we have been given responsibilityfor the whole world and everything in it, well then we have truly blown it. We are sofar afield there is no chance of going back.I choose to believe in a God who is quite good at improvisation. A God whounderstands that magic happens in the mess. That it is never too late to pick up, saythe shards of a broken plate and turn them into a mosaic.
In his book, The Mind Of The Artist, William Todd Schultz writes about what’s goingon in your brain when you’re dreaming. It turns out that the raw material of yourdreams come from the oldest parts of your brain. Perceptions, thoughts, memories,feelings. Just jumbled impressions that have lingered for whatever reason in yoursubconscious. To me, that’s the Deep.What happens next is a more sophisticated brain function called “kneading.”Essentially your cerebral cortex gets involved and starts working with the rawmaterial, pulling it together into a kind of storyline. Maybe your boss made a weirdcomment about your performance yesterday and it’s been bugging you ever since. Butnow, in your dream, your boss is inexplicably out to dinner with you and your parents.They are all talking about your performance – while ordering gigantic bowls of pastafrom a restaurant that you remember from a recent vacation. That storyline has beencobbled together by the higher functioning part of your brain because it is still mullingover the hurtful comment.Now – most of us just participate passively in these dreams. But a certain subset ofpeople have lucid dreams, meaning that they know that they are dreaming, even as thedream continues. Lucid dreamers can make choices and changes in their situation.They can be playful even, knowing that what’s happening to them is not reallyhappening to them. In your dream, you can tell your boss off with no realconsequences. You can have a second bowl of pasta.William Todd Schulz offers lucid dreaming as a metaphor for the creative process. Wedon’t control the deep. We don’t control the raw materials of our dreams, the wayswe’ve been hurt, the brokenness of our families, our embarrassing desires.We live in a world of chaos and darkness. I don’t have to convince you of that, right?But what does the artist do in a moment of chaos and darkness? They harness that
7raw material and reform it into something beautiful. They take those sad stories andbreath Spirit into them like lucid dreamers and behold: “let there be light.”This may feel a little woo-woo and I will admit that it is. But I can state it much moresimply. God isn’t done with you yet. God isn’t done with your story. In fact, God –who is in fact an Artist – is amazed with the raw material that you’ve put on the table,every messy element fished out of the Deep. Once you’ve finished grieving thefractures, you can start working on the mosaic, putting it back together in a way that isnot the same and yet quite beautiful.The beginning. The beginning-ness of you.